You know this man. You’ve seen him before. Lucy Liu cut his head off. Chow Yun-fat shot him point-blank. He haunted the Korean countryside and faced down two very, very different Godzillas. It’s a fun and impressive record that, with a glance at contemporary geopolitics, feels almost miraculous.
A Japanese actor born in 1955, Kunimura works nonstop, never skipping a year, doing multiple projects per. The last time he only did one film or TV show in a year was 1996, and he usually rates four or five — eight in 2004 and 2013. Maybe functionally, this has made him a favorite among big-ticket directors like Takashi Miike and Shinji Higuchi, and he’s worked with Hayao Miyazaki, Beat Takeshi, and Ryuhei Kitamura. These are wide-ranging roles among an already eclectic bunch, and accordingly, he’s a versatile performer. What’s consistent, what registered long before I could put a name to the face, is that heroic or villainous, there’s something essentially human in his performances. His gaze lingers and softens, in that zone between curious and truly sympathetic. He’s weathered or wise somehow, containing depths beneath the immediate scripted dialogue. It’s a quality required for heroes and enlivening for villains, and I think it’s partly what attracts him to so many filmmakers.
There goes that expressive face
Quentin Tarantino chose Kunimura for Kill Bill much as he did Chiaki Kuriyama, because he saw him in a movie. In this case, it was Kunimura’s scream in Ichi the Killer. Small world, though, as Kunimura’s earlier American movie Black Rain was directed by Ridley Scott, and Tarantino’s screenplay True Romance was directed by Tony Scott. Eh, maybe not so small. In both films, he plays quintessentially Japanese characters, so generally speaking I suppose it’s not too much of a leap. “Who should play the Japanese guy?” “Probably a Japanese guy?” Oh, if only it were so simple. In fact, it’s probably rarer that a foreign character is cast correctly in this regard; to date, it’s a cutting-edge problem, as the controversy over CBS sitcom United States of Al might demonstrate. The deck is stacked against us here, because people don’t give a shit or didn’t then understand that Chinese and Japanese are different — Indian and Afghan now — and then there’s the question from the actors’ perspective. Remember the scene in Kunimura-starring Godzilla: Final Wars with the pimp and the cop? Astoundingly, those are actually American actors with healthy careers in America today. What’s their story?
What about Frank Grillo? How does this man find himself in China, playing a racist yank villain in the nationalistic blockbuster Wolf Warrior 2? Apparently, it came by way of Avengers producer Joe Russo, and the explanation is characteristically modest and genuine: “Everyone in Hollywood is trying to get into the Chinese market,” Grillo says. “I think this is good business. I spoke with [Wolf Warrior 2 director] Wu Jing and absolutely fell in love with him, and it was a no-brainer.” Fair enough, but I think this rationale marks him as a rare case. So far, we have the insensitive Hollywood producers, actors understandably bullish about playing Americans in foreign films, and finally, the audience. Let’s put this another way and say that, I don’t know, Anne Hathaway played the evil American bitch in a K-drama in 2009 — how I wish that were true. Or better yet, that Anne Hathaway played a U.S. Army official responsible for the toxic pollution of the Han River, and her entire part was being shady or apologetic. Would you take that role if you were Anne Hathaway, and would you watch that movie if you were you? Perhaps; Scott Wilson played that role in The Host, though it was only one short — and memorable — scene.
There are political implications to movies and storytelling, and thus participation by whichever personnel is politicized. If Scarlett Johansson takes on the role of an Asian character, of course we applaud and say “awesome” in perpetuity. Had the same role been offered to Rila Fukushima, humorously that would also be political. We’d ask, “Does she truly represent Japanese women in this role?” and it’s an unfun but also not unfair question. We have to raise these issues which squeeze into being upon these international coproduction collisions of culture. It may not have scuttled Grillo’s decision in the end, but the United States and China are economic rivals. The U.S. and South Korea have a rocky history despite being allies. It may be less complicated if it’s South Korea/Hong Kong or the U.S. and Hong Kong, but Japan and South Korea? Oh, boy.
