Wednesday, March 25, 2009

Top Ten Crossover Japanese Actors/ Actresses

We're sure that there are a few of you out there who first became acquainted with Japanese cinema after seeing stars like Ken Watanabe and Rinko Kikuchi in their roles in films such as "The Last Samurai" and "Babel", but Japanese actors making the transition into non-Japanese roles is a phenomena as old as motion picture history itself. For example the very first Japanese motion picture actress, Tokuko Nagai Takagi (1891-1919), got her start in four silent films produced by the Thanhauser Company based out of New Rochelle, New York. To honour the continuing cinematic exchange between Japan and the rest of the world the Toronto J-Film Pow-Wow would like to present this month's top ten list: The Top Ten Crossover Japanese Actors and Actresses. Before you read on let us assure you that this was probably the hardest list that we've compiled so far and we wept bitter tears that we couldn't include all the talented people that we wanted to in the final ten. We tried to pick people who have not only made huge strides in cinema history, but people who also enjoyed a successful career in Japan before branching out into roles in Hollywood and elsewhere. So without further adieu here are ten Japanese actors and actresses who haven't let international borders get in the way of some great performances.

10. Takeshi Kitano

While Takeshi Kitano has enjoyed huge international success as the director of such films as 1997's Golden Lion-winning "Hana-Bi" and the 2003 franchise reboot "Zatoichi" he's also managed to make himself known by appearing in a couple small roles in foreign productions as well. First there was Robert Longo's critically trashed 1995 screen adaptation of the William Gibson cyberpunk story "Johnny Mnemonic" in which he starred as (no big surprise here) a yakuza alongside Keanu Reeves, Udo Kier, and Henry Rollins. A few years later Kitano was hired by French director Jean-Pierre Limosin to play the pivotal supporting role of (you guessed it) a yakuza thug in the 1998 film "Tokyo Eyes" about a vigilante killer on the loose in the Japanese capital. It was neither Kitano's reputaion as an auteur filmmaker or these two foreign productions that landed him on our list though. The main reason for his inclusion here is because of his game show "Fūun! Takeshi-jō (Operation! Takeshi's Castle)" which ran on the Tokyo Broadcasting System between 1986 and 1989. The show, which featured "Beat" Takeshi setting outrageous and often sadistic stunts for its contestants like getting dressed up as dinosaurs to ride a mechanical bull or playing softball on a muddy baseball diamond, was dubbed into English by the U.S. men's network Spike in 2003 and subsequently syndicated worldwide. A whole generation was introduced to Takeshi Kitano as the shows goofy host Vic Romano only to discover his cinematic work afterward. Then again the fact that people got introduced to Kitano in the first place is what's important. CM

9. Tadanobu Asano

"Japan's Johnny Depp" is a label that's often been used to describe Tadanobu Asano, in fact it's been a bit overused, but how else can you easily explain the 35-year-old actor who's possessed of exotic good looks, shuns the TV panel show circuit that so many of his peers participate in, plays in the noise-punk band Peace Pill, and has a propensity for taking such offbeat roles as the bleached blonde sadomasochistic yakuza in Takashi Miike's "Ichi the Killer" or a man who conducts his own electicity and can speak to lizards in Sogo Ishii's "Electric Dragon 80,000V"? Asano's brave artistic choices have also led him to sign onto projects in such flung locales as Thailand and Mongolia, projects that have had him appearing on Hollywood's radar despite his assertions that he has no desire to follow his fellow countrymen and women like Ken Watanabe and Rinko Kikuchi into the limelight in the U.S.. Asano began his journey to global notoriety in Thai director Pen-Ek Ratanaruang's 2003 art house romance "Last Life in the Universe" playing an obsessive-compulsive Japanese librarian who finds himself involved in a platonic love affair with a Thai bar hostess. A truly international production "Last Life" featured dialogue in Japanese, Thai, and English and was shot by superstar cinematographer Christopher Doyle. Asano would team up with both Ratanaruang and Doyle again, first as part of Doyle's abstract directorial debut "Away with Words" and then in critically panned Ratanaruang/ Doyle follow up to "Last Life", "Invisible Waves"; but these collaborations were only the beginning. Asano would take the lead role of 12th century Mongol leader Genghis Khan in Sergei Bodrov's sweeping 2007 epic "Mongol". "Mongol" would end up being nominated for Best Foreign Language Film at the 2008 Academy Awards and the film's global success has had rumours flying as to when, how and in which project Asano will continue his expansion into world cinema. The two most persistent rumours are that Asano was or is still attached to an Eglish-language screen adaptation of Ryu Murakami's 1980 novel "Coin Locker Babies", as well as that he will star opposite Bollywood stars Asin Thottumkal and Kamal Hassan in the Indo-Japanese co-produced martial arts/ romance "The 19th Step". CM

