‘My children still haven’t seen it’: An interview with Cold Fish star Denden
We chat to Denden about his career and success in the wake of Cold Fish, and working with Sion Sono again on Himizu…
For a long time Denden was one of those actors you’d see in supporting roles, often not big enough to really notice. With a career spanning more than 30 years, his CV is impressive, from appearing in Takashi Shimizu’s original Ju-On: The Curse straight-to-video releases and Higuchinsky’s rather more disturbing and twisted Uzumaki (aka Spiral), to more mainstream productions like Hiroyuki Nakano’s Red Shadow and Takao Okawara’s Godzilla 2000. Other films include Tomoyuki Takimoto’s Ikigami, Junji Sakamoto’s Someday and Amir Naderi’s Cut.
All that changed when auteur director Sion Sono, acclaimed director of Love Exposure, Suicide Club and Exte: Hair Extensions, cast him as the serial killer Yukio Murata in his film Cold Fish, a character both deliciously darkly comic and truly menacing. The role deservedly won him much praise, and awards include Outstanding Performance by an Actor in a Supporting Role at the Japan Academy Prize 2012 and Best Supporting Actor at the Mainichi Film Awards 2011.
Rather well humoured, I’m glad to say in real life Denden is nowhere as dark as that on-screen part – if anything he’s extremely humble and modest about his success!
Can you tell me how you got started in acting?
I always wanted to be an actor since I was really young, but I didn’t really get started properly until I was 30. Actually, when I was 23 I was in an educational movie against drugs and crime, but it was a really short so I don’t count that as my debut.
So that’s quite late to start a career as an actor. What were you doing at the time?
I had a lot of part time jobs. I was mainly worked as a signalman for roadworks [laughs].
So what was your first ‘proper’ acting role then?
It was Something Like It by Yoshimitsu Morita [in 1981].
So after a long career of mainly supporting roles, can you tell me how you first came to work with Sion Sono on Cold Fish?
Actually the first movie we did together wasn’t Cold Fish, but you wouldn’t know that because it was only available in Japan. It was a film called Be Sure to Share [Chanto tsutaeru, made between Love Exposure and Cold Fish, and seemingly unavailable with English subtitles].
In Be Sure to Share my role was as a teacher in high school. Funnily enough this guy longs for England, he’s always dressed in corduroy and holding a pipe, and he’s a really gentle person – so the complete opposite of my role in Cold Fish!
So despite being Japanese, that character looks like an English teacher, the clothing is like that of Watson from Sherlock Homes. Normally all the other producers and directors I’ve worked with asked me to act or look more ‘Japanesey’, but I think Sion Sono approached me differently, and made me something I’d never been before.
Then he told me later on that he wanted to use me as the baddest person ever! [chuckles] So that became Cold Fish. You’d have to ask him why he felt I was perfect for it! [laughs]
So he approached you to play the role of Murata in Cold Fish, what did you think when he offered the role of a serial killer?
I’d always wanted to play a role like Murata, a really bad person, like Ken Ogata in [Shôhei Imamura’s] Vengeance Is Mine, where he plays a sadistic killer as well. I was so glad that I get to play a role like Ken Ogata in that film.
So when I got the script I said, yes, I going do this! And I carry on reading it, but then I got a little bit worried as there are so many dialogues I have to remember and I wasn’t really sure if I could do it! [laughs]
I did have a few concerns taking the role, but I was determined to act perfectly! It wasn’t that I was worried about being a baddie, but I knew this would take a lot of energy to overcome this role.
I have to admit, my children have never seen that film…
You’ve not let them see it?
No! [laughs] And my mother hasn’t seen it either!
It was an amazing performance, and won you several awards. How did it feel to finally be recognised?
I’m not a very expressive person, so when I received those awards I was really happy inside, but didn’t really express it that way. It was more like, Okay, thanks! [laughs]
But since then, thanks to Cold Fish I’ve been getting loads of interesting offers from other Japanese filmmakers, and even places like Hong Kong on big movies, so it’s definitely been a good thing! And I really do love acting, it’s what I do, so I’m really happy about that.
Which brings us to your latest movie with Sion Sono, Himizu. Can you tell me about your role in that film?
My role is the Asian director of a money loan company, and the main character’s father has borrowed so much money off of my company, but in fact I am a Yakuza. When that character’s father goes missing, the son is harassed by us, forcing him to take responsibility for his father’s debt. My character has been brought up with violence, so has no reservations about hitting a 14-year-old boy. But the boy is strong willed, and sensing that their relationship changes, as my character realises he going to have to help the boy.
I think he helps the boy in quite a natural way. My character is a Yakuza, so it’s not easy for him to give the boy straightforward help, he has to do it in a very different way.
Do you enjoy working with Sion Sono as a director?
Yes, I love it!
And what do you enjoy about working with him in comparison to other directors?
Well, in his words he lets me swim, meaning he lets me act how I want to act first and then only corrects me if he doesn’t like it. So most of the time he lets me be.
So you have a lot of freedom creatively?
Exactly. He doesn’t really impose how he wants actors to play their roles on them. So I think we have a good harmony, how I want to be able to act, and how he likes to direct.
I find I can lean on him because I trust him completely, and that’s a nice feeling.
And I think that comes across in the films as well.
I am so glad you said that!
So what are your favourite films?
The Great Escape! That’s my favourite film of all time! I always feel I should say something Japanese, but Great Escape is my movie. I saw it when I was a teenager in senior school. It was the heyday of Steve McQueen, and being 13/14 years old, I loved motorbikes and so on. It doesn’t matter how good new movies are, it’s the one that always stays with me.
But maybe in a few years time I might say something like, My favourite movie is Cold Fish! [laughs]
Are there any actors that have inspired you?
I think I was most influenced by Junzaburo Ban, who sadly passed away. He was the lead in Kiga kaikyō [A Fugitive from the Past aka Straits of Hunger] by Tomu Uchida. I don’t think I’m copying his acting method, but I think I take some sort of essence from this person. I’d love to recreate that role. It’s not that anyone has any plans to remake it, but if they did…
Are there any actors or directors you haven’t worked with yet but would like to?
To be honest, if there’s an offer then I will take it! There’s not any particular directors I want to work with. Actually, there is something coming up, but I don’t want to say anything it in case it falls through.
There are a few actors I’d like to work with as well, but again, I don’t want to say it out loud!
Lastly, I’m sure you get interviewed all the time, but is there a question you’d like to be asked but haven’t yet?
That’s the one! In my entire career I’ve never been asked that question!
Himizu was screened as the closing film of the Terracotta Far east Film Festival, and won the audience award. It will be in UK cinemas from 1 June released by Third Window Films, and released on DVD on 6 August.
Thanks to Denden for his time, translator Sayaka Smith, and Adam and Claire at Third Window Films.