In 2016, two Korean movies with Japanese characters released to massive critical fanfare: The Handmaiden and The Wailing. The former, of which I was part of the fanfare, cast a Korean actress as a Japanese character. No doubt, this is the easier route even by logistics — no language barrier — and for an actor, learning a foreign language is probably an exciting exercise. Na Hong-jin’s The Wailing calls for a character named “The Japanese Man,” and he cast Jun Kunimura. As Na says of the casting, “I didn’t have any particular actor in mind while writing the script, so I went through a lot of Japanese actors during the casting process.” I guess he just happened to pick that guy who goes everywhere. But The Japanese Man is a villain, and “But The Japanese Man is a villain” sounds like a speech bubble in a World War II-era comic book.
Now, centering conflict as the primary trait of Japan-Korea relations may reveal a layman’s understanding, but Kunimura got in trouble over this. At the Busan International Film Festival, he was asked by a journalist his opinion on a recent world incident, the Japanese navy’s controversial use of the rising sun flag, which is referred to by South Koreans as the “war criminal flag.” As an American, I can somewhat sympathize with frustration over war criminal flags. The matter snaked into the festival, and Kunimura’s answer was rather even: “I understand deeply that generations that preceded us, and especially Koreans, think differently about the flag. The Self-Defense Force would say that they cannot concede because it is their tradition, but I wonder how it would be if they could give past history a thought.” Even in tone, but pretty bold overall. People back home were not pleased, and Kunimura’s agents considered flying back early. If further analogies are required, this is like if Anne Hathaway attended an Iranian film festival and criticized American foreign policy. Queen shit, I guess, but I have a feeling some Americans would be upset.
Kunimura would go on to win the Best Supporting Actor and Popular Star Awards at the Blue Dragon Film Awards, one of South Korea’s most popular film ceremonies. Whether or not he appears in another Korean movie is a matter of reasonable question, but in 2017 he reteamed with John Woo for Manhunt, the same year he did yet another film with Takashi Miike. At this point, it’s a contest between the inertia of one man and the unfortunate political consequences of acting abroad.
Ironically, the incident at the film festival resulted in some of Kunimura’s few public statements available in English. For as prolific an actor he is, he’s elusive, a mystery man. I’m left to wonder, then, what makes someone say, “Hey, let me be in this Hong Kong film”? Like, that’s not on the menu — American actors don’t do that. And for John Woo movies of the era, Kunimura was an outlier. On the IMDb for Hard Boiled, he’s listed as a “guest star,” amid a sea of Chinese names. I don’t know if anybody cares about this, but it drives me crazy. Why? What conversations took place to make this happen? Who called who? Was Kunimura a Woo fan? Was Woo a Kunimura fan? Was Kunimura just visiting? Did Woo just need a foreigner to play one of the film’s many bad guys? It wasn’t a quick cameo where he says something sinister in Japanese. He’s jumping and diving with that machine-pistol — clearly, he attended the John Woo School of Bullet Ballet. It’s very involved!
Jun Kunimura is in a league with Tadanobu Asano, who’s made films in America, China, Thailand, and Kazakhstan. It’s heartwarming when actors of any nationality travel the world and pick up roles, take cues from foreign directors, negotiate with different cultures. That’s a fascinating complication on the headtrip that is acting, and whether Kunimura, Asano, or Grillo, it speaks to a work ethic and open-mindedness I wish weren’t so rare.
Acceptance Speech for Special Actor of the Year Award 2016
Busan Film Festival apologises to jury member Kunimura Jun after press conference criticism
Interview: ‘The Wailing’ Director Na Hong-jin On Death, Genre, Religion & Comedy
‘Wolf Warrior II’ Star Frank Grillo on How China’s $780M Blockbuster Was Made (Q&A)