An unlikely hero

Reaction to movie star’s death bucks the anti-Japan trend

Chinese film director Zhang and Japanese actor Takakura arrive at Tokyo International Film Festival in Tokyo

Bridging the divide: Takakura with Chinese director Zhang Yimou (left)

Like the stoic character he so often played on the big screen, Ken Takakura’s death was kept low profile. In fact, it wasn’t until a week after the 83 year-old actor had passed away from lymphoma that the Japanese media reported his death (which took place in early November).

Born Goichi Oda in Fukuoka, Japan, the understated Takakura made his screen debut in 1956 and rose to fame in the 1960s in crime films like Abashiri Prison (1965). With a brooding screen presence, he was often called the Clint Eastwood of Japan. But while news about his death saddened fans in his home country, there was also a flood of commentary on China’s Twitter-equivalent weibo too. In fact, China News Net reckons that the reaction in China was more widespread than in his home country.

It is certainly not every day that China’s foreign ministry feels the need to make a statement about a Japanese celebrity’s death. But after news surfaced that Takakura had died, Hong Lei, a spokesman at that government department, offered words of tribute, praising the actor as “a well-known Japanese artist to the Chinese people who made important and positive contributions to cultural exchanges between China and Japan”.

So how did Takakura become so popular in China? He first rose to prominence in Manhunt (1976), one of the first foreign films to be screened after the Cultural Revolution (until then, audiences had to make do with North Korean movies). The film tells the story of a police detective who goes on the run to clear his name of corruption. It struck a chord with Chinese audiences and the success of the film turned Takakura into an important “cultural bridge between China and Japan, when the countries entered their first honeymoon phase since World War Two,” comments the China Daily.

Netizens agree. “Takakura’s death prompts grief as well as collective memories in China. He was one of the biggest Japanese film stars in the 1970s and 1980s and the idol of our parents’ generation. He was the witness to an era when Chinese people had a special affinity for Japanese culture,” one netizen wrote.

Compare that to how many Japanese characters are represented in Chinese films today (as cowards, killers and cannon fodder, see WiC187) and the differences are startling.

Much of Takakura’s appeal stemmed from his image as an abrasive hero who confronted authority figures on behalf of the poor and the weak. “The male roles portrayed in Chinese films were often good-looking sissies. But Takakura, he projected a completely opposite, masculine image as an Eastern man on the screen,” one fan gushed to Xinhua.

Chen Danqiu, a cultural commentator, agreed. “I like horseriding, Hokkaido, Japanese novels from the 1970s and 1980s – all because of him,” he wrote in an article commemorating the actor.

“For me, he doesn’t represent an actor, but an image: an image that epitomises bravery, loyalty and stoic strength.”

Or as Xinhua put it, Takakura “helped to redefine the image that Chinese males hoped to acquire for an entire generation”.

The actor has said he was nothing like the personality he often portrayed on screen. “I’m not a tough guy,” he told the Chinese media 10 years ago. “I cry almost every three days.”

Perhaps fortunately for Takakura, his rise to prominence also coincided with a less frosty era when Japan was actively helping China to develop its economy. Later, Takakura was kept similarly busy in China’s film industry, even starring in Zhang Yimou’s Riding Alone for Thousands of Miles in 2005. The movie follows the journey of a Japanese fisherman and his dying son as they travel to China in search of the secrets behind a local opera.

“If only there were a few more Takakura’s the two countries could engage in friendlier conversations, which would be greatly beneficial in reconstructing bilateral relations,” was the verdict of state-controlled China News Net.

“Films represent culture. A country’s culture can make you like the people and the country,” another fan argued.

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