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Remembering Kiki Kirin, A Long Serving Legend of Japan’s Film World

This year, Japan lost a film icon that will always shine bright in our memory

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The year of 2018 saw the passing of Kiki Kirin, an icon of Japanese cinema whose contribution to the film craft will never be forgotten. She passed away on September 15th in her Tokyo home at the age of 75, surrounded by immediate family and celebrated by devoted fans in Japan and abroad.

Having starred in dozens of movies, TV dramas and award-winning hits, Kiki Kirin always stood a rank higher among fellow film stars and yet she lived a life full of compassion, sensibility and most of all, a pure devotion to the craft of filmmaking. A unique — to some even eccentric — strong-willed and versatile actress, Kiki Kirin was a living acting legend; a formidable figure Japan’s cinema will forever miss.

To call the evolution of Kiki Kirin’s career “a happy accident” would risk dismissing her talent, charisma, and hard work, but her success in the world of acting was an unlikely surprise — at least the beginning of it. She had planned to study pharmacy, unfortunately for her (and lucky for us), this plan derailed when a ski injury prevented her from making it to the entrance exam. Showcasing a level of resilience that would later serve her well in the acting business, Kiki decided to apply for the first advertised job she saw. It was an audition for a theatrical performance — and the rest is history.

In the 1960s, Kiki launched her career by joining the Japanese theatre troupe Bungakuza. Not long after, she transitioned to TV and commercials, gaining notoriety for her excellent comedic timing and eccentric characterizations. Her early career was populated TV and film roles, of which in her later life she was bluntly dismissive.

“There’s nothing memorable about that period,” she stated in a 2016 interview published in South China Morning Post. “We’ve all forgotten about those works.” Although that sentiment may be true for Kiki herself, her talent and versatility in musical comedy films like Kamisama no Koibito (1968), and in TV drama series’ like Terauchi Kantaro Ikka (Kantaro Terauchi Family) (1974) are impossible to overlook.

“I started acting because I couldn’t find another job then. In my 55 years of acting, the first 45 were spent just to make a living,” she said in 2016. Refreshingly candid about the realities of the business of the acting world, she went on to explain how she looks at her impressive body of work. “It was only in the past 10 years that movies became my passion and focus” — before this she had felt that the roles she’d been given required no real responsibility as an actress.

It’s difficult to assume whether Kiki was being humble, or just honest. But if you read any of her later interviews, you’ll see she never was the kind for false humility. Kiki was always someone who would defy convention without a second thought. An example of her offbeat attitude to doing things was in 1977 when she changed her stage name from Chiho Yuki to Kirin Kiki, a name she found flipping through the dictionary. She decided to sell off her original stage name for a TV charity auction when asked why Kiki stated matter-of-factly she had “nothing else to sell.”

Looking at the chronology of her career, the films Kiki felt she did have a responsibility for and was vocally proud of coincided with her collaborations with the director, producer, and screenwriter Hirokazu Kore-eda. The first big project the duo worked on together was Still Walking (2008), a conceptual drama that followed a family over a 24-hour period as they commemorate the anniversary of their eldest son’s death. A delicate exploration of family dynamics, Still Walking was a critical success and was awarded the Golden Astor for Best Film at the 2008 Mar del Plata International Film Festival in Argentina. The release cemented a new beginning for Kiki.

This belated passion for acting kicked into overdrive during the last decade of her life and resulted in Kiki creating the best films of her career. A year before Still Walking she starred in Tokyo Tower: Mom and Me and Sometimes Dad (2007) a movie based on the autobiography of actor and writer Lily Franky.

In Tokyo Tower, Kiki plays Eiko Nakagawa, the mother of Masaya Nakagawa (young Lily Franky, played by Jo Odagiri), who after escaping her alcoholic husband with her son in tow, is diagnosed with cancer later in life and moves to Tokyo to be under the care of her now 20-something son. It’s strange to call this a breakthrough, but for Kiki in many ways it was. For this performance, she won Best Actress in a Leading Role at the 2008 Japanese Academy Awards, it was an award she’d only been nominated for prior. Overall, the film was a raging success, sweeping up eight awards at the 2008 Japan Academy Prizes including Best Film, Best Director, Screenplay of the Year, and Best Actor.

