In Japan children of famous actors often follow in their parent’s footsteps as if it were part of some foreordained destiny. There are many examples of this in kabuki, where acting families can trace their lineages back generations, but it happens quite a lot in the supposedly more modern world of film, too.
The son of Mikijiro Hira and Yoshiko Sakuma, both actors with long, illustrious film careers, Takehiro Hira falls into the large “second-generation actor” bin, but he is also a one-of-a-kind stand-out.
Born in 1974, Hira went to high school in Rhode Island and studied at Brown University, where he polished his English to native fluency. After cycling through a variety of jobs, from tempura chef to financial analyst, he returned to Japan and, at the age of 27, became an actor.
Since then he has appeared in everything from the plays of Shakespeare — including a production of “Othello” in which he played opposite his father — to the yearlong NHK taiga drama “Atsuhime” (2008), which gave him the break-out role of Tokugawa Yoshinobu, Japan’s last shogun.
His latest role is as samurai general Shima Sakon in director Masato Harada’s epic, “Sekigahara,” about the 1600 battle that changed the course of Japanese history, and it’s also among his biggest. Hira’s performance is more humanly centered than theatrically showy, though Sakon, who epitomizes the samurai spirit, is among the film’s most distinctive presences.
In an interview at the Roppongi office of distributor Asmik Ace, Hira not only looks far younger than his 50-something character, but speaks with an American accent never heard in 17th-century Japan.
“When I play a historical part, an actual person, I try to make him human, not a larger-than-life character,” he says. When Sakon brings the West Army’s top general, Ishida Mitsunari (Junichi Okada), to a secret hiding place where his mistress is staying, Hira explains, “I don’t touch her though you can see there is something erotic in their interaction. It wasn’t in the script but it showed more of a human side of him.
“He’s something of a dirty old man,” Hira adds with a laugh.
This search for authenticity, Hira continues, extended to the entire film.
“A lot of times jidaigeki (period dramas) are shot on a set in a studio, but we did all the shooting on location,” he says. “We went to places you can’t just go into. Some were World Heritage sites.”
According to Hira, the director also wanted to change the traditional depiction of Mitsunari as “a shrewd, cunning strategist, not really a lovable person.”
“History is always written by the winners, right?” he says. “But since the film depicts the battle from the defeated side as well, you can see both sides and get different perspectives. Watching this film, I think a lot of people will sympathize with Mitsunari. They can see he’s fighting for his own brand of justice.”
When he announced, at age 15, that he wanted to go to high school in America, he recalls his mother saying he could do anything he wanted, except become an actor.
“She hated the idea of me going into acting,” he says, adding that he wasn’t too keen on it himself at that age.
“I needed to try something else on my own and decide what I wanted to do,” he says. That something else was soccer at first — “I played really competitive soccer back then,” he says — but he also wanted to escape his identity as the son of two famous actors.
“It was always my parents’ names that came first,” he says. “People would always say, ‘That’s so-and-so’s son.’ I hated it. So I wanted to go where no one knew anything about my parents.”
Doing his own research, he found a boarding school in Rhode Island with no Japanese students. That made it perfect.
“I learned to be independent,” he says. “Not financially, of course, but I learned to live independently and build the confidence to be myself.”
Upon returning to Japan, Hira decided he had put enough distance between his parents and himself to try acting. He landed his first role in the 2002 play “Rokumeikan,” which was written by legendary writer Yukio Mishima. Working with his father — a veteran actor of both stage and screen who was also a favorite of famed theater director Yukio Ninagawa — provided an invaluable apprenticeship.
“I did an eight-month tour of ‘King Lear’ with my father,” Hira recalls. “That was pretty much my on-the-job training, every day. I had to work on articulation — I didn’t have a stage voice, so my throat would give out. It hurt and it was embarrassing and I would think, ‘Why did I become an actor?’ It was hard, but a real learning experience.
“If you see show business when you’re young, you’re attracted to all the glitter and fame. But being an actor is really tough.”
Hira is now interested in learning what it’s like to be on the other side of the camera.
“I’m not into directing so much as making films from the creator’s side,” he explains. “Do you know the website Vimeo? It has all these five-minute pieces. I love that, I want to be able to make and show them.”
And he has already started. “I bought myself a drone,” he announces proudly. After mastering “King Lear,” aerial shots should be easy.