Yūsaku Matsuda: Game-Changing Maverick

Tough guys were everywhere during Japan’s genre movie boom of the ‘70s. Take Bunta Sugawara, the hardened anchor of Kinji Fukasaku’s Battles Without Honor and Humanity crime canon — or Sonny Chiba, who karate-chopped his way to an X-rating in the States as The Street Fighter. By the end of the ‘70s, though, there was a new kid on block — and with the once-elusive The Most Dangerous Game, a cult crime classic directed by Tōru Murakawa in 1978, Yūsaku Matsuda would cement himself as an action star for a new generation.

Introduced in a grimy mahjong den — smoking on a cigarette and wearing shades that won’t be removed for 25 minutes — Matsuda’s 6ft tall, hard-boozing, meat-chomping assassin Shouhei Narumi will soon trail a violent path in pursuit of kidnappers involved in a vicious corporate conspiracy. His sexual magnetism — exemplified by bowling ball workouts and the dangling of women out of windows — will be as evident as the ease with which he wields his massive Dirty Harry handgun. By the time he’s finished a foot race to the film’s port-side showdown, his ruthless, rebellious character bill be affirmed for the ages — inspiring two fired-up sequels and a screen persona that will serve the actor for the rest of his career.

A bold and brash star in the East, Matsuda would remain largely unknown in the West barring one unforgettable performance in a Ridley Scott classic to mark his sole Hollywood role prior to his untimely death in 1989. To mark the first-ever release of the ‘Game’ trilogy outside of Japan, we take a look back on the star’s maverick career below.

Born in Yamaguchi on September 21, 1949 (and supposedly raised in a bordello) Matsuda’s career would kick off after he landed a role in wildly popular TV series Taiyō ni Hoero! (literally: Roar at the Sun!) in 1973, playing an unruly, denim-clad police officer in over 50 of the show’s 718 episodes. Despite a reputation for trouble (he received a suspended sentence for assault in 1975 after brawling with journalists and a student), a film career took off soon after — with Matsuda playing sideman to a New York cop (Academy Award-winner George Kennedy, Cool Hand Luke) investigating a murder in Tokyo in Junya Satō’s Proof of the Man in 1977. It ended up the second-highest-grossing film in Japanese history after taking $15m at the box office; the stage was now set for a seven-film collaboration with director Murakawa, who transformed him from participant to posturing star.


Narumi (Yūsaku Matsuda) wearing signature sunglasses in The Execution Game (1979)

Narumi (Yūsaku Matsuda) wearing signature sunglasses in The Execution Game (1979)


“His style, his presence, and his way of moving were unique,” says the director in a newly-recorded interview for Arrow’s release of The Most Dangerous Game; “He was a strong and charismatic figure who absorbed everything, and knew exactly how to use it.” Here was a role for which Matsuda wanted to create a type of character that hadn’t been seen before — with the result, for better or for worse, a cold and formidable sleuth with a mysterious background who was also prone to misogyny and murder. “I thought that if I could work with him I could make great films,” said Murakawa — and he did.

After The Killing Game brought beautiful women and Taxi Driver homages, and the darker, moodier The Execution Game delved into Narumi’s murky past, the director cast Matsuda opposite Sonny Chiba in The Resurrection of the Golden Wolf in 1979 as a sharp-suited salaryman who is secretly a sharpshooter. The actor would lose 10kg in weight and have several teeth removed the following year in order to appear convincingly intense and emaciated in The Beast To Die, playing a traumatised Vietnam War journalist turned murderer. All the while, he cemented his reputation on the small screen as Vespa-riding private eye Shunsaku Kudō on TV series Detective Story — for which Murakawa regularly served as director.

In the ‘80s, Matsuda diversified, taking on more ambitious screen roles. After appearing in Yokohama BJ Blues (Eiichi Kudo) in 1981, he embarked on a successful music career. After appearing as a private tutor in Yoshimitsu Morita’s 1983 comedy The Family Game (opposite Tampopo director Jûzô Itami), he was nominated for the Japan Academy Award for Best Actor for the second time in his career. In 1986, he directed and starred in the cyberpunk-tinged A Homance — in which he plays a mute, amnesiac drifter who rides a motorcycle and sleeps with his sunglasses on. Critic Mark Schilling, in ‘The Yakuza Movie Book’, would describe the film as a precursor to the ultra-macho, minimal-dialogue movies of Takeshi Kitano in the ‘90s; the film’s poster, meanwhile, depicted him looking “like a Japanese Ray Charles”. 

By this point, Matsuda was regularly in demand by the country’s most esteemed filmmakers — collaborating with the likes of Seijun Suzuki (Branded to Kill), New Wave auteur Kijū Yoshida (Eros+Massacre) and yakuza thriller heavyweight Kinji Fukasaku (Battle Royale) throughout the decade. It seemed there was only one territory left for him to conquer — and sure enough, an opportunity came knocking. 


A look that means business in The Killing Game (1978)

A look that means business in The Killing Game (1978)


Ridley Scott was a force to be reckoned with in the ‘80s, in the wake of emphatic sci-fi and fantasy works like Alien and Blade Runner — and so, when Jackie Chan turned down a role in cops vs. yakuza romp Black Rain in 1989, Matsuda made sure his name was in the hat. He won the role of the film’s murderous, escaped-gangster arch-villain through audition — reportedly beating out competition from fellow Taiyō ni hoero! alumni Kenichi Hagiwara and Ran and Kagemusha star Jinpachi Nezu in the final round — and found himself lighting up the Hollywood silver screen opposite Michael Douglas, Andy Garcia, and fellow Japanese tough guy Ken Takakura (The Yakuza).

I wanted Sato to be a very dangerous character,” Scott would say, in a making-of featurette for the film. “But at the same time, he had to be intelligent, and to have a real point of view.” Matsuda fulfilled the brief with aplomb — receiving rave reviews by critics and contemporaries on both sides of the Pacific. “He had a certain sexuality and charisma, and you couldn’t ever tell what he was thinking,” remarked producer Sherry Lansing, while Douglas praised his “tremendous inner strength” and “extraordinary breadth of acting and dynamic range” while battling against the odds.

And it was a battle — because the actor had been diagnosed with terminal cancer prior to production, and refused chemotherapy in order to fulfil his dream of starring in a Hollywood blockbuster. He pulled off this feat despite great pain and discomfort, and kept the entire ordeal a secret from his co-stars. He died barely a month after Black Rain’s premiere in 1989, at just 40 years of age.

Matsuda’s legacy would live on through his films, his fans (including Audition director Takashi Miike), and his kin — son Ryuhei Matsuda is an acting icon in his own right, first appearing in Nagisa Oshima’s queer samurai classic Gohatto, in 1999. He would also inspire countless further media creations in the wake of his passing — like Kenshiro, protagonist of violent cult manga and anime series Fist of the North Star, and Spike Spiegel of Cowboy Bebop (based on Matsuda’s performance in Detective Story). Decades on from his passing, the game has undoubtedly changed with regard to male action stars — but as his work makes evident, Matsuda’s allure remains palpable.

James Balmont

James Balmont

Writer and expert

James Balmont is a freelance journalist based in London, whose work has been published by The Guardian, BBC Culture, Sight & Sound and more. He specialises in coverage of contemporary East Asian cinema, and has previously worked as a music reporter for outlets including NME and Crack Magazine.