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by Mark Jenkins,
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A Gentleman and a Rebel

By Mark Jenkins

Under the Gun: Tadanobu Asano lives outside Japanese norms in such films as Pen-ek Ratanaruang's Invisible Waves.

THE TITLE of the Freer/Sackler Gallery's Tadanobu Asano retrospective -- "Rebel, Artist, Superstar" -- was catchy and reasonably accurate. Artist? Sure. Superstar? Well, star. Rebel? That's the 34-year-old actor's image, although perhaps his reputation just demonstrates how easy is to get classified as a maverick in consensus-prizing Japan.

Asano didn't claim to be any of the persons in his billing. Although he thinks enough of his art to have selected his directorial debut, the film-studentish Tori, as one of the program's five entries, the actor showed no signs of self-importance. He was relaxed both in Q&A sessions and at the dinner for press, programmers, and Japanese dignitaries that preceded the opening-night screening. Answering questions after a subsequent movie, Asano said he's always surprised by the interest shown in him overseas, since he's not that renowned at home.

Such remarks could simply be standard Japanese humility, which Asano demonstrated more than once. In the first Q&A, the actor modestly suggested that his trademark laconic style might have developed because he's not good at delivering lines. Asano also declined to attempt any English aside from such basics as "hello" and "thank you," although he speaks mostly English in another film in the series, Thai director Pen-ek Ratanaruang's Last Life in the Universe. (Asano made his remarks through translators, so I won't quote him directly in this piece.)

The "rebel" tag is the hardest to support, although not by the roles Asano takes. He plays a loner and murderer in three of films shown in the Feb. 1-10 retrospective: Last Life in the Universe, Kiyoshi Kurosawa's Bright Future, and Shinji Aoyama's Sad Vacation. In the fourth, Shinya Tsukamoto's Vital, Asano is an amnesiac medical student who dissects his girlfriend's corpse. (Tori, a loose assemblage of five diverse shorts, includes some abstracted violence but no plot.) None of these movies are simple genre exercises, although they include elements of the gangster, horror, or troubled-youth flick. Like American cinema of the late '60s and early '70s, Asano's best-known work uses genre conventions to express the disaffection of young people in an affluent but adrift society.

Asano's other notable roles include an ex-member of a murderous cult (Hirokazu Kore-eda's Distance), a gay samurai obsessed with an alluring new recruit (Nagisa Oshima's Gohatto), and a masochistic gang enforcer (Takashi Miike's Ichi the Killer). Even in his occasional films that don't involve guns or swords, Asano tends to be cast as an eccentric, such as the bookstore clerk assembling an elaborate art project about Tokyo's rail system in Cafe Lumiere, Hou Hsiao-hsien's homage to Ozu.

As that short list indicates, Asano has worked with today's most distinctive Japanese directors, as well as notable filmmakers from Taiwan, Thailand, and beyond. As a coincidental coda to the Freer/Sackler series, the National Geographic Society on Feb. 17 showed Mongol, the 2007 Oscar-nominated film by Russian director Sergei Bodrov. (Officially a Kazakh picture, it's a co-production with Germany, Russia, and Mongolia.) In this somewhat modern but mostly old-fashioned battle epic, Asano plays yet another soulful killer, although a world-historical one: Genghis Khan.

Such multinational projects may be Asano's future, but he owes his stature to movies that are small-scaled, personal, and keyed to the alienation of post-bubble Japan. Rootlessness and the decline of the family are central themes in that country's recent cinema, and indeed the outbursts of violence in his films can be seen as manifesting the collapse of traditional filial ties: Asano plays a man who kills his brother in both Sad Vacation (named for the Johnny Thunders song) and Last Life in the Universe. In Bright Future, he symbolically slays his father while leaving the man a surrogate son.

If such developments are derived from someone's biography, they're not Asano's own story. At the Freer, the actor explained that he entered the TV and movie biz easily as a teenager because his father is an actor's agent. Married young to singer-actress Chara (his co-star in Shunji Iwai's Picnic), Asano has two kids, with whom he seems to have a easygoing relationship. At dinner, the actor laughingly revealed that his older child had just flunked her junior-high entrance exam.

There's another family in the actor's life, and that's his circle of collaborators. Perhaps because Japanese cinema is such a small industry these days, Asano has worked repeatedly with the same directors and actors. He's made three movies with Kore-eda, whose films are stylistically diverse but thematically akin, and two with Ratanaruang. Sad Vacation is his third for Aoyama, all set in that director's home region, industrial Kita-Kyushu; the film reprises not only the character established by Asano in Aoyama's 1998 Helpless but also a central figure from Eureka, the saga's intervening chapter.

Clearly a team player, Asano has done cameos in several films, and has surprisingly often played the first central character to vanish: He departs after the first half of Bright Future, and sooner than that from Kore-eda's Maboroshi, a somber masterpiece haunted by his character's suicide. When not playing homicidal types, Asano is frequently employed as a suicidal one.

Self-annihilation has long been considered noble in Japan, but Asano expressed confusion and even anger at the suicidal characters he's embodied. Does he not get it because he's not truly Japanese? It's nearly impossible to discuss Asano without mentioning that his maternal grandfather was a U.S. serviceman of Navaho extraction. This, supposedly, explains what's different about him, although there's no agreement about exactly what the difference is. After the dinner, I asked one Japanese cultural official if she had noticed that -- as a Wikipedia bio claims -- Asano's mixed ancestry has made his eyes a shade lighter than those of his countrymen. She seemed surprised by the question, and said she saw no difference. Neither did I.

Most likely, Asano's reputation and roles fulfill and sustain each other: The supposed exotic begins to play the outsider, and thus is increasingly cast as one. Yet the actor's demeanor and style -- polite and self-effacing, but arriving for the first evening in a pinned-together black suit he designed himself -- were pure Tokyo cool.

Asked about his trip to the United States, a country where his films are mostly known through film fests and DVDs, Asano sounded pleased but suitably respectful. It might be, he suggested, that the spirit of his American grandfather had guided him to Washington. It was a very Japanese thing for Japanese cinema's leading outcast to say.