Basically, Tadanobu Asano is terrified. Of becoming a superstar. And, of course, of not being a star. Of being famous and of becoming trapped in that fame. Of success, of the pressures of that success. Of failure. Of being cool, of being too cool and, inevitably, of no longer being cool. He is frightened that his cinematic success has been a matter of good luck rather than talent, and scared of what he might find out about himself if he tests that talent in search of greater cinematic success. He is crap scared, really, of who he might become if he tries to become someone great.
And he's also terrified of heights. That's what the 28-year-old is confronting right now, perched on the railing of Bangkok's Rama IV Bridge, staring down at the milk chocolate waters of the Chao Phraya River 15 meters below, his hands trembling. We're on the set of Last Life in the Universe, his new picture due to be released next summer, and Asano is realizing that before all that actor babble about career and art and acting and craft, there is the small matter of not dying during the 12th take of a still unfinished scene for a yet unsatisfied director. Asano crouches on the 10-centimeter-wide rail, turns his head and quietly confides, "This is the scariest thing I've ever done."
Which is a funny thing for him to say because much of his career in movies has been made by his ability to inspire fear. If Japan is usually a law-abiding society, then Asano, Japan's most promising actor, is its collective Mr. Hyde. He's the dark creature inhabiting repressed, frustrated Japanese psyches, who instead of bowing and kowtowing, is allowed to mutilate his way through twisted, dysfunctional, millennial Japan. In his 14-year, 30-film career, Asano has shot, stabbed, maimed, tortured and gone in for more than a little self-inflicted pain, and done it all wearing a benumbed expression and smug smirk. His gift has been that through all the deluded romantics, disloyal cult members and gay samurai he has portrayed, he has always remained recognizable as Japan's favorite ultraviolent, overmedicated son. If every culture gets the hero it deserves, then it's chilling to think of what it means for Japan to have settled on Tadanobu Asano as the man of the moment. And for Asano, being the center of that cultural vortex has inspired an even greater bout of vertigo than from standing on that Bangkok bridge.
Asano has made his reputation precisely by taking those sorts of risks, of stepping out onto that cinematic ledge and leaping into whatever a script has demanded. His jerky shrug and stolid willingness to ask how high when told to jump has made him the reigning poster boy for Japan's edgy, independent film industry. Unlike most Japanese movie stars, Asano has refused to do any of the ubiquitous TV game shows or sit down for tedious taidan with other tarento. He has played the loner miscast in his own profession. But what happens to the sullen prince of underground films when everyone from Nagisa Oshima to Shunji Iwai wants him in their movies; what about when the noir star is asked to become leading man bland? He's getting barraged with new scripts every month from filmmakers across Asia. Now his keep-your-distance faCade is starting to crack: once the Japanese Gary OldmanOldman happens to be Asano's favorite Hollywood actorhe's suddenly crossed into mainstream respectability. Nobody finds him too bizarre anymore: Japan's Gary Oldman has morphed into Heath Ledger.
And that's precisely what has him worried: real stardom. "If you're famous, you're not free," he says between takes in Bangkok. Thus far, Asano's career has proceeded with a rhythmic regularity that was comforting in its predictability. Asano's indifference to that professional progression may have stemmed from the fact that he never really wanted to act, but started making movies in the 1990s for a single reason: his family needed the money. If his lot in life was to be an actor, then Asano decided he would make the most of it, choosing strange roles, bizarre films, almost defying the movie gods to make him famous. As long as he was playing perverted peeping toms and chemically imbalanced yakuza thugs, he could blinker away the fact that he was improbably emerging as a teen pinup, taking up wall space next to Justin Timberlake and the guys from SMAP.