Film

When it came to casting 'Kokoro,' director Vanja d'Alcantara says her search began and ended with Jun Kunimura

by Mark Schilling

Contributing Writer

Jun Kunimura has long been one of the most active Japanese actors overseas, starting with the Ridley Scott thriller “Black Rain” in 1989 and continuing with the South Korean horror hit “The Wailing” last year. Able to shift gears effortlessly from comedy to drama or from bumbling husband to slithery bad guy, Kunimura is often the best thing in any given film, be it trash entertainment or auteurist art.

In the latter category is “Kokoro” (“Le Coeur Regulier”), Belgian director Vanja d’Alcantara’s drama about a French woman named Alice (Isabelle Carre) who ventures to a remote Japanese island to find answers about her footloose brother, who died in an apparent suicide. Kunimura plays Daisuke, a former policeman who saves the suicidal from jumping off the island’s spectacular cliff.

Speaking to The Japan Times at the Kyoto International Film and Art Festival, where “Kokoro” had its Japan premiere on Oct. 13, d’Alcantara says the search for a Japanese actor to play Daisuke began and ended with Kunimura.

“He can be a bit scary and threatening, but as soon as there’s a smile on his face he’s like a joyful child,” she says. “That’s something I liked about him as an actor.”

The director also found herself connecting with Kunimura on a more personal level.

“For me it’s very important to choose not just an actor but a human being to work with on the journey of making a film,” she explains. “So I always look for someone I think can become not just my collaborator but also a friend. And that’s what happened the first time (Jun and I) met.”

Sitting next to d’Alcantara, Kunimura smiles in agreement. But when I ask him how he chooses his projects, “Kokoro” included, he says it comes down to the script.

“If I feel the world in the script is interesting, I’ll want to play the role,” he says. “It’s not so much about the director.”

“Kokoro” is based on Olivier Adam’s 2010 novel of the same French title, which was in turn based on a true story. But in scripting her film, d’Alcantara changed the concept of the ex-cop character once Kunimura was cast.

“I didn’t want to make Daisuke too much of a hero,” she says. “I wanted him to have a bright side but also a darker side. Working with Jun, we were really able to go into the deeper aspects of the character.”

In becoming Daisuke, Kunimura says he “imagined how the character had walked through life prior to the story’s beginning.”

“As a police officer he probably saw a lot of suicides, that was the nature of his work,” he says. “But that also made him really tired. He was always thinking about how he could help people before they jumped off that cliff, instead of just disposing of their bodies once they had fallen.”

Kunimura didn’t read Adam’s novel and instead relied entirely on the script, d’Alcantara’s direction and his own imagination in creating his character.

“Coming up with an image of Daisuke after first reading the script is my job as an actor,” he says. “It’s like deciding on a design and composition when you paint a picture. After I have that image, I go to the set, and after communicating with Vanja and Isabelle (Carre) I quickly adjust the lines of the design and add color. That’s the part of the job I can’t do alone.”

Both Daisuke and Alice “undergo transformations in the course of the story,” d’Alcantara says. “What I try to do in every one of my films is to make every character go through an emotional journey.” Instead of describing that journey to her actors with back story and psychology, she tries to “lighten them up, to free them, to empty their minds as much as possible so we can start from silence.”

“I think everything emerges from silence,” she continues. “I try to create a moment where there is nothing they have to do, nothing they have to achieve: They just have to be in the moment and connecting with each other. Of course that’s only possible if there’s trust between us as human beings.”

Kunimura, she enthuses, was wonderful to work with. Even off-screen, “he would continue being Daisuke,” she says. “He really confirmed this idea of what it is to be in the moment. That’s the only responsibility of an actor. It’s not to tell the story, it’s not even to be a character — it’s just to let something emerge from silence, from something that is genuine and true. When that happens, for a director it’s a huge gift.”

“Kokoro” opens in cinemas nationwide on Nov. 4. For more information, visit www.kokoro-movie.jp.