Japan Cuts 2017 Interview: Cut Above Winner, Superstar Odagiri Joe on Acting and International Collaborations

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Japan Cuts 2017 Interview: Cut Above Winner, Superstar Odagiri Joe on Acting and International Collaborations
One of his country’s most sought-after and exciting actors, Odagiri Joe has made a career pushing the boundaries of Japanese cinema.  Fearless in his choice of roles and unhesitant about working overseas, Odagiri spoke with me about his motivations as an actor and his feelings on receiving Japan Cuts’ Cut Above award.
 
The Lady Miz Diva:  What is it like to play a real-life person in a biography as with FOUJITA?  Is your preparation different?
 
Odagiri Joe:  First of all, in terms of preparation, I had to speak French.  Almost half the movie was in French, so preparing for that actually took a long time.
 
LMD:  I wondered whether or not you spoke French before taking on the role?
 
OJ:  I never did before.
 
LMD:  Foujita was a man who lived at the centre of one of the most exciting and productive eras in art history, alongside legendary contemporaries.  What did you learn from being in the mind of Foujita?
 
OJ:  One thing is that Foujita travelled to Paris in the 20s, and he only really went with himself.  And he decided to compete within this world with just himself and one paintbrush, which is really an amazing thing to accomplish. 
 
Sometimes, myself, as an actor, I’m invited to participate in foreign films, as well, and in some ways, I’m going is just my own body; and so, in that way, there is some part of me that could empathise with what he does, although I feel a little bit humbled, or I shouldn’t maybe say that I can really empathise with somebody so great.  But, still, I think there is something that I could really manage to empathise with him - just by Foujita being a very different kind of artist.
 
LMD: I feel like the first half of the film is interesting because he is so integrated into Parisian life and has many friends, yet after 10 years there, he still calls himself “a foreigner.”  Yet, when he’s back in Japan, he feels like he’s not understood because he’d been “looking at nothing but crosses” for the entire time in France.  How did you relate or sympathise with his feelings of alienation?
 
OJ:  In terms of the alienation, I think that is something that possibly was of interest to the director, and something that the director was drawn to.  From my perspective, maybe, I think that he was quite sad for being alienated; wondering possibly where his place is in the world.  Wondering how he felt as an outsider; that’s sort of the things that I think about.  
 
But, personally, I also think that Foujita was separate and apart from all those kinds of feelings, because to him, it was all about painting and making these pictures, and painting as an identity of himself.  Perhaps he didn’t really live in the realm of place and culture and differences, in those terms. 
 
LMD:  This film becomes quite surreal toward the end and the narrative throughout isn’t particularly linear.  Is that challenging to you as an actor trying to create a character, when a film might consist of disjointed parts?  How do you hold on to the person you are trying to portray?  
 
OJ:  When I’m acting, I try to have different keywords in my head, and I try not to forget these keywords.  So, as long as I have those ideas and keywords in my head, whether the timeline is linear or not, doesn’t actually destroy my characterisation.
 
LMD:  What was it like for you to work with the European cast?
 
OJ:  I wonder why it is, but, actually, when I’m working with foreign actors, something about them feels more trustworthy to me, in a way.  One reason is that when I’m working with Japanese actors, because I understand their language, I start to see more than what they are, or different sides to them that might not be present.
 
LMD:  In OVER THE FENCE, you are working with Director Yamashita Nobuhiro, who previously worked with another Odagiri, your lovely wife Kashii Yuu in LINDA LINDA LINDA.  Is that where the seeds of your working together began? 
 
OJ:  No, I don’t think it was planted at that time.
 
LMD:  How did you read your character, Shiraiwa?
 
OJ:  In the beginning, the character felt as if he had everything perfectly; everything was fine.  But then, as he looked more into himself, things were broken within him.
 
LMD:  What is his attraction to Satoshi?  As you mentioned, in the beginning, his life was pretty settled and straight, and she is so chaotic.  What do you think brought them together?
 
