Rinko Kikuchi

16 January 2007
picture: Rinko Kikuchi


At a time when it is not even sure that a Japanese character in an American film will actually be played by a Japanese actor, Rinko Kikuchi's powerful presence in Alejandro Gonzalez Iñarritu's Babel is all the more remarkable. The praise heaped upon her has so far brought her all the way to the Golden Globes and, at the time of this writing, may yet push her further up the red-carpeted road to award glory.

Kikuchi herself, however, remains remarkably cool and level-headed about it all. Blessed - or cursed, as far as much of the Japanese film industry is concerned - with a strong will and personality, this Cassevetes fan seems quite at home in the margins, where great filmmaking still outweighs commerce and glamour.

After debuting under her real name Yuriko Kikuchi with the venerable Kaneto Shindo in 1999's Will to Live (Ikitai), she took her first steps on the international scene with her lead role in Kazuyoshi Kumakiri's Hole in the Sky (Sora no Ana). That film won a special mention at the Rotterdam Film Festival's Tiger Awards and was widely screened at festivals around the world. The eagle-eyed will also have spotted her more recently in another festival favourite, Katsuhito Ishii's much-loved The Taste of Tea (Cha no Aji).

Midnight Eye had a chance to sit down with Rinko Kikuchi at the Marrakech International Film Festival in Morocco, where the Babel crew returned to (one of) their roots.

How do you feel about all this praise and the nominations you've been getting for your performance in Babel?

I'm really thankful for it. I never expected it at all. In Japan we normally don't spend so much time promoting one film. My work on Babel, as an actress I mean, happened so long ago already. The promotion started in Cannes in 2006. After that I went to Paris several times, then L.A., New York, back to L.A. again, New York again, then Marrakech. Between my first audition for this film and actually getting the part, one year passed. That was a really difficult period for me. Then we started shooting, which was also pretty tough. When we finally finished production I breathed a sigh of relief, thinking that it was all behind me. But then came the premiere in Cannes, so I figured, okay maybe just that and then it's really over. Iñarritu knew that that wasn't the last of it, of course, so the last day of Cannes he said to me, "See you next time!" I thought he was joking (laughs).

When I heard about the first nomination, I didn't even believe it, because I had never even considered it a possibility. Maybe other people who worked on the movie imagined that it would get some nominations, but I never did. I just accepted it for what it was. I'm my own worst critic - the more people praise me, the more severe I become toward myself. I hope to have the opportunity to play in other great films, but I should always remember to concentrate on my acting, I'm responsible for my own actions and my own work. With those things in mind I try to give it my best. But some people said they hoped that I would continue to act in international films, movies that are seen all over the world.

With that in mind, what will be the next step for you?

I'd sincerely like to work on Japanese films as well, but at the moment I receive more offers from abroad than from Japan.

What kind of offers have you been getting from abroad?

They've asked me for two action movies and a French film. Nothing's set though.

Do you have any visions of the kind of films you'd like to make or the directors you'd like to work with?

I'm not the kind of person to think such things. It all depends on timing and luck. Take Babel: I was playing a 16-year-old, but I was 25 at the time. I think that was really the limit. I couldn't have done that any later, so it came along at exactly the right time. There's no point trying to envision prospects and it's not in my character to do so. An opportunity comes along and when it does I sincerely consider if I want to do it or not. That's all there is.

You must impose quite severe criteria on yourself then?

Yes, very much so. I want to be completely responsible for what I do. I'm not that severe toward others, though. I like to think of myself as being quite flexible in that respect. Also, as an actress you should be willing to play any kind of character and accept any character that you can bring out from inside yourself.

I'd like to ask you about the auditioning process for Babel, because you said it took almost a year.

