ROCK ‘N’ ROLL SAMURAI! Actor-Singer Mickey Curtis on His 60 Years in Japanese Entertainment!

Actor Mickey Curtis in Tokyo in February 2013. Photo © Brett Homenick.

For more than 50 years, Mickey Curtis has been one of Japan’s most influential celebrities, whose film and music careers have been equally revolutionary. Although he is best known to American fans for his work in later SFX films such as Gunhed (1989) and Reigo the Deep-Sea Monster vs. the Battleship Yamato (2008), Mr. Curtis enjoyed a prolific acting career at Toho Studios in late 1950s through the mid-‘60s, usually appearing in the action and war films of director Kihachi Okamoto. Still an active movie star and musician in Japan to this day, Mr. Curtis spoke about his film career with Brett Homenick in February 2013.

Brett Homenick: Please talk about your early life growing up, and share whatever you would like to share with us about your life growing up.

Mickey Curtis: It will take about three years! (laughs) Well, I was born in 1938 in Tokyo (Akasaka), and during World War II, I had to go to Shanghai to escape from the war. When the war ended in 1945, I came back to Japan. (I’ve been) 60 years in show business. Next year would be 60 years in show business.

BH: What were some of your early influences? Certainly you have a very notable career as a musician, so what were some of your early influences for your musical career?

MC: Hank Williams! I think “Jambalaya” was the first tune I learned, just because it only has two chords, so I could play it on my guitar. But then Frank Sinatra, Chet Baker – I went into jazz – and so forth, but I never copied anybody. Since I was a kid, I did it in my style. So maybe that’s why it keeps me going! The audience wants an all-original style. I said, “I can’t do that. I have to do it my style.”

And then ’55, ’56, Elvis (hit stardom), so (I went) from country music to rockabilly music, to blues. Little Richard, Fats Domino, Chuck Berry – oldies but goodies! Then I got fed up with Japan, and I left Japan to go to Hong Kong for a month with my band. And there was a guy from Thailand who wanted us to come to Thailand, so I went to Thailand for almost a year. That was 1966 or ’65. It was when the Beatles came out with Rubber Soul. I remember that. So when the Beatles came here, I was out of Japan.

I made a contract with Europe, so I reassembled my band and went to Europe as the Samurai and worked in Europe for about three years. Came back (in) 1970, and then I never left Japan, except I think I went to Thailand last year and the year before. Oh, I went to the States. I came back in 1980, so 1979, ’80 I was in California.

BH: Just to backtrack a bit, how did you get involved in the entertainment industry, especially with movies and acting?

MC: Well, my first movie was Kekkon no Subete (a.k.a. All About Marriage, 1958) by (director) Kihachi Okamoto. It was his first film, too. There was a scene where there was a club, like a rock and roll club. He came to see our show, and he chose me to play this part. And he asked me if I was interested in acting. But I figured, being a musician, we stay up late — and movies, you got to get up early in the morning. I said, “I don’t want to get up every morning, five or six in the morning, to go to the studio.” Then my mother said, “If you get old, if you’re just a singer, you start losing your voice, you won’t be able to sing as much as when you were young. But if you become an actor, if you become 70 years old, there’s always a part to play.” So I kept acting.

BH: When you were with Toho Studios, were you under contract, or were you freelance?

MC: I think I was under contract but through my agency, Watanabe Productions. I’m still with Watanabe.

BH: Wow, so 50 years or more?

MC: Well, I left Watanabe for about 30 years in between.

BH: One film that you were in, one of Mr. Okamoto’s early films, Ankokugai no Kaoyaku (a.k.a. The Big Boss, 1959). Please talk about the first one (in the series), specifically working with Mr. Okamoto and some of your co-stars like (Akira) Takarada and Koji Tsuruta and just the other costars. (Toshiro) Mifune is in that and (Yosuke) Natsuki, many, many stars. So what do you remember about the first movie in that series?

MC: Well, to me, I was still young – a young, cheeky kid. Being a rock-and-roller, I didn’t care about any traditional things like the siren rings after lunch, and you walk out of your room; you have your own room in the studio. If Tsuruta-san walks out, he loses. If Mifune-san walks out first, he loses! You know, that Japanese, stupid thing. So the guys go, “3-2-1,” and both of them would come out together! (laughs) I thought it was so childish! But they’re great, great actors.

There’s a scene where Mifune-san hits me, and I thought it was a movie, man! He really hit me! I said, “Wait a minute! That’s not acting; that’s fighting!” (laughs) But, you know, Mifune-san – what can you say!

