Legendary Actor Nakadai Tatsuya Talks THE FACE OF ANOTHER And The Golden Age Of Japanese Cinema

Handsome, expressive, with a wry sense of humour and an incredible range, Nakadai Tatsuya starred in some of the films the defined Japan's Golden Age of cinema, working with directing icons like Kobayashi Masaki, Kurosawa Akira, and Ichikawa Kon in films like Ran, The Human Condition, Harakiri and Enjo

I was honoured to speak with Mr. Nakadai during his appearance at the Museum of the Moving Image's special screening of his 1966 avant-garde exploration of identity, THE FACE OF ANOTHER.

Nakadai Tatsuya:  I've turned 81 now, so my memory is not what it used to be.  Is it all right if I refer to notes from time to time?

The Lady Miz Diva:  That would be fine.  THE FACE OF ANOTHER is a very avant-garde project.  Did you understand all the different themes when it was presented to you?

{Laughs} That's a good question!  Director Teshigahara and the original author, novelist Kobo Abe - in the past, I'd been in a lot of plays written by Kobo Abe, so I was familiar with those two individuals and we were all members of the avant-garde film movement at the time, so in that sense I think I had a grasp of the theme even though it was difficult.

What was director Teshigahara Hiroshi's most important direction for you in understanding this character?

First, the makeup. {Laughs} The most important thing was the makeup that I donned.  This is a character who lost most of his face, so what we did to formulate that sort of exterior was to use silicone. We covered my skin entirely with makeup and covered over with silicone to get that effect.

An actor's face is such an important instrument.  What was it like for you to spend the first part of the film under bandages relying only on your gestures and voice?

  For me, personally speaking, the fact that my face was obscured was pleasurable. {Laughs}  I'm consistently scrutinized by the camera, but to be hidden underneath that bandage and also underneath the mask itself was very fun for me, actually.

There are shots of you walking in the streets with the bandage on and you can see the public's reaction to seeing such a person.  What was that experience like?

  We actually used a very specialized way of cinematography, it was a hidden camera. So since the camera was hidden, I would just walk by myself with the bandages on through the crowd and I really expected people to point and look at me, but they actually looked away.  Every now and then, a woman would point at me or look surprised.  I think the instinct was that they felt sorry for me, so they looked away.

The politeness of the Japanese people.


Besides this experimental piece with Director Teshigahara, you've also worked with directors who not only changed the Japanese film industry, but changed global filmmaking, as well.  There's your amazing body of work with Kobayashi Masaki {The Human Condition, Harakiri}, Kurosawa Akira {Yojimbo, Ran}, Naruse Mikio {When a Woman Ascends the Stairs}, Okamoto Kihachi {Kill!, Sword of Doom}, and Ichikawa Kon {Enjo, Odd Obsession}.  Did you have a sense at the time that you were doing something new and revolutionary?

  Yes, absolutely, I had that recognition, because at the time, Japanese cinema was very focused on capturing both the ordinary and the extraordinary, so a lot of the things that we captured tended to be existentialist, as well.  In the films there were influences by Camus or Sartre, different philosophers. In the theater we referred to Brecht, so in that sense there was a lot of inclination towards existentialism and extraordinary references were very strong.  In that sense, I thought this piece - that was based on Kobo Abe's work - was something altogether very different from works by Kurosawa, for instance.

Working with all those amazing filmmakers, were you never inspired to direct a film yourself?

  No. {Laughs} Never.

Your versatility has enabled you to play characters in any era; from modern, experimental pieces to classical jidaigeki roles. Do you have a preference?

It embarrasses me a little to say that I've been over 110 films and in all of those films what I aspire toward is to understand what Kobo Abe's intent was when he was writing this work.  So to understand that was very important to me, and that goes for all the films that I've been in.

Do you know Mishima Yukio?

Yes, I do.

  I was very close with him and we were friends.  We starred together in a film, Hitokiri, and he actually passed away exactly one year after Hitokiri.  Mishima actually wrote a review for Kobo Abe's original novel {THE FACE OF ANOTHER} and I'd like to read that if I may?

Please do.

Mishima wrote that to pursue the question of what it is to create a mask is something that really shakes not only just the everyday world, but the universe itself.  "When you investigate the problematic nature of the work of making a mask, you will soon understand that it is a tremendous work that could crack the order of the universe and derail the cycle of nature. It is a complete revolution of cognition. If a single perfect mask were to appear in this world, the destruction of social order will soon follow."

Now that I've been in THE FACE OF ANOTHER - I read the original novel and I starred in the film - and I reflect back on it now and it really makes me realize that the Japanese people, what's very important to them is not the exterior but the interior - the heart.  That is my own personal reflection of the work.  Kobo Abe, I think by writing and presenting this work, he proved experimentally that by changing the exterior, you can actually change your heart.  It really has an influence on your heart.

Are you an actor who prefers very close direction from your director, or are you happiest free to interpret as you see the character?

  I think I tend to prefer freedom.  I've always worked in a manner that I will give it my all; I'll do it to my heart's content, and then the director will tell me, "You can tone it down a little. You don't have to go so far."  That's the way I've always worked and I think I don't really prefer that oppressive type of direction.  So one of the things that really tormented me while shooting THE FACE OF ANOTHER was that I was supposed to remain expressionless, and I was wondering how I can give a performance while remaining expressionless?

Was there one particular director who suited that preference best for you?  Your most productive collaboration?

  Kobayashi {Laughs}

We met years ago and I asked how you achieved such a strong, masculine presence on screen.  What advice would you give to young actors who also would like to have that quality?

In reference to Japanese actors, while here in New York, whenever have free time, I take in a Broadway show.  I intend to watch eight shows before I leave this time.  American actors on stage, I'm struck by how powerful and skillful they are, and at the same time that I'm inspired, I also feel very regretful and sorrowful because I cannot say the same thing about Japanese actors.  My generation of actors - not only actors, but directors - went through so much training and I wonder why the younger generation of Japanese actors today don't train as hard?

Would you please give a message to your US fans who are so inspired by you and wish you continued health and success?

  I can say that in Japanese cinema right now compared to the golden era of the past, it's actually at the very bottom.  It's the pits.  I can say that now.  I'm over 80 now, and I'm scheduled to do a one man show, Barrymore.  Something in me tells me that will be my last work.

Considering your feelings about the current state of Japanese cinema, do you find it ironic that some of your films have been remade recently?

Harakiri, the film by director Kobayashi was remade in Japan and the answer is I haven't seen it. Kurosawa's Tsubaki Sanjūrō {AKA Sanjuro} has also been remade and I haven't seen it.

This interview is cross-posted on my own site, The Diva Review. Please enjoy additional content, including exclusive photos from the event there.

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