Interview: The Legendary Nakadai Tatsuya on Counterculture Cinema and Japan's Current Nationalism

Featured Contributor; New York City, New York (@TheDivaReview)
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Interview: The Legendary Nakadai Tatsuya on Counterculture Cinema and Japan's Current Nationalism
At 83 years young, Nakadai Tatsuya is one of the lions of the Golden Age of Japanese cinema, still at the top of the bill after over 160 films.  Selling out his recent appearance at New York’s Japan Society, the living legend spoke with me about being part of the political counterculture of post-war Japan, the fearlessness of filmmakers like Kobayashi and Kurosawa, and his words of caution against his country’s growing reversion to nationalism.
 
 
The Lady Miz Diva:  This is the second time we’ve had the occasion to meet during a screening of THE FACE OF ANOTHER.  What do you feel is the appeal of this film that transcends the years and cultures? 
 
Nakadai Tatsuya:  When I started this film, it was 50 years ago, so I was 33, and ever since then I’ve had chances to screen this film in South Korea, in the US, and so on, and everywhere there are fans of this film.  So it really proves that this film really stands the test of time.
 
LMD:  I’ve always felt this film had a parallel to FRANKENSTEIN where the man-made monster eventually rises up to destroy his maker, except this monster is actually quite beautiful and seductive.  What made your character, Okuyama turn on Dr. Hira and essentially the world? 
 
NT:  To put it simply, in Japan, there is a teaching that the merit of a man is not his exterior, but in his heart.  It’s a very Buddhist teaching, as well.  And I’m sure as you know, the original novel of this film was written by Abe Kōbō, he also wrote the script, which was directed by Teshigahara {Hiroshi}; but in the film, when his {Okuyama’s} exterior changes, so does his heart.  So in that sense, I think even though in Japan we have this teaching that the heart is what matters and not the exterior, this is a very fearsome concept that the exterior can also change the heart. 
 
I think it’s very similar to FRANKENSTEIN that the creature dons a mask in order to seduce his own wife, so there is a similarity there to FRANKENSTEIN, as well.
 
LMD: When we spoke previously, you mentioned that yourself, Abe and Director Teshigahara were members of the avant-garde film movement at the time.  How did that perspective inspire this work? 
 
NT:  You mentioned avant-garde, and that is definitely it for this film.  And when you look into the history of performance art in Japan, it starts with Noh, and then there’s Kyogen; which is the farce type of Noh, and then there’s Kabuki.  So there’s this history of traditional art in Japan, and the mask also appears in Noh, as well, so it’s a very frequent occurrence, this use of the mask in traditional Japanese art.  So there’s a connection there.  
 
Abe Kobo, especially, he was a very avant-garde writer, and even the novelist Mishima Yukio said that the creation of a mask really distracts the morals of society.  He meant that as the best complement of the work.
 
LMD: Our lovely translator, Iida-san, reminded me that you are the seiyuu of The Devil in BELLADONNA OF SADNESS, which, like THE FACE OF ANOTHER, is considered an avant-garde masterpiece.  THE HUMAN CONDITION trilogy is also considered groundbreaking.  Did you always intend to turn toward projects that valued art and originality over commercial success?
 
NT:  As you mentioned, THE HUMAN CONDITION, and I just screened HARAKIRI at Yale, as well, and THE FACE OF ANOTHER tonight, and these are all very avant-garde works, but it is also anti-establishment:  It’s a struggle of one person against an establishment; so it’s meant to be an antithesis of what’s going on politically at the time.  
 
Back in the 50s and the 60s in Japan, all the masters of cinema, like Kurosawa and so on, they all had very fervent ideas about politics, and I, just by chance, happened to be coming of age as an actor at that time - not only a film actor, but also theater actor.  So, the fact that I was able to work and meet with these very passionate directors, and looking back now that I’m 83, how fortunate a life I’ve lead.
 
LMD: The timing of the groundbreaking nature of your films is extraordinary because I believe film was part of what energised Japan after WWII, yet many of those movies had very counterculture themes. I’m thinking of THE HUMAN CONDITION, as well as other films you’ve appeared in.  Did you worry that by appearing in these movies, you might be doing something dangerous with respect to your future as an actor?
 
NT:  To put it simply, no, not at all! {Laughs}  So, of course, in 160 films that I’ve starred in, there were films in which the circumstances of the film scared me a little bit, but overall I would say I had no fear.  
 
