Mitchell Coster

Heartthrob Katsunori Takahashi, star of the new drama "Face," talks off-camera to Matt Wilce and Maki Nibayashi about acting, music and the challenges of playing a schizophrenic.

We were waiting for the big entrance, but it never transpired: Katsunori Takahashi sneaked into the sub-control room at Nihon TV through the back stairs unannounced and unnoticed as we set-up the photo-shoot. Where was the entourage, we wondered.

For someone who has been up since 6am and has just walked off a live TV show, Takahashi is bubbly and energetic, prattling on with the photographer as he snaps away. Later in the elevator, a casual remark that his most famous character "Salaryman Kintaro" has a following in Hawaii reveals this down-to-earth star doesn' take fame too seriously. "Really? I never realized that," he exclaims, before going off on a tangent about how he wished he'd gone somewhere overseas at New Year's.

There's a slight ripple of recognition in the general lounge area when we bag the corner section for the interview. Backlit by vending machines, Takahashi seems comfortable, casually conversing against a backdrop of scruffy chain-smoking off-duty grips, assistant directors and some old men who might be producers. His somewhat earnest demeanor tempered by a generous smile is slightly at odds with his rock-star attire - a charcoal leather jacket, open shirt and python skin boots - for the benefit of the chat show he's just come from: He has the kind of low-key presence that immediately puts us at ease.

To prepare for the dark personality, I tried to remember when I was a teenager or the time in my late teens when I was feeling a bit hostile towards society

Takahashi may be best known for bringing 2D comic hero "Salaryman Kintaro" to the screen, but there are many more dimensions to the self-effacing actor. Although he combines high-profile TV dramas and commercials with a music career, Takahashi is more than your average Japanese "multi-talent." For one, he skipped the teen-idol phase and didn't make his music debut until the age of 28, and he also manages to squeeze in the odd Brecht play and independent movie between on-screen love scenes with Norika Fukiwara and biking with bosozoku (biker gangs). Perhaps his relatively late start gave him the self-assured maturity so many Japanese celebrities lack.

His latest role in the prime-time drama "Face" (Wed 10pm, Nihon TV) is one of Takahashi's most intriguing: It's a modern take on the old Jekyll and Hyde idea. Playing a character with a dual personality seems to suit Takahashi, who appears to be having tremendous fun battling with his dark side.

Takahashi and "Face" co-star Yukie Nakama
Courtesy of Nihon TV

In "Face" you play a character who has a split personality. How did you prepare for that?
I watched many videos of people who actually suffer from split personalities, and I observed how others reacted to the different personalities. Also the two personalities that I'm portraying are the dark side and the good side of the character. I guess to prepare for the dark personality, I tried to remember when I was a teenager or the time in my late teens when I was feeling a bit hostile towards society.

Which of the characters do you enjoy playing more?
I guess I would have to say both. The one thing different from making a movie is that for a TV drama, there are 12 parts to it. For a movie, in a five-hour period of shooting we can focus on the character's expression much better. Also in a movie, I can build the character during the shoot since we basically have the whole script ahead of time. Before I start I have some idea of how to develop the character as the story progresses. But in a drama, it's a little more difficult since usually we don't even know how the story is going to end. But, I'm having a lot of fun this time. I can't get enough of doing two parts at once, and I don't get bored with either of them.

Since most people don't really get to go behind the scenes in making a TV drama here in Japan, can you tell us a bit about a day on the set?
Well, we get up around 6 or 6:30am and work till midnight, go home, take a bath, sleep 3-4 hours, then it's the same routine, and that continues until the very last day of the shoot. It takes about five or six days to finish one episode, so we're really busy because we do about 60 scenes. Sometimes the script is late, and it's hard to really get into the role. Often you have to work by yourself on developing the character. I think on this show the parts have a lot of potential to grow.

Playing Ryo Takagawa brings out the bad in Takahashi
Courtesy of Nihon TV

Your face even changes when you do the two different parts.
In the beginning, I wasn't thinking of really making such different facial expressions, and I didn't want to make it so obvious like in the "Incredible Hulk," but I had to define the border of the good and evil sides somehow.

Can you tell us a bit about your co-star Yukie Nakama?
We have a really good rapport, and I think she's really a good actress, especially as she's only 21 and all. She's really sweet and knows what she's doing. Yukie understands what she has to do and knows her position as the girl who has to deal with this two-faced man. She's really good at handling both characters.

Have there been any interesting incidents during the shoot?
Not really. There was a scene where I was punched in the face and my glasses flew off and fell into the ocean. It was around midnight, freezing weather and the poor assistant director had to go into the icy water and look for them. I don't know why I couldn't catch them or stop them coming off.

