The closing ceremony of the Middle East Film Festival is a glam affair, starry as the desert sky. But as the cameras flash across the red carpet, capturing Orlando Bloom and Eva Mendes in the way in which they’ve become accustomed, one figure stands aside, happy to go unnoticed. His name is Joe Odagiri, and in his native Japan, he can’t step out of the front door without being splashed across the tabloids.
‘It’s amazing, isn’t it,’ says the actor, watching his current co-star Maggie Q lap up the photographers’ attention. ‘They’re pretty bad in Japan, the paparazzi – I guess they’re the same everywhere. But all this,’ he says, gesturing to the scene around him, unused to observing it from the sidelines, ‘It’s really amazing.’ He goes on to explain that his time at the festival has largely been his own, again something of a reprieve for someone in the Japanese limelight where celebrities are expected to have several strings to their bow. Since arriving in Abu Dhabi, he’s only had one interview request – with yours truly.
Time Out has been aware of Joe’s star quality for some time, having seen him in Shinobi (2005), a tale of warring ninja tribes in feudal era Japan. He fell into acting following the kind of idiotic mistake that would earn most people a clip around the ear. Heading abroad to study film making at California’s Fresno University, he put his name on the wrong list and found himself enrolled in drama classes instead. Making the most of his situation, he completed his course and returned to Japan, quickly finding his way to a starring role in Kamen Rider, a manga-based TV series that did very well in the late ’90s. He’s been a household name ever since.
Prior to the red carpet, we meet up for a chat. He admits that he hasn’t left the hotel since his arrival the night before. ‘I didn’t know what to expect,’ he tells us. ‘I’ve never been to the Middle East. I was a bit worried – I didn’t even know if I’d be allowed to have a drink.’ He says that the following day he’ll be taken to Dubai, though he seems more interested in seeing something beyond his scope of experience. We suggest the dunes at Liwa, his eyes widening as we describe what might as well be the set of Lawrence of Arabia.
Joe is here to promote The Warrior and the Wolf, a film directed by celebrated Chinese auteur, Tian Zhuang Zhuang. He plays a gentle shepherd, skilled in the art of war but conflicted about killing. Years of battle eventually take their toll and, when he finds himself trapped in a mysterious village by a raging snowstorm, he attacks a young widow and his descent into depravity is complete. It’s neither easy to watch or to follow, the director dancing about the storyline like a frisky acrobat.
While Joe is pleased with the film, he is most concerned with its origins. ‘The original story is Japanese,’ he explains, ‘but the director of this movie is Chinese. He’s changed it quite a bit from the novel [by Yasushi Inoue], so I guess I was quite surprised when I read the script. I was wondering why he changed it so much, but he said that a novel is a novel and a film is a film; that it doesn’t have to be the same; that it can be a separate thing. I relaxed more about it after that.’
We ask him how he thinks his home crowd will take to it. ‘Well, that’s a difficult question, isn’t it? It’s Yasushi Inoue’s story, but it’s not really a well-known one. I think the film will bring the book to a lot of people. Also, the audience may take it as the latest in a series by the producer, Bill Kong. I can imagine some people will think like that. But, no, I can’t really imagine what’s coming.’
As the film festival’s credits roll, we meet up again for drinks at the after show party. In the corner of the garden sits Eva Mendes. Orlando Bloom is loitering in another corner, and Naomi Watts has gone to bed early, presumably overcome by the well-wishers. Nobody bothers Joe, and he’s totally unphased by the glitterati around him. Maggie Q holds court next to him, telling anyone who will listen that the world is heading to hell in a handbag.
Joe seems immune, digging into the biggest shrimp he’s ever seen. It’s a good life, isn’t it Joe? ‘Amazing,’ he smiles, and I’m not sure if he’s talking about crustacean or creation. ‘Really amazing.’
Originally published on Time Out Abu Dhabi.