Issey Ogata has built his career on virtuoso one-man theater shows in which he changes characters, from drunken salaryman to female fishmonger, as easily as other actors change clothes, while amusing audiences and winning critical accolades with sui generis portrayals that dig down to universal human bedrock.
The chameleon-like quality of the 65-year-old’s acting has caught the attention of international filmmakers. He played the savvy video game mogul Ota in Edward Yang’s “Yi Yi” (2000), the unworldly Emperor Showa in Alexandr Sokorov’s “The Sun” (2005) and the relentless inquisitor Inoue in Martin Scorsese’s “Silence” (2016). He has also been a favorite with Japanese directors, including the late Jun Ichikawa, who cast Ogata as the shy, lonely technical illustrator who falls for a shopaholic woman in “Tony Takitani” (2004).
Now Ogata and Kaori Momoi, another acting individualist with a long and lauded career, are co-starring as an unusual married couple in Maris Martinsons’ “Magic Kimono” (“Futari no Tabiji”), which is being billed as the first Japanese-Baltic co-production. The film was shot on location in Riga and based on Latvian director Martinsons’ original script.
Momoi plays Keiko, a Japanese woman who comes to Riga from her native Kobe with a kimono show — and encounters her husband (Ogata), who went missing during the 1995 Great Hanshin Earthquake.
Shocked by his disappearance just as they were about to open a long-dreamed-of restaurant, Keiko seems to resent his return into her life, but as the story unfolds — including Keiko’s reluctant rise to local celebrity via a cooking show — we see that she also bears a burden of guilt. In his own enigmatic, sympathetic way, her long-lost spouse helps her to both return to her past and reconcile with it.
Speaking to The Japan Times at a share house in Tokyo’s Harajuku neighborhood — the residence and office of the film’s publicist — Ogata says the opportunity to work with Momoi drew him to the role.
“We’d done live performances together,” he says, “but after I went freelance (as a one-man act) we didn’t have a chance to act together on stage, so I was happy to be with her in a film.”
On first reading Martinsons’ story, Ogata says it impressed him “as something like ‘Alice in Wonderland.'”
“The heroine is a middle-aged woman, but her adventure in Riga is like (Alice’s),” he explains.
Ogata himself found Riga both new and strange. That is, not his usual stage.
“The streets of the old city were like traveling back in time,” he says. “It was a place I had absolutely no connection to. I was not just in a foreign city; I was in a distant foreign era. But Riga looks very poetic, beautiful and charming. In that sense it was the right place for the miracle of this couple’s meeting to occur. ”
The out-of-the-ordinary setting, he adds, made him feel he and his co-star “were doing a play with just the two of us.”
“I felt that our performance, whether we could do something good together, was the most important thing,” he says. “For me our performance came before the film’s story or theme or message.”
In shaping that performance, Ogata believes his co-star’s experience as both an actor and director were key.
“Momoi is an actress, but she has also been a director for a long time now,” he says. “She views her own performance with the eyes of a director and can give advice to other people on their performances. Being a real director, she can see things more clearly. She’ll say ‘This is the way we ought to do this.’ She’s strict,” he adds with a laugh.
Ogata is primarily a stage performer and views film as a medium “that’s quite different from a live stage show in its close-ups, long shots and editing.”
“But that’s only technique,” he adds. “When you take away the technique, what’s left is how you perform. And with my own performance I don’t see a difference between being in a film and being on stage. There are no cuts in a live performance, but the audience is seeing you in close-up with their eyes. They’re also editing in their heads. So in that sense the difference between being in films and on stage is not so big. ”
As the long-lost husband who has returned from the spirit realm (or wherever he’s spent the past two decades) Ogata looks both flesh-and-blood present but somehow detached from the world of the living. In other words, he is quite unlike the usual movie ghost, the result of deliberate acting choices.
“When the dead husband in the (1990) film ‘Ghost’ appears (to his wife) their eyes lock,” he says. “To me that’s not a ghost. So (in ‘Magic Kimono’) the eyes of the couple don’t meet; you don’t know what they’re seeing. I thought it would feel stranger if they had that little rule — no locking eyes. But sometimes their eyes do meet, and then it’s surprising.”
Ogata finds the finished film “mysterious” and says it’s different from the image he had when he was making it.
“It’s like with words: Even if the other person is not saying each and every thing with a clear meaning, you somehow understand,” he says. “So I didn’t feel uncomfortable about connections in the film going missing or being in a different place.”
“Real life is bound by a lot of rules,” he continues. “And on the set you go from one thing to the next and then the next. But the film doesn’t pay much attention to that kind of sequence. Instead what’s supposed to happen fifth happens second. It’s like shuffling a deck of cards. Everyday life becomes kind of mixed up. But in my mind (the film) felt orderly, not chaotic. I watched it accepting the shuffle.”
Then he eyes me and smiles. “What did you think of the film?” he asks.
I smile back, a bit flustered; it’s not a question I often get from the people I interview.
“It felt like ‘Alice in Wonderland,'” I say, but the Riga version, not the Disney one.