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Abe Hiroshi: Crazy Campy Cool

Written by Mike Crandol Tell a Friend

He's been stepped on by Godzilla, crossed paths with Musashi and Yoshitsune, and wielded the sword of Alexander the Great. He filled Mifune Toshiro's shoes in a remake of a Kurosawa Akira classic, and he's worked with the best of Japan's current crop of filmmaking masters, including Iwai Shunji and Kore-eda Hirokazu. Abe Hiroshi just might be the luckiest guy at work today in Japan's entertainment industry. The one-time model's quirky, atypically handsome features allow him to essay suave dramatic leads, over-the-top comic book heroes and villains, and comedic clowns with equal believability. Abe Hiroshi has played them all, and if you've seen the exuberant energy he's put into any of the crazy characters he's portrayed, you know he's having a blast doing it.

But there's more to Abe than the wild-eyed gleam of Sword of Alexander's Genkuro or the goofy charm of Bubble Fiction's Isao. Time and again Abe has proven himself a serious actor of the highest caliber, carrying such heavyweight dramas as Adiantum Blue and Still Walking. His versatility coupled with his enthusiasm for playing both eccentric wackos and down-to-earth everymen make Abe Hiroshi one of the most successful - and endearing - Japanese celebrities of the past decade.

Camping Out

A native of Yokohama, Abe Hiroshi was born on June 22, 1964. His striking eyes and unusual height (6'2") quickly led him to a promising modeling career. By the age of 21 he was the regular cover model for Men's Non-No magazine, a gig which paved the way for Abe to become a semi-regular fixture on the ubiquitous Japanese variety show circuit. But like any good model, what Abe really wanted to do was act. After graduating from Tokyo's Chuo University in 1988, the young star-to-be began paying his acting dues, taking a variety of small supporting roles in television and film productions. He would spend the next ten years in the entertainment industry trenches before finally hitting it big, but the payoff would be more than worth the wait.

He revealed his early talent for camp as the villainous moon god Tsukiyomi in Toho Studio's Yamato Takeru (1994). Sort of a Shinto Clash of the Titans, Yamato Takeru retells ancient Japanese mythology by way of kaiju-eiga, complete with giant robots and a King Ghidorah mockup left over from the Godzilla series. Although the picture is largely forgettable and Abe's role amounts to little more than an extended cameo, Yamato Takeru amusingly foreshadows his later camp masterpiece The Sword of Alexander, which would make far better use of Abe's knack for wielding swords while wearing goofy outfits.

His part in Yamato Takeru also prefigures one of Abe's first starring roles in the similarly themed Moon Over Tao (1997). The brainchild of Zeiram mastermind Amemiya Keita, Moon Over Tao features the director's usual mix of jidaigeki action and extraterrestrial science fiction. Abe stars as Hayate, a medieval samurai retainer who teams with a Buddhist monk played by Nagashima Toshiyuki to discover the origins of an unbreakable sword. Zeiram star Moriyama Yuko is also on hand as a trio of identical alien beings sent to our planet to retrieve the blade, which leads to the expected low-budget thrills as samurai and space aliens duke it out for the future of feudal Japan - and the galaxy.

Deliriously cheesy as it is, Moon Over Tao was just the prelude to Abe's first unmitigated camp success. As the diabolical government agent behind the carnage of Godzilla 2000, Abe goes toe-to-toe with the legendary lizard - and manages to chew enough scenery to more than hold his own against what is arguably the most famous face in Japanese film history. Oddly enough, despite Abe's subsequent superstardom in his home country, Godzilla 2000 remains his highest-profile appearance in the West, where the film was given a wide theatrical release by TriStar Pictures. Sporting an intentionally bad dubbed soundtrack to capitalize on Godzilla's cult following abroad, the film was a modest box office success in the US, and the slightly off-synch shot of Abe shouting "Godzilla!!!" became a centerpiece of TriStar's marketing campaign.

Also in 2000, Abe had the good fortune to land a supporting part in Jingle Ma's caper comedy favorite Tokyo Raiders. Although the show belongs to Hong Kong superstars Tony Leung, Ekin Cheng and Kelly Chen, Abe couldn't have asked for a better international debut. Tokyo Raiders went on to become something of a latter day classic of Hong Kong Cinema and anticipates Abe's later international crossover hit Chocolate.

Tricky Business

While Abe was clearly having a lot of fun playing opposite such luminaries as Tony Leung and Godzilla on the big screen, television has always been the ultimate proving ground for Japanese talent. For Abe, the breakthrough moment was 2000's Trick, an offbeat comedy/mystery series that's been described as equal parts X-Files and Scooby-Doo. Trick's irresistible premise concerns Nakama Yukie as an out-of-work magician who teams up with a skeptic professor of psychics (Abe) to investigate and debunk supernatural mysteries. The show scored a big hit for Asahi TV, in part thanks to its genre-bending novelty, but Trick owes its success mainly to the chemistry between Nakama's savvy prestidigitator and Abe's brainy but easily bamboozled academic. After Trick, Abe was on the fast track to superstardom, but he's always found time to reprise the role that made him famous in various TV specials and feature film sequels, to the delight of fans.

