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Takenaka Naoto - That One Guy in All Those Movies

Written by Mike Crandol Tell a Friend

It's one of the most instantly recognizable faces in Japanese entertainment. The wild eyes, wide toothy grin, the even wider forehead crowned by a tuft of bleached hair - Takenaka Naoto may bear a passing resemblance to a demented cupie-doll, but that hasn't prevented him from becoming Japan's most ubiquitous and in-demand character actor of the past three decades. His supporting roles in films as diverse as Shall We Dance?, Waterboys, and Azumi - to name only a few - should make Takenaka's mug familiar to anyone with even a passing interest in contemporary Japanese cinema. But despite his unforgettable face, Takenaka's name somehow never seems to stick in the minds of Western fans, who frequently refer to him merely as, "that one guy in all those movies."

It's an honest if somewhat unflattering title. With well over a hundred film and television credits to his name, Takenaka has become an integral fixture of the Japanese entertainment landscape. Like all great character actors, he travels well across genre lines. Takenaka has proven equally at home in samurai epics, lighthearted romantic comedies, and even softcore pornography, working with a wide array of auteurs including Gosha Hideo, Suo Masayuki, and Miike Takashi. He's also an acclaimed director in his own right, helming award-winning dramas like Nowhere Man and Sayonara Color. But he is perhaps best known as an off-center comedian - with a second recording career in the best Weird Al Yankovic tradition - and it's as a funnyman that Takenaka will likely be remembered by future generations.

Dirty Jokes

Born March 20, 1956 in Yokohama, Japan, Takenaka Naoto first came to national attention on the 1970s variety show circuit doing dead-on impersonations of Bruce Lee and other popular celebrities of the day. After finishing college, the budding comedian got his start in motion pictures, although Takenaka's early onscreen roles aren't exactly what one might expect. Making his filmic debut in Molester Train 23 (the title says it all), Takenaka went on to appear in two of the most notorious slasher porn series of the 1980s, landing parts in Guinea Pig 4: Devil Doctor Woman and Angel Guts 5: Red Vertigo. Not exactly handsome leading-man material, Takenaka usually wound up playing the perverted, stressed-out salaryman who acts out his violent sexual fantasies on the hapless female lead.

Takenaka got steady work through the rest of the 80s in pictures with steamy titles like Tokyo Bordello, but he also had the good fortune during this time to form the first of many ongoing partnerships with a member of Japan's filmmaking elite. Tokyo Bordello was directed by Gosha Hideo, the master of such chambara classics as Three Outlaw Samurai and Sword of the Beast. Takenaka's quirky features made him a natural fit for Gosha's rough-and-tumble recreations of the Japanese past, which are inevitably populated with the eccentric personalities Takenaka excels at portraying. Gosha next cast the actor in another period piece, the pre-WWII drama Four Days of Snow and Blood (1989), and made a place for him opposite superstars Nakadai Tatsuya and Higuchi Kanako in his 1991 love letter to old Fuji Junko movies, Heat Wave.

Even more important for Takenaka was his collaboration with director Suo Masayuki. A fellow veteran of the softcore pinku eiga scene, Suo would ironically go on to make his name helming award-winning, family-friendly comedies. Although youthful heartthrob Motoki Masahiro took the lead in Suo's Fancy Dance (1989) and Sumo Do, Sumo Don't (1992), Takenaka grabs the lion's share of the laughs, and his supporting roles in both pictures are largely responsible for the actor's breakthrough to stardom. Sumo Do, Sumo Don't proved an especially big hit for both Suo and Takenaka. The story of a group of disaffected (and very skinny) college students cajoled into joining their school's sumo wrestling team, the movie won the top prize at the Japanese Academy Awards, and Takenaka garnered a Best Supporting Actor trophy for his role as a suspiciously old undergrad with a zest for sumo wrestling.

The award was his first of many Japanese Academy wins, but even before taking home the prize for Sumo Do, Sumo Don't Takenaka's name was well-known to Academy voters. The previous year had seen Takenaka nominated for Best Actor and Best Director for his directorial debut effort, Nowhere Man. Starring as an eccentric manga artist who retires to a riverside hut intending to become a rock salesman, where he meets an even more eccentric collection of wackos, Takenaka directs himself in an offbeat but affecting comedy/drama. His subsequent films as a director would all duplicate Nowhere Man's quirky mix of absurdity and introspection, with consistently successful results.

Everywhere Man

Along with Nowhere Man and Suo Masayuki's popular crowd-pleasers, Takenaka cemented his place in Japan's cinematic scene with an appearance in Angel Guts creator Ishii Takashi's critically acclaimed sexual thriller Shindemo ii (a.k.a. "Original Sin," 1992). He memorably co-starred in Tetsuo director Tsukamoto Shinya's 1991 cult horror classic Hiruko the Goblin, helping a group of high school students battle bizarre spider-like creatures, and he gave voice to the villainous Arakawa in Oshii Mamoru's celebrated anime feature Patlabor 2 (1993).

