Actress Kirin Kiki wants an ending with no twists

The award-winning actress speaks frankly about her life and death

by Mai Yoshikawa

Kyodo

When life gave her lemons, film star Kirin Kiki didn’t make lemonade, but wild grass enzyme juice.

It’s the only thing that has satisfied her taste buds since her advanced-stage cancer caused her to lose her appetite, and even her desire for alcohol has vanished these past few months, she says.

But the 75-year-old, a unique personality in Japanese cinema, has learned that it’s her attitude in the face of a sour situation that can make life sweet again.

“There’s no point comparing myself now to my old healthy self and feeling miserable,” she says. “Rather than fighting reality, I choose to accept what’s in front of me and go with the flow.”

Kiki says her first cancer diagnosis in 2004 was a life-changing event but that she never thought to try to cling on and is not bothered one bit by the idea of aging and dying alone.

“Very interesting, this thing called aging,” she says as she slowly and carefully sits herself down on an antique dining chair.

For all her on-screen presence and iconic voice, Kiki, winner of two Japan Academy best actress awards, is a woman who remains fiercely private and even distances herself from her own family, including her husband of 40-plus years whom she hardly sees and her only daughter, who lives in England.

As she braces herself for life’s final act, Kiki has found ways to reduce complexity through minimalism. She does not have a bucket list but does have a cleaning checklist, and her decluttering formula includes throwing at least one item away every day.

Resisting death is the last thing she wants, and coming to terms with her cancer-stricken body may have added years to her life, she declares matter-of-factly. But it’s time to tie up loose ends, and Kiki has just arranged for end-of-life nursing care.

“Am I lonely? Not at all. Loneliness is an emotion you can feel even if you’re surrounded by people. Alone does not equal lonely,” says Kiki, who lives a quiet life in a secluded concrete house located in an affluent section of Tokyo’s Shibuya Ward.

“I’m far from healthy,” she says. “My cancer has spread throughout my entire body and there’s nothing the doctors can do. I’ve opted against chemotherapy because I feel like it’ll affect my healthy cells and I’ll die sooner. I don’t trust doctors and medicine.”

Kiki, who used to get around until just recently in a classic Citroen or even riding the trains, now needs a cane to walk because of weakness in her left leg. She says it has only been days since she noticed her condition deteriorating and her subsequent complications.

She has an idea of how much time she has left, which is why her calendar shows zero appointments. When she turned down another major movie role not long ago, she says she presented her clients with a PET scan showing her cancer cells and they left speechless and convinced.

An ideal end to her heralded acting career would be to quietly fade out, Kiki says. When she agreed to play a key role in “Shoplifters” (“Manbiki Kazoku” in Japanese), a movie that won the coveted Palme d’Or at this year’s Cannes Film Festival, Kiki had guessed director Hirokazu Kore-eda’s socially conscious family drama would likely be her final film appearance. She’s not one to seek attention or make a grand exit.

“I’m not going to wave a flag and announce my retirement from acting. The best scenario for me is to have people wonder when and how I disappeared from the screen,” she says. “It may be my job to leave an impression on screen but there’s no need for me to be remembered off screen.”

Since her longtime manager died more than 10 years ago, Kiki has been working solo without an agent or assistant, finding her fax machine equipped with voicemail the most efficient communication channel to engage with TV and film production companies seeking to sign her to multimillion-yen deals.

Evaluating job offers and negotiating salaries are a breeze, she says.

“The inconvenience is really convenient for me,” she says, explaining that she asks that clients not send more than a single-page fax in order to save paper and ink.

Her personal life has been just as turbulent and dramatic, if not more, than her on-camera life, and her quick-witted, no-nonsense talk and enigmatic aura have drawn a cult following among fans.

Kiki, whose legal name is Keiko Uchida, wed rock star Yuya Uchida (her second marriage) in 1973. But she and her husband chose not to live under the same roof and instead try out “living apart together” — an arrangement that quickly became fodder for the tabloids.

Today it’s hard to imagine Japanese blockbusters without Kiki’s contributions — she has received international acclaim and many accolades for her work, but the old-school professional says acting was never her intended career.

When she was 18, Kiki had planned on taking her father’s advice to become a licensed pharmacist, but she missed her pharmacy school admission test due to a fractured foot. As she recuperated, she saw an ad for tryouts with a theater company, and gave it a shot on a whim. A decades-long acting career had begun.

