Born Katsuji Sasaki in Hokkaido, Japan on the 28th of April 1917, Minoru Chiaki was one of the most astonishingly versatile character actors to ever grace the silver screen.
Akira Kurosawa discovered him in the play The Abortion Doctor (which he would adapt into The Quiet Duel) and cast him in the film Stray Dog as a nightclub worker sweltering under the heat as he is questioned by Sato and Murakami.
Since then he went to appear in nine other Kurosawa films and became popular with both Toho and Toei.
Chiaki showed remarkable capability at both comedic and dramatic roles, from the noblest of men to the most unsavory of crooks. Tall and baby-faced, with large front teeth and a laugh like Marge Simpson, he was a memorable screen presence, even though he never truly stepped out from beneath Toshiro Mifune's shadow.
It's hard to put into words how astonishing Chiaki's range was: from playing the kind and gentle priest in Rashomon, the noble Yoshiaki Miki in Throne of Blood, and the jolly boatman Sasuke in Samurai III: Duel at Ganryu Island, to the scoundrel Tahei in The Hidden Fortress and the downright nasty Tono-sama in The Lower Depths, there was no "type" given to Chiaki's roles, except for the likeable screen charisma he bestowed on every one of his roles.
Sometimes his roles were more complex than they appeared, such as the well-intentioned Heihachi Hayashida in Seven Samurai, who teases Kikuchiyo to no end and whose jokes sometimes hurt people's feelings, and the concerned but bad-tempered Jiro Nakajima in I Live in Fear.
In each of his roles there is a different feel to them. This image is a testament to the scope of Chiaki's talent. The different expressions and their eyes and their body language convey a vast range of personalities.
|Clockwise from top left: the priest from 'Rashomon', Heihachi Hayashida from 'Seven Samurai', Yoshiyaki Miki from 'Throne of Blood', Jiro Nakajima from 'I Live in Fear', Tahei from 'The Hidden Fortress' and Tono-sama from 'The Lower Depths'.|
Chiaki is little-known outside of Japan but he had an illustrious career in both film and television.
The last of the Seven Samurai, he died in 1999 at the ripe old age of 82. One of his last films was Gray Sunset, in which he played a former University professor with Alzheimer's, and for that he won a well-deserved Japan Academy Prize for best actor.