Japanese actor Tadanobu Asano is frequently compared to American actor Johnny Depp for both his ultra-hip, youthful good looks and unyielding affinity for off-kilter performances; his career also mirrors that of his American counterpart, in that he has found marked success in mainstream Japanese cinema in addition to the sometimes outrageous independent films on which his reputation was founded. Possessing the kind of detached cool that seems to stem more from simple confidence than over-inflated ego or condescending arrogance, the aspiring rocker-cum-actor is edging ever closer to mainstream acceptance in Asian cinema -- a prospect that seems especially jarring to the increasingly busy actor.
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With a father who eschewed salaryman status to live the life of an artist, and an equally unconventional Japanese-American mother who could often be spotted listening to Led Zeppelin while clad in the latest in thrift-store chic, the fair-skinned Yokohama native was frequently taunted by classmates for his Westernized appearance and unconventional taste for punk rock music. Asano's love of music found him forming a band with like-minded friends in his early teens, and at the age of 14, the musically inclined youngster was taken to his first audition by his father. Though he didn't necessarily harbor any great interest in acting, he was taken aback by the overeager, attention-grabbing antics of his young contemporaries. Asano was confident that he could beat out all the competition by simply acting natural, and his instincts proved correct when he soon made his screen debut as a student in the popular television series Teacher Kinpachi.
In the years that followed, Asano continued to hone his skills before the camera. His career was driven more by a desire to support his family than to achieve celebrity stardom, and his first love still remained music despite his increasing success in film and television. Though it was his role in director Shunji Iwai's made-for-television feature Fried Dragon Fish (1993) that first caught the attention of the Japanese public, it wasn't until his appearance as a mental patient who longs to escape the padded confines of the asylum in Iwai's 1994 drama Picnic that Asano truly connected with audiences. Not only did the film serve as something of a launching pad for the young actor's career, but it also introduced him to co-star Chara, a Japanese pop star who would eventually become his wife.
As the 1990s progressed, Asano's unconventional approach and quirky cool endeared him to many a hip young Japanese film lover, and though he continued to specialize in the sort of dark characters who could quickly snowball into self-parody in the hands of a lesser actor, his fearless approach to filmmaking continually set him apart from the pack. While Asano frequently chose roles that actors looking to achieve mainstream success wouldn't dare accept, it seemed that the harder he attempted to avoid the spotlight, the brighter it got. Subsequent roles in the Tarantino-inspired, manga-based crime comedy Shark Skin Man and Peach Hip Girl and the homosexual-themed samurai drama Taboo found his popularity leaking into the mainstream, and with a leading performance in 2000's Gojoe, Asano seemed poised for crossover stardom -- a prospect that he seemed to resist with every ounce of energy, taking on outrageous roles in Electric Dragon 80.000 V and director Takashi Miike's notoriously gory Ichi the Killer. Asano was cast in Ichi as the sadistic mob henchman Kakihara, and his portrayal of the stylish, torture-happy psychopath created what was arguably the most memorable and terrifying screen villain in recent history.
In 2003, Asano essayed the role of a disgruntled employee who slaughters his boss' entire family in acclaimed director Kiyoshi Kurosawa's Bright Future. Shortly thereafter, he played a suicidal librarian in Last Life in the Universe -- a role that won Asano the Upstream Prize at the 2003 Venice Film Festival. Having previously appeared opposite Japanese megastar Takeshi Kitano in Taboo, Asano once again appeared opposite the seasoned comic-turned-actor in Kitano's 2003 film Zatochi. An updating of the classic samurai tale of a blind assassin, the film took home awards at such prestigious film festivals as both the Toronto International Film Festival and the Venice Film Festival. With his roles in Gojoe and Electric Dragon 80.000 V director Sogo Ishii's 2003 action thriller Dead End Run, it seemed that the king of Japanese cool was still at the top of his game when it came to taking risks on the big screen. In addition to his film work, the dedicated father and husband can frequently be spotted feeding his first love on-stage with his band Peace Pill. ~ Jason Buchanan, Rovi