by Chris MaGee
Loving film isn't just about the mechanics of its construction -- the cinematography, direction, lighting and editing. Far from it. What draws so many of us intro the theatre again and again are compelling characters. It's these heroes and villains, femme fatales and screwballs who people the screen that shape our relationship with film. There have been so many unforgettable characters who have come to us from Japanese film, created by a cast of iconic actors -- Toshiro Mifune, Tatsuya Nakadai, Machiko Kyo, Kinuyo Tanaka and Rentaro Mikuni, amongst many others. These legendary stars have come to us from Japan's Golden Age of filmmaking, but what about the actors and actresses of this generation? There is so much talk in Hollywood about how stars like Sean Penn, Russell Crowe, Meryl Streep and Naomi Watts are "the greatest actors of their generation", but what about their counterparts in Japan? This is a topic we've debated about here at The J-Film Pow-Wow for some time now, and we're finally putting our opinions on the line with our list of the ten actors and actresses from Japan who we feel have not only defined our idea of Japanese film in the past 15 years, but those who also have the potential to continue to bring Japanese film to the rest of the world.
10. Shido Nakamura
The first actor on our list is one of two who were born into the world of kabuki theatre. Shido Nakamura, technically Shido Nakamura II, was born into the venerable Nakamura family of kabuki actors in 1972. The son of Shido Nakamura I, the then named Mikihiro Ogawa made his stage debut at the young age of 8. It was shortly thereafter that he took his kabuki stage name. Nakamura hasn't always been comfortable going along with the family business though. While still appearing on in kabuki plays Nakamura studied at the Nihon University School of Drama, but dropped out after becoming fascinated with music. for a time Nakamura would bounce from kabuki to indie rock, but by the age of 30 Nakamura's career would move from the stage to the screen. In 2002 he would star as Dragon, a super talented and near psychopathic competitive ping pong player in Fumihiko Sori's live-action adaptation of Taiyō Matsumoto's manga "Ping Pong". This role, a more animalistic than human performance, won Nakamura Best Actor nods from the Japanese Academy Awards, The Blue Ribbon Awards and The Mainichi Film Concours. Since then Nakamura has brought both a theatrical ferocity and a cinematic subtlety to roles in such films as Yasuo Inoue's "Neighbour No. 13" and Junya Sato's "The Men of the Yamato", as well as providing the voice for shinigami Ryuuk. Nakamura has also branched out into international production's such as Jet Li's action film "Fearless", Clint Eastwood's WW2 drama "Letters from Iwo Jima" and John Woo's historical epic "Red Cliff" (above).
9. Masatoshi Nagase
Most Japanese film actors first gain fame at home and then branch out to overseas productions. 45-year-old actor Masatoshi Nagase's career has taken the exact opposite trajectory. Granted, Nagase first came to public attention in only one American film, but what a film -- Jim Jarmusch's 1989 indie classic "Mystery Train". In that film Nagase starred opposite Youki Kudoh as a rockabilly obsessed Japanese tourist who comes to Memphis to discover the roots of Elvis Presley. This international success was followed only two years later back home in Japan when Nagase would star in one of his best known and most critically-praised roles. In Yoji Yamada's 1991 film "My Sons", Nagase played Tetsuo, the troubled son of an elderly tobacco farmer, played by Rentaro Mikuni. This role would win him a slew of Best Supporting Actor awards from the Japanese Academy Awards, The Blue Ribbon Awards, The Kinema Junpo Awards and The Mainichi Film Concours. Since "My Sons" Nagase has made his career playing an almost schizophrenic array of roles, bringing a stoic believability to the gumshoe detective in Kaizo Hayashi's "Maiku Hama" trilogy, an assassin in Seijun Suzuki's wildly surreal "Pistol Opera" and an incestuous brother in Daihachi Yoshida's "Funuke Show Some Love, You Losers!" While Nagase has not appeared in any major American film since "Mystery Train" (he had a small role in Hal Hartley's 1995 film "Flirt") he has starred in two films that, although radically different, have cemented Nagase in the minds of Western audiences. One was as Thunderbolt Buddha, the villain in Sogo Ishii's 2001 cult hit "Electric Dragon 80,000 V", and the other as low-ranking samurai Munezo Katagiri in 2004's "The Hidden Blade" (above), helmed by "My Sons" director Yoji Yamada. Nagase is still pushing, still morphing himself into new characters. For one of his most recent roles in the Shochiku drama "Every Day Mother" Nagase starved himself, losing an astounding 26 lbs in only two weeks, to play a man suffering from cancer.
