Oyster Archive: Rinko Kikuchi shot by Tung Walsh
The Japanese actress was our Oyster #93 cover girl.
Rinko Kikuchi is a bewitching combination of delicate beauty and inner steel. On-screen, the Japanese actress can appear butterfly wing–fragile; off-screen, she likes sword fighting and motorbikes. She is one of Japan's biggest film stars, but Western audiences have only heard the 30-year-old speak three words in the English language — "Campari" and "fuck me" — when she played the silent explosives expert Bang Bang in Rian Johnson's tale of con artists, The Brothers Bloom. We spoke with her about her latest film, Norwegian Wood, and how she's had to fight for her roles.
Rinko Kikuchi shot onto the international stage in 2006, as a miniskirted, teenage deaf-mute in Alejandro González Iñárritu's epic Babel. Wandering through Tokyo's neon-lit nightlife, she conjured complex emotions with a single look, eclipsing co-stars Cate Blanchett and Brad Pitt with a heartbreakingly nuanced performance. "I thought it would be impossible to play the role," she says, "but that's why I had to try. "Initially, the Mexican director rejected her, but Kikuchi persevered, spending time with deaf people and learning sign language. After a full year of auditioning alongside thousands of other hopefuls, Iñárritu finally gave her the coveted role. "I started crying!" she remembers. On set, Kikuchi continued to communicate in sign language — so much so that some of the cast assumed she genuinely couldn't speak until she appeared in Cannes, long hair dyed bottle-blonde for the occasion, chatting to the cameras. The following year, Kikuchi became the first Japanese actress to be nominated for an Oscar in 50 years.
Kikuchi's childhood was spent in the hills of Hadano, 40 miles south of Tokyo. "I was a quiet child, good at playing by myself," she remembers. "You're not going to believe this, but I actually have a memory from the moment I was born. I thought: 'It's troublesome for human beings to breathe!'" By her early teens, she was channelling all that melancholy existentialism into acting and she can pinpoint the moment, at the age of 16, when it became a true passion: in a darkened cinema, watching John Cassavetes' Opening Night, it was Gena Rowlands raging across the screen as an alcoholic, tripping along the brink of emotional breakdown, who inspired the young Kikuchi. "Gena Rowlands will always be my icon. She's the reason I'm where I am today." Rowlands' performance instilled in Kikuchi a love for taking risks, a passion that wasn't welcomed by the more conservative elements of the Geinokai — the Japanese entertainment industry. But it was exactly what was needed for her latest role as Naoko, a teenager haunted by suicide in Tran Anh Hùng's beguiling adaptation of Haruki Murakami's tale of love and loss, Norwegian Wood.
Set in the sixties on a Tokyo college campus, against a backdrop of student riots, the novel — with its coming-of-age tale of adolescent sorrow — is a Japanese Catcher in the Rye. Murakami's young protagonist is torn between his love for two girls: the disturbed Naoko, grappling with mental demons that threaten to devour her, and the effervescent Midori, played by Japanese teen-model phenomenon Kiko Mizuhara. The director spent four years corresponding with Murakami — who is famously reticent about film adaptations — before he was given the green light. Kikuchi, meanwhile, had set her sights on the character of Naoko back in her teens. "I read Norwegian Wood when I was 18. It was so beautiful; it had such literary grace. Naoko remained in my heart all that time. When I heard about the film, I knew — at my age — this would be the first and last time I would get a chance to play her."
Again, however, Kikuchi found herself faced with having to convince a director of her abilities. A slightly sheepish Hùng remembers, "Rinko asked for the audition and I refused. I saw her in Babel and I never thought she would fit the role of Naoko." Once more, it was up to the actress to prove her director wrong. "I insisted; I tried again and again," she remembers, "and finally I got a chance to send him a video." Hùng pressed play and saw the Naoko he had been searching for emerging before his eyes. She won the role and set about submerging herself in Naoko's turmoil and sadness, a darkness that Kikuchi had to prevent from spilling into her own life. "I spent a long time tackling Naoko," she explains. "It was a hard process to build her — thrilling, but difficult. Then after filming was finished, I went on holiday to one place, and Naoko left for somewhere else."
Now, with months of melancholy behind her, Kikuchi has opted for action: she'll star opposite Keanu Reeves in samurai epic, 47 Ronin, later this year. Her recent move to New York — where she lives with boyfriend, director Spike Jonze — and the resulting slew of auditions (and English lessons) she's embarked on, mean that it is only a matter of time before Kikuchi finds her voice in Hollywood. "America is a movie superpower," she says. "The scale is totally different to Japan. But if I can get something fresh and original by acting a role, then that's really all that is important to me."
Words: Hannah Lack
Photography: Tung Walsh