Bunta Sugawara

Actor Bunta Sugawara in The Yakuza Papers
Photo © Toei

Bunta Sugawara (菅原文太 Sugawara Bunta, Sendai, Miyagi Prefecture, August 16, 1933 -)[1] is a Japanese actor. He began his film career with Shintōhō studios during the last two years before its bankruptcy in 1961. After being a star in this studio's exploitation films, his career stalled at Shōchiku, where he acted until he moved to Toei in 1967. At Toei, Sugawara became closely associated with the yakuza genre. His most notable roles were in the films of Kinji Fukasaku, particularly the five films in Fukasaku's Battles Without Honor or Humanity or The Yakuza Papers series. Sugawara's rise to prominence in the yakuza films came just as that genre had begun to lose popularity, in the mid-1970s. Sugawara successfully varied his roles, including starring in the popular Truck Yarō series, consisting of ten comedies between 1975 and 1979. He has remained active in film, though more particular in selecting projects in which he will participate. Significant later roles for Sugawara include the films The Man Who Shot the Don (1994) and My Grandpa (2003). His career recognitions include Best Actor at the Kinema Junpo Awards (1974), Blue Ribbon Awards (1976) and Hochi Film Awards (1990), and Best Supporting Actor at the Japanese Academy Awards (1980) and Nikkan Sports Film Awards (2003).


Early yearsEdit

Bunta Sugawara was born in the northern Japanese city of Sendai, capital of Miyagi Prefecture, on August 16, 1933.[1] His parents divorced when he was four, and Sugawara moved to Tokyo with his father, an artist. He grew up believing his step-mother was his actual mother, and the truth came as a shock to him in early adolescence.[2] As part of a wartime government program to locate children away from major cities, Sugawara was sent back to Sendai where he finished his elementary schooling.[2]

After the war, Sugawara was reunited with his step-mother. Their relationship became strained at this time. Sugawara took an evening prep course at Waseda University's law school and did manual labor jobs by day. Due to inability to pay the fees, he was dropped from the school in his second year. He continued taking various jobs to make a living, and began drinking heavily at this time. In 1956 Sugawara found his first regular job, as a model.[3]

Shintōhō and ShōchikuEdit

After two years working as a model, Sugawara was hired by Shintōhō, where he made his film debut in director Teruo Ishii's White Line (1958).[3] The studio promoted him as one of its "Three Towers", along with Tatsuo Terashima and Teruo Yoshida.[3] Shintōhō, at this late period in its existence, was under leadership of exploitation mogul Mitsugu Ōkura, and Sugawara began receiving top billing in such fare as The Bloody Sword of the 99th Virgin and Girl Diver of Spook Mansion (both 1959). Sugawara reminisces that, while these films are not well known today, he was lucky to have been employed by Shintōhō, where he could so quickly become a lead actor.[4]

His star status at Shintōhō came to a halt in 1961 with the studio's bankruptcy. Sugawara moved to Shōchiku. A more reputable studio than the late-era Shintōhō, Sugawara nevertheless considers his stay at Shōchiku to have been unlucky for his career.[4] His drinking habits led to his firing from Masahiro Shinoda's Shamisen and Motorcycle (1961) when he showed up late. Ironically, a hangover is said to have given his eyes a unique look which added to his performance in director Keinosuke Kinoshita's The Legend of a Desperate Struggle (1963). Though Kinoshita was pleased with Sugawara's contribution to the film, it was not a financial success.[3] While at Shōchiku, in 1965, Sugawara met former yakuza boss Noboru Andō on the set of Blood and Rules (血と掟 Chi to okite), a film starring Andō based on his own experiences.[4] The film, in which Sugawara played the role of a member of Andō's gang, made Andō a star, and he made several more films before moving to Toei studio in 1967. Sugawara's career was still stagnant at Shōchiku, and Andō helped him move to Toei studio the same year.[3]


Sugawara's debut film at Toei was a reunion with director Teruo Ishii in Ishii's last entry in the highly popular Abashiri Prison series, Abashiri Prison: Battle in a Blizzard (1967). His supporting role as one of gang boss Tomisaburō Wakayama's followers in Kōsaku Yamashita's The Fast Liver or Gangster (極道 Gokudō, 1968) garnered positive attention and led to more prominent billing.[5] Sugawara's first starring role since the Shintōhō days came with the first film in the Gendai Yakuza series, director Yasuo Furuhata's The Code of an Outlaw (Gendai yakuza: Yotamono no okite; 1969). Sugawara remained with the series until the final episode, Kinji Fukasaku's Gendai yakuza: Hito-kiri yota (現代やくざ 人斬り与太), released to English audiences as Street Mobster (1972). The most successful of the Gendai yakuza films, it established Sugawara as the new face of the cinematic yakuza, as well as pairing him with Fukasaku.[5] Sugawara starred in the five films of Fukasaku's ground-breaking Battles without Honor and Humanity, or The Yakuza Papers released between 1973 and 1974.[5] Sugawara's night habits, frequenting drinking establishments in entertainment quarters such as Shinjuku and Shibuya, had put him in contact with yakuza life. He therefore based his cinematic characterizations of gangsters on these real-life encounters, creating a different style than the more stage-based performances of older yakuza film actors such as Ken Takakura.[4] Sugawara's performance in the Yakuza Papers films earned him the Best Actor prize at the Kinema Junpo Awards.[6]

Though Sugawara had become strongly associated with the yakuza genre, this style of film fell out of popularity in the later 1970s. Sugawara successfully moved into the comedy genre with the Truck Yarō or Fireball on the Highway films (1975-1979). He was named Best Actor, in a tie with Shin Saburi, at the Blue Ribbon Awards for his role in this series.[6] In later years his roles have been diverse,[4] including a stereotype-reversal role as a police detective in Kazuhiko Hasegawa's The Man Who Stole the Sun (1979), for which he won a Japanese Academy Award for Best Supporting Actor.[6] Nevertheless, he continued to appear in gangster films throughout the 1980s and 1990s, including The Man Who Shot the Don (1994), which Toei touted as their last yakuza film.[5]

In a 2003 interview, he expressed a pessimistic view of contemporary Japanese cinema, which he saw as mostly re-makes and V-Cinema. He noted that the decreased quantity of theatrical films being made meant that it was less likely any quality films could be made. He had become selective in his roles, joking that he had become "lazy", but noting that he would appear in films which interested him. In 2003 he played an old ex-convict in Yōichi Higashi's My Grandpa,[4] a role for which he was named Best Supporting Actor at the Nikkan Sports Film Awards.[6]

Partial filmographyEdit




  1. 1.0 1.1 菅原文太 at Retrieved 2011-02-28.
  2. 2.0 2.1 Schilling, The Yakuza Movie Book, p. 130.
  3. 3.0 3.1 3.2 3.3 3.4 Schilling, The Yakuza Movie Book, p. 131.
  4. 4.0 4.1 4.2 4.3 4.4 4.5 Schilling, Mark (2003). "Interview with Bunta Sugawara" from The Japan Times, archived at Nihon Cine Art (2010-10-27).
  5. 5.0 5.1 5.2 5.3 Schilling, The Yakuza Movie Book, p. 143.
  6. 6.0 6.1 6.2 6.3 6.4 "Awards for Bunta Sugawara" at IMDb.