No discussion of contemporary Japanese cinema is complete without the mention of maverick movie star Tadanobu Asano. From his work with cyber-punk innovators Sogo Ishi (Burst City) and Shinya Tsukamoto (Tetsuo) to the meditative master behind Sailor Suit and Machine Gun, Shinji Somai, Mr. Asano is a lens through which to view the bolder side of contemporary Asian cinema. One of Mr. Asano’s most iconic roles includes the extreme sado-masochist yakuza Kakihara in Takashi Miike’s manga adaptation Ichi the Killer. Asked what it was like to work with the enfant terrible, Mr. Asano described a man whose casual playfulness betrayed the ultraviolence of his films: “If the prop master forgot a certain prop in a scene Mr. Miike might say ‘okay, as punishment you play a dead body.’”
Mr. Asano was the guest of honor at the Freer Gallery in Washington, D.C. for a series of his films dubbed Rebel, Artist, Superstar. Dauntingly prolific, he just completed Kabei (Our Mother) for director Yoji Yamada (Twilight Samurai) and played Genghis Khan in the best foreign language picture nominee Mongol. In addition to acting, Mr. Asano draws, paints, and plays in the hardcore punk bands Peace Pill and Safari. He also has a band with director Sogo Ishii called Mach 1.67 and made his first foray as a filmmaker with the experimental Tori (Bird). As if that’s not cool enough, he’s one quarter Navajo and married to quirky, chic J-pop star Chara. The Brooklyn Rail caught up with Mr. Asano at the Freer.
Rail: I know you’re a big fan of music, punk rock especially…
Tadanobu Asano: Black Flag! Washington D.C.
Rail: I know you’ve been playing in bands almost as long as you’ve been acting. Could you talk about how music and the punk scene informed your acting and vice versa?
Asano: It does have a huge influence because a lot of my band friends that I met in my teenage years, they’re basically living for what they really believed in. That was their lifestyle and that was pretty much about the punk rock scene and I was very much influenced by them. Looking at them I really felt that in my acting career I have to be true to myself and not be distracted by other things. Being in punk bands and with punk friends was my fundamental education
Rail: Punk was, for you and them, complete freedom of expression, or rebelling against restrictions?
Asano: I think they pretty much lived always according to their own choice and if there’s something they can’t be convinced of, for example if a law was passed against what they thought was right they would actually pick themselves up and protest. They’d make sure their voice was heard. Even if it turns out to be a failure they always strive to voice their opinion and that’s what I mean by something to believe in.
Rail: I heard you’re a fan of the pioneering, ultra fast and distorted Japanese hardcore band Gauze (who’ve been around for over 20 years), which was the first band I ever saw in Japan.
Asano: Gauze is incredible and they have an amazing new album.
Rail: You have a diverse body of work, some dark and punk rock like and some more mainstream. How were you lucky enough to gravitate towards and work with some of these Japanese punk auteurs like Sogo Ishi (Electric Dragon 80,000 Volts) or Shinya Tsukamoto (Vital)?
Asano: I’m hoping that something I personally believed in struck both Tsukamoto and Ishii when they were casting. I was very aware of iconic punk films like Burst City, etc. Of course they were very much idols of mine so I was indeed lucky to work with them.
Rail: You had once said some turning points in your career came while working with certain directors, for example Shinji Somai and Kiyoshi Kurosawa. Why and how were these pivotal experiences for you?
Asano: At the time I worked with Somai I was pretty much giving up on being an actor, meaning at that point I thought that acting was all about realizing the director’s vision and following his idea of what the actor is supposed to do. But with Somai it was a completely different style. You as an actor create your own atmosphere and the entire film is built around that. It gave me a sense of complete freedom and I never had so much fun in my career and I have to say that hasn’t been equaled since.
Rail: Can you pinpoint what it was about his techniques that brought that on?
Asano: On Somai’s set the first thing you do is rehearsal. And you do that while the entire crew is watching and depending on how the rehearsal goes they decide the camera positions and other details and I thought that was never possible. Of course on other sets pretty much everything is pre-arranged. You know where the cameras are and you have to do it accordingly. But it was totally different, and basically one thing they ask you is how you as an actor interpret the script and so you can do whatever you want, sit in a chair, drink a drink or whatever you want. He was the only director I’ve know to allow actors that kind of freedom.
Rail: You’ve played a lot of dark characters (Kakihara in Ichi the Killer, Kenji in Last Life in the Universe). How as an actor do you prepare for such roles and what from yourself informs this? Were you a delinquent when you were younger?
Asano: When you’re approaching a role you can really only rely on experience, but having said that I don’t know if I can say that I was a delinquent. But I certainly hang out with a lot of delinquents and a lot of my friends are delinquents. At one point in my life there were times when I had to stop someone from committing suicide and so forth so in that sense, yes, I can say I did use a lot of my own experiences in playing those roles.