I really tried to do my best, almost desperately so. It was a lot like a love relationship: I really wanted him to look at me and see me. At one point, Alejandro remarked that he preferred to have a real deaf-mute woman play the character and, sure enough, on the next audition every candidate was deaf-mute except me! Alejandro is very frank. He speaks his mind and doesn't hide his feelings, but sometimes that put a lot of extra pressure on me. I believed that, compared to those other candidates, I had the ability to approach the character as a professional actress. If it was the part of a criminal I was auditioning for, would that mean that only a real criminal could play that role? Of course not. I kept that in mind and believed that I had what it takes to do the part as a professional actor. The character of Chieko is sixteen, but if I had been sixteen myself, I couldn't have played her the way I did. When I was that age, I didn't have the capacity to keep an objective view of such a character and at the same time retain a very positive attitude toward playing her. I wouldn't have been able to keep a distance from it.

How did you try to convey that to Iñarritu?

Every time I auditioned I only received the scene I was supposed to play that day. He didn't give me the whole script, so I had no idea about the actual storyline. What I did was to make up the background for the character myself and use that in my performance. We had one of these auditions almost every month. Sometimes he would come to Japan, other times I would send him a videotape. My auditioning partners, the actors that were trying out for the opposite character, changed every time too. I really couldn't rely on anything but myself.

When Iñarritu finally made up his mind, what did he actually say to you?

He said: "I will give you Chieko."

And what was your reaction?

I didn't say anything, all I could do was cry.

Did you ever have an auditioning experience that was vaguely like that before?

No, never. There isn't really a system of auditions in Japan. That's why there's a lot of typecasting going on. I have my doubts about that system, but I'll need to live with it, I guess. To Alejandro, every candidate was equal. He would treat everybody the same way, whether the actress was famous or a non-professional. That made me feel that I could trust him. I felt that if I was able to create a personality for Chieko, then I would have a real chance to get the part.

What makes Iñarritu unique, in your eyes?

He will never allow that his version of a character is different from the actor's version. Even a minor difference he can't stand. Until those two form a perfect match he will continue to work with an actor on refining their performance. So the audition process is already the first rehearsal. He really approaches it that way. We talked a lot and collaborated on refining my performance. As a result we were on the same wavelength about the character even before we started shooting.

You didn't know anything about the other sections of the film while you were making it, did you? What was your impression when you finally saw it?

In Cannes I couldn't watch it objectively. I mean, I was constantly thinking back to the moments when we shot a particular scene. Only after watching it about three or four times I finally realised what a great film it is. The more serious things become, the more absurd they get. But that absurdity is part of us, it's unavoidable, and I also believe that it's a beautiful aspect of human beings. That is something the film describes really well. It's a very complex film too. Every time you watch it, you can watch it from a different perspective and the film changes accordingly.

There are few actresses in Japan today who are willing to do the kind of nudity you had to do in Babel. What were your own feelings about this?

I like the naked body. It's beautiful. I believe that the more we try to cover ourselves, the more we lose an essence of ourselves. In that scene, Chieko has no other way to get the attention she wants. It's very animalistic, in a way, but it's her only way. I think the movie shows that feeling in a very beautiful way. An actress can't avoid using her body as a tool and nudity is one form of expression that you have available to you. I didn't mind doing that scene at all.

According to you, what do you always need to keep in mind in order to be a great actress?

What is a great actor? What is a real actor? What are the criteria for a great actor? Nobody knows. Nobody can decide those criteria and I don't want anybody deciding them for me. There is no predetermined hierarchy of great acting. It's not that absolute or simple. Also, your essence will always show through. You can try to cover it up with acting, but something of yourself will always be noticeable. That essence of yourself is more important than trying to be a great actor. It's about how you live your life, how you live as a woman. The characters you play will reflect that, and so that's the more important thing.

But your approach changes each time, depending on the character, doesn't it?

