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Mickey Curtis: from rocker to ‘Robo-G’

by Mark Schilling

Special To The Japan Times

The pioneers of the rock ‘n’ roll era on both sides of the Atlantic have now largely faded from the show-business scene — which is hardly surprising, given that those still strutting their stuff are in their 70s and 80s, and even “The King” himself, Elvis Presley, who died in 1977, would be 77 today.

But in Japan, Mickey Curtis is still going strong as a musician five decades after he became a star of the nation’s homegrown rockabilly boom — while as an actor, he is currently starring in a new Shinobu Yaguchi comedy film titled “Robo-G.” Now 73, Curtis plays a lonely codger who finds a new purpose, as well as new troubles, impersonating a humanoid robot.

Born Michael Brian Kachisu on July 23, 1938, to a mother and father who were both of mixed British and Japanese ancestry, Curtis (a name he adapted from his similar-sounding birth name) spent the war years mainly in Shanghai with his parents. His musician father, however, performed a disappearing act with a Russian woman. After the war, his mother — together with a British man who was to become his stepfather — brought him and his sister back to Japan, where Curtis struggled to adapt to an unfamiliar country and culture.

Even as a young boy, Curtis was exposed to American pop by his music-loving parents, and in his teens he studied at the Nihon Jazz Gakko (Nihon Jazz School) founded by a Japanese-American musician named Tib Kamayatsu. At the age of 15, he began performing country music for U.S. servicemen at camps and clubs.

In 1958, not long after Elvis, Little Richard, Jerry Lee Lewis and Chuck Berry had begun enthralling teenagers and enraging moral guardians in the United States and elsewhere, Curtis joined Masaaki Hirao and Keijiro Yamashita in “Western Carnival” rockabilly shows at a theater in Tokyo’s central Yurakucho district. The three became an immediate sensation with local teens, though their elders typically regarded the music as irritating noise and the shows as akin to scandalous riots.

Unlike fellow Japanese rockers who learned (or approximated) the lyrics of their cover songs phonetically or simply sang them in Japanese, Curtis was fluent in English. He also had a real rebel-rocker attitude nurtured on the tough streets of postwar Japan, where his non-Japanese looks had made him not only a standout but also a target.

In the 1960s, after the rockabilly fad faded, Curtis made a smooth transition to acting for films and singing and emceeing for television. In 1967, he formed a progressive-rock band called Mickey Curtis & His Samurais, which embarked on a long tour of Europe. Returning to Japan in 1970, he became a record producer, working with many top rock and folk-rock acts.

Then, in 1985, after a hiatus of nearly two decades, Curtis resumed his film acting career. Since then his roles have spanned a wide range from doctors to gangsters, and he has worked for such leading directors as Shunji Iwai (“Suwaroteiru [Swallowtail Butterfly]“; 1996), Shohei Imamura (“Akai Hashi no Shita no Nurui Mizu [Warm Water Under a Red Bridge]“; 2001) and Takashi Miike (“Izo”; 2004). In fact, his filmography now comprises more than 100 entries — a total that would soar far higher if his TV drama appearances were added. Abroad, however, Curtis is perhaps best known for his role as a starving soldier in Kon Ichikawa’s “Nobi (Fires on the Plain),” his stark 1959 portrayal of defeated Japanese soldiers in the Philippines in the closing days of the war.

Though he may not have the widest range as an actor, Curtis consistently delivers as the coolest old guy in the room — one who’s always been lean and wiry, is usually pony-tailed and stylishly turned out and is often inwardly amused at the goings-on around him.

When we met for this interview at the Tokyo headquarters of Toho, which is distributing “Robo-G,” Curtis was suffering from a cold, but nonetheless soldiered through our 50-minute exchange with his salty persona and wry sense of humor intact.

Did you have to audition for “Robo-G”?

Everybody in this film had an audition. That’s (Yaguchi’s) way. He auditioned more than 200 senior actors and actresses (for my role).

