To Imagine without Limits

I recently joined Eijiro Ozaki in a coffee shop in Beverly Hills to talk about his career as a screen and theater actor in Japan and the U.S.  He had just finished a high-energy, forty-minute seminar with a group of visiting Japanese college students, an event he kindly invited me to observe.   He has been doing these creative workshops every fall for eight years, with the only caveat being that the program must make allowances for his acting schedule.

I’ve met Eijiro a few times over the years, and of course I’ve seen him in Clint Eastwood’s ‘Letters from Iwo Jima’, and most recently in the 2015 film ‘Little Boy’. Watching him inspire a group of college students to understand and achieve their goals has reminded me what an incisive, authentic and refreshingly Japanese guy he is.  I’ve just admitted to him I wish I’d heard his message when I was in my twenties!

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We order our coffee, and I begin with some questions that now seem all too predictable:

Was there a moment in your life when you knew you would become an actor?

In my childhood I always loved painting, drawing, singing; doing short plays in the classroom, that kind of thing.  I loved to do show and tell.  I would write and direct my own plays, even using other kids as supporting cast while I performed the main role.  I did it because I loved pleasing people, I think.  I loved seeing people’s reactions to my creativity.

Why did you end up moving your career to Hollywood?

In the eighties I spent a year as an exchange student in Nebraska.  That was a big eye opener.  I lived in an international house with students from all over the world.  Later, I saw them doing different things – some were marrying Americans, others were taking jobs overseas, working in cities around the world.

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Though I wanted to become an actor, in the eighties – and maybe today, as well – Japan wasn’t making films for foreign markets.  American films were all over the world; they had the global marketing reach.  I wanted my international friends to see my performances.  If I had stayed in Japanese film and TV, that wouldn’t have happened.

I also noticed that the American blockbusters often portrayed Japanese characters as stereotypes that weren’t quite authentic.  Sometimes they lacked the right modesty or dignity, the correct intonation, or mannerisms that should have been depicted in a certain way.  I think there just weren’t enough creators, producers or writers who could talk about Japan profoundly.  So I could see ways to present a more convincing Japanese character.

And then there was ‘Black Rain’. That came out in 1989, the same year I was in Nebraska.  Seeing Ken Takakura, Yusaku Matsuda and Tomisaburo Wakayama in the movie’s central roles had a great impact on me.  They were vivid and convincing, and stole the show in many scenes.

You acted in the Japanese play ‘The Winds of God,’ which U.S. theater critics liked.  Can you tell me about that experience?

(When I was) in Japan in the 90s, and ‘The Winds of God’ was playing, I knew the director – she was my first acting teacher, Yoko Narahashi.  I spent four years trying to get a part in the play, but it had already had a full, original cast with fabulous, quality actors…

Let me interrupt – can you tell us a bit about the story?

Yes.  It’s a play about two modern-day, light-hearted fellows who die together in an accident, only to have their souls reborn into the bodies of kamikaze pilots near the end of WWII.  It’s a comic-tragic story that follows their attempts to stop the other pilots from flying their futile missions.

OK. Please go on!

Well, Masayuki Imai, the writer of the play, decided to form and direct his own troupe, and to take the play to the U.S.  When he began looking for other Japanese supporting leads who could handle all the translated English lines and acting, I finally got my chance.  The timing was right – it was luck.  In 1998 and 1999 we performed for one month off-off Broadway, and two months off-Broadway, respectively.

I want to ask you about acting the part of Lieutenant Okubo in ‘Letters from Iwo Jima,’ which was directed by Clint Eastwood. Did you find it an intimidating experience?

Yes – but not because of him.  I had read about his directing style in Japan, and so I knew what to expect.  He’s famous for not rehearsing much, and for using the first takes, and I was wondering if all that was true – and I found out that it is true.  He doesn’t do much rehearsing, unless the scene is a technically complicated one.  He likes to let his actors go. Instead, he spends a lot of time on the casting process; I think that part took months. But once he’s chosen his actors, he totally trusts them, and lets them do their work.

The intimidating part was this; the film was almost entirely in Japanese.  And the director and crew didn’t speak Japanese, and wouldn’t catch it if we stumbled, or got stuck, or used an incorrect expression – and it’s a period piece, where this mattered. So we had to be focused on delivering our lines perfectly on the first and second takes.  We couldn’t make any mistakes; that part of it was intimidating, and highly challenging.

But Clint Eastwood is not like his image – Dirty Harry pointing a gun.  He’s a gentle guy – and fun! – always joking to relax his actors’ hearts.  Once an actor has worked with him, he or she will love him.

Tell me another an actor, writer or director who has been a big influence on you.  

From the U.S., Stephen Spielberg.   As I mentioned in the lecture, when I was a kid my parents would take us out to dinner, and it always included a movie.  When I was six years old I saw ‘Jaws’ on the big screen.  I was so fascinated – and scared – I really fell in love with Spielberg (though not yet as an actor, of course.)  I also remember ‘Shadow Warrior’ (Kagemusha) by Akira Kurosawa, that I was lucky enough to see in the theater as a child.  I also love the actor Toshiro Mifune.   I studied him in many Akira Kurosawa films after I started my acting career.  Those are two giants of film making, and their influence on me has been deep. And of course there is Clint Eastwood, who is like a father of film – or a god.  Let me add that I would love to meet and work with Kevin Feige, president of Marvel Studios.

You are using your experience to help educate Japanese students who are studying all kinds of different things. What is your most important message to these students?

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Don’t limit your possibilities. Never limit yourself. I moved my base from Japan to Hollywood in 2007, at the age of 38. People said: “What? You’re not even famous in Japan yet!” They take no responsibility for their words; they say things like that so easily. Yet who knows what will happen in five years, or ten years? I was lucky to have many backers, people who supported me, and kept me motivated, but most students don’t have that. People will tell them: “Don’t do this, don’t do that.” This includes friends, lovers, teachers – I don’t want to speak badly of people – but they’ll say you can’t make a living as a singer, or a dancer, or an actor. They’ll tell you it’s just a hobby, not a business. Coming from Japan, I’ve always wanted to be someone who throws light on hope and possibility. To be convincing, I need to show results, and triumphs, but also failures. So I talk about both failing and succeeding.

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