Kat-tun star’s knack for reinvention aids film role

by Mark Schilling

Special To The Japan Times

Director Satoshi Miki’s new comedy “Ore Ore (It’s Me, it’s Me)” is more on the cultish than the commercial end of the scale, with its head-scratcher of a story about a first-time scammer who starts encountering various versions of himself in a bizarre new world: karmic payback for impersonating a stranger via a stolen cellphone to the man’s own mother.

Miki admitted as much to me when we met at the Udine Far East Film Festival in Udine, Italy, where “It’s Me, it’s Me” had its world premiere on April 19. Nervously puffing a cigarette at the welcoming dinner, held at a restaurant next to Udine’s historic hilltop castle, he thanked me for recommending his “hard to understand” film to the festival as a program advisor. “(Starring actor Kazuya) Kamenashi is the reason it’s getting all this attention,” he added, referring to the media uproar at home when the film’s selection for an opening-night slot was announced.

Not that Miki was a nonentity, even in this small Northern Italian city. With his long hair, scraggly beard, dark glasses and ball cap, he was easy to pick out in a crowd. More importantly, his films had been the subject of a special section we screened, with Miki present, at the festival’s 2008 edition and his face was still familiar to many local fans.

But he was also only telling the truth: By a serendipitous set of circumstances that would be tedious to detail, the film’s star, Kamenashi, flew from Paris to grace us with his presence for 24 hours, a presence that drew fans from as far away as Hong Kong and a TV news crew from Japan. For them, he was more than an actor playing 33 roles in a quirky comedy: He was the most popular member of one of the biggest boy bands in Japan, Kat-tun, as a well as the star of many a hit TV drama and the films made as spin-offs from them.

This was similar to having Justin Timberlake show up at a funky little film festival in Sendai, with one big difference: Whatever walls of security surround an American celebrity such as boy-band singer turned film star Timberlake, he does not live in the sort of protective, controlling bubble that formed around Kamenashi while he was a young teenager, courtesy of Johnny & Associates, the almighty (in Japan) talent agency that manufactures male pop idols the way Toyota does cars.

At the prescreening dinner and after, however, that bubble consisted of an anxious young male minder from Johnny’s, no doubt aware that enforcing the agency’s media rules in unruly Italy would be impossible, and a hairdresser/makeup artist who, save for flouncing a Kamenashi curl or two, stayed discretely in the background.

That is, half a world away from the country that best knows and rather suffocatingly loves him, Kamenashi was finally off the leash — and enjoying the sensation. He greeted his hosts, beginning with festival director Sabrina Baracetti, with a word or two of Italian (“Buongiorno“), a smattering of English and a generous amount of unforced charm.

“This my first film festival, ever,” he told me with a smile that hinted at both embarrassment and delight. He drank the excellent local white wine, sampled the delicious local cuisine and later raved about both to the Japanese media.

Kamenashi also got a warm welcome from the packed theater, a civic hall whose main floor and four balconies seat nearly 1,200. One reason was his stage greeting, delivered in fluent-sounding (and well-rehearsed) Italian and even a word of the local dialect. Another was the aforementioned Kamenashi fans, some of whom had lined up for same-day tickets at 6 a.m. and had begun arriving for a glimpse of their idol early in the afternoon; many of them stayed for a 40-minute signing session after the screening.

The movie, in which Miki’s imagination takes full wacky flight, with Kamenashi appearing in everything from a pudding-bowl haircut to a dress as his character’s multiple selves, may not have been what those fans were expecting; but sitting next to Kamenashi himself, laughing out loud at his character’s misadventures on the screen, I began to feel that this unusual choice of project had been inspired less by career calculation than by Kamenashi’s own odd sense of humor.

The next day, at a full-to-capacity meeting with the press and fans that I emceed, Kamenashi was once again the star, with the ever-patient Miki reduced to bit player. But he was also full of compliments for his director, saying that he was a fan of Miki’s films and that when a chance to appear in “It’s Me, it’s Me” presented itself, “I jumped at it.”

“I had faith in Miki’s ideas and concepts,” he explained. “I wanted to give myself to him completely and totally.”

Taking the advice of the film’s producer, Kamenashi didn’t read the novel on which the film is based, with the aim of making what he described as “a fresh work from Miki’s highly original script.”

“When things settle down, I’d like to sit down and enjoy (the novel),” he added.

Miki asked Kamenashi to read the script before their first meeting, and when he finally met his star to discuss the central character of Hitoshi, he was, he said, “impressed with (Kamenashi’s) truly wonderful script reading.”

“I had the feeling that we wouldn’t have any problems going forward,” he concluded.

In the month before the start of shooting, Miki and Kamenashi met frequently to rehearse. “During this time I couldn’t come to any final conclusions on how to direct (this character),” Miki explained. “It was only in the first week of shooting that I arrived at the most appropriate method.”

Kamenashi added that his own experience at assuming various roles in the entertainment world — a sportscaster one night, a singer the next — helped him differentiate among the various Hitoshis in the course of the shoot.

“I’m the type who can really change the character (I’m playing) internally depending on the clothes I’m wearing, the people I’m with or the situation I’m in. (Miki) was skilled at bringing that out. Also, I was on something like an ‘actor’s high,’ similar to the high that marathon runners experience. It wasn’t an ordinary situation.”

Neither, as it turned out, was the reaction of the Udine fans (or perhaps it’s more accurate to say “Kamenashi fans”). “It’s Me, it’s Me” won the festival’s My Movies Audience Award for being the most popular of the 57 films on the program, as decided by Internet voters. By then, of course, Kamenashi was long gone, leaving behind fond memories for the fans who had trekked long distances to get up close, if not exactly personal, with their hero. Their Kamenashi at Udine photos, snapped entirely without permission from the controlling Johnny’s, are now proliferating all over the Internet — somewhat like all the Hitoshis in the film, but forever.