Masanobu Ando

27 March 2009
picture: Masanobu Ando


One of Japan's most recognisable young actors, Masanobu Ando's choice of roles has steadfastly gone against any attempt to typecast him. Though he could have cruised by on his boyish good looks alone, he has continued to search for challenges - from his screen debut as one of the layabout highschoolers in Takeshi Kitano's Kids Return, via his turn as the psychopathic exchange student in Kinji Fukasaku's Battle Royale to his recent performance as the dentally disfigured Genji clan member in Takashi Miike's Sukiyaki Western Django. With his role in Chen Kaige's Forever Enthralled, a biopic of famed Peking opera performer Mei Lanfang, he adds to his resumé what may well be the first of many international credits.

How was it to go to Berlin and meet the international press for Chen Kaige's film?

Since the film was in competition, it received a lot of attention in Berlin. This is the first time I experience this kind of international interest. It was a pleasure for me to be a part of this project. I spent a lot of time working on this film: several years from preparation to promotion. During production the director and I discussed the character a lot. I'm not very good at explaining my feelings in words, so it was difficult to sum up all my activities during that whole period in just a few sentences to journalists.

What did you talk about most with Chen Kaige?

Mostly about my character Tanaka, who he is, what he's like. Tanaka's feelings toward Mei Lanfang, especially what Tanaka's thoughts and feelings are in each of the scenes that he and Mei Lanfang share.

How do you interpret those feelings? It's more than the relationship between star and fan. Perhaps we could even call it love.

The first time Tanaka sees Mei Lanfang perform is in Japan, when Tanaka is still a child and his parents take him to the theater. Because he was a child, the impact of the play was even stronger. Peking opera must have been like glimpsing a strange world, something very beautiful. A little boy couldn't tell whether the players were men or women, but that sensation must have remained somewhere in the bottom of his heart as he grew up. That sensation then develops into a kind of obsession and love. When he finally gets a chance to meet Mei Lanfang in China, many years later, Tanaka respects him as a human being and probably loves him even more than before. That's my interpretation.

Normally you are in the position of Mei Lanfang, since you have a lot of devoted fans. What was it like to be in the position of the fan for this role?

I was inspired by Mei Lanfang, in the sense that he overcomes any obstacle he is faced with. That inspired me a lot as an actor, that strength. Also, he completely devoted himself to the characters he played and to his performance, to entertaining the audience. He really gave everything he had. That was very moving for me. Perhaps that is something we share.

In the movie Mei Lanfang, a man who plays women's roles, falls in love with the character played by Zhang Ziyi, an actress who plays male roles. But his mentor tells him that in order to be a great actor, he has to be lonely. Do you agree with that statement?

When they approach and play a character, actors always have to overcome the obstacles by themselves. In that sense actors are lonely. On this film I was surrounded by an entirely Chinese cast and crew, so I felt a much stronger sense of loneliness than usual, but at the same time I also felt the urge to overcome that difficulty much more strongly. On the other hand, it made it easier for me to focus on the part and on the task at hand.

Forever Enthralled deals with the history between China and Japan, especially the wartime. This is a subject that isn't dealt with in much detail in Japanese schools, so did you have to research this a lot when preparing for the role?

I noticed in Berlin that many of the international journalists asked about this topic, but in Japan it's still sensitive. For this film I had to face the facts of the war between China and Japan. In China you can feel the effects even today. People who lived through the war have told their experiences to their children and grandchildren, so the awareness is there, even in younger people. It wasn't easy to do research in Japan, because there wasn't so much material available. But what I found certainly made me more sensitive to the matter. The fact that I play a soldier in this film made me wonder how people would react to my character. From the ambiance on set I noticed that some people don't have a very good impression of Japanese soldiers, and to have to play one in that ambiance was quite tough. But it was very helpful that Chen Kaige told me he wanted to avoid stereotypes, that he wanted to describe Tanaka as a human being. Tanaka has doubts, he doesn't want to fight against the Chinese. It was a great help to me that he told me this, and I was happy with his approach to the character. But the truth doesn't change, so it's important to face and admit that truth. What's important to my generation is how we deal with that fact from now on.

