Place: New York

Almost Transparent Actor

Art Categories:  Film, Movie

JAPAN CUTS!, North America’s largest Japanese film festival, arrives at Japan Society every July to captivate Japanese film lovers of New York City. This year’s festival, which ran from July 13th through the 23rd, assembled thirty-four films, including acclaimed features such as the Opening film “Mumon: the Land of Stealth” and the Closing film “In This Corner of the World”, as well as documentaries and shorts.


Actor Joe Odagiri, this year’s recipient of the Cut Above Award for Excellence in Film, gained the most prominence at the festival. Recent past award recipients include Sakura Ando and Lily Franky, but Mr. Odagiri, who lately leads Japanese film, has perhaps a closer link to the United States. His love of film led him to pursue directing as a student at California State University, Fresno. “I had just graduated high school and thought that I should just go to Hollywood if I want to study filmmaking, because I didn’t have as much knowledge about film as I do now,” Mr. Odagiri explains.


Even though his first desire was to be a film director, he unexpectedly stepped onto the path of an actor. “When I was filling out the application, I made a mistake,” Mr. Odagiri says. “I was a student of Theatre Arts, but when I chose my minor, I didn’t check the minor where I could study direction. It was under Mass Communication, but I wasn’t interested in that, so I didn’t even bother to take a look.” Surprisingly, or by fate, his growing passion for acting sparked from a mistake.


© 2016 Over the Fence Production Committee

Moving back to Japan, Mr. Odagiri began his acting career. He was first noticed from his work on the TV series “Kamen Rider Kuuga,” but what changed his acting career the most was Kiyoshi Kurosawa’s “Bright Future.” Released in Japan in 2003, with a subsequent theatrical release in the US, “Bright Future” was one of the first films at the time to be shot entirely on digital, and began a new frontier for director Kurosawa, whose contributions to the horror film genre had already brought him international acclaim. Mr. Odagiri’s powerful performance as the emotionally unstable lead character Yuji Nimura left a huge impact on us.


“”Bright Future” was certainly a big change for me,” says Mr. Odagiri of his special enthusiasm toward his first major role. “Of course, the fact that I played the leading role for the first time, but also because I wanted to work with director Kurosawa, and actors that I respect were in it too, such as Tadanobu Asano and Tatsuya Fuji. I really worked on it with full effort, but, because of that, director Kurosawa was saying to me, ‘Please, don’t act much.’”


© 2015 Foujita Production Committee. Eurowide Film Production

After “Bright Future,” Joe Odagiri went on to appear in countless acclaimed films of the time. His outstanding performance work includes “Blood and Bones”, “House of Himiko”, “Sway”, “Tokyo Tower: Mom and Me, and Sometimes Dad”, and “Adrift in Tokyo.” JAPAN CUTS! selected two of his most recent renowned films for this year’s festival: “FOUJITA”, directed by internationally known Kohei Oguri from “Muddy River” and “Sting of Death”, and for the festival’s Centerpiece screening, “Over the Fence” directed by the unique Nobuhiro Yamashita from “Linda Linda Linda” and “The Drudgery Train.”


“I simply wanted to work together with director Oguri,” is Mr. Odagiri’s honest motivation to join “FOUJITA,” the first film in ten years by extraordinary filmmaker Kohei Oguri, who cultivates an artistic and mystic dimension on screen with his originative vision and silence. Playing Tsuguharu Foujita, the most famous Japanese painter in France, Mr. Odagiri admits about speaking French for the role, “I can’t speak French at all, so I can’t even distinguish the difference between conversational French and French for performance. It was very difficult because director Oguri likes to shoot scenes all in one take, and so, even when the dialogue is difficult, we would shoot and keep rolling. One thing about me is, I keep choosing roles that are difficult.”


As for “Over the Fence”, Mr. Odagiri explains about the conclusive factor to be in the film, “Of course I wanted to make a film with director Yamashita, but what fascinated me was the script. It depicts the feeling of entrapment that drifts in our society today, and I wanted to work on a film like that.”


Mr. Odagiri has been working as an actor now for almost twenty years. Much of his work is as the lead character, however he sometimes appears in supporting roles like in “The Great Passage” and “Real,” and in international films like Kim Ki-duk’s “Dream.” It is rare for an actor who has had numerous roles in film and television to still remain a blank slate, to have taken on no “color” at all. And because he is almost transparent, we are able to project various narratives and emotions onto Mr. Odagiri’s body and spirit.


Joe Odagiri at JAPAN CUTS! 2017 © George Hirose

How does Mr. Odagiri approach each project? “My approach has not changed at all since I started this career. My vision of what kind of actor I want to be hasn’t changed: I don’t want to do things that are safe. I always want to challenge myself.” Mr. Odagiri speaks calmly, but something burns under his words. Though his starting point was unexpected, his resolute dedication as an artist has created an exquisite trail until now.


In the United States, a proposal to demolish the NEA (National Endowment for the Arts) has recently been introduced. In a world where the economy is prioritized above all else, the arts always become a target. As someone who works in the arts, what are Mr. Odagiri’s thoughts now? “I want to keep creating something. I don’t know if I could call it ‘art,’ but I like to create. Not only acting, but to keep working in the arts and to treasure it,” he says, one word after another carefully. Aside from being an actor, Joe Odagiri wishes to live in the creative world. Will his wish make him even more transparent, or will he show us a color we have never seen before?



Text & Interview by Taiyo Okamoto

Photos of Joe Odagiri © George Hirose



Japan Society Website


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