by Chris MaGee
Very, very sad news from the world of Japanese film. Actor Yoshio Harada, most recently seen and best known to North American audiences as the patriarch of the Yokoyama family in Hirokazu Koreeda's 2008 drama "Still Walking", passed away Tuesday, July 19th in a Tokyo hospital after a bout of pneumonia. He was 71.
Harada was born in the Adachi Ward of Tokyo in 1940. Even as a young man Harada was fascinated by the world of acting and after graduating from high school he would study the craft at Tokyo's venerable Haiyuza Theatre Company. Harada would make the transition from stage to screen in 1967 when he appeared on the Fuji TV series "Youth of the World". The following year he would make the further transition to the big screen in Shochiku's "Hear the Song of Venegeance" co-directed by Masahisa Sadanaga and Shigeyuki Yamane. In the following years Harada would make a name for himself portraying brooding and shaggy-haired villains and anti-heroes in the films of Toshiya Fujita (Stray Cat Rock: Crazy Rider '71, Wet Sand in August, Lady Snowblood 2) and Kazuo Ikehiro (The Fearless Avenger, Trail of Blood), but Tokyo's theatrical community still beckoned. Besides these mainstream action and jidai-geki adventures Harada would star in many of the films of famed playwright and poet Shuji Terayama, including 1974's "Pastoral: Hide and Seek" and 1984's "Farewell to the Ark". It was in the mid-70's that he gained critical praise, winning the the Best Supporting Actor Prize from Kinema Junpo for his role in Kazuo Kuroki 1975 film "Preparation for the Festival".
It wasn't just the critics who made Harada one of the biggest stars on the Japanese screen though. His acting peers and the Japanese public would turn him into a superstar. It is widely discussed how actor Yusaku Matsuda was so impressed by Harada's talents that he would study his performances again and again. Harada's charismatic screen presence would also play a part in the rebirth of one of Japan's most famous maverick directors. In 1980 Harada starred alongside Toshiya Fujita and actress Naoko Otani in the triumphant return of Seijun Suzuki. As many know Suzuki had been fired from Nikkatsu Studios after the release of his 1967 avant-garde action film "Branded to Kill" and had been away from the spotlight for over a decade. Harada had already worked with Suzuki on his failed 1979 comeback "A Story of Sorrow and Sadness", but the following year Suzuki's independently produced feature "Zigeunerweisen" became a cult hit and would go on to win the Best Film Award from Kinema Junpo that year.
Harada's career would continue to grow. He would work with some of the biggest names in Japanese film including Yoichi Sai (Let Him Rest in Peace), Yojiro Takita (No More Comics), Toshio Masuda (This Story of Love), and Junji Sakamoto (Knockout). It was through Sakamoto and "Knockout" that Harada would gain a whole new set of younger fans, including director Toshiaki Toyoda. Harada would star in Toyoda's 2003 film "9 Souls" as the leader of a gang of escaped convicts. It was this role, as well as those in such films as Kazuo Kuroki's "Ronin Gai", Rokuro Mochizuki's "Onibi: The Fire Within" and Kenji Sonoda's "Madness in Bloom" that would lead to one of Harada's greatest career triumphs. In 2003 he was awarded the Medal with Purple Ribbon, Japan's medal of honour for his contribution to theatre and cinema.
The past decade had seen Harada shift from hot-headed anti-hero roles to those of grumpy but wise grandfather figures. Throughout the '00's he would pick up awards for Best Supporting Actor from the Hochi Film Awards for his role in Kazuo Kuroki's "Face of Jizo", as well as a Best Actor Award from Kinemu Junpo for Jun Ichikawa's "Zawa-zawa Shimo-Kitazawa". Most recently Harada had battled back from a 2008 surgery for bowel cancer to star alongside Jo Odagiri in the latest film from Hirokazu Koreeda, "Kiseki". Harada also put on his screenwriting cap, coming up with the story idea for Junji Sakamoto's upcoming film "Oshikamura Sodo-Ki (Records of Turmoil at Oshika Village)", in which Harada starred as an elderly man named Zen who runs a restaurant in Oshika, Nagano who helps an old love (Michiyo Okusu) cope with dementia by staging a kabuki play. According to a post at The Shinano Mainichi Shimbun advisors on "Oshikamura Sodo-Ki " said that Harada looked well at an advance screening of the film in May, and that news of his passing came as a "big surprise".
Friends of the J-Film Pow-Wow attending the current offering of the Puchon International Fantastic Film Festival said that all the Japanese guests were discussing this terrible loss. One of the most poignant tributes to Harada has come from his "9 Souls" director Toshiaki Toyoda via Toyoda's Facebook account. Toyoda stated, "I am sorry... how many times can [one] come across a person too good for the world? I count the number of times, and there is no knowing the shortness of the life of [this kind of] person."
Yoshio Harada is survived by his wife, his son, musician and actor Kenta Harada, and his daughter, Mayu Harada. Our deepest condolences go out to them and to all of Harada-san's family, friends and colleagues during this time of mourning. We leave you with the trailer for Seijun Suzuki's "Zigeunerweisen".