Japan Cuts Interview: Cut Above Award Winner Kirin Kiki on Living Life and Art on Her Own Terms

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Japan Cuts Interview: Cut Above Award Winner Kirin Kiki on Living Life and Art on Her Own Terms
In a career that spans over half a century, Kirin Kiki is the epitome of the late-blooming rose.  From wild, comedic parts early in her career, to the wry, scene-stealing elder roles that won her awards later in life, Kirin-san has blazed her own imitable trail through Japanese cinema, her way.
 
At the Japan Cuts film festival to receive its Cut Above award, Kirin-san spoke with LMD about her feature Mori, The Artists's Habitat, and living life -- and art -- on one’s own terms. 
 
 
The Lady Miz Diva: MORI, THE ARTIST’S HABITAT, shows us a couple that made their own life on their own terms; really living the way they want, in a paradise they made.  How did you first read the role of Kumagai Hideko, and what was it about her that appealed to you? 
 
Kirin Kiki:  Within this film, Hideko’s character is someone you don’t really see inside Japanese society these days.  She is a woman who almost puts her husband first, and respects him highly.  And that is the way she lives her life.  From that kind of husband, she also receives a lot of love, in return.  And so, I was drawn to this kind of woman character.
 
LMD:  Hideko is very much the anchor of Mori’s world, he would be lost without her.  I feel that is a core of your performances, to be the base around which the action and drama takes place.  I wonder if because of the strength of your performance that directors base their films around you?  Even if the role doesn’t have a lot of screen time, often your character is the backbone of a story.  
 
KK:  Regarding my character in the upcoming film, Shoplifters, I’m not all that kind of character.  {Laughs}  But I do believe that anybody -- a wife who was alongside such a brilliant and skilled artist would have been 
 
LMD:  I feel like the Kumagai family are true free sprits, and that there is a similarity to yourself.  You started your career playing comedic and eccentric roles -- you played your first grandmother before you were thirty -- there is a sense of free-spiritedness in your travels through cinema.  Do you feel that you’ve played the characters you’ve wanted on your own terms?  
 
KK:  It’s not something that I need to necessarily be proud of, but through the way I’ve lived, I’ve somehow managed to be that way.
 
LMD:  Just a few weeks ago, I interviewed director Harada Masato, who revealed that you have a test that you give to your directors:  That you will begin by going over the top in your performances, and see how the director reacts.  Is that true?  What will that tell you?  What is the rate of failure? 
 
KK:  It is not necessarily that I’m testing them.  I think in Japanese cinema these days -- contemporary Japanese cinema -- a lot of people seem to like acting where people aren’t doing anything.  I feel that, as a characteristic.  
 
But I believe that with acting, whether that’s through being over the top, or to try it in different ways, I think as an actor, it is good to try different ways of acting.  And it is the director who then makes the choice of what way to do it in --even if a bad way is okay.  So, it’s not necessarily that I’m testing them.
 
That all said, in terms of the passing rate, I would say about 50-50.
 
LMD:  I take it that the lower 50 percent doesn’t get to see Kirin-san again?
 
KK:  Yes, that’s right.
 
LMD:  When I speak with directors who have worked with you, so often I hear them say, ”There was no other person I could see in that role but Kirin-san,” or “It was written with her in mind.”  Thinking of what you’ve just said, regarding the sameness you see in Japanese acting, do you think it’s your bolder, stronger style of performance that has made you a muse to so many directors? 
 
KK:  Actresses these days, have stopped revealing themselves; revealing what’s inside them.  They tend to hide what possibly may be ugly about them.  And because of that, naturally, a lot of roles end up coming towards my way.
 
LMD:  You have a wonderful collaboration with Director Kore-eda (HIROKAZU).  What is it about his style of directing that suits you both so well? 
 
KK:  Regarding Kore-eda-san, he, himself, likes the idea of acting.  And, also, specifically, to act human.  And there are his interests lie.  So, through the images that he makes, he, himself, is continuously interested in the human condition, in humans.  So, I believe that whoever he works with, he will be able to collaborate very well.
 
LMD:  What has been the optimal type of direction or set that has brought out your most satisfying performances? 
 
KK:  One thing that I do, is that I don’t mind whatever environment they create, but I am interested in the way they make the picture, or the frame, or how it looks.  That all said, whether it’s about young or old human beings, I like directors who don’t deny the humanity of the characters.
 
LMD:  You’ve seen several generations of the world’s response to Japanese cinema; times when there was a lot of international focus on Japanese films.  Lately, except for directors Kore-eda, Kawase Naomi, Kurosawa Kiyoshi, and perhaps a few others, there seems to be a flux.  What would you like to see happen in Japanese cinema to help it thrive?
 
KK:  I have to say I think it’s just a matter of having a great creator be around.  At one point, I was thinking about maybe it’s about having the funding from the government, amongst other things.  But I’ve come to think that I think at the end of the day, I’m still waiting on the one creator, or these heavyweight creators to appear.
 
LMD:  As the grandmother of an aspiring actress (Uchida Kyara-san) do you give her any words of guidance, or does she ask for your insight?  
 
KK:  {Laughs} So, actually, that one time we acted together (Sweet Bean / An), is perhaps the only time that she is going to act.  Watching her act, I don’t think she quite likes acting.  She told me that she’s more interested in sort of numbers, and things that she can see.  
 
LMD:  With that in mind.  What advice would you give to a young actor starting out?  Is there anything that you have learned in your experience that you would have liked to have been told as a young actress beginning your career? 
 
KK:  In terms of advice to a young actor, I just want to say that they need to live well, and live individualistically, or uniquely.  I believe that a lot of the times, people’s perspectives are all the same, because they try to do the same as the next person.  Even with clothes, sometimes they look the same: I can’t tell the difference between them.  I really don’t want them to all be the same.
 
Regarding your question about what advice I would have wanted as a young person… Well, I never really listened to anyone when I was young. 
 
LMD:  I read that you said acting was not your intended career.  If you decided not to make another film, what about this accidental journey of yours would you miss?
 
KK:  I wouldn’t miss anything.  I don’t want anything.  I don’t think I’ll miss anything.
 
LMD:  Do you feel that you’ve done everything that you meant to do?
 
KK:  It is not that whether I have done everything I wanted to do: It’s not something as great as that.  It is more that I don’t have any expectations for myself.  And so, because of that, I don’t feel let down by.
 
LMD:  Of course, tonight you are receiving the Japan Cuts Cut Above award in front of a packed house of fans who are here to honor you.  Please give a message to your fans here in New York and in the United States?
 
KK:  It is not something I could’ve ever imagined, truly.  I’ve really just lived the way I wanted to live, and to be accepted like this for doing that, I feel very incredibly lucky, and I treasure this.
 
This interview is cross-posted on my own site, The Diva Review. Please enjoy additional content, including exclusive photos there.
 
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An Artist's HabitatCut Above AwardInterviewJapan Cuts 2018Japanese CinemaKirin KikiKore-eda HirokazuMori