Takakura Ken and Sugawara Bunta: Male-Male Bonds on the Silver Screen

Society Culture

A Pair of Deaths: The Hero and the Antihero

Deaths in Japan often come in pairs. This phenomenon is especially frequent in the case of two people operating in extremely great proximity who highlight each other with their sharply contrasting personalities. When one of them dies, the other follows, almost as if being drawn to the grave by the death of the first. This happened, for example, with the filmmakers Wakamatsu Kōji and Ōshima Nagisa. Wakamatsu, a constant critic of the hypocrisy of Japan’s post–World War II society, died in a traffic accident in October 2012, and Ōshima passed away less than three months later. Their deaths came 37 years after they collaborated, Wakamatsu as producer and Ōshima as director, on Ai no corrida (L’Empire des sens, English title In the Realm of the Senses, 1976), a work that has taken its place in film history.

I saw the same sort of pairing in the November 2014 deaths of actors Takakura Ken and Sugawara Bunta. Over the course of their half-century-long careers, they played a variety of roles, but both showed special individuality in their portrayals of outlaws. Takakura was Sugawara’s senior by two years, and he got an earlier start in the film industry. But more important than the age difference was the difference in their career paths. Unlike Takakura, Sugawara had to endure a long period of obscurity and repeated reverses before achieving his stardom. Both of them worked for years under exclusive contracts with the same movie company, Tōei, where they both shone playing ex-convicts and gangsters. But they had opposite auras: Takakura was the hero, and Sugawara the antihero.

Male-Male Bonds

A scene from one of Takakura’s films comes to my mind: The setting is Tokyo’s plebeian old shitamachi (“low town”) district in the late 1920s. Takakura appears in casual Japanese garb as a yakuza who, disgusted by the vicious deeds of his former gang boss, is now on a solo mission to kill him. At the foot of a bridge, he runs into the character played by Ikebe Ryō, who is also out to get the same boss. But while Takakura is driven by his adherence to the yakuza code of honor, Ikebe is motivated by despair at his own life.

Takakura tells Ikebe to abandon his mission. “I’m just a yakuza ex-con, but you belong to the straight world,” he declares. But Ikebe, who feels indebted to Takakura, insists on joining him. The camera closes in, showing each of their faces in succession. As the two wordlessly start walking together, we hear the movie’s theme song: “When the choice is between duty and human feelings . . .”

This is the dramatic high point near the end of Shōwa zankyōden: Shinde moraimasu (literally “Shōwa Era Tales of Brutality and Chivalry: I Need You to Die,” also known as “Hell Is Man’s Destiny,” directed by Makino Masahiro, 1970). When it was shown in theaters, viewers greeted this scene with shouts of “Ken-san!” calling out Takakura’s name in a contemporary version of the Japanese tradition of audience participation—a practice with roots in kabuki, where fans call out to actors at key points during the performance.

What about Sugawara? In Chizome no daimon (“Bloodstained Gang Crest,” directed by Fukasaku Kinji, 1970), he plays an upstart yakuza boss from the slums of post–World War II Yokohama. Unlike Takakura’s prewar character, he does not try to live by the old yakuza code of honor. He betrays his comrades without compunction to extend his territory and grasp new sources of income, and he does not hesitate to handle dirty money. Circumstances drive him to get involved in a project to redevelop the slum neighborhood where he grew up. Ignoring the voices of the poor people living there, he pushes for the construction of an industrial complex on the site. “Yakuza are dirty in the first place,” he declares. “If you want to keep living, you have to do some dirty deeds.”

In the end, though, he is deceived by the business operator who engaged him and cast off ignominiously once he has served his role in acquiring the deeds to the site. The buildings of the neighborhood are cleared away, and he finds himself ostracized as a traitor by the people he grew up with. His sidekick heads off on his own to take vengeance on the slick operator but fails to kill the target and commits suicide by biting his tongue. Sugawara goes to pick up the sidekick’s corpse, and confronting the foe he wails, “He didn’t die as my confederate; he died as a guy from the same neighborhood.”

The Tragic Figure and the Public Enemy

Takakura and Sugawara presented sharply contrasting appearances. Takakura, tall and slim, cut the figure of a man who was earnest but also had an uncouth side. His eyes ordinarily had a gentle look, but when the situation turned tense, they would open wide and glare. He tended to be restrained in showing his emotions. The characters he played in his Tōei films were ordinarily dressed in informal Japanese men’s attire rather than Western clothes. His weapon was a dagger; he never used a gun. He adhered religiously to the traditional yakuza code of honor, and the anger that he kept in check would explode when this code was violated. He was basically a tragic figure, continuing to fight a fate he knew he could not overcome. And he was enveloped in an air of noble solitude.

Sugawara’s screen persona was clearly that of somebody who had clawed his way up from the substratum of society. Like Takakura, he was tall, but he projected none of Takakura’s premonition of tragedy. He had a stern brow, furrowed by two vertical wrinkles. His face was relatively seedy looking, and his character was generally that of a man who would always come late to the game and draw the short end of the stick—an unlucky man with a pool of anger that he did not know how to express. Though he ordinarily seemed to be cowardly and gloomy, when his rage exploded he would turn into a monster. Unconcerned about the yakuza code, he was capable of inhuman cruelty and even rape.

In the struggle to survive amid the charred remains and black-market dealings of postwar Japan, where the old moral order had completely collapsed, there was no room for the aesthetic of tragic honor espoused by Takakura. This was the setting for Sugawara’s gangster films, whose titles always seemed to include some sort of vicious-sounding term: Yotamono (Thug), Mamushi no kyōdai (Viper Brothers), Kyōken san kyōdai (Three Mad Dog Brothers), Gorotsuki butai (Hoodlum Legion) . . . The prewar yakuza played by Takakura belonged to an underworld community that was separate from and had no dealings with ordinary society. But Sugawara’s postwar gangsters were public enemies, dangerous and violent hoodlums despised as serpents by regular citizens.

The All-Male World of the Asian Hero

In one respect, however, Takakura’s and Sugawara’s characters were the same: They had no place for women in their lives. Instead they formed strong bonds with other men. In both of the scenes I described above, the lead character and his male companion were bound by deep ties, trusting each other with their very lives. They were soul brothers, so close that there was no room for a woman to come between them.

Here I should note that these bonds were not homosexual. The correct term for them is “homosocial.” While avoiding contact with women, these two were also repelled by sexual relations between men. The basic principle by which they operated was brotherhood—mutual understanding with few words required.

It may be easier to understand these characters by contrasting them with the heroes of Hollywood action and gangster movies. Even when they play outlaws, stars like Clint Eastwood and Bruce Willis always return in the end to the woman they love. But the Japanese films featuring Takakura and Sugawara never have this sort of narrative outcome. The lead characters see their male comrades die, and mourning them, they head silently toward their own deaths.

We cannot say this is a pattern exclusive to Japan. For example, the characters played by actors like Chow Yun-fat and Leslie Cheung in Hong Kong action movies also inhabit a deeply homosocial world. “The two of us have been through it all together” is their constant refrain. Homosociality can probably serve as a useful point of reference for film studies contrasting the works of Hollywood and Asia.

(Originally written in Japanese on December 22, 2014. Banner photos: Sugawara Bunta [left] in Jingi naki tatakai [Battles Without Honor and Humanity], © Tōei, courtesy of Jiji, and Takakura Ken in Black Rain, © ANP/Jiji Photo.) 

Toei Takakura Ken yakuza Sugawara Bunta hero