Q&A: Joe Odagiri

Japanese actor Joe Odagiri is a rebel, something made evident by his grungy, gothic style - long, unkempt hair and beard and black boots sporting 10cm heels.

And that independent streak is also apparent in his willingness to explore interesting film projects outside his home country.

Odagiri has made some surprising acting choices in recent years. Last year he played the adopted son of a gangster in local director Nelson Yu Lik-wai's Plastic City set in Rio de Janeiro, and a man troubled by his dreams in Kim Ki-duk's Dream.

He's now starring in mainland director Tian Zhuangzhuang's latest film, the period costume drama The Warrior and the Wolf. Odagiri plays a Han soldier, Lu Shenkang, who falls in love with a cursed tribeswoman (Maggie Q) and transforms into a wolf.

How were you introduced to The Warrior and the Wolf?

I know the film's costume designer, Emi Wada, and she told me about this story that Tian was going to film and asked if I was interested. I read the script and a month later, I met with the director.

But you and the director knew each other prior to this project, right?

We met during auditions for his last film, The Go Master, in 2006. It was about the Chinese born Go master Wu Qingyuan who spent his life living in an adopted country - Japan. But I wasn't cast as there weren't many Japanese parts.

The Warrior and the Wolf is based on a short story written by Japanese novelist, Yasushi Inoue. Were you familiar with the story?

I had never read any of Inoue's stories until Wada introduced me to The Warrior, which I found fascinating. It is a rather condensed story but at the same time has an interesting plot and is very touching. I'm happy that Tian chose to film this story. There are many stories that could make great films and Tian chose a Japanese one.

You spent more than three months in Xinjiang province during filming. What was that experience like?

Everything about Xinjiang is the total opposite of where I am from and the way I live in Japan. After the first few days of living there, I felt like I was in hell, the food and weather were so terrible. I felt like I was on the verge of a mental breakdown. Luckily, it got better.

Do you believe a man can be transformed into a wolf?

Isn't it an ancient Chinese legend? I believe it.

How do you feel about the film's strong sexual element?

I don't like to do sex scenes, but as a professional actor, once you sign up for a project, you have to carry it through to the end. And I do see why those parts are necessary for the story. The director gave me a lot of direction and Maggie was very professional. We found a way to make it feel more natural by pretending we were staging an action scene.

How do you feel about some of the film's sex scenes being edited for the film's mainland release?

I've noticed that many scenes have been cut in the version shown in Beijing. It's frustrating. This film was made in China, but the people there won't be able to see a complete version of it. But I understand it's official policy. What can you do?

Why do you make so many films outside Japan?

I think I was spoiled by making films in Japan. When everyone is saying nice things about you and you live in a world of compliments, you start to lose yourself, become narcissistic, and live only for that praise. That situation made me sick and I needed to take a break.

Why are you so against making commercial films?

Commercial films are made usually about broad subjects to suit the tastes of the mainstream market. However, I enjoy making quality films that are for a niche market. Because when you don't have that burden of pleasing everyone, you can concentrate on making a good film that reflects your own vision.

Some will criticise The Warrior for its commercial touches, such as CGI. How would you respond?

This film is a good demonstration of how to strike a balance by making a non-commercial film with commercial elements. Tian has the talent to pull it off.

You surprised many people by starring in Joji Matsuoka's Tokyo Tower: Mom & Me, and Sometimes Dad (2007). Why did you take on that project?

I didn't want to be in it. In fact, I hate it, especially the way the filmmaker used depressing music to heighten emotions during a sentimental conversation between the mother and son. A simple conversation can touch people's hearts on its own, and there was no need to go overboard like that, but it was a commercial film. I did love the original book by Masaya Nakagawa, but I didn't like the film. Sometimes you need to make commercial projects early on, so you're free to choose what kind of films you do later on. I still hate it when people describe me as 'the star of Tokyo Tower'. I never wanted to be involved in the first place.

Do you watch commercial films?

Almost never.

What about Mission Impossible III, featuring your co-star, Maggie Q?

No, I haven't seen it and I don't intend to. I told Maggie so.

You've written and directed your first film, Sakura Na Hito Tachi. Any plans for more of the same?

I'm writing a script at the moment. It's about the old Japan and, of course, it'll be shot there. It takes a long time to develop a good story, not to mention turning it into film, so I can't tell you when it'll come out.

Do you prefer acting or directing?

Making a film is never easy. The ending of The Warrior features two wolves taking to the top of the slope and both look away in the same direction. It was such a beautiful scene, but I could imagine it must have taken the director dozens of takes to get it right. But the privilege of being a director is that you get to make films that you like and when you are an actor, you can only hope you're lucky enough to meet a good director.

The Warrior and the Wolf is screening now