The Nippon Honor Award is awarded for the fourth time. We are proud to announce that this year’s winner will be actress Shinobu TERAJIMA.
Born in Kyoto on December 28th, 1972, TERAJIMA hails from a long line of performers on both sides of her family. Her father, Kikugoro ONOE, is a legendary kabuki actor (her younger brother, Kikunosuke ONOE, has established himself as a kabuki performer as well), and her mother, Sumiko FUJI, is a film and television actress particularly known for her roles in various classic yakuza films and the “Red Peony Gambler” series. With such a background, she was practically fated to enter acting at an early age, and by the early 90’s she was already receiving recognition for stage and television performances.
It took a bit longer before she decided to go into film acting, but when she did so in the early 2000’s, at the relatively late age of 28, she did so with aplomb, eventually starring in several critically-acclaimed movies released in 2003, most notably Akame 48 Waterfalls (directed by Genjirou ARATO) and Vibrator (directed by Ryuichi HIROKI), both of which won her awards at the Japanese Academy Awards in 2004. These performances established an early pattern for TERAJIMA of actively seeking out directors and scripts that she felt really delved into more nuanced, complex female characters, ones she describes as “hard to peg down.”
This focus eventually led to her leading role in Caterpillar, an anti-war film directed by Koji WAKAMATSU and released in 2010 that brought her recognition on the international stage. Here, TERAJIMA dove into the character of a struggling wife of a quadruple-amputee sent back from the Chinese front in World War II. Forced to shoulder the immense weight of societal demands made of the wife of a “War God,” both her performance and the film as a whole use this troubled, twisted marriage as a prism through which one is forced to consider how the true costs of war are always borne out by those least able to decide their own fates. What’s even more remarkable to consider, given the film’s excellence, is that only a single take was filmed for each scene, with the entire film being completed in less than two weeks, an astonishingly fast pace by any measure. For this role, Terajima was awarded the Silver Bear for Best Actress at the 60th Berlin Film Festival, at the time making her only the third-ever Japanese actor to win the award, and the first in 35 years.
Perhaps because of the fact that she started out with high expectations placed on her due to her lineage, TERAJIMA has always made a particular effort to stand out in her intensity and commitment to her work. She has also never been shy about defying traditions or expectations for Japanese actresses when she feels the need to. This ranges from smaller matters, like her distaste for doing commercials, to larger ones like her willingness to take on roles requiring nudity and extensive sex scenes; after the release of one such performance in Love Never To End in 2007, even her own mother felt she had gone too far. TERAJIMA has often been critical of how, unlike in the West, where nudity is often taken as a sign of an actress’ seriousness, Japanese culture tends to be more dismissive of actresses who do such roles. When asked about this in regards to Caterpillar, which also featured numerous sex scenes, she said, “In Berlin, people were talking about ‘Caterpillar’ as an artistic film…but when I came back here, it’s always the same question with Japanese journalists: ‘Why is it OK that every time you’re doing sex films?’ No, it’s not a sex film. Please read the script.”
This ability to be open and frank about the shortcomings she sees in Japanese cinema has also been a common thread throughout her career. She has often bemoaned the lack of directors able to create nuanced, deeper portrayals of woman, which is a big reason she is particular about which directors she works with. For her, this is intimately connected to what she sees as a larger problem of the Japanese movie industry making less of an effort in recent years to focus enough on quality and on really differentiating itself from Chinese or Korean cinema, each of which are making their own headways on the international scene.
True, Western festivals have always had a tendency to lump together all Eastern films, regardless of country or genre, under the generic heading of “Asian,” but for TERAJIMA, Japanese filmmakers are not without their share of blame for this. In a Japan Today interview after winning the Silver Bear in Berlin in 2010, she said, “Most Japanese movies at the moment are like manga, where the audience isn’t challenged to think or encouraged to ponder the themes and storylines. The movies are easy to read and the storylines totally predictable, so the audience never matures. My husband’s daughter is 10 and she watches a lot of movies, but when she sees Japanese films she just finds them stupid.”
Even though her acting career is still far from over, TERAJIMA has already done her part over the past two decades to push the boundaries of Japanese acting and cinema. Her insistence on not just following the expectations of others, of pushing back against the usual restrictions on actresses in Japan and elsewhere, make her a role model and shining example for future women to further expand and redefine the roles they play in cinema, and have helped pave the way for a future where, hopefully, true equality can finally be achieved.
TERAJIMA currently lives in Japan with her husband, the French art director Laurent Ghnassia, and their son.
To experience Terajima’s work for yourself, check out the following works from her filmography being screened at this year’s festival:
You can also get a feel for the acting legacy of Terajima’s mother at the Retro screening of one of the classic Red Peony films: