The many faces of Yusaku Matsuda (1950-1989)
Toru Murakawa’s Resurrection of the Golden Wolf (aka Yomigaeru kinrô; 1979) is a wildly uneven Japanese crime film that left me wishing it had been helmed by another director. The film’s script was adapted from a popular novel by Haruhiko Ooyabu and directors like Seijun Suzuki have had great success turning Ooyabu’s hard-boiled fiction into films, but Toru Murakawa doesn’t have Suzuki’s eye for detail or his pop art sensibility. Resurrection of the Golden Wolf runs much too long and the dramatic filler weighs down the action, but even with its flaws the movie still keeps your attention thanks to the star performance of Yusaku Matsuda (aka Yuusaku Matsuda).
In the film Matsuda plays a ruthless super criminal named Tetsuya Asakura in the grand tradition of Fantomas, Diabolik and Kriminal. During the day he pretends to be a mild-mannered accountant wearing Clark Kent style glasses and a bad wig, but once the sun goes down he leaves his suit and tie act behind and heads to a secret lair to plot his diabolical schemes. When the film opens Tetsuya has just committed his greatest heist yet, which nets him a cool 100 milllion yen. But he soon finds out that the bills are all marked and in turn, utterly useless.
He decides to invest the bad bills into heroin in an effort to turn a profit, but this leads Tetsuya into the dark underbelly of the Japanese criminal underworld and things soon become more complicated than he had imagined. Sex, drugs, blackmail and murder are just a few of the film’s key ingredients, but unfortunately the movie never really comes together like it should have.
Some of the action scenes are impressive and creatively shot, but just when you think the film’s picking up steam it seems to stumble and lose its focus. This made watching Resurrection of the Golden Wolf a frustrating experience at times. I found myself wanting to yell at the screen more than once and I wondered out loud why the director had made certain choices that didn’t pay off like they could have if someone like Seijun Suzuki was behind the camera.
The film also has a misogynistic streak that’s a little nasty and hard to stomach. There’s absolutely no interesting female characters in the entire film and the ones that do appear are terribly underwritten and lifeless. But in the final analysis my complaints about the movie stand in the long shadow of Yusaku Matsuda’s unforgettable performance as tough-guy Tetsuya Asakura and he’s the reason you should watch Resurrection of the Golden Wolf.
Matsuda is a remarkably physical actor and his tall, lean, confident frame owns every scene. He doesn’t just say his lines, he growls and barks them at his costars. Even fellow actors like the great Sonny Chiba seem intimidated by Matsuda’s powerful presence. Much like his predecessor Joe Shishido, Matsuda is a lone wolf who doesn’t run with the rest of the pack. He inhabits the nasty character of Tetsuya Asakura so completely that you’ll find yourself wondering about the actor’s history. Is he just another talented thespian or does Matsuda have the kind of past that would make real criminals blush? In truth, he’s a bit of an enigma in real-life and on film.
Much of Matsuda’s background is a mystery, but it’s believed that he was born in a Japanese brothel and grew up on the island of Honshu before finding himself on the streets of San Francisco. His youthful memories consisted of drunken fights and botched suicide attempts according to Mark Schilling who wrote a detailed biography about the actor for the Encyclopedia of Japanese Pop Culture (1997). Matsuda overcame his reckless adolescence and painful past when he returned to Japan and became involved in acting. While working in theater he learned to channel his inner rage and personal turmoil into his performances, which gave him an authenticity that is rarely seen in modern actors
Like many American filmgoers, I first encountered Yusaku Matsuda in Ridley Scott’s action-packed police drama Black Rain back in 1989. In the film Matsuda plays a ruthless Yakuza gangster by the name of Sato who struts through the film sporting dark sunglasses and a long black trench coat. Once you’ve seen the film you’ll never forget his wicked grin and maniacal laugh. He’s arguably the best thing in Ridley Scott’s film. Unfortunately for film audiences, Sato would be Yusaku Matsuda’s last role. The actor was diagnosed with cancer before shooting Black Rain began but his desire to make a Hollywood film and star opposite popular American actor’s like Michael Douglas made him postpone possible treatment. Could doctors have kept Matsuda alive for a few more years? We’ll never know. The disease killed the 40-year-old actor just a few months after Black Rain was released.
Even though Matsuda’s career ended prematurely, he did leave us with a rich and fascinating legacy. His talented son Ryuhei Matsuda (Taboo, Cutie Honey, Izo, Rampo Noir, Big Bang Love Juvenile A, Nightmare Detective, Tokyo Serendipity, etc.) is one of the best actors working in Japan today. Like his father before him, Ryuhei Matsuda is also a very physical performer, but his personal approach to acting is completely different. His father is symbolically tied to the image of a lone wolf, but Ryuhei seems to have much more in common with an unwieldy reptile. Instead of a tough-as-nails façade, Ryuhei possess an almost feminine grace as well as incredible beauty that is both charming and disarming.
In Japan Yusaku Matsuda has become an iconic figure and the subject of countless books, film festivals, comics, music tributes and art exhibits, but this legendary actor remains virtually unknown in the US. This is mainly due to the fact that so few of the films and television shows he appeared in are available here and most have never been shown outside of Japan.
Information about him at IMDB.com and Wikipedia is woefully sparse and inaccurate but that might change in the future since the films that Matsuda’s starred in are slowly finding their way onto DVD. Hopefully we can look forward to a time when his work becomes accessible to a whole new generation of American film fans, historians and critics.
Resurrection of the Golden Wolf was released on DVD by Adness in 2005, but since then the DVD has unfortunately gone out of print. You can currently find new and used copies of the film selling for as low as $2 at Amazon.
Yusaku Matsuda Films Currently Available on DVD in the US:
– Resurrection of the Golden Wolf (Toru Murakawa; 1979)
– Kagero-za (Seijun Suzuki; 1981)
– The Family Game (Yoshimitsu Morita; 1983)
– Black Rain (Ridley Scott; 1989)