Prepared to step out of his comfort zone and say what he really thinks, Yusuke Iseya is something of a rarity in the Japanese entertainment industry. An actor with a conscience, he’s most well-known for movies such as “13 Assassins,” “Tomorrow’s Joe” and the Hollywood film “Blindness,” yet rather than talking about any of that, the 39-year-old would prefer to speak about the environment.
That’s not to say he doesn’t care about his profession. He’s passionate about every role he plays — including his latest part as Hikomura in Hiroyuki “Sabu” Tanaka’s romantic comedy “Chasuke’s Journey” (“Ten no Chasuke”) — it’s just that he believes there are more important things to worry about, most notably the state of the planet and the amount of damage we’re doing to it.
“If you pretended you were from outer space or something and actually looked at humans in an objective way, you’d think we were incredibly stupid for the way we use and waste resources well beyond our means,” Iseya tells us from the Rebirth Project office in Tokyo’s Gaienmae neighborhood. “I could have sat around all day getting depressed about that or spent my time lamenting the mainstream media for its lack of interest, but that wouldn’t have done any good. I needed to be more proactive.”
At 27, Iseya achieved what he thought was his lifetime ambition by directing his first full-length movie, “Kakuto.” After accomplishing this goal, however, he decided he wanted to shoot for something different. In 2008, he launched the Rebirth Project; a multifaceted social enterprise that focuses on sustainable development and challenges individuals to find their own answers to the world’s most troubling issues. He wants those involved to “leverage their brains and knowledge to figure out new and realistic ways to co-exist with the environment in a positive, adventurous way that doesn’t require too much sacrifice.”
From building sustainable villages to making furniture from scrap metal, the Rebirth Project has been involved in a wide range of initiatives since its foundation seven years ago. One of the most successful has been a collaboration with the American brand Lee Jeans. Using the company’s dead stock as a canvas, new and stylish designs have been created that commemorate historic dates in Iseya’s lifetime such as Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher’s rise to power in 1979, the fall of the Berlin Wall a decade later and Barack Obama’s presidential inauguration in 2009. The collection also pays homage to two of his favorite movies: “E.T.” and “Back to the Future.”
More recently, Iseya teamed up with Japanese labels Deluxe and Takeo Kikuchi to create recyclable work uniforms.
“We don’t have statistics here but most companies do not even aim at sustainability when they design their industrial uniforms,” he says. “Damaged items are simply replaced by new ones — it’s a complete waste. We use recyclable polyester to make sure they’re functional, durable and reusable. On top of that we’ve worked with renowned designers so they’re fashionable — the kind of clothes workers will want to wear. By being part of this project, companies can contribute to the environment while also improving employee morale.”
Iseya’s main objective with his Rebirth Project is to raise awareness of the benefits of becoming greener and more sustainable for both businesses and communities. One way he gets his message across is through Shokason Juku, an educational program that was first run by distinguished scholar Yoshida Shoin (1830-59).
“During the 1800s (Yoshida) had many students and disciples who looked up to him, yet he never imposed his ideas on anyone,” Iseya says. “Instead he raised issues and encouraged everyone to come up with solutions together before taking action. This is what we’re trying to do with the Rebirth Project. We need to find entrepreneurs with creativity and strong aspirations. So far we’ve targeted mainly college students as they’re young, flexible and generally have more free time. In the future we’d like to expand it so business people can also apply.”
Listening to Iseya speak it’s evident how important the Rebirth Project is to him. He’d like to get other Japanese celebrities involved, but knows agency demands can make that difficult. He is able to do it because he basically manages himself. Far more than a side venture, it takes up a lot of his time, yet his career as an actor appears to be busier than ever. “Chasuke’s Journey” is his third film this year after “Joker Game” and “Shinjuku Swan.” He’s also set to appear in Eiichiro Hasumi’s “Mozu” in November. So how difficult of a balancing act is it between these two very different professions?
“It’s not too bad,” he says with a smile. “I’m busy, but that’s the way I like it — it keeps me healthy and gets my adrenaline pumping. Honestly speaking, I wouldn’t have it any other way.”
“Chasuke’s Journey” is now playing in cinemas nationwide. For more information on the Rebirth Project, visit www.rebirth-project.jp.