Ken Takakura: Actor revered in Japan who became best-known outside it for his role in the Ridley Scott thriller 'Black Rain'


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Ken Takakura, who has died of lymphoma, was a craggy-faced, quiet actor known for playing outlaws and stoic heroes in scores of Japanese films.

He was best known outside Japan for his police inspector role in Ridley Scott’s 1989 thriller Black Rain.

He surged to stardom after his 1956 debut, becoming a staple of yakuza films such as Abashiri Prison in the 1960s. Much of his appeal to the Japanese public stemmed from his image as a hero fighting authority figures on behalf of the poor and weak. In Black Rain he surprises the American cops played by Michael Douglas and Andy Garcia with the line, “I do speak fucking English”. But he also played comic roles, such as his 1992 portrayal of a coach in the Tom Selleck film Mr Baseball.

Likened by some to Clint Eastwood, Takakura starred in detective stories and dramas including the 1977 film The Yellow Handkerchief and 1999’s Railroad Man, which won him a best actor award at the Montreal World Film Festival. The news of his death led Japanese news programmes, and major newspapers distributed extra copies in central Tokyo.

Unlike many Japanese celebrities, Takakura shunned the usual rounds of television variety shows and melodramas, maintaining a John Wayne-like aura of toughness. Takakura’s friends and admirers described him as humble, honest and reserved. “He was the last big star [in Japan],” said Shintaro Ishihara, 82, an award-winning writer and politician. “And yet, Ken-san lived a really healthy, sound life, unlike many other stars who often end up paying the price later on.”

Born in 1931 as Goichi Oda in Fukuoka, southern Japan, he was recruited for a major film production while he was applying for a managerial position. Even though he played many outlaw roles in yakuza films, Takakura said today’s gangster films didn’t interest him. “I like movies that picture the human heart and linger with me,” he said. The Deer Hunter, Gladiator and The Godfather were among his favourites, he said.

In 2012’s award-winning Dearest, his last film, he plays a retired prison warden who goes on a soul-searching trip with a postcard that arrived after his wife’s death. He was preparing for his next project while in hospital.

In 2013, when Takakura attended a ceremony to receive Japan’s highest cultural award, the Order of Culture, at the Imperial Palace, he joked that he had often played characters considered distant from the exalted realm of the palace. “In movies, I’m most often an ex-convict. I’m grateful for the award despite many of these roles I’ve played,” he said. “I really believe that hard work pays off.”

Goichi Oda (Ken Takakura), actor: born Nakama, Fukuoka, Japan 16 February 1931; married 1959 Chiemi Eri (divorced 1971); died Tokyo 10 November 2014,