He’d been doing all these films like “Swing Girls” and “Waterboys,” auditioning young people. If they caught a little fever they’d still go to the audition because they wanted to be in the film. But there were so many old people who couldn’t come to the audition. They’d go “Oh, I caught a fever, I’ve got a bad back, I couldn’t get out of the house.”

So he figured if he’s hiring an actor who’s over 73 years old he’d have to find someone who can act and is slim and healthy, because otherwise during the filming he’ll blow the whole thing.

Did Yaguchi ask you to do anything different from what you normally do?

Well he wanted me to shave my beard off and cut my hair, so people don’t know who it is, right?

Did you have to wear the robot suit all the time?

Yeah all the time, 30 kg of it. It took an hour to put on and 45 minutes to take off, so once you’re wearing it you can’t go to the john, you can’t do sh*t. You can’t even move properly — it’s really hot.

We shot the film in February in Kyushu and I thought, “Great, it’ll be warm with the suit on,” but it was northern Kyushu, minus 2 degrees, and I just stood there in a T-shirt and the suit, and when the cold wind came it got colder and colder and colder. I couldn’t wear anything underneath because the suit fitted too close.

Could you not use heating pads?

No man, nothing! It was even hard to breathe in that suit.

You managed to express the character, though.

I’m a comedian as well, so I got into all kinds of comic stuff on the first day, but after that I’d just do what the director wanted me to. I tried to enter his head and see what he wanted.

Usually a director and actor will have a long talk about the character before shooting starts, and how they’re going to do it all. But this time, after we’d finished working on the design of the suit, I didn’t see Yaguchi until we were on the set. He didn’t want to talk much.

But he’s a funny guy, a very smart guy. It’s all in his head, so all I had to do was do what he said. And if he says “OK,” that’s his problem.

Do you mind if we go back to the beginning and walk through your career?

A new book of mine came out on Jan. 10 and it explains all that. I was a kid during World War II. I was in Shanghai for four years. I couldn’t live in Japan because I was “half,” and if you were bilingual in those days you were automatically a spy — so we couldn’t live in Japan. World War II ended in 1945, and at the end of that year I came back to Japan.

I guess there wasn’t much left here when you came back, was there?

Oh, nada — nothing. We were starving and often ate boiled weeds and flowers and corn powder for breakfast, lunch and dinner.

After the war we came back together, but my dad had changed during the war. My real dad eloped with a Russian girl and left me, my sister and my mother. She found someone else to act as my father — well, my stepfather.

I had a pretty rough time. I had to go to a Japanese public school in Shanghai and just my face set them off. They threw stones at me and shit like that.

Was your Japanese fluent at that time?

I spoke a little Japanese; a little Shanghai-dialect Chinese; a little English.

Had you learned English from your mother?

I think so. I never studied English. I played on a lot of military bases.

Did you also pick it up from listening to FEN (Far East Network, predecessor of today’s American Forces Network-Japan)?

FEN too, yeah, and WVTR (the predecessor of FEN that was also a radio service for U.S. military stationed in Japan).

When you returned to Japan after the war, of course American cultural influence was coming in at that time.

Yeah, so everyone called me “Shinchugun” (Occupation Army).

But at that time, you had never lived in the States.

That’s right. I have only lived in the States for about two years, from 1977 to 1980. I was in Hollywood.

I believe you got into music early.

Like I say in my book, the first American music I ever heard was in Shanghai. My mother was into Bing Crosby and so on, so I heard a lot of jazz music when I was a kid, and classical music, too.

Then we came back to Japan when I was about 10 years old and I wanted to be a pianist. I started learning piano, but it didn’t last long, about a year. I just didn’t have it. Then I heard (clarinetist and bandleader) Benny Goodman’s “Live at Carnegie Hall” album (from a concert of his in New York in 1938). I said “Wow this is it! That’s my music!”

Did you want to play clarinet?

