Tetsuya Watari, one of Japan’s most famous crime drama stars, died from pneumonia on August 10. His death was announced on Friday after a private funeral with family members. Watari played the leading man in several movies and television programs cherished by car enthusiasts, and was best known among that cadre for his role as Sgt Keisuke Daimon in the long-running Seibu Keisatsu TV series.
Watari was born Michihiko Watase on December 28, 1941 on Awaji Island in Hyogo Prefecture. Prior to his acting career and his taking the stage name Tetsuya Watari, he studied martial arts during university. Styles included shotokan karate and judo, and in the latter he rose to the rank of first dan. Watari’s goal was initially to become a mechanic for Japan Air Lines, but he failed the entrance test.
Instead, he was scouted in 1964 and began his acting career under the mentorship of Yujiro Ishihara, the legendary Showa Era actor and producer responsible for some of Japan’s most memorable police and crime series. Watari often used his martial arts skills in his roles, and his big break came in 1966 with a starring role in the yakuza drama Tokyo Drifter. That same year, Watari won the Blue Ribbon Award (equivalent to an Oscar in the US) for Best Newcomer for his role in A Record of Love and Death.
Early in his career, Watari was known to have a hot temper. One time, Watari reportedly responded to a rude reporter by delivering an uppercut that knocked him unconscious. He would go on to star as hard-boiled heros on both sides of the law in films like Outlaw: Gangster VIP, Kanto Exile, and Kinji Fukasaku’s true story-based Yakuza Graveyard, for which Watari first donned his trademark aviator sunglasses and won a Blue Ribbon Best Actor Award in 1976.
After Watari left his first studio in the early 1970s he was heavily recruited by major outfits like Toei. Instead, he joined Ishihara Pro, then on the verge of bankruptcy, out of respect for his mentor. In their first full-scale TV production, The Big City, Watari starred as the chief of investigation for a Tokyo police department. The series was the first in Japan to feature gunfights and car stunts as action centerpieces, much to the delight of young car enthusiasts across Japan. The team-up proved successful, rescuing the company from its financial hardships.
The Big City concluded in 1979 after three seasons because Ishihara wanted to create gun battles and car chases on an even greater scale. That show became the beloved Seibu Keisatsu, which famously destroyed 4,680 cars during its five-year, 263-episode run. Watari once again starred, this time as Sgt Daimon of the western Tokyo police department, the shotgun-toting, avaiator-wearing, shoot-first-ask-questions-later head cop with his own custom S130 Nissan Z. For his part, Ishihara played the section chief, driving a custom convertible Nissan Gazelle.
Thanks to the intense action, Seibu Keisatsu became an enormous hit and influenced a generation of gearheads. The impact was similar to that of Knight Rider, Hawaii Five-O, and The A-Team combined. Even today there are numerous fan-made replicas of the show’s cars while the real survivors are given VIP treatment. Watari is a beloved figure among fans of Seibu Keisatsu and, by extension, fans of cars in general that came of age in the early 1980s.
Like many entertainers in Japan, Watari’s talents extended beyond acting. He was also a sake spokesman, an accomplished singer, and voice actor whom you might recognize behind the digitally rendered face of Shintaro Kazama in the Yakuza video game series.
As time went on, Watari shed his hothead reputation. He was a loyal friend, even carrying on the Ishihara Pro torch as president after Yujiro Ishihara himself passed away in 1987. He also came to be known as generous mentor to younger actors, paying it forward in the same way Ishihara did to him.
Off-screen Watari’s persona may have softened, but he will always be remembered as one of Japan’s quintessential Showa Era tough guys. He will be missed.