One of my favorite Japanese actors turned 72 yesterday so I thought I’d make some time to wish Akira Kobayashi a very happy belated birthday. Earlier this year I had planned on paying tribute to Kobayashi during the Japanese Cinema Blogathon but at the last minute I decided to write about director Yasuharu Hasebe instead due to his unfortunate death. After mentioning this I received a few comments and emails from readers who expressed their admiration for Akira Kobayashi and asked if I would write something about him in the future so I thought I’d use his recent birthday to do that.
Akira Kobayashi is an extremely handsome and multi-talented star who is well-known throughout Japan for his acting chops as well as his singing abilities. Kobayashi was born on November 3rd in Tokyo in 1937 and began acting early in life. At age four he was part of a children’s theatre company and while he in high school he became an accomplished Judo champion. His father worked in film as a lighting director so it’s not too surprising that Kobayashi was encouraged to pursue an acting career. Kobayashi joined Nikkatsu Studios in 1956 at age 19 and quickly rose to stardom with a group of young Japaneses hopefuls that included Joe Shishido, Tetsuya Watari and Yujiro Ishihara known as “The Diamond Guys” for their work on Nikkatsu’s Diamond Line genre films.
By 1958 Akira Kobayashi was becoming a popular star due to his good looks, singing voice and obvious acting talents and in 1959 he was teamed up with Joe Shishido for a series of films called the Wandering Guitarist or Rambling Guitarist (aka Wataridori) series. In these popular films Akira Kobayashi and Joe Shishido played wandering heroes that save small villages from gangsters and other criminals. Kobayashi’s character resembled a singing cowboy in the old Hollywood tradition and he’d often whip out his guitar to belt out a tune during these musical movies. The series was so popular that it spawned similar films starring Akira Kobayashi such as The Rambler (aka Nagaremono) series.
Akira Kobayashi and Joe Shishido (1959)
Akira Kobayashi would go on to appear in many hit films for Nikkatsu throughout the 1960s made by accomplished directors such as Seijun Suzuki (Kanto Wanderer; 1963), Yasuharu Hasebe (Black Tight Killers; 1966), Toshio Masuda (Rusty Knife; 1956) and Teruo Ishii (The Friendly Killer; 1970). During this time he earned the nickname “Mr. Dynamite” which later became abbreviated to “Mite Guy” due to the actors low-key but intense performances that gave audiences the impression that Kobayashi could explode on screen at any moment.
After film production at Nikkatsu began to decline in the 1970s Kobayashi started working with Toei Studios and appeared in Kinji Fukasaku acclaimed five-film yakuza drama The Yakuza Papers or Battles Without Honor and Humanity (aka Jingi naki tatakai). But as the decade wore on Kobayashi started focusing more on his business ventures as well as his singing career and appeared in fewer and fewer films. It’s rumored that after years of performing many of his own stunts and suffering some serious back injuries Kobayashi had become tired of acting. Aging action stars often have a hard time adjusting to old age so I wouldn’t be surprised if there was some truth to this.
Although Kobayashi still occasionally appears in minor television and film roles, his real focus seems to be on music. He continues releasing records and can often be seen performing live on Japanese entertainment shows. His music is very traditional and performed in the Enka style that is prevalent in Japan. Kobayashi also still enjoys singing popular songs from his early films during his performances, which he has rearranged and recorded various times.
One of Kobayashi’s best qualities was his ability to play a diverse array of characters. Singing heroes, troubled detectives, romantic leads and yakuza crime bosses are just a few of the characters Kobayashi has played during his lengthy acting career. He’s extremely charismatic and has a kind of icy charm that’s reminiscent of French leading man Alain Delon. Much like Delon, Kobayashi is one of the few action stars that seems as popular with women as he is with men. If you happen to be burdened with a wife or girlfriend who refuses to watch Japanese crime films I recommend showing her one of Kobayashi’s early movies. There’s a high probability that she’ll suddenly develop an interest in yakuza dramas afterward.
Kobayashi has appeared in over 100 movies but only a handful of them are available on DVD in the US. Most recently Criterion released the 1958 film Rusty Knife (aka Sabita naifu) as part of their Eclipse Series 17: Nikkatsu Noir DVD collection that features Kobayashi in one of his earliest roles. Kino also released Three Seconds Before Explosion earlier this year, which stars Kobayashi as an undercover spy. At the moment more than 60 of the films he appeared in are available on DVD or video in Japan. As interest in Japanese cinema continues to grow in the US I suspect we’ll be seeing more of his films finding their way on to DVD in the states.
As part of Akira Kobayashi’s belated birthday celebration here at Cinebeats I thought I’d share some rare materials with my readers. I hope you enjoy them!
– An untranslated article from 1956 about 19-year-old Akira Kobayashi just after he signed with Nikkatsu (from a vintage Japanese magazine that I own).
– Akira Kobayashi sings a beautiful melancholy song from his 1961 film The Rambler Goes North (recorded in 1982).
Recommended Akira Kobayashi films on Region 1/US DVD:
– Black Tight Killers (1966)
– Bloody Territories (1969)
– Father of the Kamikaze (1974)
– Kanto Wanderer (1963)
– Rusty Knife (1958) part of the Eclipse Series 17: Nikkatsu Noir – Criterion Collection (2009)
– Three Seconds Before the Explosion (1967)
– The Yakuza Papers (1973-74)