It has been over a month since veteran actor Kirin Kiki passed away. Fans of Asian cinema are still mourning her passing and I’d just like to add a couple of thoughts.
Kirin Kiki was born in Tokyo in 1943 and started her acting career fresh from graduating from high school in the early 1960s. Her first steps were to become a member of the Bungakuza theatre troupe using the stage name Chiho Yuki and taking on two early screen roles, the first being a TBS drama Seven Grandchildren (Shichinin no mago 七人の孫) in 1964 and then two film roles, the drama Gentlemen Beware (Tonogata Goyoujin 殿方御用心), released in June 1966 and the comedy Drunken Doctor Continues (Zoku Yoidore hakase 続・酔いどれ博士), written by Kaneto Shindo and released in September of the same year. She continued working throughout the years and showed her versatility when she collaborated with the likes of Seijun Suzuki on Zigeunerweisen (1980) and Pistol Opera (2001) and Nobuhiko Obayashi on Sabishinbo (1985), continuing on to titles like Villain and Arrietty (both from 2010) where she played grandmother types. She had a diverse range but I, and many Japanese film fans, would come into contact with her due to her work with Hirokazu Kore’eda.
An interesting life and deep experience in the world of acting gave her a quality of wisdom and endurance and also brusqueness, something she called upon when working with Kore-eda. Usually playing a grandmother or an old friend of a family with a flinty personality, she became a reassuring and welcome presence who was like a steady hand at the tiller when all around her were adrift *even if you disagreed with her) whenever she was on the screen in titles such as Kiseki (2011), Like Father, Like Son (2013), and Our Little Sister (2015), and After the Storm (2016) but her most iconic role will be Still Walking (2008).
In it, lead actor Hiroshi Abe plays Ryota Yokoyama, the unpopular second son and an art restorer who returns to his parent’s home to commemorate the death of the beloved eldest son. Everyone is struggling with barely suppressed emotions as we find that the Yokoyama family are riven by the death and the healing process is glacial. Audiences will wonder if it will ever occur as comments and actions are full of personal slights and resentment that show a lifetime of hurt. Kirin’s character probably has the sharpest moments where her harshness is well-hidden by the jollity she brings to her performance.
That mother and son double-act she formed with Abe was brought back with After the Storm as the two worked together perfectly to showcase another quietly dysfunctional family but with less of a sharper and darker edge as Abe’s character tries to deal with his separation from his wife. Hope springs eternal for these characters but they eventually have to let go of the past. Kirin steals the show in a tear-inducing scene where she tries to revive her son’s happy family. A nice thematic link between the two is the butterfly...
Perhaps her best performance in recent years is to be found in the Naomi Kawase film Sweet Bean (2015) where she starred alongside granddaughter Kyara Uchida and she finds another perfect acting partner in the superb Masatoshi Nagase. While he is all stoicism and bitterness, she is the hopeful and delightful ray of light that balances him and helps the film make a point about people needing to understand the world around us.
Kirin’s death was not unexpected. She had been diagnosed with cancer back in 2004 and had undergone operations for it. In an interview with reporter Mai Yoshikawa for The Japan Times earlier this year she commented,
“My cancer has spread throughout my entire body and there’s nothing the doctors can do,” Kiki added. “There’s no point in comparing myself now to my old healthy self and feeling miserable. . . . Rather than fighting reality, I choose to accept what’s in front of me and go with the flow.”
To think that she went through cancer treatment and still put in these great performances! 2018 was the year of Kirin as she starred in Kore-eda’s latest film, which won the Palme d’Or at Cannes, and she was feted at his year’s Japan Cuts where she won the CUT ABOVE award for her services to the Japanese film industry.
This isn’t the last we have heard of her as audiences in Japan can see her in a Tatushi Omori film in October called Nichinichi Kore Kojitsu (2018).
日日是好日 「Nichinichi Kore Kojitsu」
Running Time: 100 mins.
Release Date: October 13th, 2018
Director: Tatsushi Ohmori
Writer: Tatsushi Ohmori (Screenplay), Noriko Morishita (essay)
Starring: Haru Kruoki, Mikako Tabe, Kirin Kiki, Shingo Tsurumi, Mayu Tsuruta, Mayu Harada, Saya Kawamura, Chihiro Okamoto,
Synopsis: Noriko (Haru Kuroki) is a 20-year-old university student who has lost her way in life. Noriko’s mother suggests that she attends a Japanese tea ceremony near her house with her cousin Michiko (Mikako Tabe). Michiko is enthusiastic about it but Noriko doesn’t seem so certain. However, once there, Noriko learns from the teacher, Takeda (Kirin Kiki) and experiences a whole new world. It stays with Noriko throughout her life, during frustrations while job hunting, moments when she suffers a broken heart, and during the death of someone important. The tea ceremony always offers her something to return to…
Kiki Kirin’s final screen appearance in a drama. Here is a clip from her performance, Erika 38, which is released next year:
My words don’t really do her justice but through her films, family, friends, and fans, she will live on.
Kirin Kiki, Rest in Peace.