When I first watched Kosaku Yamashita’s Red Peony Gambler (1968), I had no idea what a ride I was in for, nor that I would be so moved by the aesthetics, value system, and plot of this film that my life would never be the same.
It was then that I found myself entranced by a genre of cinema called “Ninkyo Eiga” or “Yakuza Eiga”. In simple terms, these were chivalry films dealing with Japanese gangsters, namely the Yakuza. But they were much more than that. These were really ethical dramas at the operatic level, usually involving a a singular Yakuza standing up against an evil Oyabun (something like a Japanese Godfather), setting right some wrong. But like all things Japanese, the meaning of these films is so deep, as is their multifaceted symbolism that you truly need to immerse yourself in the culture to appreciate the totality of their beauty.
(Toei promotional photo of Ken Takakura 高倉 健, circa 1960′s)
The characters in these films were portrayed by an acting troup employed by Toei studioes throughout the 60′s up to the early 70′s. Unlike American films, these movies followed similar plot lines, with the same actors over and over again. And yet…they never get boring and in fact, they build on each other in a very unique way. Something like watching the reincarnation of your heroes in different adventures throughout time. Ties in well with the conception of “Toki no Wa” – “the rings of time”, or rather, “the ends of eternity” – a common theme in the anime of Matsumoto Leiji which operates on a similar level (Ninkyo Eiga in Space?).
(above – Toei Yakuza Eiga movie poster for Showa Zankyoden, starring Ken Takakura and Ryo Ikebe)
The king of these films, and by far that singular actor that stood out from the crowd was Takakura Ken (born Gouichi Oda), or Ken-San as he is known in the Japanese film industry. Ken came to embody a certain value system for young Japanese coming out of WW2, hopeful for the future, partners with America in business and ideology. But also quite concerned with losing not just their identity to mass market consumerism but also their very unique value system which in part embodied a contemporary view of Bushido (Samurai ethics), group dynamics built around the principle of “wa” (harmony) and a form of rugged individualism best represented by the early Clint Eastwood spaghetti westerns (many of which were based on Samurai films of the same or earlier era).
(Tadanori Yokoo print of Takakura Ken – Yokoo mastered penciled tracings of photographic images for his poster art which was one the main influences on my art career)
After discovering Ken-San and the whole Yakuza Eiga genre, I quickly travelled to Japan and got lost in the now closed “Book 1st” store in Shibuya (at the time, the largest book shop in all of Japan). I think I spent something like 6000K in about 3 days. All worth it. I’m still using this library several years later for inspiration, discovery or just for the sheer pleasure of the quality of creative work coming out of Japan in the 60′s.
What was most interesting is that the graphic (and now fine) artist – Tadanori Yokoo -whom I discovered on postcards at Book 1st, was I later found out was just as obsessed with the work of Ken-San as I was. In fact, radical (and brilliant) author Yukio Mishima, Takakura Ken, and artist/designer Tadanori Yokoo were all connected, personally and professionaly.
They indeed appear together in many of the magazines, books and art that I was drawn to in Japan. And all three had something central in common – a love of Heroic Idealism as represented by a modern take on the Samurai ethos. Honor is too simple a word, and too overused but if it ever had a meaning, Takakura Ken’s character in these many Ninkyo Eiga films represents it perfectly.