Well, there is a danger in playing a character that is very close to you. It's very difficult. Playing someone who is very far from your own personality is more comfortable. A camera is a very violent tool, in a way. If you play someone who is very close to yourself, it means that you essentially expose yourself. That's a really tough experience to go through. I don't know what would result from it if I were to do that, but maybe that is one of my challenges from now on, to find a way to play a character that is similar to me. I've only just arrived at the stage where this is becoming a possibility, and I think about such things a lot, but in the end you can't know until you've actually experienced it.

What kind of films do you like to watch?

I like John Cassavetes's films a lot. They influenced me strongly. I also like Ken Loach and the Dardenne brothers, films that describe the fragility of human beings.

That is serious cinema. Do you consider yourself a cinephile?

Yes, cinema is a kind of bible to me. I studied a lot from films - history, music, relationships between man and woman (laughs). I never did much studying in school. I was saved by cinema. So I figured that if I could enter the world of cinema, my life would be saved.

From which age did you start to really watch films?

Very early on, during my childhood. My father watched a lot of chanbara movies or films starring Sayuri Yoshinaga, and I would usually watch them with him. In junior high I started going to the cinema by myself, but not really to see anything special yet. I would just go to see whatever Hollywood movie was playing at the time. Then when I was sixteen I discovered John Cassevetes and I thought, " That's it!"

Do you think that even then you already watched that film with the eyes of an actress?

I remember looking up at Gena Rowlands and thinking, "Ah, I would really love to play a character like that!" She was so cool. Even when she was insane, she was beautiful. I don't know where it came from, why I had such a strong reaction to the film and to her, but anyway I was really attracted to them. Today I'm so glad that I discovered their films. It brought me where I am now. If I had taken another direction, I wouldn't be sitting here today.

Is it difficult to survive in the geinokai, the Japanese entertainment industry?

Yes, it is. I'm nothing, basically. A personality like mine is dangerous to a lot of people. I've had this jinx for the past ten years that Japanese directors generally don't like me.

But you've already worked with someone like Kaneto Shindo.

That was my first real audition. Actually, I didn't have the impression that he even looked at me. But I heard later that he liked me because I didn't smile or speak during the audition. Someone told me that they were all impressed by that.

Was that your strategy?

No! I was just incredibly nervous and then I was shocked that Shindo didn't seem to look at me at all.

But he chose you, so he must have been looking.

(laughs) Yeah, I guess so. He was wonderful to work with, actually, because he would finish every day exactly as planned. Every afternoon at five we were done.

Your choices have been really good, like Hole in the Sky with Kumakiri and Taste of Tea with Katsuhito Ishii.

Probably it's only peculiar directors like that who want to have me in their films. Actually, Kumakiri said he chose me because I was strange (laughs). He said I was completely unlike any other girl.

But you started your career as a model. Was that with the intention of eventually becoming an actress?

No. People pushed me in that direction. I was fourteen and at that age, when people tell you that in order to become an actress you should learn to sing and do modeling too, you go along with it. So I became a model, but I quickly thought, "What a boring job this is!" I realized that if I continued such a shitty job I would lose whatever is precious about me. I quit not much later. After that, people tried to convince me to become a singer, but I refused. I left the agency I was with at the time and after several twists and turns I found an agent that accepted my wish to just be a film actress.

In Cannes you suddenly appeared with blond hair. I heard that you did that in order to show people that you're not to be trifled with.

Did I say that? (laughs) I did it just to amuse myself. Also, black hair doesn't really go well with Western dress.

You didn't want to play the role of Asian beauty?

I don't like dressing in a very obvious Asian style. Zhang Ziyi can do that. When she wears a Chinese dress, it really suits her and she looks very cute. There's no competing with her in that domain. Besides, everybody has their own tastes. I wanted to dress according to my own sense.

What is your next film going to be?

It's a romantic comedy, a Japanese film. The director is a newcomer, Akiko Oku, and it's produced by Hiroko Matsuda and Office Shirous. Romantic comedies are tough, because so much depends on the interplay between the actors, the rhythm, and the exchange of dialogue. It's a big challenge for me.