8. Makiko Watanabe
There will be a few faces on this list that you know you have seen before, but never knew their names. Given that an actors job is to transform themselves into various characters we think this is the most important criteria for inclusion on our list. One such actress Makiko Watanabe. You'd be forgiven if you are struggling to place her, but this 43-year-old has appeared in supporting roles in such well known films as Takashi Miike's "Zebraman", Naomi Kawase's "The Mourning Forest" and Sion Sono's "Love Exposure". While Watanabe, a former fashion model, may have shone in these supporting roles it has been her work in smaller, indie productions that puts her on our list of favorite actors and actresses. Starting out on the screen in 1988 in the Tetsuya Nakashima directed segment of "Bakayaro! I'm Plenty Mad", Watanabe has become one of the go-to actresses in Japan's independent film scene. Her first major success was starring as a conflicted career woman in Nobuhiro Suwa's "M/Other". Her work on the semi-improvised film led to her and co-star Tomokazu Miura receiving writing credits on the script and ultimately sharing the Best Screenplay Award at the 2000 Mainichi Film Concours with director Suwa. Over time Watanabe has come to perfect her depictions of damaged women. In 2007 she would star opposite director Masahiro Kobayashi in his film "The Rebirth" (above). In this subtle drama Watanabe portrays the mother of a boy who killed his female classmate. It's her desire to apologize to the girl's father, played by Kobayashi. This complex central conflict would lead to "The Rebirth"taking home The Golden Leopard, the top prize at The Locarno International Film Festival. Watanabe would go on to star in Daisuke Yamaoka's equally compelling drama, "Lost Girl", in which Watanabe stars as a chef, who due to relationship strain and fear of failure, has become a bulimic. Very difficult roles, but ones that Makiko Watanabe seems to pull off almost effortlessly.
7. Fusako Urabe
We believe that the next two actors on our list, although not particularly well known yet, really do represent some of the best up-and-coming talent Japan has to offer. Chiba Prefecture-native Fusako Urabe has been acting since her school days, receiving the National High School Theatre Competition for Best Actress when she was only 14. Now 33 Urabe is best known by mainstream Japanese audiences for her roles in such NHK TV dramas as "Anti-Terrorism Investigators" and "The Auditor", as well as sporting her trademark pixy haircut in commercials for Febreze and Canon digital cameras. Urabe's talent is far more powerful than this material though, but you have to dig a little outside the big studio films to savour it. Urabe is probably best known on the international art house circuit for her lead role in Masahiro Kobayashi's 2005 film "Bashing" (above). In that film she gives a tortured performance as a young Japanese foreign aide worker who, after having been held by Iari insurgents, is returned to her home country only to be met with shame and derision for her captivity. Urabe's role in "Bashing" soon had the best of Japan's indie and student films scene knocking at her door. She has gone on to deliver understated but utterly captivating performances as lonely, eccentric women in such films as Tokyo Univeristy of the Arts graduate Ryusuke Hamaguchi's relationship drama "Passion", as well as in screenwriter Aki Sato's debut film "emerger". Along with her work in Japanese theatre, Fusako Urabe is a formidable talent who stands apart from the crew of pretty actresses/ models/ singers/ tarento that populate the showbiz landscape of Japan.
6. Hirofumi Arai
There are plenty of heartthrob actors in Japan, men (and often time boys) who portray the heroes, the superstars and the boyfriends in the latest manga adaptation or TV spin-off film. What there are not a lot of in Japan are actors like Hirofumi Arai, artists who aren't afraid to be dangerous, frightening, less than heroic and in some cases downright ugly (although more inside than out). It seems like 32-year-old Arai has built his career on these types of characters though. A third generation Korean Japanese from Aomori Prefecture, Arai first wowed audiences with two powerful performances in 2001, one in Isao Yukisada's "Go" and the other opposite Ryuhei Matsuda in Toshiaki Toyoda's "Blue Spring". In the former Arai had a chance to explore his Korean heritage as a disenfranchised zainichi teen, while in the latter he took his character from being a naive high schooler to a terrifying street thug.It's important to note that Arai was only 19 at the time he filmed both these projects. It's true that since that time Arai has done his fair share of roles on TV dramas, but he has also given birth to a plethora of wonderfully flawed characters -- The school bully who becomes the hero of Yasuo Inoue's "Neighbour No. 13", the adult son of a sociopathic patriarch of a Korean family in Osaka in Yoichi Sai's "Blood and Bones", a boxer who is wrongfully accused and convicted of a murderer in Banmei Takahashi's "Box: The Hakamada Case". Even in the smallest role Arai can become instantly memorable. One only needs to see his brief courtroom scene in Ryosuke Hashiguchi's "All Around Us" as a man standing trial for killing a group of elementary school children to know what we mean. Arai probably pushed the envelope further than anyone on this list with Tasuhi Omori's independent film "Whispering of the Gods" which saw his character involved in graphic onscreen sex and violence. The film proved to controversial to submit to Japanese censors, so its producer made the decision to screen it in an alternative venue -- a tent in Ueno Park.
