Nakadai plays outlaw to mark 70th year as actor

Photo by Jun Ishikawa
Photo by Jun Ishikawa Tatsuya Nakadai in the role of the aging Usuke, whose left arm bears a secret that he keeps hidden, in the play “Hidari-no-Ude (The left arm)”

To commemorate his 70th year in show business, veteran actor Tatsuya Nakadai is starring in a recently started national tour of the stage drama “Hidari-no-Ude” (The left arm). Based on a period short story by Seicho Matsumoto, Nakadai plays the main role of Usuke, an aging former ruffian. “We have something in common,” the 89-year-old quipped.

Here we take a closer look at this distinguished actor, who gives an impassioned performance as he hands down his experience to the younger members of his troupe Mumeijuku.

Like an athlete

“You’re a fast mover when it comes to women.”

“What are you so jealous of, you bastard?”

It is a rehearsal room in Tokyo in late October. Nakadai, dressed as Usuke, listens to the conversation between two young characters.

“OK, stop.” All of a sudden, Nakadai puts on his director’s hat and says, “You act like you are arguing. Be more playful.” He accepts no compromise, even in a light conversation.

“This time, it’s a talking drama,” Nakadai said later in an interview. “When I was young, I would listen to rakugo and kodan [traditional comic storytelling] and naniwa-bushi ballads on the radio, so I became accustomed somewhat to the way of talking during the Edo period. And I have to hand that down.”

The play is set in Fukagawa in Edo (present-day Tokyo). Usuke, a candy craftsman, and his only daughter Oaki are employed together in a restaurant and leading a peaceful life. But a hired thief-catcher named Asakichi begins to make inquiries into the past of Usuke, who always mysteriously keeps his left arm wrapped in cloth.

The adaptation for the stage was written by Nakadai and playwright Ya Okayama. The work questions the intolerance of society through the dealings between Usuke, who has a criminal past, and those around him. Usuke was once a lawless hood. From his demeanor, we get a sense of his daily struggle as he feels conflicted with his past.

The Yomiuri Shimbun
Lead actor and director Tatsuya Nakadai wears a mask during a rehearsal for the play.

Nakadai said that in Usuke’s struggle, he saw something in common with his own life as an actor.

“When becoming someone else in a role, it is a sort of battle,” he said. “But, as this is my 70th year in the business, I prefer to act as myself without the struggle.”

Nakadai is also taking on the role of director this time. He said that sometimes during rehearsal he hears the voice of his late wife Tomoe Ryu, who was also a director, saying such things as, “Make your voice heard even by those in the upper gallery.”

However, it is difficult for him to see things objectively. “I keep having the feeling that I’ll be damned if I’m going to lose to those young actors who keep getting better,” Nakadai said with a laugh.

He took his first steps into show business in 1952 at age 19, when he joined Haiyuza’s acting academy. He earned fame with appearances in major films directed by such legends as Akira Kurosawa and Masaki Kobayashi. But he had a personal rule that he stuck to — “appear in a film in the first half of the year and on stage in the second half” — and as such, almost every year he was involved in a national stage tour along with his students at Mumeijuku.

Believing that “a stage actor is just like an athlete,” he makes sure to set aside one hour each day for working out, stretching and voice exercises.

87 performances at age 89

The national tour started on Nov. 13 at the Noto Engekido Theater, where Nakadai holds the title of honorary director, in Nanao, Ishikawa Prefecture. I went to the performance on Nov. 18.

With downcast eyes, Nakadai delivered his lines clearly in a subdued voice. It was fun to hear him utter, “When I was young, I had great ideas, too,” which sounded as if he was speaking about his own life.

The best scene was the fight between him and a band of robbers. “Who the hell do you think you are?” he growled while freely brandishing an oak stick, thrusting it in a frontal attack and slashing at a diagonal. With his withered tenderness and pervasive menace, it gave him an overwhelming presence.

The tour comprises 87 performances. It will end in Nagoya on April 14, with a stop along the way at Theater 1010 in Tokyo in March.

“I won’t say I will go into retirement after this, but I think I will retire from active life,” he said. While speaking humbly, his eyes still sparkle.

“What is an actor?” he asked rhetorically. “It is inborn talent combined with luck both good and bad, and after that, effort. I was taught strictly by my great predecessors at Haiyuza. In the movie world, I received good roles from directors and producers. I was extremely lucky. Looking at it that way, it has been a good life as an actor.”