Wednesday, July 14, 2010

Top Ten "Thay Guy" Character Actors

We've all had a conversation like this...

"Who is that guy that was in that movie?"

"Which guy are you talking about?"

"You know! That guy! The guy who's in every movie! He played the gangster, and then the doctor and then the cop. That guy!"

Any fan of Japanese film, or film in general, will have their favorite character actor, their "That guy" whose face is etched in their memory but whose name is often a mystery. While the top billed stars get their names in biog letters above the title on posters and in the opening credits of films these character actors often only get second or third billing. For movie audineces here in North America these actors don't even have their names translated on English-subbed DVDs. This month we at the Pow-Wow thought we'd honour these character actors these "Those guys". You may not recognize ther names in the list below, but we can guarantee trhat you'll instantly recognize their faces.

10. Ken Mitsuishi

Occupying the space between character actor and lead role is where Ken Mitsuishi seems most comfortable. He's equally at home in period pieces and contemporary dramas, comfortable playing a shy single dad or a hardass by-the-book detective. This flexibility has earned him over a hundred roles in films from Shunji Iwai's "Love Letter" to Shinya Tsukamoto's "Nightmare Detective 2" to Takahisa Zeze's "Yuda: Eros Bancho #1" to Momoko Ando's "Kakera". In the biz, that's what they call range. Indie J-film directors have used Mitsuishi's distinctive, handsome-but-not-too-handsome looks for years, earning featured roles from such outsider all-stars as Sion Sono ("Noriko's Dinner Table", "Exte: Hair Extensions") and Naoko Ogigami ("Megane"). And despite having enough of a filmography to suit any taste, it's the latter of these two credits—both shot in 2007—that I'd present as both his most visible roles and examples of his credibility in creating wildly different onscreen characters. "Exte" is an exercise in J-Horror, but with a twist and Mitsuishi, as a police detective, is a no-nonsense voice of realism. It's the kind of thankless, hackneyed cop role common to these films and comes with little screen time. But Mitsuishi's skepticism and grit makes him the audience proxy in a film which could have gone off the rails. "Megane", a tale of an outsider finding her place in an unnamed island's strangely insular society, features unexplained yet soulful oddball characters one after another. Mitsuishi's Yuji is a seaside motel owner who draws extremely vague maps for his potential customers, seemingly as a test to see if they have the talent to find his establishment. The character's soft-spokenness comes through in Mitsuishi's eyes to such an extent that when he speaks, it's a foregone conclusion that what he'll say will be gently supportive. EE

9. Jun Kunimura

A prolific character actor, Jun Kunimura is almost certainly best known among Western viewers for his small yet highly memorable role in “Kill Bill: Vol. 1.” He plays Boss Tanaka, who is most displeased with O-Ren Ishii (Lucy Liu) assuming complete control over the Tokyo yakuza. He halts the celebration in her honor and proceeds to express his simmering anger at the fact that someone of Chinese-American heritage is now the head of his beloved crime council. A few seconds later, his head is swiftly severed from his body in a shocking spray of blood, serving as an example to anyone who dares disrespect O-Ren’s racial orientation. Shortly after viewing the first installment of Tarantino’s epic, I spotted Kunimura again in not one, but two of Takashi Miike’s most notorious films. In “Audition,” he plays Yoshikawa, the helpful friend to Ryo Ishibashi’s Aoyama who plans the titular event, investigates the mysterious Asami (Eihi Shiina) and tries to warn the love-struck widower of possible danger. He also appears in “Ichi the Killer” amidst the gory, bodily fluids-splashed cat-and-mouse game between the bleached-blond, scarred Kakihara (Tadanobu Asano) and the emotionally unstable Ichi (Nao Omori). A skim through Nakamura’s filmography reveals quite a few notable titles he has appeared in, including Toshiaki Toyoda’s “9 Souls,” Shinya Tsukamoto’s “Vital,” the Keira Knightley period piece “Silk,” Takeshi Kitano’s “Outrage” and, most intriguingly, John Woo’s “Hard Boiled,” in which he has a bit part. Judging from both his impressive work output and the memorable impression he has made on me in the few titles I have seen him in, both his talent and worthiness of acknowledgment extend far beyond his Tarantino-helmed walk-on part – as great as it may be. MSC

8. Yoshiyuki Morishita

There isn't a "that guy" character actor in Japanese film who is more recognizable yet more unknown than Yoshiyuki Morishita. That's the first time many of you have heard the name of this skinny, crooked toothed, nerdy-looking best known as one of Go Go Yubari's earliest victims in Quentin Tarantino's "Kill Bill, Vol. 1" and as the barely closeted gay burgaler in Gen Sekiguchi's "Survive Style 5+" isn't it? Then again that's the art of being a "that guy" - being available to a filmmaker to turn a minor role into a memorable moment. Born in Tokyo 48-year-old Morishita began his acting career on the stage as part of the Ranputi Panputi Theatre Company, but ended up being given his big break by Takeshi Kitano who cast the distinctive-looking Morishita as one of the beach bums who inhabited Kitano's 1991 film "A Scene At the Sea". In the the nearly two decades since then Morishita has starred in over 50 films by some of Japanese cinema's most revered directors such as Takashi Miike, Satoshi Miki and Seijun Suzuki. Morishita also has continued working with the man who kicked of his film career, starring in four more films by Takeshi Kitano - "Kids Return", "Hana-bi", "Zatoichi" and "Achilles and the Tortoise". CM

