Not all actors are created equal. Some are more popular than others. Some get more box office hits than others. There are also those who can be considered "under the radar" but are as talented as those who are in the spotlight all the time. Fans - particularly Japanese fans - have a different set of criteria and idols are not necessarily actors - or are they?

In Part 4, we'll feature a few Japanese talents who have been what can be considered as top Japanese exports - famous abroad, yet their acting is the subject of debates among movie critics and fans. Listing also, a few who have been "under the radar". Also, a few notes on idols and why rom-com roles are not the gauge to measure an actor's degree of success. 

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Tatsuya Fujiwara is a particular case in point. With an impressive acting resume that includes significant roles in theater, Fujiwara is both popular in Japan and elsewhere in the world. He was a standout in Battle Royale and earlier movies such as the Death Note series, and Kaiji (1 and 2) put him on the international map. His more recent movies such as I'm Flash!, Shield of Straw, and the Rouroni Kenshin sequels help him sustain a high-profile career.

However, there are some notes on his acting as it seems he can't distinguish playing in theater and acting in movies. 

No exaggerated sound or movement is required. The reality is less enhanced when a camera and microphone become involved. In fact, due to camera-work, score, lighting, and other effects, it is sometimes better to do less than you would in real life because so many things are augmenting your performance. So the main responsibility of television and film actors is that they behave naturally. [ read more ]

That's from an article by David Green regarding the differences between acting in movies and theater. As Nippon Cinema's Kevin Oullette observes Fujiwara's acting and took note in one of his recent films, I'm Flash!:

On the positive side, the cast is quite good, and their individual performances are engrossing enough to salvage what would otherwise be a painfully dull experience. Even Fujiwara can forgo his typical neck vein-bulgy fits of faux emotion for a more understated portrayal of an outwardly arrogant man experiencing inner conflict for the first time in his life. [ source ]

I was particularly impressed with him in Battle Royale and then find his performances in Death Note, and the Kaiji series as over-the-top and then back to liking him in I'm Flash! and Shield of Straw, if only he can restrain himself from doing these over-the-top acting, he could be the most consistent Japanese actor working today. A reference to how he's popular abroad can be seen in this series of videos created especially for the star by the Singapore-based SPHRazor.

But let's take Fujiwara's words in explaining how he perform:

I don't think I will have another chance to get my eyes filmed so much," Fujiwara said. "The director went into great detail in giving me instructions, like 'Open your eyes more menacingly' or 'More aggressively.' I had to keep my eyes wide open from morning until night, but when I told him, 'Director, maybe you don't need any more shots of my eyes,' he said, 'No. A few more.' Day after day we had these kinds of exchanges.

He was interviewed by The Yomiuri Shimbun about his movie, Monster, opposite Takayuki Yamada, who will be in the same movie with Fujiwara for the first time.The article went on to explain:

Fujiwara pushes his acting to an almost stoic extent. This style of acting took its toll on him because "It's like ripping my body and mind with a knife," he said, adding that he became mentally and physically exhausted. [ read more ]

Acting Style: It's hard, even now, to adequately describe his acting style. But he could very well be considered a method actor in that he creates in himself the thoughts and feelings of his characters, so as to develop lifelike performances. 

Top Performances: Battle Royale, Shield of Straw, and an early Takashi Miike film entitled Sabu (with Satoshi Tsumabuki). 

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Winning the Best Actor and Rookie of the Year at the same time is no small feat at the Japan Academy Prize. No wonder Yosuke Kubozuka manages to sustain a movie career from 1996 until now. He did the double win via his role as the son of a Japanese-Korean father who is also a boxer in Isao Yukisada's runaway winner "Go". Popularly known for his role as Peco in Fumuhiko Sori's Ping Pong, Kubozuka is as "perennial as the grass" with his star shining brightly even now.

Lesser known roles in such movies as Pandora's Box (with Shota Sometani), Monsters Club (with Eita) and Strangers in the City should be included in your watchlist if you want to know more of the actor.

