Contemporary J-Actors/Actresses: Separating the “Actors” From the “Idols”

A characteristic issue in Japanese cinema today is the massive popularity of “idols,” controlled by talent agencies.  Idols, to me, are defined as multi-talented, young, cute, cuddly, and pure (appearance-wise) media sensations.  They often go through expansive, quick, and tough training brought about by their talent agency so they are ready to be worked to the bone doing various publicity stunts such as appearing on variety shows, looking good in photoshoots, acting in TV dramas, and possibly joining boy or girl idol bands.  The main draw of idols is how they look, not how they act or how well they sing.  Most of them have a very short span of popularity and often fall from glory once they age a bit.  There are, however, exceptions to this; notably the most famous guys coming out of the talent agency Johnny’s Entertainment.  SMAP, consisting of 5 members who are currently some of the most famous people in Japan, debuted in 1991 and continue to be mega-popular.  Arashi, again from Johnny’s Entertainment, is set up to remain popular for a while as well.

But being famous does not automatically mean that these people are good at what they do.  Sure, there are some idols who can actually act (Kazunari Ninomiya, anyone?) or sing.  Some are among the best at their craft, though most fall way short.  Furthermore, some respected actors/actresses in J-cinema today are former idols who decided to focus their talent on acting.  Many a time have I decided to try a new Japanese drama (or even movie) only to discover that the lead actor or actress is absolutely lifeless and downright sucks at acting…yet the drama/movie is a major hit in Japan.  At least they look good, right?  There are, however, a large amount of dedicated and impressive actors and actresses in Japan.  In this post, I will focus on a few of these dedicated actors/actresses and highlight some of their notable performances and anticipated roles.

Before I start my list, I’d like to clarify that there are many good actors/actresses in Japan, though I obviously cannot write on all of them.  The following will be who I personally enjoy and who I have been most impressed with in film/drama.  Read on for part one of my perspective on who can act in Japanese cinema today, mostly focusing on the contemporary generation and perhaps avoiding the very established names such as Watanabe Ken, Asano Tadanobu, Kikuchi Rinko, etc.

Aoi Yu

Aoi Yu is a very natural actress.  Her screen presence is such that you feel like you are watching real life instead of a film.  Iwai Shunji gave her a role in his 2001 film All About Lily Chou-Chou when she was 16, where she played a young girl exploited for sex and money by bullies.  She has appeared in a stunning amount of films for her young age, including the stellar Hana and Alice (2004) and Hula Girls (2006).  I have personally enjoyed Aoi Yu in every film and drama that she has appeared in.  I applaud her for taking so many roles in independent films and succeeding in them.

Notable Performances: Hana and Alice (2004); Hula Girls (2006)

Upcoming/Anticipated: A role in Iwai Shunji’s first English-language feature film, Vampire.

Yoshitaka Yuriko

At first glance, you may think of her as fashion magazine model–she is very calm, collected, and has a certain charm about her.  However, she is an incredibly talented actress.  She steals the show in whatever she appears in–take for example her role in Noriko’s Dinner Table (2005), where she wasn’t on-screen much but had a certain draw that influenced me to look her up.  Or, look at her wild performance in Snakes and Earrings (2008) where she was nude for much of the movie–a feat that most Japanese actresses would never even think of doing.  Yoshitaka Yuriko is a versatile actress that I see becoming both increasingly popular and continuing to act well regardless of her role.  She brings a breath of fresh air to TV dramas as well, performing admirably in whatever she is in.

Notable Performances: Snakes and Earrings (2008); Shiroi Haru (drama, 2009) and Love Shuffle (drama, 2009).

Upcoming/Anticipated: Her first starring role in a J-Drama in Mioka alongside Hayashi Kento; also Gantz, a big-time manga adaptation film which also stars Kazunari Ninomiya and Matsuyama Kenichi.

Matsu Takako

If there is one feature that I would point out about Matsu Takako’s acting it would be her effective use of her eyes.  Even noticeable from her cinema beginnings in Iwai Shunji’s April Story (1998) and continuing up through Villon’s Wife (2009), her eyes tell the whole story.  In Villon’s Wife, she plays the wife of a good-for-nothing man (Asano Tadanobu).  Her performance was awarded greatly, receiving the Best Actress prize at the Japan Academy Awards among numerous others.  She is the kind of actress that is both fun to watch and respectable for the quality and effort put into of her acting.  Confessions (2010), in which Matsu Takako is the lead, is one of the most-talked about films at Cannes this year and was picked up for distribution in the West lightning fast.  Look for her to continue providing successful performances.