5. Kenichi Matsuyama
Thanks to roles in such blockbuster films as "Death Note: The Last Name", "Kaiji" and "Gantz" Ken'ichi Matsuyama has become a Pan-Asian superstar, but there's something that sets this 26-year-old actor apart from many of the tarento on screen in Japan. That's his acting chops. While Matsuyama got his start in show business at the age of 16 via a model search audition sponsored by Japanese department store Parco it didn't take him long to do more in front of the camera than just look pretty. A year after winning the model search Matsuyama was cast in the NTV series "Gokusen" and very quickly he migrated from the small screen to the large. First there was a small part in Kiyoshi Kurosawa's 2003 film "Bright Future", but soon he was being cast in major roles, such as that of a young private on board the Imperial battleship Yamato in "The Men of the Yamato". Although this WW2 drama suffered from being a little overwrought Matsuyama stood out as a newcomer to watch. Above and beyond the wild success of Shusuke Kaneko's two "Death Note " films Matsuyama began to turn in more and more sophisticated performances in films like Koji Hagiuda's "Prodigy (Shindo)" and Yoshimitsu Morita's "Southbound". The role that proved that Matsuyama was much more than a pretty face, though, was in Toshio Lee's manga adaptation "Detroit Metal City". In his dual role as nebbish songwriter Soichi Negishi and death metal frontman Johannes Krauser II he got to show off his pitch perfect comic timing. There are few actors on our list that can pull off both drama and comedy, but with Matsuyama's performance in "Detroit Metal City" he proved he could tackle both. The role also got him nominated for Best Actor at the 2009 Japanese Academy Awards and won him the Most Popular Actor trophy. It also led him on to much more serious projects such as Tran Ahn Hung's "Norwegian Wood" (above).
4. Tae Kimura
Success as an actor, meaning steady work and praise for ones talent, is an elusive thing. May actors work at their craft for years before they begin to win accolades. Some never get their. One actress who worked long and hard perfecting her skills and finally gain fame is 40-year-old Tae Kimura. Kimura didn't actually start out as an actress. Instead she studied at the Showa College of Music, but upon graduation she took her talents to the stage in various musical productions. It was during this stage in her career that Kimura found herself working multiple part-time jobs to keep herself going. Starting in 1996 Kimura began to appear in numerous small roles on TV and the following year she made her big screen debut in Toho's slapstick comedy "Secret Garden", but success was still elusive. She would work on films with Hirokazu Koreeda ("After Life"), Shunji Iwai ("Hana & Alice") and Hideo Nakata ("Kaidan"), but a leading role continued to elude her. Everything changed in 2008 when she starred in Ryosuke Hashiguchi's marital drama "All Around Us" (above). Kimura was cast in the role of a clinically depressed wife, combining humour and heartbreak opposite Lily Franky as her courtroom artist husband. Suddenly Kimura went from bit parts to an awe inspiring feature role. Kimura soon found herself being named Best Actress at both the 2009 Japanese Academy Awards and The Blue Ribbon Awards. Since this career defining performance Kimura has gone on to star in a series of leading roles for such directors as Makoto Shinozaki, Hideaki Sato and Isshin Inudo. Regardless of where Kimura's career goes from here (and we can only hope that is onwards and upwards) her performance in "All Around Us" earns her a place at #4 on our list.
