What works for Japanese actresses in the West may not work at home


‘The Shack” feels like a sugar-coated salve for wounds sustained from the flurry of recent news events. Directed by Stuart Hazeldine and starring Sam Worthington as a grieving dad, the big surprise in this religious fantasy story is the presence of Japanese actress Sumire Matsubara (who goes by just her first name in Japan) in the role of the Holy Spirit.

Octavia Spencer, an African-American actress, plays Papa (the Almighty) and Avraham Aviv Alush, an Israeli actor, plays Jesus Christ — it seems that Christian Hollywood is singing the praises of diversity.

It’s a cause for celebration, of course, but for the Japanese audience the fact that Matsubara has made it to Hollywood is just as important. The trend of Japanese actresses starring in big-budget Hollywood vehicles isn’t exactly skyrocketing, but it’s happening. Recent roles include Tao Okamoto in “Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice” last year, and Okamoto with Anglo-Japanese actress Haruka Abe in Adam Sherman’s “She’s Just a Shadow,” which is slated for release later this year.

In the meantime, “The Shack” has good intentions, but falls short of being particularly convincing. Mack Philliips (Worthington) lost his youngest daughter during a camping trip when she was abducted and murdered, so how will he learn to forgive the perpetrator? That’s where Matsubara’s character, Sarayu, enters. She’s there to soothe Mack’s heart and prep him to accept his fate.

It’s a case of “One small step for Japanese actresses, and … one small step for Japanese actresses.” Sarayu remains on the sidelines, like many Japanese women in Hollywood. Her job is to set things up for Papa and Jesus to come in and do the heavy lifting. It’s perfectly in keeping with doctrine, just a tad disappointing for those of us who were delighted to see Matsubara’s name on the marquee.

Matsubara grew up in Hawaii and is the daughter of actor Junichi Ishida and model Chiaki Matsubara. Like Shiori Kutsuna, another returnee actress (Australia), Matsubara speaks perfect English and her demeanor reflects a carefree Western upbringing. Japanese directors have seemed reluctant to deploy her, while Western directors tend to favor grittier women such as Okamoto and Rinko Kikuchi (“Babel,” “Pacific Rim”). The latter is widely acknowledged to have blazed the trail for non-English speaking actresses, and she has made no secret of her struggles with poverty early on in life.

Both Okamoto and Kikuchi have said in interviews that height and English skills don’t do Japanese actresses any favors when trying to get work in Japan because they rob them of their “kawaii” factor, which favors cuteness above all. It’s hard to believe that stereotype still exists — one more reason to get on our knees and pray to Papa.

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