BH: He’s a legend! Well, with emphasis on Okamoto’s directing style, how would he direct you in a scene? I’ve heard other actors say that he was hard to work with in the sense that his style is very visual, so he’d make very quick cuts. So that was hard for some actors to work with that style. So what was your opinion on that?

MC: I loved it because the tempo was fast, he does a lot of cuts, and it was new in those days, modern. Okamoto’s movies were very modern, compared to others, Toei’s yakuza stuff, but completely different. I liked it. I didn’t have much experience yet, so I thought Okamoto’s style was — that’s how you made movies. So after making 130 movies, every director has his style. The actors have to cope with all of that.

BH: Personality-wise, maybe on or even off the set, what was Okamoto like, was he easy to get along with, was he friendly or reserved?

MC: Oh, he was really friendly. We used to talk because I liked a lot of movies. I’ve seen a lot of movies before then. One time, when I was in junior high, I saw 38 films in one month. So we talked about movies, and I helped him (with) cutting. He’d have a picture of what he’d like to shoot and how he’d like to cut it.

BH: Storyboarding?

MC: Yeah. Okamoto-san (says), “Why don’t we start from the bottom of the lake and then pan up and focus back on the other guy?” Technical stuff, we used to talk about all the time. I had great fun with him.

BH: Do you think he related to you differently from the other Toho actors because you came from a musical background, whereas they were professional actors who were trained, but you came from a musical background? Do you think he, maybe, treated you differently, like maybe more as a friend or confidante in that sense?

MC: Yeah, I think so. Him talking to Mifune-san is hard, right? But I’m just a young kid, so he could say anything to me. I could say anything to him. It was very good communication. We kept the communication going on until he died, I think.

BH: During the late ‘50s and the early 1960s – this is kind of an open-ended question – when you would show up at Toho, at the studio, what was it like? What was the hustle and bustle like? Toho was very productive back then, so could you describe what you would see in terms of how busy the studio was?

MC: Oh, every studio was packed every day. We had open sets and everything. We never went on location. Now everything is on location because it’s so much money to build a set. But in those days (they) built a lot of good sets and open sets. A street in Shibuya, in one night, would change to Shinjuku or Ginza! They’d redecorate everything. It was great, though. Really, (they were) the movie days. Now it’s kind of different.

Photo © Brett Homenick.

BH: Perhaps your most famous role was in Nobi (Fires on the Plain, 1959). This was at Daiei (Studios), directed by Kon Ichikawa, and costarring Eiji Funakoshi. A couple of questions. First of all, how was Daiei different from Toho, if in any way?

MC: Toho was pomp. Daiei, Shochiku (were) maybe classic. Toei was, I don’t know…

BH: Violence?

MC: Yeah, violence. A lot of yakuza stuff and beach party movies and stuff like that. So every company had their different taste. I was signed with Toho, but I worked with Daiei, Shochiku, Toei, Shintoho…

BH: Why was that? Would Toho loan you out?

MC: Yeah, so in the credits in the Daiei movie, it will say, “Mickey Curtis, Toho.”

BH: Interesting! How about working with director Ichikawa? What was he like, and how would he direct you and the other actors?

MC: He just gave us the story and what he would like to shoot and more or less let us do what we wanted to do. So the actors had to really get into it, like Funakoshi-san really lost weight, pulled all his teeth out, and (grew some) long nails. That was him, like in the movie. That’s not makeup; that’s him. And eccentric, really.

The funny thing is, when he cast me for that part, Kon Ichikawa-san didn’t know about me. All he knew (was) that I was thin. On this Criterion DVD, there’s an interview of Kon-san and me, and then I found that out. It’s funny; Kon-san didn’t know about me, but he cast me just because I was thin! He was looking for someone thin and (who) could act! When the book from Shohei Oka, who wrote Fires on the Plain, was a big hit, Hollywood said, “They will never make a movie out of this.” Because there’s cannibalism. And Kon Ichikawa did that. So I had to go and shoot people to get meat to feed Funakoshi-san and the others; that was my part. I kept saying it was monkey meat or something. At the end, you know I’ll be eating somebody. Horrifying movie. But it’s very real. The guy who wrote the book, it’s from his experience. It’s a very depressing movie.

BH: You mentioned working with Mr. Funakoshi a little bit, and he really got into his role, his teeth removed and so forth…

MC: We had a nurse that would stand by, just in case we fainted. It’s ridiculous!

