NARA – As a former model and in-demand actor, it’s no surprise that Takumi Saitoh has a sizeable fan base. A Google image search of the Tokyo native produces a large number of photos in which his smoldering gaze locks eyes with the viewer.
The 35-year-old may have inadvertently learned “the look” as a teen, however, after he challenged himself to watch every video at his local rental store.
“I started off with a number of titles beginning with ‘ai‘ (the Japanese word for love), so there was a lot of romance to sit through,” he tells The Japan Times on the sidelines of an event for the Nara Film Festival. “Quite a few of the films I didn’t want to watch, but overall it was fun.”
In addition to the romantic tearjerkers, Saitoh says this self-imposed homework assignment led to him discovering important Japanese directors such as Kihachi Okamoto and Seijun Suzuki, as well as watching a lot of films from overseas that he confesses he “wouldn’t have naturally chosen. It was like a cinematic world tour.”
Saitoh’s interest in film goes back even earlier, to elementary school.
“I was influenced by my father who worked in the industry,” he says. “At elementary school other kids watched anime, whereas I was more into war films and silent movies, particularly ones involving the Marx Brothers and (Charlie) Chaplin as I could use my imagination.”
In fact, Saitoh says the film that left the biggest impression on him was Chaplin’s first talkie, “The Great Dictator.” In it the British-born actor plays a Hitler-esque dictator and a Jewish barber.
“In the final scene you can feel the anti-Nazi sentiment come through, like he wasn’t acting anymore. For a little kid thousands of miles away, that was an amazing thing to see.”
Also while in his teens, Saitoh spent a lot of time traveling thanks in part to his side gig as a model. After he’d seen much of Europe and Asia, he planned to study film at college, but he was put off the idea by his father.
“He told me it wasn’t something I could learn from behind a desk,” Saitoh says, “I needed to get proper experience on set.”
And so he did, but in front of the camera. At 19 years old, he made his acting debut in the 2001 romantic fantasy “Toki no Kaori: Remember Me.” In the years that followed, he appeared in numerous TV dramas before landing a minor role in Japan’s most successful live-action film franchise, “Umizaru.”
During his mid-20s public interest in Saitoh grew after he featured in a number of homoerotic films such as “Boys Love” and “Sukitomo.” In recent years, however, he has returned to television in mini-series such as “Doctors’ Affairs” and “Criminologist Himura and Mystery Writer Arisugawa.”
This year he has appeared in several movies, including the box-office hit “Shin Godzilla,” which is set for an overseas release on Oct. 11. He also plays older brother to two members of Exile in that group’s acting vehicle “High & Low: The Red Rain,” which will allow him to make use of that smoldering gaze he has perfected over the years.
The film Saitoh seems most excited about, however, is “Blank 13,” which he directed himself.
“The main character learns that his father, who went out for a packet of cigarettes 13 years earlier and never returned, is dying from cancer,” Saitoh says. “Then, at the funeral, he hears about what his father had been doing during that period. It’s a dark story, but it gives an insight into Japanese funerals, which are quite unique.”
Listening to Saitoh speak it’s obvious how much growing up in the film industry has had an affect on him. Infatuated with movies, he also has strong opinions about the craft and he mentions that he has recently been concerned with a lack of dynamism in Japanese cinema.
“The shock-factor has gone, especially in samurai films,” he says. “You look back at performances by someone like Yoshio Harada in the 1970s and you can see he had an edge. Today’s sword-fighting scenes are often aesthetically good, but lack rawness. If anything they’re too polished.”
Regularly sharing his opinions on film via his blog, Saitoh says he watches at least one movie a day, goes to the cinema every week and is a regular attendee at film festivals.
“I try to go whenever I can,” he says. “The Tokyo one (Oct. 25 to Nov. 3) is always interesting because (programming director) Yoshihiko Yatabe is a specialist at discovering gifted Asian filmmakers.
“That said, I generally prefer intimate festivals such as Yubari or Nara, as they have a more at-home, do-it-yourself feel to them.”
Another festival Saitoh visits annually is the Student Film Festival in Tokyo. He says that in the future he would like to give back to the industry by helping out there in some way.
“You have many talented filmmakers there, but most don’t have a following and subsequently fade into obscurity,” Saitoh says. “They need help with things like networking, distribution and funding to have any chance of succeeding. That’s the kind of support I want to provide.”
“High & Low The Red Rain” opens in cinemas nationwide on Oct. 8. For more information, visit www.saitoh-takumi.jp.