No, I was just listening. Instead of listening to classical I started listening to jazz more. I was a very shy kid. I couldn’t communicate with people, so my mother bought me a ukulele to make me a little happier.

Then I got into guitar, and when I was about 15 I gave my first performance, I think at St. Luke’s Hospital (in Tokyo). All the injured people from the Korean War (1950-53) came to stay at St. Luke’s Hospital. Did you see 1970′s “M*A*S*H” movie by Robert Altman? You know how Donald Sutherland (playing U.S. Army doctor Capt. “Hawkeye” Pierce) comes to Japan with his black medical bag? Then, when he’s going, he sings (singing) “Goodbye Joe, me gotta go, me oh my oh” — and the kids are crying. That’s St Luke’s Hospital.

Am I right in thinking that you started out performing country music?

A lot of country music. There were a lot of jobs for country bands, more than for jazz. A lot of the (U.S.) servicemen in Japan came from the West Coast, so they wanted a lot of country music. I think the East Coast people went to Germany with their jazz. Elvis went to Germany.

Did you see many of the American music acts that came over in the 1950s?

I saw and met Frank Sinatra, Nat King Cole and just about everybody who came to Japan. In those days there were very few Japanese who could speak English, so the promoters or record labels would call me up when they came to Japan. I had to go out to dinner with Yul Brynner. I was the Japanese part of the Rat Pack — Frank Sinatra, Sammy Davis Jr. It was fun.

The “Western Carnival” in 1958 was a huge phenomenon. That was the start of the real rock boom in Japan.

Yes, we started that.

I’ve seen clips from that time. The shows were pretty crazy.

It was just rock and rolling, you know!

But wasn’t the adult world pretty much against it?

The PTAs were against it — the same as in the States in those days. Black music, they used to call it “race music.”

Some of the people in that scene disappeared and some stuck around.

That’s showbiz, man.

But you stuck around.

Right, I kept going. From the “Western Carnival” I went right into movies. I was with Toho Studio. I also had my own TV show.

Didn’t you have to change your music for that?

Not really. It wasn’t the music that people were against. They didn’t understand it anyway. I think it was because all the kids skipped school to come and see our “Western Carnival.” We had two live shows a day, so they just skipped school to come — and each one was packed.

Then you kept on playing live all through the ’60s, I believe.

Still going.

After that your music changed in the ’60s. You had your own band, Mickey Curtis & His Samurais.

Yeah, those were the Vietnam War days, anti-war, flower-power, 1967. I came back in 1970. I was with the hippies in New York. We were on the streets, we slept in the park.

Back then weren’t you also touring in Europe?

Yeah, we were in Europe — sex, drugs and rock ‘n’ roll. We toured Germany a lot. There’s a lot of towns in Germany (makes German-sounding noises) and we did all of them.

Were you mainly playing in small clubs?

We played the military-club circuit, plus we did the rock clubs. Then we went to England, and we started in the North, in Newcastle, and went all the way down to the South and to Wales. We worked ourselves through London.

Then, didn’t you come back to Japan and became a record producer for a while?

I worked with (Eikichi) Yazawa, Carol, Gedo. . . . I made a lot of hit records.

But you didn’t act in movies for a long time.

I hated a thing with the last movie I did. It was a management problem, like I had booked a few days off and had told the manager but the manager didn’t tell the movie company so they were ready at the set but I didn’t arrive. Plus all the stuff with people scratching each other’s backs — I got fed up with it; so screw it, no more movies.

Then I came back into movies, I don’t know what year. I have to read my book (laughs).

It was the mid-’80s.

Somewhere round there, yeah. I did a lot, three or four a year almost.

Did you start to like it better after you came back?

Oh, I love it. I love working, music, movies, television, rakugo (comic storytelling). I’m a rakugo master. I’m in Tatekawa Danshi’s stable.

Did you get into rakugo early?

I’d been listening to rakugo since I was maybe 8 years old. I went to a yose, which is a comedy store, every day when I was in junior high and high school.

Did you think of doing it more seriously then?

