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At 10 p.m. on a recent Saturday night, the Shibuya On Air East club hosts the usual assemblage of punks, skinheads and wannabe models. A hard-core band named Safari is the main act, and tonight they have a guest lead singer: Tadanobu Asano. The shyest man in Japanese film walks onto a stage before 700 screaming fans. He's dressed in a white T shirt, Nike trainers and knee-length pink clamdiggers. The members of Safari are drinking beer and smoking cigarettes; Asano's hauling a bottle of Volvic mineral water. The blast of the first chords sets Asano raging. He doesn't so much dance as self-detonate, limbs flailing, chest twitching, legs bending. It's like the inner demons of every deranged character he's played have come together to rough up his body. He knocks into drums, speakers, drops his mike, picks it up, then throws it to the floor and tosses himself after it for good measure.
It's a striking change from his on-screen persona. The cool kid has become the class crazy, shouting nonsensical lyrics in a violent, machine-gun staccato. This is an act too, of course. This Chinese box idea of his aping a punk rocker excites Asano: "What if I'm an actor playing a musician?" he asks later. He's even adopted a different stage name for his solo music career. When he's onstage in apoplexy, he's no longer Tadanobu; he's Bunodataa reverse scramble of the syllables in his name.
Despite his musical ambitions, Asano's persona as a rock star will unlikely match his success as an actor. And he seems determined to keep it that wayhis latest composition is a decidedly uncommercial 60-minute song entitled Ants Being Trod On by People, which Asano hopes to turn into a video that will be his directorial debut. It's as if he relishes the anonymity of his feckless musical career. Up there, onstage, he doesn't have to be afraid of success or fame or becoming commodified and packaged and turned into yet another pop idol. He's up there, singing his heart out, trying his absolute hardest, just like those junior thespians he so despised at his first audition. It's as if he wants you to like him, and that's why you don'tnot as a singer at least.
Asano is at his best when he doesn't care what you think. That's what makes him a joy to behold. But the inevitable next evolution of his celebrity means the whole world will be watching him. And how can he remain indifferent to that? He's on the brink of that sort of fame now; it's just a question of whether or not to jump.