To say that legendary actor Tatsuya Nakadai is prolific is to understate his enduring legacy.
In a 65-year career of unrivaled versatility, the Japanese veteran has starred in over 160 films with some of the industry’s most acclaimed filmmakers.
He acted in 11 films for director Masaki Kobayashi (including masterworks The Human Condition and Harakiri), five for Akira Kurosawa (including Kagemusha and Ran), and landmark works for Mikio Naruse (When a Woman Ascends the Stairs), Hiroshi Teshigahara (The Face of Another ), Hideo Gosha (Goyokin), Kihachi Okamoto (The Sword of Doom), Shirō Toyoda (Portrait of Hell) and Kon Ichikawa (Enjō).
He has dueled memorably with that other beloved Japanese star, Toshiro Mifune, in Yojimbo and Sanjuro; has fought foreign bad guys in Tonino Cervi’s 1968 spaghetti Western Today We Kill, Tomorrow We Die! , and has mentored, via his small theater company, Mumeijuku, the likes of Koji Yakusho.
“My twenties felt like a long climb up Mount Fuji,” he said in a recent interview for the Criterion Collection, “and the burden I was carrying on my back was everybody’s masterpieces — the films of Kurosawa, Kobayashi, Ichikawa, Naruse.”
But it is a burden he clearly welcomed — and he has assiduously avoided playing the same role twice.
Calling himself a “freelance nandemoya” (Jack-of-all-trades), his refusal to sign on with just one studio has allowed him to remain a chameleon, able to bring unexpected emotional depths and operatic heights to all his characters, making each one unique and yet free of caricature.
Renowned for his craftsmanship, Nakadai continues to deploy his unconventionally handsome mien and his powerful baritone in the service of the spoken word.
In person, he is unfailingly good-humored, eloquent about his technique, and dapper in a way that puts much younger men to shame.
In an interview at the Foreign Correspondent’s Club of Japan, prior to a screening of his latest starring role, in Lear on the Shore, Nakadai steered each errant question back toward the film at hand, and seized every opportunity to praise its director, Masahiro Kobayashi.
This is not surprising. After all, at the age of 84, the actor recently joined Twitter in an effort to help promote the film (@nakadai84), which opens in Tokyo on June 3. He already has 36,000 followers.
Reuniting with Kobayashi (no relation to Masaki) for their third collaboration after Haru’s Journey and Japan’s Tragedy, Nakadai plays the eponymous character, with intentional echoes of the first time he’d played Lear, in Kurosawa’s Ran.
Befitting Kobayashi’s preference for arthouse pacing, his elegiac tragicomedy is as stripped down as Kurosawa’s film is supercharged. Yet the success of both films pivots on a towering performance by the celebrated star — and age has only burnished his brilliance.
“At my age, doing film and TV is difficult,” Nakadai admits. “After I turned 70, I thought I wouldn’t get any more film offers, so I decided to just act on the stage. But when I first met Mr. Kobayashi, I realized he depicts life and death in a really interesting way — I’d never met a director like him. He always gives me opportunities to play distinctive roles. I’m blessed to be working with him.”
He continues, “I think there’s a connecting thread between [our] three films. Although he hasn’t said it to me directly, they’re all about aging and about whether you’re able to say, when you have death staring at you, ‘I have lived this life to the fullest.’”
In Lear on the Shore, Nakadai is the majestically barefoot, silk pajama-clad Chokitsu Kuwabatake, former leading man of film and stage, who is running away from the luxury nursing home where his daughter Yukiko (Mieko Harada) and son-in-law Yukio (Hiroshi Abe) have stashed him after forcing him to leave them everything in his will.
Chokitsu has dementia and only fleetingly recalls their betrayal. But a thespian to the core, he can still recite great chunks of dialog from heralded performances like his King Lear. He is determined to find his adoring audience, wherever they are.
Striding purposefully along a pristine beach with his wheeled suitcase at daybreak, he runs into a forlorn young woman and takes her for an assistant.
“Are you my accomplice?” he jokes, but she is not amused. This, it turns out, is his younger daughter Nobuko (Haru Kuroki), sent packing by Chokitsu when she became pregnant years earlier.
She has returned home for reasons that only become clear much later, and her father’s failure to recognize her is another crushing blow.
“I was the only one who loved you,” she laments, but Chokitsu sees an actress playing Lear’s beloved daughter Cordelia and happily plays along, before turning to take his bows.
The charged interactions between Nakadai and Kuroki — the National Living Treasure vs. the young sparkplug who won Best Actress at the Berlin Film Festival for Yoji Yamada’s The Little House — are at the heart of the film, and although the ending is suitably ambiguous, there is some sense of reconciliation.
Just how much of Chokitsu’s backstory was inspired by Nakadai’s own?
“When I received the script,” recalls the actor, “on the first page were the words: ‘This is written for Tatsuya Nakadai.’
I think Mr. Kobayashi was imagining how I would be if I myself got dementia. [Henrik] Ibsen said all actors are liars, but in this film, I revealed my true self. I wasn’t acting. I followed the script, I didn’t ad lib, but the performance was all me, from deep inside.”
During the Q&A session after the FCCJ screening, Nakadai elaborated.
“There are indeed similarities between this role and myself. We are both 84 years old, we are both so-called stars, so I thought perhaps Mr. Kobayashi was making a documentary about me — although I didn’t hear that directly from him.” And he turned, eyebrow cocked in that familiar way, to his director.
Kobayashi admitted, “I had Mr. Nakadai in mind when I wrote the script. In order to pull him in, I wanted to surprise him.
And to do that, I had to figure out what kind of story to concoct. What I wanted was to depict what would happen if a Japanese were to play King Lear.
What would that look like? How would that actor prepare for the role? I didn’t want to depict Lear himself, but to depict the life of an actor, and of acting.”
Plans are under way for Nakadai to collaborate with Kobayashi once again.
“He said he’d really like to do another film with me, and asked me what type of role I want to do. I told him I would love to play an incredibly nasty villain.
He said, ‘How about a role like Jack Nicholson’s in The Shining?’ Terrifying! At any rate, we’d like to make at least one more film together.”
But there will be no resting on laurels — or anything else — for the great Tatsuya Nakadai.
“There are still 30 more roles I want to do on the stage,” he enthuses. “I’ve already done six Shakespeare plays, starting with Hamlet when I was 31. But I haven’t yet played King Lear on the stage. I’d really like to mount a full production of Lear on stage.”
Today’s actors may not have the opportunities, nor the drive, to follow in such footsteps. But Nakadai confides that his muse is life itself.
“I’ve been a student my whole life. Thirty years ago, I visited the Actors Studio in New York and met Lee Strasburg. I had started my own small theater group, Mumeijuku, and we accepted five new students each year, for three years.
“I told Mr. Strasburg that I would be happy if one of the five became a professional actor. Lee said, ‘Mr. Nakadai, that’s a big mistake. Only one out of 100,000 can become a true professional.’
A professional actor must train every day of their lives. They may become famous, they may even become a star, but the learning never stops. A true professional continues to be a student of life until the day they die.”