Yusaku Matsuda: Lost Rebel

4 August 2004
picture: Yusaku Matsuda: Lost Rebel


To gauge the impact and enduring popularity of Yusaku Matsuda in Japan, one need only walk into a Tokyo bookstore. In the cinema section, at least half a shelf will be taken up by photo books, essays, tributes and biographies of the late actor. Toyshops stock action figures and dolls, both vintage and new, based on his best-loved characters. In the numerous second-hand video stores of the Jimbocho area, it's easy to pick out Matsuda's films among the thousands of brightly coloured boxes: his will be the ones that are twice as expensive as all the others.

Yusaku Matsuda is a phenomenon. His early death in 1989 at the age of forty has given him the kind of idolised immortality that the rest of the world bestows upon the likes of James Dean, Steve McQueen and Bruce Lee. The comparison with these giants is valid in more ways than one. Matsuda had a bit of all three: looks, acting range, cool machismo and a flair for action.

Yet, Matsuda remains a virtual unknown outside his home country. His misfortune was to have shot to fame at a time when the rest of the world had virtually forgotten that Japan even had a film industry: Matsuda reached his peak in the 1980s, the most maligned decade in the annals of Japanese film history as seen through western eyes. Whereas stars of previous eras - Mifune, Takakura, Sugawara, Kaji - deservedly enjoy adulation beyond their own borders, Matsuda - who deserves to be mentioned in the same breath - remains hidden from Western eyes, his work relegated to the dusty basement of Japanese cinema where few white men ever venture.

His obscurity is a paradox however, since millions around the world have seen Matsuda's final screen performance as the slippery villain Sato in Ridley Scott's Nihon-noir cop thriller Black Rain. An atypical role in many ways, it is the proverbial exception to the rule. In the part of his career that has come to define him, Matsuda played brash, cool, rebellious heroes, his tall figure and chiselled features furthermore lending him a virility and sex appeal that none of his forebears could match. As undisputably charismatic as Toshiro Mifune, Ken Takakura, Koji Tsuruta and Bunta Sugawara were in their prime, there was very little about them that would make women swoon or that would make scriptwriters decide that they should get the girl before fade-out.

picture: scenes from 'Golden Wolf Resurrection'

Born in Shimonoseki, on the westernmost point of Japan's main island Honshu, Matsuda's youth is clouded in the kind of mystery befitting a man of his stature. Firstly there is the issue of his birth, which according to official records took place on September 21, 1950. His family claim that he was brought into the world a year earlier on the same date. Some reports say he was born in a brothel. He spent several years as a teenager living with his aunt in San Francisco, but is said to have fled back to Japan, allegedly to escape anti-Japanese sentiments. Upon his return he studied drama in Tokyo and entered the respected Bungaku-za theatre group in 1972.

The story of Matsuda the actor starts one year later, with his debut in the popular TV series Taiyo ni Hoero! ('Howl at the sun'). Replacing the show's previous young star Kenichi Hagiwara, he played a rebellious young cop whose trademark denim attire earned him the nickname Jiipan (for 'jean pants') from his older, more conservative colleagues led by erstwhile Nikkatsu matinee idol Yujiro Ishihara. The show meant his immediate breakthrough, although his first appearances in films, the horror film Okami no Monsho ('Emblem of the wolf') the same year and the youth drama Tomodachi ('Friends') in 1974 made little in the way of an impression.

His role of Jiipan would come to characterise him as an actor for the next few years, although a close look at even his early filmography reveals a surprising variety of roles. Particularly of note is his supporting turn opposite the great Yoshio Harada in the ATG production The Assassination of Ryoma (Ryoma Ansatsu, 1974). Matsuda was cast upon Harada's recommendation, and director Kazuo Kuroki described his first meeting with the young actor in his book Eizo Sakko Kuroki Kazuo no Zenbo: "He was shooting Taiyo ni Hoero! at the time and I went to see him on set. He hardly spoke a word, but he impressed me with his presence and charisma." [quoted in: Art Theatre Guild: Unabhängiges Japanisches Kino 1962 - 1984]

