‘Johnny Depp of Japan’ to do PH film

Tadanobu Asano in Manila for 'Pusong Wazak' (Ruined Heart), latest project by filmmaker Khavn dela Cruz

'MACHO.' Asano has also undermined his persona with sensitive performances. Photo from his Facebook

MANILA, Philippines – Rappler recently dropped by the Quezon City home of Khavn dela Cruz, maverick filmmaker and pioneer in Philippine independent cinema, for an interview with his lead performer in his latest project, “Pusong Wazak” (Ruined Heart) – none other than top Japanese actor Tadanobu Asano.

“Renowned,” “acclaimed,” and “iconic” have become pretty exasperating cliches in the language of art-and-culture journalism (perhaps like “revitalization” and “collective” are to writing government statements), but these adjectives really qualify when one regards this low-key actor with a volatile body of performances.

Ronin, punk, loner

Asano is celebrated in international cinema for his eclectic work, a lot of it exemplifying the template of the Japanese or Asian macho – in films like “Mongol” (as Genghis Khan), Takeshi Kitano’s “Zatoichi” – wherein he plays the taciturn but lethal foil to Kitano’s blind and equally deadly ronin – and Takashi Miike’s ultraviolent “Ichi the KIller,” as the psychotic punk hitman Kakihara.

Yet Asano has also undermined this persona with such sensitive performances as his forlorn composer in Hou Hsiao-hsien’s “Cafe Lumiere” and the repressed librarian in Pen-Ek’s “Last Life in the Universe.”

Here’s a compilation of Asano’s work in ‘Zatoichi,’ set to AC/DC’s ‘Back in Black’ in TheLastVenom2’s YouTube:

Asano is also prolific as an actor and director in highly conceptual TV commercials, including a collaboration with Wong Kar-wai and Christopher Doyle (the cinematographer in “Last Life”).

The diversity of Asano’s work has led to his being labeled “the Johnny Depp of Japan,” a PR-inspired appellation he is loath to accept. Yet it has secured his stature in international festivals and has prompted Hollywood’s beckoning, such as his participation in the “Thor” franchise (including 2013’s “The Dark World”). 

HOLLYWOOD CALLING. Asano as Hogun in the 'Thor' franchise. Still from his Facebook

The world-renowned actor arrived incognito in September, welcomed only by Khavn and his band of outsiders. He has since left Manila but will return to continue his work in “Ruined Heart’s” production.

Although he is just getting acquainted with this country and its filmmaking community, Asano is actually returning to the familiar territory of independent cinema, after his stint in mainstream Hollywood.

ASANO IN TOWN. With Khavn and gang. Photo from Khavn's Facebook

Rappler’s interview with Asano in Khavn’s home was like the UN General Assembly convening when its interpreters happened to be on a day-off.

But the actor got along well with everyone, and said – or at least that’s how we understood him – he was used to the happy chaos of filmmaking with a cast and crew speaking different languages. Cinema, after all, is a universal language.

“My English is perfect,” Asano said ironically. It was actually one of the few lines of English he spoke in our interview. But he makes an effort to understand and communicate.

From his impressions of Khavn’s filmmaking style, he said the Philippines’ style of filmmaking is more like improvisation, as opposed to the systematic style of shooting in Japanese cinema. Khavn’s style is indeed unique to the filmmaker, but is also similar to other directors whom Asano has worked with. He cites the Taiwanese Hou Hsiao-hsien as an example.

In “Ruined Heart,” Asano plays another distinct variation on his gangster roles. He’s a henchman on the employ of a local syndicate who finds his heart ruined, in the course of “another love story between a criminal and a whore,” as this project’s teaser already conveys.

FELLINI IN QC. Asano amid happy chaos of 'Ruined Heart' set. Photo from Kints Kintana's Facebook

“How can you relate with your villainous characters when you seem like a very nice guy?”

Asano laughed, obviously understanding our question. 

“I hope I’m a very nice guy,” he said. “Some people like the Yakuza – these people are, like, very bad. But their life is very interesting, their story is very interesting.

“My face is not like a hero[‘s],” he added.

He may not be privvy to the underworld, as he claims, but Asano also relates his part to his personal circumstances.

“The situation [with my character] is very similar. My character is Japanese but he is in the Philippines, [with the] Philippine Mafia. And I’m with a [Filipino] crew. So maybe there’s kind of [an] adjustment with the surroundings.”

He said he wants to do parts that reflect “a little of my personality. For example, I’m a single father. I divorced my ex-wife. Maybe I can play that kind of guy.”

Asano is always on the lookout for “interesting” projects, he said. “I don’t care how much pay, how small the film. But I want to try.”

We teased him about his being called “the Johnny Depp of Japan.” Asano smiled.

“He’s a great actor. But I’m not the Johnhy Depp of Japan.” – Interviews by Kris Lacaba and Lourdes Parawan for Rappler.com

Here’s the poster for the short-film version of ‘Ruined Heart’ (from Khavn’s Facebook):

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