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Wednesday, June 18, 2008

The Actor With Stardom in His Eyes

By TERRENCE RAFFERTY
JAPAN’S most distinguished living actor, Tatsuya Nakadai, has made well over 100 movies, and he’s still probably best known to American audiences for a role in which he is nearly unrecognizable. As Hidetora, the 80-something feudal patriarch of the Ichimonji clan in Akira Kurosawa’s “Ran” (1985), Mr. Nakadai — then in his early 50s — wore heavy makeup intended not only to age him but also to resemble a Noh mask. In an interview conducted three years ago for the Criterion DVD release of the film he said, “They had to draw in every single wrinkle; the only parts of that face that were actually mine were the eyes.”

They are, however, no ordinary eyes. They’re as big as Bette Davis’s and about as expressive, and it’s safe to say that no one who has seen Mr. Nakadai as Hidetora will soon forget what they look like, huge with horror, as the mad lord descends the steps of his burning castle.

“Ran” is one of two dozen Nakadai movies Film Forum will be screening from Friday to July 17; for three weeks after that it will show, for the first time in many years, Masaki Kobayashi’s three-part, nine-and-a-half-hour World War II epic “The Human Condition” (1959-61), in which Mr. Nakadai, playing a leftist intellectual conscripted into the Japanese Army in Manchuria, soldiers his way through one of the most physically and emotionally grueling roles any actor has ever had to endure.

The agonizing, sorrowful “Human Condition” was the movie that made him a star; it’s not difficult to understand why. He gives a beautifully restrained, naturalistic performance in it, as he does in most of the several movies he made with Mr. Kobayashi, who discovered him. (Four of their other collaborations are in the series: the very rare “Black River” from 1957, a pungent lower-depths kind of social melodrama in which Mr. Nakadai plays a nasty, sexually abusive gangster; the classic 1962 samurai revenge picture “Harakiri”; “Samurai Rebellion,” which followed five years later; and the elegant 1964 ghost-story anthology “Kwaidan.”)

One of the fascinations of the Film Forum series — which is being presented in association with the Japan Foundation — is watching this unusual actor veer between the extreme, dancelike stylization of roles like Hidetora, in which his technique is broad, bold and theatrical, and the lower-key, more film-friendly sort of performing style he adopts for pictures like “The Human Condition” and Mikio Naruse’s “When a Woman Ascends the Stairs” (1960).

He’s never subtle, exactly. Those giant peepers do tend to bulge at the strangest times, as if they had a life of their own and there were nothing, really, he could do about them. His female co-star in “When a Woman Ascends the Stairs,” Hideko Takamine, used to tell him, “There’s no need to open your eyes so wide,” but even as a young, eager-to-learn actor he didn’t always heed that great veteran’s advice; try as he might, the orbs pop anyway. It’s a mannerism, but over the years it has become, as good actors’ tics sometimes do, a weirdly evocative and endearing one, like Jack Nicholson’s satyr grin. Without it he wouldn’t quite be himself.

And what it evokes most powerfully is an unalloyed, ungovernable joy in the creative act itself, a fierce performer’s delight that’s always welcome and always appropriate, even when the character he’s playing is an unhappy one. Whether Mr. Nakadai is portraying a man who is delighted by the life before his eyes or appalled by it, he never looks blasé, uninterested: he seems to exist in a state of constant surprise.

Which is a useful quality for an artist. It’s unfakable, besides. In that interview on the “Ran” DVD, Mr. Nakadai — who will be speaking for himself, in person, at Film Forum after the opening-night screening of “Harakiri” and again on June 24 — reveals that his beard caught fire in the burning-castle sequence, then muses on his odd willingness to undergo such torments for the sake of a movie.

“You’re willing to take a plunge from any height,” he says, as if to himself. “There’s just something about being in front of the camera. And being in front of an audience is the same thing. It’s hopeless. I guess I’m just a ham.”

That he is, but it’s premium ham, which is why (especially in the late ’50s and the ’60s) so many of his country’s best filmmakers sought him out. This series includes, in addition to “Ran” and the terrific Kobayashis, four more movies by Mr. Kurosawa, two by Mr. Naruse, one apiece by Hiroshi Teshigahara and Keisuke Kinoshita and three by Kon Ichikawa, who may be the director who used Mr. Nakadai’s peculiar skills in the most interesting and varied ways.

Mr. Ichikawa (who died not long ago, at 92) cast Mr. Nakadai in a disturbing supporting role as a bitter, manipulative cripple — the character’s own self-description — in the austere, Mishima-derived “Conflagration” (1958), and then as a crafty, sexually opportunistic young doctor in the noirish erotic farce “Odd Obsession” (1959), in both cases allowing Mr. Nakadai to be appealing and menacing in equal measure.

And in the wonderful “I Am a Cat” (1975), based on the famous novel by Natsume Soseki, Mr. Ichikawa tapped into an unexpected, hitherto almost completely unsuspected vein of comedy in Mr. Nakadai’s persona.

Mr. Nakadai, playing an Anglophile teacher and frustrated writer with a bushy mustache and sideburns, looks hilariously ill at ease in his half-modern, half-traditional household surroundings. (The story is set in the Meiji period, around the turn of the 20th century.) But his performance as this uncomfortable man is spectacularly assured, his familiar wide-eyed amazement deployed cunningly to portray the melancholy befuddlement of the character, the perpetual unwelcome surprise of feeling neither here nor there.

It’s a deeply funny piece of acting in a movie whose gentle, antic spirit sometimes recalls the inebriated self-reflexiveness of “Tristram Shandy.” Watching Mr. Nakadai in “I Am a Cat” you may wonder why so few of his other directors seemed to notice that his face is ideally suited to comedy: those enormous eyes, that little curling smile. And then you might wonder too how just 10 years later this same face could become, in “Ran,” the very mask of tragedy. He’s an actor who widens your eyes.

Copyright 2008 The New York Times Company

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