Over the years I’ve heard many complaints about the bad acting in Japanese films, from the hammy emoting of over-indulged veterans to the amateurish turns of “idols” cast more for their agency connections than any perceptible talent. I’ve added to this chorus of negativity, but I’ve also noticed that often the best things in otherwise forgettable movies are the supporting actors who bring a spark of originality, individuality and professionalism to even blink-and-you-miss-them roles.
One such actor is Kanji Furutachi, who shot to nationwide popularity as a wacky eikaiwa (English conversation school) student in a 2007 TV commercial for the Nova language-school chain. He has since worked with such leading indie directors as Koji Fukada, Shuichi Okita, Kenji Yamauchi and Eiji Uchida, while building a thriving career in TV and on stage.
Last year, Furutachi’s explosive performance in Fukada’s “Harmonium” (“Fuchi ni Tatsu”) as a metal shop owner whose marriage and life are destroyed by a former partner in crime won praise, as did the film, which premiered in the Cannes Film Festival’s Un Certain Regard section and appeared on many Top 10 lists for the year, including mine.
With his neatly trimmed beard and intellectual air, Furutachi is often cast as professionals of various sorts, such as the big-name director in Uchida’s black comedy “Lowlife Love” (“Gesu no Ai,” 2016), but his range is wide. He played an enigmatic con man to powerful effect in Fukada’s 2011 “Hospitalite” (“Kantai”) but was also hilarious as an anal-retentive curry-shop master in Yosuke Fujita’s 2014 comedy “Fuku-chan of Fukufuku Flats” (“Fukufukuso no Fuku-chan”).
Furutachi has had a long, hard climb just to make a living as an actor, as he recently told me at his agency’s office near Tokyo’s Shibuya district. Born in 1968 in Sakai, Osaka Prefecture, Furutachi went to Tokyo at age 18 and joined a small theater company.
“In the beginning I was doing a lot dancing,” he says, speaking in a mix of Japanese and fluent English. “I was also doing bits of stage acting.”
But around the age of 20, he imagined his future — and didn’t like what he saw. Scraping together money from part-time work, he left for New York. There he studied acting at the famed Herbert Berghof Studio in Greenwich Village and waited tables at the Nobu restaurant cofounded by Robert De Niro.
“What they were teaching at the studio was exciting and interesting for me,” he says. “But at the same time there was the difficulty you have with the language, and just life in another country. You don’t know anything, so you have to learn everything from scratch.”
Returning to Japan at age 29, Furutachi struggled to find work. “In the U.S. they all have auditions, so you always have a chance of getting in,” he explains. “But in Japan there are very few auditions, so it’s tough to get in, especially for films and TV. You need to belong to a very good agency.”
The dozens of small theater companies in Tokyo, however, did hold auditions, and that’s how Furutachi got his foot in the door. “Most of those opportunities (with small theater companies) were very bad experiences for me,” he says. “What they wanted to do and what I wanted do as an actor was very different.”
One who saw promise in Furutachi was Oriza Hirata, the artistic director of the Seinendan theater company.
“Mr. Hirata liked my performance, and it was fun for me,” Furutachi says, recalling his first role in a Hirata play. After becoming a Seinendan member, he appeared in many of its productions.
“When I finally got a chance to act in films and TV dramas I was nearly 40,” he says. “That’s why people get the impression that I started late.”
Since breaking through with roles in “Hospitalite” and two other films released in 2011 — Yamashita’s “My Back Page” and Yamauchi’s “Being Mitsuko” (“Mitsuko Kankaku”) — Furutachi has more than made up for lost time. But he denies that his current in-demand status has anything to do with astute role selection.
“It’s not (like) I choose some director to work with, but there’s a saying in Japan: Rui wa tomo o yobu. It means that friends who are similar come together,” he says, adding, with a laugh, “A director who likes to work with me is one who makes a film I want to work in — so it naturally becomes a good film.”
Furutachi has also been branching out, recently directing the stage play “Takaki Kanomono,” which was presented at the Shizuoka Performing Arts Center last November, and conducting acting workshops.
“I enjoy working with other actors, more than acting myself. I can look for the ideal,” he says. “But when you’re on the set as an actor you always have to compromise. I feel happier looking for the ideal.”
The current situation for actors in Japan, however, is far from ideal, especially compared with the West, he laments, explaining how actors don’t get a lot of training, unlike in Europe.
“In France they have an elite system and people who want to be actors have to go to a national school and are selected from that. The world standard for actors is that you have to be good and you need to have technique,” he says. “Unfortunately, that’s not the case in Japan.”
He is not talking about what he calls the “expressive style” of kabuki and other traditional Japanese theater forms. “We don’t have a good modern style, a natural acting style,” he insists. “Some people have tried to bring in methods from the U.S., but in many cases they’re too extreme. (Meanwhile) many foreign people find the acting extreme in major Japanese films. It’s ‘acting acting.’ ”
What makes for good, “un-extreme” acting? Furutachi recalls being struck by the performance of James Stewart in “It’s a Wonderful Life.”
“He never studied method acting, but he was very good,” he says. “After that I saw an interview with him on the internet. He was asked how he acts and he answered, ‘I don’t act. I just react.’ That’s the perfect answer. I would say that’s the most important thing. Many actors act but they don’t react, they just pretend to react.
“If I react properly to what’s said to me, without lying, you can see the character I’m playing. For me acting is not trying to becoming a person I’m not. Instead, the more I use myself, the more naturally I become the character.”