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Wednesday, April 2, 2003

Confessions of a con artist

When it comes to gangsters, Bunta Sugawara knows how to play the part


By MARK SCHILLING and MAMIKO KAWAMOTO

Bunta Sugawara is as close as the Japanese film industry has ever come to Clint Eastwood. As did Eastwood with Dirty Harry, Sugawara embodied a new antihero for the 1970s and redefined cool. Sugawara's anti-heroes were not hard-nosed cops, but gangsters whose only code was survival.

News photo
Director Yoichi Higashi (left) and actor Bunta Sugawara on the set of "Watashi no Grandpa"

He made his leap to stardom in Kinji Fukasaku's "Jingi Naki Tatakai (Battles Without Honor or Humanity)" (1973), playing a gangster struggling to survive in the postwar chaos by any means necessary, violent or otherwise. After "Jingi" became a hit, he starred in dozens of gang films, until the genre began to fade at the box office in the mid-1970s. He then shifted career gears, playing the lead in the 10-installment comedy series "Truck Yaro (Fireball on the Highway)" (1975-79). He has been in demand ever since, playing everything from detectives to doctors. This year, he returned to the gang genre as the elderly ex-con in Yoichi Higashi's "Watashi no Grandpa (My Grandpa)."

In person, he is exactly what you see on the screen: relaxed and effortlessly charming. An old pro at the interviewing game, he makes no attempt to spin. Instead the opinions and stories seem to flow as they might at a late night session with friends, lubricated by a glass or two of wine. Another great Sugawara performance.

You became an actor at age 25, after dropping out of Waseda University and working as a model.

It was by chance. I was working at various jobs when I was asked to appear in a film. I thought of it as another kind of part-time job. I tried it and kept doing it. I still think that I might have been better off if I had gotten out while I still had the chance. [laughs]

When you joined the Shin Toho studio, you were able to play leading roles fairly quickly.

I was cast in leading roles right from the beginning. I was able to become a star while I was at Shin Toho -- I got lucky. I appeared in films that no one remembers today, though. The studio folded after two years. After that I went to Shochiku and wasn't so lucky.

In 1967 you went to Toei. Did you feel that you had to start again from square one?

Shin Toho went under and I didn't see any future at Shochiku, though I was never fired. They would have let me hang around if I wanted, but at low pay. I didn't get any good parts. I saw that it wasn't any use continuing, then I got a break.

From Noboru Ando -- an actor who had once been a gangster. How did you happen to meet him?

Ando made a movie about his life -- Yoshio Yuasa's "Chi to Okite [Blood and Rules]" [1965] -- in which he played himself. I played the role of Kei Hanagata -- a leader in Ando's gang who ends up getting killed. That's how I met Ando. That film turned out to be his big break -- he made one film after another after that, while I fell behind. I got a few of his left-overs. Anyway, when he went to Toei he took me with him.

Ando had been a real yakuza, though by the time he started acting he had quit the gangster life. You also got to know other yakuza in the course of your work. Were you close friends with them?

I had yakuza friends. Not just Ando, but guys who were still gangsters. We used to go drinking together. It was the same in America, wasn't it -- actors [who played gangsters] had real gangsters as friends. I would meet them at bars -- at places where I was a regular. Several of them were regulars as well -- we'd say hello to each other.

Where did you go?

Shinjuku, Shibuya -- any of the entertainment districts. I didn't have any money then, but I used to go a lot anyway. . . . The way they carried themselves really impressed me. They were different from other people, from the people who came from acting schools. I wasn't consciously aware [of the impact they were making on me], but it may have naturally appeared in my acting.

Especially in the "Hitogiri Yota [Street Mobster]" series -- you played a violent character who seemed to come from right off the streets.

I made a lot of suggestions to [Kinji] Fukasaku [who directed the two films in that series]. I told him how a yakuza would act in a certain situation. It wasn't something I made up. It wasn't something I got from a book. I made a lot of suggestions and he was interested in what I had to say. "Oh really, I didn't know that" -- that kind of thing. I would say "You don't shoot a gun looking cool like that." I didn't want to do it the way Ken Takakura did, which was something like kabuki. Guys who had never [held a gun] would do it like that, but I didn't want it to look pretty -- I wanted it to look real. I've never been in a street fight myself, but I'd seen them. I'd go out drinking late at night and see guys fighting with each other. So I knew what it was like.

You came to stardom when you were nearly 40. Did you feel any sense of desperation -- that you had to make up for lost time?

Not really. I wasn't the type to brood over things like that. I'm still not . . . Maybe that's why I've lasted so long.

You got your break with the "Hitogiri Yota [Street Mobster]" series playing a character who didn't follow the gangster code and didn't fit into any organization. In other words, a new type of yakuza dirty hero.

Yakuza aren't as cool [as they are in the movies]. The character was a chinpira -- a punk. I was really just a punk with a good body. I could put a better complexion on it, but that's what I was -- I was playing at being a tough guy. I called myself a struggling student, who was paying my own way through college, but if I'd really been one, I would have studied harder, gotten a scholarship and I wouldn't have had to quit school.

