Actors and Their Acting Styles: The Best of Japan [ Part 2/5 ] – Shun Oguri, Takayuki Yamada, Gou Ayano & Kengo Kora

he Best of Japan continues. In Part 1, we talked about four leading Japanese actors, now we set our sights toward some more excellent players and see if they can match talents from Europe and Hollywood (i.e., do we have a Japanese Romain Duris or a Ryan Gosling for that matter?)

Compared with the Koreans who are keen, highly competitive and favor international exposure, the Japanese don’t have the same kind of drive. While Korean and perhaps Chinese and Thai dramas are exported throughout Asia (and elsewhere like the United States and Latin America), we seldom see J-doramas being part of any primetime TV. The fact is, licensing a Japanese drama would cost a network – in say, the Philippines – 3 times the price of its Korean counterpart. But does it mean, Japanese actors are less talented since they are not familiar to movie audiences abroad? Is that question even valid?

Let me leave the discussion at that. In Part 2, more J-actors up ahead!

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The Crows Zero franchise is considered one of Japan’s most successful, and credit goes to the filmmaker, Takashi Miike. There was a recent sequel, with a new director (Toshiaki Toyoda who made Blue Spring and 9 Souls, among others) and of course, new actors – Masahiro Higashide, Yuya Yagira, and Kento Nagayama. 

In the original Crows movies, we have two of Japan’s most versatile players on the opposite side of the fence – as the violence and rivalry heat up at Suzuran High, we have Takayuki Yamada, the current gang leader, and Shun Oguri, who hungers for the throne.

Shun Oguri started early in acting. Many J-dorama fans would remember the actor for his roles in Hana Yori Dango, Hana Kimi, and the more recent Rich Man, Poor Woman, and Nobunaga Concerto (Drama show and movie). While he has made more than 35 drama series, he has acted in almost the same number of full-length films. Among his most notable roles are Crows Zero (1 & 2), The Woodsman and the Rain, and Space Brothers.

His popularity remains undiminished – more high-profile roles this year and the next, including Lupin the 3rd and Gintama.

Acting Style: Many of his performances were marked with the practical use of his eyes (as if it can speak) and body language that says a lot about what he feels. He’s considered the best “second lead” vis-a-vis Jun Matsumoto and Hiro Mizushima.

Top 3 Performances: A lot of great shows, especially for The Woodsman and the Rain and the Crows Zero franchise, but he is equally effective as a J-dorama actor in Boys Over Flowers, Tokyo Dogs and Rich Man, Poor Woman.

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To a big extent, Takayuki Yamada also suffers the “second lead syndrome” and perhaps he suffers even more than Oguri. Both are versatile actors who will take on any characters – good, bad and in between. In 2011, Yamada grabbed the Asia Rising Star Award at the 10th New York Asian Film Festival. That makes him one of the very few Japanese actors who have been recognized abroad.

If you have seen him mostly for his supporting roles, then I invite you to watch MILOCRORZE – A Love Story, where he plays three different characters. More recently, he also reprised his role in Ushijima, the Loan Shark.

Acting Style: Yamada has a commanding voice which he used quite effectively. Like Oguri, he is also a method actor, internalizing his character and leaving his personality behind.

Top Performances: The Crows Zero franchise would be a great start to appreciate Yamada’s career, also a must-watch is Milocrorze, The Devil’s Path and Takashi Miike’s 13 Assassins where he plays one of the Samurai.

Verdict: Only by a small degree, Shun Oguri is the better actor. But Yamada’s variety of movie roles has far exceeded my expectations, while Oguri takes on familiar (and popular) parts yet the “magic” seems to be missing in his recent performances. He looks tired and bored, while Yamada looks inspired.

Kengo Kora and Go Ayano belong to a different generation, compared to Oguri and Yamada. They apparently have no desire to play rom-com roles or get involved in pretty boy-next-door characters that are so familiar with Japanese idols (and other aspiring actors) today. While they are involved in live action movies, it is from a different set of criteria and preferences. 

Even with his male model looks and 5’9″ height, Kengo Kora prefers playing geeky and even dark, disturbed characters. Kora started acting in 2005 playing bit roles in drama and movies. In 2008, he played Ama opposite Yuriko Yoshitaka in Snakes and Earrings. Kora and Yoshitaka returned to the big screen after five years in A Story of Yonosuke and maybe considered the actor’s most important role to date. 

With finesse and style, Kora has managed to play both contemporary and historical characters – A Tale of Samurai Cooking, opposite Aya Ueto, The Drudgery Train with Mirai Moriyama, and Into the White Night with Maki Horikita.

Acting Style: Kora is the epitome of the “tall, dark and handsome” man, but he seldom (or maybe not at all) capitalized on the “attractive” part, always bringing the “dark” quality into the equation. Like Ryuhei Matsuda, Kora has this uncanny “unconscious” effort to his acting.

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Top Performances: Story of Yonosuke, The Drudgery Train, and The Egoists are his most famous movies to date. He is also quite funny and delightful to watch in the TV series, Hard Nut (with Ai Hashimoto).

Gou Ayano is even taller than Kora and also has male model qualities and like Kora, Ayano also loves to play sinister, dark characters. He is one of the villains in Rurouni Kenshin and the boyfriend of Erika Sawajiri’s assistant (who was later seduced by Sawajiri) in Helter Skelter. His most accomplished performance is in Mipo Oh’s The Light Shines Over There (with Chizuru Ikewaki and Masaki Suda)

Acting Style: “based on the principle that acting finds its expression in people’s response to other individuals and circumstances”, Ayano – more or less – follows the Meisner technique in acting. 

Top Performances: The Light Shines Only There, The Flower of Shanidar (or maybe even better, Helter Skelter, though it’s a bit part) and The Snow White Murder Case. Ayano displayed flashes of acting brilliance in the Tv series Kounodori (with Mayu Matsuoka and Kentaro Sakaguchi).

Verdict: At this point, Kengo Kora commands the view, with Ayano still a long way to go and probably to wait for another critical role in the same league as The Light Shines Only There.

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Part 3: Actors reflect the general population to a certain degree, and we will talk about that in the next part. Some Japanese men are considered too shy to get involved with the opposite sex, and there are reflections of their “predicaments” even in the movies – we have the geeks, the nerds, and the virgins. We have yet to answer Japan’s counterparts yet…

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