Kellee at Outspoken And Freckled, Aurora at Once Upon A Screen and Paula at Paula’s Cinema Club, are back together co-hosting one of my favourite annual blogathons. Their joint blogathon is dedicated to the character actors working in film and television across the years. Make sure you check out their sites on the 8th of January to read all of the entries.
I’m shining the spotlight on Japanese actor Takashi Shimura. Not only was he one of the greatest character actors working anywhere in the world during the classic film era, but he was also one of the greatest character actors in film history.The thing which always stands out to me the most about Takashi Shimura is how natural he was on screen and how effortlessly he transformed into each character that he portrayed. There are many actors out there who are brilliant at their job but you can always catch them acting(if that makes sense), but there are others who disappear so far into their roles that you forget it’s all a performance. He was one of the latter types of actor. He may well have usually been cast in supporting roles but more often than not he would be one of the most memorable and enjoyable things about the films he appeared in. He stole most of the scenes he shared with lead actors and often ended up delivering the standout performance of the film.
Upon hearing his name many people will usually instantly bring to mind two of his greatest performances – the wise and war-weary leader of the samurai in The Seven Samurai(1954), and the terminally ill Mr. Watanabe, a man who only begins to fully appreciate life just as he is about to lose it in Ikiru(1952). Ikiru(1952)is undoubtedly the highlight of his career and he delivers one of the most heartbreaking and unforgettable performances ever captured on film.He is the main character and main focus of the film and it’s wonderful to see him as the lead for a change. His face becomes a kaleidoscope of emotion every few minutes as his character experiences a myriad of conflicting emotions and slowly dawning realisations. It’s a performance that should be shown to every acting student in the world because it serves as an acting masterclass.
Takashi Shimura was born in the town of Ikuno, in the Asago District of the Hyogo Prefecture, on the 12th of March, 1905. His father worked in the local mine and Takashi was born in the mining staff quarters. Only a few of these staff buildings remain standing today, one of which has been turned into a memorial to Takashi and is a popular tourist attraction.
As a child he missed a couple of years of school due to suffering from Tuberculosis. When his father was transferred by his employer to Nobeoka in the Miyazaki Prefecture, Takashi moved to the Nobeoka Middle School, where he excelled in his English studies and also became a star on the rowing team. He also contributed poetry to the school literary magazine. In 1923 he enrolled as a full-time student at Kansai University, but when his dad retired the family couldn’t afford the full-time course fees any more, so he switched to a part-time evening course studying English Literature and supported himself by getting a job at the Osaka municipal waterworks.
Two of the teachers in his department inspired his love for drama and he joined the University Theatre Studies Society. In 1928 he formed an amateur theatrical group called the Shichigatsu-za. After leaving university he sought to earn a living on stage and the Shichigatsu-za went professional and toured, but sadly the group got into financial difficulties and subsequently folded. He returned to Osaka and began to perform in radio plays.
In 1930 he joined the Kindaiza theatre troupe and toured across Japan and China. He returned to Osaka in 1932 and joined other theatre companies before joining the Kyoto studios of the film production company Shinko Kinema in 1932. His debut film role came in 1934 in the Silent film Number One, Love Street. His first speaking role was in Mansaku Itami’s Chūji Uridasu(1935). His first really notable film role was as the police inspector in Kenji Mizoguchi’s Osaka Elegy(1936).
Takashi continued to work steadily in films into the early 1940’s.In 1943 he was cast as the jujutsu teacher Murai Hansuke in Akira Kurosawa’s directorial debut Sanshiro Sugata. Thus began a screen collaboration that would last until 1980. He would go on to star in 21 of Kurosawa’s 30 films.
Their collaboration lasted longer than that of any of the other actors Kurosawa worked with including Toshiro Mifune, with whom the director made 16 films, many of which also featured Takashi. The three men would all become close friends.
My favourite film that this trio made together is Stray Dog(1949). Takashi is terrific as the experienced older detective trying to support and guide his younger, hot-headed colleague(Toshiro Mifune) as they hunt a killer. The film is notable for being the prototype for the buddy cop genre. You can read my review of the film here.
Without a doubt Takashi’s collaboration with Akira Kurosawa and his body of work during the 1940’s,1950’s and 1960’s, marked the highpoint of his career. Many of his finest performances and most beloved films can be found in these decades – Scandal(1950), Rashomon(1950), Ikiru, Drunken Angel(1948) and Ishiro Honda’s original Godzilla(1954).
He continued to work steadily in film over the coming decades. In recognition of his contribution to the arts the Japanese government awarded him both the Medal with Purple Ribbon(in 1974), and the Order of the Rising Sun, 4th Class, Gold Rays with Rosette(in 1980). These are two of the country’s highest awards and are presented to individuals who have given exemplary service in their field of work.
His final film role was in Akira Kurosawa’s Kagemusha(1980), in a part which was specially written for him by the director. Unfortunately his scenes were cut from the international release but they have now been restored on the Criterion Collection DVD release version. Takashi Shimura died from Emphysema on the 11th of February, 1982. He was 76 years old.
He left behind him quite the film legacy and a great many fans from around the world. I so wish I could have met him to thank him for his hugely enjoyable performances over the years. My top 3 favourite Takashi Shimura films are Ikiru, Scandal and Stray Dog. It’s always a pleasure to sit and watch this man work and I’m so glad I discovered him as I was exploring the classic film era. Have you not been aware of him until now? In that case I hope I have piqued your interest in the man and his work and that you will go and check out his films.
Any other fans out there?