Actually, the first day of filming was my birthday, and the staff had a surprise birthday party for me with the biggest cake I've ever seen. It was one of those photo cakes with a picture of Yukie and I in a scene from the drama.

Many people have the image of you as the strong and rough type because of the roles that you portray, but this time, you are acting a weaker man's part. How do you feel about that?
Well, I hope that I can be as strong as the parts I play. I really idolize and respect yamatodamashi, the old Japanese samurai type of attitude. The Japanese are so good at leaving things behind, and this is one of these concepts that just shouldn't be. So I really like Ryoma Sakamoto and would like to apply some of his characteristics in the strong roles that I portray. Also, young Marlon Brando types really appeal to me, too.

Takahashi celebrates his birthday on set
Courtesy of Nihon TV

How did you get the role of "Salaryman Kintaro"?
They just came to me and asked me if I wanted the role. Actually, I turned it down once because I thought I wasn't capable of playing the part. Of course I'd seen the manga, and then after some thought I realized I might be able to do it. I realized that even though Kintaro is supposed to be a big guy and I am not that big myself, if I played him it would give other guys who don't think they are up to Kintaro's standard more confidence.

Are you happy that you reconsidered taking the role?
Yes, definitely. It was a lot of fun. I met a lot of people through playing Kintaro and many of the guests on the show taught me a lot, especially the real bosozoku guys (biker gang members) we used.

You had real bosozoku?
Yeah. I got to be friends with some of them. Of course some of them do bad things but it was really great to see them focused on the project, and I learned that many of them have very strong ethics in their own way. All of the different people I met during the show were the best part of the role.

You're still single. How did you prepare to play the part of a single father?
Although I didn't really prepare too much in terms of playing a single dad, I thought about the role in terms of expressing love for your son. I observed the way my friends interact and communicate with their sons and tried to capture that feeling.

Do you think Kintaro has had any effect on the way Japanese fathers behave?
I don't know. But Kintaro didn't treat his son as a child. They had a relationship where they could talk man-to-man. So Kintaro presented his life to his son in a very honest way, kind of teaching by example, and if there was anything wrong he was there for his son 100 percent. I hope that I can be like him when I have my own son.

Salaryman Kintaro and friends
Courtesy of Nihon TV

So you'd like to be a father like Kintaro?
Yes, I would. My grandfather grew up in the states, between the ages of five and 25, so he's basically American in many ways. When I was growing up, there was a popular TV drama called "New York Papa" and I really liked the show. I was a bit Americanized from watching it and from my grandfather. It was important for me to see that in America, family values were so prized, and that most people respected family values and put them before work. That's something I idolized and wanted to try and do when I got married and had kids.

Can you tell us a bit about your music career? Were you always involved in music?
Yes, my parents performed classical music and I would listen to them play all the time when I was a kid. I went to a Protestant school where we sang a lot of hymns. When I was in the fifth grade, I saw and heard KISS for the first time and that had a major impact on me. They were so different from the Japanese singers and bands. They came for their first concert tour when I was in the seventh grade and I bought tickets to see them at the Nihon Budokan. It was so awesome. I guess that was my first introduction to rock music and after that I became interested in other types of music as well. It really opened my eyes.

I heard that Pink Floyd was going to have a secret concert in front of the Sphinx in Egypt at New Years. Did you hear anything about this? Man, if that was true, I would have totally gone. That would've been great.

When was your music debut?
Really late, when I was 28 years old. I finished my first CD when I was 26, but there was a problem with the record label so we couldn't put it out. It took two years to make another one with a different label.

You're coming out with a new single in February, right?
Yes. It's a song that'll be used in my latest TV drama, "Face." It's a duet with Yukie, from "Face," and it's a new type of a ballad. I think it's a cross of Brit pop and a ballad. It's quite different, but I like it.

Do you have any other plans for the future?
Well, two years ago, I was in a theater play, and it was a big challenge for me. It was a big adjustment but by the end, I wanted to do it again. I really like being on stage, so I'd like to try another.

The paparazzi here are pretty intense, how do you deal with them?
I don't hide. I'm just the way I am. I still go shopping with my girlfriend, and we hold hands and do all the normal stuff that couples do and nobody really pesters us. Maybe that's why I don't get too bothered.

On our way out, the publicist has just as many smiles as Takahashi. "You know he was pretty tired today. He doesn't usually chat that much with Japanese journalists. I think he really liked you guys…" We didn't think he was so bad either.



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