Notable Performances: The Hidden Blade (2004); Villon’s Wife (2009)

Upcoming/Anticipated: Confessions (2010)

Kazunari Ninomiya

He is a part of Johnny’s Entertainment.  He is a good actor.  Those two sentences most often do not make sense following one another, but in Ninomiya’s case they do.  He has been praised by Clint Eastwood after appearing in his film, Letters From Iwo Jima (2006), which is certainly a high honor.  Ninomiya is a true natural talent, first appearing in Blue Light (2003) and wowing with his effective portrayal of a teen dealing with his abusive stepfather.  Being incredibly busy as not only a film actor, but as a singer, stage performer, TV drama star, model, and many other idol activities, it is amazing that he finds the time to churn out such great performances with seeming effortlessness.

Notable Performances: Blue Light (2003); Letters From Iwo Jima (2006); Dear Father (drama, 2007)

Upcoming/Anticipated: Gantz (2011)

Shinichi Tsutsumi

This man is an impressive actor and is also the oldest one on my list.  I first noticed him in SABU’s DRIVE (2002) as the main character, who is an insanely law-abiding citizen that becomes wrapped up with the yakuza and the criminal underground.  He is pure (dark) comic perfection in DRIVE, but has played a wide variety of roles including a part in Always- Sunset on Third Street (2005) that netted him the Best Supporting Actor award of the Japanese Academy.  It is his work in the Galileo movie, Suspect X (2008), though, that impressed me the most.  He portrayed a brilliant, struggling man perfectly and completely overshadowed every other popular actor in the film.  Shinichi Tsutsumi is an actor that normally plays supporting roles but deserves more leading roles.

Notable Performances: DRIVE (2002); Always-Sunset on Third Street (2005); Suspect X (2008)

Upcoming/Anticipated: The recently released A Lone Scalpel (2010)

Kase Ryo

The definition of versatility in acting is Kase Ryo.  From an insecure, timid masochist in Antenna (2004) to a man falsely accused of groping a young girl on a train in I Just Didn’t Do It (2006) to a yakuza member in Kitano’s Outrage (2010), he can do it all.  According to Jason Gray, Kase’s acting was physically applauded on the set of Outrage by Kitano.  He was also in Clint Eastwood’s Letters From Iwo Jima (2006) and will appear in Gus Van Sant’s Restless.  Did I mention that this guy can act?  He plays every single different character convincingly, almost as if that character is him in real life.  It is always a pleasure to see him on screen and I look forward to his future roles.

Notable Performances: I Just Didn’t Do It (2006); Letters From Iwo Jima (2006)

Upcoming/Anticipated: Gus Van Sant’s Restless (2011)

A note on Kubozuka Yosuke

This guy is my favorite Japanese actor and has put out some of the greatest performances ever.  All you have to do is check out his performances in Go (2001), Laundry (2002), Ping Pong (2002), or even his role in the TV drama Ikebukuro West Gate Park (2000) to find that out for yourself.  Too bad he has personal issues to deal with, such as recovering his career from the 2004 suicide attempt and his recent foray into reggae… I can only hope that he comes back into top form soon.  He has a charisma that is sorely lacking in many actors today, along with a powerful screen presence and unique acting style.  Looking forward to his role in Tokyo Island this year.

A note on Takenaka Naoto

Takenaka Naoto steals every single scene that he appears in.  Every single one.  Is that considered good acting?  He is definitely eccentric and over-the-top in most of his acting, which contributes to the lasting effect that he has over viewers.  In fact, many of the most memorable scenes from various Japanese comedies include Takenaka Naoto.  Who could forget his role as the foreign conductor in Nodame Cantabile (drama, 2006), or the mentor in Waterboys (2001), or even as the true scene-stealer, Tomio, in Shall We Dance? (1996).  Somehow, he always makes me laugh.  All he has to do is speak or do an awkward body movement.  He is a genius at playing the comedic relief character.

    • Amy
    • September 1st, 2010

    aoi yu and kase ryo are *love*. xD

    • Balsa
    • September 3rd, 2010

    I second your selection. I would have added a few more but I’m not going to complain about a list that includes the likes of Aoi Yû, Kazunari Ninomiya, Kase Ryo or Matsu Takako 🙂

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