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Takeshi Kaneshiro - From Sad-Eyed Loner to Master Strategist

Written by James Mudge Tell a Friend

Takeshi Kaneshiro, perhaps more than any other actor, seems to have been destined from the start for pan-Asian success. Of mixed ethnicity and fluent in Mandarin, Cantonese, Japanese and English, his career has seen him rise from model to singer, and from early success in genre films to working with some of the biggest names in the industry. What is perhaps most interesting about Kaneshiro is the fact that despite his melancholic good looks, which have seen him act as a spokesperson and model for countless top brands worldwide, unlike so many Asian actors who have built their reputations on playing it safe, he has repeatedly shown a predilection for choosing offbeat roles and for balancing overtly commercial productions and blockbusters with smaller, often stranger films.

From Pop Idol to Budding Actor

Takeshi Kaneshiro was born October 11th 1973 in Taipei, Taiwan to a Japanese father and Chinese mother. Attending both Japanese and Taiwanese schools, he was unfortunately bullied due to his mixed-race background, and spent much of his childhood as an outsider. He later moved to the Taipei American School for high school, during which he took the first steps in his entertainment career by starring in a number of commercials. At the young age of 15, he was spotted by a talent scout from a record company, and in 1992 he released his debut album Heartbreaking Night. Quickly becoming a well-known pop idol in Taiwan and Hong Kong, he released several Mandarin and Cantonese albums from 1992 to 1996. His singing career was short but successful, although some critics, perhaps unfairly, attributed this to his looks rather than his talent. Whatever the case, as with most young Asian popstars and teen idols, Kaneshiro was offered a number of film roles after his debut, and he soon quit singing to pursue acting.

Beginning his climb up the industry ladder, Kaneshiro initially appeared in a handful of genre films in both Hong Kong and Taiwan. He made his debut in 1993 in Executioners, Johnnie To's follow up to his popular Heroic Trio, co-starring alongside female leads Michelle Yeoh, Anita Mui, and Maggie Cheung in a tale of post-apocalyptic superhero action. The next year saw him take on more supporting roles in the romantic fantasy Mermaid Got Married and Category III sleaze The Wrath of Silence, and a more prominent part in the Taiwanese comedy No Sir co-starring fellow pop idols Jimmy Lin and Richie Jen.

Working with Wong Kar Wai

Kaneshiro's first major breakthrough came in 1994 when he was chosen for one of the leads in Hong Kong auteur Wong Kar Wai's ethereal pop culture love story Chungking Express. Playing the lovelorn, pineapple-eating plain clothes cop #223 He Zhiwu, who crosses paths with Brigitte Lin's mysterious blond-wigged drug dealer while struggling to get over his ex-girlfriend, he brought a winning sense of pathos, melancholy and hope to the part. Although inevitably it was Wong's gorgeous visuals that grabbed most of the critics' attention and co-star Tony Leung Chiu Wai who won awards for his performance, Kaneshiro's role was a memorable one and marked him as being a quirky talent to be watched. As such, the film helped not only to thrust him into the public eye, but from early on provided an indicator to his preference for eccentric and interesting rather than overtly commercial productions.

He certainly impressed Wong, enough so to cast him in his next film, Fallen Angels, in 1995. A much darker, though no less unconventional affair, the scattershot narrative followed a series of lonely, lost characters in their journeys through the dark streets of Hong Kong, mixing in assassinations, unrequited love, and mistaken identities. Kaneshiro played the role of an odd mute man called He Zhiwu (an ambiguous link to his character in Chungking Express), who provides the film's narration as he wanders the city forcing his helpful services onto the often unwilling people he comes across. Again, whilst it was the film's mise-en-scene which won the plaudits, Kaneshiro's performance was arguably no less important, giving the tangential plot a vital emotional core, and with his engaging voice-over adding a sense of cheerful whimsy that effectively off-set its more depressing aspects.

The Busy Years

Having established himself as one of the more interesting new actors in the industry, it was now time for Kaneshiro to pay his dues by packing in as many roles as possible over the next few years. In 1995 the actor appeared in a number of fairly straightforward genre productions which, while perhaps not offering him much in the way of offbeat characters, did at least help to keep him in the public eye. These began with the light martial arts comedies Troublemaker and China Dragon directed by Chu Yen Ping, with whom Kaneshiro would work several times in the years to come.

