Japanese Makeup Artist Makes It Big in Hollywood


Tsuji Kazuhiro is one of the top prosthetic makeup artists in Hollywood, where he has worked for the past 17 years. We sat down to talk to him about his career there and his most recent work on the film Looper starring Bruce Willis.

Tsuji Kazuhiro

Born in Kyoto in 1969. Began studying prosthetic makeup on his own in high school. After graduation he moved to Tokyo and over the next eight years worked on around thirty films as a makeup artist. Moved to the United States in 1996, where he worked at Rick Bakers' studio and contributed to Men In Black, Planet of the Apes, Benjamin Button and other major Hollywood films. Was awarded a British Academy Film Award in 2000 with Baker for work on The Grinch, and nominated for an Academy Awards for makeup for Click in 2007 and Norbit in 2008. Went independent in 2007, establishing his company KTS Effects.

Mission Impossible?

From the film “Looper” © 2012 Looper Distribution, LLC. All rights reserved.

The 2012 Hollywood film Looper (released in Japan in January 2013) features a storyline that incorporates time travel, with a unique twist not seen in other science fiction tales: the characters fight with future versions of themselves.

The prevailing technique for portraying the future appearance of a film character is to use makeup, but this movie had to go one step further. This was because director Rian Johnson decided to have different actors play the present and future versions of the same character. The makeup artist chosen to perform this feat of transformation was Tsuji Kazuhiro.

“When I was first told about my task for the film, I said it wasn’t possible,” Tsuji recalls. “The proportions of the two actors’ faces were just too different. On top of this, there was a scene where the two characters sit opposite each other at a table! There was just no way to pull that off, I insisted.”

The actor playing the present-day version of the leading character, Joe, is Joseph Gordon-Levitt, who starred in Johnson’s first feature-length film Brick (2005). Even before Johnson wrote the screenplay for Looper, and was just working out the basic plot, he had already decided that Gordon-Levitt would play the leading role.

Once the screenplay was completed, however, Bruce Willis showed interest in playing the older Joe from 30 years in the future. Given the boost that such a big name would give the film, Johnson was delighted. There was only one problem: Gordon-Levitt and Willis look nothing like each other.

Where There’s a Will, There’s a Willis

Tsuji almost turned down the project but reconsidered after Gordon-Levitt approached him directly and said, “I really want you to work on his film.” This reflected how passionate the actor was about the project, for which he was also serving as executive producer.

The first task for Tsuji was to create molds of both actors’ faces. He then analyzed the differences between them and tried to work out how to bring them closer together.

“The only option was to work with Joseph’s features because Bruce Willis famously hates makeup. I had to come up with an approach that wouldn’t require too much preparation time for the actor. Also, when it comes to prosthetic makeup, you obviously have to add something to the actor’s face because cutting something off is not an option. So my idea was to add makeup to Joseph’s face in a way that brings it closer to the way Bruce looks.”

But Tsuji could not add too much. The makeup would need to hold up for every take in the film; it would need to be easy to apply and allow the actor freedom of movement. The challenge was come up with the simplest approach possible. After preparing a variety of prosthetic appliances and trying several different patterns, they finally settled on one that added features to Gordon-Levitt’s nose, lips, and eyebrows.

Photos on the right of Gordon-Levitt with makeup, and on the center and left of him and Bruce Willis without makeup. Gordon-Levitt was made to resemble Willis by adding prosthetics to his nose and lips, realigning his eyebrows, lowering his ears, and having him wear green contact lenses. (Photo: Tsuji Kazuhiro)

“This wasn’t a horror or a fantasy film, so the makeup had to look natural. I did my best to disguise the line between the prosthetics and the real skin, but sweat often accumulates around the nose and the lips move a lot so the makeup can fall out of place very easily. What’s more, the prosthetics were in the most noticeable areas of the face. This had to be taken into consideration in the design phase.”

Tsuji’s efforts were rewarded, though, and he now feels that his work on this film is among his finest achievements.

“It’s not just about the makeup. The stories, the actors, and the whole movie have to be great before I can say that it’s a job that I’m really satisfied with. Everything seemed to come together this time and I think it turned out to be a great movie.”

A Job that Takes Passion

Although Looper just missed out on being nominated for the academy awards, Tsuji has been nominated twice before and is now firmly in the ranks of the top artists.

“I was interested in special effects as a child. I didn’t like the cheap effects used in Japanese films, but when I saw Star Wars, I thought, ‘Wow! This is totally different. That’s what I want to do.’ Ever since I was a little kid I’d enjoyed making things, so I ended up making miniature figures and filming them using an old eight millimeter camera.”

The impetus for Tsuji’s interest in prosthetic makeup dates from his time in high school, when he read Fangoria, an American magazine on horror films. He was amazed at how an actor had been completely transformed to play the role of Abrahama Lincoln thanks to the work of Dick Smith, one of Hollywood’s great makeup artists. Tsuji was so impressed that he decided to write to Smith directly to ask for his advice and began to experiment on his own with prosthetic makeup .

Tsuji’s enthusiasm and hard work paid off the day after he graduated from high school. Smith had come to Japan as a special effects advisor for the Japanese horror film Sweet Home, directed by Kurosawa Kiyoshi and produced by Itami Jūzō. Smith contacted Tsuji and asked him to be a member of his staff.

This opportunity allowed Tsuji to start working with the real professionals. After eight years, he was given a chance to go to California. He fulfilled a long-held dream by joining the studio of special effects makeup artist Rick Baker, who had worked on the makeup for Michael Jackson’s music video Thriller and had received three academy awards at the time (he now has seven). Tsuji worked under this master craftsman for several years, contributing to several Hollywood blockbusters before going independent in 2007.

Tsuji continues to work at the forefront of his field thanks to the trust he has earned among top professionals for his technical skills, honed over the years through intensive work. Tsuji has the following message for younger people today about the mindset needed for success:

“You have to pursue whatever is important to you and do it in a way that’s different from everyone else. You also have to hold on to your passion for that pursuit, with the attitude that you’ll succeed no matter what.

“Recently I’ve been visiting Japan every year to offer lectures on prosthetic makeup, which gives me a chance to meet with young people. To be honest, though, they don’t seem very ambitious to me. They need to be determined and say, ‘This is what I want to do!’ or ‘I’ll do this!’ Out of the hundreds who try to pursue a career in this field, just a few will succeed. Only those who continue to give it their all can hope to reach that goal.”

(Translated from a December 21, 2012, interview in Japanese.)

LOOPER (2012)

Director/Writer: Rian Johnson
Starring: Bruce Willis, Joseph Gordon-Levitt, Emily Blunt
Distribution: Gaga/Pony Canyon
Japan Release Date: January 12, 2013

© 2012 Looper Distribution, LLC. All rights reserved.

art media film makeup Bruce Willis Joseph Gordon-Levitt Hollywood