Ask a Japanese person who Hiroshi Takigawa is and you’re likely to get a blank face. Give them his stage name, Croket, and you’re bound to get a smile.

In the late 1970s, Takigawa was ubiquitous on prime time TV as Croket (pronounced “korokke”) thanks to his particular talent for monomane (impersonations) that involved exaggerated facial contortions.

“The thing about facial impersonations is that you can’t see yourself doing them,” the 58-year-old comedian tells The Japan Times. “I had no idea whether I was funny or good at it. I was doing it on TV, though, so the audience would likely have been eating dinner or doing homework and then they’d just have to look up for a split second to see me pulling a strange face. Then my face would change back and they would have returned to whatever they were doing.

“Did I succeed in being funny? Did I manage to imprint my face on their retinas for a brief second? These are still questions that I ask myself.”

The ways in which Takigawa’s face could bend and twist at times seemed superhuman. He could deftly mimic other celebrities (mainly pop stars) and commentators would refer to his skill as “facial breakdancing.” The closest Western equivalent might be Jim Carrey of “The Mask” and “Ace Ventura” fame.

Unlike Carrey, however, Takigawa never made the move from the comedy of Croket to the world of serious acting. Now, around 40 years later, he has decided to give it a try.

Dropping his well-known stage name (and the monomane) in favor of his actual name, Takigawa has snagged the role of a somber funeral director in “Yuzuriha.” Directed by Ikuo Kamon, “Yuzuriha” looks at death in Japan, as well as the people who work in the funeral industry.

“I said to myself, ‘It’s now or never. I’ve been given this opportunity, and I just have to take it,'” Takigawa says, adding that being so closely associated with comedy has meant dramatic roles seldom come his way.

“I’ve been offered film roles before, but they were brief appearances or characters that added a moment of hilarity or respite — you know, the ‘guy dressed as a bar hostess’ type of role,” he says. Then came “Yuzuriha” and “suddenly, I was going to be the lead actor. At first I thought it was a joke!”

In person, Takigawa is much more his Croket persona than serious thespian. Posing for photos, he instinctively turned on the charm and gave the photographer a Mr. Bean-esque performance in which he seemed to battle an imaginary adversary in an elevator over who’d press the button first. The room erupted in giggles.

“In Japan, no one goes for the elevator button because it’s deemed bad manners to assert yourself,” he explains. “But I’ve noticed that in the West people actually want to go for that button. They’re much more expressive, self-assertive and open. They’re not afraid to emote in public, whereas in Japan, we’re an island nation so we’re used to being insular and hiding our feelings. We don’t emote. We try not to give anything away with our expressions. Straight-faced is always the way to go in this country.”

This sermon on elevator etiquette essentially reveals the secret to Takigawa’s success as Croket. His whole comedic career has been built on defying what is essentially a cultural norm.

“I can’t keep still! My body and face move all the time, it’s what I do,” he says, laughing. “But Japanese films are all about stillness. It requires a lot of quiet discipline to work on a film here, and it was a huge challenge for me.”

To maintain his concentration and to get into the character, Takigawa spent every night in a tiny business-hotel room in Yachiyo, Chiba Prefecture, where shooting took place.

“Every night I desperately wanted to go out, get to a karaoke bar and start mimicking the hell out of everyone,” he says. “However, I stayed inside and studied my lines and prepared myself for the next scene. For the first time in 38 years, I wasn’t out to make anyone laugh.

“At one point, I thought I was going crazy, but I got to feeling that, maybe, I could do this.”

In “Yuzuriha,” Takigawa plays 50-something Shoji Mizushima. A widow, he works at his father-in-law’s funeral home and, though emotionally distant, is completely dedicated to his job.

When the younger and irreverent Susumu Takanashi (Reiya Masaki) strides into the company looking for a job as a mortician, something clicks in Shoji. Defying other employees, he hires Susumu and teaches him the ropes of caring for “those who have been left behind,” as everyone in the company refers to surviving family members.

Susumu doesn’t have the same sense of propriety as his new coworkers. In one scene he angrily scolds a group of giggling junior high school girls at the funeral of a classmate who committed suicide after being bullied. Shoji reprimands Susumu for his behavior, but later bonds with him by confessing the guilt he feels over his wife’s suicide. In return, Susumu reveals how his father had died when he was 10 years old. For both, the funeral home isn’t just a place of work but a space in which they can remember their loved ones.

“I think that the Japanese reveal themselves more at funerals than at weddings,” says Takigawa. “There’s no pressure to be happy or look like you’re enjoying yourself. At a funeral, everyone assembles to say goodbye to someone and in doing so they seem more natural. I guess it’s because in middle of sadness, there’s a lot of space for self-reflection. At last, it’s OK to cry.”

“Yuzuriha” is now playing in cinemas nationwide. For more information, visit www.eiga-yuzuriha.jp.

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