Acting Style: He comes across as someone who has unlimited energy, most probably because of his almost iconic role in Ping Pong. In a recent interview, he was quoted as saying he uses his life experiences in portraying characters who may experience similar situations.

Top Performances: "Go" where he won acting awards and Ping Pong, that extraordinary movie about table tennis, friendship, and competition. His short, yet memorable role in Monsters Club is also worth mentioning.

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Hoshi Ishida is part of the cast of the movie Half a Confession that won Best Film at the 28th Japan Academy Prize back in 2005. He was also the lead star in Canary as Koichi Iwase, the son of one of the members of a religious cult, which was disbanded after a murderous gas attack on the Tokyo subway. He is also the co-star of Shota Sometani in Touching the Skin of Eeriness, a prequel to an upcoming film entitled Flood. We can proclaim without hesitation that Ishida is one of Japan's most underrated young actors.

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He recently participated in a Q&A at the Raindance International Film Festival, explaining his role in the movie and how challenging it is to play opposite Sometani when they have to act so close together, doing an interpretative dance.

Ishida is like an active volcano that is about to erupt but fails to do so, containing all those volatile elements for a future explosion. That is how he performed in Canary as he escapes from a facility to find his sister and in turn, encounters all sorts of dangers. As with any actor, anyone cast opposite Sometani (or Yuya Yagira for that matter) must be one hell of an actor. In the case of Ishida, just watching the trailer is enough to whet one's movie appetite.

I recommend that you watch him in The Depths. It's a South Korean-Japanese productions with Ryusuke Hamaguchi (濱口竜介) as director:

A photographer and a call boy and their risky boundary. Famous photographer Bae-hwan attends Gil-soo’s wedding and congratulates him. However, the bride runs away and the wedding becomes a disaster. Bae-hwan decides to stay a few more days in Japan to comfort Gil-soo. One day while taking pictures instead of Gil-soo’s wife, Bae-hwan is fascinated by a call boy Ryu, who comes to ask for his profile pictures to be taken. Bae-hwan offers him to follow him to Korea and tells him that he can become a great model. Ryu needed a way out of a murder case he was involved in without intention and follows Bae-hwan. [ source ]

Acting Style: Perhaps he has yet to develop a more solid acting technique than his current style, but he comes across as someone who based his performance on the actions of his co-stars. 

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While Tatsuya Fujiwara maybe such a big hit in Singapore, the duo of Haruma Miura and Takeru Sato can be considered as the younger generation of actors who have generated considerable interest outside Japan and who also perform in movies produced and directed by other Asian filmmakers, as in Haruma's case. Many may include the name of Yuki Furukawa who is currently getting a lot of attention in mainland China, but his degree of popularity cannot compare with the two Amuse talents.

Haruma Miura started as a child actor in 1997, but he rose to fame via the movie Koizora: Sky of Love. His performance and that of the film itself is still the subject of debate. He also plays the lead in Catch a Wave, an earlier movie that many says is one of his most memorable roles to date. Kimi ni Todoke and Gokusen: The Movie, plus appearances in dramas such as Bloody Monday and The Hours of my Life kept him in the spotlight. 

High-profile roles in The Eternal Zero, Five Minutes to Tomorrow and Attack on Titan has already cemented his position as one of Japan's most sought-after leading men. While Tatsuya Fujiwara has demonstrated his ability to silence his critics via credible performances of late, Miura remains inconsistent and maybe even confused. His recent performance in The Eternal Zero lacks the intensity and "heart" compared to his co-stars who have done quite well in this box office hit.

Acting Style: Hard to say what acting technique he's using as different directors produces different results.

Top 3 Performances: Koizora, and the rom-com Kimi ni Todoke. His performance in the drama "Hours of my Life" is a vast improvement to his otherwise dismal performance in Last Cinderella. 

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Fellow Amuse talent Takeru Sato has established himself on the international scene (which apparently includes his standing at home) via the very successful Ruoroni Kenshin trilogy. The latest installment in the action-packed Samurai adventure-drama is still wowing audiences across Asia as of this writing. But Sato is also known for his earlier movies such as Beck and as Kamen Rider Den-o.

