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; films like Kobayashi’s Harakiri and nine-and-a-half-hour World War II epic, The Human Condition, Mikio
Naruse’s When a Woman Ascends the Stairs, and Akira Kurosawa’s Ran and Sanjuro which are considered to be among the great achievements of world cinema.
At 82, Nakadai has appeared in some 160 films, and continues to act today. His characters have included everything from jilted lovers to war prisoners to
face-transplant patients. But his roles playing Samurai in films like 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. Ahead of a Christie’s online sale of
Samurai Arms and Armour (20 November to 4 December), the venerable actor spoke 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?
‘In contemporary Japan there’s a kind of nostalgia for the past. In terms of 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. For instance, 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
How is that ‘certain kind of solitude’ expressed in the Samurai?
‘Well, he’s what you’d call the “lone wolf,” right? Take the film Harakiri, which I was in. 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?
‘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.’
How did you, as a modern actor, prepare for the Samurai roles you played?
‘We trained very thoroughly — how to sit, how to wear a kimono — in a 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 from people today. 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.’
‘He’s quiet, but once he’s compelled to draw his sword he’s powerful’
What was the swordplay training like?
‘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. But 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
[Click here to watch vintage 1930s film footage of a master Japanese swordsmith at work]
I understand you often used real Samurai swords on set during filming back then.
‘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 sword-fight scenes, I think there was a much greater sense of weight [in Harakiri]. Because the swords were heavier than the bamboo
swords, we lost a bit of speed, but I feel like that sense of heaviness and the terror of swords comes through on screen.’
Do you collect any Samurai artefacts — swords, suits of armour, etc?
‘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
What are your favourite Samurai films you’ve appeared in?
‘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
Do you incorporate any Samurai values into your daily life?
‘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.’
From a phone interview by Toshiko Adilman and Marty Gross; translated and edited with Winifred Bird