Eiji Funakoshi: 1923-2007
GAMERA and FIRES ON THE PLAIN star dies on his birthday
Author: Keith Aiken
Translations and Additional Material: Oki Miyano
Actor Eiji Funakoshi died of a stroke at 10:57pm on March 17. It was his 84th birthday.
Born Eijiro Funakoshi on March 17, 1923 in Tokyo, Eiji Funakoshi signed with the Daiei Motion Picture Company in 1947 and made his acting debut the following year with BEAUTIFUL ENEMY (Utsukushiki Teki). Initially cast in “young, handsome guy” roles, Funakoshi soon established himself as a strong and versatile character actor. In a career that spanned three decades Funakoshi starred in a variety of genres and worked for directors Kozaburo Yoshimura, Mikio Naruse and Yasuzo Masumura. A partial list of credits includes OLDER BROTHER, YOUNGER SISTER (Ani Imouto, 1953), A GIRL ISN’T ALLOWED TO LOVE (Bara Ikutabika, 1955), BRIDGE OF JAPAN (Nihonbashi, 1956), LEAVES OF NIGHT (Yoru no Cho, 1957), THE HOLE (Ana, 1957), WARM CURRENT (Danryu, 1957), CHUSHINGURA (1958), THE MOST VALUABLE WIFE (Saiko Shukun Fujin, 1959), GOODBYE, HELLO (Anata to Watashi no Aikotoba: Sayonara, Konichiwa, 1959), AFRAID TO DIE (Karakkaze Yaro, 1960), A WOMAN’S TESTAMENT (Jokyo, 1960), FLOOD (Hanran. 1959), THE AGE OF MARRIAGE (Konki, 1961), A LUSTFUL MAN (Koshoku Ichidai Otoko, 1961), GHOST STORY OF KAKUI STREET (Kaiodan Kakuidori, 1961), INDULGENCE (Tadare, 1962), THE OUTCAST (Hakai, 1962), BEING TWO ISN’T EASY (Watashi wa Nisai, 1962), ELEGANT BEAST (Shitoyakana Kedamono, 1962), THE MONEY DANCE (Dokonjo Monogatari: Zeni no Odori, 1963), MANJI (1964), BLACK EXPRESS (Kuro no Chotokkyu, 1964), FREEZING POINT (Hyoken, 1966), WHEN THE COOKIE CRUMBLES (Satoshi ga Kowareru Toki, 1967), THE GHOSTLY TRAP (Kaidan Otoshiana, 1968), THE NIGHT BEFORE PEARL HARBOR (Rikugan Nakano Gakko: Kaisen Zenya, 1968), BLIND BEAST (Moju, 1969) and TORA-SAN’S RISE AND FALL (Otoko wa Tsurai yo: Torajiro Aiaigasa, 1975).
Funakoshi was a favorite actor of internationally renowned director Kon Ichikawa. The two collaborated on several films, most notably the World War II drama FIRES ON THE PLAIN (Nobi, 1959). Funakoshi played the lead role of Imperial Army Private Tamura, a soldier stationed on Leyte Island. Stranded in a hostile environment after Japan’s surrender, the tuberculosis-ridden Tamura witnesses firsthand the aftermath of his country’s three year occupation of the Philippines. In an interview recorded for the new FIRES ON THE PLAIN Criterion Collection DVD, Ichikawa stated, “I decided that I wanted Funakoshi for the lead from the beginning.” FIRES ON THE PLAIN won awards in Japan and overseas, including prizes for Kon Ichiwaka from the Blue Ribbon in Japan and the Locarno Film Festival in Switzerland. Eiji Funakoshi’s performance also won “Best Actor” awards from the Mainichi Film Concours and the Kinema Junpo Award.
When Daiei produced GAMERA (Daikaiju Gamera, US title GAMMERA THE INVINCIBLE) in 1965, Eiji Funakoshi was tapped for the lead character of Dr. Hidaka. Much as with Takashi Shimura in the original GODZILLA (Gojira, 1954), Funakoshi brought a level of authority to GAMERA as a respected elder scientist who must find a way to stop the monster’s rampage. The movie was a major box office hit and Daiei launched a series of Gamera films. Funakoshi returned for the fifth movie, GAMERA VS GUIRON (Gamera tai Daiakuju Giron, US title ATTACK OF THE MONSTERS, 1969), in the supporting role of Dr. Shiga.
Funakoshi married actress Yumiko Hasegawa (THE TALE OF GENJI) in 1958 and the couple had two children. Their son Eiichiro Funakoshi also became an actor with roles in KISARAZU CAT’S EYE- THE MOVIE (Kisarazu Cats Eye: Nihon Series, 2003) and FALLING TEARS (Nada Soso, 2006).
Only a few of Eiji Funakoshi’s films are commercially available in the United States. Both GAMERA and GAMERA VS GUIRON have been released by a number of public domain labels. Fantoma has released quality 2.35:1 widescreen DVDs of three films directed by Yasuzo Masumura: AFRAID TO DIE, MANJI and BLIND BEAST. Last week, FIRES ON THE PLAIN went on sale from the Criterion Collection. The Criterion disc features a new, restored high-definition digital transfer of the film in 2.35:1 widescreen, the original theatrical trailer, an introduction by Japanese film scholar Donald Richie, and interviews with Kon Ichikawa and co-star Mickey Curtis.