7. Sasano Takashi

The biggest laughs—who are we kidding, the only laughs—in Shinobu Yaguchi's "Happy Flight" come from an actor prominently featured in the previews, the little fellow asleep in his airline seat whose cheap toupee has slid forward, prompting Haruka Ayase to gently straighten it for him. He has about 5 minutes of screen time, seemingly all of them highlighted in the trailer. This is Tokyo native Sasano Takashi, he of the nonplussed expression that's popped up in films from "Bright Future" to "Dear Doctor" to TV shows like "Salaryman Kintaro" and "Kabe Onna, Yama Onna". His short wiry frame, slap-headed pate, and disarmingly infectious smile make him the butt of easy jokes onscreen, but it's his warm sincerity that has won him parts (however small) for decades. A stage actor since his college years in the late '60s, Sasano made his film debut in Yoji Yamada's Tora-san series in 1985 (and became a Yamada favorite in the process, later winning the Japanese Academy Award for Best Supporting Actor in the director's "Love and Honor") and never looked back. His brightest hour is in "Nezu no Ban"/"The Hardest Night" (also sometimes called "Longest Night"). As "Hardest Night"'s Kyoji, the hard-luck number-one student of a famous Rakugo practitioner, Sasano is given several key scenes which allow him to showcase his rapid-fire delivery, soulfulness, and undeniable charm. I'd point to the scene in which Kyoji inexplicably gets hit on (and lucky with!) a woman 30 years his junior as the film's funniest. No one is more shocked at the events than Kyoji, and Sasano sells Kyoji's unbelievable luck with a natural comic actor's understatement and flair. His reaction shots do more than merely punctuate the humor: they wordlessly define the character, making his work the most memorable in a film full of great performances. EE

6. Akaji Maro

If this were a list of "that guy" character actors with the most interesting lives offscreen then the man who would make it right to the top would be 67-year-old Akaji Maro. Maro along with friend Juro Kara practically invented Japanese underground theatre when they established the Jokyo Gekijo theatre company in 1964. Jokyo Gekijo's red tents defined a theatre that existed not only outside the cultural mainstream, but also outside of traditional brick and mortar theatres entirely. Maro didn't confine himself to theatre though. Shortly after founding the Jokyo Gekijo he sought out one of the architects of the Japanese avant garde, Butoh dance founder Tatsumi Hijikata. Maro joined Hijikata's dance troupe and then in 1972 would go out on his own to form the internationally accliamed Butoh troupe Dairakudakan. Life as an avant garde dancer isn't the most lucrative catreer choice though, so Maro took a page from his dance mentor Tatsumi Hijikata and took acting roles in films to supplement his dance troupe's communal living/ work space. At first maro worked in avant garde films by Nagisa Oshima and Seijun Suzuki, but as the years have gone on Maro has starred as everything from gangsters and criminals to beggars and ghosts in films by such varied directors as Kaneto Shindo, Sabu, Sion Sono, Toshiaki Toyoda and Takeshi Kitano. Maro even got to incorporate his Butoh dance skills in the dream sequence in Kitano's 1999 road movie "Kikujiro". CM

5. Renji Ishibashi

Another actor who has seeming appeared in every other film released in Japan for the past 25 years is Renji Ishibashi. Like Akaji Maro the 69-year-old Ishibashi began his career in the same underground theatre milieu of the 1960's that spawned Akaji Maro. After dropping out of the Nihon University of the Arts Film program in the early 60's Ishibashi appeared in avant garde productions by such Japanese stage luminaries as Yukio Ninagawa, Kunio Shimizu and Juro Kara. He also lucked into starring in a number of small roles in Toei's yakuza films directed by Kinji Fukasaku, Hideo Sekigawa and Yasuo Furuhata. Although Ishibashi would go on to star in an astounding number of films (over 200 and counting at this point), many of them directed by such well-known directors as Kenji Misumi, Noboru Tanaka, Shuji Terayama and Shinya Tsukamoto, there has been one filmmaker who has defined Ishibashi's career in the past 12 years. Starting with his shocking 1999 horror masterpiece "Audition" Takashi Miike has cast Ishibashi as everything from a kinky yakuza boss who gets off by shoving ladles up his ass in 2003's "Gozu" to a police detective trying to solve a murder in a men's prison in 2006's "Big Bang Love, Juvenile A". Ishibashi hasn't left behind his avant garde routes entirely though. In 2005 he starred in Akaji Maro's son's controversial directorial debut "The Whispering of the Gods" as an sexually abusive priest. Ishibashi hasn't forgoptten his early days at Toei either. Starting in 2008 he has headed up the studio's Toei University Project which mentors young actors. CM