The ambitious Kadokawa production Proof of the Man (Ningen no Shomei, 1977) first partnered Matsuda with an American actor more than a decade before Black Rain. Character player George Kennedy, then in his disaster movie phase, guest-starred as a New York cop investigating the murder of an American boy in a Tokyo hotel, with Matsuda as his local sidekick. Directed by Junya Sato, Proof of the Man was the kind of high-concept project producer Haruki Kadokawa became famous for in the late 70s and early 80s. Stepping into the void left by the floundering major studios, Kadokawa used his family's publishing fortunes to start a film company with the aim of beating Hollywood at its own game, resulting in such lavish widescreen spectacles as Kinji Fukasaku's Virus (Fukkatsu no Hi, 1980) and Mitsumasa Saito's Black Magic Wars (Iga Ninpo-cho, 1982).

picture: scenes from 'Golden Wolf Resurrection', 'The Murder in Doll House' and 'The Most Dangerous Game'

Kadokawa's intention of releasing Proof of the Man in theaters in the United States failed dismally (although it did later surface on video in truncated form), but the film did good business at home and did no harm to Matsuda's upward trajectory. The same could be said for his co-starring turn in the TV series Tokyo Assembly (Daitokai, 1977), which saw him acting alongside Tetsuya Watari and re-united him with his Taiyo ni Hoero! superior Yujiro Ishihara.

The actor's career hit another stride in 78 with the release of The Most Dangerous Game (Mottomo Kiken na Yugi), an action film with comic asides that saw him taking on the starring role of a hitman. With his shades, leather jacket and Detroit muscle car, the character is one of Matsuda's signature roles, one that he would reprise in two increasingly straight-faced sequels, the first, Satsujin Yugi ('The murder game') following hot on the heels of the original and the second, Shokai Yugi ('The execution game'), the next year.

Matsuda reached the zenith of his popularity during this period, cultivating the lone-wolf action star image he had inherited from Taiyo ni Hoero! and the Yugi series in projects like The Doll House Murder (Midarekarakuri, 1979), Resurrection of the Golden Wolf (Yomigaeru Kinro, 1979) and above all a new TV series that gave him the starring role: Detective Story (Tantei Monogatari, 1979-80).

As the non-conformist, scooter-driving private eye Shunsaku Kudo, Matsuda played what in the eyes of many Japanese is his most pivotal role. Playing the protagonist as a laidback dandy, dragging his heels with an approach to work ethics influenced by his stretch as a cop in the US (though thankfully there is no sign of donuts), the actor injected a dose of humour into what might otherwise have been another stock hardboiled investigator. Over 27 episodes, directed by such luminaries as Yasuharu Hasebe (of Stray Cat Rock and Black Tight Killers fame) and Yugi series helmer Toru Murakawa, Detective Story became one of the most fondly remembered dramas in Japanese TV history. For those who have never seen a single episode, one look at the actor in his full Kudo attire - black suit, white tie, shades, curly hair sticking out from under a fedora (the only man in history who looked cool in a perm) - would suffice to gauge some of the impact the character made on the nation at large.

Matsuda at this time caused quite a stir by marrying his 18-year old co-star in the series, Miyuki Kumagai (later Miyuki Matsuda, best known abroad for her role as the late wife in Takashi Miike's Audition) in 1979. In addition to a daughter from an earlier marriage, he fathered three children with Miyuki, one of whom would later follow in his father's footsteps after breakthrough roles in Nagisa Oshima's Gohatto and Toshiaki Toyoda's Blue Spring: Ryuhei Matsuda.

At the height of his fame, the action star persona was reaching its limits. Having played the tough guy hero in every guise imaginable, the actor sought to spread his wings and accept a greater variation of roles and activities. In Yokohama BJ Blues, directed by the underrated Eiichi Kudo, he was allowed to indulge his passion for music in the role of a blues-singing private eye. Following the trusted model of Japanese celebrityhood, Matsuda had started a music career a few years prior, but only hit his stride as a singer around the time Yokohama BJ Blues opened in theaters: simultaneously with its release Matsuda held a series of concerts around the country.

picture: Yusaku Matsuda in concert

It was the start of a new phase in his career, one in which the action star became an actor. Re-teaming with Toru Murakawa, the already wiry actor lost 10kg of body weight and allegedly even had some of his teeth pulled in order to achieve the gaunt look for the murderer in Yaju Shisubeshi ('The beast must die', 1980). Such physical transformations would characterise his work in the 80s as he moved from playing the bearded playwright in Seijun Suzuki's second instalment of his Taisho trilogy, Heat Haze Theatre (Kagero-Za, 1981), to the dorky tutor in what is perhaps his second most widely seen film, Yoshimitsu Morita's Family Game (Kazoku Game, 1983).

