The Slow Trickle of Japanese Actors Into American Films

The Slow Trickle of Japanese Actors Into American Films

With a worldwide market share of pop culture output and a growing film industry increasingly affecting Hollywood and the world, Japan's cultural output is second only to our own. So where is the respect for their actors in our Hollywood films?
The faces of Asian pop culture have slowly but surely been inundating the American landscape for almost 40 years now. The advent of the Kung Fu genre in the late sixties and early seventies saw the rise of stars like Bruce Lee and the works of Shaw Brothers studios, and in the '90s, a whole new generation of stars began to appear with Jet Li and Jackie Chan. The image has been largely Chinese though, and more specifically coming out of Hong Kong, a historically open market to the West, largely because of its British rule until 15 or so years ago.
The presence of other Asian cultures in American cinema and pop culture have been markedly less apparent, but as the worlds of cinema and pop culture expand, the possibility of seeing stars from other countries such as Japan and Korea rapidly increase. Japan itself has seen a massive influx of interest from America in recent years, as their animation industry has flourished, and the video gaming market expands to the point of including and utilizing Japanese pop and movie stars.
But, if you were to question any one person on the street about whom they knew that was Japanese, it's entirely likely you'd find their answer to be ignorant or non-existent. Anyone who answers Jackie Chan would not be alone in their assumption, but would unfortunately be racially ignorant and insensitive in their response. A striking example of this ignorance can be seen in the film adaptation of Arthur Golden's Memoirs of a Geisha, in which Chinese actresses are cast in all the leading roles, in a film that takes place in Japan. Zhang Ziyi is an amazing actress yes, but she is definitely not Japanese, and the assumption by a Hollywood studio that American's can't tell the difference is not acceptable, even if it might be unfortunately true.
If you've ever seen a Kurosawa film you might recognize Toshiro Mifune's name, but his one American credit (In Shogun) surely didn't make him an international star. So, who are some of the Japanese stars rising in the American film industry? Whose name should you watch out for as the globalization of film causes more and more non-English speaking parts in the films you go and see on a Friday night? Which singers might you be hearing when you play your favorite PS2 game or watch your favorite Anime?
Ken Watanabe - Ken Watanabe found his fame in the states alongside Tom Cruise in the over the top portrayal of an American serviceman as a Samurai warrior in The Last Samurai. The film earned him an academy award nomination and subsequently a role in Batman Begins, Memoirs of a Geisha, and Clint Eastwood's Japanese language, Letters from Iwo Jima. His work has earned him a steady place in roles that are not only respectable as a Japanese actor but show off his acting capability.
Utada Hikaru - Technically born in the United States and thus a US citizen, Utada is still a massive star in Japan, considered to be the biggest pop star around. Her work in the states is still considerably unknown, but you might recognize her voice from the title tracks of Kingdom Hearts I and II, Disney oriented RPGs released by Square Enix. She also released an English language album in the states titled Exodus that didn't fare too well in the oversaturated market of American pop.
Chiaki Kuriyama - The quiet yet vicious school girl fighting opposite Uma Thurman in Kill Bill Vol. 1 has a slew of Japanese film credits, including Battle Royale and Azumi 2. For now, she's had no real success in the American market, but her cult status position in Tarantino's film will make it easier for her to break into the English speaking roles she desires in the future.
Hiroyuki Sanada - Sanada also starred in The Last Samurai alongside Watanabe and Cruise, and was the lead character in the 2004 Academy Award nominated film from Japan, The Twilight Samurai. His star is huge in Japan at the moment, and as with any massive star with minimal success overseas, could at any time follows the lead of his costar Watanabe and delve into the American film market.
Rinko Kikuchi - A recent Japanese star who found her spotlight in the Brad Pitt film, Babel, she was nominated for best supporting actress for a Golden Globe and Academy Award. She's a young and relatively new actress with a growing resume in Japan, but an Oscar in America would assure her a long and successful career.
So, why the short list you might ask. Why else? American cinema hasn't quite taken that final step to globalization that they like to think they have. Just imagine if Memoirs of a Geisha producers at Dreamworks had actually been willing to take a leap and cast Japanese actresses in the leading roles; there would be at least three more names on that list.
I'd say, to keep an eye out for amazing Japanese talent. As Japanese directors continue their amazing output, and American pop culture continues to steal liberally from Japan, it's only likely that the next step is the recognition of a film industry and actors that were not born in America.
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