BH: So what was Mr. Funakoshi like, and some of your other co-stars? Very serious, I’m sure, but what else do you recall about them?

MC: At the same time I was shooting Fires on the Plain, we were shooting (another movie, Dobunezumi Sakusen), same location. It’s Gotemba. Same costume, an old Japanese military costume. So they both sort of (combined), and I don’t remember much of (either) of them! We never saw the film. I didn’t have time when the film was done. Now they do premieres, you go there. In those days, you never had that, so a lot of films I haven’t seen. I’m trying to collect the stuff now because Dobunezumi Sakusen, I didn’t know I was in it! Yasutaka-san wrote a book about Kihachi Okamoto, and we were talking, and I said, “How come he didn’t use me in Dobunezumi Sakusen?” I was in most of his films. He said, “No, you’re in the film; you’re playing a great part in that film!” I said, “What? I don’t remember that.” Then he sent me a tape, and I found out!

A lot of movies (were) like that because, in those days, you go into the studio at nine in the morning, dress up, makeup, wait. Sometimes you’ve got to wait a week before shooting comes up. And then, during waiting, some other producer will come in and say, “Mickey-san, are you free now?” I said, “No, I’m still waiting.” “Can you come and do this spot in this film?” I change again, and we do it. That’s my accumulation of 130 movies.

BH: I think Americans would have a hard time believing people would have their teeth removed for a movie role and would be willing to do these sorts of things. What do you think is it that would propel someone to do these sorts of changes and have their teeth removed just for a movie role?

MC: Yamato-damashii. Samurai, man!

BH: The next film I’d like to talk to you about is the follow-up, Ankokugai no Taiketsu (a.k.a. The Last Gunfight, 1960), the second film (in that series). What do you recall about shooting this particular film? Was it different in any way from the first?

MC: Not really. Okamoto was Okamoto. We worked that thing out together, so I knew what the film was about. I just saw that film recently, last year. I got a tape. Mama Okamoto (the director’s wife) sent me, I think, four DVDs, and I saw it. Good film. Even now, the tempo is…

BH: It holds up very well. Absolutely. Then there’s also the third film, Ankokugai no Dankon (a.k.a. Blueprint of Murder, 1961). In this film, Kumi Mizuno and many other Toho stars are in this. So I’d actually like to take this opportunity to ask you about working with some of the other Toho stars, like Kumi Mizuno.

MC: I worked with Kumi Mizuno last year (on Shusuke Kaneko’s The Centenarian Clock). So it’s been 50 years.

BH: What sort of memories, in general, do you have, working with her?

MC: It was great. It was great because we didn’t meet before shooting. On the take, I met her on the take, and my first line was, “It’s been a long time.” That was the first dialogue we had. So it was almost real. It was fun.

BH: What about Mr. Mifune? We’ve talked a little about Mifune. Just in general, from any of your films, do you have any good Mifune stories?

MC: Not really, except that one thing I talked about. He didn’t talk with the young cats. He stayed in his room.

BH: How about Makoto Sato?

MC: Oh, we did a lot of films together, and he had his own thing going, his character. This is not an Okamoto film, but he was in another film, and he’d run across the street, and somebody would shoot him, and he’d die on the street. This director made him do (the take) 20 times. Twenty different ways of dying! And the director says, “Okay, let’s use the second one.” But, in those days, the directors … some of them were really tough.

BH: Another one, it’s another Okamoto film, of course, Kaoyaku Akatsukini Shisu (a.k.a. Big Shots Die at Dawn, 1961). There were many, many Toho stars such as (Tadao) Nakamaru and (Akihiko) Hirata, (Kumi) Mizuno is in this one as well, and (Yuzo) Kayama. Once again, what do you recall about this film or any of those particular stars?

MC: With Yuzo Kayama, was that his first film? Before that, we did a movie called Daigaku no Sanzokutachi (1960). It was a skiing film. He came to the ski-shooting location to teach (us) how to ski. He came as an instructor. But he was really good-looking, so – boom! — the next film he’s on!

BH: (laughs) Is that really how he started his career?

MC: As an actor. But his father is a very famous actor (Ken Uehara). He doesn’t act anymore, really.

BH: Yet another Okamoto movie, Dobunezumi Sakusen (a.k.a. Operation Sewer Rats, 1962). Yosuke Natsuki, Mr. Kayama, and you also mentioned that you don’t really remember this because you confused it with Nobi. How about thoughts on the film?

