Shigeo Kobayashi plays Lt. Kato of Japanese Imperial Army, who holds a crucial role in the film, Flowers of War, directed by Yimou Zhang. Making his very first appearance in a Chinese film with renowned film makers and casts on magnificently designed sets, Shigeo certainly deepened his experience as an actor. Born and raised in Metropolitan Tokyo, Shigeo Kobayashi has worked on over 80 films, theatrical productions and TV drama series. Shigeo continues to build steady yet unique career as an actor, who has been noted for his outstanding ability to express the subtleties of emotion. Read below for the full interview…
10 years ago you had your first chance to work with director Takashi Miike. What is the advice he gave you and what’s your process like working with him?
Shigeo: Working with directror Miike was really stimulating experience. First time I met him for fitting session, he told me to wear whatever I liked. I felt his trust in me as an actor. I can still remember how I was impressed. I got a feel of how he expected me to act, he trusted me and let me act and express as how I felt as my role. So I challenged myself with many ideas as I could think of.
Your new film Flowers of War is generating critical acclaim and has a lot of momentum to win the Foreign Academy Award this year. Are you surprised by this, or did you know you had something of high quality?
Shigeo: From the first moment when I read the script, I predicted it could be a controversial movie, especially in Japan and China. Then I felt confident this film could win many awards after the film shot. It did not surprise me at all when I heard the film was nominated for a Golden Glove Award. Unfortunately we could not win the Golden Globe Award, but I really admire the quality of this film and the beauty of Yimou Zhang’s creative. The film is worth it.
As a Japanese actor, was it hard to be in such a diverse film such as ‘Flowers of War’? Starring a Welsh-born actor and a Chinese director, was it hard to identity with the films humanity and structure?
Shigeo: Being an actor is very consistent no matter where or who work with. All I have to do is to be responsible to what I was told to do and achieve results by defeating the loneliness and difficulties. Working with the people from all over the world is one of the most stimulating things to me. I did not find any problem other than language problems when I was filming in China. I think it’s because I traveled a lot with my family in childhood and thank my parents to give me the chances.
I suppose being in that unique position you were definitely able to grow as an actor. Was there anything significant that stands out, that you learned from that film, that you think people from the Japanese industry may learn from?
Shigeo: My life as an actor has started when I visited one of the Kabuki actor to be his apprentice. I have experienced a lot since then until I had a chance to be a part of this Chinese film,“The Flowers of War”. Teaching the actions for “Kill Bill” was very impressive. I can’t remember how many people I killed and how many times I was killed since then. I am always seeking something what inflames my soul and I am not afraid to take the risk for that. “The Flowers of War” was the one of the most inflaming work I’ve ever had. I think the artists like actors or painters should have wide-open eyes and expand his or her fields. I could feel the depth of Great China and pulse of vigorous Chinese film industry toward the world. I hope the Japanese film industry also to evolves into a global market like China does. I hope…
You switch back and forth a bit from film work to TV work quite often. Did your early apprenticeship with Yorozuya Kinnosuke inspire you to take on more television work?
Shigeo: There is no big gaps for actors between film and TV in Japan. I personally love the films, so I would love to act in the film field, but there is less and less film making in Japan. That’s why I am working in various fields. My Shisho “Yorozuya” was a super star in Japanese film scene. He had tremendous influences on me and also gave me a lots of advice, ever since I became a disciple. I still remember once he told me it would be a TV age in the future.
You had a chance to portray a samurai in Tajomaru, which borrows heavily from Akira Kurosawa’s classic film Rashomon. What is your favorite Kurosawa film and have any of his films directly inspired you in your acting career?
Shigeo: I like “Yojimbo” and “Seven Samurai” from Kurosawa’s movies. I was a big fun of Kurosawa before I became an actor. But I saw myself more into Toshiro Mifune who acted in those movies. His dynamic actions, behaviors with Katana and in Kimono and how he looked always captured my eyes. Even after I started my career in act, I could not stop imagining how was his life as an actor. I always admired his works.
Moving forward in 2012, are you still gravitating more towards traditional roles such as samurai or military? Or are you looking for more contemporary roles?
Shigeo: I think the role like Samurai or soldier really matches to me. I also believe I have a kind of old-fashioned atmosphere than others in Japan. Of course I would like to take any chances in acting various roles. I can’t wait to have an opportunity that will pull out my undiscovered personality which I believe there are.
What was the most complex scene that you had to shoot, the most challenging scene?
Shigeo: I have to say it’s “The Flowers of War” in many ways. I spent the longest time in my life to prepare to get into this film and I was prepared to make some degree of sacrifices because of this sensitive theme. But I am confident my challenge will be rewarded after my challenges.
With the recent controversy of Christian Bale taking heat that Flowers of War is a propaganda film and director Zhang Yimou past conflicts, how do you deal with censorship in China and still convey your message through acting?
Shigeo: I decided to take this offer because I believed it would be the great, great experience in my career as an actor. I know it will make Japanese people uncomfortable and also stimulate anti-Japanese sentiment in Chinese after them seeing this film. But that’s all superficiality. I hope this film makes people study the true history by themselves and think about the situations and history between China and Japan. Then, for them to think and talk about what they think. I hope they can sense the Japanese loyalty, disciplines, prompt actions to the order and silence freakiness in my act. But I am sure the Chinese will be repulsed.
Lastly, you have had a long, successful career in both television and film. If you could offer up any piece of advice pertaining to the longevity of an actor, what would you say?
Shigeo: I believe everything goes well if you can keep believing in yourself and facing the challenges without fears. Thank you so much for listening.
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