As John Deere is to Midwestern fields, as Q-tips are to ears, so is Ken Takakura to the portrayal of gruff Japanese masculinity. Mainstream moviegoers first knew his mug from dozens of yakuza films, made beginning in the 1950s. Art-house audiences may have lagged in their appreciation, but they too came to love him, if only from seeing the hipster Takeshi Kitano imitate, and send up, Takakura’s silent, brooding manner. I’ve read that Takakura extended his popularity westward when China, emerging from the Cultural Revolution, chose one of his pictures to be its first movie import in years. But it didn’t occur to me, until I saw Zhang Yimou’s Riding Alone for Thousands of Miles, that Takakura might have loomed as a father figure to some of China’s Fifth Generation of filmmakers. In 1976 a movie starring Takakura reintroduced China to an image of the wider world, and to a popular Asian cinema. Only two years later, Zhang and his classmates entered the newly reopened Beijing Film Academy and began training for their own bid at international recognition.
Zhang succeeded so brilliantly at making himself an auteur that he, too, became a celebrity. So when a sharp Hong Kong producer, Bill Kong, helps to pair Zhang with his “childhood idol” Takakura, in a story that sends the Japanese star adventuring through present-day China, the words “crossover marketing” float into mind. Yes, comrades–the dynamo that drives the cinema is economic! But sometimes, when the right movie people come together, a blatantly commercial decision actually strengthens the artistic impulse, as you can see from Zhang’s filial treatment of Takakura in Riding Alone for Thousands of Miles.
I will dispense with the setup briefly, since Zhang does, too. In Riding Alone Takakura plays the rough-hewn Takata, a provincial widower who lives alone in a fishing village and has been estranged for many years from his grown son, Ken-ichi. Why are the father and son estranged? Zou Jingzhi’s screenplay deliberately leaves the question open, as if to signal that this film, which is otherwise so detailed, wants the situation of Takata/Takakura to be just-so. It’s enough for the character-star to have an excuse to go to Tokyo–he’s learned that Ken-ichi is in the hospital, seriously ill–and then on to China on behalf of his son. It seems that Ken-ichi, who teaches at a university, is an expert on Chinese folk opera and was supposed to travel to Yunnan to videotape a local performer singing the mask opera Riding Alone for Thousands of Miles. Now, without telling the incapacitated Ken-ichi of his intentions (since Ken-ichi won’t talk to him), the father decides to go in his place. He undertakes this quixotic, just-so mission despite the impediments of speaking no Chinese, knowing nothing about folk opera, having no previous experience with video equipment and (in his own spare words) being “not good with people.”
In brief, Takakura once more gets to be lonely, silent, stubborn and righteous. As elemental as the rocks on the fishing village’s shoreline, his Takata effortlessly conveys probity to everyone he meets in China. These strangers may become exasperated with him–he keeps asking for the impossible–but they sense that this tough old man in the cloth cap and windbreaker is hurt in some way, which they can’t bear to witness. Or, to be more precise: They do want to watch, and so do you, because it’s awe-inspiring to see this father figure force several sentences out of himself, confessing his pain, and then play peekaboo behind a cloth, concealing and revealing tears that Ken Takakura should not shed. In lesser star turns, the performer and the character merge. In this great star turn, Takakura unites two audiences: the people watching him within the movie, and the ones watching him in the movie house.
Zhang, too, performs a star turn of sorts in Riding Alone, directing the kind of story that has become familiar to his fans. It’s the tale of a single, headstrong person pursuing a near-unattainable goal through the landscape, and bureaucracy, of provincial China. In the first and most astonishing of these films, The Story of Qiu Ju, the protagonist was a pregnant housewife from a rural village. She sought justice on her travels, but instead discovered and enjoyed a new freedom. In Not One Less, the protagonist was an angry teenage schoolteacher, scarcely older than her impoverished pupils. She went out to seek a missing boy and instead discovered responsibility, and a sense of her own competence. Riding Alone is different in that the protagonist is elderly, male and foreign; but it holds to the formula by sending him on several wild-goose chases, which ultimately lead somewhere unexpected. Takata, who seeks reconciliation with Ken-ichi, ends up bonding with another man’s son.