In 2013, Kiki won Best Actress in a Leading Role at the Japanese Academy Awards again, this time for her portrayal of dementia-battling mother and grandmother Yae for the film Chronicle of My Mother (2011). Over a 15 year period, the film follows the journey of a family who is forced to come together after the death of their husband, father, and grandfather. Narrated by Yae’s granddaughter Kotoko (Miyazaki Aoi), the movie sees Kotoko’s father Kosaku (Koji Yakusho) deal with abandonment he suffered as a child at the hands of the woman who is now his duty (Kiki). It’s an in-depth exploration of familial resentment, selfishness, forgiveness and the harsh reality of aging. It’s a slow paced film, but Kiki’s understanding of the complex nuances of human emotion is utterly enthralling.

In 2004, just three years before what could be thought of as her ‘renaissance period’ Kiki was diagnosed with cancer and battled many other medical issues. When asked about dealing with her ailing health in an early 2018 interview with the Japan Times, she responded “[V]ery interesting, this thing called aging,” matter-of-factly.

Kiki was fiercely private, living alone for a large part of her life (despite being married), but never shy. She spoke about death with candor. “I want to die at home, having morphine-induced hallucinations. I’m hoping my death isn’t painful and my last words are ‘See ya. Good-bye.’” An ‘important lesson’ her health taught her was that her physical body is simply “temporary earth suit.” In the 2012 film Until the Break of Dawn (Tsunagu) she explored the physical and spiritual boundaries of death, playing the role of a medium who teaches her grandson how to connect with the departed, but more importantly how to accept the devastating loss of a loved one while moving forward and continuing a fulfilling life.

Balancing blunt, wry humor with maternal gentleness was always a much-loved trademark of Kiki’s, it’s what garnered her unofficial title of ‘Japan’s grandmother.’ An epitome of this quality is best seen in the film Sweet Bean (An) (2015) where Kiki played an ambitious 70-year-old red bean (anko) maker who persuades dorayaki shop owner Sentaro (Masatoshi Nagase) to give her a job. When quizzed on the likeness between her character and the real-life Kiki, she replied “[I]f I shared my character’s mentality, I’d be a much better actress than I am” in typical tongue-in-cheek, self-deprecating Kiki fashion.

One of the final film deals to travel through Kiki’s fax machine (her preferred way of communication) was Shoplifters (Manbiki Kazoku) (2018) a last hurrah with director Kore-eda. Between this and Still Walking, the pair had worked together on four feature films including Our Little Sister (Umimachi diary) (2015) which received most nominations at the 39th Japan Academy Prize (12) and won four, including Director of the Year for Kore-eda. Shoplifters features Kiki as Hatsue, the matriarch of a struggling family, the film’s stunning portrayal of poverty, family, and realities of the human condition broke international ground, sweeping up accolades from Golden Globes, Asia Pacific Screen Awards and the Cannes Film Festival, where it took out the festival’s highest prize, the Palme d’Or.

Not to let her health get in the way of work, Kiki’s followed up Shoplifters with one last film Nichinichi Kore Kojitsu (2018), an apt conclusion to her incredible career. In Chinese-Japanese Zen Buddhist philosophy, the similar sounding term ‘nichi nichi kore konichi’ translates to “every day is a good day.”

“I know how to look for happiness in everything,” Kiki stoically responded when interviewed by South China Morning Post about her health in 2016, “[E]ven when the moment comes for me to finally face death, I’ll still be able to find happiness then.”

A month before the October release of Nichinichi Kore Kojitsu Kiki passed away after ongoing health battles. Her death was a devastating loss to the Japanese film community and the countless fans that loved her tireless work, but she left a legacy that continues on, both on screen, in interviews and the hearts of those she inspired. Her dry, anti-Hollywood look at the movie industry showed us all there’s nothing wrong with marching to the beat of your own drum, and and her later career proved that you’re never too old, too sick, or too out of the norm to make a difference in this world.

文:Lucy Dayman