Kikuchi—who made a grand introduction to the international cinema world with her stunning performance as a deaf-mute teenager in Babel and has worked with a number of non-American directors, such as Alejandro González Iñárritu, Tran Anh Hung, and Guillermo del Toro—resisted the tug of the film world’s epicenter for as long as she could. Post-Babel she was approached by many hopeful Hollywood agents, but it was still a few years before she committed to a life outside Japan to pursue her career internationally.
She has been solidifying her place by playing memorable yet uniquely different roles, such as the beautiful and emotionally fraught Naoko in Norwegian Wood, and most recently Mako Mori, the adopted daughter of a marshal and ranger for the Pan Pacific Defense Corps, in Pacific Rim.
Her selection of these roles is often driven by who is helming the film. “For me, in thinking about how I could contribute in the international battleground, who I collaborate with is very important. When I work with non-American directors, there’s a sense of camaraderie, a sense of common purpose of expressing yourself in the world of cinema that is dominantly American. It’s also important who you team up with when the relationships last for about a year, with not just shooting but also doing promotion. So it helps when you feel people you work with have similar experiences as you do.”
Kikuchi has been captivated by the cinematic world since her youth. Everybody in her family was drawn to a specific movie genre: her mother, the classics; her dad, Westerns; her two older brothers, action and sci-fi. She herself discovered John Cassavetes’ films, starring his wife Gena Rowlands, and found them so appealing that they became an influential push in her decision to pursue acting.
Now, fully immersed in the film world, she considers New York her home, even though with her busy schedule the time she spends there fluctuates. “New York makes me feel settled. The time I spend alone makes me feel the most creative and New York is a great place for that since people will leave you alone. But as I travel, New York is my home base only in a sense that I pay rent there. I feel that if I consider one place home, it might get stressful not to spend enough time there. So I try telling myself that I can find home in myself wherever I am. Otherwise, it would be hard to make your living by traveling all over.”
Since leaving Japan, her awareness of her Japanese identity has sharpened. “Living in the United States, I’ve come to appreciate how rationality helped society to develop. At the same time, I also find it beautiful that Japanese culture has a lot more ambiguity, subtleties, and grayness. There’s much that is not said and there are many ways to express one thing. In Japanese, there are so many subtle ways to describe the color black. You find that ambiguity in human emotions. There are a lot of emotions that can’t be explained, or have no reasons.” Arguably, that situated her to have a unique interpretation of her characters. “I grew up with Japanese cinema, poems, and novels that expressed grayness in emotions so well that I do wonder if this side of my culture is one of the reasons I am standing here today [as an actress], even with my imperfect English.”
Next she’ll appear in 47 Ronin, a fantasy action film in which she plays the villainous, shape-shifting witch Mizuki alongside Keanu Reeves—a sharp contrast to her heroic character in Pacific Rim, giving Kikuchi a chance to show her range. As Mizuki, she’s icy, self-possessed, throwing her head back to laugh tauntingly at her contenders, or meeting their gaze with a cold, fixed stare and a slight mocking smirk. “[The characters I play] tend to be quite unique characters. I play criminals; I play a person who would engage in sociopathic actions. I’m offered these roles in expectation that I can play them with credibility. I try to understand their actions and emotions. When I try to pursue these emotions, I do feel that there are not many emotions that cannot be understood. Even in people who commit unethical, undesired actions, I can find myself in them. Before they turned, they were the same children that we all were.”
Reflecting on where she’s come from and where she’s headed, Kikuchi gives the impression that she knows what makes her happy, stressed, or at ease. “I have to,” she explains. “If I don’t know what makes me happy, I feel like I can’t play other people’s lives. In that sense I think actors are like instruments. To play ‘me’ as an instrument—unless I know myself—I can’t communicate it to others. Outside of my work, I try asking myself what I want. Do I want to sleep? Do I want to drink? Do I want to go to the beach? Do I want to be alone? Do I want to be with someone? I am honest with myself. I don’t want to lie to myself.”
Photographer: Stevie & Mada. Stylist: Christopher Campbell for ateliermanagement.com. Hair: Mara Roszak for starworksartists.com. Makeup: Kate Lee for starworksartists.com. Manicure: Karen Gutierrez for nailinghollywood.com. Photography Assistants: Logan Bingham and Josh Guffrey. Location: Milk Studios, Los Angeles at Milkstudios.com.
Beauty Notes: Vitalumière Aqua Ultra-Light Skin Perfecting Sunscreen SPF15 by Chanel, Uplight Face Luminizer Gel by Make Up Forever, Sheer Liquid blush by By Terry, and Brow Pencil by Anastasia. Elnett Satin hairspray by l’Oreal Paris.