It is safe to bank on this hard-boiled man

One of Japan's most idiosyncratic artists, actor and director Eiji Okuda talks about his career and new film 'Lost Crime — Senko'

by Mark Schilling

Eiji Okuda doesn’t fit into any of the usual boxes for actors in Japan — or anywhere else for that matter. He’s had his share of leading roles over a three-decade career, often as a world-weary cop or gangster, but he’s not what the local industry considers a star.

Despite his many TV drama credits, he studiously avoids the broad emoting standard for TV-trained actors. Instead, he usually plays down, even depressed, while stoking his character’s inner fires. When the fires roar to the surface, as anger or passion, his slight, slump-shouldered frame flows with expressive power, be it in the form of a sudden punch or an explosion of tears. In the next scene, though, he is back to his baseline persona: A man lonely and strange, but at the same time canny and fearless.

Born Toyoaki Ando in 1950 in Aichi Prefecture, he dropped out of Meiji University to work as the secretary of a Diet member — a job he got through his politician father. He took up acting, but struggled until his breakthrough in the 1979 Toshiya Fujita film “Motto Shinayaka ni Motto Shitataka ni” (“More Flexibly More Forcefully”). After that Okuda found a steady stream of roles in both TV dramas and films.

In 1993, his turn in Tatsumi Kumashiro’s “Bo no Kanashimi” (“Like a Rolling Stone”) as an eccentric, old-school gangster who single-handedly takes on his lying, scheming boss, earned him a shelf of domestic awards.

After that, Okuda became the go-to actor for tough-but-sensitive outsider roles, especially in the offbeat action films of former porno director Rokuro Mochizuki. Playing everything from a seedy race-track reporter in “Gokudo Kisha” (“The Wicked Reporter,” 1993) to a used-and- abused salaryman in “Minazuki” (1999), he solidified his image as the hangdog loner/loser who nonetheless relentlessly pursues his desires and aims, including violent revenge.

In the past decade Okuda has appeared in everything from indie dramas (“Chanto Tsutaeru”) to big-budget epics (“Pride,” “Otokotachi no Yamato,” “Goemon”), and he has launched a second career as a director. His four films at the helm to date are “Shojo” (“Shoujyo: An Adolescent,” 2001), “Runin: Banished” (2004), “Nagai Sampo” (“A Long Walk,” 2006) and “Kaze no Sotogawa” (“Out of the Wind,” 2007) and they have played widely abroad, sometimes picking up awards, while being determinedly uncommercial.

In his new film, Shunya Ito’s “Lost Crime — Senko” (“Lost Crime — Flash”), he returns to his 1990s groove as a grizzled cop who, on the verge of retirement, tries to solve the biggest, most mysterious case of his long career: the real-life 1968 robbery of ¥300 million that baffled police — and was never solved.

Talking about the film with The Japan Times in a dressing room at the Kadokawa-Daiei studio, Okuda was everything his character is not: youthfully energetic and mellifluously eloquent (he has often worked as a voice actor). At the same time, there was the familiar feeling of volatility, creative and otherwise, below the amiable surface.

A question about the similarities between his hard-headed gangster in “Bo no Kanashimi” and his dogged detective in “Lost Crime” elicits a lengthy disquisition. They are both “strong-willed types,” he says. “(The gangster) looks like an ordinary middle-age guy, but in reality he’s the type who, if you stab him, sews up the wound himself.”

The detective, on the other hand, has a sense of mission about his frustrating case. “His entire identity is tied up with it,” Okuda says. Meanwhile, he is trying to convey what Okuda describes as “the spirit of police work” to his young, punkish partner (Dai Watanabe). “He doesn’t communicate in words so much as his body and feelings.”

That sums up Okuda’s own philosophy of acting: Work from the inside out and rely more on actions than words. “No matter what role I play, I first ask, ‘What is this person trying to say? What burden is he carrying?,’ ” he says. But while thinking about the character’s motivations, he keeps explanations to a minimum, especially on the set.

“Some actors ask the director a lot of questions. ‘Is it OK to do it this way?’ I don’t do that. If I can get away with it, I don’t talk to anyone. Otherwise, I lose my concentration. It’s enough to show the director what you want to do: ‘I want to try this, so please have a look.’ “

For this approach to work, Okuda says, trust between actor and director is essential. “If I can’t trust the director, I can’t be a good actor,” he says. “Kumashiro was one (I could trust). I really liked him — I would do whatever he asked. I wanted to give to give him not just 100 percent but 150 percent.”

Okuda has worked again and again with directors he likes (though not Kumashiro, who died of heart and lung failure in 1995, not long after the completion of “Bo no Kanashimi”).

“Directors choose actors, but actors also choose directors,” he explains.

The best, he says, are the ones who help him grow as an actor. “If they’re young, they can also grow as a director,” he continues. “I had that sort of give-and-take relationship with Mochizuki: ‘I’ll make you a good director and you’ll make me a good actor.’ “

Like many actors of his baby boom generation, Okuda was influenced by the films of James Dean: “I didn’t like him, but I learned from him, such as the way he held himself.” He leans back languidly and curls up self-consciously, Dean-like. “I liked Peter Fonda and James Stewart. James Stewart had long hands like me — but he could still become a lead actor,” he says, with a laugh. His long hands, he says, made him stand out as a young actor in a way directors didn’t like. “They said the way I waved was distracting,” he says, flapping his hand to demonstrate.

His local hero was Toshiro Mifune, with whom he worked on Kei Kumai’s 1989 period drama “Sen no Rikyu” (“Death of a Tea Master”). “I was so happy about that!” he enthuses. “I couldn’t act the way he did, but he was my idol. We were together for four months during the shoot of ‘Sen no Rikyu.’ That was the realization of a dream.”

At 60, Okuda is at what he calls a turning point in his career. He wants to keep acting, but he wonders how long he can do it.

“As an actor ages, his body gets weaker; he gets so he can’t run,” he explains. But a director, he adds, “keeps going until he dies.” Okuda mentions Kaneto Shindo, who is still making films at age 98. “For me the real test comes from now, as both an actor and director.”

Okuda has a big film he wants to direct, which he describes vaguely as a family drama about “the ills of modern society, about people in the shadows.

“It examines various issues such as kidnapping and child trafficking,” he says. “It’s a hard subject to make a film about. In America they don’t touch that sort of subject.”

To raise the money, he says, he will have to first make another film “that wins a big international prize,” preferably the Cannes Palme d’Or. He is joking, but not entirely.

Meanwhile, his daughters, Sakura and Momoko, are quickly establishing themselves internationally, Sakura as an actress in such films as Sion Sono’s indie hit “Ai no Mukidashi” (“Love Exposure,” 2009) and Tatsushi Omori’s new road movie “Kenta to Jun to Kayo-chan no Kuni” (“A Crowd of Three,” 2010); Momoko as the director of the lesbian-themed drama “Kakera” (“A Piece of Our Life”), which recently screened commercially in London as well as at many foreign festivals.

Asked if there are any plans for a family project, Okuda says Momoko is developing a film with a big role for Sakura.

“When I asked her if she had a role for me, she said ‘nothing for you, Dad,’ he says — and gales of laughter shake the room.

“But we’ve gotten along well up to now, so I’d like it if she were to say, ‘Dad, I’ve got something I’d like you to do.’ I might not get paid for it, though!”

On that note, we end the interview and, fumbling on his shoes, he exits the room with only a quick backward glance. It’s been a longtime since his last cigarette and, he gestures, he needs one.

‘Lost Crime — Senko’ opens July 3.