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Sunday, Feb. 5, 2012
CLOSE-UP: Mickey Curtis
Mickey Curtis: from rocker to 'Robo-G'
Special to The Japan Times
The pioneers of the rock 'n' roll era on both sides of the Atlantic have now largely faded from the show-business scene — which is hardly surprising, given that those still strutting their stuff are in their 70s and 80s, and even "The King" himself, Elvis Presley, who died in 1977, would be 77 today.
But in Japan, Mickey Curtis is still going strong as a musician five decades after he became a star of the nation's homegrown rockabilly boom — while as an actor, he is currently starring in a new Shinobu Yaguchi comedy film titled "Robo-G." Now 73, Curtis plays a lonely codger who finds a new purpose, as well as new troubles, impersonating a humanoid robot.
Born Michael Brian Kachisu on July 23, 1938, to a mother and father who were both of mixed British and Japanese ancestry, Curtis (a name he adapted from his similar-sounding birth name) spent the war years mainly in Shanghai with his parents. His musician father, however, performed a disappearing act with a Russian woman. After the war, his mother — together with a British man who was to become his stepfather — brought him and his sister back to Japan, where Curtis struggled to adapt to an unfamiliar country and culture.
Even as a young boy, Curtis was exposed to American pop by his music-loving parents, and in his teens he studied at the Nihon Jazz Gakko (Nihon Jazz School) founded by a Japanese-American musician named Tib Kamayatsu. At the age of 15, he began performing country music for U.S. servicemen at camps and clubs.
In 1958, not long after Elvis, Little Richard, Jerry Lee Lewis and Chuck Berry had begun enthralling teenagers and enraging moral guardians in the United States and elsewhere, Curtis joined Masaaki Hirao and Keijiro Yamashita in "Western Carnival" rockabilly shows at a theater in Tokyo's central Yurakucho district. The three became an immediate sensation with local teens, though their elders typically regarded the music as irritating noise and the shows as akin to scandalous riots.
Unlike fellow Japanese rockers who learned (or approximated) the lyrics of their cover songs phonetically or simply sang them in Japanese, Curtis was fluent in English. He also had a real rebel-rocker attitude nurtured on the tough streets of postwar Japan, where his non-Japanese looks had made him not only a standout but also a target.
In the 1960s, after the rockabilly fad faded, Curtis made a smooth transition to acting for films and singing and emceeing for television. In 1967, he formed a progressive-rock band called Mickey Curtis & His Samurais, which embarked on a long tour of Europe. Returning to Japan in 1970, he became a record producer, working with many top rock and folk-rock acts.
Then, in 1985, after a hiatus of nearly two decades, Curtis resumed his film acting career. Since then his roles have spanned a wide range from doctors to gangsters, and he has worked for such leading directors as Shunji Iwai ("Suwaroteiru [Swallowtail Butterfly]"; 1996), Shohei Imamura ("Akai Hashi no Shita no Nurui Mizu [Warm Water Under a Red Bridge]"; 2001) and Takashi Miike ("Izo"; 2004). In fact, his filmography now comprises more than 100 entries — a total that would soar far higher if his TV drama appearances were added. Abroad, however, Curtis is perhaps best known for his role as a starving soldier in Kon Ichikawa's "Nobi (Fires on the Plain)," his stark 1959 portrayal of defeated Japanese soldiers in the Philippines in the closing days of the war.
Though he may not have the widest range as an actor, Curtis consistently delivers as the coolest old guy in the room — one who's always been lean and wiry, is usually pony-tailed and stylishly turned out and is often inwardly amused at the goings-on around him.
When we met for this interview at the Tokyo headquarters of Toho, which is distributing "Robo-G," Curtis was suffering from a cold, but nonetheless soldiered through our 50-minute exchange with his salty persona and wry sense of humor intact.
Did you have to audition for "Robo-G"?
Everybody in this film had an audition. That's (Yaguchi's) way. He auditioned more than 200 senior actors and actresses (for my role).
He'd been doing all these films like "Swing Girls" and "Waterboys," auditioning young people. If they caught a little fever they'd still go to the audition because they wanted to be in the film. But there were so many old people who couldn't come to the audition. They'd go "Oh, I caught a fever, I've got a bad back, I couldn't get out of the house."
So he figured if he's hiring an actor who's over 73 years old he'd have to find someone who can act and is slim and healthy, because otherwise during the filming he'll blow the whole thing.
Did Yaguchi ask you to do anything different from what you normally do?
Well he wanted me to shave my beard off and cut my hair, so people don't know who it is, right?
Did you have to wear the robot suit all the time?
Yeah all the time, 30 kg of it. It took an hour to put on and 45 minutes to take off, so once you're wearing it you can't go to the john, you can't do sh*t. You can't even move properly — it's really hot.
We shot the film in February in Kyushu and I thought, "Great, it'll be warm with the suit on," but it was northern Kyushu, minus 2 degrees, and I just stood there in a T-shirt and the suit, and when the cold wind came it got colder and colder and colder. I couldn't wear anything underneath because the suit fitted too close.
Could you not use heating pads?
No man, nothing! It was even hard to breathe in that suit.
You managed to express the character, though.
I'm a comedian as well, so I got into all kinds of comic stuff on the first day, but after that I'd just do what the director wanted me to. I tried to enter his head and see what he wanted.
Usually a director and actor will have a long talk about the character before shooting starts, and how they're going to do it all. But this time, after we'd finished working on the design of the suit, I didn't see Yaguchi until we were on the set. He didn't want to talk much.
But he's a funny guy, a very smart guy. It's all in his head, so all I had to do was do what he said. And if he says "OK," that's his problem.
Do you mind if we go back to the beginning and walk through your career?
A new book of mine came out on Jan. 10 and it explains all that. I was a kid during World War II. I was in Shanghai for four years. I couldn't live in Japan because I was "half," and if you were bilingual in those days you were automatically a spy — so we couldn't live in Japan. World War II ended in 1945, and at the end of that year I came back to Japan.
I guess there wasn't much left here when you came back, was there?
Oh, nada — nothing. We were starving and often ate boiled weeds and flowers and corn powder for breakfast, lunch and dinner.
After the war we came back together, but my dad had changed during the war. My real dad eloped with a Russian girl and left me, my sister and my mother. She found someone else to act as my father — well, my stepfather.
I had a pretty rough time. I had to go to a Japanese public school in Shanghai and just my face set them off. They threw stones at me and shit like that.
Was your Japanese fluent at that time?
I spoke a little Japanese; a little Shanghai-dialect Chinese; a little English.
Had you learned English from your mother?
I think so. I never studied English. I played on a lot of military bases.
Did you also pick it up from listening to FEN (Far East Network, predecessor of today's American Forces Network-Japan)?
FEN too, yeah, and WVTR (the predecessor of FEN that was also a radio service for U.S. military stationed in Japan).
When you returned to Japan after the war, of course American cultural influence was coming in at that time.