Since cinema was first introduced in Japan in the late 19th Century, the country has given birth to hundreds of legendary movie icons, many of whom are now widely recognized overseas. Though famed actors such as Ken Watanabe, Toshiro Mifune and Hiroyuki Sanada, have over successfully helped in popularizing Japanese cinema abroad, there is a long list of other famous actors who are just as significant to the Japanese modern movie scene. In this article, we introduce four of the currently most popular Japanese actors that are worth knowing — even for the fact that soon, you may start seeing more of them in your own country! So here, they are, our top four, including trivia that you might not have heard before!
By the time Masahiro Motoki walked up on stage to accept his Oscar for Best Foreign Language Film at the 2009 Academy Awards for his role in Departures (Okuribito), the actor already had over 20 years of acting history — and even more in Japan’s showbiz world.
Born in Tokyo’s neighboring Saitama prefecture in 1965, Motoki made his debut as a member in the boy band Shibugaki Tai in 1982, quickly becoming one of the most popular idols in 1980s Japan. Following the band’s breakup in 1988, Motoki switched to acting, making his first solo appearance in 1989 in the historical suspense 226: The Four Days Of Snow And Blood, followed by his first leading role in Fancy Dance in the same year. Since then, the actor has been unstoppable, starring in a minimum of one major film per year, including the award-winning comedy Sumo Do, Sumo Don’t (Shiko Funjatta) where he played the role of a university student who gets trapped into entering a dying sumo club as a condition to graduate.
Motoki’s international breakthrough came in 2008 with his role as protagonist Daigo Kobayashi in Departures, for which he won nine domestic awards in addition to an Oscar. His latest movie, Long Excuses (Nagai Iiwake), released in 2016, is a story of a widower who manages to rediscover his hopes for life after an unusual encounter with two children who had lost their mother.
Motoki is married to essayist and musician Yayako Uchida, the daughter of actress Kirin Kiki and rock’n roll star Yuya Uchida. The two have three children. As of 2017, he has won 31 domestic acting awards.
- Motoki goes by the nickname “Mokkun,” which dates back to the time he was a member of Shibugaki Tai.
- Motoki dropped out of high school in his second year to focus on his showbiz career.
- He initiated the idea of Departures after he read a book by an encoffinment professional.
- He did the Japanese cameo for adult “Pi” Patel in the movie Life of Pi.
Though Nomura debuted only eight years ago in 2009, he is currently one of the most sought-after actors in Japanese cinema. Born in Kobe, Hyogo prefecture in 1993, he rose to popularity after winning the grand prix of a production agency audition in 2009, crowning the spot among a total of 31,514 applicants.
By the end of 2010, he had already starred in four Japanese TV series, including his debut work Shinsengumi Peace Maker and Tenshi no wakemae by NHK, Japan’s national public broadcasting company. Nomura made his movie debut in 2011 in the popular high school drama Drucker in the Dog-out: A Japanese Baseball Girl Meets Peter Drucker (known in Japan as “Moshidora”) starring as Tamura, the new member in the baseball team. Other popular works include Enoshima Prism (2013), Birigyaru (2015) and Chihayafuru Part I and II (2016), a story of three friends who were united by their love of karuta, a traditional Japanese card game.
Prior to becoming an actor, Nomura was a professional junior snowboarder who had competed in numerous competitions, coming first at the Willcom Zero3 SS Challenge in 2007 at the age of 13. He is an active user of social media with nearly 1.5 million followers on Twitter and nearly 842,000 on Instagram as of Oct. 2017. His latest movie Love & Doc will be released in 2018.
- Nomura is of a one-quarter Chinese descent and speaks fluent Chinese.
- His father urged him to apply for the Amuse audition, telling him that he can get “some cash out of it,” but no one anticipated he would get the role.
- His hobbies include skateboarding, baseball and BMX.
He’s got the cool dandy looks, the deep voice and the acting skills all turned up to a maximum. Born in 1963 in Nara Prefecture, Kato started his career as a fashion model while still in college, but soon turned to acting, making his debut in 1988 with a brief appearance in the TV drama New Jungle and three movies, including his first major hit Marylin ni Aitai, a true story-based drama about love — be it in humans or in two dogs.
Following his debut, Kato travelled to Hollywood to further pursue his acting career, landing successful roles in the 1998 adaptation of Godzilla along with Matthew Broderick and Jean Reno. His cool looks and martial art skills are often credited for the number of action roles he has played, including Yee Tung-sing’s Shinjuku Incident, in which he starred alongside Jackie Chan; the Japanese suspense series Unfair; The Last Cop (2017); and Sanada Jyu shi (Sanada 10 Braves) (2016), a historical action based on the story of ten warriors led by former ninja who take center stage in one of the greatest power struggles in Japanese history. Kato is married and has one child.
- Kato met his wife, a doctor, at a hospital where she treated him after an injury on set.
- He practices martial arts and performs his own stunts in movies.
- His character in Godzilla was called “Masaya Kato.”
- He is also a licensed teacher and a scuba diver.
For a boy who grew up going to the cinema almost on a daily basis, one could argue that it was only a matter of time before Saitoh took up acting for a living. But despite his profound interest in movies, he started out as a successful model, getting a number of professional gigs at international runaways such as the the Paris Collection, Issey Miyake and Calvin Klein fashion shows. What kept Saitoh motivated was his urge to fulfil his multiple hobbies — including travelling — for which he needed funds, so he signed up for a production agency as a teenager. The rest is history.
Born and raised in Tokyo in 1981, Saitoh grew up as a very versatile and energetic child, intensively playing soccer. As a high school student, he became inspired by a book he read and went on a series of solo travels abroad, discovering the world. After graduating from high school, he enrolled himself at an acting school, but was criticised by his father who told him that “cinema is not something you study.” Luckily enough, at the age of 20, he was scouted by a producer for the movie “Toki no Kaori – Remember Me” (2001), which launched his debut as an actor. Since then he has acted in over 60 movies and 60 TV dramas, becoming one of the most sought-after actors in Japan over the past decade. Some of his most popular movies include Umizaru (2004), Space Battleship Yamato (2010), Shin Godzilla (2016) and the award-winning human drama Blank 13 (2017). In 2014, Saitoh launched the project “Cinema bird” delivering moving cinemas to areas without cinema complexes.
- Saitoh is a skilled cook. He likes to invite people over, and write the “menu of the day” on a board for his guests to choose.
- He is also a photographer. His original photos can be viewed on his official website.
- As a child, he was temporary enrolled at a school with only seven classmates.
As you have realized by our list thus far, the road toward becoming an actor in Japan does not necessarily start at an acting school — and oftentimes it can even be quite accidental. Yet, what makes one stand out in the crowd is not only good looks on screen, but also the constant pursuit of various hobbies and interests that make one’s on-screen personality widely appealing to different audiences. What these four actors have in common is exactly this and the reason why they have stuck around for a while can be perhaps traced in these characteristics they share. If you haven’t seen them on screen yet, check out their works and witness this for yourselves!