A heavy contender as Japan's romantic-comedy king, Sato made great use of music and the coolness of boy bands via The Liar and His Lover. A new movie, Bakuman, with Ryunosuke Kamiki, is highly-anticipated, with newcomer Nana Komatsu playing his love interest.

Acting Style: Expert in the rom-com genre, Sato usually plays the underdog, the one who gets bullied but in the end, gets the girl and lives happily ever after. There are certain mixes to the character and aside from Kenshin as the samurai warrior, he's as good (or bad) as it gets.

Top 3 Performances: Rurouni Kenshin trilogy, aside from the action sequences, he was effective playing the mysterious assassin turned reclusive traveler. The drama Emperor's Cook also impresses.

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On Playing Rom-Com roles and what it says about an actor and his craft: A sidenote

An actor cannot make mistakes in playing romantic comedy roles, simply because it's easy to portray, compared to say playing a disturbed, deranged character in a Takashi Miike or Sion Sono film. Individual actors have been pigeon-holed to play rom-com parts, and they also happen to amass fantastic box office results. Most movie audiences love to watch light drama or light comedy (or the combination of both) because they want to be entertained and have fun and see their favorite actors. There is nothing wrong in that.

What is wrong is to assume that such actors as Shota Sometani, Yuya Yagira, Sosuke Ikematsu, Kento Nagayama, Masataka Kubota and many others as being "inferior" or even "crap" for not concentrating their efforts in playing rom-com roles.

I have yet to discover an actor winning an award by playing romantic comedies, though you may be amused to know that those who win "Best Kiss" or "Best Lover" awards play these type of roles. I mean, Yuya Yagira won Best Actor at the prestigious Cannes Film Festival. Is comparison even warranted at this time? Probably not.

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Are Japanese idols, especially those belonging to Johnny and Associates, also actors? Another sidenote.

Yes, they are. I believe there is a good number of Johnny's who are capable actors in their rights. But a career in entertainment means a lot of time consumed in practices - they are singers and dancers and stage performers too, and their bread and butter come from these engagements.

The most popular and acclaimed Johnny talent Takuya Kimura has commanded the world of Japanese drama for more than two decades, and he's already a legend among his peers at the talent agency. Is he a great actor? Difficult to say because personally, I have not finished any drama series that stars Kimura. Has he won acting awards? Most definitely but these are acting awards based on his drama performances. One of his movies, Space Battleship Yamato, fails to impress. No matter what is written here, Kimura is a fixture in Japanese entertainment and his accomplishment in drama series cannot be taken lightly.

One-shot wonders? Ryo Nishikido and Ninomiya Kazunari each had a grand acting performance to date: Chonmage Purin (A Boy and His Samurai) from Ryo and Letters from Iwo Jima from Ninomiya. Yamapi was incredible as the boxer in Ashita no Joe (Tomorrow's Joe) and gave his co-star Yusuke Iseya a run for his money. I have yet to watch another movie that can be considered critical winners for these idols. Of course, they continue to hug the limelight via dramas.

Late bloomers? Toma Ikuta and Kamenashi Kazuya (Kame): Ikuta showed vast improvements in the acting department, compared to The Fallen Angel in 2010 to last year's Brain Man. He was equally impressive in The Mole Song, an action-comedy where he plays an undercover agent. Kame is also having some great moments in acting via It's Me; It's Me (Ore, Ore). In The Vancouver Asahi, he had an opportunity to pit talents with Satoshi Tsumabuki and the rest of the cast.

Younger Generation: Yuto Nakajima has taken a big leap in the acting department via recent drama shows. WaterPolo Yankees was entertaining yet cheesy and generic at the same time. Still, the entertainment value is there in big doses. His latest, Pink and Gray, is an impressive first lead debut, and his new drama "Hope" solidifies his position as an emerging dramatic actor.

Yuta Tamamori also did perform quite well in Pin to Kona and the more recent Nobunaga no Chef (Part 2). 

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Final Part of the Series: The actors and their acting styles in one sentence or less, plus the rankings!

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