Tatsuya Nakadai Retrospective

Tatsuya Nakadai Retrospective, Film Forum, Now playing through July 17

Tatsuya Nakadai in Kihachi Okamoto's SWORD OF DOOM (1966). Toho Co.

Tatsuya Nakadai’s face is no doubt more familiar than his name. For years he was the third force in the samurai triumvirate led by Toshiro Mifune and director Akira Kurosawa. While Mifune offered a new kind of hero as a nonchalant badass ronin in Yojimbo (the prototype for all man with no name films), Nakadai’s scene stealing turn as Mifune’s foreboding nemesis revealed a mysterious man with limitless cool. Sanjuro reunited Mifune and Nakadai for one of the most legendary climactic duels ever committed to film.

Nakadai has made some 100 films since and worked with almost every Japanese director worthy of mention. This 23 film retrospective offers a fascinating look at his momentous career. The often stoic, frequently wild Nakadai makes a mesmerizing lens through which to view the astonishing breadth of Japanese cinema.

Repertory staples Hara Kiri and High and Low showcase the stately styles of masters Kobayashi and Kurosawa. The auteurs undoubtedly saw in Nakadai what audiences were instinctively drawn to: a streak of rebellion that added perfect pitch dramatic tension to complex cinematic universes. Rarely seen treasures like Kihachi Okamoto’s tongue in cheek caper Age of Assassins underline Nakadai’s malleable everyman appeal. In his tour-de-force performance as evil incarnate in Okamoto’s Sword of Doom, Nakadai embodies the ultimate anti-hero, a merciless beast that exists only to unleash cruelty yet toils in self-loathing.

Films rarely screened stateside include a slew of genre exercises Nakadai made with innovative journeyman director Hideo Gosha. Goyokin is a dark, revisionist chanbara (swordfighting) mystery. Nakadai delivers a chilling performance as a samurai on a quest to conquer his own demons. Onimasa dynamically reconstructs the yakuza genre with an epic tale of an oyabun (gang boss) out to avenge a dog. Tenchu chronicles the exploits of real life samurai Okado Izo during the turbulent end of the Tokugawa era, when the samurai class faced certain doom.

Nakadaia’s bewitching bad boy charisma cannot be ignored, especially when constrasted with Mifune’s ever-controlled sensei. Nakadai possessed swarthy good looks and a versatile range of on-screen personas. There’s something about his eyes. Exuding torment and guilt, they penetrated through a mask-like face of crazed old man make-up in Kurosawa’s King Lear-inspired Ran. As a sad sack geisha-pimp in Mikio Naruse’s devastating When a Woman Ascends the Stairs, Nakadai appears doe eyed and melancholy. Nakadai’s eyes elicit sardonic humor as a mustachioed intellectual in Kon Ichikawa’s I Am a Cat. Nakadai’s dark je ne sais quoi also made him the perfect choice for the randy doctor/stud for hire in Ichikawa’s adaptation of Tanizaki’s stylishly dissolute Odd Obsession. Kobayashi’s epic horror omnibus Kwaidan utilized Nakadai’s patented wide-eyed expression of amazement to frightening effect. Whether villainous, romantic or racked with existential dread (Teshigahara’s Face of Another), Nakadai exhibits an affable quality beneath his chameleon charms.

Contributor

David Wilentz

David Wilentz dreams in color.

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