It could have been the opportunity of a lifetime for a Japanese actress, they said. Arthur Golden’s novel "Memoirs of a Geisha" had already spent a couple of years on the New York Times bestseller list, and the excitement that greeted news of its big-screen adaptation was surpassed only by the relief that, contrary to initial rumors, the film wouldn’t be starring Madonna. No: the movie’s producers wanted something more, quote-unquote, authentic.
So it was a little disappointing when the cast turned out to be headed by Chinese actresses Zhang Ziyi and Gong Li, and the Malaysian Michelle Yeoh. “We talked about it at length and we said, ‘What about this [or that] Japanese actress, would she work?’” director Rob Marshall told The Los Angeles Times at the time. “And I said: ‘Yes, but you know what? She’s not as good.’ And everybody agreed.”
Of course, this was before the outside world had realized what a dull, stunningly inert piece of cinema the film was going to be. But the question still nagged: where were the great Japanese actresses? While the film industries in other Asian countries were busy nurturing bona fide stars, Japan’s brightest lights seemed to be better known for appearing in shampoo commercials.
In the grand pecking order of the Japanese entertainment industry, acting ability is ranked somewhere between hairstyle and shoe size in terms of importance. This is a world that values tarento over talent; almost without exception, the most popular stars are ambidextrous entertainers—actors cum models cum pop singers cum game show panelists. And, yes, there’s also the small question of advertising.
“Most of the lead roles go to young women in their 20s who’ve appeared in lots of commercials, so the performances are immature,” says Shinobu Terajima, sitting down to talk after a photo shoot at a studio in Hiroo. “The quality of Japanese cinema lags way behind other countries.”
At 37, Terajima is widely regarded as one of the best actresses of her generation—at least, that is, if we limit the term to people who can actually act. She has picked up some of the country’s top awards for her film and stage work, including a Japan Academy Prize—the local equivalent of an Oscar—in 2003. In February this year, she took home the Silver Bear for Best Actress at the Berlin International Film Festival for her commanding performance in "Caterpillar," which is released here on Aug 14.
In other words, she’s earned the right to mouth off a little.
“Most Japanese movies at the moment are like manga, where the audience isn’t challenged to think or encouraged to ponder the themes and storylines. The movies are easy to read and the storylines totally predictable, so the audience never matures,” she continues. “My husband’s daughter is 10 and she watches a lot of movies, but when she sees Japanese films she just finds them stupid. Even a 10-year-old can see how juvenile they are.”
Terajima waited until she was 28 before finally deciding she wanted to be an actress. It took a clutch of accolades, including the aforementioned Japan Academy Prize and a Blue Ribbon Award—voted for by Japanese film critics—to convince her.
Most people might have set their standards a little lower, but then most people didn’t grow up in a family like Terajima’s. Her father and brother, better known by the appellations Onoe Kikugoro VII and Onoe Kikunosuke V, are part of the prestigious Otowaya kabuki actor guild. Her mother, herself the daughter of a big-shot Toei movie producer, rose to fame in the ’60s as Junko Fuji, star of a string of yakuza films like the "Red Peony Gambler" and "The Orphan Gambler" series.
Terajima describes her younger self as being “full of complexes.” “Before, I hadn’t recognized whether I could do it or not, really,” she says. “But when I got a prize, I got confidence.”
After spending most of her 20s doing stage work, Terajima’s big break came in the form of two films in 2003: "Akame 48 Waterfalls," a surreal shaggy dog story in which she played the mistress of a tattoo artist, and "Vibrator," a road movie about a bulimic journalist who hitches across the country with a truck driver. Both featured the kinds of female leads seldom encountered in modern Japanese cinema: complex, fickle, impossible to peg.
It’s a type—insofar as you can call it that—at which Terajima excels. She delivered another richly nuanced performance as a manic-depressive in 2006’s "It’s Only Talk," which reunited her with "Vibrator" director Ryuichi Hiroki. And she was probably the only good thing about "Ai no Rukeichi" (2007), the overripe adaptation of Junichi Watanabe’s novel about a doomed affair between a middle-aged writer and a sexually repressed housewife.
With "Caterpillar," she’s done some of her best work to date. Terajima plays Shigeko, a woman living in a rural village in the closing years of World War II, whose army lieutenant husband (Shima Onishi) comes home as a scarred, mute cripple without arms or legs. This stump of a human being is proclaimed a “war god” by the authorities, and Shigeko is expected to see to his every need. Worn down by his constant demands for food and sex, and still smarting from memories of the abuse he inflicted on her in the past, she takes revenge by dressing him in full military regalia and parading him around the village, a symbol of both the tragedy and absurdity of Japan’s war effort.
The film is the work of Koji Wakamatsu, a political firebrand and former "pinku eiga" director whose previous movie, "United Red Army," was a three-hour epic about far-left revolutionaries in the ’60s and ’70s. In its unswerving grimness, "Caterpillar" is at odds with the current trend of Japanese cinema to romanticize the war, fudging the issue of Japan’s imperialist ambitions and painting the conflict in the dewy-eyed language of doomed youth.
Terajima had a minor role in one such movie, Junya Sato’s 2005 blockbuster "Yamato," though she’s clear about where her own allegiances lie.
“I completely agree with Wakamatsu on this,” she says. “Trying to turn it into something beautiful—’Japan was defeated, but you can be heroic in defeat as well as victory, can’t you? Those soldiers were true heroes, dying for their country…’—is just wrong. The Japanese killed hundreds of thousands of people—we weren’t just defeated, we did terrible things, and what happened to the country was a result of that.”
