Opinion / Zhu Ping

Adieu, Takakura, hope your legacy lives on

By Zhu Ping (China Daily) Updated: 2014-11-21 08:13

A bright star has fallen. Gone are the golden years of Japanese films and TV dramas in China with the death of Ken Takakura on Nov 10. The 83-year-old was known for his tough guy image and, despite being a Japanese, gained a "demigod" status among Chinese viewers in the late 1970s and early 1980s. It would not be wrong to say he acted as a cultural bridge between China and Japan, when the countries entered their first honeymoon phase since World War II.

Today, the "Korean wave" has caught the imagination of China's young generation, pushing Japanese films and TV dramas into the background. Some attribute the Korean productions' success to their focus on romance as opposed to Japanese TV dramas' serious themes, while others credit the South Korean government's support for the export of cultural products and Japanese companies' complicated IPR procedures for their declining popularity.

Both groups may be right, but both miss the key point. The popularity and obscurity of Japanese films and TV dramas indicate the ups and downs in Sino-Japanese political relations. So, unless Japanese politicians take concrete measures to improve bilateral ties, the declining popularity of Japanese films and TV dramas in China cannot be reversed.

The China-Japan Treaty of Peace and Friendship was signed in 1978, six years after the two countries normalized diplomatic relations, paving the way for close cultural exchanges. In the late 1970s and 1980s, Japanese films and TV dramas brought Chinese people closer to Japanese culture and helped reshape Japan's image in ordinary Chinese people's eyes.

Takakura was a respected actor. But Manhunt, made in 1976 and screened in China in 1978, was a huge success in the country more because it was the first foreign film released after the launching of reform and opening-up.

Takakura and his film opened a window for Chinese people to have a glimpse of modernization because they had been almost cut off from the developed world during the "cultural revolution" (1966-76). The modern Japan portrayed in Manhunt became an example for the then China, which was eager to develop through reform and opening up. In 1978, Deng Xiaoping, the chief architect of China's economic reform and socialist modernization, visited Japan, saying "now I understand what is modernization".

For the Chinese film industry, the detective story was a revelation. During the years of the "cultural revolution", people could only rely on the "eight model dramas" for entertainment. Manhunt and its style even prompted Chinese director Zhang Yimou to design a special role for Takakura in Riding Alone for Thousands of Miles (2006) and show his respect for the veteran actor.

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