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Following Picnic, Asano zeroed in on weirder and weirder roles, culminating in Ichi and next winter's Akarui Mirai. "He's exactly like a Jekyll and Hyde," says Akarui Mirai director Kiyoshi Kurosawa. "You never know whether he'll give you intelligence or brute force," which is a bit of a challenge, Kurosawa admits. "It frightens me sometimes." Throughout his steady rise, however, Asano has remained a committed loner in the notoriously codependent Japanese film industry. Even on the set in Bangkok, he keeps to himself instead of leading the typical claque of assistants, stylists, photographers and publicists who trail after most Japanese celebrities. He helps himself to the catered buffet. He rarely cavorts with his co-stars or hits the town with the crew. When he's working in Japan, he drives himself to movie locations and back home afterward, even after a 12-hour shoot. Despite the bad boy image, Asano is terrible at the role of the scandalous celebrity: he doesn't drink, do drugs or even smoke. Instead, Japan's paragon of disaffected youth is a doting father who misses his kids when he's away on a shoot. Down deep, he insists, he's really a musician who just wanted to rock. These days he's playing lead guitar for a Tokyo-based band named Peace Pill. He says he would gladly leave films for the life of a musician or artist. "Actor," Asano says, "that's my least favorite role." And celebrity? Superstar? Cultural icon?
He doesn't even want to think about it.
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.