Friday, June 20, 2008

Terrific Tatsuya

Nakadai Retrospective
Film Forum, 209 West Houston Street
June 20–July 17, 2008

Tatsuya Nakadai in Kwaidan
(Toho Co., Ltd)
Next to Toshiro Mifune’s permanent scowl, the wide eyes of Tatsuya Nakadai are probably Japanese cinema’s most iconic image. Those deep, dark, piercing eyes have drawn audiences into the souls of the characters Nakadai has played for more than 50 years, in films by the greatest of Japanese directors. Even a partial list of the masters Nakadai has worked with is mind-boggling: Akira Kurosawa, Masaki Kobayashi, Mikio Naruse, Kon Ichikawa, and Hiroshi Teshigahara.

In Nakadai (June 20—July 17), a month-long festival celebrating his storied career, Film Forum is showing two dozen of the many films he has appeared in since his 1953 screen debut. Of course, Nakadai was more than just a pretty face -- although he was that, too. The astonishing range he has demonstrated in playing everything from a hot-headed young samurai to an aged, mad king has always been his most salient feature. (During a long and successful stage career, he even acted in a production of Driving Miss Daisy!) This retrospective focuses on the films he starred in during the 1950s, '60s and '70s, the golden age of Japanese cinema. Included are the indelible masterpieces of Kurosawa, with whom Nakadai made six films.

True, their first collaboration – Nakadai had a brief, uncredited walk-on in Seven Samurai (1954) -- is not being screened in this retrospective. But the other five films are. In Yojimbo (1961) and Sanjuro (1962), Nakadai cannily plays bad guys opposite Mifune’s samurai loner. In High and Low (1963), again pairing him and Mifune, he’s a super-cool police detective. And in two sweeping epics, Nakadai plays the conflicted protagonists: In Kagemusha (1980), he has a meaty dual role as both an ailing lord and his double; Ran (1985), Kurosawa’s masterly King Lear adaptation, Nakadai (mostly hidden behind an amazingly thorough make-up job) is the foolish king who destroys his empire after dividing his land among his two oldest sons and banishing the youngest.

Notable non-Kurosawa films in the series include Hiroshi Teshigahara’s haunting psycho-drama The Face of Another (1966), in which Nakadai spends the first hour with his head wrapped in bandages, only showing us his intense gaze. There are also two films by underrated master Mikio Naruse, both of which star Nakadai and Hideko Takamine: the artful melodrama When a Woman Ascends the Stairs (1960) and the period piece Untamed (1957), which was not part of Film Forum’s 2005 Naruse retro. Finally, there are two brilliant features by Kon ichikawa: Enjo (Conflagration) (1958) is a first-rate adaptation of Yukio Mishima’s novel, and Odd Obsession (1959) is an erotic, darkly comic exploration of jealousy, sexuality, and manipulation among an elderly man, his younger wife, their daughter, and her fiancée.

Nakadai’s most enduring professional relationship was with Masaki Kobayashi, who deserves to be mentioned in the same breath as Kurosawa and Yasujiro Ozu. Kobayashi made blunt, straightforward films in a variety of genres. Of the 11 films Nakadai and Kobayashi made together, a quartet of classics is part of the lineup: Black River (1957), a scathing exposé of corruption in postwar Japan, in which Nakadai had his first leading role; the absorbing samurai drama Hara-kiri (1962); Kwaidan (1964), an anthology of eerie tales; and another Nakadai-Mifune pairing, the amazing, action-filled Samurai Rebellion (1967).

After this retro ends, from July 18 through August 7, Film Forum will present the acme of the Nakadai-Kobayashi partnership: The three-part, nearly 10-hour masterpiece The Human Condition (1959-61), a transcendent account of a soldier’s life in Manchuria during WWII, with Nakadai digging into the role of a lifetime.Yet Nakadai’s artistry is such that you could say the same for his splendid acting in any of these films.

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