Kirin Kiki, everyone’s favourite Japanese screen grandmother, on flowering late

The self-effacing actress, now 73, says she’s still working because, unlike some colleagues, she doesn’t mind playing characters her age or older, such as in the films of Hirokazu Koreeda

PUBLISHED : Tuesday, 22 March, 2016, 5:00am
UPDATED : Wednesday, 23 March, 2016, 2:57pm

Kirin Kiki is a legend in Japan and, in person, a walking amalgam of goofball wit and gratuitous modesty. When she sat down for her only interview before receiving a lifetime achievement award at the 10th Asian Film Awards ceremony in Macau this month, the actress didn’t even venture the usual platitudes when asked about the recognition.

“I’m 73 years old now. It’d be better if they gave the awards to someone younger,” said Kiki, winner of two best actress awards in the Japanese Academy Prizes – for her maternal roles in 2007’s Tokyo Tower: Mom and Me, and Sometimes Dad and 2012’s Chronicle of My Mother – recognition she sounds just as eager to play down.

“I don’t remember any of them now,” she says with a chuckle. “Once we finished shooting, I just threw away the scripts and forgot all about it.”

An actress of extraordinary sensitivity and warmth, Kiki portrays ostensibly benign characters who are sometimes torn by regrets and disappointment. Now everyone’s favourite screen mother in Japanese cinema, the actress has her own theory about her success.

“I believe I’m regarded more as a grandmother than a mother nowadays. I’m different from other actresses in that I’m a seventy-something playing myself in the movies. It’s not every actress who would like to act their age or play characters older than themselves.”

She offers a simpler explanation too: “Women can’t help but become grannies when they grow old.”

Born Keiko Uchida in 1943 Tokyo to a musical family, Kiki first became an actress for the Bungakuza theatre troupe in the 1960s, gained popularity as a TV actress in the ’70s, and began to work regularly with notable filmmakers, from Seijun Suzuki to Masahiro Shinoda and Kon Ichikawa, in the ’80s. She looks distinctly uncomfortable with inquiries about her early career.

“There’s nothing memorable about that period. We’ve all forgotten about those works,” Kiki says of the majority of her more than 100 television and film credits.

“I started acting because I couldn’t find another job then. In my 55 years of acting, the first 45 were spent just to make a living. It was only in the past 10 years that movies became my passion and focus, that I was offered parts for which I had a responsibility to deliver a performance. I didn’t feel such responsibility with the earlier films.”

In An , the 2015 drama directed by arthouse filmmaker Naomi Kawase, the actress plays a long-quarantined leprosy patient who has mastered the art of making sweet red bean paste for traditional dorayaki pancakes. The mentality that a person should concentrate and do one thing well in her life is one that Kiki doesn’t share – or so she says in jest.

“If I shared my character’s mentality, I’d be a much better actress than I am,” she says with a mischievous smile.

To more serious film lovers, Kiki’s belated rise to stardom is due in no small part to her continuing collaboration with auteur Hirokazu Koreeda, which has so far spawned several enthralling family dramas: Still Walking (2008), I Wish (2011), Like Father, Like Son (2013), Our Little Sister (2015), and After the Storm, due for a May 2016 release in Japan.

READ MORE: Japanese filmmaker Hirokazu Kore-eda’s Our Little Sister (2015) brims with optimism

Their collaboration began with Kiki attending an audition to play the matriarchal character in Still Walking . “At the time, I asked Koreeda if he was considering other candidates,” she recalls. “He told me the names of those candidates and I replied that I would be a better choice than any of them.”

Koreeda has compared her in media interviews to another Japanese legend, Haruko Sugimura, a regular of Yasujiro Ozu’s films. Kiki doesn’t see the resemblance, but says that she does behave like Koreeda’s deceased mother, “especially the naughty side of her personality”.

In After the Storm, which Kiki considers an unofficial sequel to Still Walking, she will again play the ageing mother to Hiroshi Abe, who plays a once-celebrated author who has fallen on hard times because of his gambling habit.

Although it deals with a different scenario to the earlier film, the two lead characters have retained their names. “I once complained to Koreeda that he’s making the same movie over and over again, and he replied that it’s because he really wanted to,” says Kiki.

After the Storm is not a large-scale production and it doesn’t have the most vivid of stories, so I do worry that nobody would go to see it. There is no problem if it’s screened in smaller cinemas. But now that Koreeda is such a big name, his films are inevitably screened in large cinemas; I’m worried that this film may not suit those venues.”

At a later point in our interview, Kiki returned to the subject of After the Storm, asking: “Have you seen the film yet?” I said I had not. “Then keep your expectations low,” she advised, tongue firmly in cheek.

I’ll keep on making films and I’ll keep it spontaneous. I haven’t set a specific ending point
Kirin Kiki

Apart from that one concern, however, the actress speaks like she has simply been enjoying life too much to give a fuss about anything. As an example, Kirin Kiki is in fact the actress’s second stage name – after she auctioned off her first, Chiho Yuki, on TV in 1977. “I don’t pay much attention to names, so I’m happy with any,” she says.

“After I sold my name, I just opened a dictionary and picked a random word from it. The name has no meaning and I haven’t given it too much thought. I’m 73 and I’m still making films; if I had a habit of thinking things over, I’d probably not be in showbiz any more.”

Other than After the Storm, on which production has already wrapped, Kiki doesn’t have any forthcoming project confirmed. But don’t figure on her retiring from the film business.

“It’s fun to go around like we do now,” she says, gesturing to her modest entourage. “I’ll keep on making films and I’ll keep it spontaneous. I haven’t set a specific ending point.”

It’s a minor miracle that Kiki has maintained her zeal for acting up to this point. She was diagnosed with cancer in the mid-2000s, amid other medical issues. “I haven’t recovered – there are some tumours left in my adrenal glands and I’m not taking medicine, either, though I’m receiving treatment,” she says.

As things stand, Kiki is also working without a manager or an agency. “I’m usually on my own,” she says. Has it always operated like that? “I used to have management, too. But then my manager died and now I don’t have one,” she says matter-of-factly.

It probably helps that Kiki, much like her character in An, has the ability to find delight in the little things. “I know how to look for happiness in everything,” she reassures me. “Even though I’m ill now, I can still find happiness in my everyday life. Even when the moment comes for me to finally face death, I’ll still be able to find happiness then.”

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