I feel like I have watched enough Japanese cinema to make a list of the top 5 Japanese film actors of all time. However, I may be a bit biased towards director Akira Kurosawa's group of actors because I am a huge admirer of his work. However, I will make my best attempt to be unbiased.
5. Minoru Chiaki- Minoru Chiaki is one of the most underrated actors in Japanese film history, yet he has done some amazing work. He was a major supporting actor in the Akria Kurosawa troupe, playing quite popular supporting roles in Rashomon (1950), Ikiru (1952), SevenSamurai (1954), Throne of Blood (1957), and High and Low (1963). However, his most recognizable roles, in my opinion, were Heihachi (one of the seven samurai) and a starring role in Gray Sunset (1985) a few decades later as Fuyukichi Takano. This role earned Chiaki his first best actor prize by the Japanese academy, and it would also be the last film he played a major character in. Another fun fact about Chiaki was that he was the last of the actors to play one of the main ronin in Seven Samurai to pass away (d. 1999).
4. Ken Watanabe- Ken Watanabe is an international star, who is known more for his work in English speaking films than Japanese. American audiences would know him today for his supporting roles in Inception (2010), Memoirs of a Geisha (2005), The Last Samurai (2003), Letters from Iwo Jima (2006), and Batman Begins (2005). He has been nominated numerous times for awards in both Japan and the US for his roles, making one of few Japanese actors to make that transition so smoothly. He has won the Japanese Academy Award for best actor twice, and his roles in both Japanese and American cinema certainly justify it.
3. Takashi Shimura- Takashi Shimura is another one of Akira Kurosawa's favorites; he worked with Kurosawa from 1943 (when he released his first film Sanshiro Sugata) until 1980, when he played a minor character in Kagemusha (1980). Shimura is not exactly known for versatility as he is with his unbelievable character acting. I will never forget his starring role as Watanabe in Ikiru (1952). His facial expression elevates his performance to a new level, and it is one that no audience could ever forget. Shimura had the ability where a director could keep a camera on him for manyminutes, and he would not break character one bit. He is also known for his roles as Sato in Stray Dog (1949), the woodcutter in Rashomon (1950), Kambei, the head samurai in Seven Samurai, and as Dr. Yamane in Godzilla (1954).
2. Tatsuya Nakadai- Tatsuya Nakadai was an amazing lead actor, who always showed his versatility quite marvelously. He is certainly a close second to Toshiro Mifune in many senses. He is best known for taking starring roles in the Kurosawa pictures Yojimbo (1961), Sanjuro (1962), High and Low (1963), Kagemusha (1980), and Ran (1985), as well as critically acclaimed performances in Masaki Kobayashi's Human Condition trilogy (1959-1961) and Samurai Rebellion (1967). He was a favorite of directors Masaki Kobayashi and Akira Kurosawa, and he played a major character in sixteen of their films. Nakadai is still alive today, but he has pretty much retired at this point. However, no one can argue that he is certainly one of the best.
1. Toshiro Mifune- There is no way that any Japanese actor to date could ever displace Toshiro Mifune as #1 on this list. He played a leading role in every one of Kurosawa's films between 1948 and 1965, with the exception of Ikiru (1952). Mifune was known for his versatility and ability to make the characters he played come to life. He went from playing a worried, honorable cop and former soldier in Stray Dog (1949) to playing the bandit Tajomaru in Rashomon (1950). He also played the lead samurai in the Samurai trilogy (1954-1956). However, to this day, he is still best noticed for playing the childish and honor seeking wannabe samurai Kukuchiyo in Seven Samurai (1954). His role in that movie truly made it complete. Toshiro Mifune is no doubt the best Japanese film actor of all time.