In the history of Japanese cinema, few faces are as beloved and recognised as Tatsuya Nakadai’s. Discovered in the early 1950s by legendary director Masaki Kobayashi, the young, handsome, and dynamic actor — often referred to as the ‘Japanese James Dean’ — went on to star in many of the most important Japanese films of the post-war era. They include movies such as Kobayashi’s Harakiri and the nine-and-a-half-hour Second Word War epic, The Human Condition; Mikio Naruse’s When a Woman Ascends the Stairs; and Akira Kurosawa’s Ran and Sanjuro, considered to be among the great achievements of world cinema.
Japanese film legend Tatsuya Nakadai
Now 89, Nakadai has appeared in some 160 films. His characters have included everything from jilted lovers to war prisoners to face-transplant patients. But his roles playing Samurai in films such as Harakiri and Sanjuro (as well as a bit part in Kurosawa’s seminal Seven Samurai) are perhaps his most widely adored — often played alongside the inimitable Toshiro Mifune. In 2015, we spoke to the venerable actor about learning to play a Samurai, sword-fighting with Mifune, and his favourite Samurai films of all time.
In your opinion, why has the most important Samurai cinema — especially the films of Kurosawa and Kobayashi — been so celebrated in post-war and contemporary Japan?
Tatsuya Nakadai: ‘In contemporary Japan there’s a kind of nostalgia for the past. As to why Samurai have gained a certain international acclaim, it’s partly due to the achievement of individual directors like Kurosawa and Kobayashi. Like Westerns in America — putting aside the question of whether they are good or bad — Samurai films are uniquely Japanese. The Samurai has a bit of Confucianism to him, a bit of Buddhism, a certain kind of solitude. There’s this essential theme of beating the bad guys and saving the weak, plus an element of entertainment. I think those points are key to making Samurai films popular.’
A blue laced honkozane daimyo domaru gusoku (armor), Edo period (18th century), Helmet bowl: Kamakura period (13-14th century). Estimate: $180,000-250,000. Offered in Japanese and Korean Art on 20 September 2022 at Christie's in New York
How is that ‘certain kind of solitude’ expressed in the Samurai?
TN: ‘Well, he’s what you’d call the “lone wolf”, right? Take the film Harakiri. You have the lone man fighting against the evil establishment in a kind of resistance drama, brought together with entertainment value; that’s one archetype of Samurai film. I came out of the shingeki [new drama] movement, doing a lot of Shakespeare and things like that. I think that background influenced my work in Japanese Samurai films.’
Why do you think the Samurai stories of Japan have had such far-reaching international appeal?
TN: ‘I don’t really know, but I’ll speak from my own experience. I was once in a spaghetti Western with the director Tonino Cervi. I was in it with American and Italian actors, but I’m horrible at languages — at English. I couldn’t join in when everyone was chatting. Instead I just sat there quietly. And since I was always quiet, Cervi would say, “Keep quiet like Nakadai. He’s a Samurai.” But I just couldn’t speak English.
‘I think that, from a foreign perspective, people see the Samurai as silent and decorous, in a good sense. To quote a proverb, “A Samurai never breaks his word.” He’s quiet, but once he’s compelled to draw his sword he’s powerful.’
A Nagasone katana, early Edo period (17th century). Signed Nagasone Okisatio Nyudo Kotetsu. Estimate: $50,000-70,000. Offered in Japanese and Korean Art on 20 September 2022 at Christie's in New York
How did you, as a modern actor, prepare for the Samurai roles you played?
TN: ‘We trained very thoroughly — how to sit, how to wear a kimono — in certain traditional Japanese manners, including [how to perform] a tea ceremony. And we learned how to walk, because when you’re carrying a sword you walk completely differently. Our source for all of that was the traditional Japanese theatrical form, kabuki. We don’t know what real Samurai were like, so we trained extensively in the carriage, movements, and swordplay of Samurai as depicted in historical plays.’