8. Hiroyuki Sanada

For many movie fans 48-year-old actor Hiroyuki Sanada falls into the category of "Oh, that's the guy from that movie!" The veteran actor began his over 30 year career as a student of action superstar Sonny Chiba, starring alongside him in such films as 1978's "Shogun's Assassin: The Yagyu Clan Conspiracy" and 1981's "Samurai Reincarnation". It was through his role as Mahjong hustler Tetsu in Makoto Wada's 1984 film "Mahjong hôrôki" that Sanada's reputation changed drastically from that of an action star to a serious thespian. Not only would "Mahjong hôrôki" begin the long creative collaboration between himself and Wada, but it would open doors to more dramatic roles not just on the big screen, but in Japanese television dramas as well. The Japanese roles that most international audiences would recognize Sanada from would be as Nanako Matsushima's ex-husband in Hideo Nakata's "Ringu" and the first of Yoji Yamada's celebrated trilogy of samurai films, the Oscar-nominated "The Twilight Samurai" in which he portrayed low-ranking samurai Seibei Iguchi. It was from this role that he came to the attention of Warner Brothers, director Edward Zwick and actor/ producer Tom Cruise who decided to cast Sanada in the supporting role of Ujio in the 2003 epic "The Last Samurai". In the six years since his first foray into Hollywood films Sanada has exhibited his talents in a wide variety of roles, from playing Anthony Hopkins younger lover in James Ivory's 2007 screen adaptation of Peter Cameron's novel "The City of Your Final Destination" to the captain of a manned mission to the sun in Danny Boyle's 2007 sci-fi/ thriller "Sunshine". Along with Sanada's film and television roles he has appeared in a number of high profile and very diverse Japanese theatre productions including musicals "Little Shop of Horrors" and "Big River" as well as Shakespeare's "Hamlet"; but it was Sanada's performance as The Fool in The Royal Shakespeare Company's 2000 production of The Bard's "King Lear" that made history, marking the first time a Japanese actor joined the venerable company on stage. CM

7. Youki Kudoh

If the order of this list were based purely on variety and eclectism then Youki Kudoh would be right up at the top. The Tokyo native began her career at the age of 13 starring in TV dramas and releasing over a half dozen pop albums during the late 80s. It was in 1984 that Kudoh made her feature film acting debut as the nymphomaniac daughter in punk rock director Sogo Ishii's deconstruction of the modern Japanese household, "Crazy Family", and from that point on neither genre conventions or international borders would stand in the way of her talent. Kudoh would be introduced to American audiences as a culture shocked Japanese tourist opposite fellow countrymen Masatoshi Nagase, former Clash frontman Joe Strummer, and pioneering R&B and rock 'n' roller Screamin' Jay Hawkins in Jim Jarmusch's 1989 indie film "Mystery Train" . Through that role she got the attention of filmmakers from around the world, specifically Japanese-American director Kayo Hatta who cast Kudoh in her 1995 film "Picture Bride", director Scott Hicks and the people at Universal Pictures who cast her in the big screen adaptation of David Guterson's bestselling novel "Snow Falling on Cedars" and even Rob Marshall who tagged her to appear as Pumpkin in the very high profile, but critically panned adaptation of "Memoirs of a Geisha". In between these diverse projects she also managed to squeeze in providing voice talent for Production I.G.'s "Blood: The Last Vampire" as well as starring in and acting as an associate producer on director Kamal Tabrizi's 2003 Japanese/ Iranian co-production "The Wind Carpet." Seen most recently in Japan in Hideo Nakata's "L: Change the World" and in the U.S. in the third installment of the "Rush Hour" series Kudoh will soon be coming full circle, starring in Jim Jarmusch's 10th film "The Limits of Control" with Bill Murray and Tilda Swinton. CM

