How to Cast Japanese Actors in Hollywood Movies

By Yoko Nakamura : Reporter of Toyokeizai
December 25,2014
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(Photo: Hideji Umetani)

Yoko Narahashi is a casting director and producer. She was born in 1947. She spent her childhood from the age of 5 to 16 in Canada due to her father's job as a diplomat. She graduated from the International Christian University in Tokyo, Japan and then went to theatre school in New York.

After she came back to Japan, she wrote the lyrics that became a series of hit songs for the popular Japanese band GODIEGO. She also presided over an actors’ training school. As a casting director she has been involved in numerous Hollywood films such as The Last Samurai, Memoirs of a Geisha, Babel, 47 Ronin and more.

Interview with Yoko Narahashi

How did you start your career as a casting director?

The first time was when I worked as an assistant for Steven Spielberg on auditions for the movie Empire of the Sun. I think that my experience brought out the best in the casting since the theater was already in my interest and also I had been directing actors since I was about 25 years old. I also had the desire to introduce amazing Japanese actors into American films.

In Hollywood when the movie takes a foreign actor for a role, the casting director from that country will be in charge in addition to a Hollywood casting director. Since The Last Samurai, Japanese roles increased. However, there weren’t very many actors who spoke English well as well as their acting and who were capable of negotiating in an American way.

The key to sucess in this business are the connections from one person to another. You will be recognized and assessed as a casting director by how many great actors you can introduce. For instance, there was this famous American casting director who was involved in the same movie, but was then gone imperceptibly. It was because this casting director couldn't fulfill the directors’ or the producers’ expectations. If you are in the business, you must produce excellent results or you are no longer needed. In this aspect, it is extremely severe.

For the movie Babel, it was a hard process to cast the role of a Japanese high school girl. It finally came to Ms. Rinko Kikuchi. She remained a strong candidate from the first audition. However, the director of this film was determined to keep searching for an even more suitable actress for this role. So, I had to keep searching even after shooting began. Ms. Kikuchi was called to auditions over and over. As a result, she had finally got the role.

The English speaking skill of the actors is extremely important

The casting director seems to have a really wide range of tasks. How do you provide for the intensive English training for the actors, directing their acting, and even arbitration when the actors strike happens in addition to casting?

In the case of Japanese actors having an interpreter is required first of all. When it comes to interpreting the acting, it is a very difficult task for the interpreters. The interpreter has to explain to the actor what the director demands, such as things from deep under the character’s emotion or as the director says “I want more of these kind of feelings.”

Since I have experience in both acting and directing, I am capable of telling those things to actors. When the subtle nuances are hard to interpret, I also give advice to the actor during shooting.

It is extremely important how actors speak English in movies. As soon as the first line, at the moment of the thought “this person’s English sounds a bit odd”, audiences will be held back by a fixed idea. Once that happens, the audience is convinced “I don’t understand much.” Therefore, no matter how the actor properly pronounces lines for the rest of the movie, the audience feels it is troublesome to listen further. If that happens, it is over. Regardless of how great the acting is, everything is meaningless.

That is why I am putting a lot of effort in teaching English to actors. When the director favors the acting performance of an actor I recommended but the English level is not reaching the standard, I frantically conduct English lessons for the actor.

The amazing actors have excellent senses, and they have a very strong sense of purpose as “I do absolutely want to get the role in this director’s movie!” Therefore they desperately work on learning how to speak English. As a result, they certainly become capable of performing the lines of the movie wonderfully as their own words, even though their daily English conversation skills are not yet perfect.

For the movie Emperor which was released in Japan last year, you were involved in the filmmaking as well, weren’t you?

It was the beginning when I found out about the existence of one American soldier who saved the emperor from the pursuing of war responsibility. I wanted to tell people all over the world about a single unsung American hero who never got the spotlight and had been buried beneath history. He had influenced this much for one country. For that purpose, I wanted to make this film as an American movie by casting American actors.

When the United States was at war against countries like Iran or Iraq, it ends up in faulty ways, and the tragedies still continue. I think that the war against Japan might be the only war they ended in peace, and also there might be no other country who enjoyed peace since the war ended.

I wanted to tell the characteristics of a Japanese nation, who walked along with yesterday’s enemies in order to regain the peace. In addition, our thought into this filmmaking with respect to the United States was that we were passionately questioning “You were so respectable like this in the past, however what on Earth are you doing now?”

It didn't become a big hit at the box office since it was an independent film and it didn't have the advertising budget nor the glitz. However, the video has been a hit in the long run.

Hollywood is aiming at the Chinese market

Is there any change in Hollywood about the sense of Asian presence?

Hollywood has been aiming at the Chinese market. When they want to cast an Asian actor in a film, they would consider a Chinese actor because if the Chinese actor were in a film it would sell more in China. In addition, they even revise the editing of the film intentionally for the Chinese market. The logic is quite straight forward.

On the other hand, Hollywood has interests in intellectual properties of Japanese novels and animations, and also the Japanese world view which is uniquely Japanese such as about life and death or self-sacrifice.

I think if the Japanese film industry had a little more established cooperative system like Korea or France, then Japan would have more talented people, and more people would be having more enthusiasm for movies.

But unfortunately the reality is that movies are not profitable and nobody is willing to take a risk.

However, there are directors who have been making great movies even under such a hard circumstances but they do not have supporters. I think that of the Japanese arts, the expressions of each individual’s soul should be more cherished and supported.

In the field of Hollywood movies I have been involved with, Japanese actors have gained splendid reputations for their morality, attentiveness, respect for the discipline and commitment and such. But I feel regret because young Japanese people are still being conservative.

I wish young Japanese people to be more adventurous and open minded, and go overseas. Instead of locking themselves in the convenience of Japan, I wish that they meet a variety of people abroad. They should experience unexpected thoughts and values in order to enrich their lives. I think it would be too good to ignore for their lives just because feeling troublesome to go overseas.

This article is originally published by Toyokeizai Online, and edited by Ignition Staff

You have been casting, directing, writing lyrics, directing, producing, and more. You have lived very powerfully. What kind of message do you want to send to those who are not satisfied with their lives?

I want to send a message to those who are distressed about life right now, to have hope and think positively. The thought I have through casting or directing movies is that the world each person has is wonderful. Everyone in different, and it is OK. It is good because it is different. Instead of comparing yourself with others, look for what you have. It is definitely there, if you keep searching for it. The most important thing is to find it.

I think that the power of belief is tremendously strong. I want each individual to know its splendor. This is what I have experienced, also. No matter what other people tell you, focus on what you believe you want to do and go forward intently. Then you can be splendidly happy.