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Her Strength Is No Act: An Interview with Actress Terajima Shinobu
Japanese Women on the Global Stage

The actress Terajima Shinobu was catapulted onto the world stage in 2010 when she won the coveted Silver Bear Award for Best Actress at the Berlin International Film Festival. In this interview, she looks back on her career and ahead to her future plans, while also touching on the problems facing the Japanese film industry.

Terajima Shinobu

Terajima ShinobuBorn into a theatrical family as the daughter of kabuki actor Onoe Kikugorō VII and actress Sumiko Fuji and the older sister of kabuki actor Onoe Kikunosuke V. Took up acting on the recommendation of actress and family friend Taichi Kiwako, joining the theater company Bungakuza in 1992, while still a student at Aoyama Gakuin University. Left Bungakuza in 1996 to work in theater productions and TV dramas. Has won numerous acting prizes in Japan, including the award for Outstanding Performance by an Actress in a Leading Role at the Japan Academy Awards in 2004 for her roles in the 2003 films Akame 48 Waterfalls and Vibrator. Was awarded the coveted Silver Bear Award for Best Actress at the Berlin International Film Festival for her starring role in Wakamatsu Kōji’s 2010 film Caterpillar. Has also won numerous awards for her theatrical performances, including her role in the 2008 Theatre Creation production of Shiseikatsu (Private Life), recognized that year at the National Arts Festival of Japan’s Agency for Cultural Affairs. Married Laurent Ghnassia in 2007, a French art director based in Japan. In 2012, the couple welcomed the birth of their first son.

INTERVIEWER  Did your outlook change at all when you became the first Japanese actress in 35 years to win the Silver Bear for Best Actress at the 2010 Berlin International Film Festival?

TERAJIMA SHINOBU  I don’t feel like I’ve changed personally—perhaps because throughout my career I’ve always been lucky enough to be cast in roles that interest me. I got to appear in the films Akame 48 Waterfalls and Vibrator, for which I won acting awards in Japan, and then I had the chance to work with director Wakamatsu Kōji on the film Caterpillar, a role for which I received the Silver Bear. So I’ve been very fortunate. I suppose it’s true that the way I’m perceived around the world has changed since winning that award—I suddenly began to receive calls from overseas directors. But although there’s been a lot of talk about future projects with them, nothing concrete has come of it yet.

Projects that Didn’t Pan Out

INTERVIEWER  Have you been in contact with any famous directors?

TERAJIMA  When I’m in France, there are lots of opportunities to meet directors, and they all talk enthusiastically about potential projects. But if you happen to express interest, nothing ever comes of it, despite all the grand talk. That’s how it seems to go in Europe. There was one time, though, when I really felt I’d come across an ideal project. The producer behind [the legendary 1974 French erotic film] Emmanuelle had a script lined up for a new movie and wanted me in it. But in the end, the project was abandoned when the funding didn’t come together. It was a real pity, especially because the planned film was a comedy. I never get offered comedic roles in Japan, so I was really looking forward to a fresh challenge. The script was all in French, too, so I studied hard.

I did recently work with a young, enthusiastic French director named Kristof Sagna on his short film Savage Night. But that’s my only experience so far of working on a foreign film that was actually completed.

The World Outside Hollywood

INTERVIEWER  A lot of people in the film industry, even in Japan, dream of making it in Hollywood someday, but that doesn’t seem to be your goal.

TERAJIMA  I’ve never really been interested in American movies. Even as a high school student, I only ever went to art house cinemas. Rather than simple stories with a nice, happy ending, I’ve always preferred more ambiguous films that give you something to think about. Of course, I’m always interested in a good script, but I don’t think there’s any point in appearing in a Hollywood film just for the sake of it, even in a small role—unless you can rise to the level of an actor like Watanabe Ken, which is fantastic. The Academy Awards may be seen as the pinnacle of world cinema, but not for me. My stance has always been that if an interesting project comes along that really needs me in a certain role, then I want to be involved—regardless of which country it’s from.

INTERVIEWER  From Caterpillar to Vibrator and The Millennial Rapture, you’ve taken on a lot of unique and unusual roles. In Caterpillar, for instance, you gave a powerful performance as a woman whose marital life is turned upside down as a result of her husband’s wartime experiences and wounds. You’ve also played Japanese characters from a range of historical periods. From the perspective of your acting experience, how do you see Japan today?

TERAJIMA  I think films are an important way to introduce Japanese culture to overseas audiences. If Korean, Chinese, and Japanese actors are going to find themselves cast in the same sorts of roles in overseas productions, then I would prefer to be accepted by the world for appearing in Japanese films. That’s how it was in the era of great Japanese directors like Kurosawa Akira and Mizoguchi Kenji. These days, if someone asks you about the current state of Japanese cinema, it’s extremely hard to explain. There’s a lot of money in Chinese movies, so they can make big epics. And Korean cinema is known for gritty human dramas. So what’s the defining trait of Japanese films? I suppose you could say that the quiet understatement captured in the work of Ozu Yasujirō reflects the past virtues of Japan. And I was pleased to see that a director with a similarly understated style, Koreeda Hirokazu, has recently won awards for his work. I’d like to work with someone like Kawase Naomi—a Japanese director who has won worldwide acclaim.

  • [2014.09.26]
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