Japanese star of Ring films and Train Man is on the right track
Miki Nakatani is proud that she helped spawn two pop culture crazes
Although lauded as the best Japanese actress of her generation, Miki Nakatani was as surprised as many when she won the Excellence in Asian Cinema title - a mid-career achievement prize - at this year's 9th Asian Film Awards (AFA).
The award is a relatively new creation by the AFA committee - its only other winner is Malaysian actress Michelle Yeoh Choo Kheng two years ago - and has yet to achieve the prestige of AFA's lifetime achievement award, whose recent winners include Im Kwon-taek (South Korea) and Hou Hsiao-hsien (Taiwan).
At 39, Nakatani is about 13 years younger than Yeoh, and therefore less recognised by filmgoers around the world. Her award is more a confirmation of her contribution to Japan's contemporary cinema and its influence in the region rather than a vote of popularity.
"This is a special recognition," says Nakatani on the day of the AFA ceremony, held in Macau on March 25. "I'm a bit embarrassed to say that I haven't really made much contribution to Asian cinema. I don't feel like I've done enough to be given this recognition. While I'm very happy to receive it, it makes me feel I should work even harder."
This is not Nakatani's first win: in 2007, at the first edition of AFA, she fended off competition from some of her more illustrious peers to take the best-actress award for her unforgettable role in Memories of Matsuko (2006), still considered her best performance to date.
"Both Zhang Ziyi and Gong Li were nominated, so it took me completely by surprise that I could win it. I hadn't even prepared an acceptance speech. It all happened suddenly," she says.
(Zhang was nominated for The Banquet and Gong for Curse of the Golden Flower.)
Nakatani's career has long had a touch of serendipity: asked to name her breakthrough movie, the actress instead points to an auspicious day in Tokyo in 1989, when she was 14 years old. "I was discovered on the street and persuaded to enter the entertainment business," she says. "At the time, it wasn't my intention to devote myself wholly to it. It felt more like a part-time job."
Nakatani made her TV debut in 1993, and experienced her first taste of fame when she played the sister of the protagonist in TV drama Yokohama Chushin the following year. But it was during the three weeks she spent playing a call girl in her first movie, Berlin (1995), that she "felt as if I had discovered something in film, which ignited my interest in filmmaking".
The actress had her first star turn in police procedural Keizoku, a 1998 TV drama series that spawned a 2000 film. For the overseas audience, however, Nakatani's most notable roles in her early career probably came in the now classic horror movie Ring (1998) and its sequel, Ring 2 (1999), two of the definitive films in the J-horror genre.
"Japanese cinema had been stagnant for quite a while at that point," Nakatani says. "Filmmakers were having difficulty finding a way out. But once horror films such as Ring and Spiral  came out, there was an explosion of interest in Japanese movies. I derive some satisfaction in the fact that I have contributed a little to that period."
And as if it wasn't enough of a feat to be part of a pop cultural phenomenon, Nakatani found herself in another in the mid-2000s when she became a central figure in the otaku (geek) subculture for her part in the Train Man craze.
The internet novel tells the supposedly true story of a geek who saves a beautiful woman from drunken harassment on a subway train. As the female character was alleged to look very much like Nakatani, the actress was offered the role in 2005's Train Man adaptation in a twist on the life-imitating-art-imitating-life narrative.
"The story became popular online because there was really such a person in real life," she says. " Train Man was a social phenomenon at the time. It was very popular in Japan."
A year after the commercial success of Train Man, Nakatani reinvented herself in the much-acclaimed musical biopic Memories of Matsuko. In it, she plays out the roller-coaster life of the titular tragic character who, from the age of 24 to 53, morphs from being a school teacher to a stripper, a murderer, a yakuza moll and, finally, a psychiatric patient.
"The unique characteristic of this film is that it allows one actress to play through the entire life of a woman. There aren't many films like this. I was only 29 then, and it was quite something to be able to work with such a distinguished director [Tetsuya Nakashima]. But it was a very tough experience," she says, possibly referring to rumoured disputes with Nakashima.
Nakatani says she "wouldn't object" if Memories of Matsuko was described as her most representative film, but stresses that "I wouldn't give too much thought as to which film was my best. I believe that after making each film, the most important thing is to look forward. I'll just keep going forward," she says.
Nakatani has a multifaceted career that includes more than 30 films and 40 TV series, seven music albums, and nine books. "I guess maybe not as many as nine books," she interrupts me as I read from her biography. "Maybe six or seven?"
Her assistant will later confirm that the star has indeed published nine books.
Add to that her appearances in theatre productions - including the leading role in a four-week run of Mary Stuart at Tokyo's Parco Theatre in June - and Nakatani may seem to be on the verge of spreading herself too thin, but she is quick to state that this is not an issue.
"My personality is like this. I am … really afraid of being bored and easily get tired of the same thing. I can't live a routine life. I always look for new challenges. That's why in the future, I'd like to do an even greater variety of things."