Japanese mobster-turned-actor dies

NEW YORK • Noboru Ando, a yakuza, or mobster, who made a seamless transition from gang leader to movie star in dozens of Japanese crime films of the 1960s and 1970s, died on Dec 16 in Tokyo. He was 89.

His death was confirmed by a spokesman for Kumonsha, his company.

Ando, who came of age in the chaotic aftermath of World War II, formed a gang known formally as the Azuma Kogyo, and informally as the Ando Gang, in 1952. At its peak, when it held sway over the cabarets and nightclubs of the Shibuya district in Tokyo, the gang had more than 300 members. Its lieutenants were identifiable by their grey suits. Ando was identifiable by a prominent scar on his left cheek, the result of a razor slashing by a Korean gangster.

In 1958, the gang was hired to collect a debt from a prominent businessman, Hideki Yokoi. Yokoi, a tough customer, not only failed to pay up, but also insulted Ando for good measure, whereupon Ando dispatched an underling with a pistol to make the point more forcefully. Yokoi was critically wounded and Ando went on the run, with the police and Japan's tabloid press in hot pursuit.

Thirty-five days and many headlines later, he was apprehended. He spent the next six years in prison for attempted murder.

Not long after his release in September 1964, he was approached by a producer at Shochiku, a major film studio, and asked to star in a film based on his life as a gangster. That movie, Blood And Rules, released in 1965, was a hit, establishing Ando as a star to watch in the yakuza genre, which was quickly overtaking the samurai film in popularity.

In 1967, he signed with Toei Studios, where he made more than 50 movies that coincided with the golden age of the yakuza film, projecting a still, menacing presence.

Some of those movies were set in the immediate postwar period, such as Sentence: Eighteen Years, about yakuza gangs operating in the black market. Others, including Street Mobster and The Big Boss's Head, his last film before he retired as an actor, conformed to the more hard-hitting documentary style that prevailed in the 1970s.

Still others were based on his own exploits, related in his three-part memoir, Yakuza And Feuds. These autobiographical films were Yakuza And Feuds: The True Account Of The Ando Gang; True Account Of The Ando Gang: Story Of Attack; and The Sex Life And Flight Of Gangster Noboru Ando, about his days on the run. Toei had a feel for the subject matter, in large part because its main producer and a host of underlings were former yakuza.

"He was the epitome of unflappable cool," said Patrick Macias, the author of TokyoScope: The Japanese Cult Film Companion (2001), describing the actor's screen persona. "He could go into a bar, order a whiskey and then, when a gang burst in and unleashed mayhem, he would continue drinking, showing no emotion - until he snapped and killed everyone."

Born in Tokyo, Ando was the oldest of four children. In his memoir, he claimed that his father was of samurai descent. He attended primary school in Yokohama and enrolled in an elite middle school in Manchuria, where his father had been posted, but was expelled after seven months.

After returning to Tokyo, he was expelled from a second school and began spending his days on the streets. Before long, he was sent to Tama Reformatory.

With World War II on, he joined the military in 1943. After completing flight training, he expected to be assigned to a kamikaze squadron but instead was sent to a team of suicide divers. The war ended before he saw any action.

He passed the entrance exams for Hosei University, but soon dropped out and returned to the streets.

After serving his prison term, he dissolved his gang - in part, he said, out of remorse at the death of one of his young lieutenants.

The decision to go into film was easy. "To be brief, I was broke," he told Mark Schilling, the author of The Yakuza Movie Book: A Guide To Japanese Gangster Films (2003). While making films, he also pursued a second career as a singer.

He added: "I just listened to what the directors wanted me to do. That's how I learnt my job as an actor."

After 1979, he occasionally worked as a producer and wrote novels about the yakuza and self-help books on fashion and sex. In 1997, he returned to the screen in The True Face Of Shinjuku: The Story Of The Shinjuku Delinquent Gangs, made for the straight-to-video market and, in 2002, he appeared in The True History Of The Ando Gang: Rules Of The Starving Wolf.

The transition from yakuza to actor was fairly natural, Ando told Schilling. "All yakuza have to be actors to survive," he said. •


A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on December 28, 2015, with the headline 'Japanese mobster-turned-actor dies'. Print Edition | Subscribe