Hiroyuki Ikeuchi has what we refer to in showbiz as “the look.”
Sure, the 40-year-old actor has been working as an actor since his teens, even stepping behind the camera in 2006 for “Thirteen Moons.” But it’s his distinctive look that people remember. He can thank his Salvadoran mother in part for that, but Ikeuchi’s macho edge definitely comes from his trademark mustache.
“People in the industry think I’m suited to action, even violent roles, actually,” Ikeuchi says with a smile. His action bona fides are apparent in Ding Sheng’s “Railroad Tigers,” in which he plays Imperial Japanese Army Cmdr. Ken Yamaguchi. But this isn’t a regular action flick — it’s a Jackie Chan action flick. When Ikeuchi got the script, he says he was thrilled.
“My first reaction was, ‘I’m going to be in an action movie with Jackie Chan!'” he says excitedly. “Jackie had been an idol of mine since childhood, and a lot of Japanese actors hold him in high regard — who doesn’t?”
The film is set in China during World War II, and Chan plays a resistance leader. Much of the movie unfolds in the style of a fun-filled Western, but stunts still take center stage.
“I trained intensively for six weeks, first by myself and then with a personal trainer,” Ikeuchi says. “This was my second time on a Chinese film set and I knew I couldn’t take any shortcuts when it came to the action scenes.”
Ikeuchi says he learned what Chinese filmmakers expect when working on Wilson Yip’s “Ip Man” in 2008, also as a Japanese imperialist.
“That was my first overseas action movie,” he recalls. “They came to me with the script two months before shooting and just said, ‘Can we count you in?’ I went through the script and quickly realized that I’d need intensive training. Everything else — the story, the character-building — I could deal with. But it called for the sort of training regimen I’d never been through before. I mean, I was already working out on a regular basis but that was nothing compared to what they had in store for me.”
Ikeuchi went to China and trained under a martial arts coach in the daytime, and at night he watched old Donnie Yen movies. “I immersed myself in martial arts,” he recalls.
It was the same story with “Railroad Tigers,” and anyone who has seen a Chan film will know that stuntwork is a major part of the experience. Now 63, the Hong Kong-born star is doing less than he used to — but “less than he used to” still means more than what many actors are prepared for. Ikeuchi says the whole crew was on set from early morning until late into the night, and that the director would hold meetings with the main cast to make changes in choreography for the following day’s shoot.
“On Japanese film sets we’re given the script and everything is pretty much set in stone, everyone sticks to a schedule,” Ikeuchi says. “In China you just need to go with the flow and be ready for change at any moment. Since ‘Ip Man’ I think I’ve become more flexible and open-minded, never taking a specific situation for granted.”
Ikeuchi’s commander is the main antagonist in “Railroad Tigers,” a military man similar to the villainous role he played in “Ip Man.” From the start, though, Ding assured him that he was after laughs — not scoring political points.
“Playing someone in the Imperial Army in a Chinese movie is difficult and can be wearing on the nerves,” Ikeuchi says. “I think I was able to do it because ‘Railroad Tigers’ isn’t really a historical movie, it’s funny and was a lot of fun to work on. It also really helped that, as in ‘Ip Man,’ I played a soldier who wasn’t totally evil. Both characters had their good points, which I tried to stress.
“Non-Japanese directors tend to cast Japanese actors in ‘bad soldier’ roles, that’s the norm in what we’re offered. ‘Silence,’ which I really loved, was an exception.”
Luckily for Ikeuchi, his next role in an overseas film will be as a civilian in John Woo’s “Manhunt,” which is based on a novel by Juko Nishimura.
“I get to play a nonmilitary guy for a change,” he says before pointing out with a sly grin, “I can’t say that my character is completely good, though.”
Sitting across from those smoldering eyes, part of me wonders if we might be a bit disappointed if Ikeuchi played the good guy.
“Well, I’ve definitely acquired a taste for overseas films,” he says, “so whatever the role, bring it on!”
“Railroad Tigers” is now playing in cinemas nationwide. For more information, visit www.railroadtiger-movie.jp.
Japanese actors in memorable military roles
Takeshi Kitano and Ryuichi Sakamoto — “Merry Christmas, Mr. Lawrence”
This 1983 film set the gold standard for stories about Japanese military men.
Hiroyuki Sanada — “The Railway Man”
Sanada plays a former soldier responsible for the torture endured by Colin Firth’s British POW during World War II in this 2013 film based on a true story.
Ken Watanabe and Kazunari Ninomiya — “Letters From Iwo Jima”
Watanabe was already a star when he appeared in this 2007 Oscar winner; the big surprise was pop star Ninomiya.
Tadanobu Asano — “Battleship”
Perhaps the most prolific Japanese actor working overseas, Asano plays a Japanese naval captain in this 2012 sci-fi military tale that pits soldiers against aliens.
Eiji Inoue — “Pearl Harbor” (2001), “The Last Samurai” (2003) and “Little Boy” (2015)
Inoue has carved out a career playing the scowling soldier/samurai, a true artisan.