Kei Sato 1928–2010

On Film / Short Takes — May 11, 2010

The great Japanese actor Kei Sato passed away last week; he was eighty-one years old. You may not recognize Sato’s name, but if you’ve seen a Japanese film in the past fifty years, there’s a reasonably good chance you’ve fallen, however briefly and unwittingly, under this sleepy-eyed New Wave acting giant’s sensuous, often serpentine spell.

A former city government bureaucrat from Fukushima, Sato moved to Tokyo in 1950 to study acting. By the time his career came to an end early this month, he’d managed to appear in just about every Japanese genre staple imaginable—installments of the Zatoichi, Lone Wolf and Cub, and Hanzo the Razor series, as well as a late-model Godzilla film—and had been directed by everyone from Masahiko Kobayashi (in 1959’s The Human Condition, the actor’s film debut) to Hideo Gosha, Tadashi Imai, Masahiro Shinoda (Samurai Spy), Hiroshi Teshigahara (Pitfall), Kaneto Shindo (Onibaba), Kihachi Okamoto (Kill!, Sword of Doom), Yasuzo Masumura, Kinji Fukasaku, Yoichi Sai, Koji Wakamatsu . . . and on and on until the question becomes: Which major director of the 1960s or ’70s didn’t Sato work for? (If you answered Shohei Imamura or Seijun Suzuki, right you are, and more’s the pity.)

The one director Sato most definitely and definitively worked for was Nagisa Oshima, appearing in more than a dozen of the New Wave master’s quintessential films.

A simmering sideline presence throughout Oshima’s career-launching triptych—Cruel Story of Youth, The Sun’s Burial, and Night and Fog in Japan—the often resolutely interiorized Sato finally emerged center stage as the slow-boiling serial rapist and “floating ghost” of 1966’s commune meltdown classic, Violence at Noon, in a performance built largely around heavy-lidded glances, rivulets of sweat, and tiny, lizardlike flicks of the tongue. Key roles in Sing a Song of Sex (A Treatise on Japanese Bawdy Songs), Three Resurrected Drunkards, and The Ceremony followed, and Sato would rejoin Oshima near the end of the director’s career, as the narrator of 1999’s Gohatto (Taboo).

Though rarely a chewer of scenery, Sato could give as good as he could withhold, as his memorable and highly amusing performance as Minamoto no Raiko, the legendary samurai chieftain, in Shindo’s Yabu no naka no kuroneko amply testifies: crowned with a topknot, sporting a rakishly bushy mustache and an astonishing bramble of chest fur, Sato chortles his way past the film’s mostly creaky kabuki staging to leave the indelible impression of a champion player who could do and had done just about everything, and didn’t mind your knowing it. Something just shy of a legend, Kei Sato was a quiet colossus: he made acting seem as easy as breathing, even as he made his characters’ every breath distinctively his own.