Japanese gangster movie icon Bunta Sugawara has died, aged 81.

Sugawara passed away at a hospital in Tokyo on Friday (28Nov14) following a battle with liver cancer.

Known for his unforgettable portrayals of small-time gangsters, his early career was rooted in several films for three of Japan's six biggest film studios, including Shintoho, Shochiku and Toei, during the country's "Golden Age of Cinema" in the 1950s.

At Toei, Sugawara rose to stardom with the studio's iconic Yakuza films, culminating in the lead role for director Kinji Fukasaku's eight-part movie Battles Without Honor and Humanity.

He went on to star as a good-hearted driver in the Truck Guys series from 1975 to 1979, and scored a Japan Academy Award for Best Supporting Actor in 1979's The Man Who Stole the Sun.

Sugawara also appeared in a number of Japanese dramas including Era of Lions, and provided the voice of a six-armed spirit in Hayao Miyazaki's 2001 Academy Award-winning animated film Spirited Away.

He announced his retirement from acting in 2012, and spent his days farming in Yamanashi Prefecture and leading a social justice group.