"Caterpillar’s" release has been timed with a fine eye for controversy. The film had its first public screening in Okinawa on June 19, a couple of days shy of the anniversary of the island’s fall to U.S. forces. It will be shown in Hiroshima on Friday and Nagasaki on Aug 9, before going on wider release on Aug 14 (the following day would have been better, of course, but convention dictates that it start its general release on a Saturday).
“It’s definitely going to be controversial,” Terajima says. “I think a lot of nationalists are going to attack it.”
Speaking at the Foreign Correspondents Club of Japan earlier this year, Wakamatsu joked that he had cast Terajima because she looked good in monpe, the traditional pants favored by field workers. However, his directorial style also suited the actress well. Each scene in "Caterpillar" was filmed in a single take, meaning that it took only 12 days to shoot the entire movie.
“There were no rehearsals—we were just told to perform it however we saw fit,” Terajima says. “The cameraman was moving around, so we were told not to worry about where the camera was, just to perform like it was a play. I’m a stage actor, so I was happy to hear that.
“Lots of directors these days are obsessed about making a ‘picture’: they’re really particular about framing, having you act this way, deliver your lines that way. I hate it: when it’s done like that, there’s hardly any room to breathe as an actor.”
I mention a 2006 Japan Times interview with Vibrator and "It’s Only Talk" director Hiroki, in which he implied that he hadn’t had to give her much direction either. “He is a liar,” she says, switching into English. “He is not like that, not like Wakamatsu-san.” She searches briefly for the word. “Sadistic. He is really sadistic. But I love him.”
Having honed her art on the stage, Terajima took a while to adjust to the more subtle style of acting required for cinema—or, at least, the verité form favored by Hiroki at the time. “That’s why Hiroki-san attacked me a lot,” she says. “Because I’d grown up like that: [I thought that] being an actress means expressing in front of an audience, performing. But he said, ‘No, don’t perform. Exist.”
She describes a seemingly trivial scene in "Vibrator," in which her character warms herself with a can of coffee. “He said to me, ‘Why do you perform drinking? Just drink.’… That was the first film, the first director to say true things—‘You are not on the stage, you have to change for the screen.’ I was so shocked, but I changed. The next time, without Hiroki-san, I could do it: I could exist as that person. So Hiroki-san is very important.”
If Terajima isn’t more widely celebrated in Japan, that’s partly because of a certain distracting characteristic of her oeuvre. It’s both interesting and, perhaps, unfortunate that her notable performances have tended to be the most sexually explicit, from "Akame 48 Waterfalls" to "Ai no Rukeichi" to "Caterpillar." In Hollywood, an actress’s willingness to disrobe is often treated with a muted respect, implying a total commitment to their art—think of Kate Winslet, Nicole Kidman or Naomi Watts. Their Japanese counterparts, however, risk getting tagged as “eroi,” and can end up seeming rather prudish in comparison.
“In Japan, famous actresses have a lot of commercials,” Terajima says. “And then their agency has to think about it—if she appears naked, it’s not a good image [to sell] cosmetics. That’s why many, many actresses can’t do it. Many actresses envy me, because I don’t have any commercials. If I take a commercial, I cannot do anything.” I’m not sure how her appearance alongside her brother in a Prime Curry ad last year factors into this, but you get the idea.
Though blasé about the issue of nudity, she’s also frustrated by the extent to which the local media focuses on it. “In Berlin, people were talking about 'Caterpillar' as an artistic film,” she says. “They didn’t say anything about my nakedness or the sex scenes. But when I came back here… it’s really, always the same question with Japanese journalists: ‘Why is it OK that every time you’re doing sex films?’ No, it’s not a sex film. Please read the script.”
“Of course Japanese people saw [nude scenes with] Kate Winslet and Nicole Kidman—why didn’t they say anything?” she continues, describing a gossip magazine that featured photos of her alongside Oscar nominee Rinko Kikuchi, who disrobed for a pivotal scene in "Babel." “‘Dear Actress: Be naked if you want to become famous abroad.’ That was the title.” She scowls.
Terajima had a famous dustup with her mother over her decision to take the part of Aya in "Akame 48 Waterfalls." “As an actress, she’d have to say yes, but as a mother it’s really difficult. We were fighting every day: ‘I want to commit suicide if you do it.’ ‘I’ll commit suicide if you say no.’” It’s hard to tell if she’s being overdramatic here. “Then I got a lot of prizes, and finally she noticed, ‘Ah, Shinobu has a good eye for choosing scripts.’”
A good script, though, is hard to find. “I don’t know when I’m going to come across another one as good as 'Caterpillar,'” she says. “Maybe not for another ten years… It’s not like I’m constantly stumbling across them.”
In the meantime, she’s got a TV series to contend with—playing Ryoma Sakamoto’s sister in the Sunday evening NHK drama "Ryomaden"—and an upcoming appearance in "Cat on a Hot Tin Roof" at the New National Theatre Tokyo. She’ll be playing Maggie, the role immortalized by Elizabeth Taylor in the 1958 movie adaptation. Tennessee Williams is apparently easier to get to grips with than Shakespeare, but still… “It’s a lot of lines,” she says. “I don’t want to imagine that.”
For more information about "Caterpillar," see www.wakamatsukoji.org.
This story originally appeared in Metropolis magazine (www.metropolis.co.jp)© Japan Today