Japanese players making waves

Rinko Kikuchi

Oscar-nommed for her perf as a deaf high school girl in “Babel,” Kikuchi is busy cashing in on her newfound fame. In Japan she is starring in the Satoshi Miki comedy “The Insects Unlisted in the Encyclopedia,” skedded for a June release by Nikkatsu. In the U.S., she appears in Rian Johnson’s forthcoming con-man drama “The Brothers Bloom.” Before her “Babel”-icious break, Kikuchi was working steadily in pics, beginning with the 1999 Kaneto Shindo drama “Ikitai,” but found the breakthrough to stardom elusive. However, in status-conscious Japan, where a major foreign award or nom can immediately boost a talent to the front ranks, Kikuchi can now write her own ticket — and for the moment, she is choosing one that takes her back and forth over the Pacific.

Mika Ninagawa

Born in 1972 in Tokyo, Ninagawa is a photographer with a long list of awards, gallery shows, photo books (more than 30 to date) and credits, from fashion magazine spreads to CD covers. Known for her vivid sense of color and striking compositions, Ninagawa has been branching out into video production and now film, with her first feature “Sakuran.” Released this past February in Japan, this drama about a feisty feudal-era high-class whore in Tokyo’s fabled Yoshiwara brothel district became a surprise smash, with some of the more dedicated fans attending the theater in the same sort of glam kimonos worn by the heroine. Ninagawa’s next pic will be a contemporary drama, but she has yet to firm up a script or title.

Makoto Shinkai

Called the “new Hayao Miyazaki” for his resemblance to the world-renowned toon auteur in sensibility, style and talent, Shinkai has gained a devoted following in Japan since bursting onto the scene with his award-winning short “The Voices of a Distant Star” in 2002. In 2004, Shinkai released his first feature, “The Place Promised in Our Early Days,” which won a slew of awards in Japan and abroad, including top feature honors at the Seoul Intl. Animation Festival. His latest, “5 Centimeters Per Second,” differs in theme and treatment from his previous sci-fi/fantasy pics, but has fared well in arthouse engagements. In three parts, the toon depicts the momentous meetings and partings of two teens in love, earning the sort of rave reviews that justify the Miyazaki comparisons.

Anna Tsuchiya

A professional model since age 14 and now an actress and singer with a string of hit films and CDs, Tsuchiya differs from the usual manufactured Japanese “multitalent” by demonstrating genuine talent in her multifaceted fields of endeavor while gaining real international recognition. Her breakout hit, the 2004 female buddy comedy “Kamikaze Girls,” in which Tsuchiya played a snarling, spitting biker, complemented her punk/rebel stage image. In her latest pic, the hit period drama “Sakuran,” she not only got a new look playing a feudal-era concubine — substituting her gritty leathers with gorgeous kimonos — but also showed a more vulnerable side. The daughter of a Japanese mother and Russian-American father, Tsuchiya is now in the process of making a CD and film while prepping to invade the U.S. market.

Riko Narumi

All of 14, Narumi is already a TV and screen veteran, with eight feature perfs on her resume, including starring roles in three pics released this year. In the first, Koji Hagiuda’s “Shindo,” she plays a piano prodigy with a penetrating stare who loses her groove after her pianist father’s mysterious disappearance. The pic opened in Japan on April 21. Coming up is Tatsuya Ogishima’s “I Can Only Hear You” (Kimi ni shika Kikoenai), in which she stars as a friendless high school freshman, and “How to Become Myself,” in which she plays a popularity-seeking girl who loses her sense of self. The helmer, Jun Ichikawa, won international plaudits and a U.S. release deal for “Tony Takitani,” a 2005 drama based on the fiction of Haruki Murakami.

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