Yoko Narahashi Featured

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Yoko Narahashi

Casting Director Casts Light on the Hollywood and Japanese Film Industries

Yoko Narahashi is an acclaimed Japanese casting and film director, garnering attention for her involvement in such films as The Wolverine, The Last Samurai, and Winds of God, for which she won Best New Director at the Japan Movie Critics Awards in 1995. Narahashi was educated in Canada and grew up learning Japanese, English, and a little bit of French. She cofounded the Model Language Studio, highlighting the importance of language and acting by promoting the teaching of English to Japanese students through drama. Tokyo Journal Editor-in-Chief Anthony Al-Jamie talked with Yoko Narahashi about her experiences working with Japanese and Western actors, the Model Language Studio, and her legacy in the film industry.

TJ: Can you tell me about the difference in sensibility between an American actor working in Japan versus the United States?
I think A-list American actors should not expect everything to be first-class, as sometimes a Japanese [production] company cannot afford that. I have cast Bruce Willis and Arnold Schwarzenegger commercials, but they were very gracious to the Japanese way. Japanese movie production costs are completely different and working hours are different, so you can’t always work the way Americans want to or are used to, but, I’m hoping little by little we can get there. I hope that an American actor will appreciate Japan and be willing to go the extra mile to overcome the cultural differences.

TJ: How would you prepare a Western actor to work in Japan?
Some [ Japanese] directors don’t direct in the same way that American directors do. I think an American director will give the “why,” not the result, and I think American actors are used to that. But a Japanese director might just say, “Come in, start to laugh, kind of hysterically, and then stop suddenly, and then get very angry and walk away.” [American actors will wonder], But why? Where does that reasoning come from? But it’s just the effect, the result, that the Japanese director wants. And some directors work like that, they want the result and you figure out how to get it.

TJ: How would you prepare a Japanese actor coming to the U.S.?
They must learn independence. In Japan, the manager does everything for an actor or actress, whereas in the United States you do everything on your own. So, going abroad without a manager can cause anxiety for Japanese actors, but I’m not anyone’s mother, nor am I their agent or manager.

TJ: Must Japanese actors know English?
While it doesn’t have to be perfect, an actor must have the courage to speak English and be able to listen well enough to understand what a director is saying. While there definitely has been an increase in Asian roles, it is still really difficult to make a living as a Japanese actor in the U.S. It’s a matter of charisma, a matter of star quality, and hard work. Japanese actors must learn about Japan and understand their culture while embracing English.

TJ: Tell me about your language school.
I have the Model Language Studio (MLS), a language school mainly for children, and the United Performers’ Studio (UPS) for kids who are doing drama and want to become professional. For example, at MLS, when teaching the word “apple,” we introduce pictures. Students can hold the apple. They can smell it. It’s like acting. It’s through the action, through the experience, that students improve their English. It [UPS] focuses on drama. They perform a drama, they perform a musical, and everything is done in English. It’s called model production. Right now, my daughter is looking after my company, UPS, and my business partner, Masa, is still looking after Modern Language Studio.

TJ: What’s your favorite part about casting?
When the magic happens. When the actor looks amazing and fits this role and the director is happy. Everybody is happy.

TJ: Have you ever cast someone from just seeing their picture?
Yes. The young girl who did Memoirs of a Geisha. Her name is Suzuka Ohgo. I went to the theater and plays, and I saw a lot of young girls. I knew who the main girl should be. There was a certain look that I was really looking for and I couldn’t find it. I asked the manager, “Do you have other people?” She said, “Well, I have a few more pictures here.” I was looking at them and I said, “Can I see her?” and I knew she was the one. So, when I met her it was only to confirm. There’s just something about pictures, and I think that actors should really understand that pictures are so important.

TJ: What skills do casting directors require?
There are great casting directors who never learned acting, but I personally think it’s a great asset to be able to act. One of my dear friends, Jane Jenkins, who did the casting for A Beautiful Mind, also learned acting, so she can relate.

TJ: What advice do you give people who want to be casting directors?
I really think they should love actors, be really interested in drama, and love movies.

TJ: Do you see yourself as a casting director, film director, or actor?
I have been concentrating primarily on film directing. Also, writing has always been a joy for me. I’ve finally finished my own film script about a mother and child. The project is going to be shot in Japan and France, blending aspects of Japanese and Western culture, and showing the best of both, I hope.

TJ: What kind of films do you want to direct?
Well, this one [the upcoming project] to me has meaning because it’s between a mother and a daughter. I guess there is a social message. With Winds of God, my first film, I felt the West thought of kamikaze pilots as being crazy. But I wanted to show that they weren’t and that they had a reason for doing that.

TJ: Do you have a favorite film director?
I think [Akira] Kurosawa is amazing. Seven Samurai is just ... the more you study about film the more you think, “Oh, my God!”

TJ: What advice do you give directors so they can work well with a blend of actors from different cultures?
[My best advice] is to accept the differences and take joy in that. The fact that everybody’s going to be different is an amazing learning experience for the director. I think a lot of people think directors are the ones that teach, but I really think it’s the opposite too. We are always learning from everybody. Embrace the differences.

TJ: Can you tell me more about your film project?
The film project is going to be shot in Japan and France. It’s about a mother and child. I’ve already done my location hunting and gone to the flower fields and to Grasse, which is the place where perfume is made. I’ve always loved perfume. I love the sensory part of acting and drama. How can you smell anything in a film? Through beauty.

TJ: Where do you see yourself in 10 years?
I hope I’m enjoying time with my grandkids. I just love my grandkids. Now I think it’s always about family for me. Movies, drama, and work have always been very much in competition. But now, my grandkids are just amazing. I want to make my film, and I’ll have more time, possibly to write, or even find another project. But still, in 10 years, I’m hoping that I have time with my grandkids.

TJ: What legacy do you want to leave in the industry?
The excellence of acting, a love for the craft, and a basis for the care, consideration, and sensitivity it takes to work between cultures.


The complete article can be found in Issue #280 of the Tokyo Journal.

Written By:

Anthony Al-Jamie

Anthony Al-Jamie lived and worked in Japan for over 20 years. His in-depth understanding of Japanese language and culture has allowed him to carry out interviews with many of the most renowned individuals in Japan. He first began writing for the Tokyo Journal in the 1990s as Education Editor, later he was promoted to Senior Editor, and eventually International Editor and Executive Editor. He currently serves the Tokyo Journal as Editor-in-Chief.

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