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Rinko Kikuchi: Actress on Fire in 'Pacific Rim'

Reviews
by David Chute
July 10, 2013 4:29 PM
9 Comments
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Warner Brothers Rinko Kikuchi as Mako Mori in "Pacific Rim"

The one element of Guillermo del Toro's gargantuan "Pacific Rim" that does not seem to be dividing audiences into warring camps is the fierce and charismatic performance of  Rinko Kikuchi as the gifted giant robot pilot Mako Mori, whose emotions cut through the visual clutter of every scene she's in. "I wanted someone who could bring reality and be strong but fragile," del Toro told the Boston Herald. "That’s Rinko."

Kikuchi's gift for burning into our consciousness just with the intensity of of her gaze was already evident in 2006, when she became the first Japanese actress in 50 years to be nominated for an Oscar, for her wordless performance as a deaf mute high school student in Alejandro González Iñárritu's "Babel." (Miyoshi Umeki had won Best Supporting in 1957 for "Sayonara.")

Since then Kikuchi has worked on several eye-catchiing international projects, including Rian Johnson's "The Brothers Bloom" (2008), French director Isabel Coixet's "Map of the Sounds of Tokyo" (2009) and Cellin Gluck's "Sideways" (2009), a word-for-word Japanese-language remake of the Alexander Payne wine-tasting film. "Norwegian Wood" (2010), Paris-based Vietnamese director Tran Anh Hung's adaptation of the Haruki Murakami bestseller, won her some belated recognition in Asia, including a Best Actress nod at the Hong Kong International Film Festival.

Overseas, in other words, Kikuchi has become a go-to Japanese actress for hipster auteurs, and this must be partly a result of personal preference. The Japanese roles she's chosen, too, suggest a niche/art house sensibility: "A Forest With No Name" (2002), is one of director Shinji Aoyma's hard boiled parodies about tough private eye Maiku Hama, and Katsuhito Ishii's "The Taste of Tea" (2004) is a Bergman-esque family drama. "Assault Girls" (2009), a live action steampunk science fiction film by anime master Mamoru Oshii, is the closet thing on her resume to "Pacific Rim."

Kikuchi has also established a highly visible parallel career as a high end fashion and advertising model, notably as "the face of Chanel."

marie claire Rinko as fashion icon

Unfortunately, there seems to be no comfortable equivalent in Japan for indie or alternative success, no familiar way to become the Greta Gerwig or Tilda Swinton of Tokyo. Though not entirely without honor in her own country, Kikuchi is nowhere near as famous there as the level of her international success would lead one to expect. 

"Why is 'Pacific Rim' actress Rinko Kikuchi not a bigger star in Japan?" asked a recent article on the website Japan Daily Press.

The theory is that Kikuchi has not made nice with the Japanese mass audience in the way they have come to expect, that "she did not make a name for herself the way normal celebrities in the country usually do. While she acted in a few dramas, she did not appear in a lot of TV shows, variety show programs or commercials."

A supposedly "disastrous" 2010 appearance on a Japanese talk show, "Waratte Iitomo!" ("an institution, like 'The Tonight Show'"), in which she seemed awkward and nervous, still gets mentioned in this context. And the fact that she has been so successful abroad may have sparked resentment. "Who are these gaijin to tell us who we should admire?"

Ironically, there is one performer in "Pacific Rim" who followed the normal route to Japanese pop celebrity, the child star Mana Ashida, who plays Mako Mori as a young girl in one of the film's best sequences. An icon of the hugely valued quality of "kawai" (deep dish cuteness; think Hello Kitty), Ashida made all the right moves, appearing on multiple TV dramas and recording three pop singles. At 9, she's a much bigger deal in Japan than her Oscar-nominated co-star.

Kikuchi has already completed her next Hollywood film, the Carl Rinsch samurai drama "47 Ronin," with Keanu Reeves, her first Japanese period role on the big screen. A second film with Isabel Coixet, "Nobody Wants the Night," in which she will co-star with Juliet Binoche and "Game of Thrones'" Nikolaj Coster-Waldau, is in pre-production.

However her accomplishments translate to mainstream culture of Japan, no performer as mesmerizing as Rinko Kikuchi is going to spend much time looking for work. 

Perhaps her "Pacific Rim" director can find a role for her in the series he's reportedly developing for HBO, an adaption of Naoki Urasawa's award-winning serial killer manga "Monster."

