Bicultural superstar Anna Tsuchiya on her role in Mika Ninagawa’s acclaimed debut film ‘Sakuran’

Born in 1984 to a Japanese mother and a Russian-American father, a professional model since the age of 14 and now an actress and singer with a string of hit films and CDs, Anna Tsuchiya has one of the hottest careers in the Japanese entertainment business, though her punk/rebel image is not exactly in the mainstream. With the release of her new film, “Sakuran,” she is about to get hotter, and not only in Japan. Screened out of competition at this year’s Berlin Film Festival, the film — the directorial debut of photographer Mika Ninagawa, daughter of famed theater director Yukio Ninagawa — has garnered Tsuchiya a new burst of overseas attention, following her international breakout as the snarling biker in the hit comedy “Shimotsuna Monogatari (Kamikaze Girls)” in 2004. Tsuchiya is also braced to release a new album, ANNA TSUCHIYA inspi’ NANA (BLACK STONES), next week. In a recent interview at Avex Entertainment, her handlers were present, but she was as casual and cheery as though we’d all somehow met up at a Roppongi pub after the stress of work, but before the first drinks arrived. She sounded a bit hoarse, possibly from a string of media interviews before our arrival, but her energy level was high enough and her laugh, a pleasing combination of the raucous and the merry, was genuine. What you see with Tsuchiya is pretty much what you get — and we got an hour’s worth, straight.

“Sakuran” is a new departure for you — your first period drama.

Well, “Kamikaze Girls” had a feeling of speed and was an interesting film that made you laugh and cry. This film is completely different — slower-paced. The real world of the oiran [high-class prostitutes] had a lot about it that was dirty, but [the film] makes it look beautiful, so in that way it betrays expectations. But for modern Japanese the way the film views the past will be interesting. In the old days there were no kimono or colors [like the ones in the film] — Ninagawa made it all up. When Ninagawa and I talked about the movie we decided that we had to destroy the image of old Japan that people had. We wanted to make something different. . . . the wigs they used were not as big. At the same time, we tried to make the movements and the dialogue as close as possible to the real thing.

Did you do a lot of research for your own role?

No, hardly any. This is true for anything, but when I think about a role too much, it becomes false. Instead, without thinking, I get into costume and makeup. Then I start moving and talking — and just naturally become the character. I do it by feeling, not thinking.

There seemed to be some overlap between the characters you played in “Kamikaze Girls” and “Sakuran.”

That’s true, but for [“Kamikaze Girls”] I wasn’t thinking about the role either. I’m not really a yanki [rebel], but just by getting into that mood I could become one.

Kiyoha [in “Sakuran”] seemed to be a physically hard role to play.

Was it! The wig alone weighed about four kilos and the oiran kimono weighed about 10 kilos. The ones people wore back then were even heavier. In modern clothes you can talk freely, but the kimono made it tough — I had to sit a certain way to talk at all. It was tough to wear — but beautiful. When you wear a kimono, you don’t have to try to walk in a beautiful way. Instead you find yourself moving [the right way] because it’s easier. Instead of slouching you find yourself sitting up straight [demonstrates] and gradually you get used to it.

For the oiran, not just wearing a kimono, but life in general was tough.

Yes, it was tough — that’s why they were so flashy. Because life was so tough for them, they created this kind of artificial paradise. Of course, the old movies also made it look beautiful. And the oiran pictures that survive are really beautiful. They were trying to hide the reality. The oiran were in a kind of prison — they couldn’t go anywhere. Also, they couldn’t fall in love with anyone. The good point of this film is that it shows them as living for all they’re worth. There really were those sorts of [oiran] back then.

They also had to compete with each other if they wanted to reach the top.

Some of them may have wanted to become beautiful and been conscious of the women around them, but [my character] just wanted to be free. She couldn’t have cared less about the other women.

The audience can relate to her, I think. She didn’t give up but kept trying.

Exactly. Young people today may feel that they are unhappy and have various hardships, but they still have to fight on — or it’s all meaningless. When they watch “Sakuran,” I’d like them to think, “I’ve got to keep going no matter what.” Life is tough — everyone is struggling, but that’s only natural.

The music of Shiina Ringo is unusual for a period drama, but it’s just right for this movie — it has the sort of new, fresh feeling you are describing.