4. YosiYosi Arakawa

Though he's known from many films (of recent note, the J-Film Pow-Wow fave "Fine, Totally Fine"), he'll always be Vinnie Jones' translator to me. During "Survive Style 5+" his look of almost constant surprise and arched eyebrows was perfect for the task of conveying Jones' hired killer's rants and yelled requests for what people's functions were in life (and the fact that he would then get as equally riled as Jones just put icing on the cake). Including a few TV shows, YosiYosi is running at a clip of about 3 projects a year for the last decade and I can't imagine it'll decline anytime soon. His recent appearance in the omnibus picture "Tokyo!" (in the final segment directed by Bong Joon-ho) has hopefully brought him a bit more exposure. There's something about his presence - maybe it's the comforting smoothness of his closely shorn hair - that puts you at ease and suggests that he could easily move from fun appearances in features such as "Kamikaze Girls" to lead roles that carry more weight. At only 36, he's got a lot of career ahead of him and I'm eager to see where he takes it. BT

3. Tomorowo Taguchi

Despite having been the ‘Man’ in "Tetsuo: The Iron Man", one of the most iconic underground cyberpunk films ever, Tomorowo Taguchi has long been someone I’ve always had trouble identifying. A friend of Shinya Tsukamoto since their early days as experimental theatre performers, Tomorowo has managed to maintain a pretty low profile, despite that magnitude of the films he’s been in. My theory goes that due to the physically kinetic and frenetic acting style demanded of Tomorowo in Tetuso, a film which thrives on aggressive, violently expressive body movements, when he’s bound by the normal physical constraints of everyday people like you or I, he’s much harder to recognize. He physically altered himself so much for the role, that the appearance of "Man" was part of the performance. Or maybe it’s just me. Maybe it’s because saying Tomorowo ten times fast is almost a tongue twister. Maybe it’s because he sticks to playing in smaller more independent fare, or always joining Shinya Tsukamoto for a role, no matter how in trivial, in his new film. Maybe he’s physically such an amazing actor he loses himself in the role. He’s used by Miike, Tsukamoto and Imamura, and yet for someone who’s played such a massive role, it’s crazy that he’s one of ‘those guys’. MH

2. Ren Osugi

30 years. Over 230 credits. Looking through Osugi's filmography, it appears that at this point in his career the greatest directors of modern Japanese films don't make a move (or a movie) without him - Kiyoshi Kurosawa, Takashi Miike, Hideo Nakata, Shinya Tsukamoto, Yoji Yamada and, in particular, Takeshi Kitano have all made use of his skills to varying degrees. His Kitano films are the ones that jump out at me immediately (he's appears in the majority of his films), but I'll probably best remember him for a short and almost wordless scene he appears in during Kurosawa's "Seance". Without really speaking to the waitress serving him, he manages to communicate his utter contempt in a wonderfully low key performance. Which goes to show you that his normally kind face belies his ability to take on a wide set of roles - straight up dramas ("Vacation"), sweet comedies ("Shall We Dance?") and oddball horror ("Uzumaki", "Exte: Hair Extensions") are all within his purview. Not bad for a guy who started with several "Subway Serial Rape" and "Molester Train" films on his resume. BT

1. Susumu Terajima

I'm everyone, and no one. Everywhere, and nowhere. Call me...Terajima Susumu. This man has been over 100 films, numerous commercials, and TV shows, and he’s only 47! Plus he writes his own advice column in Cinema Today! And yet most of his roles are small. Seldom is he the star or is cast in the limelight. He’s the workingman’s actor. He’s represented by Office Kitano, and is in every day Kitano film, so he’s obviously got skills. He’s in a boat load of yakuza films, and yet makes an appearance in "Sonatine", "Air Doll", "Gamera: The Brave", "Tokyo Tower" and "Flower and Snake". He pours himself into each role, and creates a variety of different characters, proving his completely versatile and yet remarkably selfless; despite how small each role is, he still brings the intensity and the heat. He shifts in and out of the background like a chameleon, and yet you always seem to know who he is. He appears in everything, he is ‘that guy’. The "Darkman" of Japan . MH


Unknown said...

lol, this is actually a subject I think of from time to time. Just disappointed Kunie Tanaka is nowhere to be found on this list, especially when he was seemingly "that guy" in every great Japanese movie made from the 60's to 70's.

Ian said...

Another one is Emoto Akira.

bloodsmurf said...

Happens to me so often

I guess Terajima wouldn't qualify for me though

The ultimate "that guy" to me would be Kohinata Fumiyo (yes I had to google for it again)

Anonymous said...

Another one may be Takenaka Naoto, though I know him quite well now. He's always that ridiculous guy, the one that speaks Japanese with an awkward-sounding accent.