Music

Naoki Kobayashi: A J-pop star jumps to a new stage

Exile's Naoki Kobayashi makes the leap to Hollywood with "Earthquake Bird"

by Matthew Hernon

Contributing Writer

There aren’t too many Japanese actors who have made the jump to Hollywood. For someone known primarily for their membership in a J-pop group, that leap is naturally much more rare.

Yet, there was Naoki Kobayashi walking the red carpet at the London premiere of “Earthquake Bird,” a film by Wash Westmoreland that Kobayashi stars in alongside Alicia Vikander, Riley Keough and Jack Huston. Also at the premiere? Ridley Scott, director of such classic films as “Alien,” “Blade Runner” and “Black Rain.”

After filming had wrapped, Kobayashi visited Scott, who served as executive producer on “Earthquake Bird,” at the offices of Scott Free Productions.

“He spoke about ‘Black Rain’ and what it was like working with Japanese actors such as Ken Takakura and Yusaku Matsuda,” Kobayashi recalls. “Being told how hard they worked was inspiring. After that, when we met again at the ‘Earthquake Bird’ premiere, he told me the film was great and that I had the kind of presence that’s required in this industry. It was an honor to hear that.”

Fame, fans and pomp aren’t things that are new to Kobayashi, however. The 35-year-old Chiba Prefecture native is a key member of two of Japan’s most popular boy bands: Exile and Sandaime J Soul Brothers. If you find yourself looking at a picture of the 19-member Exile, he’s the tall one with the square jaw.

But what Scott may see in Kobayashi, however, goes beyond simply the kind of looks that give you a leg up in modeling and the broader entertainment industry. “Acting, like dancing, is a great form of expression,” Kobayashi says. They’re also the result of ambition.

Speaking in English throughout his interview with The Japan Times, Kobayashi recalls that, since he was a child, he has dreamed about “being remembered by people,” and at high school, he felt he could get noticed by dancing. Inspired by his sister, a teenage Naoki enrolled in dance lessons and was soon performing in public in the shopping arcades of Chiba.

In 2006, the then 22-year-old Kobayashi was spotted at a dance battle event by Ryohei Kurosawa, who millions of Exile fans know simply as Akira. Kurosawa invited Kobayashi to join the krump group Rag Pound.

“That same year, Akira joined Exile,” Kobayashi says. “I remember being on stage together in front of a small crowd one evening, and the following night watching him dance in front of 10,000 people at the Budokan. It left a big impression on me, seeing it ignited my desire to become part of (Exile).”

Kobayashi didn’t have to wait long to see his dream come true. LDH, a management company founded by Exile’s six original members, signed him up and, after working as a dance instructor, he auditioned for and landed a spot in the company’s newest group, Nidaime J Soul Brothers in 2007. (“Nidaime” means it is the “second generation” of the group.)

“Being in Nidaime was exciting, but the group wasn’t signed to any major company,” says Kobayashi, but two years later he got the invite to officially join Exile. “Getting the call from Exile was like moving on to a different level. It was incredible, but I was nervous. They’d sold millions of records, and I didn’t want to be the person who came in and messed things up. I can’t remember anything about those first six months.”

Kobayashi says he felt more established within the group after his first tour finished. Just as he was settling in, however, LDH’s creative leader Hiroyuki Igarashi (aka Hiro), announced there was going to be a “sandaime” J Soul Brothers fronted by Kobayashi and Naoto Kataoka.

“It was my first time as a leader, which was quite scary,” Kobayashi says. “Honestly speaking, I thought it would be a two-year project, like with Nidaime.”

Jack of all trades: Naoki Kobayashi began his career as a dancer, then moved on to singing and, most recently, acting.
Jack of all trades: Naoki Kobayashi began his career as a dancer, then moved on to singing and, most recently, acting.

Now here he is, a decade later and Sandaime J Soul Brothers have just released a new track titled “Movin’ On,” which Kobayashi describes as an “upbeat party track with elements of punk, rock and pop.” The dancer puts the group’s longevity down to two concepts: destruction and re-creation.

“Initially, we followed the Exile model, as that worked so well,” he says. “Yet, for us to continue it was important to discover our own identity. I think we did that with (the 2014 song) ‘R.Y.U.S.E.I.’ That was the point at which we started to change.”

Kobayashi describes “R.Y.U.S.E.I.” as an “EDM track with J-pop melodies,” and its video sees Sandaime’s seven members partying Vegas-style with sexy models and in fast cars, bikes, boats and helicopters. The song was a success, topping the Oricon chart in its first week and landing the No. 1 spot on the year-end domestic Billboard Chart for 2015. It also won the grand prize at the Japan Record Awards in 2014.

“Those are like the Japanese equivalent of a Grammy,” Kobayashi says of the award. “Exile had picked up the same prize in previous years, but it was a different feeling receiving it for J Soul Brothers. I couldn’t believe it when our name was called, getting a congratulatory message from Hiro was also special. It felt like he had accepted Naoto and I as leaders.”

With record sales of more than 30 million between his two groups, the Exile/J Soul Brothers juggernaut shows no signs of slowing down. However, Kobayashi says Hollywood is now firmly on his radar.

“I appeared in my first stage production in 2007 and have been in some dramas and movies since,” Kobayashi says. “Around three years ago, I decided that I should try to act overseas so I took English and acting lessons. Then my management told me about the role in ‘Earthquake Bird.'”

A psychological thriller made for Netflix, the film is based on Susanna Jones’ critically acclaimed novel of the same name. It centers around a Swedish translator in Tokyo named Lucy (Vikander), who gets called in for questioning when fellow expat Lily (Keough) goes missing. Through a police interrogation, the audience learns of the pair’s tumultuous love-triangle with reclusive photographer Teiji (Kobayashi).

“Teiji is an intriguing character with a troubled past. I was able to empathize with him as soon as I did the first read,” Kobayashi says. “To get inside his head, it was important to face my own demons and relive some tough experiences from my past, but I believe that gave me a better understanding of his thought process. I also visited his hometown in Kagoshima and learned as much as I could about photography.”

Getting his English up to scratch was another task Kobayashi needed to take on to prepare for the part. He admits that, at times, it was tough communicating with the cast and crew, though it was a challenge he enjoyed. He wasn’t alone, however. Co-star Vikander had to learn Japanese from scratch for the role of Lucy.

“Her pronunciation was amazing,” Kobayashi says. “Alicia is a really generous person, and so professional. She’s able to switch it on and focus, then someone shouts ‘cut’ and she is instantly back to her normal self. I learned a lot from her.”

The actor is now looking for his next role, but his search may be a bit tougher for the foreseeable future with the current COVID-19 pandemic putting film projects around the world on hold.

“The situation at the moment with the new coronavirus is extremely worrying and very tough for so many people,” Kobayashi says. “Through entertainment, we can’t help people directly but I strongly believe we can provide some positive energy and hope in such difficult times.”

For more information on Naoki Kobayashi, visit www.ldh.co.jp/eng/management/jsoulbrothers_naoki.

In line with the nationwide state of emergency declared on April 16, the government is strongly requesting that residents stay at home whenever possible and refrain from visiting bars, restaurants, music venues and other public spaces.
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