From The Last Samurai and Memoirs of a Geisha to Babel and even Godzilla, many of Hollywood’s greatest hits and most treasured classics have been set in Japan. But setting has been only one reason why these films are so memorable. Another vital element to creating the legacy of a masterpiece in these films and others like them is the casting of world class Japanese actors. These ultra-talented and versatile Japanese actors craft not only expert performances, but provide non-Japanese audiences with a glimpse into both historical and modern Japanese culture. As entertainment grows larger and the world becomes ever smaller thanks to the wonders of technology, many Japanese actors are becoming regular fixtures in both film and television produced in Hollywood. Below are some of our notable favorites.
To fans of NBC’s Heroes, there is just no one quite like Masi Oka. Adored for his unique ability to play characters that are simultaneously serious and humorous (perhaps we should say seriously humorous?), Oka has been involved in show business since he was a child when he first appeared on the CBS game show Child’s Play. He went on to pursue a degree in computer science and mathematics at Brown University which eventually led to work at George Lucas’s visual special effects company, Industrial Light & Magic. He had hoped to win an Oscar for technical work. Instead, he landed the role of Hiro Nakamura on NBC’s Heroes, eventually earning him both an Emmy and Golden Globe nomination. It is safe to assume that this versatile and talented actor/artist will continue to exercise his creativity in a variety of film and television projects.
Though you may not know him exactly by name, you know that you know Ken Watanabe the instant you see him. After all, he has featured in many of Hollywood’s recent blockbusters and soon-to-be classics, among them The Last Samurai, Batman Begins, Memoirs of a Geisha, Letters from Iwo Jima, and even this summer’s most talked about film, Inception. He started his career on stage, gaining fame as he joined the Japanese theatre troupe En. He soon won roles as the hero in various stage productions, earning the notice of critics and audiences alike. From there, it was on to television for several years where he played almost every type of character imaginable, becoming a permanent fixture to fans of Japanese entertainment. In 2003, he was introduced to western audiences in The Last Samurai, for which he earned an Oscar nomination for Best Supporting Actor. His daughter is the popular model Anne Watanabe.
Keiko Agena is an actress best known for her spitfire performance on the popular series Gilmore Girls where she played Lane Kim, the best friend of Rory Gilmore. Anyone who has ever seen the show will recall that the performance given by Agena was almost completely dependent on her ability to deliver reams of dialogue at lightning speed. In fact, sometimes you almost wished that they would slow down their delivery so that you (as the viewer) could keep up with what the characters were saying to each other! Once you adapted to the pace, however, Agena’s great talent as an actress became apparent. She not only delivered her lines flawlessly, but also altered her appearance to play the role. Lane Kim is described as a 16-year-old in the show synopsis. In real life, Agena was more than a decade older! What’s her secret? Maybe it’s good genes. Or maybe it was her childhood in Honolulu. After all, that can’t be a bad way to grow up, now can it? We hope to see more of this beautiful and talented young actress.
To fans of Star Trek, George Takei is an inimitable legend. As the actor who played Hikaru Sulu, helmsman of the USS Enterprise, he is an almost mythical figure to show’s millions of fans across the world. But playing Sulu is only one of his many talents. Takei studied architecture at Berkeley and then earned both his undergraduate and master’s degrees in acting and theatre at UCLA. He furthered his acting expertise by studying in England and Japan thereafter. He won the role of Sulu on Star Trek at a time when there were exceptionally few Asian faces on television, thereby compounding the significance of his presence in the role. It is also rumored that he had noticeable tension with William Shatner on the set of the show, though both actors seem to have put their issues behind them. Takei recently became a prominent figure in the Gay Rights Movement in America as he came out of the closet and became a proponent of same-sex marriage. Currently, he is married to Brad Altman, his partner of the last 18 years.
Carrie Ann Inaba
Though most people know her as one of the spunky judge of ABC’s smash reality competition series Dancing with the Stars, few seem to recall that Carrie Ann Inaba is also an actress of note, having appeared in the second and third Austin Powers films. For the Austin Powers enthusiasts out there, she played Fook Yu (yes, we can’t say it with a straight face either). Inaba, who is of mixed Japanese, Chinese and Irish ancestry, speaks fluent Japanese and lived in Tokyo from 1986 to 1988 where she was a popular singer. Upon returning to the United States, she was cast as a dancer in several film and television series, including In Living Color, Monster Mash: The Movie and Madonna’s Girlie Show World Tour. Most of us, however, know and love her as the usually supportive and encouraging judge on Dancing with the Stars where she offers generous counsel and advice each week to the celebrity contestants bold enough to show her their moves. As the show continues to grow in popularity each year, we can expect to see Carrie Ann much more in the coming years.