Next up came contemporary action in the form of Don't Give a Damn (released in the West under the bizarre title Burger Cop), a cop thriller directed by and starring the legendary Sammo Hung. Apparently the film had been intended as a reunion for Hung, Jackie Chan and Yuen Biao, though when Chan dropped out Kaneshiro was given the chance to fill his shoes. Although this in itself was obviously a tall order, the actor gave a creditable showing alongside the veterans, even performing his own stunts. Also in the same year came School Days, a teen bullying drama co-starring Jimmy Lin, which gave Kaneshiro little opportunity for anything but brooding, and Young Policemen in Love, an amiable if typical Wong Jing production that saw Kaneshiro and Nicky Wu play undercover cops who go back to high school to protect general's daughter Charlie Young.

1996 got off to a good start with Dr. Wai in the Scripture with No Words directed by top action choreographer Ching Siu Tung. The film was a wacky, Indiana Jones-style fantasy that also starred Jet Li and Rosamund Kwan, and which although frequently stretching credulity, packed in plenty of fun martial arts and two-fisted adventure.

After the substandard Taiwanese romance Feeling of Love, Kaneshiro was given another chance to show his acting skills in Lost and Found from director Lee Chi Ngai, who had started his career with triad thrillers and action in the early 1980s before progressing to more thoughtful drama. The film starred Kelly Chen as a rich girl with leukemia, who falls in love with a handsome sailor called Ted (Michael Wong) from Scotland, who promptly disappears. Kaneshiro took the pivotal role of the unfortunately named Mr Worm, an expert in finding things, who helps her in her quest to track down Ted. What may sound like sentimental melodrama actually turns out to be much deeper and more philosophical, no small thanks due to Kaneshiro's performance, as he holds the film together with his trademark charisma.

The next year saw Kaneshiro moving more into action with The Odd One Dies, a Milkway production from cult favorite director Patrick Yau and producer Johnnie To. Although the plot, which saw the actor play yet another moody hitman who seeks redemption after meeting a damaged woman, may have sounded familiar, the film provided many unexpected twists on the usual formula, and provided the actor with a role perfect for his quirky charms. Period set gangster action followed with Hero from director Corey Yuen, which teamed Kaneshiro once more with Yuen Biao; The Jail in Burning Island, again for director Chu Yen Ping; and Downtown Torpedoes, an efficient thriller directed by Teddy Chan which didn't give the actor much of a chance to show his talents beyond his ability to look cool while holding a gun.

Taking a break from bullets, he returned to romance in 1998 with First Love - Litter on the Breeze, an odd, distinctly post-modern romance with cinematography by Christopher Doyle and plenty of self-referential touches. Somewhat more successful was Anna Magdalena, which marked the directorial debut of art designer Yee Chung Man (who worked on the likes of Curse of Golden Flower and An Empress and the Warriors). Here, Kaneshiro played a piano tuner who gets into a love triangle with Kelly Chen and Aaron Kwok, leading not only to romance but flights of fantasy and moments of surreal comedy.

The actor finally made his English-language debut in the same year with the US indie production Too Tired to Die for Korean director Wonsuk Chin, a predictably leftfield piece in which he played a directionless young Japanese young man in New York who is told by death (Oscar winning actress Mira Sorvino) that he only has 12 hours to live, leading to much ponderous angst and self-referential shoe-gazing.

Breakthrough in Japan

Up until this point, despite his mixed heritage, Kaneshiro had worked almost exclusively in Hong Kong and Taiwan. This had begun to change in 1997 when the actor appeared in the Japanese film Misty, a drama in the style of Kurosawa classic Rashomon, which also featured popular actress Amami Yuki. Following this and his increasingly high profile successes in Hong Kong, he was chosen by a Japanese producer for a major role in the television mini-series God Please Give Me More Time. The series was controversial, with Kaneshiro as a musician who falls in love with an HIV-positive young girl played by actress Fukada Kyoko.

The drama proved very popular, and Kaneshiro won much praise for his acting in what was seen as a difficult part, giving him the opportunity to feature in more Japanese films. Unsurprisingly, to capitalize on this success, he was soon after cast in the joint Hong Kong-Japan production Sleepless Town, directed by Lost and Found helmer Lee Chi Ngai. Based on a novel by Hase Seishu, the film was a melodramatic thriller focusing on rival gangs and showing the clear influence of Wong Kar Wai in terms of look and meandering feel.

Now officially a pan-Asian star, more Hong Kong productions followed for Kaneshiro, starting with the 1999 romantic hit Tempting Heart with popstar Gigi Leung, a semi-art house film that at least tried to offer something thoughtful, and the mishmash romantic fantasy Lavender which reteamed him with Kelly Chen as an angel with broken wings and in need of love. The actor continued his Japanese career with the television series Love 2000 and Golden Bowl, and the hit crime caper Space Travelers in 2000. He also branched out into video games by providing the lead voice for the popular Onimusha: Warlords (which he repeated in 2004 for Onimusha 3: Demon Siege).

