Tiger! Tiger! Burning Bright – R.I.P. Tetsuro Tamba, 1922 – 2006

29 September 2006
picture: Tiger! Tiger! Burning Bright – R.I.P. Tetsuro Tamba, 1922 – 2006


Not even a teenager, one of the pivotal experiences that made my gaze turn Eastward was watching You Only Live Twice. James Bond in Japan. Osaka castle used as a ninja training ground. The hollow volcano. Those two lovely ladies. Little Nelly. And Tiger Tanaka.

I'd recorded it off the TV. Off German TV to be exact, so I didn't actually get to hear Tetsuro Tamba's own voice until years later. It didn't matter. Watching that tape over and over again - it's still the movie I've watched the highest number of times, but I've long since lost count of how many - Tamba's face became synonymous with my growing fascination for Japan.

Certainly, the ladies did no harm either, but the big difference is that I've seen that one face countless times in countless films since, aging and rejuvenating at the whim of choice: wrinkly patriarch of his post-retirement-age adventures with Takashi Miike one moment, suave young villain of his Shintoho debuts the next. In between, brooding crooked government official in superbly histrionic Toei action movies, longhaired swordsman for Gosha and Shinoda, or, again, always and forever, as Tiger Tanaka - just one more time.

They say Tamba had two quirks as an actor: one for never refusing a role and another for never memorising his lines. As far as the former goes, the figures say it all: the Japanese Movie Database counts 301 films; Tamba's own website chalks up 350, but stops short in mid-2002. When it comes to the lines, the one memory that pops up was seeing him on stage in Tokyo in 2004, playing multiple roles in the Miike-directed adaptation of Kyoka Izumi's novel Demon Pond (Yashagaike). One scene, a lengthy exchange between the female demon and her underwater vassals, saw Tamba installed on a comfortable chair on the far right, with the text of the scene propped up in front of him and in plain sight of the audience. Only Tamba could have gotten away with it.

Several days after that evening at the Parco theatre (and a fortuitous meeting backstage, thanks to the director who introduced Tamba as "Japan's Super Actor" - the capitals are mine, but I would swear Miike pronounced them), I found myself in Kyushu. Oddly, for all the years it had been part of my life, I'd never bothered to look up where You Only Live Twice had been filmed - the result, perhaps, of a young mind incapable of imagining actually being in Japan one day. But there it was, outside my window, just across the bay: THAT volcano, better known in real life as Sakurajima. Better yet, I was actually sitting in the hotel where Tamba and Connery had stayed when they made the film over forty years earlier. Framed autographs in the corridor silently testified to their presence. This was the hotel whose garden and exterior doubled as Tiger Tanaka's country mansion. A few days after shaking Tetsuro Tamba's hand, I was in Tiger Tanaka's backyard looking at Blofeld's volcano. It was all accidental, but then again, it probably wasn't.

No bad puns about living twice to close this off, although the man's well-publicised forays into spirituality and communicating with the great beyond almost beg for it on this occasion. No, for this fan of Japanese film, Tiger Tamba was simply always there. His dark-eyebrowed stare that saw right through everything and everyone like glass was and remains ubiquitous, inescapable. Me and all those other kids hooked on Japan because of that one film, we wouldn't have it any other way.