6. Rinko Kikuchi

When director Alejandro González Iñárritu was ready to follow up his 2003 critically-lauded "21 Grams" he and screenwriter Guillermo Arriaga took that films interlaced plot structure and went international with it, setting the three overlapping stories that made up 2006's "Babel" in such exotic locales as North Africa, Mexico and Japan. The Japanese storyline revolved around Chieko, the teenage daughter of a wealthy business man whose deafness and grief over losing her mother made her a potent symbol of youthful alienation in the megalopolis of modern day Tokyo. For this pivotal role Iñárritu cast 24-year-old Rinko Kikuchi, a relatively unknown actress who'd previously starred in supporting roles in Kaneto Shindo's 2001 film "Ikitai" and two of Katsuhito Ishii's surreal comedies, 2004's "The Taste of Tea" and 2005's "Funky Forest: The First Contact". Kikuchi got audiences sitting up and taking notice not just for her raw, moving and wordless performance opposite her onscreen father, veteran actor Koji Yakusho, but also for several graphic nude scenes involving her character. While the latter left many Japanese shocked it was the emotional as opposed to the physical vulnerability that Kikuchi brought to the screen that earned her a Best Supporting Actress nomination from the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Science. While Kikuchi would lose out to American Idol's Jennifer Hudson for her performance in "Dreamgirls" her nomination would still make history by her being only the seventh East Asian actor to be nominated for an Oscar. It was this honour and of course her obvious talent that has had filmmakers around the globe scrambling to work with the actress. Kikuchi has not only secured lead roles in Japanese productions like Satoshi Miki's "The Insects Unlisted in the Encyclopedia" and mamoru Oshii's "The Sky Crawlers" to which she provided voice talent, but also a supporting role in "Brick" director Rian Johnson's 2008 dark comedy "The Brothers Bloom" as well as the lead in Spanish director Isabel Coixet's upcoming thriller "Map of the Sounds of Tokyo" in which she will play an assassin. CM

5. Miyoshi Umeki

While Rinko Kikuchi may have garnered her place in Oscar history by being one of the seven East Asian actors to receive a nomination Miyoshi Umeki went down in cinema history in 1957 by being the only Japanese actor or actress to actually take home one of the coveted golden statuettes for her performance as Red Button's wife, Katsumi, in Joshua Logan's "Sayonara". Born in Otaru, Hokkaido in 1929 Umeki began her career in American occupied Japan under the stage name Nancy Umeki singing jazz standards with clarinetist Raymond Conde and his band. She also starred in Shintoho's 1953 comedy musical "Seishun jazu musume (Young Jazz Girl)" directed by Shuei Matsubayashi before heading to America in 1955 to study music. It was there that she was discovered by Mercury Records who signed her as semi-novelty act, getting her to sing in exotic-looking kimono on various TV variety shows. It was after several appearances on one of those shows, "Arthur Godfrey Talent Scouts" on CBS, that Umeki came to the attention of the execs at Warner Brothers and producer William Goetz who cast her in her Oscar-winning role opposite such Hollywood legends as Marlon Brando and James Garner. Due to the success of "Sayonara" Uemki was cast in Universal Pictures' screen adaptation of the Rogers and Hammerstein musical "Flower Drum Song". While the film's depiction of Asians may seem racist by today's standards the film made cinema history by being the first Hollywood production to feature an all Asian cast as opposed to the Caucasian actors in stage make up that appeared in the vast majority of American productions before then. In the years to follow Umeki would make many appearances on American talk shows and starred as Mrs. Livingston, the housekeeper, for three seasons of the ABC sitcom "The Courtship of Eddie's Father". Umeki sadly passed away in 2007 after a long battle with cancer. CM