Well, she added the music [after the film was finished], but I was glad she was chosen [to compose the score]. Her songs are about a woman’s weakness, but also about her strength. That imbalance is really interesting, I think. It’s also got a speed [that I like]. It’s got blues, classics and various other things mixed in.

Listening to that soundtrack, did you want to try the same sort of thing yourself?

Shiina Ringo is Shiina Ringo — she’s got her music. Well, I did the opening song [for the TV anime NANA] — I wondered if it fit (laughs). I didn’t write it for a specific purpose but to say something I wanted to say.

What’s the relationship between the acting and the music for you? Does the music help the acting?

I think it does. When you sing a song you have three or four minutes — maybe six minutes at the most, to tell a story and say everything you want to say. So you use various performances, expressions and voices. But with a movie all that is easier.

That depends on the director, doesn’t it? Some are strict, some not so strict.

I like the strict ones! [Tetsuya] Nakashima [the director of “Kamikaze Girls”] was one of the strict ones, but we got along fine.

I heard that he was really tough on [Miki] Nakatani [the star of “Memories of Matsuko”].

Yes, he got mad at her. He’s got a reputation as tough and scary, but he’s really nice. When he gets mad he has a good reason — I really like him.

Well, films are a concrete medium. If you make a mistake it shows up on the screen, so the good directors tend to be perfectionists.

Right, perfectionists. I’m a perfectionist myself, toward my music especially. Films are a director’s medium — when someone’s directing they decide everything themselves. You may think you’d like to do something a certain way, but you keep your mouth shut. But my music is mine, so I do with it what I want.

It was different when you were an idol wasn’t it?

Me, an idol? Never! (Laughs) [To her manager] I never had an idol period, did I?

Manager: Yes, you did. [Room erupts in laughter.]

OK, so I was an idol (laughs). Being an idol is tough — you’re trying to create an image. That’s your job — making an image that will be pleasing [to others], but from the very beginning, I hated to make cute faces and create an image. So when I was a model I would make strange faces and act weird. Music is the same — I wanted people to see me as I really am. So when I was a idol [stops to think] but what is an idol anyway? In Japan, it means to have a good image — but I’m not like that.

So you’ve graduated from being an idol?

No — I think I’ll be an idol until I’m 30 (laughs).

Idols usually just sing other people’s music, but you write your own lyrics. When you’re writing, do the ideas come from your own life, from people around you?

Both. If I just wrote from the inside, I wouldn’t have that much to say. I’m not that mature as a human being and I haven’t experienced that much. So I listen to what people around me say, I get various experiences from movies and so on — then I can put something together. Some songs are about me, some are about experiences of people around me. Some are from movies I’ve seen. When I see something cool, I write about it.

What movies have you seen recently that impressed you? Are you seeing a lot of Japanese movies?

I don’t watch that many Japanese movies. One I saw recently that really impressed me was “The Passion of the Christ.” It’s a movie everyone should see, whether they’re Christians or not. It’s heavy — but that’s why I think it’s worth watching. I also liked “Braveheart.”

But that’s supposed to be a movie for guys.

Right, it is. And so is “Passion,” for that matter. Girls start screaming when they see it. So I guess that means I’m a guy (laughs). I really like Mel Gibson’s eyes — they’re beautiful. I like the way they move.

His reputation in the States isn’t so great now, though.

Really? Why is that?

He was arrested for drunk driving — you haven’t heard about that?

No, what happened?

He said all these nasty things about Jewish people.

No! Well, maybe he couldn’t help it. But I really like his movies.

Speaking of famous people, when you appeared at the Tokyo Summer Collection in Paris last summer the French media called you the “Japanese Madonna.” How did you feel about that comparison?

It made me happy, actually, to be compared to someone like Madonna. But I have no desire to be compared to someone that way, for people to say I’m like this person or that person. I’m just me, Anna. But I’m happy about [the Madonna comparison] — I want to say “thank you.”

Madonna knows where she wants her career to go. She’s got a plan.

I don’t have a plan. No one’s making one for me either. [She looks sternly at her manager, who laughs.] Madonna’s a real stoic — “I’ve got to work hard if I want to stay beautiful” — but I like the natural look the best, so I’m not trying to make a pretty face or dress up.

But are you thinking about going abroad — doing something in Hollywood?

There’s been that kind of talk. It would nice if I could, but I can’t speak English.

You never spoke it growing up?

No, nothing. But I’ve been told I could learn it in two or three months if I went to America.