MC: I don’t remember anything about that film. But Yosuke Natsuki, we were friends because we both liked cars, and we were into the same groove. We talked about cars and stuff while waiting. But I don’t remember that film at all, actually. I gotta see it again.

BH: Would you say that Mr. Natsuki was the one at Toho you socialized with the most out of the actors?

MC: Yeah, maybe, yeah.

BH: What do you recall about some of the things that you would do together when you were hanging out, talking about cars?

MC: We were just hanging around, talking about cars and stuff. Toho guys, we didn’t hang out together. I used to hang out with other guys from Shochiku and from Daiei, others actors – Masahiko Tsugawa.

BH: Please talk about those experiences; I’m interested.

MC: Oh, well, Roppongi was crazy in those days. We used to drink till morning, and from Roppongi we used to go to the location. We were young! Roppongi was just incredible. There’s a book about Roppongi in those days called Tokyo Underworld. You might read it. Robert Whiting wrote it. You’ll read that, and you’ll understand Roppongi in those days! Yakuza would be shooting each other. I got shot once.

BH: You did? What happened?

MC: He missed! Bad shooter!

BH: (laughs) What was your favorite studio, in terms of even making movies or just socializing with actors? Which was your favorite during that time?

MC: Well, it’s hard to say now because it’s been so many years since then, and I’m still working continuously with new directors, new groups, so I have to forget the old stuff, otherwise my head would just blow apart! Sometimes I think, “Am I getting senile, man? I don’t remember this movie!” But actually that’s reality. I forget the old stuff. So, for writing my book, it took me two years to remember what I remembered!

BH: A different type of film that you did is Salaryman Shussetai Koki Daigobu (1960). Keiju Kobayashi, Reiko Dan, Daisuke Kato, and director Masanori Kakei (all worked on this film). What was Mr. Kakei like as a director?

MC: I don’t remember. (This is) one of the (ones where) they said, “Are you free for a couple of hours?” It was like an in-between, throwaway thing.

BH: I see. Do you remember Mr. Kobayashi or Reiko Dan?

MC: Oh, yeah. There was a movie I did with Reiko Dan called Neko to Katsuobushi (1961) – very funny movie. It’s like (The) Sting. But (Hisaya) Morishige-san was great.

BH: Please talk about him.

MC: He was great. We did theater together, we did movies together. He took us to geisha houses and showed us how to enjoy the traditional Japanese geisha play, you know, and dancing, shamisen, how to drink, and how to perform to the geishas so that they’d be interested in you. Morishige-san showed us all. I learned a lot from Morishige.

BH: That’s great! Actually, that does make me curious. During your Toho days or even during any of your other studio days, was there  a senior actor who maybe took you under his wing and gave you advice, kind of showed the ropes, and was sort of like a mentor to you?

MC: Morishige-san, I think. I didn’t hang out with Mifune-san or Koji Tsuruta-san!

BH: So he was your mentor in that sense. Other than the geisha advice, do you remember any career advice he gave?

MC: One thing I remember vividly – I don’t know if I can say it in English – but we were doing theater at that time, and when you get a lot of attention and people laugh a lot — I was pretty young, I was in my 20s. I’d keep going, throwing lines and stuff at no end, continuously. And Morishige-san would call me onto the side and say, “If they love you a lot, keep it 80%. Then you have another 20% to go on when something happens. But if you give them 100%, they won’t come tomorrow.” That’s what he told me.

BH: So leave them wanting something more.

MC: I still use that in my last shows. I only give them maybe 70% or so.

BH: So that’s something that you’ve carried with you your entire career. Did he offer any other advice or anything you that can recall?

MC: I can’t remember!

BH: Certainly, I understand. Another film is Nippon Jitsuwa Jidai (a.k.a. Sensation Seekers, 1963). Do you remember director Jun Fukuda?

MC: I know the name.

BH: But you don’t remember. Do you remember Gokigen Musume (1959) with Kenji Sahara and directed by Kengo Furusawa. Do you remember Furusawa?

MC: I was in his first film called I Love You (1959). I did, I think, three movies from his first.

Photo © Brett Homenick.

BH: What are your memories of Mr. Furusawa?

MC: Kengo Furusawa was just crazy, man! During World War II, there was a little island called Palembang. He was the only guy that survived on that island. So he was still like that while we were shooting, so he’d be screaming all the time, yelling, and he’d be on the helicopter, yelling from the sky! You can’t hear him! He was crazy, but he did a lot of films with the Crazy Cats.