In the "Jingi Naki Tatakai" series, your character, Shozo Hirono, evolved quite a bit from the first film, when he was a street punk, to the later ones, when he was a gang boss.

The "Jingi" films show how the characters follow a certain path. Japan has lost the war, society has fallen into chaos and in the midst of all this are these young guys who have become gangsters. The films present a picture of Japan as it was at that time -- though they deal with the yakuza, they're not only about them. Even in straight society, people were cheating one another. People would go off with a rucksack to buy rice and potatoes, but bad sorts would cheat them and steal what they had. Some would even kill to get what they wanted. Because the films included that kind of thing, they were something more than the ordinary yakuza movie. It was fun to be part of that.

Hirono is just trying to protect what he has -- his territory in Kure -- not move up in the ranks.

If you want to move up, as either a businessman or a politician, you can't always play by the rules. You have to push people aside or sacrifice them. Even if you're not conscious of it, you end up doing that kind of thing. The films are symbolically expressing a fundamental law of human life.

A lot of the characters you played were men of few words -- they express themselves with their eyes instead. Was that hard for you -- to have to get by without words?

Not really -- I enjoyed it. I didn't intend it that way -- but I was always being asked to keep it short. Basically, the proper way to make films is without a lot of words -- to tell the story with images. A play can only communicate with the audience with words. Movies, on the other hand, can express what you want to say with an image, say of a dog or flower. Given film's visual power, actors shouldn't have to say too much. If you're filming a lot of talk, you might as well freeze the picture and use narration. With Shakespeare, you have to communicate everything with words, from beginning to end -- and that's wonderful in its own way. But movies are different. There are various types of actors. Some study a role very seriously. Some even have all their teeth pulled, so they'll look older.

Or get fatter and then thinner, like Robert De Niro.

That's right -- that's one type. Then there's another type who goes with what they happen to be feeling at the moment. If somebody asked me to pull my teeth out, I would quit. [laughs] An actor is essentially a kind of con artist. Even though he knows nothing about a certain line of work, he pretends that he does. It's a pretty childish business actually. A lot of fishermen and farmers and various other people are risking their lives, devoting themselves to a certain job. They're out in ships catching fish. They're out there day after day working hard and trying to do their jobs better. Guys like me have never been a yakuza and have never killed anyone, but we play killers. Even though we've never been on a boat we play fishermen. No matter how good an actor is or how much he prepares, he's never going to beat a real fisherman -- for the fisherman it's a way of life. So I don't like to brag about what I do or think about it too much -- what's the point? If I can get people to fall for a bit of trickery on the screen that's enough.

You're best known for the "Jingi" films, but are there any others that you wish were better known?

I liked "Kenkai tai Soshiki Boryoku [Cops vs. Thugs]" [1975], another film I made with Fukasaku. Kazuhiko Hasagawa's "Taiyo o Nusunda Otoko [The Man Who Stole the Sun]" [1979] was also interesting. I played a detective in both -- the complete opposite of what I usually did. I think an actor has to always be ready to reverse direction. When people have typed you as a yakuza, play a detective or school teacher.

Have you ever thought of working with a young director and actors?

I hadn't thought about it, but if someone were to come to me with an interesting idea, I would do it. If it's boring, though, I won't. That's the stance I'm taking now -- I turn down more offers than I accept. I've become lazy. [laughs] I see acting as a kind of mimicry but it doesn't mean I'll do anything. It's got to be interesting. If it's just a senko hanabi [toy fireworks] that fizzles and sparks and is over in a minute, then I wouldn't be interested. The Japanese film industry is like a dry river bed. A river is only a river when it flows. Films are the same way. When you have a steady flow [of films], something interesting may pass by. In the river it could be a fish, in the movie business, an idea. When the river dries up, there's nothing -- all you can see is rocks. That's the kind of conditions young directors are working in now. They have to patiently strike out on their own, pile up rocks on the bank of the dry river bed, send up one firework and clap their hands -- alone. I feel sorry for them -- it's a sad sight. How is it in America? They have a flowing river, with various people by the banks. There are a lot of worthless American movies, but there are some good ones, too. They have a solid foundation and organization. The American movie river will never dry up, just as the Mississippi River will never dry up. The Japanese movie river has dried up, I'm sorry to say. It will be hard to get it flowing again.

What do you think of the newer yakuza movies, such as the one starring Sho Aikawa?

You can't call them yakuza movies. Yakuza movies ended with me. The ones that came after are something else. They're either remakes or V Cinema [straight-to-video movies].

There's even been a remake of "Jingi no Hakaba [Graveyard of Honor]" [1975], directed by Takashi Miike.

I understand what Miike is trying to do, but I feel sorry for him. He wants to make a real movie, but he can't. All he can make is V Cinema -- that's the state the Japanese film industry is in now, as you know. In America, they've changed from the old Hollywood style to a new way of making films. As a result American films are making progress in terms of both quantity and quality, but not Japanese films. It's not jingi no hakaba [the graveyard of honor]; it's eiga no hakaba [graveyard of the movies].



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