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Being a zombie is a no-brainer for this Japanese actress

by Tomohiro Osaki

Staff Writer

Unlike many of her prim-and-proper friends at Shirayuri College — a Catholic school in Kanda, Tokyo — 20-year-old Akane Kanbayashi doesn’t recoil at the sight of splattered blood and dismembered human bodies. Instead, she embraces it. Which is no surprise really, given her childhood environment. Having a grandfather who worked as a surgical photographer, Kanbayashi would often accompany him to hospital, where she relished in the proximity to specimens of human organs and skeletons. Occasionally her grandfather even brought home unusual “souvenirs,” including a glassed specimen of a sliced-up human brain, which, unbeknownst to him, helped fuel the little girl’s penchant for human corporeality.

Her pursuit of the grotesque has not abated since then. When she was an elementary school kid, she avidly painted fake scars on her arm, and showed them to her mother, an mischievous attempt to surprise her on April Fool’s Day.

Little wonder, then, when Kanbayashi won a global competition in March last year to join the popular American drama series “Walking Dead” as a zombie extra, her mother responded rather matter-of-factly to her daughter’s excited call from the Los Angeles auditions, saying: “I knew it. You have always been such an oddball.”

The long awaited second half of Season 3 began airing in Japan on March 23, and in the near future Kanbayashi will appear in the role of a bloodthirsty female “walker,” as flesh-devourers of her ilk are called in the zombie-apocalypse drama.

“I think the visual quality of the zombies in ‘Walking Dead’ is very high,” said Kanbayashi in a recent interview with The Japan Times. “While most zombie films are preoccupied with just highlighting gore, ‘Walking Dead’ aims to make them actually look rotten. You see many zombies without blood, which I think makes them look more realistic.”

To her family, Kanbayashi’s success at the audition might have simply been another example of her long-known quirkiness, but in the world of zombie fans it was a huge accomplishment. For one thing, very few zombies in the show have been played by Asian extras in the past. Though no data exists to assess the degree of her rarity, most extras are undoubtedly Caucasians, according to Eri Sasada, a PR assistant manager from Fox International Channels (FIC). Also, the global audition, which was open to international fans with no previous acting experience, was the first of such kind ever hosted by the FIC, said Sasada.

Aspiring walkers began by entering an online contest where they competed for the best design award of their own “zombie avatars” on Facebook. Winners from each of more than 40 countries then advanced to the next stage in L.A., where they gave a zombie performance in front of Gregory Nicotero, an Emmy-winning special-effects creator, and other judges. In a display of her extraordinary passion for zombies, Kanbayashi, to the great surprise of Sasada, submitted as many as 100 avatars alone, and naturally won a ticket to L.A.

But despite doing well with her zombie designs, there was no guarantee Kanbayashi would display the same talent for acting. It turned out, however, that Kanbayashi can indeed act. While some contenders needed instructions from the judges, Kanbayashi needed no such tuition at all.

“Ever since I was selected to be the Japanese candidate, I practiced the way walkers moved very hard, wandering across my room at night and falling down as if I’d been shot,” Kanbayashi said with pride. “Of course I did it alone. It would have freaked my parents out if they discovered what their daughter was doing! So I stayed quiet, even though I occasionally groaned.”

It appears her private zombie sessions paid off. During the audition, she triggered a burst of laughter when she mimicked the carefully-studied movement of blind walkers vigorously sniffing at their prey. What’s more, she scored bonus points by U-turning and continuing her performance till the very end. Such close identification with a zombie garnered her a deluge of compliments from the judges, including Nicotero and Korean-born actor Steven Yeun, who stars in the role of Glenn, prompting them to reportedly describe her performance as “impeccable.”

Yet unlike the audition, the actual shooting in Atlanta, in September last year, turned out to be anything but a no-brainer. For fear of blurting out spoilers, Kanbayashi wouldn’t elaborate on the plot surrounding her role, only revealing she was advised to “act more covetous of my target and twist my face harder.”

“I had to play the same scene over and over again. It was really hard,” she recalled.

Some might wonder why director Tricia Brock scrutinized Kanbayashi’s performance so carefully. After all, wasn’t she supposed to be just an extra? Correct, except that she ended up being assigned the role of one of the most important, so-called “hero” walkers — who reign in the three-class hierarchy of zombie extras, followed by “mid-ground” and “background” walkers. Hero zombies, only a handful of whom appear in each season, enjoy the closest proximity to cameras, thoroughly made-up, and specially costumed. Kanbayashi also recalled wearing heavy colored contact lenses that made her practically blind, one of the “enviable” privileges only hero walkers enjoy.

“Since I was blind, the other zombies, who didn’t wear contacts, took really good care of me, guiding me to the toilet and such,” Kanbayashi said. “There was a great sense of camaraderie among us zombies.”

Looking back at her experience now, Kanbayashi says it was a dream-come-true in many ways. As an American literature major, she’d always wanted to do something using her English; as an avid viewer of foreign films, she often fancied becoming an actress; and her childhood stunt of painting fake cuts on herself naturally led her to explore the option of becoming a horror makeup artist. Emphasis on the “horror.”

“I’d like to take advantage of the whole experience this time, and move to the U.S to become an actress there,” she said.

Whatever roles she ends up playing, however, Kanbayashi may have to compromise if her surprisingly squeamish grandfather has any say. “He doesn’t really like zombies and gross stuff,” she said, despite his previous role at the hospital. “Instead, he says he wanted me to play the role of a princess. But, come on!”