The BFI have a season of films from the Nikkatsu Film Studio’s glory days in the fifties and sixties, starting on 1st June, and I just know you won’t be able to make up your mind which ones to go and see without my advice. So here it is in two words: Yujiro Ishihara. Don’t know who he is? He’s the Japanese Elvis Presley, the man whose untimely death broke a million hearts.
Ishihara got his first break in the 1956 film Seasons of the Sun (Taiyo no Kisetsu, showing as part of the BFI season). His brother, the author Shintaro Ishihara, had written the novel on which the film was based and made it a condition of allowing it to be filmed that his wannabe-actor younger brother got a small part. Yujiro also got his name on the poster – just. It’s second to last, next to his brother’s.
Yujiro made such an impact that he went on to star in a massively successful series of films for Nikkatsu, starting with Crazed Fruit (Kurutta Kajitsu), again written by his brother Shintaro, which was probably Yujiro’s greatest film. Unfortunately the BFI aren’t showing it, though you can get an idea of why it was so popular from the poster.
Yujiro’s speciality was the live-fast-die-young rebel-without-a-cause bad boy. He certainly had the looks for it. And he had bad boy ways off screen as well as on. He was notorious for his partying, often turned up not knowing his lines so they had to shoot with the script open on the desk in front of him and he would refuse to sign autographs for his fans because ‘Writing just my name on a blank sheet of paper is like handing in an exam paper’. In his defence, he was making as many as eight films a year in his heyday.
In 1957 he starred in Man Who Causes a Storm (Arashi wo yobu Otoko, showing as part of the BFI season) about a jazz drummer who gets involved with the criminal underworld of the yakuza, which most fans would rate as his best film after Crazed Fruit. The picture at the top of this post is a publicity shot for Man who Causes a Storm – it’s got a bit more atmosphere than the poster which is a little bit tame.
The BFI are also showing Crimson Wings (Kurenai no Tsubasa), made in 1958, in which Yujiro stars as a pilot on a mercy mission to transport an urgently-needed tetanus serum to a remote island to save a young boy with a dangerous stowaway on board.
Yujiro wasn’t just a film star – he was a singer with a succession of hit records, many of them the theme tunes of the films he starred in. In 1961 his biggest hit, Ginza Love Story (Ginza no koi no monogatari) sold over three million records.
Unfortunately (more parallels with Elvis) his over-the-top lifestyle of hard drinking and smoking caught up with him in the form of oral cancer in 1978, serious heart problems in 1981 and death from liver cancer in 1987 at the age of fifty-seven.
He wasn’t forgotten. In 1999, the thirteenth anniversary of his death, 170,000 fans attended a memorial service at Sojiji Temple in Yokohama where he is buried.
And in 2006, the Japanese mint brought out a commemorative coin set to mark the fiftieth anniversary of his film debut in Seasons of the Sun.