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The Honolulu Advertiser
Posted on: Tuesday, December 20, 2005

Actor sees promise for Asians in 'Geisha'

By Michael Tsai
Advertiser Staff Writer

Cary-Hiroyuki Tagawa plays The Baron in "Memoirs of a Geisha."

Michele Van Hessen

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You'll forgive Cary-Hiroyuki Tagawa if he thinks he's died and gone to heaven. Showing up at work and finding Gong Li not to mention Ziyi Zhang and Michelle Yeoh will do that to you, for one thing. But it's a career spent bucking Hollywood's prevailing attitudes toward Asian actors, not some beer ad fantasy, that informs this particular feeling of transcendence.

Nearly 20 years since he acted in "The Last Emperor," a film that once seemed destined to change the fortunes of Asian and Asian-American actors in Hollywood, Tagawa sees a rare and unexpected second chance to get it all right in the new Rob Marshall film "Memoirs of a Geisha."

Tagawa, who makes his home in Honolulu, was fresh from the film's premiere in Los Angeles when he spoke to The Advertiser about the impact "Geisha" could have in Hollywood.

"Hollywood is the toughest crowd, but it's going over so big here," he said. "They're very emotional about it because they know how much junk comes out of this place."

The notoriously outspoken Tagawa is mindful of the reservations Asians (particularly the Japanese) and Asian-Americans have about a geisha film based on a novel by an American author, directed by an American, filmed in Los Angeles and cast with three Chinese actresses.

"There are some technical things about the culture that might not be totally correct, but anything produced outside of Japan is going to be interpretive," Tagawa said. "It's Hollywood's interpretation of geisha culture, but it's powerful and it's inspirational. It's produced a lot of strong, emotional responses, especially in women.

"Western women have a very strong sense of who they are," he said. "This film offers a different take on feminine beauty and power, and it moves people because of that."

The film follows the life of Sayuri, a young girl who is sold to a geisha house and eventually becomes the leading geisha of her time. Tagawa plays the supporting role of The Baron, the rich danna, or patron, of Sayuri's mentor, Mameha (Yeoh).

In the novel, The Baron is portrayed as a weak-willed alcoholic who lusts after the teenage Sayuri. In the film, Tagawa makes the character more formidable, with an air of both social privilege and personal charisma.

Arthur Golden, who wrote the original novel on which the film is based, said the shift was significant. "In the film, (The Baron) is much stronger. He's a self-confident, big guy."

For Tagawa, who has always embraced roles that demonstrate the vitality and virility of Asian characters, good or evil, the new characterization of The Baron was consistent with the energy of the film. It also helped bring into focus the principal male character, The Chairman (Ken Watanabe), whose strength is rooted in a kind, humble nature.

Tagawa said he is gratified by the expanded opportunities for Asian actors that Watanabe's recent success represents.

"I'm happy for him," Tagawa said. "I think he's going to be the go-to guy (among Asian actors) from here on."

It's a bittersweet compliment for Tagawa, who has spent the past 20 years accepting a wide variety of Asian-specific roles and struggling against Hollywood stereotypes and prejudices.

"I'm sentimental lately," he said. "It's sad, the way Asian strength has always been portrayed as evil or bad. Ken is coming into a time when that kind of strength can now be seen as positive. That was what I had always hoped for, and it's a dream for me to watch these actors take advantage of that."

Tagawa was born in Japan and raised in the American South, where he found that the best way to address racism wasn't to retreat, but to advance with conviction. It's an attitude that didn't always serve him well in Hollywood, but one that has helped him continue his career on his own terms.

As always, Tagawa's observations on the state of the film industry are strongly linked to his expansive world view. He sees in the undertapped Asian and Asian-American film markets an opportunity for Asian actors and filmmakers to assert their leadership. And he reads in the unique, supportive environment of the "Geisha" production a moral lesson for which the West is "thirsting."

"There were no egos," he said. "That's unheard of in Hollywood. Everybody was so focused and the vibe was so supportive. It was a unique situation that may never happen again. It's like old-school Hawai'i, where it was always about supporting each other. This reminded me that it all comes from the roots, the culture that we come from. It's all just under the surface."

Reach Michael Tsai at mtsai@honoluluadvertiser.com.