Tsutomu Yamazaki did not receive an Oscar nomination for portraying Sutekichi Tokito in Farewell to the Ark.
After Kurosawa's final epic, Ran, few non-animated Japanese films have made an international impact. This lack of notoriety has left a mystery of sorts in the careers of two of the greatest living Japanese actors Tatsuya Nakadai and Tsutomu Yamazaki who have consistently worked since their notable collaborations with Kurosawa. Although Nakadai's post-80's career still is entirely a mystery for me I have seen a handful of films featuring Yamazaki where it seems like he became the go to actor for a supporting or leading role in dramedies such as in Go, Tampopo, and Departures. That brings me to his two performances from 1984. The first being in The Funeral, directed by Juzo Itami the same man who would later make Tampopo. That film is in a similar, yet less farcical vein about a family holding a traditional Japanese funeral where there are serious undertones yet the whole film has a certain levity. This is included in Yamazaki's performance as the husband of the bereaved daughter who is particularly detached from the whole affair since he's mainly there to comfort his wife who really isn't too broken up by her father's death.
Yamazaki in that film has a low key role yet is effortless in realizing both the dramatic and comedic realities of the situation. In that Yamazaki very honestly presents just a man going through the motions of the event and there is something darkly amusing as his greatest unease comes at the thought of having to give a speech at the funeral. Yamazaki appropriately plays it very close to the chest offering just that sort of solemn grace of a man respecting the funeral even while technically not treating it with the proper sincerity internally. Although he is just barely lead, Yamazaki's work is largely reactionary and effectively so, as his performance often highlights a mistake or a faux pas just through his humorous understated glances. His only major action is when his character's mistress pops up and he has a dalliance in the forest surrounding the funeral home. Even this scene is handled with the care of non-melodramatic everyday life, and again Yamazaki's work thrives in seeming just to be so natural to life. It's funny yet never tries to be finding the humor entirely through natural interactions within the situation.
Well that brings me to his second performance from 1984 which I have classified as supporting. Yamazaki's scenes are from his perspective and he seems the most important figure for the first half of the film. His last scene comes with still a good forty minutes left in the film though, and even then his proceeding scenes were broken up by the various vignettes featuring the other villagers. I will say this is rather unfortunate since the film's wavering focus is problematic as it attempts to cover too much forcing the narrative to become overstuffed and there is only a single character I became invested in. Of course that is Sutekichi played by Yamazaki, and in large part it is due to the role being played by Yamazaki. Again Yamazaki is called upon for a balance of drama and comedy though this time it is skewed given the far more insane storytelling present in this film. Yamazaki's Sutekichi's main story is about his inability to sexually perform with his wife/cousin Sue for the unfortunate reason that she has been fastened with a locked, seemingly impregnable (no pun intended) chastity belt.
Again Yamazaki excels within this rather bizarrely challenging role. This time, even though the tone itself is perhaps a bit more absurd to begin with, Yamazaki takes things all the more seriously, which is the right approach since he's one of the few actors who does not turn his character into a caricature. Yamazaki gives Sutekichi's situation an earnest gravity as he does not hold back in portraying the intensity of the man's frustrations particularly in the moment of attempted consummation. Again though Yamazaki knows exactly what he is doing as his approach makes the emotion real yet all the same funny in a very cruel way because how honest he allows it to be. Poor Sutekichi's life is only made worse as gossip spreads that his difficultly is due to impotence which leaves him ostracized and isolated from the rest of the community. Yamazaki brings an even greater intensity as he internalizes these frustrations, showing the way Sutekichi's pent up...well everything only gradually grows until he is about to burst. When it does happen, in the form of killing a relative for mocking his problems. Yamazaki in the moment grants the madness of such pent up anger, yet I also burst out laughing when the act happened I must admit. Yamazaki knows exactly how to maneuver the absurd tone and instead of becoming lost in it he amplifies its best assets. This forces Sutekichi to leave with his wife where he falls into this crisis as he sees the dead man but also believes forgetting everything to the point that he makes written reminders of what is around him as well even who he is. Due to the film's excessive subplotting this portion is a bit oddly paced especially with the wrap up that almost entirely forgets the character exists. Yamazaki again to his credit makes the most of this in developing the mental collapse which avoids making Sutekichi being a merely a symbol of the old, but actually makes him a credible man despite the situation. Yamazaki renders honesty to mess of fear, anger, and horror that haunt the man until he loses himself entirely. With his work in this film and The Funeral Yamazaki masters the tone of each finding both the humor and the drama in the material and through his characters.