By David Chute | Thompson on Hollywood July 10, 2013 at 4:29PM
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."
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."