How long was the shoot?

I started in April 2007 and went back and forth between China and Japan two or three times. Then there was a second period of shooting between the following November and February 2008, all of which I spent in China.

It sounds like the conditions of production were a lot more comfortable than on a Japanese film.

Yes. On a Japanese film the budget and schedule are fixed and we have to do what we can within those limits. On this film, the production schedule was eight months, which is very long compared to a Japanese film. Chen Kaige decided the daily schedules and the pace was fairly leisurely, so that we had time to really discuss each scene.

picture: Masanobu Ando'

I assume you did other films between that April and November, when you were back in Japan.

Actually, I'm not very good at overlapping work. I also don't like doing films back-to-back. Before Forever Enthralled I played in Takashi Miike's Sukiyaki Western Django and on that one I really gave everything I had. I really needed a rest after making that, so I took a break, which is when Chen Kaige's project arrived.

Django was quite an astonishing movie. Even with so many powerful performances, yours really stood out. Were you really into that character?

Yeah. I like to get under the skin of a character and with Django that was really the case. I gave myself over to the character completely and it was actually pretty difficult to come back to my normal self. It was as if my body refused to move on, like my body was still behaving like the character. Sometimes I would even have physical side effects. My skin would dehydrate, for example.

You play comical characters too at times. Is it different in those cases?

The type of role doesn't seem to make a difference. No matter what role I play, I try to devote myself to it completely, and it's that focus that is the reason for those side effects. Generally I am attracted to more difficult roles, parts that are quite heavy psychologically.

Why is that, do you think?

Probably I enjoy the experience of devoting myself to the character entirely. That's how I feel that I'm truly playing that character, it's where I find the satisfaction in my job. Also, I want to return all the love that the director gave me when he chose me for the part.

To be able to do all those things, I guess you have to be lonely.

Yes, I guess so. I don't feel particularly lonely during my free time, but when I play in a film, yes, I guess you're right. That's also a reason why I don't work constantly. I give a lot of myself on each film, so I want to take a breather until I feel that my body is mine again and I'm ready to play a different part.

Somewhat like running a bath and waiting for it to overflow.

Yes. Yes, exactly. Little by little my body also feels that it wants to play again. That's when I know I'm ready for the next project.

Did you notice a difference in approach between Chen Kaige and Japanese directors?

The main difference was the length of production and having the time to discuss things with the director in detail. On Japanese films we rarely have such luxury. Schedules are tight and we have to stick to them rigidly every day, so we simply don't have time to discuss things. That's the big difference. I've been told that in the old days, Japanese films were also made on more leisurely schedules, so I imagine that that must have been a bit like the experience of making this film. What's more, Chen Kaige has a real passion for cinema and a very strong aesthetic sense. I spent a lot of time observing the other scenes that I wasn't in, so even on my days off I was often on the set. In Japan people are so preoccupied with getting the job done that they can never relax on the set. But on Forever Enthralled, people were very laidback between takes and setups.

Did this whole experience give you the ambition to make more films abroad?

Yes. In Japan, there are two extremes: it's either a major film or a very independent film. There isn't much in between. A lot of films are also adaptations of manga or bestselling novels. It's as if we've lost the ability to find original subjects. I had begun to question myself about this situation and my role in it, and that was precisely the moment I got the part in Forever Enthralled. As an actor I want to be a part of interesting projects, no matter where they come from or where they are made. Making Forever Enthralled was a great experience and it gave me the desire to get my work seen by international audiences. If I'm given the opportunity, I would like to do this more often and take on more diverse projects. This experience really changed my perspective on acting and filmmaking.

Is there a specific director or country you're thinking of?

For example, Michael Winterbottom. His films are always so diverse. Wonderland moved me a lot and I liked Code 46 very much too. And Gaspar Noé's Irreversible was visually very original and beautiful, as well being an astonishing film. I tend to prefer those kinds of very original, powerful films.

Have you seen anything recently that you've liked?

Actually, it took me almost a year to recuperate from making Forever Enthralled. During that time I'm generally not very good at doing anything and I also don't watch any films, so I haven't seen much lately. It was only at the start of 2009 that I began to feel like myself again.