She’s died on screen almost as many times as she’s killed. Western movie fans will know her as Gogo Yubari, the spiked-ball-and-chain-wielding schoolgirl who disembowels men for fun before crying tears of blood in Quentin Tarantino’s “Kill Bill: Vol. 1.” In Japan, she’s been an actress since the age of 14 and a model since she was 5. Now, she’s setting her sights on the pop charts.
Ladies and gentlemen, take cover: We give you Chiaki Kuriyama.
“I’ve always played really tough women in action-packed settings, so I think people will be surprised to hear me sing,” Kuriyama tells The Japan Times as we chat on facing leather sofas in a spacious meeting room at the Tokyo office of Sony imprint DefStar Records. Wearing a black-and-white striped jumper, pink nail polish and hardly any makeup, she looks softer than she is usually presented on screen — but commands your full attention. She adds, “I think my singing voice will catch people off guard.”
Of course, it’s nothing new for a Japanese tarento (all-round entertainer) to release a CD. TV regular Becky last year started releasing a series of overproduced, vacuous pop singles; professional otaku (fanatic) bait Shoko “Shokotan” Nakagawa has made several albums of anime-friendly saccharine J-pop; and so the list goes on. The videos, photography and packaging are always immaculate; the music often an afterthought.
At first, Kuriyama seemed to be going down a similar route. Debut single “Ryusei no Namida,” (“Tears of a Falling Star”) released in February 2010, was a cloying ballad with which Kuriyama herself was not particularly happy. Luckily she had the presence of mind and the strength of character to demand a change.
“When I first tried recording a few songs, my voice didn’t sound as I’d expected it would,” she says when asked why she’d started out with a ballad despite the indisputable fact that all ballads stink [well, I think so anyway]. “I wanted to sing rock songs, but my voice sounded too ‘normal’ — not husky or cool, as my favorite female rock singers sound. It seemed like rock might not be the best fit for my voice, so we discussed it and I agreed to try something a bit more simple. But after that first single came out, I was like, ‘Dammit, I know I’m not a great singer, but I should sing the songs I like!’ ”
Kuriyama should give herself more credit for her singing voice. Just as her charm as a model and actress lies partly in her unconventional looks, so her voice has an appealing character of its own; she sings as though she enjoys singing, which is more than most J-pop balladeers ever achieve.
Each song on Kuriyama’s forthcoming debut album, “Circus,” was produced by a different high-profile musician: alt-pop queen Ringo Shiina; stalwart underground hero Kenichi Asai; blustering speed-metal band 9mm Parabellum Bullet; Australian rockers Jet; and so on. Perhaps it’s her grounding as an actress — the 26-year-old has appeared in two dozen films since her 1995 debut as an extra in “Toire no Hanako-san (School Mystery)” plus several TV dramas and even the forthcoming Sega video game “Ryu ga Gotoku: Of the End” — but Kuriyama tends to take on the vocal characteristics of each rock-star collaborator, inadvertently making her voice more diverse.
“I listened to Blankey when I was young, and it’s a weird thing to say, but it always seemed like those guys didn’t really exist as human beings,” says Kuriyama. Asai, the frontman of influential 1990s band Blankey Jet City, wrote Kuriyama’s aggressive garage-rock single “Cold Finger Girl.”
“It was as if they were characters from a manga or anime. So when I met Asai, it was like, ‘Woah! He’s real!’
“I’ve always been a huge fan of Ringo Shiina,” she continues. Shiina wrote two songs on “Circus,” also released as a double A-side single: “Oishii Kisetsu” and “Ketteiteki Sanpunkan.” Both are sultry, sexy slivers of Shiina-esque sass. “I have a guitar — I can’t play it very well, by the way — and the reason I got it was because she looked so cool when she was singing and playing guitar in her videos.”
The album is certainly varied, and there’s plenty here for fans of old-guard Japanese rock favorites; other producers include members of Buck-Tick, Boowy and Theatre Brook. Kuriyama says each artist wrote their song according to their image of her; she didn’t write or even tweak any of the lyrics or music herself (“I just focused on singing,” she wryly asserts), but despite this, she sees her foray into music as a much-needed avenue of self-expression.
