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Norwegian Wood: Rinko Kikuchi

The Japanese actress talks about giving up meat and Animal Collective for her role in the film adaptation of Haruki Murakami’s bestselling novel Norwegian Wood

Buried under layers of knitwear and a white fur hat, Rinko Kikuchi would rather flip through a magazine then make polite pre-interview conversation, which isn’t really a surprise when you consider that even though she’s virtually unrecognisable in London, she’s one of Japan’s biggest film stars. Currently in London for the premier of Norwegian Wood at the Pan-Asia Film Festival, 30-year-old Kikuchi has spent the last couple months away from her adopted home of New York, where she lives with her boyfriend Spike Jonze, while shooting samurai film 47 Ronin with Keanu Reeves.

The first Japanese actress in 50 years to be nominated for an Oscar for playing a deaf-mute teenager in Babel, Kikuchi is mesmerising in her latest role as the intense and troubled Naoko in Anh Hung Tran’s Norwegian Wood, Haruki Murakami’s coming of age novel of a love triangle set against a backdrop of student revolt in 1960’s Tokyo. Although not one for small talk, Kikuchi opened up to Dazed Digital about what she went through to play the fragile and melancholic Naoko.

Dazed: You first read Murakami’s Norwegian Wood when you were 18, and now just over 10 years later, you played Naoko in Tran’s Norwegian Wood, how has the story changed for you?
Rinko Kikuchi
: I like the original Murakami as well as Tran’s film. It’s kind of different because in Haruki’s world, the story isn’t its true dimension, you need to use your imagination to develop his world. I was really lucky to have an original novel, every hint is in that book. I read it over and over.

DD: You were determined to play Naoko, even though Tran didn’t want to cast you initially, what was your attraction to the character?
Rinko Kikuchi:When I was a teenager and read the book, I was really in Haruki’s world. I loved his feelings - the fragility, the danger and the beauty. I found it poetic. But as I’ve gotten older I feel like I’m completely different from Naoko’s character. I’m a lot tougher and not fragile anymore. We’re coming from opposite sides now and I could play Naoko because I don’t understand her feelings anymore. If I was closer to her, then it would be more difficult.

DD: You’ve said that it was hard to separate yourself from Naoko’s character, why did she have a hold on you that your past roles didn’t have?
Rinko Kikuchi
: We were shooting for six months and by the end I really became Naoko and I loved her. On the last day of the shoot I was crying a lot because I didn’t want to lose her but at the same time I knew I’d have to. I had to peel away her character, but it hurt. For half a year I lived as Naoko - I knew what music she listened to, what food she ate, and then I had to relearn what I liked.

DD: What did you use to bring back Rinko?
Rinko Kikuchi
: Like electronic music, LCD Soundsystem and Animal Collective. And we have completely different tastes in food. I eat a lot of meat, like Japanese pork and beef, but when I was Naoko, I felt she didn’t eat this kind of food. I never said ‘Oh Naoko doesn’t do this’, it was just a feeling I had about her.

DD: How did you feel after the filming was complete?
Rinko Kikuchi
: I think I learnt how to choose my life and my future. When I finished shooting the film, it really made it clear who I am. I had to ask myself, ‘What words and feeling are Rinko’s?’ ‘Where does Rinko want to live?’ I know what I want again.

DD: Do you consciously try and choose characters who are very different from yourself?
Rinko Kikuchi
: Yes, I’m always looking for that separation so I can find new experiences and feelings. If I take on a completely different character, then I improve as well, not only as an actress but also as myself.

Norwegian Wood is released in the UK on March 11