Naoki Kobayashi Interview: Breaching Cultural Borders and Expressing Himself Through Drama

Naoki Kobayashi

The suspense film “Earthquake Bird”, produced by Ridley Scott, aired on Netflix at the end of 2019. Based on British writer Susanna Jones’ novel of the same name, the film follows a mysterious Japanese photographer played by Naoki Kobayashi, a member of the Japanese dance and vocal group Sandaime J SOUL BROTHERS from EXILE TRIBE.

According to Kobayashi, who is concurrently actively touring throughout Japan while pursuing an acting career, this Hollywood-level production marked a big opportunity for him. With such a small number of Japanese actors working abroad, what exactly is he seeking by appearing on the world stage? What does he hope to accomplish as an entertainer?

OTAQUEST: As a member of both EXILE, and Sandaime J SOUL BROTHERS, you have achieved great success throughout Japan, so why have you decided to take on Hollywood?

Naoki Kobayashi: There are numerous reasons; in an environment where one can connect to the world in real-time without delay, various cultural values are becoming borderless, which is big. I have worked as a professional for over 15 years, expressing myself as a dancer, however, I have come to realize that I can express myself in a deeper fashion through drama, therefore I decided I wanted to collaborate with various creators, not only Japanese creators but also creators from other countries, and began to look at the whole world rather than merely Japan.

OTAQUEST: What do you mean by “Various cultural values are becoming borderless?”

Naoki Kobayashi: For cinema or music, I think that both the artist’s and the audience’s interest in the cultures of other countries and the people who accept the cultures of other countries are increasing. For example, in American films from long ago, Japanese restaurants were often used as the venue for a date to leave a certain impression. A couple who was inexperienced at using chopsticks to eat sushi would look at each other while eating and laugh. A picture of a sumo wrestler would be hanging on the wall. Or if perhaps Japanese music were to make the billboard charts, it might be because of no particular reason other than that it was out of the ordinary, and I feel like this was the main interest concerning Asian culture. However, in recent years, it has gradually become ordinary. The track that Sandaime J SOUL BROTHERS from EXILE TRIBE released last year, “Scarlet”, was written with DJ Afrojack from the Netherlands, joined by world-class hitmaker Giorgio Tuinfort, and Giorgio felt that J-POP, in particular, had great potential.

OTAQUEST: Recently, the Japanese city-pop genre, including artists like Tatsuro Yamashita and Mariya Takeuchi, has been regaining attention in America, hasn’t it?

Naoki Kobayashi: Giorgio, a world-class hitmaker, once said of musical culture conceived in Japan, “it’s great just the way it is”, which I think has a significant meaning. Even while filming “Earthquake Bird” in Tokyo and Sado Island, the staff’s knowledge and respect towards Japan far exceeded my expectations. Even the questions I was asked regarding Japanese culture were well-informed. This to me is a sign that today’s world values diversity, an inescapable trend, which is not limited to merely Japan – but rather respect for all minorities and individuals; In this moment I truly began to feel that a world’s trend that we must no longer disregard or make light of such.

OTAQUEST: As an actor in such time, what do you want to achieve?

Naoki Kobayashi: ☆Taku Takahashi, the producer of the OTAQUEST web site, said: “Japanese in the future need to be more evangelists.” The world has a common understanding of the goodness of Japan, at certain level. Then, we need to think about what we should do to deepen such an understanding of Japan. When working abroad as a Japanese, I have a background and ethnicity, and I think having those is already one of the answers among other numerous options. As an actor, I think being honest with what I want to express, meaning, to keep trying to be a person who is needed at the international production site is what I can do now.

OTAQUEST: What kind of Japanese person do you want to embody?

Naoki Kobayashi: The appeal of the Japanese person I’m thinking of is one with a strong grasp on culture. One with a lot of cultural context (common knowledge), and the sense to communicate through a number of different methods. Like for an actor, the emotion connected to “I love you” can’t be conveyed by merely saying the line “I love you”. Of course, conveying emotion through actions rather than words exists within the culture overseas as well, but the Japanese way of conveying emotion is unique. This, I think, is something that I excel in personally as an actor, and one of my strong points.

Naoki Kobayashi

OTAQUEST: For a long time, Japanese people have been judged by Westerners as “Difficult to understand the true intentions of”, however, I think that little by little that virtue is becoming more and more understood and seen in a positive light. Is this because the sensibilities of Westerners is becoming Japanese, or perhaps it is understood better as a result of the Westernization of Japanese people?

Naoki Kobayashi: That is quite an interesting topic, isn’t it. I believe that with that sort of [cultural] melding, some cultural values will be lost, unfortunately. Conversely, I think some of the cultural context certainly remains. I have an example actually, in recent years, I have seen restrooms overseas that are cleanly in the same way that Japanese ones are, and that might be due to Japan’s influence, right? It isn’t just about using toilets sanitarily, it gives a special significance of sort to those places. This kind of mixing of culture and customs is something I am fond of.

OTAQUEST: The point being, that people abroad are becoming able to empathize with various aspects of Japan, right?

Naoki Kobayashi: “Empathy” is the most important factor I have learned at LDH. EXILE made it to where we are now utilizing a style that converts stories into entertainment. In such, through the process of starting from point A to finally arrive at point B, we elevate the empathy of the audience through that “journey.” Even our current success is nothing more than the culmination of our past failures. We are comprised of neither black nor white, but gray pieces, and through coming to grips with both the good and negative things in us, we build a relationship of trust with our fans. Justice is not simply being Just. Our stories are able to develop because they include the negative things from the onset, and that sort of sense is something that I believe is extremely Japanese.

OTAQUEST: How do you intend to express that as an actor?

Naoki Kobayashi: Actors, on the other hand, have no place to convey that process. What is projected onto the screen is all we have. However, I think that a truly good actor and truly good drama has the ability to ooze that process via what appears in that projection. In “Earthquake Bird” the role I played was Teiji, a photographer with a complicated past, for that role, I learned every process related to analog film, and through the experience of visiting his hometown and doing fieldwork, I searched for some commonalities between himself and I. The choice of selecting this process was made based on my opinion, and I believe I came to this decision as a result of my upbringing in this place called Japan. The story not shown on the screen is what gave life to the role.

OTAQUEST: And as a Japanese person who cherishes that story, do you seek to spread it?

Naoki Kobayashi: In experiencing an international setting first hand, I realized that the sensibility and culture I call my own is unique to me, and something no one can imitate. That it is not about who one can become, but about acknowledging and accepting what one originally had. This is not something that appears only in the script, but also in the performance itself, and maybe even in between the lines. More than anything, I want to improve my ability to convey meaning in my acting using something other than words.

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