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Shinobu Terajima talks about cinema, sex scenes and why she hates doing commercials

46 Comments
By James Hadfield

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

©2019 GPlusMedia Inc.


46 Comments
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How many of us have been saying this about movies and TV in Japan for years?

“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...”

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This has to be one of the best articles I have read on JT. I am often confused about how short a story can be, over such a complex title. But this article is well written, well told, and conveys many different points of the title. Well done JT, I enjoyed it.

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Shinobu Terajima has reflected her voice on JT, but I don't know whether she has debated professionally in Japanese media forums like TV companies and big newspapers in Japan. Metropolis Magazine is an English-speaking magazine for foreign residents in Tokyo and Japan. Her points are good, but She has not understood her own culture - Japanese culture. Foreign directors have chosen Chinese actresses playing Japanese roles in some big-budget movies like "Memoir of Geisha". The matter here is an audience of these international films is not Japanese so that film directors can chose famous or familiar Chinese actresses or actors to bring in movie-goers for the box-office revenues. Who cares actresses or actors Japanese or not?? For a reason why international film directors have not chosen Japanese actresses and actors in international films is another question. You need to go back and live in Japan. Talento agencies, in Japan, have their own methods and ideologies of developing their businesses. Japanese managers usually focus on Japanese audiences rather than Asian or worldwide audiences. Chinese media companies have grown globally for decades, not a few years since Hong Kong used to be a hub of movie industries in Asia before India's film industries has grown by its population. Now China's market has integrated with Hong Kong, Taiwan, Hollywood and other countries to make its name bigger. Who will debate Japan's film industry?

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Nice to read about an actress that has a brain and an opinion. I wonder if caterpillar will play nationwide, or only in small theaters.

I also wonder if they filmed it so quickly and with only one takes so they could easily sluff off criticism with "oh, it's an art film, you just don't understand."

It would seem to be an uncomfortable movie to watch, a woman getting revenge on her mute no-arms no -legs husband, through the popular Japanese revenge tactic of public humiliation. I'd rather she just kill the dude while he slept, but that wouldn't make such a dramatic "statement."

I also wonder if the black trucks will rage against this film as they did "The Cove."

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@mitchbz: I couldn't agree more, I'm often critical about the lack of substance on this site, but this was well worth reading and like yourself am willing to give credit when credit is due.

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I love this article !!! Very well written !!!! i hope she will get international roles as well. Good Luck Terajima !!!

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Last year I heard an interview with a Japanese film historian (can't recall his name) and he lamented that the days of great Japanese films and directors seemed to be over (J-horror had been the rage of late) I hope this film with Ms. Terajima is a new beginning for Japanese cinema.

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I didn't like the movie,“Memoirs of a Geisha,” because there were no Japanese actresses. It was hard to take the movie seriously. Since the movie is base on Japan and Japanese culture then at least have the Japanese actresses. The movie was like those of Western movies where other people who may look like Native Americans play them.

Between Japanese actresses and Korean actresses the Korean are better at it than the Japanese. The Japanese movie industry needs to invest where the persons actually have skills and talent instead of manufacturing it.

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Very good article ! It's nice to know about anyone in Japan with any concept of "artistic integrity" as they seem to be very few and far between.

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“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.”

What a great open and honest statement... A bitter pill for the immature J media I am sure?

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This one of the best articles I have ever read on JT.

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“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.”

She really knows how to speak her mind. Not saying all of the soldiers were like this, but wow. Probably would have liked to heard the whole conversation on this. I hope to catch this movie.

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Let's give credit where credit is due: James Hadfield wrote this article. I have never read anything by him before, but I hope to see more of his writing in the future. Great interview, great story.

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She sounds like a stuck up loser who thinks she is better than everyone else including the Japanese media.

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I agree with everyone, great article, great interview, a real actress with real, interesting, independent opinions that are outside of the accepted norm. A Japanese in the limelight who sees the farce that is Japanese media and society.

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tough talker when no one's listening/watching! why doesn't she go on japanese TV and say these things? tell aya ueto and masami nagasawa to their faces that they have no talent? coward!

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Great read! I wasn't expecting that. Nicely done Mr. Hadfield.

Just one thing;

in Hiroshima on Fridaynd Nagasaki on Aug 9

It should read "Friday and"

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excellent article.... obviously JT readers are hungry for real content!!