What was the swordplay training like?
TN: ‘To give you an example, there’s a duel at the end of Kurosawa’s Sanjuro, in which I end up being killed by [actor] Toshiro Mifune. The script ended by saying that it was impossible to convey this heroic scene in words. The director gave us no input whatsoever as to how we should fight. Instead, I spent about three weeks being trained in a traditional sword-fighting technique called the iainuki, which is for situations like if you’re in the bathroom and your enemy ambushes you. If you draw your sword horizontally in that small space, it will knock into the walls and you won’t be able to fight. This technique [taught you] how to draw a sword and cut down an enemy in a confined space.
‘Meanwhile, Mifune was off learning his own techniques, with no idea what I was studying. When the scene was shot, neither of us knew what the other was going to do, but in an instant I was sliced through. That was how Kurosawa made movies. We’d spend close to a year making a movie, longer than one would today.’
[Click here to watch vintage 1930s film footage of a master Japanese swordsmith at work]
A nagamaki and a red lacquer scabbard, Muromachi period (mid-16th century). 84⅕ (215 cm). Estimate: $25,000-35,000. Offered in Japanese and Korean Art on 20 September 2022 at Christie's in New York
I understand you often used real Samurai swords on set during filming.
TN: ‘I used real swords a number of times, but most extensively in Harakiri. We had what’s called a tateshi [swordplay choreographer] who taught us how to use the swords and duel. With Harakiri, our tateshi was the top kendo fighter in Japan. I got a thorough education in how to use a real sword. The reason we used real swords was that the director, Kobayashi, thought that bamboo swords were too light. They’re made from bamboo layered with silver leaf. He wanted to show the heaviness of the swords, so my main opponent Tetsuro Tanba and I spent ten days or so practicing with real swords. Because the swords are real, if you do it wrong you can hurt each other, so we would train between scenes.
‘Compared to ordinary swordfight scenes, I think there was a much greater sense of weight [in Harakiri]. We lost a bit of speed, but I feel like that sense of heaviness and the terror of swords came through.’
Do you collect any Samurai artefacts — swords, suits of armour?
TN: ‘I have two swords, but unfortunately I don’t have any helmets or suits of armour. Swords need constant care, so I take mine to a specialist shop from time to time, because they get rusty. I don’t know their value but I’m told that they are very traditional and extremely excellent swords, not the type to be traded.’
A karura menpo (face mask), Edo period (19th century). Estimate: $6,000-8,000. Offered in Japanese and Korean Art on 20 September 2022 at Christie's in New York
What are your favourite Samurai films you’ve appeared in?
TN: ‘If someone were to ask me on my deathbed what my best film was, I think I’d say it was Harakiri, which I made when I was 29. You could say my most important work was finished by the time I was 29! So I’d like to put Harakiri on the list. Next is Yojimbo. And then there’s a director named Kihachi Okamoto, who did a film called The Sword of Doom — this was a very difficult film for me, one that’s been made into a movie many times in Japan. Then there’s Ran — the last film I did with Kurosawa. Before that, I took over for the actor Shintaro Katsu in Kurosawa’s Kagemusha, which won the Grand Prix at Cannes. Lastly, there’s Hideo Gosha’s Goyokin, which is a little bit different from an ordinary Samurai film.’
An orange honkozane daimyo domaru gusoku (armor), Edo period (18th century), Helmet bowl: Nanbokucho period (14th century). Estimate: $80,000-120,000. Offered in Japanese and Korean Art on 20 September 2022 at Christie's in New York
Do you incorporate any Samurai values into your daily life?
TN: ‘I’m quieter than average, and a bit solitary. I think maybe those characteristics have something in common with the positive elements of a Samurai. I’m a loner. I worked hard as a film actor, but essentially I’m a theatre actor. For sixty-some years I served those two masters, but I never signed with a film company. Maybe you can call that lone wolf behaviour a connection.’
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