To judge by his one-shot walkthrough as an extra in Akira Kurosawa’s landmark film Seven Samurai (1954), there is no reason to imagine that Tatsuya Nakadai would come to be called “The Eighth Samurai.” In fact, this 85-year-old star of more than 150 movies, including many of the best-known samurai action pictures of the 1960s-80s (chanbara), has long considered himself a man of the theater.
In an expansive interview recorded on May 9, 2014, in Hollywood for the Academy of Motion Picture Arts & Sciences’ ongoing oral-history program, Nakadai spoke with Akira Mizuta Lippit about his life journey.
At first, I wanted to become a boxer, but after three fights, I realized I didn’t like getting punched in the face. Then someone said, ‘You have an actor’s face. How about becoming an actor?’ After thinking about it, I enrolled in acting school in 1952 and studied for three years. That’s how I became an actor. But I still didn’t know if being an actor is the right fit for me. I don’t think that it’s my calling.
Whether or not it’s his “calling,” the nattily dressed, drop-dead-handsome movie star has made movies with most of the major post-World War II Japanese directors, starring not only in period jidaigeki films, but also in searing contemporary dramas, including the 9 1/2-hour epic The Human Condition for revered director Masaki Kobayashi. While filming the three separate parts of Kobayashi’s magnum opus between 1958 and 1961, Nakadai was cast by Akira Kurosawa as the mortal antagonist to Toshiro Mifune in Yojimbo and Sanjuro. Despite the dozens of other prestigious Japanese films Nakadai has made since then, he is still best known to Western audiences as the formidable warrior undone by Mifune in both films’ final swordfights.
Twice awarded the prestigious Japanese Blue Ribbon Award (for Kagemusha and Seppuku), Nakadai continues to work in both theater and film. His most recent latter credit was Lear on the Shore (2017) with maverick director Masahiro Kobayashi. Nakadai alludes to the Japanese expression “wearing two straw sandals at the same time” to define his ongoing fascination with Japanese theater.
Nakadai never trained in the classical Japanese theater of Noh, Kyogen or Kabuki. Instead, he studied Shingeki, or “new drama,” the Western style of personal, internalized performance. He actually studied for a short time in New York City and fell under the sway of the Actors Studio, where he audited classes with Lee Strasberg. In 1975, the lasting influence of American theater led him to found his own theater group, Mumejuku (nameless school).
It’s not an acting school, but an acting supplemental education where I take about five students a year under my wing, and that’s how I started it. It’s been 40 years now, five students over 40 years. You do the multiplication, so I’ve had 200 actors come through my school.
Nakadai continues his work in theater and especially loves to perform Shakespeare, including Hamlet, Othello and Julius Caesar. (In 2014, he said, “This year I’m performing in Romeo and Juliet. Of course, I’m not Romeo; I’m the priest named Lawrence.”)
And, of course, Kurosawa’s Ran (1985) is a jidaigeki version of King Lear.
Nakadai insists that unlike his work in theater, where an actor develops a character in real time and over multiple performances, in cinema he is informed and guided by the director.
The actor must first understand what the director or screenwriter is trying to create. This is how I was taught since I was young … what Mr. Keisuke Kinoshita wants from me … I feel this out. That’s how I’ve worked with directors for the last 60 years.
His allegiance to the so-called “directorial vision” is fully expressed in a revealing 38-minute video interview he made for The Criterion Collection producer Curtis Tsui called “Five Japanese Masters.”(Another half-dozen of Japan’s major filmmakers could have been included. Missing, for example, are Kon Ichikawa, Hideo Gosha, Keisuke Kinoshita and Kihachi Okamoto.)
In many of Nakadai’s films (especially the samurai movies), he creates a character with a rather singular, even locked-in identity, one of unassailable loyalty as a ronin in fealty to a lord, as a masterless rogue struggling for survival in an indifferent world or, especially, as a for-hire swordsman seemingly intent on destroying established order as a misguided angel of death. But nowhere are the complexities of Nakadai’s cinematic characters more evident, more challenged and evolved, than in his role as the soldier-turned-pacifist Kaji in The Human Condition.
Here is a trailer:
There have been many video interviews with the filmmakers of this epic movie, but perhaps the most intimate is the one given by Nakadai. He is a terrific narrator of the movies he has done, but, more than that, the role of Kaji came from deep inside his psyche in a way that a director, screenwriter or film critic/historian cannot as effectively explain.
In the Academy interview, Nakadai talks about how he came to be cast:
The role of Kaji in 'The Human Condition' was highly sought after by all the studio’s stars …. I had previously worked with director Masaki Kobayashi in a yakuza role; however, Kaji … had a strong sense of justice. I wasn’t included in any of the newspaper predictions. Then, one day, Kobayashi contacts me and asks me to be Kaji. ‘What?’ I exclaimed, and thought, ‘There must be many actors who can portray a humanist with a strong sense of justice.’ Later on, I was told that Kobayashi wanted a certain look at the end when Michiko, Kaji’s wife, goes insane and collapses. He wanted the look in my eyes. That’s how he made his decision, and it drew a lot of attention at the time.
As simple as this explanation may seem, it is worth noting that Nakadai’s eyes, in their multiple incarnations and moods, have often been cited as one of his most riveting features. As a case in point, here is a slightly cropped photo of the Polish poster of Nakadai’s eye for Hideo Gosha’s chanbara film Goyokin:
And here is the 18-minute interview with the actor about The Human Condition:
On Aug. 11, Goyokin was screened for Academy members at the Linwood Dunn Theater, where Nakadai gave his oral-history interview in 2014. The screening was the last in this year’s Films on Film series, which presents 35mm prints that are usually from the Academy Film Archive. Because no print of Goyokin was available in the United States, one was sent from the National Film Archive of Japan.
In my next post, I will discuss this rarely screened movie, which was the first in Japan to be photographed in Panavision’s anamorphic process.
Tatsuya Nakadai: "The 8th Samurai," Part 2: Goyokin