When it comes to books about Japanese cinema, we have plenty of works that discuss the overall history, specific eras, and of course individual directors like Akira Kurosawa. But books about Japanese actors are uncommon, indeed almost non-existent in the English language.
This year, the situation has been corrected slightly with the publication of Takashi Shimura: Chameleon of Japanese Cinema, written by the veteran film historian and author Scott Allen Nollen. The book’s subject, Takashi Shimura, is one of the best known Japanese actors of all time, and the actor that Akira Kurosawa worked with most often. For many, Shimura’s face is instantly recognisable as that of the dying bureaucrat in Ikiru, the wise samurai in Seven Samurai, or the scientist in Ishirō Honda’s Godzilla. Scott Allen Nollen’s book is the first English language account of Shimura’s life and works. It was published by the academic publisher McFarland who were also kind enough to send me a review copy.
Although Shimura appeared in almost three hundred films, working with directors like Kurosawa, Honda, Masaki Kobayashi, Kenji Mizoguchi and Hiroshi Inagaki during a career spanning over half a century, Chameleon of Japanese Cinema is not a particularly thick book. It runs for 285 pages, of which the main content is 164 pages, with the rest devoted to an extensive filmography section that lists all known films that Shimura worked on, as well as notes and a fairly good index.
Despite carrying his name, this is not actually a book about Takashi Shimura, the person. It contains practically no information about what type of a man Shimura was, how he lived, what he thought about things, or what his relationships with other people were like. There is practically nothing about him as a private person in this book.
To illustrate, at one point the book mentions that Shimura took a year off from acting in 1970, yet chooses to offer no information about why he did so or what he was doing that year. Instead, the book goes on to discuss Akira Kurosawa’s Dodesukaden, a film that Shimura had no part in. Meanwhile, towards the end, Shimura’s illness is mentioned (“Shimura was quite ill”) but in no way explained — instead, the book tells us the basic plotline of the film Ogin-sama that Shimura was acting in, his illness only a minor concern for the book, with its focus squarely on the film production. This is how the book operates throughout.
As a result, Takashi Shimura: Chameleon of Japanese Cinema is not a biography. It is much more like a filmography. But it is not really a book about Shimura as an actor, either. Instead, it is a general discussion of some of the films that the actor appeared in, with Shimura the loosely connecting link between them. At one point while reading, I began to wonder if the name of Akira Kurosawa actually appears in the book more often than does Shimura’s. The situation was somewhat corrected by later chapters devoted on the Godzilla films, although by no means due to the book in any way focusing more on Shimura.
So, Shimura is never at the forefront. You don’t get to know him. You don’t learn much about him, other than what films he appeared in and what his roles were like. The titular “Takashi Shimura” remains largely absent and unknown, while the subtitle “Chameleon of Japanese Cinema” feels similarly unexplored, with the reader getting to know very little about the actorsS working methods.
Perhaps something like “Films Through Takashi Shimura” would have been a more fitting title. From that perspective, the book is quite all right. It gives some fairly good overviews of Shimura’s films with Kurosawa, as well as introductions to some of the Godzilla films and a handful of others. But if you have already read any other books on these films, there is very little new here for you. Of the close to three hundred films that Shimura appeared in, no more than two dozen or so are discussed in detail.
What it does, Chameleon of Japanese Cinema does quite well. It is well written. If you are looking for an overview of the historically most important films that Takashi Shimura appeared in, this book can certainly help you with that information. But for any other purposes, it is difficult to recommend. It is not a bad book as such, but it is quite disappointing. To be honest, I’m not entirely sure who it is aimed for.