Akira Kobayashi Turns 72

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Akira Kobayashi

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.

By 1958 Akira Kobayashi was becoming a popular star due to his good looks 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 the Wandering Guitarist films. The series was so popular that it spawned similar films starring Akira Kobayashi such as The Rambler (aka Nagaremono) series.

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Remembering Yasuharu Hasebe (1932-2009)

btk01Akira Kobayashi in Yasuharu Hasebe’s Black Tight Killers (1966)

While I was trying to compile a post for the Japanese Cinema Blogathon currently happening at Wildgrounds I read the sad news that one of my favorite Japanese directors, Yasuharu Hasebe, has died after he contracted pneumonia on June 14th. Hasebe was 77 years old, but he was still an active director and his last project was the police drama The Case Files of Mamoru Yonezawa (Kanshiki: Yonezawa Mamoru no Jikenbo; 2009).

After learning about Yasuharu Hasebe death I immediately decided to put aside my previous plans to write about one of my favorite Japanese actors (Akira Kobayashi) and focus on writing a bit about Hasebe’s work instead. In a sad coincidence, Akira Kobayashi also appeared in some of Hasebe’s best films.

Only a handful of the movies that Yasuharu Hasebe made are currently available on DVD in the US but they showcase the work of an incredibly talented director who injected his action-packed dramas and violent pink films with pertinent social messages and bucket loads of style. Although he’s not as revered as many of his contemporaries, Yasuharu Hasebe was able to masterfully navigate through the Japanese studio system while carving out his own distinct creative path. The director wrote or co-wrote many of his best films, which often touched on similar themes including female oppression and exploitation, as well as race relations and the American occupation of Japan. Yasuharu Hasebe’s films are frequently sited for their orchestrated action and extreme violence but I think that many of them have maintained their power because of the director’s socially conscious scripts and keen sense of mise-en-scène.

Yasuharu Hasebe seemed to enjoy placing his camera in unexpected places and shooting his films in an intimate manner that is often surprisingly innovative. Although I’ve never seen it mentioned anywhere else, I firmly believe that the recurring visual motifs and framing techniques seen throughout many of Hasebe films mark his work with an individual flair that is undeniably his own. I wouldn’t hesitate to call Yasuharu Hasebe an “auteur” but I know that I’m in the minority. It’s important to point out (as I’ve often done before) that western film criticism of Japanese cinema is still in its infancy and I suspect that Yasuharu Hasebe’s films will receive much more critical attention and acclaim in the future as more critics and film scholars are exposed to his work.

Here’s a brief rundown of some of my favorite Yasuharu Hasebe films and television productions that are currently available on DVD in the US . . .

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Spend Springtime in Japan


Left: Joe Shishido & Reiko Sasamori in Detective Bureau 2-3: Go to Hell Bastards!
Right: Hiroyuki Nagato & Jitsuko Yoshimura in Pigs and Battleships

We’re only four months into 2009 and the year is already becoming more interesting in terms of DVD releases than 2008. I’ve been impressed with Warner’s decision to open up their film archives and I’m glad that Facets is now offering a mail order rental option for their vast selection of rare films on DVD and video. And if you’re interested in Japanese cinema some of the most exciting news is coming from Synapse, KINO and Criterion. All three companies are planning to release some of the most highly anticipated and previously hard-to-see Japanese films on DVD next month and I couldn’t be more happy about it! Continue reading “Spend Springtime in Japan”