People | WHY DID YOU LEAVE JAPAN?

Haruka Kuroda: Taking advantage of stereotypes

by Matthew Hernon

Contributing Writer

Best-known for her role voicing Noodle in Damon Albarn and Jamie Hewlett’s virtual band Gorillaz, Haruka Kuroda has been working in the British entertainment industry for nearly two decades. The Kyoto native, who has also appeared in popular dramas such as “Killing Eve,” “Jonathan Creek” and “The Bill,” decided to leave Japan for the U.K. at 16 because she felt it was the best place to study acting.

“From the age of 5, I had my heart set on becoming an actress,” recalls Kuroda, 41. “Studying domestically was an option but college courses in Japan tended to be more theory-based and from what I hear that’s still the case today. I was told by a director that England was the country for proper practical training. I wasn’t particularly enjoying high school, so I thought why not go out there and see if I could immerse myself in a different culture?”

Too young to start auditioning on her own, Kuroda began her life in Britain at a boarding school. “My first few months were tough,” she says. “Being an only child, I was used to my own space and was suddenly sharing this tiny dormitory with two other girls. I couldn’t understand what they were saying and culturally it felt like a different world. Things got easier after I moved schools. My English improved and I joined a drama club, which was great.”

Kuroda went on to enroll at the Guildford School of Acting (GSA), one of Britain’s most distinguished conservatoires. The only East Asian in a course of over 60 people, she began studying musical theater but switched to an acting program in her second year as she felt her singing voice wasn’t strong enough.

“I loved my time at GSA and made lots of friends who I keep in touch with,” says Kuroda. “One of the main things I learned there was how to speak RP (received pronunciation) English. I was told by a tutor that it would be almost impossible to get an acting job in England without mastering it. I practiced incredibly hard, trying to become as British as possible and almost denying my true identity in the process. I then spent the next 10 years playing characters that required either Japanese or English in a foreign accent (laughs).”

Her first big role out of GSA was with the band Gorillaz. She provided the speaking voice for the band’s fictional Japanese guitarist Noodle, while Miho Hatori performed the character’s vocal parts. Having only recently graduated from GSA, Kuroda was just happy to have found a job and initially thought it was a one-off appointment. She had no idea how big the band would become.

“I don’t think anyone did,” she says. “They weren’t planning to tour with the project, but the demand kept growing. The first gig was at Scala near London King’s Cross Station. Miho was in America at the time, so they asked my manager whether I could do the vocals.”

Before being confirmed as the live singer, Kuroda had to prove herself to Albarn who, before starting Gorillaz, fronted the Britpop band Blur. “That was the first time I met him,” she says. “While I wasn’t a fan or anything, I was aware of the whole Blur/Oasis thing and, after seeing him in the flesh, I realized, ‘That’s the guy!’ Anyway, he seemed satisfied with my singing and said he was supposed to be auditioning another person but as I actually voiced Noodle it would be better if I did it.”

Kuroda performed with the band for the next two years, admitting that it was “a bit weird” having to sing to an audience from behind a screen. Some fans were also a little underwhelmed by the experience.

“In Britain and Japan, where Blur were huge, many fans didn’t like the fact that they couldn’t see Damon,” concedes the actress. “The States, by contrast, was insane. He wasn’t as well-known there and people loved the whole concept. Crowds waited for us at airports and hotels. Being the only Japanese member of the crew, they knew I was Noodle.”

Besides Noodle, Kuroda’s most famous character to date is Yasuko, a whacky Japanese lady with obsessive compulsive disorder (OCD), who featured in the BBC comedy series “Ideal,” starring Johnny Vegas. Over the years she’s played a variety of what might be considered “stereotypical roles for Asians” such as a translator or tourist, yet she doesn’t see this as a negative thing.

“When I teach young actors, I tell them to take advantage of the fact they might be stereotyped,” admits Kuroda. “You have to make the most of the cards you’ve been dealt. From a personal perspective, playing those ‘typical’ Japanese characters helped get my foot in the door and from there I was able to build a career. Of course, I’d love to see East Asian actors being cast predominantly in non-race specific roles, but the reality is we’re still a long way off that happening and I think it’s worse in the U.K. than America.”

Despite this issue, Kuroda believes diversity is Britain’s greatest strength and it’s what she loves most about the place. The actress misses Japan, especially the seasonal dishes and clean streets, but doesn’t seem to be in a hurry to return home as she enjoys the work too much.

In recent years Kuroda has appeared in various children’s TV shows for the TV channels CBeebies (a BBC channel featuring programs aimed at children aged 6 and under) and CBBC (programs for those aged 6-12). She’s a certified dramatic combat instructor, runs workshops and classes at schools and universities, and is currently helping a Hollywood actress (who she can’t name) to learn Japanese. Then there’s her job as a resident artist for the traveling Anglo-Japanese children’s theater company, A Thousand Cranes.

“That’s something I love doing,” she says. “We create original stories inspired by Japanese folktales. The audiences aren’t large, but everyone seems to enjoy it. Having the opportunity to embrace my own country’s culture while visiting these remote areas in Britain is something I really appreciate, and I hope we continue to do it long into the future.”


Profile

Name: Haruka Kuroda

Profession: Actress

Hometown: Kyoto

Age: 41

Key moments in career:

1989 — Chosen from over 800 children to play Little Cosette in an Osaka-based production of the musical “Les Miserables”

1993 — Arrives in the U.K.

2000 — Graduates from the Guildford School of Acting

2000-02 — Performs with Gorillaz as the voice of the band’s fictional guitarist Noodle

2005-11 — Plays Yasuko in the BBC show “Ideal”

2016 — Birth of her daughter, Iris-Mia

Likes: Being a mother, entertaining children, baking

Dislikes: Untidiness, queue-jumping, goat’s cheese