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Sunday, March 14, 2010

MEDIA MIX

Risk separates stars from actors

Awards focus more on fads than faculty


People in the same business slapping one another on the back should hardly be of interest to anyone outside that business, but to paraphrase "Hedwig and the Angry Inch" the business called "show" is an entirely different animal. That's why we display a disproportionate fascination with the Academy Awards, which basically provide an opportunity for certain lucky individuals to congratulate themselves for having secured employment in the movie industry.

News photo
Pat on the back: Japanese actors (from left) Kimiko Yo, Ken Watanabe, Daisaku Kimura, Takako Matsu and Teruyuki Kagawa show off the Japan Academy prizes they won at a ceremony in Tokyo on March 5. KYODO PHOTO

They get away with this by pretending that the awards are about merit, when they're actually about image. It's no secret that the producers of last week's Oscar telecast had reconfigured the ceremony to make it more acceptable as TV entertainment. The awards themselves are not enough of a draw because most people are less interested in who wins than in who shows up. As Anthony Lane pointed out at newyorker.com, older stars were effectively marginalized this year — the lifetime achievement awards, which always go to geezers, were not given out during the broadcast — so that more young celebrities could take part and, it was hoped, attract a younger audience.

But younger stars are ubiquitous these days. In the past, the Oscar telecast was the only chance the hoi polloi had to see their movie idols anywhere but on the big screen. Teen stars Miley Cyrus and Taylor Lautner, on the other hand, are everywhere. The only reason their fans tuned in to the Oscars was to see what they looked like in formal wear.

Japan's equivalent, the Japan Academy Prize, whose own ceremony was broadcast live three days before the Oscars, is even more of a prefabricated photo op. The Japanese actors who win statues are not just movie people. They are media fixtures. You can see them all the time on TV and in advertisements and in magazine interviews. "Movie star" is not an earned appellation but a marketing label affixed by publicists.

The exposure these celebrities enjoy makes moot the matter of merit. There are so many attributes to an actor's image that acting skills end up being merely accidental if not downright inconvenient.

Take Japan's two pre-eminent under-40 screen actresses, Takako Matsu and Shinobu Terajima. Both women emerged from rien, the "theatrical world" embodied by kabuki. Matsu, who won this year's Best Actress Japan Academy Prize for the title role in "Villon's Wife," is the daughter of Matsumoto Koshiro IX. Terajima's father is Onoe Kikugoro VII. Kabuki is, by tradition, a family business that women cannot partake in. Nevertheless, Matsu and Terajima grew up in this world and absorbed stagecraft by osmosis. Unlike many Japanese movie actors, they actually entered the business through acting rather than modeling or singing, which tend to involve talent scouting and agency training. And since they were already scions of theater royalty, they were celebrities before they were anything else, and thus eminently bankable.

It was after they became professionals that their approach to acting diverged. Whatever thespian skills Matsu acquired as a kid, it was her pedigree that was emphasized. Matsu's image as an artist and a young woman of impeccable breeding was carefully developed by her talent agency, which placed her in generic TV drama series and had her record generic pop music. She's always been in demand for advertisements, which is where the real money is.

Terajima, however, stuck mainly to stage acting. Her status as the member of a kabuki family is augmented by a more down-to-earth style of celebrity due to the fact that her mother is Sumiko Fuji, who, as Junko Fuji, was one of Toei's biggest stars from 1968 to 1972, when she starred in a series of yakuza movies playing a gambler.

With such a background, Terajima could have been as big at Matsu, but she wants to act, and so searches out roles that challenge her abilities. That's what real actors do, but it won't necessarily endear them to people in the industry, who prefer types that can be sold and promoted easily. In any case, some of the roles she has taken are not the sort that people who cast TV commercials and dramas want anything to do with. In fact, her mother has reportedly come close to disowning her for some of the choices she's made.

Terajima didn't appear in her first leading film role until she was 30. She had read the novel "Akame Shijuya Taki Shinju Misui" and lobbied for the part of Aya, scandalizing her mother because the job called for nude sex scenes. Of course she got the role — it was quite a coup for the producers to get the daughter of Junko Fuji — and in the same year she appeared in the acclaimed indie film "Vibrator," which also called for nudity and simulated sex.

She won pretty much every acting award there was to win that year, including a Japan Academy Prize, but in the media she was quickly labeled an eroi (erotic) actress, even though she did other projects that didn't involve sex. Her mother had tried to warn her since she herself was forced to expose her bare shoulders against her will by Toei during her own acting heyday.

That's because Junko Fuji was a contract movie star, not an actor. Further confirmation of Terajima's dedication to craft over image came two months ago when she was given the best actress honors at the Berlin Film Festival for the movie "Caterpillar," in which she plays the wife of a hideously maimed soldier who is forced to fulfill his sexual demands out of marital obligation.

A willingness to take one's clothes off does not make one an actor, but risking one's reputation with such a decision does indicate dedication. What's more disconcerting to the showbiz media is that Terajima doesn't seem to care what they think. Granted, she can afford to be carefree. Her heritage gives her a pass and guarantees her a plum role in NHK's current Sunday night historical drama. She even does TV commercials now and then, but usually with other members of her family. There are limits.



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