Film

‘Japan’s grandmother’ Kirin Kiki has defied conventions throughout her long film career

by Mark Schilling

Contributing Writer

Now 75, Kirin Kiki is everyone’s favorite Japanese grandmother, a role she has been playing for years now on big screens and small. But she has also never been anyone’s stereotype of quietly suffering, nobly self-sacrificing Japanese womanhood.

Starting on television in the mid-1960s she did not shy from goofball comedy, including roles that made her look older than her years. She also had no compunctions about auctioning off her then stage name, Yuki Chiho, in a variety show stunt in 1977. She later told interviewers she found her current name by thumbing through a dictionary.

Her convention-defying ways extended to her private life. After a brief marriage to actor Shin Kishida, she wed rocker Yuya Uchida in 1973, but the couple separated after only a year a half. Rather than divorce again, Kiki decided to stay married to Uchida but not live with him, an arrangement that has continued to the present. After Kiki was diagnosed with breast cancer in 2004, the couple reportedly became closer, even vacationing in Hawaii once a year.

In 2007 came a career-changing role in the drama “Tokyo Tower: Mom and Me, and Sometimes Dad,” which was based on a real-life relationship between an under-achieving illustrator (Joe Odagiri) and his quirky, understanding mom (who like Kiki was suffering from cancer). She won a Japan Academy best actress prize, her first, for the role.

Abroad, her best-known association is with Hirokazu Kore-eda. She has worked with the director on six films to date, starting with “Still Walking” (2008) and concluding with this year’s “Shoplifters.” Though the characters in these films are subtly different, Kiki always impresses as real and human in every way — from the mischievous to the devious.

But as Kore-eda told me in an interview for “After the Storm,” in which she plays the elderly mother of an addicted gambler (Hiroshi Abe), her performance is more than Kiki being Kiki.

“To get that extremely natural-looking performance she takes a lot of pains on the set,” he said. “She practices small movements again and again so she can play someone who’s lived in the same place for tens of years.”

No wonder her career has flourished for more than half a century.