BH: So he was well suited for the Crazy Cats.

MC: Yeah, right. He’d do anything, man!

BH: Moving ahead a few years, in the late ‘80s, you did Gunhed (1989). So please talk about this film.

MC: Well, Gunhed was like a 10-year anniversary of Gundam. I was only in the first, maybe, 10 minutes, then all of us died. Do you know Kamikaze Taxi (1995)?

BH: A little bit, yes.

MC: That was a very good film. Same director (as Gunhed), Masato Harada. That year, I won the Best Supporting Actor of the year (award). Okamoto sent me flowers! That was at the same time he was doing East Meets West (1995), I think.

BH: Even more recently you did Izo (2004).

MC: That’s (directed by) Takashi Miike. I’m in a lot of his films, too.

BH: Talk about Mr. Miike. He’s a very popular director.

MC: Yeah. He’s shooting too much! While shooting one movie, he’ll be on the phone talking about the next film. I don’t know when he sleeps; I’ve never seen him sleeping! But we did a lot of stuff; we’re friends. When I had my tattoo (done), he came with a camera. He shot the whole thing. I have a skull tattooed here.

BH: Also recently you did Reigo (the Deep-Sea Monster vs. the Battleship Yamato, 2008)…

MC: I haven’t seen that! I can’t get a hold of it. I’ve been wanting to see that.

BH: What was that like? That was a very low-budget film.

MC: I think so. The director was a rakugo (master), Shinpei Hayashiya. He’s a rakugo master.

BH: That was the connection; that was why he asked you…

MC: I think so.

BH: Just to backtrack a little bit, there’s also (the Toei superhero series) Jiku Senshi Spilban (1986) where you were Emperor Guillotine.

MC: That was great! One year, man, every morning at five o’clock in the morning I’d be on my bike to Toei Studios and change into that stuff! (That) was crazy, man! I had a lot of fun, though. A lot of action, cheap – typical Toei TV series for kids. That was fun. I loved doing those crazy characters!

BH: What would you say is your favorite movie that you’ve done?

MC: Well, Kamikaze Taxi definitely is one. And the book was good, the script was good. Masato, the director, was very good. We all had a lot of fun doing that film. Recently (another favorite) is Robo-G (2012).

I’m happy with the parts that I get now. Now the directors are starting to write the scripts for me, instead of just casting. It’s a tough job, you know, five o’clock in the morning, hours of driving, working late, working till morning, stuff like that. It’s really tough. I’m 75 years old. Everybody forgets that ‘cause I’m always with the young guys; they forget how old I am. Sometimes I forget it!

BH: So why don’t you talk a little bit about your music career and just let people know who maybe aren’t familiar with (Mickey Curtis &) the Samurai some of the accomplishments that you’ve done, music-wise.

MC: Music-wise, I started in 1958. (It) was my big boom, rock and roll, rockabilly days, and I just kept going all the way. Moved to jazz when I was 50, so now my show, there’s no genre. I do jazz, country, rock, Latin – all kinds of music in my show.

With the Samurai, we went abroad. Then I came back, and I started producing. I produced a lot of records. I sold, maybe, two or three million records as a producer. Do you know Eikichi Yazawa? I found him. I had a lot of hits in the ‘70s. (I was) the first Japanese record producer in Japan because, in those days, the record company, they now would be doing that job. But I would find someone and bring (him) to various record companies and give him ideas on selling (himself). I was the only record producer who did that. So the record company couldn’t understand why they had to pay me. I had to stop! Everybody was a salaryman; I was freelance.

After that, I owned a custom bike shop. I used to do custom bikes for about three years, maybe (15) years (ago). Then I went back to music with what I have now, meaning my show.

BH: Who was the best director you ever worked with?

MC: That’s hard to say. (laughs) A lot of guys I don’t even remember! Now I’m doing a lot of movies with young directors. They’re all very good, very talented. I enjoy working with young directors. Most of the directors had seen Kamikaze Taxi, so all the young directors come to me. “How was that movie? How was it made?” It’s good.

BH: In closing, what would you like to say?

MC: Well, next week, I’m going to (work on) a movie called By the Sea. I have maybe two or three more movies waiting. The scripts haven’t been done yet; I’m waiting for the scripts to be done. Once a month, maybe, I’ll do a show, music. And I do rakugo. I do a lot of television. I just finished a 10-episode TV series. But doing all of that at once is quite tiring! (laughs) Well, I hope I can keep going. I don’t know how many more years I can live, but I’ll live till I die!

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