Thursday, 4 December 2014

Bunta Sugawara
(1933 – 2014)

Well, it’s been a bad month for yakuza movie actors, to put it mildly. Just a few weeks after the passing of Ken Takakura, the pre-eminent icon of the ‘60s ninkyo yakuza film, news came through on Monday of the death of the man who effectively took over as the figurehead of the genre when things turned nastier in the mad-dog, jitsuroku ‘70s - the one and only Bunta Sugawara.

Probably better known to Western movie fans than Takakura, I think it’s safe to say that anyone who has watched even the thinnest scattering of post-1970 Japanese crime films will be familiar with Bunta-san. Though he began acting in 1956, working at Shintoho and Shochiku before he signed up with Toei in the mid ’60s, Sugawara became pretty damn ubiquitous in the early 1970s, with his unmistakable visage and bullet-stopping forehead looming from what seems like thousands of movie posters, and his extraordinary string of collaborations with director Kinji Fukasaku standing out as arguably an all-time high watermark for Japanese crime cinema, incorporating such highlights as ‘Japanese Organised Crime Boss’ (1969), ‘Bloodstained Clan Honour’ (1970), ‘Street Mobster’ (1972), ‘Outlaw Killers: Three Mad-Dog Brothers’ (1972), and no less than eight films in the epochal ‘Battles Without Honour and Humanity’ series (1973 – 76).

Though Bunta-san often played noble, lone wolf heroes in the Takakura mold, he will be equally remembered for his personification of the kind of amoral, mad-dog maniacs that Fukasaku in particular liked to bring to the forefront in his films – a character type that Sugawara managed to realise with an astonishing level of adrenalin-ripped, kill-crazy intensity.

Despite his on-screen excesses however, Sugawara seems to have been regarded as a pretty chilled out guy, and indeed he undercut his ultra-macho image by simultaneously developing a talent for comedic acting, playing a happy-go-lucky straight man in Sadao Nakajima’s ‘Viper Brothers’ films, and no less than ten entries in Norifumi Suzuki’s phenomenally popular ‘Torakku Yaro’ (“Truck Rascals”) series (1975 – 1980). He also sent up his usual screen persona brilliantly in Kazuhiko Hasegawa’s oddball drama ‘The Man Who Stole The Sun’ (1979), playing a seemingly indestructible, Terminator-like police detective to hilarious effect.

He was also, coincidentally, the only Japanese person I’m aware of whose personal name begins with ‘B’, a fact that makes me peculiarly happy whatever I see his name.

I’m not sure quite what he got up to through the ‘80s, ‘90s and beyond, but he continued acting occasionally, popping up in a few Takashi Miike films and lending his voice to a few Studio Ghibli productions. A brief English language obit from Japanese news site Mainichi states that “Later in life Sugawara turned to farming in central Japan's Yamanashi Prefecture, and headed a social justice group”. So that sounds nice. Good for him.

Sayonara Bunta-san, and domo arigato for all the times you acted so hard I felt like I’d actually been punched in the face.

Below is a quickly assembled gallery featuring merely a few of the many awesome posters which featured Bunta’s likeness.

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