Japanese Actor Bunta Sugawara Dies at 81

Bunta Sugawara P 2014
AP Images/Invision

The veteran actor, known for playing yakuza gangsters, later voiced Ghibli characters

Bunta Sugawara, best known for his roles in the Battles Without Honor and Humanity yakuza gangster films, died from liver cancer at a Tokyo hospital on Friday. He was 81.

His funeral was held in private on Sunday, before the announcement of his death was made, in a similar fashion to that of Ken Takakura's last month.

Born in the northeast city of Sendai, Sugawara dropped out of Tokyo's Waseda University and worked as a model before joining the now defunct Shintoho studio and bowing on the big screen in 1958.

After a stint at the Shochiku studio, his break came 15 years later at Toei in Kinji Fukasaku's Battles Without Honor and Humanity in 1973 as a gangster in the gritty tale of turf wars in Hiroshima that was hailed as a break from the previous romanticized portrayals of yakuza.

In 1975, he found more success in the Truck Guy comedy films that would stretch to 10 installments.

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In his later years he found work as a voice actor in Studio Ghibli productions, including Hayao Miyazaki's 2001 Oscar-winning Spirited Away, as well as Wolf Children and the title character of Tales from Earthsea.

After his retirement, Sugawara became active in political and social causes, such as helping elderly Korean-Japanese, campaigning against nuclear power and changes to Japan's pacifist constitution.

In November, he was involved in the campaign against the relocation of a U.S. Marine Corps base on the southern island of Okinawa.

Twitter: @GavinJBlair