Ryo Ikebe: 1918-2010
Toho Leading Man Dies at 92
Author: Ed Godziszewski
Source: Variety, Foreign Correspondents Club of Japan
Special Thanks to Daisuke Ishizuka, Stuart Galbraith IV, Mark Schilling, and Georges Baumgartner
Ryo Ikebe, well-known to fans of Japanese science fiction and fantasy film, died in Tokyo at 1:55pm on October 8, 2010 from complications of blood poisoning at the age of 92. Born on February 11, 1918 to painter and comic artist Hitoshi Ikebe, he graduated from Rikkyu University and started out his film career in 1940 as a screenwriter at Toho, with his ultimate ambition to be a director. However, his handsome good looks were noticed by director Yasujiro Shimazu who suggested Ikebe try performing in front of the camera, and he made his acting debut in 1941’s FIGHTING FISH (Togyo).
Shortly after his debut, Ikebe was drafted into the military and served nearly 5 years in China as an officer. Upon his return to Japan after the war, Ikebe’s acting career resumed, initially taking on several leading roles for director Kajiro Yamamoto. He quickly established himself as a top star and worked with a virtual hall-of-fame roll call of directors… Yasujiro Ozu, Mikio Naruse, Kon Ichikawa, Tadashi Imai, Masahiro Shinoda, Shiro Toyoda.
In the postwar years Ikebe worked in a wide variety of film genres; romance, dramas, period films, crime stories, thrillers, comedies, war stories, etc. His long list of early credits include such films as SWORDS AND BROCADE (Hakamadare Yasusuke, 1952), BOT-CHAN (Botchan, 1953), GEISHA KONATSU (1954), THE ETERNAL LOVE (Watashi no Subeteo, 1954), WITH ALL MY HEART (Onna Gokora wa Hitosuji Ni, 1954), THE SECOND KISS (Daini no Seppun, 1954), BRIDE IN A BATHING SUIT (Mizugi no Hanayome, 1954), LOVE TIDE (Koi Gesho, 1955), THE IMMORTAL PITCHER (Fumetsu no Nekkyu, 1955), NO RESPONSE FROM CAR 33 (Sanjusan-Gosha Ohtoh Nashi, 1955), THE ROOKIE MANAGER (O-Banto Ko-Banto, 1955), FOREVER BE MINE (Kimi Shini Tamou Koto Nakare, 1955), THE LONE JOURNEY (Tabiji, 1955), THE MAIDEN COURTESAN (Rangiku Monogatari, 1956), THE COLLEGE HERO (Daigaku no Ninkimono, 1956), SNOW COUNTRY (Yokiguni, 1957), THE DECOY (Datsugokushu, 1957), THE ENTRAPPED GANGSTER (Tejo-o Kakero, 1959), DARK NIGHT JOURNEY (Anyakoro, 1959), and the surprise hit SUBMARINE E-57 WILL NOT SURRENDER (Sensuikan I-57 Kofuku Sezu, 1959). The success of SUBMARINE E-57 got Toho back into producing large scale war movies such as STORM OF THE PACIFIC (Taiheiyo no Arashi, 1960), for which Ryo Ikebe received special billing among the all-star cast.
Although popular especially among young women with his intellectual aura and urbane good looks, Ikebe’s work received little critical attention until his appearance as a dishonest businessman in Ozu’s EARLY SPRING (Sooshun, 1956). He was known to dislike working in period melodramas and seemed much more at home starring as the romantic leading man in modern day productions that played best to female audiences. During his early days as an actor, he was deeply involved in the actors union, at one point contributing his acting fees from other company’s productions to the union fund during the Toho strikes in the early 50s. Later in life, he remained active in labor, serving as president of the Japan Film Actors Association.
Ikebe’s film resume included a variety of well-regarded works, such as Tadashi Imai’s youth epic BLUE MOUNTAINS (Aoi Sanmyaku, 1949) in which the 30 year old Ikebe played a high school student, the WWI drama DESERTION AT DAWN (Akatsuki no Dasso, 1950) directed by Senkichi Taniguchi and written by Akira Kurosawa, Mashiro Shinoda’s landmark gangster film PALE FLOWER (Kawaita Hana, 1964), STATION (1981), and Paul Schrader’s 1985 biographical account of Yukio Mishima, MISHIMA: A LIFE IN FOUR CHAPTERS.
As one of Toho’s top leading men, Ikebe was occasionally featured in films with the studio’s biggest star, Toshiro Mifune. Toho often called on them for productions like Kajiro Yamamoto’s HOLIDAY IN TOKYO (Tokyo no Kyujitsu, 1958) and STORM OF THE PACIFIC that showcased the studio’s stable of big name actors. The two also appeared together in cameos for Yasuki Chiba’s comedy THE HAPPY PILGRIMAGE (Yajikita Dochu Sugoroku, 1958) as two men mistaken for the film’s bumbling lead characters. Ryo Ikebe and Toshiro Mifune most notably co-starred in Senkichi Taniguchi’s thriller MAN AGAINST MAN (Otoko tai Otoko, 1960), portraying former army buddies who end up on opposite sides of a confrontation with gangsters. The film introduced a young actor named Yuzo Kayama, who would eventually replace the older stars as Toho’s most popular male performer.
As Ryo Ikebe entered his mid-forties, the frequency and types of roles he was offered began to change. In 1965, he resigned from Toho and started his own production office, but had little success as an independent. From 1965-72, he co-starred as an honorable gangster with mega-star Ken Takakura in a series of nine films known as “Brutal Tales of Chivalry” (Showa Zankyo-Den). Produced by Toei, the yakuza film series was enormously successful and re-established Ikebe as a leading man. Ironically, it was Ikebe who called out the Japanese studios in the press for their involvement with organized crime.
A prolific actor with 150 film credits to his name, Ikebe also appeared on dozens of TV programs and in stage plays, all while managing a well-regarded second career as a writer. He was well known for his novels, poetry, magazine essays… even a cook book, Good Home Cooking with Mr Ikebe. His 1991 autobiography, A Light Breeze and Sometimes a Whirlwind (Soyokaze toki niwa Tsumujikaze) won a special Japan Literary Award. He continued writing until late 2009 when illness forced him to stop.
Ryo Ikebe was a friend of director Ishiro Honda, the pair living close to each other in Seijo city, and Honda tapped Ikebe to play the lead in his directorial debut, THE BLUE PEARL (Aoi Shinju, 1951). He also took leading roles in three other Ishiro Honda dramas— the WWII drama FAREWELL RABAUL (Saraba Rabauru, 1954), LOVE MAKEUP (Koi-Gesho, 1955), and AN ECHO CALLS YOU (Kodama Wa Yonde Iru, 1959)— but is best known to SciFi Japan readers for his roles in Honda’s science fiction films BATTLE IN OUTER SPACE (Uchu Daisenso, 1959) and GORATH (Yosei Gorasu, 1962).
Additional credits for Ikebe in fantasy/sf films include starring appearances in Shiro Toyoda’s THE LEGEND OF THE WHITE SERPENT (Byakufujin no Yoren, aka MADAME WHITE SNAKE, 1956), Nobuo Nakagawa’s VAMPIRE MOTH (Kyuketsuga, 1956), and Jun Fukuda’s THE WAR IN SPACE (Wakusei Daisenso, 1977).