On a recent holiday to Australia, a former child actor visited the NFSA to watch the Japanese Western he starred in more than 50 years ago.
When Kevin Cooney was 13 years old, he starred in a Japanese Western that was shot in New South Wales. Fifty-two years later, he had the chance to watch the English version of the film for the first time.
Koya No Toseinin (AKA The Drifting Avenger) is a 1968 revenge tale starring legendary Japanese actor Ken Takakura. The story is set in America during the cowboy era and follows the son of a former samurai on a mission to avenge his parents after they are killed by stagecoach robbers.
The American-born Cooney plays Mike, who blames Ken (Ken Takakura) for killing his father. In this dramatic scene, Ken appears mortally wounded and asks Mike to end his life, to the horror of Mike's mother, Rosa (Judith Roberts):
The third of ten children, Kevin had moved to Japan with his family at the age of seven because of his father’s job with the US Government. One day, he was shopping for tennis racquets with one of his brothers when they were approached by a talent agent. The Cooney family ended up starring in a number of different print advertisements. Then, the audition for The Drifting Avenger came up.
'My younger sister and I took the train from our town to Tokyo to meet our agent at Toei’s Motion Picture studios', Kevin recalls. 'The entire crew was Japanese and I was fluent [in the language], which helped a lot.'
After answering a number of questions, Kevin was told he had landed the role. 'I went home and told my mother I got the part and was going to Australia for a month!', he remembers.
The Drifting Avenger, a Japanese–Australian co-production, was filmed on location at Goonoo Goonoo station, a heritage-listed cattle station outside of Tamworth. Three Australian production companies – Ajax, Supreme Sound and Artransa Park Studios – provided the Toei Motion Picture company with the filming equipment they needed. Outdoor scenes were all shot in Australia, while the interior scenes were filmed at Toei Studios in Tokyo, requiring Kevin to take the occasional day off school.
In the film, Kevin’s character Mike eventually forms a bond with Ken Takakura’s vengeance-seeking hero (also named Ken). One of Japanese cinema’s biggest stars, Takakura was renowned for playing the brooding outsider in gangster films.
'He was a very nice man', says Kevin today. 'He was very good to me on and off the set. I think it was easier for him to be with the kids who didn’t look at him as just a star. He was just another person to us.'
Although Takakura was the action hero of the film, Kevin’s role also required a surprising number of stunts. His character wields guns and rides horses during the movie.
I knew nothing about guns or horses. They showed me how to shoot a rifle while we were on location. I have never fired one since.
Kevin’s first experience of horseriding was also on set, as part of a scene in which Ken Takakura must prove himself by taming a wild horse. The production used a stunt double for a later scene in which Kevin’s character fell off his horse during a stampede:
'The person who actually fell off the horse was the daughter of the person the studio had hired to supply all the horses for the movie', Kevin recalls. 'I believe she was kicked in the head during the scene, but she was OK.'
Kevin has fond memories of the film’s premiere in Tokyo, which his whole family attended. At the end of the movie, Ken Takakura was interviewed on stage and was asked the name of the boy in the film. Takakura asked Kevin to stand up, and the entire audience gave him a round of applause – with someone even asking for his autograph on his way out.
This was not the only perk of fame he enjoyed. 'I went to see the movie a second time at our local theatre with a couple of my friends', says Kevin. 'The girl at the ticket booth recognised me and let us in for free.'
Although the film was shot in English, the version Kevin watched as a teen was dubbed into Japanese. He had the opportunity to watch the English version for the first time at the NFSA on a recent holiday to Australia.
His sister Patty, the same sister who accompanied him to his audition all those years ago, was the first to discover it in the NFSA collection.
To Kevin’s surprise, the English version of the film had also been dubbed by different actors. He and his wife still enjoyed viewing the film despite this fact.
'My wife was very excited to see the movie and finally understand the plot', he says. 'I was able to relate a lot of the memories I had during filming.'
Although Kevin enjoyed making the film, he chose not to continue acting. 'This was the highlight of my career,' he says. 'One and done. I was 13 years old and it was a great experience.'