Japanese actors who can actually act

Japanese actors who can actually act

Japanese TV may be full of darling starlets and vapid male idols, but there is some real Japanese acting talent out there if you look in the right places
Japanese actors
Shinobu Terajima has won multiple Best Actress awards across the world, including those at the Blue Ribbon Awards, Yokohama Film Festival and the Berlin Film Festival

If you've ever watched a Japanese television 'dorama,' you may think that the stars' highly mannered -- and frankly terrible -- 'acting' is some sort of untranslatable Japanese aesthetic. Actually they are just terrible actors whose agencies are more interested in using them to endorse soft drinks and vacuum cleaners.

The good news, however, is that there are plenty of great actors in Japan who study their craft as diligently as anybody in the Actor's Studio. The bad news is that unless they're attached to the right management agency, they often don't even get a chance to audition, let alone appear in films of note.

So we thought it's about time to reward the Japanese actors who don't get enough love in the Japanese media. Pressed to come up with a list of modern Japanese cinema's most skilled thespians, names like Ken Watanabe, Koji Yakusho, Rinko Kikuchi, Tadanobu Asano and Rie Miyazawa may come to mind. The following list, however, gives props to seven lesser-known names who care enough about their art to get under the skin of their characters, and into the hearts of the movie-going masses.

Shinobu Terajima

37-year-old Terajima hails from an acting dynasty that includes famous mother Sumiko Fuji. Although the busy actress has won numerous stage and screen accolades at home, her international profile got a major boost this February with her best actress prize in Berlin for her role in Koji Wakamatsu's searing WWII drama "Caterpillar." Her earlier performances in "Vibrator" and "It's Only Talk," both directed by Ryuichi Hiroki, stand as two of the great portrayals of modern Japanese women in the last decade.

Japanese actorsRyo KaseRyo Kase

Inspired to become an actor by Tadanobu Asano, Kase joined the boutique agency run by Asano's father, also home to Rinko Kikuchi. From his role as a young man accused of groping on a train in the Kafkaesque "I Just Didn't Do It" to his idealistic soldier in Clint Eastwood's "Letters From Iwo Jima," Kase is an extremely versatile performer who never seems to hit a false note. Kase plays a key role as a yakuza mobster in Takeshi Kitano's hotly anticipated return to the crime genre "Outrage." Kase was so good that Kitano physically applauded his acting on set. Also watch for him in Gus Van Sant's upcoming film, which we hear may be called "Restless."

Sakura Ando

This daughter of actor-director Eiji Okuda has performance in her DNA. "Sight & Sound" critic and co-founder of Japanese cinema site midnighteye.com Jasper Sharp explains Ando's appeal: "She doesn't fit the mold of a conventional beauty but has a powerful, smoldering presence on screen that manages to draw the limelight away from the higher-profile stars." Ando mesmerizes as a Droog-inspired cult recruiter in Sion Sono's "Love Exposure" and inspires great empathy in Yuki Tanada's high school drama "Ain't No Tomorrows," to name just two of her shining performances. She's the best thing about upcoming existential road movie "A Crowd of Three."

Kazunari NinomiyaKazunari NinomiyaKazunari Ninomiya

A household name in Japan as a member of boy band Arashi, 26-year-old Kazunari "Nino" Ninomiya is an extremely busy stage and screen actor, songwriter and radio personality under influential talent factory Johnny's & Associates. He's best known internationally for his humanistic portrayal of Private Saigo in Clint Eastwood's "Letters From Iwo Jima," which some say forms the heart of the film. With a clear and intelligent face, he also impresses in an early role as a sociopathic teen in "The Blue Light" and movie-stealing cameo in road movie "Heaven's Door." His role in upcoming manga adaptation "Gantz" is generating considerable Internet buzz. A true example of natural talent.

Masato Sakai

Sakai is the antithesis of mannered acting. You never quite know what this exciting, constantly smiling actor will do next, but you can always see him thinking. After impressing in supporting roles in "Climber's High" and "The Triumphant Return of General Rouge," Sakai effortlessly made the leap to leading man. His portrayal of an assassination patsy in January 2010 release "Golden Slumber" has been one of the acting highlights of this year. Interest is strong in Sakai's forthcoming role as an 'abacus samurai' in jidaigeki "Bushi No Kakeibo."

Japanese actorsTae KimuraTae Kimura

This striking 39-year-old actress trained in dance has had a prolific career in TV but took a while to warm up to larger roles on the big screen. Her work in affecting 2008 drama "All Around Us" is one of the most accurate portrayals of depression ever committed to film, winning her a best actress prize at the usually predictable Japan Academy Awards. She quickly moved up to the A-list with appearances in "Zero Focus" and "The Unbroken." Anticipation is high for her grueling role in the upcoming "Tokyo Island" ("Tokyo-jima") alongside Yosuke Kubozuka, himself a unique talent but with a spotted career.

Yuriko Yoshitaka

Yuriko Yoshitaka's typical kawaii magazine-cover looks belie the 21-year-old's charismatic acting skills. Check out her debut role in Sion Sono's 2005 social horror film "Noriko's Dinner Table" or her brave performance in 2008 body art drama "Snakes and Earrings." "Physically she is like the halfway point in a morph from Chiaki Kuriyama to Kou Shibasaki, but while she is less obviously eye-catching than them, she has a presence that blows them both out of the water," enthuses author and Japanese cinema expert Tom Mes. Yoshitaka will act alongside Ninomiya in "Gantz."

Jason Gray has been based in Japan for ten years and works as a journalist, translator and consultant in the film industry.
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