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Never heard of Shinobu until the article... made me curious now to watch the movie Catepillar. Guess I can get the DVD off of the US Amazon.com. Go Shinobu, you have sparked my interest!

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well done interview! and an interesting actress - someone I never heard of speaks her mind and has a mind.

I'll be looking out for her work.

more like this, please!

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tough talker when no one's listening/watching! why doesn't she go on japanese TV and say these things? tell aya ueto and masami nagasawa to their faces that they have no talent? coward!

I am sure they can read or pretty busy doing talento things to care. But if they do read it, maybe it will challenge them to up their game, no?

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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.

Not to be confused with "The Human Caterpillar", in which there is no mouthing off at all.

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In the grand pecking order of the Japanese entertainment industry, acting ability is ranked somewhere between hairstyle and shoe size in terms of importance

Its all about the agency.

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She sounds like a stuck up loser who thinks she is better than everyone else including the Japanese media.

She sounds like somebody intelligent. Finally there is one in the entertainment industry.

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

And finally a Japanese actress who voices the main problems of Japanese culture - everything rotates around manga and kawaii.

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"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.”

This is the most coherent and honest statement I have ever heard a Japanese person make about pre-WWII agression in Asia. Critical thinking is indeed refreshing, ne? Bravissima, Terajima san!

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Loved it

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That's one sharp lady.

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Excellent article.

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Nice reading. Fine actress. I like her and her honesty.

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Great article. Someone with her head screwed on the right way and the guts to tell it as it is.

skipbeat:

I didn't like the movie,“Memoirs of a Geisha,” because there were no Japanese actresses. It was hard to take the movie seriously. Since the movie is base on Japan and Japanese culture then at least have the Japanese actresses

I guess you'd better not watch the Japanese stage version of The Sound of Music. Not only are none of the actors European, but they're the wrong skin colour to boot! You must have hated Nicole Kidman's portrayal of an American, Russian and Brit. Don't forget Angelina Jolie - she's played a Brit and Russian too. Oh, and John Cho played Hikaru Sulu (doesn't Hikaru sound Japanese?)

The point is, actors are actors because they take on the roles of someone completely different. Memoirs of a Geisha was a Hollywood movie, first and foremost - the dialogue was in English and the need for big, recognizable stars forced them to go for the non-Japanese actors. Yes, I would like to have seen Japanese actors but there weren't any that fit the prerequisites. Get over it!

By the way, you may not want to watch Caterpillar. I hear the Chinese characters are portrayed by Japanese.

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Not much to like in "Memoirs of a Geisha" bad adaptation allround.

From not using japanese(even as advisors). Kimonos were worn wrong to enhance actresses figures and were even folded/worn wrong(as you only do a Corpse).

Just as bad as "The last Samurai" in depicting japan and its History, heck the movie mashed up 200yrs of japanese history into a few years. Never mind becoming a samurai in a few short seasons.

Move on, nothing to see here.

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One of the best articles I've read on this site. She comes across as pretty 'switched on' too. Well done.

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Off topic but let's see, I count no fewer than 50 cast members in "Memoirs of a Geisha" with Japanese names versus what, 20 possibly Chinese names, 4 or 5 possibly Korean names, and a similar number of Vietnamese-sounding names. Ken Watanabe, Koji Yakusho, and Kaori Momoi are hardly minor talent, either. Anyway, as Pukey2 says, it's a silly argument anyway--watch any Japanese TV drama with Western roles and listen carefully to how many "American" characters are played by Russians or other Eastern Europeans (thanks, Motoko Inagawa)...

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"excellent article.... obviously JT readers are hungry for real content!!"

Yes, we are. We want more content with intelligent and real talented artists like Shinobu Terajima

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Here is a person comfortable in her own skin and comfortable with her choices over the years. A few billion more people like her and this world would be a much more peaceful place. I wish her lots of success in her life - however she chooses to measure success by.

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So she's the only good actress in Japan? Yeah, right. And all the critics to the japanese entertainment industry... like in Hollywood all actors were good. Good joke.

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"I didn't like the movie,“Memoirs of a Geisha,” because there were no Japanese actresses. It was hard to take the movie seriously."

Beside the obvious absurdity of this statement, one of the primary reasons "Memiors" director Rob Marshall chose not to use Japanese actresses in leading roles was because, as was pointed out in the article, there just aren't many Japanese acresses up to the task. By any measure, acting in most Japanese television and film is abysmally amateurish and uncompelling. Which is to be expected when you consider the dredge that is constantly passed off as screenplays here in Japan.

