On January 24, 2004, Japan lost one of the last living links with its own cinematic past when actor Tomio Aoki passed away at the venerable age of 80. His career spanning virtually the entire history of Japanese cinema, from Ozu to Shinozaki, Aoki is still best remembered by many for his days as a child actor. He was still a toddler of five when he entered Shochiku's Kamata studios in 1929, debuting in The Life of an Office Worker (Kaishain Seikatsu) under direction of the man whose name was synonymous with Aoki's early career: Yasujiro Ozu.
It was under Ozu's guidance that the young actor would find fame, most notably for their second collaboration A Straightforward Boy (Tokkan Kozo, also 1929). In this knockabout comedy, of which sadly only 10 of the original 38 minutes survive, Aoki plays a seemingly cherubic boy lured by a kidnapper who soon discovers the more diabolical side the tyke's personality. The success of the film made Aoki so popular that he adopted the Japanese title of the film as his screen name and spent the remainder of his pre-war career with the moniker Tokkan Kozo ("boy who charges into you").
The partnership between director and child star continued for an additional ten films, including the unforgettable I Was Born, But
(Umareta Wa Mita Keredo, 1932), A Story of Floating Weeds (Ukigusa Monogatari, 1934), and Ozu's first talkie, The Only Son (Hitori Musuko, 1936). The Only Son also marked Aoki and Ozu's move from Kamata to Shochiku's studios in Ofuna, since the passing trains made the former location unfit for sound shooting. A look at Aoki's filmography makes it clear, however, that Ozu was certainly not the only filmmaker the actor repeatedly worked with in the 30s. The names of Hiroshi Shimizu and Hiromasa Nomura crop up a lot more often, 17 and 14 times respectively. Indeed, the young actor appeared in no less than 98 films between 1929 and 1940.
With the advent of the war Aoki, then aged 16, disappeared from the screen after 1940, only to return again 15 years later as a contract player with Nikkatsu studios (which explains why the actor never appeard in the postwar films of Ozu, who always remained loyal to Shochiku). His first job for Nikkatsu was a small part as a newspaper reporter in Hiroshi Noguchi's Bocchan Kisha (1955), which would set the tone for his career at the studio. With his childhood stardom a faint memory, the actor had to start from scratch playing bit parts and small supporting roles, often credited as "Fisherman A" or "Gangster B". He appeared in six of the eight episodes of the Wandering Guitarist (Wataridori) series, each time as a different character. In Seijun Suzuki's feisty crime caper Underworld Beauty (1958) he was "Craftsman A", fondling the plasticene breasts of a female mannequin.
Bit player or not, Aoki did work with several major names while at Nikkatsu. In addition to Suzuki (he can also be seen in Youth of the Beast, 1963, and Our Blood Won't Allow It, 1964), he appeared in Kon Ichikawa's classic wartime drama The Burmese Harp (Biruma No Tategoto, 1956), several of Yuzo Kawashima's bawdy comedies including Suzaki Paradise (Suzaki Paradise Akashingo, 1956, assistant director: Shohei Imamura), Teruo Ishii's The Friendly Killer (Noboriryu Tekkahada, 1969) and in numerous films by new wave forerunner Ko Nakahira and globetrotting gun-for-hire Umetsugu Inoue.
Like many of the actors working for Nikkatsu in 60s, including stars Tetsuya Watari and Meiko Kaji, Aoki fled the studio in the early seventies when the company radically shifted gears and gradually devoted its output to its new Roman Porno line of big screen erotica. After appearing in 1972's Yami Ni Ukabu Shiroi Hada ("White skin appearing in the darkness"), directed by Shogoro Nishimura who the previous year had helmed the first Roman Porno film Apartment Wife: Affair in the Afternoon (Danchizuma Hirusagari No Joji, a.k.a. From Three to Sex), the actor prematurely retired from his profession.
This second leave of absence from the screen would be significantly longer than his wartime one. It wouldn't be until the mid-90s that he would step in front of a camera again, at the behest of Makoto Shinozaki, a film writer known for his lengthy interviews with directors and actors who was preparing his first feature, the independently produced Okaeri. After interviewing Aoki for a magazine, he asked the then 72-year-old veteran to make an appearance in his film, playing a pensioner pulling funny faces at his granddaughter in the park.
It would be the first of several collaborations and a close friendship, as well as a belated but deserved career resuscitation for the actor. The same year, 1996, Shinozaki's former study mate Masayuki Suo honoured Aoki by naming the character played by Naoto Takenaka in his hit comedy Shall We Dance? after him. 2001 would even be his busiest year in decades, with roles in Tetsuo Shinohara's High School Girl's Friend (Jogakusei No Tomo) and Shinozaki's delightful Not Forgotten (again pulling funny faces, in the role of a World War II veteran that brought to mind his turn as Private Oyama in The Burmese Harp), and a reunion with Seijun Suzuki on Pistol Opera. To top it off, Aoki and his co-stars Tatsuya Mihashi and Minoru Oki were awarded a shared Best Actor prize at the Three Continents festival in France for their performances in Not Forgotten. Aoki was on hand to receive the award, but was more eager to solicit a kiss from the blonde presenting the ceremony.
Although his health repeatedly failed him, Aoki continued to work with Shinozaki on a variety of short films right up to his death. Many of these were made on digital video and purely for fun, like the series of one-joke skits in which the actor plays the aged version of his Tokkan Kozo persona, Tokkan Jijii ("old man who charges into you"). He also appeared as the Bedridden Detective in Shinozaki's entry in his own Cop Festival (Deka Matsuri) project, The Unforgotten Detectives (Wasurerarenu Dekatachi, 2003).
Tomio Aoki's final screen appearance was in Shinozaki's Walking with the Dog (Inu To Arukeba: Chirori To Tamara), released in May 2004.