“I’ve been an actress for 12 years and I’ve played quite a variety of roles — ghouls and ghosts, tough chicks, ordinary girls,” she explains. “I still want to act, but I started to feel like there were no new roles for me to try. And just as I was losing my hunger for acting, someone in my management office suggested I try singing. I’ve always loved music and I’ve always sung in the bathroom, the toilet, the car. It was an opportunity to try something brand new.”
Kuriyama is in a similar position to another all-rounder, Takeshi Kitano. He is best known to Western fans as a director of/actor in brutally violent films such as “Hana-bi” and “Zatoichi,” and Kuriyama costarred with him in teenage murder flick “Battle Royale.” In fact, Kitano started out as “Beat” Takeshi, part of the Two Beat comedy duo, and, largely unbeknown to his fans abroad, has carved out a distinguished career in Japan as a TV personality and advertising prop.
“I’m sure those fans (outside of Japan) have no idea about his ‘Comanechi’ comedy routine,” laughs Kuriyama. “He makes fantastic films and also does those other things, and there’s a gap between his two identities — but that’s a good thing.”
Given the huge global popularity of Kuriyama’s character in “Kill Bill” — she was one of the movie’s most-loved baddies, her violent showdown with Uma Thurman proving an enduring and iconic piece of classic cinema — it seems bizarre that a Hollywood career didn’t follow. Kuriyama blames her poor grasp of English, but also says she felt the timing was all wrong.
“I started acting when I was 14, and when we made ‘Kill Bill’ I was 17,” she says. “I feel like I should earn a reputation in Japan from my fellow Japanese before I start to work abroad. It’s nice to have acclaim from fans in other countries, but it feels like the wrong way round.” She laughs, adding, “It’s like getting pregnant before you’re married.”
There could conceivably be more to it than that. Japanese talent agencies are notorious for the control they wield over their stars, deciding on their behalf what shape their career will take. This approach is not always compatible with the practices of overseas filmmakers or record labels. And anyway, one need only look at the recent furor surrounding Erika Sawajiri — who spoke ill of her own movie, “Closed Note,” in 2007 and was subsequently blacklisted from the entertainment industry until she apologized tearfully in late January this year — to see that in Japan, where a star is never bigger than the system that made them, you speak your mind at your own peril.
But that’s just conjecture, and Kuriyama claims not to have encountered such friction in her career. After all, she got her way with “Circus,” shunning the boring ballads for the spirited rock sound she loves. She seems naturally optimistic and eager to try new things while youth is on her side, so the issue of whether or not she’s allowed to say “No” is apparently semantic.
“Who am I to refuse work?” she says. “I have work because people want me to work for them. Let’s say I want to act, but no one will offer me a role; that’s the end of the road. I want to improve bit by bit through experience, and in turn my opportunities will grow. And anyway, if I was offered something that might not be right for me, my management would turn it down right off the bat.”
Kuriyama is currently fighting back her natural stage fright for occasional live performances, including in-store shows at branches of Tower Records in Shinjuku, Tokyo, on March 5, and Osaka on March 21. She also has a supporting role as Hitomi Mimura in “Rebound,” a new weekly TV drama about obesity that airs from April 13 on the Nippon Television Network (Wednesdays, 10 p.m.).
With a lifetime in the limelight, does Kuriyama have a shred of privacy left? Can she visit the convenience store like anyone else?
“Oh, I’m totally normal — sorry if I create any impression to the contrary!” she laughs. “I go everywhere by myself, to a ramen shop or a yakitori restaurant. I walk along Takeshita-dori in Harajuku or around (teen mecca) Shibuya. I like to go places by myself.
“I usually wear a hat,” she concedes. “But not as a disguise; I just like hats.”
The double A-side single “Oishii Kisetsu” / “Ketteiteki Sanpunkan” is out now; “Circle” is due March 16. For more information, visit www.chiakikuriyama.net.