9 Comments

  • Lisa Rothschild | July 19, 2013 10:08 PMReply

    Yea I think that assessment is pretty accurate. Problem in Japan is that that mass media & entertainment conglomerate are married to each other lol. TV is king and holds more prestige then it's motion picture counterpart. This is pretty sad considering Japanese TV personalities and sitcom hosts are put in such high regard. While all the great actors don't get anywhere the exposure or the credit. Some comments I have heard are down right brutal in Japanese media circles. Like they should talk as don't see them being nominated for an Oscar lol. Maybe it has something to do with the whole idea in Japanese culture of not being the nail that sticks up so to speak. However it sometimes takes that one person to make a positive difference & enact change. Something the Japanese are not all that good at doing as a general rule. Frankly I think Rinko is an amazing actress and it is a breath of fresh air seeing an Asian in a leading role. However the Japanese media won't be able to ignore her much longer. Like it or not Rinko is no longer the actress the Japanese loved to hate. She is becoming an internationally recognized actress. Which is starting to challenge the status quo
    not only of the ruling Japanese elite. But as an women in Japan taking control of her career in an industry dominated by Japanese men. About time this happen is all I am saying! :)

  • Lisa Rothschild | July 19, 2013 10:04 PMReply

    Yea I think that assessment is pretty accurate. Problem in Japan is that that mass media & entertainment conglomerate are married to each other lol. TV is king and holds more prestige then it's motion picture counterpart. This is pretty sad considering Japanese TV personalities and sitcom hosts are put in such high regard. While all the great actors don't get anywhere the exposure or the credit. Some comments I have heard are down right brutal in Japanese media circles. Like they should talk as don't see them being nominated for an Oscar lol. Maybe it has something to do with the whole idea in Japanese culture of not being the nail that sticks up so to speak. However it sometimes takes that one person to make a positive difference & enact change. Something the Japanese are not all that good at doing as a general rule. Frankly I think Rinko is an amazing actress and it is a breath of fresh air seeing an Asian in a leading role. However the Japanese media won't be able to ignore her much longer. Like it or not Rinko is no longer the actress the Japanese loved to hate. She is becoming an internationally recognized actress. Which is starting to challenge the status quo
    not only of the ruling Japanese elite. But as an women in Japan taking control of her career in an industry dominated by Japanese men. About time this happen is all I am saying! :)

  • Anne Thompson | July 16, 2013 1:21 PMReply

    I am happy to run any corrections and admit our mistakes. I looked into Ramesh's assertion that we are idiots for not knowing that Pacific Rim was based on this property and it has no merit. This is an original screenplay. Ramesh was so snide and annoying that I deleted him!

  • DChute | July 16, 2013 3:35 AMReply

    Brian: Not sure what or who you're responding to here.

  • Brian | July 16, 2013 10:37 AM

    Sorry, but there was a snide comment from "Ramesh" that insisted this film is based on "Johnny Sokko and His Flying Robot" and linked to his review. I was responding to him. That comment has apparently been deleted. I wish my comment would have then been deleted also to avoid a misunderstanding.

  • Brian | July 15, 2013 10:34 AMReply

    While there are similarities between PACIFIC RIM and numerous Japanese TV shows and movies of the last 50 years, it would be an extremely narrow reading to say that it's "based on" one particular TV show, especially that one, which I've seen and is probably the one giant robot show that I DIDN'T think of while watching PACIFIC RIM. If that's the best you can come up with, I have no interest in reading your review.

  • Brian | July 12, 2013 6:00 PMReply

    I just got back from the film and I just realized (after visiting a J-pop forum to discuss the film) that I've seen Mana Ashida before. She appeared on a couple of Japanese New Year's music specials at the end of 2011 and was a bit too insufferably cute for my tastes in one of them. I think I complained about her in a blog entry. She and a boy her age led a Disney-themed song montage in the other one. But she's very good here and I agree with you, David, that her scenes are among the best in the film. I had mixed feelings about the film over all, but it had a lot of good stuff in it. And it was nice seeing an Asian lead actress in a Hollywood film, something that's not that common despite the large number of Asian actresses who've had some presence in the west and built up a following.

  • DChute | July 11, 2013 12:47 PMReply

    She speaks both Japanese and English in "Pacific Rim" -- and one of the many carefully laid-in details in the film that turns out to be significant is that Idris Elba's character also knows some Japanese. Her English here seems fine, lightly accented and perfectly clear, though of course she had a lot of time to practice every sentence.

  • Brian | July 11, 2013 10:36 AMReply

    I saw Ms. Kikuchi when she came to New York to promote BABEL some six or so years ago and she said then that she was going to learn English. Has she? Does she speak any other languages? Just curious.

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