Terajima brings legacy to TIFF

by Kaori Shoji

Special To The Japan Times

The 40-year-old is a dramatic force, with undiluted acting DNA coursing through her veins. Her father is kabuki actor Onoe Kikugoro VII, whose family lineage can be traced back seven centuries. Her mother is treasured actress Sumiko Fuji, whose own father was a famed producer for Toei Films.

Shinobu Terajima has remarked in past interviews that she used to suffer from an inferiority complex. She felt, among other things, that she was too tall, too lanky and was not as beautiful as her famous mother. She has also said she felt awkward around her oyama (a kabuki actor who takes on female roles) father, who could portray female sensuality with breathtaking depth. Perhaps in an effort to compensate, Terajima has honed her public image on two factors: a love for wrestling (by many accounts, her jumping knee kick is something to be reckoned with and Ichikawa Ebizo XI — prince of the kabuki world — was one of her victims when they were younger) and a willingness to tear off her clothes and roll in the mud if a role calls for her to do so.

Despite her family connections, Terajima is respected for having earned her spot on the marquee through her own hard work. Her marriage to French art director Laurent Ghnassia — with whom she has a son who she says will be raised to be a kabuki actor — has added to her reputation as an independent-minded actress who has been unafraid to break ranks in the traditional kabuki community.

Speaking at the Foreign Correspondents’ Club of Japan, Terajima said that she intends to scrutinize film selections carefully as a member of TIFF’s international jury, discussing each work extensively with the other jurors.

Since she is known for being such a hard-working actress, Terajima’s words carry a lot of weight — other jurors had better give their jobs some serious attention.

In an interview with The Japan Times, Terajima expresses the desire for this “extensive discussion” to carry over to the topic of the film festival itself.

“TIFF is Japan’s biggest and most high-profile film festival and yet I can’t help feeling it doesn’t showcase the best and brightest of Japanese films in the proper way,” she says. “Japanese films used to have such brand cachet. Now they are viewed in the same way as Chinese and Korean films are overseas — we’re all lumped together in a single genre of ‘Asian Films.’ How can Japanese films get back their distinctive position? What makes Japanese films uniquely Japanese? These are questions I think about a lot.”

Terajima is doing her part to represent Japan overseas. In 2010, she starred in the late Koji Wakamatsu’s “Caterpillar,” a role that won her the best actress award at the Berlin Film Festival. In many ways, it was a classic Terajima role dropped right in the middle of a very Japanese story. Her character, Shigeko, is a downtrodden 1940s farm wife who is forced to care for her soldier husband after he returns from the war with his limbs and vocal cords gone. At first she is the victim, forced to attend to the needs of her abusive husband. Eventually she becomes the predator, revealing herself as brutal and sex-obsessed as the “human caterpillar” she is married to.

“A big part of an actress’s job is waiting for the right role to come along,” Terajima says. “When an actress learns to wait, pretty soon directors start to associate her name with certain images and certain women. That’s when the actress gains her own distinction. Gaining that distinction leads to her own fearlessness.”

Certainly, Terajima has never shown any hesitation when it comes to pushing the envelope — she even crossed her mother after Fuji expressed outrage over her daughter’s role in “Ai no Rukeichi (Love Never to End),” which included graphic sex scenes. Terajima’s father stepped in and took his daughter’s side, though, arguing that it was all part and parcel of being an actress.

“And now here I am,” Terajima says. “I guess I’ve managed to cover a certain distance. On the other hand, it feels like I haven’t gone anywhere at all and there’s a certain emptiness. … (actress) Gong Li once told me that I would feel like that after I received my first award, and she was right.”

Despite Terajima’s bare-it-all reputation, her favorite filmmaker happens to be the very restrained and laconic Aki Kaurismaki of Finland. “Whenever I see his films, it’s like, ‘Oh wow, he’s done me in!’ I’ve watched all his films and he leaves me speechless every single time.”

Since giving birth to a son last year, however, Terajima professes that watching a movie requires at least two hours of uninterrupted privacy: “I just don’t have a free two hours in my life anymore. I can’t devote as much time as I’d like, to examine every frame and think about it.”

What she does make time for, though, is acting. “I’ve been around parents who taught my brother and I that whatever else happens in our personal lives, the job always comes first. That goes for all of us. I never had problems with that.”

Director Wakamatsu once described Terajima as a “veritable she-monster” when it comes to her work, and that she is perhaps the only Japanese actress today who can “become demonically possessed.” Coming from a director who battled his own demons throughout a 50-year career, Terajima says she takes that as “the highest compliment.”

The actress thinks about the quote and then adds that Japanese directors don’t compliment their actresses nearly as much as they should.

“When I was working with (director) Ryuichi Hiroki on the set of ‘Vibrator,’ he wouldn’t say anything. He was just this dark, forbidding presence behind the camera, watching me and watching me. And that gaze nearly drove me mad. I would keep waiting for him to say ‘cut’ or ‘stop’ or anything — so I could just get out of that space. Then I realized he had me trapped, and that sense of being in a cage was drawing out something really wonderful.”

This is typical Terajima — a team player whose top priority is the quality of a movie.

“Still,” she says with a smile, “he could have said I was good. But he didn’t. So typical!”

Tokyo International Film Festival runs through Oct. 25 at Roppongi Hills and other locations in Tokyo. Ticket prices vary. For more information, visit

Terajima’s film career is filled with daring roles

Shinobu Terajima has starred in a total of 28 movies since her cinema debut in 2000. Here’s a list of some of the most risque films she’s been in.

“Yawarakai Seikatsu (It’s Only Talk)” (2006)

Terajima plays a manic-depressive woman who falls for her older cousin (Etsuji Toyokawa) after he crashes at her apartment and opts to be her caregiver. She’s a chronic liar here but becomingly fragile.

“Ai no Rukeichi (Love Never to End)” (2007)

Terajima teams up with Toyokawa again in this sex-drenched drama adapted from a novel by eros maestro Junichi Watanabe. “Graphic” is the key word. Apparently, her mother refused to see it.

“Ningen Shikkaku (No Longer Human)” (2010)

Adapted from Osamu Dazai’s most famous novel, it traces the life and times of Yozo — a rich-kid alcoholic with suicidal tendencies. He hooks up with Terajima’s waitress Tsuneko and together they attempt to end it all.

“Caterpillar” (2010)

Koji Wakamatsu’s best work, which showcases Terajima’s dark side to full and glorious effect. Watch her morph from a cringing wife into a manipulative sadist.

“Helter Skelter” (2012)

This made a big splash because of a lesbian scene Terajima had with “bad girl” leading lady Erika Sawajiri. One of the finest movies to draw the modern Japanese female, showing Terajima in her brutal/vulnerable mode.

“Nihon no Higeki (Japan’s Tragedy)” (2013)

A story about old age, family ties and Japan’s crippled pension system. Terajima plays a wife who leaves an unemployed husband stranded in a small house with his widowed dad. (Pictured left, center)

“R100” (2013)

Director Hitoshi Matsumoto assembled a bevy of gorgeous Japanese actresses, threw them some leather and fishnet stockings and got them on the set of an S&M club. Terajima is one of them, and boy does she look good in bondage gear. (Pictured left, bottom) (KS)

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