Mere weeks after the death of fellow onscreen tough guy Ken Takakura, Japanese cinema has suffered another blow with the death of Bunta Sugawara. Sugawara reportedly died Friday of liver cancer in a Tokyo hospital, but, in a similar fashion to Takakura’s death last month, an announcement was not made until after private funeral services had been held. Sugawara was 81.
Born in 1933, Sugawara dropped out of law school in 1956 and worked as a model until launching his film career in 1958. He went to work first for Shintoho studio, then Shochiku, before landing at Toei studio in 1967 with the help of gang-boss-turned-actor Noboru Ando.
At Toei, Sugawara became famous for his roles in yakuza films, culminating with Battles Without Honor & Humanity, a 1973 film that is regarded by Japanese critics as one of the great masterpieces of the postwar period. Sugawara never broke through to Western films, but dubbed versions of several of his gangster movies were released on video in America, like The Tattooed Hit Man, where he was credited as “Bud” Sugawara.
In the late ’70s, Sugawara transitioned into comedy with the Truck Guy series, where he played a crude but kind-hearted trucker whose adventures driving across Japan in his tricked out semi truck spawned nine sequels. In 1979, he won a Japanese Academy Award for Best Supporting Actor for his role in the nuclear satire The Man Who Stole The Sun, where he played a cop pursuing a high school teacher in possession of two homemade nuclear bombs.
Sugawara continued to work steadily until 2012, and in later years specialized in voiceover work in animated films like Studio Ghibli’s Spirited Away (where he voiced six-armed boiler room operator Kamaji) and Tales From Earthsea.
A reflection on Sugawara’s career—and lots of pictures of him looking tough-yet-stylish in promotional photos—is available on Japanese film expert Patrick Macias’ website.