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Who the Hell is Rinko Kikuchi?

She’s been weighed, she’s been measured, but has she been found wanting? Japanzine takes a look at Asia’s latest Next Big Thing.

Unless you’ve had your head under a bushel, you probably know that young Rinko Kikuchi, a 26-year-old native of Kanagawa Prefecture, recently became the first Japanese female in almost 50 years to be nominated for an Academy Award. Selected as one of this year’s best supporting actresses for her astounding performance in Alejandro González Iñárritu’s acclaimed Babel, Kikuchi picked up a number of lesser awards along the way before ultimately missing out on the big one. Not that she can mind all that much. The role of deaf-mute Chieko Wataya, an emotionally disturbed teenager trying to deal with her burgeoning sexuality in the wake of her mother’s suicide, has won her international acclaim and a leading role alongside Adrien Brody in her first all-English flick, The Brothers Bloom.

But even the most insatiable of film buffs must be wondering who the hell she is. Far from being a household name in her own country, a few NHK addicts may recognize her from the utterly anonymous Lotte Green Gum ad in which she plays a dispirited OL at a baseball… no? Missed that one? How about the Fujitsu ad in which Kimu-Taku morphs into a werewolf? Oh… didn’t notice who played the girl’s part. Gotcha. Well, don’t be disheartened. 2 out of 3 of my female Japanese friends (read: two thirds of the females I know) had never heard of her either, and judging by her CV, she’s not exactly on first name terms with the players in Japan’s film industry either.

Starting as a model at 14, Kikuchi soon began to demonstrate the kind of feistiness that some claim has damaged her career so far in Japan’s sempai-ruled film industry. Realizing all too quickly that life on the catwalk was not exactly challenging, the young teenager began to find solace in films, becoming something of a John Cassevetes devotee by her 17th birthday. Unwilling to follow the usual model-turns-singer-turns-actress-marries-baseball-star-gets-preggers route favored by her manager, Rinko scouted around for a new agent and eventually signed up with Anore, a small stable that nurtures talent rather than tarento. This year the company has seen success with both Kikuchi and Ryo Kase, the latter starring in Clint Eastwood’s Letters from Iwo Jima. That they already had cult icon Tadanobu Asano on their books speaks volumes for their understanding.

Not that being stable-mates with the likes of Asano did her much good. Picked out for her "strangeness" by Kaneto Shindo, Kikuchi represented misguided youth in the octogenarian director’s commentary on greying Japan, Ikitai (1999). Far from a lead role, this nameless character set the tone for the following few years of her career, often playing blink-and-you’ll-miss-’em one-line parts that, in the case of the Ryu Murakami adaption 69, amounted to little more than ‘extra’ work.

Sora no Ana (2001) saw her taking the lead in a departure piece for notorious director Kazuyoshi Kumakiri, an artiste previously known to favor bloodbaths over romantic comedy. Acting alongside Office Kitano stalwart Susumu Terajima, the film followed the fortunes of a rejected street kid who finds herself involved with a lonely chef after burning down part of his establishment. Praised abroad for showing a side of Japan relatively unknown (i.e. the countryside), the film has been quickly forgotten at home, and you’ll be hard pressed to find it in all but the most dusty rental stores.

Outstanding success or not, the movie alerted foreign directors to the presence of an interesting talent, and Kikuchi is happy to point out that the majority of offers she receives are from abroad. Like Memoirs of a Geisha star Yuki Kudoh, however, she is keen to keep a foot in both camps, and despite seeing her name in lights in Hollywood, her follow-up to Babel finds her once again demoted to a few lines in dire live-action manga attempt Warau Mikaeru (2006).

So what is it that turns the foreign directors on, yet leaves her countrymen cold? Kikuchi herself has suggested that the Japanese film industry is in some ways sewn up. Directors hire purely on stereotype, abandoning the audition process in favor of a kawaii face and a suitable CV. While she may be striking to look at – and she certainly generated her fair share of fashion-related column inches during the recent US awards season – she doesn’t possess the requisite cutesiness so essential in Japan’s geinokai. It may seem a fatuous argument, but it would certainly explain the inordinately high number of wooden performances endured by this country’s cinema-going public. (Doesn’t account for "Rat Face" Kusanagi, though – Anti-SMAP League Ed.)

Ultimately it seems Kikuchi is something of a square peg in a round hole. Undoubtedly talented, she’s just a little too willful and a little too homely for mainstream casting agents to deal with in this country. Conversely, the intensity she portrayed in Babel seems to fit with the nutsy Asian rebel role favored by so many in the current zeitgeist. Neither angle is particularly healthy, ultimately leading to the kind of stereotyping Rinko seems so keen to avoid.

There’s a certain irony in the fact that this actress, already known for the hard graft approach she takes within her profession, was beaten to an Oscar by "Dreamgirl" Jennifer Hudson. While Hudson may have dazzled in her nominated role, she is the product of American Idol – a finalist in the 3rd series. Rinko’s future looks rosy, but her career so far has found her bogged down by manufactured SMAP.

Babel is set to open in Japanese theaters on April 28th, but it has already run into its fair share of controversy. On March 8th, 500 deaf teenagers were invited to the Tokyo premiere in an obvious attempt to suck up to the demographic that helped Kikuchi to Hollywood. In one of the worst gaffs in recent movie history, the Japanese sections of the multinational film were shown without subtitles, leaving the "special guests" feeling very special indeed.