Well I went to listen. I never thought I was going to do it. Then I met Tatekawa Danshi about 20 years ago. I think I was 54 years old by then. He said “Why don’t you do it again? I saw what you used to do when you were young, you could do it again.” So I went back and did it from scratch.

How do you mix rakugo and movies?

Well, rakugo is acting — plus, in rakugo you have to act everybody, right? If there are five parts you to do five characters.

You’ve had a lot of interests, not just acting and singing. Weren’t you once into racing motorcycles.

Yeah, when I was young I was into racing. I did races in Suzuka and circuit races. I’m too old for that now, I don’t do that anymore. I had a bike accident and broke my leg and couldn’t ride for a while, so I went into customizing — I had a custom bike shop. I don’t ride anymore. (My wife) doesn’t want me to break my leg again. I still have five metal pieces in my leg.

Did anyone ever ask you to ride a bike in a movie?

Oh, I’ve done some stuff. I’ve done some stunts, too.

What are you doing now besides the acting and the music?

Now I’m promoting the hell out of this movie every day (laughs). Tomorrow, I have to go to Toyama and Ehime prefectures. I hope I don’t hit any earthquakes (laughs).

You’re also blogging and tweeting. You may be one of the few people of your generation doing that.

And I have an iPhone! I work with an iPhone. I have to change it to a 4S. I haven’t had time to go home to my computer. I’ve been traveling and traveling.

Do you have children?

Three. One from the first marriage and two from the second marriage.

Do they encourage you to do social networking?

No, they don’t come near me unless they need money (laughs). You know how boys are. . . . Everyone says never go into this business, but my oldest one is into video and my second one is a DJ and the third one plays bass in two bands — so they’re all in the business.

Was that your idea?

I don’t think so. DNA, maybe?

A lot of young actors with international backgrounds like yours are coming up quickly now. Do you envy them for having a relatively easy time of it?

No, man — I have nothing to complain about in my life. I had the best time that anybody could have. When I was young they used to put coal in furnaces in cars and burn it to run the engine. From that, I went to the Space Shuttle era. It’s been a tremendous leap. The first telephone I used was a crank phone. I went from a crank phone to an iPhone in one generation.

There’s a lot of nostalgia now for the so-called Showa 30s (the fourth decade of the reign of Emperor Hirohito, who is posthumously known as Emperor Showa). Many now look back and say those years from 1955-65 were the “good old days.” Is that a feeling you share?

I wouldn’t say so. Tomorrow is always better than yesterday. But at this moment, Japan has a big problem. I think this will last for a while. The radiation problem is really ridiculous, but the tsunami and those natural disasters, that’s something else you just can’t predict.

Japan is in a bad way now in terms of economic stagnation, natural disasters and its rapidly graying population. So your current movie, “Robo Ji,” is kind of timely.

I think so. It’s perfect, right? (He then sings a couple of lines from “Mr. Roboto” by Styx:) “Domo arigato Mr. Roboto . . . I’m just a man whose circumstances went beyond his control.” All the lyrics are there, right there.

Where were you when the March 11 earthquake hit last year?

I was home, holding up my DVD rack (laughs).

You’re still performing, right?

Yeah, I just did a five-day tour in Niigata Prefecture. I came back yesterday. I had to do another show last night. Actually, today was my only holiday but (my manager) booked me for this (laughs).

What are the audiences like now — are they only old fans?

Old and new. Old folks with their grandkids. Anybody can have fun with rock ‘n’ roll.

They said it was a fad, but it never went away.

Oldies-but-goodies stay. Some people still think Elvis is alive, right? (Laughs.)

So you’re going to keep doing it for a while?

Until I die. In our business, there’s no end ’cause there’s never a best performance. The next one has to be better than the last one — so you keep going up.

Mickey Curtis’ latest book, “Ore to Senso to Ongaku to” (“Me and the War and Music”), was published last month by Aki Shobo. “Robo Ji” is now showing in cinemas nationwide.