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Japanese screen legend Ken Takakura dies at 83

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Ken Takakura
Everett Collection

Japanese actor Ken Takakura, a veteran of more than 200 films who became famous by starring in popular yakuza gangster movies and then aged into an actor who personified the strength and dignity of his country, has died. According to the Associated Press, the 83-year-old suffered from lymphoma and died in Tokyo on Nov. 10.

Because of that career arc—evolving from action outlaw to stoic authority figure—Takakura was often compared to Clint Eastwood. He stumbled into the movie industry, plucked from a random audition to star in his 1956 debut, Denko Karate Uchi (Lightning Karate Blow) and quickly became a yakuza-film star, making similar action-genre films while under contract with the Toei Film Company. His big breakout was Abashiri Bangaichi (Abashiri Prison) in 1965, in which he played a model inmate handcuffed to a hardened felon during a prison escape. The film yielded 10 sequels in the next four years.

In 1970, he made his Hollywood debut in Too Late the Hero, opposite Michael Caine and Henry Fonda, and he also co-starred opposite Robert Mitchum in Sydney Pollack’s The Yakuza (1974). But it was Ridley Scott’s Black Rain (1989) that introduced him to the widest international audience. Playing a solemn but proud detective tasked with working with a slick New York cop (Michael Douglas) to capture a gangster in Osaka, Takakura represented the friendly face of Japan to American movie audiences who were—at the time— increasingly threatened by Japan’s growing economic might.

In 1992, Takakura portrayed a similarly low-key character in Mr. Baseball, playing the baseball manager forced to field a new American slugger played by Tom Selleck.

Takatura won four Japanese Academy Awards for Best Actor, and he was presented with the Lifetime Achievement Award earlier this year. His 204th movie was Zhang Yimou’s Riding Alone for Thousands Miles (2005), which earned him critical praise, and his final film, Dearest, came out in 2012.