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Wednesday, Nov. 24, 2004

Kimutaku takes to the mountains

Interviewing Takuya Kimura at the Tokyo International Film Festival was like being a commoner guest on a reception line for show-business royalty -- I had media ahead of me, media behind me, handlers all around me and only a short time to say my piece. But Kimura, while glowing with that peculiar aura of superstars whose every wish is someone's command, gave me his full attention and thought through his answers -- even to questions he had no doubt been hearing for years. Or was that another flawless performance by the biggest name in Japanese business?

News photo
Takuya Kimura speaks at the opening for "Howl no Ugoku Shiro" at this year's Tokyo International Film Festival.

Why was Kimura meeting me and the rest of the journalistic hoi polloi? He and fellow members of SMAP -- the pop group that has been everywhere on Japanese television, collectively and individually, for more than a decade -- were promoting their latest films at TIFF on a special SMAP day. Kimura's were Wong Kar-wai's romantic drama "2046," which premiered in competition at this year's Cannes Film Festival, and Hayao Miya zaki's "Howl no Ugoku Shiro" (Howl's Moving Castle)," which screened on TIFF's opening night. Kimura and his fellow SMAPsters long stayed away from the big screen, but are now moving full speed ahead with their film careers. Kimura was kind enough to tell me why.

I didn't think the role you played in "2046" -- a mature man disappointed in love -- was not one you could have played a decade ago. It seemed to bring out something in you that your fans in Japan may not have known was there.

That's Wong Kar-wai's style. I went to his shoot after preparing various things that went beyond my character's age and nationality, but he told me I didn't need any of them. He didn't have a script either. We all only really existed inside his head.

Did you find a gap between what you thought you were doing and what you actually saw on the screen?

Yes, here and there. On the set [Wong] would tell me to express "coldness" -- then he would shout "rolling, action." I'd try to do what I'd been told, but the scene would have nothing to do with "coldness" at all. So that sort of thing happened. If you wanted to put a bad spin on it, you could call it a sort of scam. If you wanted to. But I don't think of it as a scam really. Directors have different ways of cooking the meal we call a film -- and his way is as legitimate as any other.

So you felt you were a well-used ingredient?

Was I being used? Well, maybe. But I was the one doing the expressing. So was I being used really? This may be a heavy way of putting it, but I think allowing yourself to be used implies a certain responsibility. It also gives you a certain confidence.

You were working with a great director, so you had the confidence that, in his hands, you could do anything?

Not exactly. What does it mean to call a director "great" anyway? Even Spielberg, [Francis] Coppola and [Stanley] Kubrick -- all those wonderful directors -- even a lot of directors at this film festival have this one thing in common: When they start to be called "world famous" everyone thinks they're great, but once a director is on the set all that "world famous" stuff is no longer important.

In a way, that was also true for you when you went to Cannes with "2046." The audience wasn't reacting to Takuya Kimura the television personality but to one actor on the screen.

I was really happy about that. I still remember at the film festival -- well, the whole town was the film festival actually -- I was at a cafe away from the main theater, when this old couple -- they looked like someone's grandfather and grandmother -- told me they'd seen my film and they loved me in it. They said it just like that -- bang! It was a wonderful feeling. I was also moved when the world media applauded the film and gave it a standing ovation. What can I say? I was really happy.

Here you stand out because you're the only Japanese in the cast, but to the audience at Cannes, everyone in the film was Asian. You might say you were competing with them on an even playing field.

A lot of people have told me that. We're all in the same film so we're on the same playing field. For outsiders, it may seem as though it's actor-vs.-actor or director-vs.-director. They like to pin the "versus" label on us, but I don't see myself as being "versus" anyone in the cast because we're a team. Also, there's this big hard mountain called Wong Kar-wai to climb and to make it to the top everyone in the cast has to pull together.

I'd like to talk about another kind of mountain: "Howl no Ugoku Shiro." That was one you hadn't climbed before. You had to do all your acting with your voice.

Well, I'm 31 now -- I'm part of the generation that grew up with animation. That's what excited us the most. So I was thrilled that I could be part of this thing that had excited me and my friends so much as kids -- but it wasn't a mountain.

I suppose you'd seen all of Miyazaki's films, so you had some idea of what was expected.

When I got the part, I had all these thoughts -- I was nervous and tense, but when I actually got down to work, the film carried me along -- the animation, the setting, the colors.

In the case of Pixar or Disney the voice actors record their parts first, then the animators create the characters based on the voices. In Japan it's the opposite. Is the Japanese way easier? Would it have been harder for you to create the character without the visual cues?

I think "harder" or "easier" depends on the case. The way you climb the mountain may differ, but no matter whether you do it the Japanese way or the American way, the peak is the same.

The character of Howl has a certain ambiguity: He's spoiled and temperamental, but he has his good side too. Could you identify with that ambiguity, that sense of mystery?

I truly felt that about him -- and when I did the part, that feeling was definitely there. But even if he weren't actually an animation character, even if he were to become a real breathing human being living a real life, I would have the same sense about him. There are things about human beings that you can't understand. But because Howl's an animation character, you can more readily accept it. In a real human being, though, that sort of thing can be a turn off.

Animation has its own style of acting. In Japanese animation in particular, there's a tendency toward exaggeration.

More than being concerned about the voice I was projecting or the sound I was making, I was guided by the character's expression -- if he looked surprised or doubtful.

But when I look at "Howl" and Miyazaki's other films, I wonder why they have to be animated. The town, the sky look so life-like -- and when you act against that backdrop you may seem to be overdoing it. Even though Miyazaki is world famous now, his point of view is still very down to earth -- ordinary people can understand it.

You've been in these two projects that have gotten international attention. Do you want to build on that -- try your hand at Hollywood?

I don't feel that I have to go to Hollywood. The package is what's important, not who is delivering it. It could be Hollywood, it could be Japan -- it doesn't matter which.

You've been in this business nearly 15 years now. Do you have any sense of where you'd like to be in another 10 or 15? Is there a plan?

I don't especially think in terms of plans. But I have these visions -- that I'd like to do this or that with a certain person. I'd like to do something similar to "Howl," but in a real situation, not an animation.

There are a lot of remakes now -- it's a trend -- but I'm not so interested in remakes. The "Taku" in my name means "pioneer." I'd like to be a pioneer of some kind.

I've been wondering for a long time why I haven't seen more Takuya Kimura films. (laughs)

That's just the way things happened. If I want to change that and expand my range of activities, it's up to me.

Talking about expansion, more Japanese films are getting out into the world. The Hollywood remake of "The Grudge" was No. 1 at the U.S. box office -- and that's drawn more attention to the original.

There are a lot of problems with Japanese films, technical and financial, but the ideas are there -- and the ideas are free. It's not a case of "versus." There's definitely potential in the ideas.

In Japan you have a certain image to uphold -- that if Takuya Kimura appears in a TV drama it's going to get high ratings. But abroad that doesn't matter.

I want to trash that image. I want to change my image every chance I get. There's nothing sadder than an actor who only has one image.

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