Now a veteran in the entertainment business, Kiki says one of the first questions she asks when approached with an offer is who the producer and leading actor are. But she admits that when she stumbled onto her career path, she was only in it for the money.

“When I was young I was into investing in real estate and needed to pay off my loans. When I got more than one offer, I chose the better-paying job. I’m not a person of high integrity. Now I’ve cleared my debts, lost interest in buildings and I’m just working out of duty,” she says.

If she had a choice, an unsentimental Kiki says, she would like to avoid social contact altogether.

Interacting with children (her grandchildren no exception) is her least favorite pastime, but she realizes the contradiction of her choice to enter a profession that requires teamwork and communication skills.

But she makes herself believe she made the right career decision, joking that she would have probably ended up in jail for violating pharmaceutical laws had she chosen to work behind the counter.

Since her cancer diagnosis, Kiki has ditched television for film, and she says that may explain why her career has lasted so long.

Big-screen projects have higher budgets, and motion pictures are more neatly edited and have higher image quality. TV talents come and go but film stars have durable relationships with audiences and have longer shelf lives, she says.

“Today the talent pool for screen actors in Japan is shallow. They all look and dress the same and I can’t tell them apart,” she says. “This isn’t a fashion show, you know. Actors should show originality.”

Kiki then recalls how back in the day it was harder to become an actual film star, and she hopes an exciting influx of new talent will allow Japanese cinema to enjoy another golden age soon.

The actress has continued to enjoy a prosperous career well beyond the time when most people have retired, but she only does it out of moral obligation to her employers and not for the rewards and red-carpet celebrations.

When she played her first grandmother role at the age of 29, she did it because “it was easy,” requiring her to memorize few lines and barely move. The ever-so-versatile Kiki says she does not know why people call her the “granny” of Japan’s silver screen because she has played a variety of roles: geisha, maid, police, landlord and kidnapper, to name a few.

Has she played every character she ever dreamed of?

“I haven’t played a princess yet, but I have no regrets. I never did, I never will. It’s just the sense of responsibility for my own life that keeps me going,” Kiki says.

“I’m telling you, I’m not a decent person. I don’t fit in with the norms and values of society. In that sense maybe I moved into the right direction by choosing to become an actress. I can’t do anything else.”

Since she underwent a mastectomy 13 years ago, Kiki says she has managed to maintain as good a life as she had before she felt a lump in her right breast. She has been asked many questions about cancer care since she revealed her battle with the disease, but her response is always the same: Everyone’s cancer journey is different.

Kiki nearly went blind in her left eye due to retinal detachment a year before the cancer diagnosis, and she says not knowing the cause of her vision loss was actually more shocking than discussing a poor breast cancer prognosis with her doctor.

By the time she visited the oncologist she had prepared for the worst. She says it was the doctor who had initially tried to comfort her by saying not all tumors are cancerous and benign breast lumps are common among women her age, but her gut told her otherwise.

“When I was told I have cancer my first thought was ‘I’m dying,'” Kiki says. “Then I thought of all the people I knew who died of cancer. Most of them spent the last hours of their lives in pain and I tried to think of ways to avoid that route.

“I want to die at home, having morphine-induced hallucinations. I’m hoping my death isn’t painful and my last words are ‘See ya. Good-bye.'”

Even in the face of death, Kiki, who says she used to be a “controlled drinker and not an alcoholic,” is not pitiable. She forces herself to eat when she can but admits there are physical signs that she is near the end.

She finds comfort in knowing a doctor will rush to her home if not sit at her bedside when she passes, not because she needs someone to hold her hand but because she needs a hand to sign off the death certificate.

“I found out if you die at home as opposed to a hospital an autopsy is needed. I don’t want my body to be cut open in the very end. That’s humiliating. That, for me, was a bigger reason to be connected to health professionals than wanting to prolong life.”

Though she worries that she’s too thin, Kiki says her daily dose of enzyme-rich juice helps her get through the day. In the spring she makes juice from wild grass extract and in the fall, she blends raw fruits and vegetables for a change in flavor.

These may be the secrets to her survival but ones that work for her only, she insists.

It did not take her long to find peace after cancer, but now more than ever, Kiki’s spiritual well-being is helping her cope with the disease’s unpredictable progression.

“An important lesson cancer has taught me is that my physical body is actually not mine,” she says. “I’ve been allowed to use this temporary earth suit. When I purchase property I may be the registered land owner but that piece of land belongs to the earth. If these things don’t belong to me, I should handle them with care and return them in good condition. That’s how I see it now.”