A shy personality is no good for learning foreign languages, but you’d do all right.

Right! I’ll learn it in no time, then. OK, no problem. So when the time is right, I’m off to Hollywood!

Rinko Kikuchi seems to be having no problem.

She’s great — she’s got some kind of strange power.

Have you seen “Babel?”

No. Is it interesting?

It is — but she needed some kind of courage to play that role.

Really? Why?

She had to get completely naked for one thing.

Ha! Well, that’s great. But I could never take it off (laughs).

Are you a little nervous about going to Berlin?

No, not at all. I’m just wondering about where to shop and what to eat. It’s probably a great thing, but all I feel is “it’s nice to be invited.” I just played a role in “Sakuran” — I haven’t done anything so great. Mika [Ninagawa] is the one who is getting the praise for her taste and all that. I’m just going along with her. I’m not the type to get nervous for concerts either. I just don’t get nervous. I also don’t care what people say about me — about my image, or the kind of face I make or the way I act. I just blank it all out.

Have you begun to think of yourself as a “movie actor.”

No, not really. But it’s art — and I know it’s something I should do. I’m not saying, “I want to do this [film] or that [film],” but if something good comes along, I’ll do it. People bring me films, but I turn them down. They take a long time to do. When I’m away from my music for a long time I start to miss it.

You may not be bilingual but you’ve got a bicultural background. Does it make a difference in your approach to music? Do you hear things in foreign music that you don’t hear in Japanese music?

Yes, no doubt. I like Japanese music, but I like foreign music too. For Japanese people there’s something really cool about American music, something they don’t find in their own music. I want to make music that’s cool in both [countries]. There’s both good and bad American music, but one thing that makes it different is they can sing about the dark side. That’s not so true in Japan. Cool music is cool, it doesn’t matter if it’s from America or Japan, but I want to make songs that can be considered cool in both places, so I sing in both Japanese and English. I think bands like Aerosmith are really great. I want to be like them. They’re human beings like me, so maybe it’s possible. But they’re like my idols — something up there. Japanese tend to be that way — they look abroad for idols.

Aerosmith? That’s going back a way.

I like old music. Not just Aerosmith, but Cyndi Lauper and, what’s her name, Bette Midler. I like it — I don’t know why. It’s wonderful. A lot of modern music is like “I heard that somewhere before.” It’s strange, but with modern music, you forget it right away. With old music, a lot of tunes stick in your memory. That’s why I like them. Why is that? It may be that modern people don’t suffer so much. They have everything they need. But the people singing [old music] suffered, so it’s got more substance to it.

The early rockers, like The Rolling Stones and Eric Clapton, were directly influenced by blues, which expresses the suffering of American black people.

Young people don’t know anything about the reasons for rock. They don’t know why it’s sung the way it is, why blues is sung the way it is. When they sing without knowing that, they may sing well technically, but it lacks substance somehow. It doesn’t touch the heart.

Were you were listening to that music from the time you were small? Did you get it from your mother?

I listened to it more than she did. She didn’t like rock so much — she liked Japanese band B’zs. But she liked Queen too. That’s how I came to like rock — listening to Queen. Another thing is that CDs have become so good, the technology is so advanced, that live performances seem fake to people — for them the CD is the real thing. But live performances are great. Aerosmith are so great in concert! I really want to see their concert. But enka singers are also good that way.

Enka singers are always touring live, so they get a lot of practice. How many live performances do you give in a year?

How many — I wonder!

Manager: She gave about 30 or 40 last year — that’s a lot.

There’s a lot of strong female talent associated with “Sakuran” — not just Ninagawa and Shiina, but scriptwriter [Yuki Tanada] and the original manga artist [Moyoco Anno].

Yes, a lot of strong people.

When you look at people like that do you ever feel “I want to be like her.” Are there any role models out there?

No, none. But I like Audrey Hepburn. And Johnny Depp. But there’s no one I want to be like. They’re them and I’m Anna. If you start running after something that’s not you, that you’ll never have, you’re just wasting your time. It’s better to bring out what you do have.

“Sakuran” opens on Feb. 24 in the Kanto region and March 3 across the rest of the nation. Anna Tsuchiya’s new album, ANNA TSUCHIYA inspi’ NANA (BLACK STONES), will be released on Feb. 28.

See related story:
Ninagawa paints a vivid picture
Walking tall in the Edo Period

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