4. Toshiro Mifune

Toshiro Mifune presents a unique case on our list of crossover stars from Japan. Unlike many presented here who were virtually unknown to international audiences prior to appearing in Hollywood or other foreign films Mifune had become a cinematic legend before ever setting foot on a non-Japanese film set. His roles in Akira Kurosawa's "Rashomon", "The Seven Samurai" and "Yojimbo" as well as his portrayal of real-life 17th-century samurai and author of the still in print treatise on martial arts strategy "The Book of Five Rings", Musashi Miyamoto, in Hiroshi Inagaki's "Samurai Trilogy" turned Mifune into a powerful cinematic archetype along the same lines as Humphrey Bogart's Rick Blaine from "Casablanca" or John Wayne's Ethan Edwards from "The Searchers". Barring his first two casting missteps in non-Japanese productions, the first being as a Spanish-speaking native in Ismael Rodríguez's 1962 film "Ánimas Trujano", and the second being his English-dubbed role in John Frankenheimer's 1966 car racing film "Grand Prix", Hollywood filmmakers tended to cast Mifune in roles that would either play up or play around with his legendary persona. Director John Boorman played Mifune's Japanese stoicism off Lee Marvin's Yankee machismo in his 1968 film "Hell in the Pacific", while Steven Spielberg used that same stoicism to make Mifune's submarine commander in his WW2 comedy "1941" the straight man to the antics of John Belushi, Ned Beatty and Dan Akroyd. It was this celebration and subversion of his persona along with Mifune's growing involvement in the production of various other film properties and his founding on an acting school in Japan that led to the dissolution of his longtime friendship and creative relationship with Akira Kurosawa, so that by the time Mifune starred in the 12-hour American TV mini-series "Shogun" Kurosawa had long dismissed the talent and influence of his former partner. It begs the question as to what Kurosawa would have thought if George Lucas had had his way and cast Mifune as Obi-wan Kenobi in "Star Wars" as he had long planned. It could have been one of the biggest crossover successes in cinema history, but of course the role ended up going to Sir Alec Guinness. CM

3. Ken Watanabe

It seems that every once in a while one Asian actor makes such an impression on American audiences and critics that Hollywood casting agents make them the defacto go-to-person to fulfill all types of Asian roles. This has happened to varying degrees with a number of previous entrants on this list (Hiroyuki Sanada, Youki Kudoh, and to some extent Rinko Kikuchi), but no actor in recent memory has fielded so many roles in major American productions than 49-year-old Ken Watanabe. What makes his success even more remarkable is that it nearly didn't happen at all. Watanabe began his career as a member of the Tokyo-based theatre company, Madoka in the late-70s and then went on to star in various successful taiga or period TV dramas. He also appeared in supporting roles in such films as Juzo Itami's "Tampopo" and Masahiro Shinoda's "MacArthur's Children", but his big break was to come in 1989 when Haruki Kadokawa cast him as the daimyo lord Kagetora in his historic 16th-century epic "Heaven and Earth". It was while filming in Calgary that he fell ill and was diagnosed with leukemia, forcing him to drop out of the project and casting a doubt as to whether he would return to acting. Thankully Watanabe did, after having successfully beat his cancer, and was cast in a role that would not only breath new life into the man, but into his career as well. That of course was as the heroic samurai Katsumoto opposite Tom Cruise in Edward Zwick's "The Last Samurai". The role earned him an Oscar nomination for Best Supporting Actor and a seemingly endless run of high profile roles in major Hollywood productions: the shadowy villain Ra's Al Ghul in Chistopher Nolan's franchise reboot "Batman Begins", The Chairman who becomes the object of a young geisha's obsession in Rob Marshall's "Memoirs of a Geisha", and General Kuribayashi in the Japanese half of Clint Eastwood's WW2 epic "Letters from Iwo Jima". While the overall critical reception of these films have been mixed Watanabe continues to be singled out for his intensity and screen charisma. It's these qualities that have Watanabe next appearing in Mikael Håfström 1940s set "Shanghai" opposite Jeffrey Dean Morgan, Chow Yun Fat, Rinko Kikuchi and John Cusack. CM