Normally cast in offbeat supporting roles, he got the chance to play an offbeat lead role in 1994's Mystery of Rampo. As famed horror writer Edogawa Rampo, Takenaka embarks on a demented journey into the author's own fictional creations, and the film's success abroad in art-house release brought him new levels of recognition. His second film as a director, the same year's Quiet Days of Firemen (1994), earned Takenaka his second Best Director nomination, and he won his second Best Supporting Actor Award for his part in Okamoto Kihachi's international ensemble cowboy picture East Meets West. All in all, Takenaka was on quite the roll.

But it was his third collaboration with Suo Masayuki that proved to be Takenaka's next truly big hit. Before it was a mediocre Hollywood remake, Shall We Dance? (1996) was a Japanese box office sensation and became the crown jewel of Suo's already impressive body of work. The thoroughly charming romance about an overworked businessman who discovers the joys of ballroom dancing won hearts all over Japan, but Takenaka threatened to steal the show from the film's romantic leads as a balding systems analyst who moonlights as a dancing Casanova in a frightfully bad wig. It was just the sort of whacked-out yet completely endearing performance that Takenaka was fast becoming the supreme master of portraying. Shall We Dance? completely swept that year's Japanese Academy Awards, a phenomenal coup that brought Takenaka his third Supporting Actor win in the bargain.

Takenaka formed his next creative partnership with a man very much Suo Masayuki's stylistic antithesis. Starting with 1997's Andromedia, Takenaka's by-now familiar face would become a recurring part of Miike Takashi's uniquely demented movie universe. A year after appearing in Miike's atypically kiddie-friendly Andromedia, Takenaka took a central role in the director's comically brutal Young Thugs: Nostalgia (1998) as the father of a budding hooligan in 1960s Osaka. He then shared top billing with Aikawa Sho in the similarly themed Ley Lines (1999), the second part of Miike's Black Society Trilogy, and has continued to make memorable cameo appearances in the director's subsequent work. Notable Takenaka guest-shots in the Miike-verse include a bit as a TV reporter with an unusual problem in Happiness of the Katakuris (2001) and a small but hilarious role as a blue-faced demon in The Great Yokai War (2004).

Working with Miike seems to have put Takenaka back in touch with his darker filmmaking roots - at least for a little while. The next few years saw the affably goofy actor taking on a variety of edgy and controversial roles. In addition to Miike's Ley Lines, in 1999 he took the lead in the first of an eventual five-film cycle all about sexual deviance, Perfect Education. In this and subsequent installments Takenaka plays assorted creepy men who kidnap various high school girls and train them to be the "ultimate sexual partner." Despite the textbook AV setup, the Perfect Education series is more art-house erotica than cheap S&M thrills. But the shocking material - and Takenaka's willingness to take on the role despite his mainstream celebrity - reveals his dedication to his craft and his refusal to be pigeonholed as just another funny face. Takenaka went on to further disturb audiences in 2000's rape-revenge thriller Freeze Me, another violent but critically acclaimed outing from writer/director Ishii Takashi in which Takenaka plays one of three gang rapists targeted for some cryogenically-frozen vengeance by their victim.

In 2001 Takenaka went to work for pop director Nakano Hiroyuki with key supporting roles in the modern-day romantic comedy Stereo Future and the consciously campy big-screen version of the classic ninja TV series Red Shadow. After his walk on the dark side with Miike and Ishii, Nakano put Takenaka back in comedic mode, paving the way for his highest-profile popular success since Shall We Dance?. As the disturbingly cheerful dolphin trainer trying out his methods on human subjects in Yaguchi Shinobu's Waterboys (2001), Takenaka creates one of his most eccentric and likeable characters to date. After another role as an kooky sports figure in 2002's Ping Pong, Takenaka reprised his role as the aquatic animal trainer turned men's synchronized swimming coach in the 2003 television series version of Waterboys.

Multimedia Maverick

The Waterboys series was far from Takenaka's first small screen success. Ever since his role as Tokugawa Ieyasu in the 1996 NHK series Hideyoshi, Takenaka's face was as ubiquitous on the Japanese tube as it was on the screen. He headlined his own period horror-comedy series Kaidan Hyaku Monogatari ("100 Tales of Horror") in 2002, playing a shiftless, all-purpose spiritualist ghost-busting Japan's most famous ghouls and goblins, and he provided various voices for several incarnations of the Pokemon anime franchise. His best known TV hit from the era, however, was yet another quirky supporting role, this one for the 2003 Kimura Takuya drama about the ups and downs of being a commercial airline pilot, Good Luck!

Takenaka's multimedia omnipresence even extended to the music industry. Cutting such hilariously silly singles as Wrestler - a bizarre parody of Michael Jackson's Thriller - Takenaka wisely decided not to take his singing career too seriously. Instead he left the real recording work to his wife, idol Kinouchi Midori, while contenting himself with a track or two on the occasional compilation album and musical genre spoof. Still, the success of Wrestler and other oddball riffs proved Takenaka's ability to entertain in any medium.

