Adieu, Takakura, hope your legacy lives on

Updated: 2014-11-21 07:38

By Zhu Ping(China Daily USA)

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Adieu, Takakura, hope your legacy lives on

Veteran Japanese actor Ken Takakura died of lymphoid cancer in Tokyo on Nov 10 at age 83. [Photo/Agencies]

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.

Manhunt was followed in the 1980s by NHK's hit serial drama Oshin which made the Chinese audience appreciate ordinary Japanese people's industriousness, kindness and resilience. An Unfinished Chess Game (1982), a milestone film marking the 10th anniversary of normalization of diplomatic ties, reflected the legend of Chinese go chess player Wu Qingyuan and his Japanese friends against the historic background, from war to peace. Blood Doubts told the story of unique love and strong family bonds. Volleyball Girls boosted Chinese people's love for sports at a time when the Chinese women's volleyball team had won five titles at the world level. And cartoon character Smart Monk Ikkyu San became the idol of children.

This phase was followed by Japanese idol dramas in the early 1990s, when the end of the Cold War started a new chapter in Sino-Japanese ties. While the West imposed sanctions on China, top Chinese and Japanese leaders exchanged visits boosting bilateral ties.

At that time, Tokyo Love Story, Under One Roof and Tokyo Cinderella Story turned Yuji Oda, Masaharu Fukuyama and Karasawa Toshiaki into idols of Chinese youths similar to what South Korean stars Lee Min-ho and Kim Soo-hyun are today.

The rise of China and stagnation in Japan since the mid-1990s caused a power shift in East Asia. Frictions and confrontations increased as nationalist sentiments grew in Japan. The drastic change in Japan's official aid and loan policy toward China, its defiant Taiwan policy and then Japanese prime minister Ryutaro Hashimoto's visit to Yasukuni Shrine, which honors 14 Class-A war criminals, soured bilateral ties.

After a brief warming period in the early 2000s, bilateral relations reached a low point again because of former Japanese prime minister Junichiro Koizumi's repeated visits to Yasukuni. Japanese politicians' reckless policy of playing up nationalism to win votes has made Japan a dubious entity in the eyes of Chinese.

No wonder, the "Korean wave" has swallowed Japanese pop stars in the Chinese market. South Korea's Blue Ghost, Winter Sonata and Dae Jang Geum, in fact, are symbolic of the rapidly developing China-South Korean ties.

In the run-up to Shinzo Abe's ice-breaking visit to China in October 2006 during his first term as Japanese prime minister, China Central TV broadcast The Great White Tower, signalling the short spring of Japanese TV dramas in China.

But in the years that followed, Japan's "nationalization" of China's Diaoyu Islands, repeated denial of war crimes, including the use of "comfort women", building a full-fledged military and attempting to revise the pacifist Constitution should be blamed for the worst phase in bilateral ties in decades.

Under such circumstances, wouldn't it be odd if Chinese TV channels broadcast anti-Japanese aggression dramas on one hand and Japanese idols, even if they are in Hanzawa Naoki, occupying TV screens on the other?

Abe has dissolved the parliament and called fresh election next month. But no matter what he does, his attempts to revive Japan's economy will fail without close trade ties with China. The onus is now on Abe to improve ties with China and save the Japanese economy from going into another long recession.

Takakura is gone. But we hope Takukura's legacy of Sino-Japanese friendship pervades Japanese leaders and people.

The author is an editor with China Daily.

The opinions expressed on this page do not necessarily reflect those of China Daily

(China Daily USA 11/21/2014 page16)