May 7, 2015 12:00 am JST
A dramatic life

Meet Japan's envoy to Hollywood

KAORU MORISHITA, Nikkei senior deputy editor

TOKYO -- In the 1970s, Yoko Narahashi wrote a song, in English, for a popular Japanese rock band called Godiego. "I thought I reached the end, the end of a long, long journey," went the lyrics, "only to find it's not over, there's so much more to discover."

     Today, she sees those lines as prophetic.

     Since Narahashi helped Steven Spielberg recruit Japanese actors for his 1987 film "Empire of the Sun," she has been Hollywood's go-to casting director for talent from her native land. Aside from penning tunes and playing matchmaker for Tinseltown, Narahashi has also made a name for herself as an acting instructor, language educator, and producer/director of films and stage plays.

     Just about all of her endeavors are aimed at bridging Japan and the rest of the world. In that sense, she has followed in the footsteps of her father, a diplomat. Narahashi was born in 1947 and spent 11 years of her youth in Canada.

     As a casting director, Narahashi can be credited with making Ken Watanabe a global star. She introduced the actor to director Edward Zwick for the 2003 epic "The Last Samurai." Not only did she open Hollywood's door for Watanabe, she also helped him to prepare for his English-language scenes with Tom Cruise.  

     Last year, Narahashi had a role reversal of sorts. Normally tasked with ushering Japanese talent abroad, she instead helped NHK, the nation's public broadcaster, cast a Western actress for a historical drama series titled "Massan." The station needed someone to play Ellie, a Scottish woman who helped her Japanese husband realize his dream of making authentic Scotch whisky in Japan. It was the first time NHK had created a lead role for a non-Japanese actress in one of its popular 15-minute morning dramas.

     "I thought it was an amazing project," Narahashi said. "It took courage for NHK, and for producer [Ken] Sakurai, to attempt this. I told them that I would support them any way I can." 

     Narahashi introduced Charlotte Kate Fox, a little-known American actress. She had never visited Japan and did not speak Japanese, but she beat out hundreds of applicants for the part. Fox moved to Japan and spent more than a year filming the series. Narahashi and her team helped Fox handle the mostly Japanese script.      

     "When I see that a person is a great match [for a role], it's like Cinderella's glass slipper," Narahashi said. She calls it "a beautiful chemical reaction, where the role becomes better and the actor becomes better."

A matter of perspective

Before searching for an actor to play a particular role, Narahashi reads the script and attempts to put herself in the character's place. She draws on the form of method acting she learned when she studied drama at New York's Neighborhood Playhouse in the late 1960s. Her drama studies have served her well in other ways: In 1974, she founded an English school based on the method and still serves as chairwoman.

     Narahashi describes the method as "inside-out." "The actor has to try to use himself fully and as realistically as possible in order to portray the character."

     Narahashi said we can all use acting techniques to communicate better and span culture gaps. "As an actor, you can play many roles," she said. "You can play the bad guy. But you also understand his position. He has reasons to do what he does. We need this [same] understanding in order to develop cultural harmony."

     A play that has become a big part of her life's work, "The Winds of God," is all about jumping into the shoes of others. Written by actor Masayuki Imai, it concerns two young comedians who are transported back to their previous lives, when they were kamikaze pilots. Initially, they feel alienated from their comrades, but they gradually come to understand the men who flew to their deaths.

     In 1991, Narahashi directed an English version in the U.S. In 1995, the troupe performed it at the United Nations. The play "explains very well the Japanese point of view, in a way that people in other countries can understand," she said. Some U.S. audience members told her that they saw their own sons in the characters.

     This month, Narahashi is directing "The Winds of God" in Japan on Imai's behalf, after he stepped away to fight cancer.

     Narahashi stressed that to work internationally, one needs "the ability to really listen." She reckons open ears are essential for effective communication -- and open hearts. "I think the real basis of communication is love," she said. "If we have love, that can really help us to stop fighting."

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