10 Most Famous Japanese Actors

Thursday, March 10 by William Gish

The 10 most famous Japanese actors are known around the world for their work in films both modern and classic that changed the template of global cinema. They are sensitive leading men of nuance and depth, grandiose movie stars of bold gestures and martial arts experts ready to cave your head in. Get down with it.

  1. Toshiro Mifune Mifune is undoubtedly the most famous Japanese actor. Like a Japanese De Niro and Scorsese, Kurosawa and Mifune made countless classics together during the first golden age of Japanese cinema, including “Seven Samurai,” “Rashomon,” “Stray Dog” and “Yojimbo.” With his volcanic voice and imposing physicality, Mifune was both an actor, a movie star and a man of outlandish gestures and complex emotion.
  2. Sessue Hayakawa Hayakawa was so famous during the silent film era that he rivaled the success of Charlie Chaplin. The ill will engendered toward Japanese Americans by WWII wreaked havoc on Hayakawa’s career. However, in 1957 he was nominated for an Oscar for his performance in “Bridge on the River Kwai.”
  3. Ken Watanabe Like Mifune, Watanabe has an imposing presence. Unlike Mifune, he is an actor that prizes understatement. Watanabe rose to international prominence thanks to roles in “The Last Samurai,” “Memoirs of a Geisha” and “Batman Begins.” His performance in “Letters From Iwo Jima” was phenomenal.
  4. Takashi Shimura Shimura played the world-weary sage to Mifune’s cocksure youngster in a number of films, including “Seven Samurai” and “Stray Dog.” One of Shimura’s great strengths as an actor and something that contributed to his becoming one of the most famous Japanese actors was his love of films of all types. He appeared in lofty fair like “Ikiru” and “Red Beard” alongside “Gojira” and “Mothra.”
  5. Pat Morita Two words: Mr. Miyagi. What else do you need to know?
  6. Sonny Chiba This martial arts legend would kick your ass as soon as he looks at you. One of the most famous Japanese actors, Chiba’s impressive resume includes “Invasion of the Neptune Men,” “Street Fighter,” “Karate Bearfighter,” “The Killing Machine,” “The Assassin,” “G.I. Samurai” and “Kill Bill.”
  7. Takeshi Kitano Kitano was a Japanese comedian who made the unlikely transition to leading man and yakuza film director in the early '90s. As a comedian, Kitano was famous in Japan. As a serious actor and director, he found success at Cannes and other festivals with films like “Brother” and “Sonantine.”
  8. Ken Takakura Takakura is kind of like the Japanese Clint Eastwood. He’s taciturn, badass, angry and can often be found toting a letha weapon. A veteran of yakuza films, he’s cut off many a limb with his trusty sword and found success in the west in films like “Black Rain” and “Mr. Baseball.”
  9. Yakusho Koji Koji is well known to Western audiences as the star as some of the most internationally acclaimed Japanese films made since he began acting in the late 1970s. One of the most famous Japanese actors, he has starred in such films as “Tampopo,” “Shall We Dance?,” “The Eel,” “Babel” and “Tokyo Sonata.”
  10. Hiroyuki Sanda Sanda has a face well known to Americans. In addition to a prominent role in the final season of “Lost,” he has featured in “Speed Race,” “Rush Hour 3,” “The Last Samurai,” “Sunshine” and “The White Countess.” In Asi, he is famous for countless films, including “Ringu” and Chinese epic “The Promise.”