"Not much to like in "Memoirs of a Geisha" . . . Move on, nothing to see here."

Apparently you stopped reading at the second paragraph of a 30-paragraph article. This isn't an article about "Memoirs" at all. It's about an actress and the reasons why she does or doesn't choose certain roles in the industry.

"So she's the only good actress in Japan? Yeah, right."

Nowhere in the article was this stated or even implied.

But the general consensus (among most posters here, at least) seems to be that she's an intelligent and thoughtful step above the vapid "talento" that litter the Japanese entertainment industry landscape. This isn't to say that more actors in Japan aren't capable of being intelligent and thoughtful . But rather that they don't, choosing instead to cling to the minimal demands of a career and public that judges them infinitely more on their cuteness or "kakkoi" quotient than on any real acting ability. It's a stark contrast to the widely respected Japanese cinema of the 1950s.

Excellent article.

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As far as Japanese actresses in the lead roles for Memoirs of a Geisha I would have had: Norika Fujiwara instead of Michelle Yeoh, and Shizuka Kudo for Gong Li. Both Japanese ladies are competent English speakers, and would have been appropriate for their roles.

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Norika Fujiwara is a tarento, not an actress. In fact the only big movie she was in was a Hong Kong movie, I believe. She does voice-overs though, just like Becky.

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Maybe part of the problem--from the JT reader point of view, anyway--is that while there are any number of talented, thoughtful, intelligent, even subversive actors in the Japanese film and theater industries, they either don't speak English (and thus don't get much exposure to Western audiences), or express their sentiments about their art, the industry, the world at large, in documentaries and interviews not seen by the average foreign resident of Japan. I've seen any number of full-length interviews on NHK and other stations with Shinobu Terashima, where she expressed many of the same views as in this article, as well as with long-time stars such as Hiroyuki Sanada, Koji Yakusho, Chieko Baisho, Ken Takakura, Shima Iwashita, etc. etc. that were equally engrossing.

Until Hollywood is willing to incorporate subtitles in major productions, they will rely on stars with name recognition and English-language ability. The majority of truly great actors in Japan lack the former, outside of Japan, and certainly the latter, but why should that not be the case, as it is in many other countries?

And well...I'm sorry, but even putting those issues aside, there is no way any competent director or casting official is going to choose Norika Fujiwara and Shizuka Kudo over Michelle Yeoh and Gong Li, at least not for roles that call for any range of acting ability.

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I say Shinobu Terajima for prime minister.

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There are very few good Japanese actors because there are no real acting schools in Japan. You would be hard pressed to find a Japanese "actor" who knows who the hell Stanislavski is... or Meisner or Strasburg... the list goes on.. Even the Japanese Suzuki technique is fairly unknown here! Acting is an art, and that art has been lost in Japan.

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If you haven't had a chance to see her movies, check 'em out. For those of you curious, she is just as outspoken in Japanese. Really refreshing. "Caterpillar" is based on a story by Edogawa Ranpo. He wrote some creepy stuff. I loved the story "The Human Chair" too. Can't wait to see this movie. (If you haven't figured it out, Ranpo was a big fan of Edgar Allen Poe.) Here's a good link for the movie:

http://jfilmpowwow.blogspot.com/2010/01/trailer-arrives-for-koji-wakamatsus.html

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If I had enough cash I would open up a real talent school to produce real quality Japanese actors, singers, and the like. Seriously if Japan had actors and actresses worth anything they could make some big moolah internationally depending on how good they are.

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Fine actress, fine movies, at least the ones I've seen, though Caterpillar, good as it is, may not be one of Wakamatsu's very best.

The beginning of the article is a little confusing though, I'm not quite sure who says what about Memoirs of a Geisha. However - with all due respect to the usually very good Chinese actresses in it - just about any Japanese woman, actress or not, could have played those parts better. They didn't MOVE the right way, they simply couldn't do the motions like someone who's quietly shifted around on the floor all her life.

Of course nobody cared about acting ability of any kind, as none was needed for the inept script, the actresses were chosen only for the posters. They weren't chosen for English proficiency either, Zhang Ziyi was only just learning it at the time, and Gong Li doesn't really speak it at all.

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you are amazing woman.

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