Film

Tasuku Emoto talks about directing, acting in English and sounding like Tom Cruise

by James Hadfield

Contributing Writer

This has been a busy year for Tasuku Emoto. Long accustomed to appearing in colorful supporting roles, the 31-year-old actor has found himself starring in three films in 2018.

After playing real-life porn entrepreneur Akira Suei in “Dynamite Graffiti” and the slacker protagonist of “And Your Bird Can Sing,” this month he can be seen as two different characters in the Japanese-Portuguese co-production “Lovers on Borders.”

“It felt like shooting two separate films at the same time,” he says, speaking to The Japan Times during the Tokyo International Film Festival. In the movie, written and directed by Atsushi Funahashi, Emoto plays a Japanese servant brought to Portugal after the 1755 Lisbon earthquake, and a corporate executive overseeing factory layoffs in a near-future Japan.

One of the characters cannot speak, while the other has to deliver much of his dialogue in English — which, Emoto would be the first to admit, isn’t one of his stronger points.

“When I was playing the mute character, I was practising my English dialogue in my head,” he jokes. He describes how he went through his script line by line with a language teacher, marking the words he needed to emphasize.

“It’s mostly about imposing restraints,” he explains. “What I discovered — or what I found interesting, at least — is that once I had those restraints in place, I stopped feeling responsible for the other aspects (of my performance). For instance, if I ended up sounding a bit like Tom Cruise when I delivered my lines, I’d just go with it.”

He laughs at the absurdity of the idea. “OK, that’s an extreme example!”

A film like “Lovers on Borders” might seem a tempting option for an actor looking to expand his range, offering the opportunity to shoot overseas and perform in a foreign language. But Emoto insists that he doesn’t really weigh up potential roles that way.

“I’m playing an unfamiliar part in every job I do, so no two jobs are the same,” he says. “I won’t normally do something just for the novelty factor.”

As it turns out, even working in less exotic climes can supply a few surprises. In “And Your Bird Can Sing,” Emoto plays a charismatic underachiever working at a bookstore in Hakodate, Hokkaido, who gets caught in a love triangle with his roommate (Shota Sometani) and a co-worker (Shizuka Ishibashi). The film has drawn praise for its portrayal of listless Japanese 20-somethings — the so-called “satori generation” — but the milieu it depicts was foreign territory to its star.

“That was the first time I’d been to a nightclub,” Emoto confesses.

Wait, surely he didn’t spend all of his 20s working?

“Yeah, I was working a lot — but I wasn’t the clubbing type, and I didn’t hang around with that kind of crowd,” he says. “I was just going to the cinema.”

Having chalked up three leading roles in a row, how does he feel about being the star as opposed to the sideman for a change?

“In my experience, it’s actually less exhausting when you’re playing the lead,” he says. “The star spends the most time on set, and probably gets priority treatment from the staff, too. When you’ve only got one scene, that’s a lot more difficult as an actor.”

As a member of one of the most illustrious thespian clans in Japanese cinema, Emoto would know. His father, Akira, and younger brother Tokio are both prolific actors, as was his mother, Kazue Tsunogae, who passed away last month. In 2012 he married Sakura Ando, one of Japan’s most celebrated actresses, meaning that he now also counts actor-director Eiji Okuda and director Momoko Ando — Sakura’s father and sister, respectively — as in-laws.

Spotting members of this extended family can feel like playing bingo sometimes. When Emoto and Ando first appeared together in the 2010 film “A Crowd of Three,” his dad also popped up in a supporting role. Their next screen outing together, in “Case of Kyoko, Case of Shuichi” in 2013, was directed by his father-in-law.

If he hasn’t quite surpassed father Akira for sheer ubiquity yet, Emoto can’t be far off. When I casually ask if he knows how many films he’s appeared in to date, he gives me a classic deer-in-the-headlights look.

“I’m not even sure myself,” he says. “I’ve been doing this for 17 years, but I don’t think I’ve quite got to 100 yet.” (When a staff member listening in on our interview confirms that he’s got 92 credits to his name, he looks both relieved and a little bit amazed.)

Emoto isn’t about to stop at acting, either. He made his directorial debut last year with the short film “Moonlight Shimo Ochiai,” and says that he’d be eager to get behind the camera again.

“I’m not sure if it’s the same for everybody, but I felt like I was being watched much more than when I’m acting,” he says of directing. “It was tough, but I had fun. I think the fact I want to do it again shows that I must have enjoyed myself.”

“Lovers on Borders” comes out in select cinemas on Nov. 10.