Rail: I heard you were a big fan of the manga Ichi the Killer. What drew you to the manga? Were you happy to play any character or did you feel born to play Kakihara?
Asano: By far Kakihara was my first choice and the reason being is that I was really fascinated by the relationship between him and Ichi. It’s not really a friendship and they’re obviously not lovers but it was very much an intimate relationship. A lot of violent things happened between them but they had a really strange relationship and that’s what drew me in.
Rail: Could you talk about the hardships of the Mongol shoot?
Asano: The most difficult part was that there was a Russian director, a Chinese crew and also a Kazakhstan crew so there were a bunch of different lifestyles and it was hard to adjust to everyday life.
Rail: I’ve seen dance popping up in the two Katsuhito Ishii films you were in (Taste of Tea and Funky Forest) and now your own film Tori (Bird). What’s the significance of dance on your own aesthetic?
Asano: I always envy dancers and I watched break dance when I was a kid and was actually on a break dance team when that movie came out. I’ve always admired dancers and the great thing about it is that they try to express something without words and just their body acting out.
Rail: Did the idea for Tori, your debut as a director, indeed come from dreams? Could you talk about the relationship between film and dream?
Asano: You always feel that film is fiction and reality is much more interesting so if you’re going to make a film I think the film should create a big fantasy, a big lie, just like those of our dreams. Tori came more from my fantasy rather than a dream. When I saw this Bob Marley documentary called Time Will Tell, there was a shot of a bird flying in the air and I loved that sequence so I basically wanted to make a film where this bird just kept on flying and I started imaging where it would go and where it would stop and what kind of scenes would be there beneath the trees where the bird stops so that’s how it actually came together.
Rail: What about the next directing project for you?
Asano: Actually I just finished a short film. It was a project to be done by 6 filmmakers. It was supposed to be about this road, interstate 246. I haven’t edited it yet but that’s my next one.
Rail: Considering that you participate in so many different arts, what’s the ultimate art for you?
Asano: When I started in this business I didn’t have any pre-conceived notion of what the cinema is. By sticking with it I discovered that you can actually incorporate music or painting or a poem and different art forms. So now I do think that cinema can be the most interesting medium for me. If I were to pick my preference I think I might be interested in directing more.
Rail: In addition to Mongol, you’ve just completed Kabei (Our Mother) directed by Yoji Yamada (Twilight Samurai). Was that another turning point experience for you?
Asano: Somai taught me that complete freedom for actors is actually okay. In the case of Mr. Yamada he taught me how to fit myself into the system in this world of film and yet not lose myself and attain a kind of truth in acting. In that sense working with Mr. Yamada was also a huge contribution to my career. One of the first things Mr. Yamada starts with is how to voice your dialogue in a clear way so that the audience can understand. We also go over the movement so that each move is smooth and feels natural. That’s the first thing we discussed and then we moved on to the actual characters, the background stories, where they came from and why they’re there. We had endless conversations about these details and then we go into a discussion about what we do with all this knowledge. He told me his own opinions too but it’s basically a collaborative process and when the sparks fly they capture it on camera right away. It was a very rewarding experience. They really tried to work it until it’s very interesting for everyone including the audience and yet very precise, easy to understand, but not obvious.
Rail: What films are inspiring you to continue as a director?
Asano: I don’t know about films but Gauze’s new album…it’s really cool.
Rail: Yeah that band live was on fire. So no movies inspired you, just music?
Asano: I don’t really watch too many movies but I finally saw Wild at Heart and it was really great.
Rail: It would be interesting to see the equivalent of Gauze on film. Some of those Sogo Ishi movies might come close.
Asano: Some personal stories of the directors I’ve worked with are fascinating. I’d love to make movies based on that.
Thanks to Tom Vick of the Freer Gallery.
Special thanks to Hyoe Yamamoto for interpreting and invaluable assistance.
- Kabei (2008) dir. Yoji Yamada
- Mongol (2007) dir. Sergei Bodrov
- Funky Forest: The First Contact (2005) dir. Katsuhito Ishii
- Survive Style 5 + (2004) dir. Gen Sekiguchi
- Vital (2004) dir. Shinya Tsukamoto
- The Taste of Tea (2004) dir. Katsuhito Ishii
- Café Lumière (2003) dir. Hou Xiao Xian
- Zatoichi (2003) dir. Takeshi Kitano
- Last Life in the Universe (2003) dir. Pen-Ek Ratanaruang
- Bright Future (2003) dir. Kiyoshi Kurosawa
- Ichi the Killer (2001) dir. Takashi Miike
- Distance (2001) dir. Hirokazu Kore-eda
- Electric Dragon 80,000 Volts (2001) dir. Sogo Ishii- Kaza-Hana (2000) dir. Shinji Somai
- Gohatto (1999) dir. Nagisa Oshima
David Wilentz dreams in color.