At the time, there were five major film studios; Toho, Shochiku, Daiei, Nikkatsu and Shintoho, and I didn’t belong to any of them.  I promised myself that I would dedicate out of the year, half of my year to film, and the other half to theater.  Even though I was a mere actor at the time, I was able to select the works that I wanted to do; so if I were to receive five scripts, I could tell them, ‘This one I want to do. This one I don’t want to do.’  Usually, an actor back in those days was given orders as to what to do and what to star in, but that wasn’t the case for me, so to have that favorable situation was very fortunate for me.
 
LMD: You mentioned your friendship with the great author, Mishima Yukio, but you’ve also spoken of your disdain for his nationalism.  It seems as if Japan is currently going through a revival of that nationalist spirit.  As a person who grew up during WW2, who made films that decried war, but who, after 62 years of work, is a top star and role model to the Japanese people {Nakadai received the Emperor’s Order of Culture in 2015}, what would you like for the public, who might not have lived through the war, to understand?  
 
NT:  Mishima was my great friend, and I starred in his film (CONFLAGRATION) and we also costarred in a film (HITOKIRI), as well, but in regard to how he lived and how he ended up, I cannot say that I agree with the choices that he made.  But looking at the political climate of Japan currently, and thinking back to the end of World War II, and it’s been 70 years with Japan relatively having peace.  For the last 70 years, we’ve never engaged in war.  We’ve never had to kill anyone, or be killed.  We have held that peace, but lately I feel as if the winds are turning, and I think some aspects of Japanese society right now is very Mishima-like.  
 
When we say that we must protect our country, inevitably human beings glean an opportunity to engage in war, when they feel as if they have to protect their country.  That language can be quite misleading, so I really hope that the mass public won’t be fooled by that idea of protecting the country.
 
As you said, I directly experienced the war: I had to suffer through a lot of air raids in Tokyo, and I barely survived.  So, in that sense, even though Mishima is my friend, in regards to what eventually happened, I cannot agree.  But of course, I loved Mishima’s art. {Laughs}
 
LMD:  What do you think the role of film during such turbulent times should be?
 
NT:  I think currently in Japan, the focus is always on entertainment value when it comes to film.  I know that there are a lot of young writers of films and directors who are quite talented, but compared to the films of the 50s, 60s and 70s, I think the focus is too much on getting as many audiences into the theaters as possible.  It’s a numbers game, really.
 
Pre-television in Japan, there were the five major film studios and society’s only source of entertainment was film; but at the time, Toho, for instance, had Kurosawa, Shochiku had Ozu, Daiei had Mizoguchi and Shintoho had Kon Ichikawa.  Those directors had a lot of leeway to create what they wanted to create.  But right now, with the economic climate, it is all about efficiency; it is all about the numbers.  So, I think the focus is too much on that – the efficiency and the economics of it all – so it is really hard for the talented auteurs to surface.  Overall, I would really like to pose a question of how we are going to revive and resurrect this Japanese film culture to the next generation?
 
LMD: Going back to THE HUMAN CONDITION, when I asked what you felt your most perfect collaboration with a director was, you said “Kobayashi” without hesitation.  What was it about that collaboration that was so perfect?
 
NT:  I think that my appeal toward Director Kobayashi was that he came from a very philosophical background.  He studied under a professor by the name of Aizu Yaichi in university, and he also learned filmmaking under Kinoshita Keisuke.  In that sense, he made philosophical work.  
 
He made it very clear that his intention was not to make entertainment films, and I liked that.  I believe that he was an auteur that always depicted the personal struggle against the establishment.
 
LMD: Would you please say something to your US fans, who are so excited when you come visit us?
 
NT:  As an actor, it is all about whether or not I can get my body to listen to me.  It is all about the body for an actor, especially in theater.  I’m 83, and before I came to the States this time, I shot a film in which I have a starring role and it will premiere next year.  We are submitting it to Cannes, as well. It is called UMIBE NO LEAR by Kobayashi Masahiro {JAPAN’S TRAGEDY}, it’s a film about how older people should be as free as possible.
 
Note:  Nakadai-san's manager was kind enough to inform me after the interview that there is a documentary on the great actor in the works.
 
This interview is cross-posted on my own site, The Diva Review. Please enjoy additional content, including exclusive photos there.
 
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Japanese CinemaNakadai Tatsuya
  • Wjr.

    Sword of Doom is one of my favorite movies from this gent, his performance was haunting.

  • I have too many faves from this accclaimed performer to mention. In particular how does the selection of HARAKIRI, YOJIMBO, SWORD OF DOOM and SAMURAI SPY sound to you?

  • ManateeAdvocate

    Perfect. They're all gems on my shelf. Sword of Doom especially. The Wolves and Goyokin as well. Aw, you're right. There's too many to mention.

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