The actor had his first genuine Japanese blockbuster in 2002 with Returner, a big budget, special effects-heavy science fiction thriller directed by Yamazaki Takashi. The film, with a plot that combined elements from a good number of other genre films, saw Kaneshiro donning a leather coat and shades as a melancholy Tokyo hitman who gets involved with stopping an alien invasion. Although lowest-common denominator stuff, the film packed in enough explosions and slow-motion action scenes to wow audiences, and its success helped push Kaneshiro's popularity even higher.

The same could be said of his 2003 Hong Kong box office hit Turn Left, Turn Right, which again saw him work with director Johnnie To and Gigi Leung. Based on a popular illustrated book by Jimmy Liao, the film focused on the two stars as a couple who despite being destined to be together, end up living parallel lives and never quite meeting. Making exhaustive use of its premise, the film manages to get by on the strength of its charm, mostly due to Kaneshiro's likeable performance.

Breaking into Blockbusters

Kaneshiro's breakthrough into blockbusters proper came in 2004 with Zhang Yimou's House of Flying Daggers, which saw him acting alongside Hong Kong megastar Andy Lau and top Mainland actress Zhang Ziyi. A luscious martial arts epic, the film saw Kaneshiro and Lau as officers in Tang Dynasty China tracking down rebels, and repeated the international success of the director's previous Hero. Whilst emotionally rather trite, the actor's role as the more naive and romantic of the two male leads gave him plenty of chances to melt hearts, and boosted his popularity yet further.

In 2005 he starred in another ambitious production in the form of Peter Chan's bittersweet romantic musical Perhaps Love. Given his singing background, Kaneshiro was a natural choice for the part of a Hong Kong idol caught up in yet another love triangle, his handsome face playing off well against his character's inner demons. A multiple award winner, the film was another commercial hit for the actor, as was Confession of Pain, from Infernal Affairs directors Andrew Lau and Alan Mak. Although ranked as somewhat of a disappointment by critics, the film, which saw Kaneshiro headline with Tony Leung and Shu Qi, was an entertaining mystery thriller, and made up for with unintentional amusement what it perhaps lacked in sense.

The Warlords, reteaming the actor with Andy Lau and Jet Li and seeing him again work with director Peter Chan, was a far more serious affair, and arguably the best of the recent crop of Chinese period epics, a gritty fable that effectively mixed anti-war philosophy with thrilling battle scenes. Another domestic and international hit, the film again saw Kaneshiro playing the kind of fresh-faced innocent role that he had become so well known for.

2008 proved to be a banner year for the actor, not least since he starred in one of the most eagerly awaited Asian films of the new century, John Woo's mega-budget two part epic Red Cliff. The adaptation of the classic Romance of the Three Kingdoms cast Kaneshiro in the role of master strategist and noted fan-flutterer Zhuge Liang alongside fellow stars Tony Leung, Zhang Fengyi, Chang Chen, and Vicki Zhao. Thankfully, although somewhat slight in places, the film lived up to its hype as possibly the biggest Chinese blockbuster of all time, and the releases of both parts, in summer 2008 and early 2009 respectively, were massively successful.

The year also saw the eternally busy actor return to Japan for Accuracy of Death, directed by Kakei Masaya and based upon a novel by Isaka Kotaro. Kaneshiro's role was well suited to his talents, playing a spirit called Chiba who spends seven days with people who are due to die untimely deaths in order to decide whether their fates are justified. Inevitably, with shades of Death Takes a Holiday and its Brad Pitt remake Meet Joe Black, he becomes a little more human along the way, though his excellent performance effectively carries the film and distracts from its inherent predictability.

Another Japanese hit followed with K-20: The Legend of the Mask, a wacky superhero tale that takes place in 1949 in an alternate Japan where World War 2 had never taken place. Again, Kaneshiro proved to be the best thing in a rather silly, though entertaining production, with his charm and essential likeability making up for the daft plot and lack of depth.

Waiting for Onimusha

Next for Kaneshiro is Waiting, again with director Peter Chan. Based upon the novel by Ha Jin, the film sees the actor opposite female lead Zhang Ziyi in a drama set against the backdrop of the Chinese revolution. An even more exciting prospect for the actor's many fans has been the claim that he is set to star in the live-action adaptation of the Onimusha video game series - although since the production has now been announced and delayed several times, this may not yet be set in stone.

Whatever comes of this particular project, Takeshi Kaneshiro will doubtless be on cinema screens for many years to come, using his boyish good looks and quirky affability to charm viewers in both big budget blockbusters and leftfield eccentricities alike.

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Published June 30, 2009

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