Noboru Ando, Mobster Film Star in Japan, Dies at 89


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Noboru Ando

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Noboru Ando, a yakuza, or mobster, who made a seamless transition from gang leader to movie star in dozens of Japanese crime films of the 1960s and ’70s, died on Dec. 16 in Tokyo. He was 89.

His death was confirmed by a spokesman for Kumonsha, his company.

Mr. Ando, who came of age in the chaotic aftermath of World War II, formed a gang known formally as the Azuma Kogyo, and informally as the Ando Gang, in 1952. At its peak, when it held sway over the cabarets and nightclubs of the Shibuya District in Tokyo, the gang had more than 300 members. Its lieutenants were identifiable by their gray suits. Mr. Ando was identifiable by a prominent scar on his left cheek, the result of a razor slashing by a Korean gangster.

In 1958, the gang was hired to collect a debt from a prominent businessman, Hideki Yokoi. Mr. Yokoi, a tough customer, not only failed to pay up but insulted Mr. Ando for good measure, whereupon Mr. Ando dispatched an underling with a pistol to make the point more forcefully. Mr. Yokoi was critically wounded and Mr. Ando went on the run, with the police and Japan’s tabloid press in hot pursuit.

Thirty-five days and many headlines later, Mr. Ando was apprehended. He spent the next six years in prison for attempted murder.

Not long after his release in September 1964, he was approached by a producer at Shochiku, a major film studio, and asked to star in a film based on his life as a gangster. That movie, “Blood and Rules,” released in 1965, was a hit, establishing Mr. Ando as a star to watch in the yakuza genre, which was quickly overtaking the samurai film in popularity.

In 1967 he signed with Toei Studios, where he made more than 50 movies that coincided with the golden age of the yakuza film, projecting a still, menacing presence.

Some of those movies were set in the immediate postwar period, such as “Sentence: Eighteen Years,” about yakuza gangs operating in the black market. Others, including “Street Mobster” and “The Big Boss’s Head,” his last film before he retired as an actor, conformed to the more hard-hitting documentary style that prevailed in the 1970s. His 1971 film “The Wolves” was shown in New York in 1982 as part of the Public Theater’s Summer in Japan series.

Still others were based on his own exploits, related in his three-part memoir, “Yakuza and Feuds.” These autobiographical films were “Yakuza and Feuds: The True Account of the Ando Gang”; “True Account of the Ando Gang: Story of Attack”; and “The Sex Life and Flight of Gangster Noboru Ando,” about his days on the run. Toei, the Warner Bros. of the genre, had a genuine feel for the subject matter, in large part because its main producer and a host of underlings were former yakuza.

“He was the epitome of unflappable cool,” said Patrick Macias, the author of “TokyoScope: The Japanese Cult Film Companion” (2001), describing the actor’s screen persona. “He could go into a bar, order a whiskey, and then, when a gang burst in and unleashed mayhem, he would continue drinking, showing no emotion — until he snapped and killed everyone.”

Noboru Ando was born on May 24, 1926, in Tokyo, the oldest of four children. In his memoir he claimed that his father was of samurai descent. He attended primary school in Yokohama and enrolled in an elite middle school in Manchuria — where his father had been posted — but was expelled after seven months.

After returning to Tokyo, he was expelled from a second school and began spending his days on the streets. Before long he was sent to Tama Reformatory.

With World War II on, he joined the military in 1943. After completing flight training, he expected to be assigned to a kamikaze squadron but instead was sent to the Crouching Dragon Unit, a team of suicide divers, equipped with explosives, who attached themselves to the hulls of enemy ships. The war ended before he saw any action.

Mr. Ando passed the entrance exams for Hosei University but soon dropped out and returned to the streets, earning a reputation as a brawler whose favored weapon was a straight razor.

After serving his prison term, Mr. Ando dissolved his gang — in part, he said, out of remorse at the death of one of his young lieutenants.

The decision to go into film was easy. “To be brief, I was broke,” he told Mark Schilling, the author of “The Yakuza Movie Book: A Guide to Japanese Gangster Films” (2003). While making films, he also pursued a second career as a singer.

He added: “I just listened to what the directors wanted me to do. That’s how I learned my job as an actor.”

After his first film, he extended his range in “The History of a Man’s Face,” directed by Tai Kato, in which Mr. Ando played a doctor (and former murderer) whose clinic is menaced by a Korean-Japanese gang. He quickly made two other highly regarded films with Mr. Kato, “Opium Heights: Hell Squad Attack,” about corruption in wartime China, and “Sentence: Eighteen Years.” These films, Mr. Schilling wrote, “expressed the loneliness, desperation and feral toughness of many men of his generation against a backdrop of general lawlessness.”

Mr. Ando’s films of the 1960s adhered to the norms of the ninkyo eiga (chivalry films), which expressed the samurai code of honor in a more modern setting. The age-old conflict between duty and desire provided the dramatic tension. In the more brutal jitsuroku eiga (true-story films) of the 1970s, the yakuza as a romantic Robin Hood became an antihero, rejecting group loyalty and living only for himself in a dog-eat-dog world.

After 1979, Mr. Ando occasionally worked as a producer and wrote novels about the yakuza and self-help books on fashion and sex. In 1997 he returned to the screen in “The True Face of Shinjuku: The Story of the Shinjuku Delinquent Gangs,” made for the straight-to-video market, and in 2002 he appeared in “The True History of the Ando Gang: Rules of the Starving Wolf.”

Information on survivors was not immediately available.

The transition from yakuza to actor was fairly natural, Mr. Ando told Mr. Schilling. “All yakuza have to be actors to survive,” he said.



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