3. Takayuki Yamada
As we've already mentioned with our #5 pick, Ken'ichi Matsuyama, being both a gifted actor and a comedian is a very difficult thing. Matsuyama pulled it off in "Detroit Metal City", but one actor who has managed to consistently juggle pathos and laughter (sometimes in the same film) is 27-year-old Takayuki Yamada. The Kagoshima-born Yamada made his acting debut at 15 in the TV series "Psychometrer Eiji 2" after he was discovered shopping with his older sister. Throughout the subsequent six years Yamada would find himself growing in popularity on the small screen, but his star wouldn't really start to shine until 2005. That's when he found himself cast in the lead role of an otaku who saves a woman on the Tokyo Metro from a drunk. That film, "Densha Otoko (Train Man)" became a cultural phenomena in Japan. The story itself didn't vary much from the many Harlequin-esque films that flood the theatres in Japan each year, but what set "Densha Otoko" apart was Yamada. Like a latter-day Cary Grant, Yamada can be suave, cool and hilarious all at once. In the years since "Densha Otoko" he has done this time again again in films like Takashi Miike's "Crows Zero", Katsuhide Motoki's "Kamogawa Horumo" and Nobuo Mizuta's "Maiko haaaan!!!". Even sub par melodramas like "Ikigami: The Ultimate Limit" have been elevated by Yamada's pure screen charisma. The latest success for Yamada has been Yoshimasa Ishibashi's surreal comedy "Milocrorze: A Love Story" (above) in which Yamada doesn't play one, but three different roles -- an abusive relationship counsellor, a samurai on a quest to find his lost love and a boy who had his heart broken by a super model. From here on we can only guess at what Takayuki Yamada is capable of.
2. Shinobu Terajima
Japanese actresses have found themselves in a very difficult position in the past few years. More and more studios and talent agencies don;t just want their actresses up on the big screen. TV offers are always calling, but the most lucrative market often ends up being commercials and ad campaigns. The only drawback with this is that actresses and their agents feel that roles which are too sexy, too extreme or too challenging don't make for likable product spokespeople. Ultimately this means that female roles in Japanese films that push the envelope have grown few and far between. One actress who has refused to shy away from roles that may make shake up an audience is 38-year-old Shinobu Terajima. This most non-traditional of actresses actually came from a traditional acting family. Her father, Kikugoro Onoe, and brother are kabuki actors and her mother, Junko Fuji, is an actress and TV moderator. For her part Terajima studied at the Aoyama Gakuin University Faculty of Arts, but it was only a decade ago, when she was 28, that Terajima finally went from small stage roles to a full-fledged acting career, and since she has created a body of work that would make any actress, Japanese or otherwise, jealous. Right from the beginning, though, Terajima gravitated to projects that would scare other Japanese actresses to death. In her two breakthrough roles, 2003's surreal "Akame 48 Waterfalls", directed by Genjiro Arato and the indie drama "Vibrator", directed by Ryoichi Hiroki, Terajima would appear nude and act in numerous sex scenes. Thankfully the critics saw past this and both roles won Terajima praise, including the Japanese Academy Award for Best Actress for "Akame 48 Waterfalls". Terajima isn't an "erotic" film actress though. She regularly acts on television and on stage, but it's her controversial and powerful screen roles that continue to garner attention. Her role as the wife of a horribly disfigured WW2 veteran in Koji Wakamatsu's "Caterpillar" (above) not only won Terajima her second Japanese Academy Award for Best Actress, but also the prestigious Best Actress Award at the 2010 Berlin Film Festival.
1. Tadanobu Asano
It's hard to think of Japanese film in the past 15 years without thinking of Tadanobu Asano. For many film fans the 37-year-old actor has become the face of contemporary Japanese cinema, what with his starring roles in cult hits like "Ichi the Killer" and Takeshi Kitano's reboot "Zatoichi". Asano was born Tadanobu Sato, the son of a talent agent who thought it best his son go into the business. Soon renamed Asano, the young actor found himself cast for his unusual looks (he is a quarter Navajo on his mother's side). Watching Asano's early performances today, such as in Shunji Iwai's made-for-TV film "Fried Dragon Fish", it's hard to see how he has become one of Japan's most charismatic screen stars. He seemed to possess no screen presence. It almost felt like he had simply wandered in front of the camera. It was this persona that Asano has not only cultivated, but honed to a very particular acting style. Now he can communicate a wealth of thought and emotion with the barest of means, the polar opposite of an actor like Toshiro Mifune, who was known for his broad, physical technique. This less-is-more working method has served Asano well in everything from zany comedies like "The Taste of Tea" to serious dramas like "Wandering Home" (above). He's even taken his career overseas, starring in films in Thailand, Hong Kong, the U.S. and the former Soviet Union. What most interesting about Asano is that he's become the hottest actor in Japan by breaking the rules, or more accurately by simply ignoring them. While Asano has, like many actors in Japan, appeared in commercials for various companies, he has not gone the expected route of appearing on TV dramas or panel shows. He'd much rather play music with his bands Peace Pill and Safari, make art and work on his own clothing line. This "bad boy" attitude has famously won him the "Johnny Depp of Japan" tag; but comparing one of Hollywood's greatest actors of our generation to Japan's greatest is no faint praise.