Thursday, December 4, 2014

Bunta Sugawara (1931-2014)

Japanese cinema has suffered two irrecoverable losses this fall, particularly for fans of crime films. Ken Takakura, who may be remembered by American moviegoers for English-language films from The Yakuza to Mr. Baseball, died last month. The news I got today from the Breakfast In The Ruins blog hit closer to home. Bunta Sugawara was Takakura's contemporary and my favorite yakuza actor. He was the star of Kinji Fukasaku's definitive five-film Battles Without Honor and Humanity series (1973-74) as well as a follow-up "New Battles" series later in the 1970s and in many other Fukasaku films. He was one of the stalwarts of Toei Studios at a time when Toei was Japan's answer to Warner Bros in the 1930s as far as classic gangster films were concerned. If Sonny Chiba, working in the martial-arts genre, was Toei's Cagney, the often more stoic Bunta was their Bogart. Yet Bunta played the more literally Cagneyesque lead role in Akihisa Okamoto's White Heat-inspired Yokahama Underworld: Machine Gun Dragon, proving he could be wild as well as cool, and in Hideo Gosha's Violent Streets he exaggerated his coolness to a comical laid-back extreme in a cameo role. Unlike Takakura or Chiba, he never tried to break into Hollywood, though at least one of his films did make it to U.S. grindhouses in dubbed form, with the star re-dubbed "Bud." It took the golden age of DVD to show the world, or at least Americans like me, what Sugawara could do and had done, and I'm grateful that I didn't miss that window of opportunity. I've only written here about a fraction of his films that I've seen, but you can follow this link to learn why the wild world of cinema is in mourning this week.

No comments: