In November of last year, yakuza film star Ken Takakura passed away due to malignant lymphoma. He was 83 years old.
Takakura starred in a number of hard-boiled features by studio Toei in the 1960s. Then, in August of 1973, the actor appeared as the lead in the Toei film “The Third-Generation of the Yamaguchi-gumi,” which refers to the gang’s boss at the time, Kazuo Taoka. He also starred in the sequel the following year, the appropriately named “The Successor to the Third-Generation.”
With writing credits given to Taoka — though most of the scripts were written by an editor of tabloid Shukan Asahi Geino — the biographical films were the studio’s response to Francis Ford Coppola’s “The Godfather.”
They were also representative of a different era, one in which gangsters could mix openly with elite members of society, at least according to journalist Tomohiko Suzuki’s account in magazine Sapio (March).
On May 23, 1974, the producer of the films, Mitsuru Taoka, the eldest son of Kazuo, held his wedding reception inside a fourth-floor banquet room of the Osaka Royal Hotel (now the Riga Royal Hotel Osaka).
As reported in a seven-page feature story that ran in the August 5 issue of the Yamaguchi-gumi Shinpo newspaper, included among the 700 invited guests were Liberal Democratic Party members Masaaki Nakayama and Hajime Ishii, the then Kobe mayor, Kazuo Nakai and the presidents of Tokyu Railway and Mitsubishi Logistics, Noboru Goto and Masanao Matsumura.
Former prime minister Nobusuke Kishi, the grandfather of current PM Shinzo Abe, even sent a congratulatory telegram.
Unlike in the famous camera-smashing scene in the fictionalized Coppola film, this real-life wedding had no such dramatics; rather, the media was invited: A group of 50 — including representatives from public broadcaster NHK — attended a press conference organized by wedding coordinator Kiyoharu Tanaka, once the chairman of the Japan Communist Party and a CIA cooperative.
“Questions from a female reporter showed that she was really nervous,” said the Yamaguchi-gumi Shinpo.
The article notes that the only people on the stage for the press conference were Taoka and his bride, Tanaka and his wife, the moderator, who was (actor) Jun Nagasawa, and the lone gang member, Hideomi Oda (the head of the Yamaguchi-gumi’s affiliate the Oda-gumi).
“She could have been more relaxed,” said the paper.
Heading the celebrity guest list was Takakura but actresses Nijiko Kiyokawa and Sumiko Fuji, actors Koji Tsuruta, Shintaro Katsu, Kon Omura and Tatsuo Umemiya, singers Teruhiko Saigo and Hiroshi Itsuki and comedian Junzaburo Ban were also in attendance.
On that day, the junior Taoka married actress Eiko Nakamura, who starred in two films in the “Jingi Naki Tatakai” (Battles Without Honor and Humanity) series from Toei before she killed herself with poison at her residence in Kobe less than a year after the reception.
“The Third-Generation of the Yamaguchi-gumi” proved to be a huge hit, surpassing the ticket sales for the first “Battles Without Honor and Humanity” film, which had been released seven months before. The sequel ranked fifth in the year-end box office rankings for 1974.
The police, however, were not amused as the productions basically served as gangster propaganda.
In an attempt prevent the making of a sequel to “The Third-Generation of the Yamaguchi-gumi,” police wound up arresting Mitsuru Taoka, who was not officially a gangster himself, on 22 occasions. He considered the infractions to be minor.
“They rung me up for unreasonable and stupid stuff, like pasting revenue stamps incorrectly,” Taoka once said.
The yakuza genre charged forward throughout the remainder of the 1970s before fading, though probably at a pace slightly swifter than the public’s intolerance for gangsters hobnobbing with the stars. (K.N.)
Source: “Takakura Ken mo Sugawa Bunta mo shiranakatta ‘yazkua eiga’ shitto to uragiri no naijitsu,” Sapio (March, pages 108-110)