OJ:  Shiraiwa as a character probably thought everything was fine; he was sort of just kind of gliding through life.  He thought everything was just normal with his family, his relationships.  He wasn’t necessarily the kind of person who was deflecting or distancing himself from other people, necessarily.  He was just sort of going through life as-is, until he met Satoshi, who is this very straightforward and honest person.  Perhaps that binary difference between these two had led to that attraction?
 
LMD:  In this festival, we’re seeing you portray a god of the art world, someone of extreme cultural importance, and we’re also seeing you play someone who is a complete nobody.  Which is more satisfying as an actor, playing someone who is powerful, or someone who is powerless? 
 
OJ:  There is a little bit of an overlap with what I said for the first question, but when I’m playing a historical figure who actually existed, there is a part of me that starts to become more cautious, or careful.  The reasons being that there might be fans that are still alive, people he knew that are still alive, like family or relatives that might still be alive, and so there is the side of me that gets cautious about not wanting to create some disappointing results for these people.
 
So, when I’m building a character like Shiraiwa, that I can actually build from scratch, in that sense, it might actually be more interesting to play characters like those.
 
LMD:  I’m very intrigued by one upcoming film directed by Kim Ki-duk called THE TIME OF HUMANS, which also stars our friend, Ryoo Seung-bum, and the great Ahn Sung-ki.  Can you tell us a little bit about the plot and your character?
 
OJ:  I’m not sure how much of the actual film I can really talk about, but it is very much his style of filmmaking, and it’s really about what happens when humans are placed into extreme situations.  Regarding my character, actually, my character has a very stern, ethical, moral ground, so I actually have no idea why he decided to choose me for that role?  {Laughs}
 
It’s been a while since I’ve worked with him, since DREAM {2008}, and so I was really looking for to being on set with him.  I was only actually there for five days, so, a very short time, but his style of filmmaking hadn’t changed.  It was very characteristic of him.  And every night, he would ask for one drink after work, but it never ended with one drink.
 
LMD:  Between this project and FOUJITA, I feel like you are single-handedly pushing the boundaries of the Japanese presence on the international film stage.  Is that your intention?  In a bigger sense, do you feel that sort of international collaboration is a way the Japanese film can continue to thrive?
 
OJ:  I think I’m quite unique within the Japanese actors, in terms of working with lots of foreign projects.  Fundamentally, I just really want to work on projects that I find interesting, and they just so happened to be foreign projects.  
 
Personally, I think that if there were more Japanese movies that were interesting, then I probably would have chosen more Japanese films.  But, then again, there’s also such things as timing and scheduling, and also the idea of actually meeting people that results in where I stand within Japanese cinema, but I don’t necessarily think many people share that same point of view.
 
LMD:  I understand that when you began your education in film, you originally wanted to be a director.  Yet in all those years since, you have only directed one movie {LOOKING FOR CHERRY BLOSSOMS}.  Have you not wanted to direct any more?
 
OJ:  Directing is a very difficult job.  There’s a lot of responsibilities.  You have to make sure all the collaborations work, and you really have to be able to bring together a lot of people.  And the more I know about directing, I’m sort of realising that it’s not something that I’m cut out for.  The last work that I directed was 10 years ago, and in these last 10 years, I really feel like close to zero in terms of whether I want to direct or not.  But then again, I don’t know what I’d be doing in the future.  Just characteristically of me being myself, rather than being somebody who kind of looks at things wide and thinks about doing this and that, I think I’m more cut out for honing in on something, and for me that is acting.
 
LMD:  How do you feel about winning Cut Above award in front of your New York fans?
 
OJ:  Regarding this Cut Above award, actually, I didn’t really have the information stored in my head, so, I basically sort of realised this today.  I’m actually still surprised by it.  
 
Personally, I’ve always only wanted to do projects that I wanted to, and those are the only projects that I took.  So, to be accepted in my life’s work in this way; to know that people accept me for choosing the projects that I want to do, and in some ways – if I put it badly – I’m working selfishly.  And to be accepted in this way can lead to a lot of confidence, and if people really do see this is a good thing, then honestly, this will allow me to feel good about the way that I have been working, and in a place where I can feel more confident and calm.
 
This interview is cross-posted on my own site, The Diva Review. Please enjoy additional content, including exclusive photos there.
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