Before actor Ian Moore gets on any train in Tokyo, he’s careful to peek inside and check the carriage. Chances are his face is plastered on an advertisement in there somewhere, not quite sufficiently hidden behind the mustache and green-and- white helmet that for the last six years have transformed him into one of the most recognized marketing icons in Japan: the Navitime Navigator, mascot for an online satellite-navigation service.
“I’ll be standing on the train and I’ll look up and it’s like, there’s the Navitime thing again,” the 54-year-old from Durham, northeast England, explained to The Japan Times last week. “People realize, but they’re Japanese, so they don’t just come out and say, ‘Hey, you’re Navitime.’ They whisper to each other and gesture in my direction. It’s kind of embarrassing.”
Not that Moore isn’t used to being recognized, or that he doesn’t enjoy it. It wasn’t long after he arrived in Japan in 1976 (with little more to recommend him than a young Japanese wife, £1,000 [¥150,000 at current rates] and a love of Bruce Lee films) that he started taking on offers from friends to appear on TV programs. First it was “a show on TV Tokyo about international marriages,” he recalled. Then, in 1984, he got his first regular gig: as a member of the English-Irish team on “Appare Gaijin Donpishari!!” (“Bravo, Foreigner, You’re Spot On!!”) — one of the first of the popular foreigners-bashing- Japan programs.
“After I appeared on that, people suddenly started pointing fingers at me on the street and saying ‘Ian-san,’ ” he recalled. “I’m human. I was young. It made me feel good.”
By then, Moore’s Japanese language skills had developed enough for him to take on reporting work. “I did this late-night variety program. I was sent out into Kinshicho, to the red-light district. It was basically my job to put my hand up girls’ dresses!” he said.
Moore has since worked in radio, acting, modeling and even rakugo (comedic storytelling). “It’s the acting I like the best,” he said.
Having been a member of a comedy theater group while studying at the London School of Economics (“I wasn’t a bank man”), he took to acting because it “allows you a chance to escape. You can be anything,” he said.
Of course, if you want to work in Japan, the options aren’t quite that wide open.
Back in the late 1970s and ’80s, the majority of acting roles for foreigners were as generic evildoers. Popular series such as Ultraman required a long procession of blond-haired, blue-eyed bad guys for heroes to vanquish.
Over the next two decades, however, the market for foreign extras began expanding. Japan’s first major modeling agency specializing in non-Japanese talent was Inagawa Motoko Office, which began accepting registrations, regardless of acting experience, in 1985.
Over the last 10 years, there has been another sharp increase in the number of foreign faces on TV and film, which Moore puts down to a desire by directors to make the Japanese leads appear more international. “If there’s a bar scene, you’ll have a foreigner sitting at the bar,” Moore said dryly.
Moore’s Japanese-language skills and what he calls his “professionalism” have allowed him to get more speaking parts than many of his non-Japanese colleagues. His film credits include “Kohorogi-jo” (“Miss Kohorogi”; 2007) and “Ashita he no Yuigon (“Best Wishes for Tomorrow”; 2008).
By “professionalism,” he means whole-hearted commitment to his work, which, he says, is something many foreign actors working in Japan lack. “For a lot of them, it’s just a way to get free food and a bit of cash on the side,” he said.
While acknowledging there are exceptions, Moore says, “Basically, many foreign actors are not trustworthy, and they have given all of us a very bad reputation in the Japanese entertainment industry.”
That prompted Moore to try to emulate the professionalism of his Japanese colleagues, and his efforts appear to have paid off.
“When you get on a set, you see the Japanese actors. They sit there, quietly, going through the lines in their head. They’re quiet. They do the test, and as soon as someone says ‘homban’ (take), the lights go on, and they go out and do what they’ve got to do,” he reported.
For Moore’s Navitime work, that approach means arriving early on set, and being able to repeat his character’s stock phrases with a consistently high level of tension.
“Hai, Navitime. (Yes, Navitime). Hai, Navitime. Hai, Navitime,” he demonstrated — with the enthusiasm of a police cadet juiced on Red Bull. “Jikan pittashi! (Right on time!) Jikan pittashi! Jikan pittashi!”
Navitime is a type of navigational software similar to those used in cars, only it can be accessed over the Internet and through mobile phones. Moore plays the human manifestation of the software — your own personal guide who takes you where you want to go in the shortest possible time, by train, bus, foot or plane.
“I am supposed to be someone who is not actually there, but you can see me on television,” Moore said of the character.
So, does Mr. Navitime know his way around Tokyo?
The actor gave a sly look. “Of course I’m going to say ‘yes’ to that question. If I say ‘no’ then you’ll write, ‘The Navitime guy can’t find his way around Tokyo!’ “
He wasn’t quite so sure what to make of the next question: What exactly is the Navitime guy, with his helmet, racing suit, microphone and clipboard? A member of a pit crew? A race marshal?
“Um. That’s a very good question. What am I? I’m Navitime, that’s what I am,” he said, laughing out loud.
What does he think of the growing ranks of Navitime cosplayers (costume players) — the fans who dress up, emulating his character?
“They kind of p-ss me off,” he said with another laugh. “You watch the real Navitime. You watch him. He walks straight. He’s serious. He moves as quickly and as smoothly as possible. That is my image. I don’t want some little guy walking around with a three-sizes-too-big suit pretending to be Navitime!”
Certain members of the community, particularly the foreign community, have a similar reaction to the real Navitime character. An English-language Google search for “Navitime” reveals a blog entry called “Why I hate the Navitime Guy,” and Moore himself reported that some of his fellow Japan-based foreign actors have been heard to say, “If I ever have to see your f-cking face again, I’m going to f-cking kill you” — something that Moore dismisses, with a smile, as “jealousy.”