TV and recording successes didn't keep Takenaka away from the big screen. In addition to Waterboys and Ping Pong, by 2001 Takenaka had completed his fourth feature as a director, starring in his own semi-serious look at a fractured marriage in Quartet for Two. He popped up in the theatrical version of the Abe Hiroshi small screen favorite Trick: The Movie, lent his voice to yet another Oshii Mamoru anime feature, Ghost in the Shell 2: Innocence, and starred in a segment of the J-horror anthology feature Tales of Terror from Tokyo and All Over Japan. He also gave one of his best known supporting performances among Western fans as the crooked Kato Kiyomasa in Kitamura Ryuhei's 2003 Tokugawa action fest Azumi, getting memorably slashed up by the lovely yet lethal title heroine.

In 2004 Yaguchi Shinobu tapped Takenaka for a part in yet another tale about a group of young misfits. Swing Girls trades Waterboys' high school men's swimming team for an all-girl high school jazz team, and Yaguchi's zero-to-hero formula once again struck box office gold. Takenaka's role as the math teacher whose secret passion for wailing on the saxophone aids his students' efforts to form a jazz band recalls the double-life-leading Aoki from Shall We Dance? as well as his quirky, dolphin-riding mentor from Waterboys. In short, it was a surefire formula for success, and Swing Girls proved to be the most popular film of the year in Japan.

Now riding a decade-long wave of popularity, Takenaka's position as the nation's premier character actor was secured. Despite his full dance card, he also continued to find time to craft his own feature films, and in 2005 he completed his most heartfelt offering to date. Sayonara Color finds the actor/director playing yet another colorful eccentric, a lovestruck doctor who winds up treating his cancer-stricken high school crush (Harada Tomoyo). Although the trademark Takenaka humor is on display, Sayonara Color's gravely serious subject matter lends the film unusual weight, as Takenaka ignores his own deteriorating condition to save the love of his life.

Following Sayonara Color Takenaka recycled his deranged sports mentor persona from Waterboys and Ping Pong, this time as a surfer dude showing some hopeless newbies the ropes in 2006's Catch a Wave. He then collaborated one last time with Ishii Takashi on what proved to be the director's final picture, The Brutal Hopelessness of Love (2007). But Takenaka's best loved performances of the day were on television. Parts on Princess Iron Helmet and Song to the Sun were met with acclaim, however it was his turn as the sleazy Austrian orchestra conductor Franz von Stresemann in the live-action adaptation of manga favorite Nodame Cantabile that got the most attention - and the most laughs. Takenaka may not make the most convincing European concert maestro, but that's part of what makes it such a side-splittingly wonderful performance.

World-Class Character

The past few years have seen Takenaka's image so thoroughly ingrained into the fabric of Japanese cinema, even international directors can't help but feature him in their films when turning their lenses on the Land of the Rising Sun. As one part of an ensemble Japanese cast in Mainland Chinese director Zhang Yi Bai's Longest Night in Shanghai (2007), Takenaka shares the screen with a Pan-Asian plethora of talent that includes Vicki Zhao and Dylan Kuo. In Leos Carax's segment of 2008's multi-director tribute to Tokyo!, Takenaka's small role as a pizza deliveryman puts his name in the company of talents diverse as Michel Gondry and Bong Joon Ho.

Takenaka's most prominent international effort to date came in 2009 when Derek Yee cast him opposite Jackie Chan in the Hong Kong action drama Shinjuku Incident. As an upright Tokyo police detective who befriends Chan's underworld-embroiled illegal immigrant, the usually goofy Takenaka may take things serious, but the meaty role alongside Asia's greatest living action movie legend shows just how serious the rest of the world was taking Takenaka as a star in his own right.

At home, Takenaka continues his omnipresent role as something of a national treasure of Japanese cinema, appearing in big budget blockbusters and low budget exploitation flicks with equal enthusiasm, as well as churning out his own brand of filmmaking wonders. Parts in the sci-fi romance Cyborg She and the all-star picture 20th Century Boys were followed up by a low-key lead performance as a blind man searching for a lost civilization in Boys director Tsutsumi Yukihiko's Maboroshi no Yamataikoku. Next up, he'll be seen in Robo-geisha, another ludicrous, over-the-top orgy of excess from Machine Girl mastermind Iguchi Noboru.

And if that's not enough, there's Yamagata Scream, Takenaka's latest directorial effort which looks to be his craziest to date. A J-horror parody that promises equal parts laughter, terror, and zombie carnage extraordinaire, Yamagata Scream's ad campaign features its director maniacally inviting audiences to his show. It's a brilliant bit of marketing. Takenaka Naoto is, after all, a face you can trust when it comes to sheer entertainment. You don't get to be "that one guy in all those movies" any other way.

Published September 24, 2009

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