There are two types of actors: ones who disappear into their roles and ones who make their roles disappear into them, playing versions of themselves in film after film.
Ryo Kase is the former type, having portrayed everything from the sardonic punk pal of a ditzy heroine in Satoshi Miki’s 2009 comedy “Insutanto Numa (Instant Swamp)” and the trash-talking gang lieutenant in the new Takeshi Kitano yakuza flick “Outrage Beyond,” to the painfully sincere young man unjustly accused of groping a woman on the train in Masayuki Suo 2007′s courtroom drama “Soredemo Boku wa Yattenai (I Just Didn’t Do It)” — a performance that earned him a shelf full of acting awards.
Abroad, however, Kase is probably best known for his role in Clint Eastwood’s “Letters from Iwo Jima” (2006) as Shimizu, a Kempeitai (World War II-era military police) private who is sent to the hellhole of Iwo Jima as punishment for quietly disobeying a superior’s brutal order. He also played the ghost of a Japanese tokkotai (kamikaze) pilot who appears to a young couple — a funeral-obsessed boy (Henry Hopper) and a terminally ill girl (Mia Wasikowska) in Gus Van Sant’s 2011 drama “Restless.” The former film was a smash hit in Japan, if not Stateside, while the latter unfortunately made a quick exit from theaters.
Kase, who was born in Yokohama in 1974, spent most of his first seven years in Bellevue, Washington, following the transfer of his businessman father. He became fluent in English, an ability he used to good advantage in “Restless” (2011), but not in his latest film with an acclaimed foreign director: Abbas Kiarostami’s “Like Someone in Love.”
Kase plays Noriaki, the tightly wound garage mechanic who does not know that his college-student girlfriend (Rin Takanashi) is selling sex on the side or that the elderly professor (Tadashi Okuno) who drives her to meet him one day is not her grandfather, as he assumes, but a client. The film screened in competition at the Cannes Film Festival and will open in Japan on Sept. 15.
At the office of distributor Bitters End, where I interview Kase, he impresses me as more the earnest nice-guy hero of “I Just Didn’t Do It” than the rough-edged, if sensitive, Noriaki. In fact, instead of being Kiarostami’s first choice for the role, Kase had to audition for it. “For the second interview I just came in and chatted with him,” he recalls with a wry grin. “We talked about everything but the movie. He was an interesting guy … but it was hard to tell what he was thinking because he always wore sunglasses.”
Prior to shooting in Tokyo, Kiarostami discussed the role with Kase and rehearsed with him and the other actors thoroughly. “By the time I arrived on the set I knew what I had to do, without hesitation,” Kase says. “(Kiarostami) had a very clear vision.”
Kiarostami’s collaborative approach is common abroad, Kase notes, but not so in Japan, where the director is commonly put on a higher pedestal than the cast. “Japanese actors don’t often state their opinions,” he explains “It’s quite different from the American style. There you’re expected to say what you think.”
Returning to Japan as a child, Kase had his own culture gap to overcome. “I found it harder to speak with Japanese,” he says. “Americans talk a lot about themselves, but Japanese aren’t like that. So in the beginning I had problems with communication.”
Kase decided to try acting after seeing a senior classmate on stage when he was a student at Chuo University. In 1998, impressed with the performance of Tadanobu Asano in the Shunji Iwai films “Picnic” and “Fried Dragon Fish,” Kase wrote a letter to Asano’s agency — and wound up becoming Asano’s personal assistant. He made his screen debut in the 2000 Sogo Ishii period actioner “Gojo Reisenki: Gojoe (Gojoe)”
Asano was not only a mentor to Kase but also served as an example for his dedication to indie films, appearing in little else while other actors of his generation were furthering their careers and enriching their agencies by acting in TV dramas and big commercial movies. “He gradually began to appear in bigger films (most recently the game adaptation “Battleship”), but 15 years ago he was only making indies,” says Kase. “That’s been my policy as well. I prefer to work in independent films.”
Kase’s unaccented English would seem to give him a head start among Japanese actors trying to break into Hollywood, but he says he has little desire to follow Asano and “Letters from Iwo Jima” costar Ken Watanabe into Hollywood movies. “Watanabe has the face and body (for Hollywood), but I don’t see myself appearing in so many big entertainment films. It’s not really something I’m suited for, though I’m not saying they’re totally out.” (He shouldn’t, since just prior to our interview, his new film “Gekijoban Spec ~Ten~ (Spec: Heaven),” a thriller starring Kase as a detective with the ability to stop time, opened atop the domestic box office.)
On the other hand, Kase is interested in trying various roles and genres, with comedy a somewhat surprising favorite. “Comedy is tough — I learn more doing comedy than drama, but comedy doesn’t get a lot of attention from critics, unfortunately,” he says. “For me, though, it’s a plus — I can feed back what I’ve learned from comedy to serious films.”
Kase is also a regular in films by director Naoko Ogigami, and those who have worked with her — beginning with Ogigami’s “Megane (Glasses, 2007)” and continuing with Mika Ohmori’s “Puru (Pool, 2009),” Kana Matsumoto’s “Maza Wota (Mother Water, 2010)” and the 2011 film “Tokyo Oashisu (Tokyo Oasis)” by Matsumoto and Kayo Nakamura. These quirky, low-key, gentle-spirited films, with their woman-centered stories shaped by female scriptwriters, directors and producers, have become something of a subgenre.
Usually playing a guy who listens to and sympathizes with the female characters, Kase says he “just fell into these roles.” But he adds that the films have helped him understand how women think.
“There’s one woman producer in particular,” he explains. “She’s about 60 and has never married. Since these films are about women living alone, they tend to reflect the thoughts and views of this 60-year-old woman who herself is living that way.”
Noriaki, who explodes into violence repeatedly in the course of “Like Someone in Love,” would seem to be a world apart from the sensitive-guy roles Kase is often given. But one common denominator is a baseline integrity that, as Kase notes, is central to Noriaki’s character. “The other two (characters) are telling lies, but he wants the truth,” he explains. “He’s a kind of catalyst in the film.”
I can’t help telling Kase that he himself catalyzes his films into something watchable, at least while he is on screen. His reaction to this gush is an embarrassed laugh and a “thank you.” I recover with chit-chat about his trip to Cannes for the premiere screening of “Like Someone in Love” (“It was great,” he says, “the audience applauded for 10 minutes”). Then, out of nowhere, he asks me a question in fluent English about my own favorite films.
A nice guy, after all.
“Like Someone in Love” is now showing in cinemas nationwide.