Pacific Rim is Guillermo del Toro's big love letter to Japanese monster movies like Godzilla and anime like Neon Genesis Evangelion. Too bad Japan isn't exactly in love with Kikuchi.
Actress Rinko Kikuchi is Mako Mori, one of the film's lead pilots to battle the dreaded kaiju in one of this summer's biggest Hollywood flicks. Pacific Rim is already getting good notices — Hideo Kojima and Kanye dig the GlaDOS infused flick. Now if only Kikuchi could turn that into popularity in her home country.
The actor made a big splash internationally with her role in Babel as Chieko, a deaf high school girl. This role put her on the map. Prior to Babel, nobody really knew who the heck she was.
Kikuchi didn't make a name for herself like many Japanese celebrities and actors typically do, which is either by appearing in numerous TV dramas, variety shows, or in a string of commercials. The Japanese film industry is a shell of its former self. TV is king. Even though she did appear in a few dramas, such as Liar Game, prior to Babel, and she did some car ads, Kikuchi never was really able to parlay that into becoming a huge star in Japan.
Even after Kikuchi was nominated for an Academy Award, the first Japanese female to get an Oscar nod in 57 years, and became the face of Chanel, Japanese success remained elusive. She did top an opinion poll about who Japan was most proud of internationally, but that seemed to flitter away.
A Livedoor News article from 2007 talked how in the wake of her international success, Kikuchi wasn't exactly in demand back at home and wasn't popular with Japanese housewives. When you don't have a fan base, being a talented actor isn't enough in Japan.
On 2ch, Japan's largest bulletin board, a thread talked about why Kikuchi hadn't become popular in her home country. The thread is fairly brutal (actually, it's really brutal), and some say her looks aren't appealing to Japanese, while others commented about the graphic nudity in Babel — something that seemed unbecoming. Then, some didn't even know who she was.
In 2010, Kikuchi appeared on afternoon variety show Waratte Iitomo!, which is an iconic Japanese program. It's an institution, like The Tonight Show. Her appearance went so poorly that people on Yahoo! Japan (here and here, for example) began saying she should never appear on variety or talk shows again. While she seemed stylish, Kikuchi didn't make a very good impression and came off as awkward. Perhaps she was nervous? Whatever the case was, she seemed to lose even more fans.
One of the main issues seemed to be how in Japan the mass media and the country's entertainment complex work in tandem. Her success was achieved outside of that realm. And then when she actually did appear on Japanese TV, she seemed somewhat awkward and not exactly quick with quips — a necessity to survive in mainstream Japanese show business. For many Japanese it's perhaps baffling why she, out of all the Japanese actors, has been successful abroad. For Americans, it's probably akin to when particular entertainers become far more popular in foreign countries than in Hollywood.
That year, however, she appeared in two TV dramas in Japan. Since the country's television industry overshadows its film business. The following year, she appeared in a Japanese period drama. But since Babel, Kikuchi has done mostly foreign film work (though, she did do voice acting on two Mamoru Oshii anime). Then, she appeared in major Hollywood films 47 Ronin with Keanu Reeves and the previously mentioned Pacific Rim.
So far, her popularity hasn't really taken off at home. With the good buzz around Pacific Rim, perhaps Japanese fans can focus on her acting, instead of how good she can work the Japanese entertainment machine.
An earlier version of this story was posted in December 2012.