2. Takeshi Kaneshiro

Andy Lau, Tony Leung, Zhang Ziyi, Gong Li, Chow Yun Fat. These are names recognized throughout Asia, some throughout the world, but of all the Pan-Asian superstars one possesses a talent and charisma that seems to know no bounds. Billed as Kim Sung Moo in Korea, Kam Shing-mo in Hong Kong and Kin Chengwu in Mainland China most Japanese film fans know this handsome 35-year-old by his given name, Takeshi Kaneshiro. Born in 1973 to an Okinawan father and a Taiwanese mother the young Kaneshiro grew up in Taipei, but retained Japanese citizenship and was enrolled in a Japanese language school, but his mixed heritage made his formative years difficult. "When I went to Japanese school, everybody told me I was Taiwanese," Kaneshiro explained to Time Magazine in 2003, "But when I hung out in the neighborhood, people told me I was Japanese." This sense of not belonging as a child would of course one day work to Kaneshiro's favour. After an abortive career as a Cantopop singer in his late teens Kaneshiro transitioned into an acting career, first starring in the 1993 Hong Kong sci-fi/ action movie "Xian dai hao xia zhuan (Executioners)" opposite Michelle Yeoh and Maggie Cheung, but he quickly gravitated towards offbeat roles. His first internationally recognized role was in Wong Kar Wai's 1994 art house hit "Chungking Express" in which he played the lovesick Cop 223. This would start a trend of Kaneshiro working with some of the biggest directors in Asain cinema like Zhang Yimou, Peter Chan, and Chi-Ngai Lee on everything from martial arts epics to musicals. He would also star in over a half dozen feature films in Japan including Takashi Yamazaki's 2002 sci-fi/ action movie "Returner" and last year's super hero blockbuster "K-20: Legend of the Mask", but it was his TV work in Japan that was truly groundbreaking. In 1998 Kaneshiro took on the role of a music producer who falls in love with an HIV positive high school girl (a role that many mainstream Japanese actors refused to take) in the TV series "Kamisama mousukoshi dake (God Please Give Me More Time)". The show not only became a huge hit, but sparked a 62% increase in the number of Japanese to be tested for HIV. CM

1. Sessue Hayakawa

Of all the Japanese actors to gain success outside of Japan silent film star Sessue Hayakawa has to be the king. Born in 1890 in Minamibosō city, Chiba Prefecture Hayakawa travelled to the United States when he was 21-years-old to study finance at the University of Chicago. It was while vacationing in Los Angeles that he began working with an amateur Japanese theatre company and consequently found his true calling. Hollywood producer Thomas Ince saw Hayakawa in a production of a play titled "The Typhoon" and offered him a deal to star in the film adaptation that he was planning. American audiences immediately fell in love with Hayakawa's stoic and mysterious screen persona and he was cast repeatedly as the exotic leading man in such films as Cecil B. DeMille’s “The Cheat” (1915), Marshall Neilan’s “The Jaguar’s Claws” (1917), and William Worthington’s “The Dragon Painter” (1919). Hayakawa was even director Goerge Melford's first choice to star in his 1921 silent classic "The Sheik", but the role ended up going to none other than the first Hollywood heartthrob, Rudolph Valentino. Hayakawa's career progressed very quickly from one strong film to the next and his power in Hollywood grew, so much so that he was pulling in a salary of $5,000 a week (and this was in the 1910s!) and by 1918 was one of the first actors to set up an independent production company with his Hayworth Films. And unlike so many of his silent film contemporaries like Charlie Chaplin, Buster Keaton and Rudolph Valentino Hayakawa's career continued well into the age of talkies, in fact his performance in David Lean's classic "The Bridge on the River Kwai" as the despotic Col. Saito won the him a Best Supporting Actor Academy Award nomination in 1957. After the death of his wife, actress Tsuru Aoki, in 1961 Hayakawa's output slowed down considerably and in 1966 he retired from acting and returned to Japan to become a Zen monk, studying and even writing a number of books on Buddhism before his death in 1973 at the age of 84. While everyone on this list (as well as so many other that we weren't able to manage to include) Hayakawa is probably the best example of how far a Japanese actor can go in breaking down cultural and artistic boundaries by becoming one of the very first superstars in cinema history. CM


Shannon the Movie Moxie said...

Wow, this is one freaking awesome list. Many of my faves are there as well as some new faces too. I'd love to see who didn't make the cut too!

I have to say that is the oddest pic of Toshiro Mifune I've ever seen!

Vincetastic said...

Ken Watanabe is one of my favorite actors period, very high level acting ability. This is a really great top ten list, you can post this to our site and then link back to your site. We are looking for top ten lists and our users can track back to your site. The coolest feature is you can let other people vote on the rankings of your list.

Savita said...

Ken n Takeshi r best plz tell them to do more movies n be in touch with viewers 8-)

WhiskeyRiver said...

What about John Lone? He's way cool My two faves on that list are #1-Tadanobu Asano,from Mongol,and #2-Ken Watanabe,who is just an amazing actor.Oh! And,..Toshiro Mifune has no aqual.Thanks for this great list!