A variation on Pier Paolo Pasolini's 1968 film Teorema and model for such films as Sogo Ishii's Crazy Family (Gyakufunsha Kazoku, 1984) and Takashi Miike's Visitor Q (2001), Family Game is the story of a private tutor whose decidedly unconventional methods to help an underachieving high school student end up confronting the boy's entire family with their loveless, dysfunctional lives. Culminating in an unforgettable confrontation at the dinner table that spirals into a glorious mess of flying food, Family Game established Matsuda as an all-round actor, his performance winning him a score of awards and citations.

Director and actor reunited for And Then (Sorekara, 1985), an adaptation of Soseki Natsume's romantic novel, before Matsuda made his own directorial debut with the hyper-stylised manga adaptation A Homansu the same year, co-writing the script with Shoichi Maruyama, who had previously penned Shokai Yugi, Yaju Shisubeshi and Yokohama BJ Blues, as well as several episodes of Detective Story. With the title an untranslatable play on words combining 'idiot' and 'performance', the film both played to and mocked Matsuda's action star image, casting him as a mysterious drifter whose almost superhuman powers in both love and war attract the interest of a yakuza boss caught in the middle of a struggle over Shinjuku turf.

Yusaku Matsuda was back in front of the camera in 1988, continuing to adapt challenging roles in New Wave luminary Kiju Yoshida's lavishly stylised adaptation of Wuthering Heights (Arashigaoka) and Kinji Fukasaku's chronicle of romantic entanglements in early twentieth-century literary circles, The Rage of Love (Hana no Ran).

picture: scenes from 'The Rage of Love', 'Family Game' and 'Proof of the Man

Upon completion of shooting on the Fukasaku film, Matsuda was informed by his doctor that he was suffering from cancer of the bladder. Already cast in the villain role opposite Michael Douglas, Andy Garcia and Ken Takakura in Black Rain, he hid the news from his family and postponed treatment to realise his dream of making a Hollywood film. Although allegedly Jackie Chan was first suggested for the role of Sato by Douglas, Ridley Scott, echoing the words of Kazuo Kuroki, claimed that he knew Matsuda was his man from the moment he first walked in the door, comparing his meeting with the actor with the first time he met Rutger Hauer when casting Blade Runner.

Black Rain's release in 1989 created a storm of publicity for Matsuda, who due to his failing health (which had already bothered him during the shooting of the film) was unable to provide any of it in person. The news of his illness still not made public, TV appearances and magazine shoots were cancelled and the actor even had to forego attending the film's Japanese premiere on October 5, 1989. A day later, with an offer for another Hollywood movie already in his mailbox, Yusaku Matsuda truly joined the ranks of the immortal.

Yusaku Matsuda Filmography


  • Okami no Monsho
  • Taiyo ni Hoero! [TV]


  • Tomodachi
  • The Assassination of Ryoma (Ryoma Ansatsu)
  • Abayo Dachiko
  • Akai Meiro [TV]


  • Oretachi no Kunsho [TV]


  • Boryoku Kyoshitsu
  • Hitogoroshi


  • Proof of the Man (Ningen no Shomei)
  • Tokyo Assembly (Daitokai) [TV]


  • The Most Dangerous Game (Mottomo Kiken na Yugi)
  • Satsujin Yugi


  • The Murder in Doll House (Midarekarakuri)
  • Oretachi ni Haka wa Nai
  • Resurrection of the Golden Wolf (Yomigaeru Kinro)
  • Shokei Yugi
  • Detective Story (Tantei Monogatari) [TV]


  • Rape Hunter: Nerawareta Onna
  • Bara no Hyoteki
  • Yaju Shisubesi


  • Yokohama B.J. Blues
  • Heat Haze Theater (Kagero-Za)


  • Shin Jiken: Doctor Stop [TV]


  • Family Game (Kazoku Gemu)
  • Tantei Monogatari


  • Shin Yumechiyo Nikki [TV]
  • Onnagoroshi Abura no Jigoku [TV]


  • And Then (Sorekara)
  • A Homansu


  • Wuthering Heights (Arashigaoka)
  • The Rage of Love (Hana no Ran)


  • Kareinaru Tsuiseki [TV]
  • Black Rain