A plethora of high-profile television appearances followed Trick, including starring roles in such series as Antique and Shotgun Wedding, the latter of which won the actor his first TV Academy Award. His next big hit came in 2001 with Hero, starring entertainment juggernaut Kimura Takuya as a street-smart former delinquent turned hotshot lawyer. The presence of Kimura made Hero a prefab hit, but the series' enduring popularity can be credited to the fine ensemble cast, which included not only Abe but Matsu Takako and Otsuka Nene.

Back on the big screen, Abe began to be offered more serious roles, no doubt as a result of his newfound status as an A-list celebrity. There's nary a trace of the old camp in Platonic Sex (2001), a sobering adaptation of former AV goddess Iijima Ai's semiautobiographical bestseller. A frank and brutal account of a young girl who finds herself trapped in the Japanese porno industry, the film benefits immensely from Abe's portrayal of the benefactor who ultimately comes to her aid, as well as featuring an early appearance by Odagiri Joe.

Following Platonic Sex, Abe reprised his TV role as Professor Ueda Jiro in Trick: The Movie (2002), and continued to prove his dramatic acting ability in director Iwai Shunji's international art-house darling Hana and Alice (2004). Lest anyone think he was becoming an exclusively serious actor, he also appeared in the deranged 2004 anthology film Survive Style 5+ as a hypnotist who turns his patient into a bird, as well as popping up in the live-action version of the anime classic Tetsujin 28 (a.k.a. Gigantor, 2005).

Abe continued to branch out on the small screen as well. He had key supporting roles in a pair of period mini-series about Japan's two most revered samurai heroes, Musashi (2003) and Yoshitsune (2005), but it was his leading performance in the 2005 drama series Dragon Zakura that brought Abe his highest level of critical acclaim to date. Based on an award-winning manga by Mita Norifusa, Dragon Zakura features Abe as a down-on-his luck lawyer who takes a job as a homeroom teacher at a third-rate high school. He gets strong support from costars Hasegawa Kyoko as a fellow teacher and teen phenom Nagasawa Masami as one of his students, but it's Abe's undeniable charm as Sakuragi Kenji, the washed-up professional who becomes driven to get his hopeless students into Tokyo University, that anchors the show and makes it such a success.

Abe's work on Dragon Zakura brought him a deserved Best Actor win at the 2005 TV Academy Awards, a feat he would duplicate the following year for his role in Kekkon Dekinai Otoko (The Unmarriable Man) as a grumpy, confirmed bachelor who finds himself unwillingly romanced by Natsukawa Yui.

After bringing Ueda Jiro to movie theaters once again in Trick: The Movie 2 (2006), Abe next appeared alongside Matsushita Nao in Adiantum Blue, a heartfelt tearjerker about a terminally ill woman's final month with her lover. He then starred in yet another theatrical adaptation of a television favorite, appearing in the 2007 movie version of Hero.

Abe also made the inevitable leap into J-Horror around this time, starring opposite Kusamura Reiko in Kidan and Oshima Yuko in Suicide Song, as well as appearing in the horror video game adaptation Siren and the grisly Hasami Otoko (The Man with the Scissors). All of these films proved rather pedestrian entries into the overcrowded J-Horror arena, which might suggest that Abe's career was beginning to get predictable and stagnate. Nothing could've been further from the truth.

The Return of the Zing

Agreeing to become the new voice of Ken in a re-imagining of the cult classic anime series Fist of the North Star might seem like an odd career move for a celebrity of Abe Hiroshi's league. The onetime star of Moon Over Tao and Godzilla 2000 is clearly indulging his inner geek, but Abe's return to high camp proved to be a surprise smash. The relaunched Fist of the North Star scored a decisive hit among anime fandom, and Abe has since given voice to the series' muscle-bound hero (who bears a passing resemblance to Abe himself) in four subsequent OVA installments. His turn as Kenshiro even won him a Best Voice Actor prize at the Manichi Animated Film Awards. It also prepped the actor for his role as Genkuro, the overly masculine hero of 2007's live-action cartoon triumph The Sword of Alexander.

With its over-the-top mix of Edo period samurai action and outer space sci-fi, Sword of Alexander may recall shades of Moon Over Tao, but Alexander possesses a sense of gleeful anarchy lacking in the often plodding Tao. This is a film that wisely never takes itself seriously for a moment; the result is a veritable roller-coaster ride of kitsch, and the cast clearly enjoyed the hell out of themselves while making it. As Genkuro, the hulking barbarian of a warrior in possession of the magic blade of Alexander the Great, Abe is all toothy grins, grunts, and hilarious mugging. His old Dragon Zakura costar Hasegawa Kyoko has almost as much fun as Princess Mai, a dainty Japanese maiden periodically possessed by a decidedly male alien creature. Along the way the heroes encounter all manner of zany supernatural and extraterrestrial foes, culminating in a ridiculous battle that involves ninja and UFOs. Playing like a cheesy sfx movie from the Eighties - but with a self-aware sense of irony - The Sword of Alexander is the best of both worlds, a hokey throwback to Abe's camp roots and a first-class piece of filmmaking.

Abe further mugged it up in 2007's blockbuster comedy Bubble Fiction: Boom or Bust, a time-travel nostalgia trip back to the glorious excesses of Japan's 1980s bubble economy. Bubble Fiction's story hinges on a plot by the Ministry of Finance to construct a time machine out of a washing machine, send an agent back to 1989, and prevent the economic bubble from bursting. Of course, what Bubble Fiction is really about is making all sorts of jokes at the expense of late-80s Japanese pop culture. Hirosue Ryoko is the nominal star as the jaded child of the 21st century sent back in time to avert economic disaster, but Abe handily steals the show as Isao, the smarmy playboy unwittingly hitting on his future daughter. Also featuring former 80s teen sensation Yakushimaru Hiroko as Ryoko's scientist mother, Bubble Fiction relies a bit too much on culturally specific gags for a non-Japanese audience to truly appreciate, but Abe's hyper-superficial yuppie character is instantly identifiable to anyone who survived the 1980s.

A Blockbuster Year

2008 was an incredibly kind year to Abe Hiroshi. An international martial arts movie hit, a leading role in a Kurosawa Akira remake, and no less than three high-profile dramas rounded out the actor's latest accomplishments. As the year wound to a close, Abe was poised to become Japan's most in-demand celebrity.

The year started out with a bang, in the form of Abe's much-hyped appearance in Ong-Bak director Prachya Pinkaew's muay thai masterpiece Chocolate. The movie clearly belongs to the amazing Jeeja Yanin, who stars as an autistic girl who learns martial arts by watching Bruce Lee movies, then takes on the mob. Abe does get his share of the action as the girl's yakuza father, however, and his prominent billing in the film's trailer and marketing campaign reflects the actor's prestige in Thailand as well as his native Japan. Thanks to Pinkaew's reputation as the world's current master of martial arts cinema, Chocolate boosted international audience awareness of Abe to new heights.

Playing a role made famous by Mifune Toshiro in a Kurosawa Akira classic is another surefire way to get worldwide recognition. Although the results were met with little enthusiasm by critics, Higuchi Shinji's remake of The Hidden Fortress, now called The Last Princess, gave Abe the once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to step into the shoes of Japan's most famous golden age actor. It was a genius bit of casting, and Abe matches Mifune's gruff, swaggering Rokurota grunt for grunt. His former pupil from Dragon Zakura, Nagasawa Masami, takes the lead as the titular princess, but without Jeeja Yanin's insane martial arts skills, even Japan's hottest young actress has little hope of defending the spotlight from Abe's domineering presence.

Perhaps most exciting for Abe was the chance to work with acclaimed director Kore-eda Hirokazu. Abe takes the lead in Kore-eda's Still Walking playing Ryota, a fortysomething art restorer living in the shadow of his deceased elder brother. Along with his new wife (Abe's Kekkon Dekinai costar Natsukawa Yui), Ryota heads to his hometown for an awkward family reunion. Still Walking's introspective drama not only represented a return to form for Kore-eda (who had stumbled at the box office with his jidaigeki comedy Hana), it cemented Abe's reputation as an actor as capable of playing serious dramatic parts as he was headlining comedies and action films.

Although not as critically recognized as Still Walking, Abe gave an arguably even better performance in Blue Bird, an affecting drama about the recent bullying epidemic in the Japanese school system. Abe stars as Murauchi, a stuttering substitute schoolteacher and frequent object of ridicule who forces his students to come to grips with their complicity in the torment of a former classmate who attempted suicide. It's a difficult role that in lesser hands could easily lapse into parody, but Abe pulls it off brilliantly, and Blue Bird succeeds as a poignant commentary on an often ignored social ill because of his performance.

Rounding out Abe's stellar year at the cineplex was The Glorious Team Batista, an ensemble medical drama costarring Takeuchi Yuko, Igawa Haruka and Hiraizumi Sei. A pulpy mystery about a crack team of heart surgeons implicated in a series of operating room murders, the film lacks the dramatic weight of Still Walking or Blue Bird but more than makes up for it in crowd-pleasing, mainstream appeal. Glorious Team Batista was a popular hit, and Abe would reprise his role as the gritty Ministry of Health Investigator Shiratori Keisuke in the 2009 sequel The Triumphant General Rouge.

After such an incomparable ride, Abe Hiroshi seems content to devote 2009 to television - which, after all, is where the real prestige lies in Japan. In addition to his ongoing role as legendary Warring States general Uesugi Kenshin in Tenchijin, Abe can most recently be seen on Japanese TV screens in White Spring, playing a reformed yakuza trying to put his life back together following a nine-year prison stint. Hopefully for international audiences, a new slate of weird and wonderful feature films can't be far behind. With Abe Hiroshi, you can be sure of one thing. You never know what you'll get next, but you can bet it will be good.

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Published July 29, 2009

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