Renaissance Woman: Getting to know Ayako Fujitani

Movies & TV Music Trends & Culture - November 4th, 2013

An actress, writer, director, film critic, translator and occasional musician, Steven Seagal’s daughter Ayako Fujitani has already had quite a career and she is only 33! Eager to hear more about her work, Michel Gondry and her famous dad, Weekender recently caught up with the multi-talented star during her stay in Tokyo.

By Matthew Hernon

“I’ve been a film buff since I was really small,” she tells us. “I would watch anything; zombie films, horrors, artistic flicks, I spent so much of my youth watching movies. To therefore get the opportunity to appear in a film at such a young age, it really was a dream come true.”

Her cinematic debut came at just 13 when she starred in the cult classic Gamera: Guardian of the Universe. Spotted at an Osakan film festival, you would have thought having Steven Seagal as a father may have been one of the reasons she got the role. It appears, however, that director Shusuke Kaneko didn’t even know she was his daughter when he chose her to play the cute little girl who formed a spiritual bond with the giant green turtle known as Gamera.

While Fujitani admits that her acting “wasn’t very good back then,” appearing in such a popular movie certainly helped open some doors. Celebrity status seemed to be beckoning, the problem was that she wasn’t sure whether that was what she wanted.

“During my mid-teens my agency was trying to turn me into an idol,” she says. “I was told if I was a gravure model then I could get this or that work. I had to really take stock and think about where I was going. Was fame so important? Was this really the life for me? I tried to picture myself in 10 years and it was then that I made the decision to go to America to study English.”

It was during that time in the States when she started working on her first novel: Touhimu (she had written some film reviews for the magazine Roadshow a couple of years earlier). Described by Fujitani as a “twisted love story,” it is not, contrary to what is written online, based on her own personal experiences. Handwritten in a notebook, it was picked up by Evangelion director, Hideaki Anno, who was so impressed with what he saw, he decided to make a movie out of it called Shiki-Jitsu, with Fujitani playing the lead role.

“I am still nowhere near satisfied with my performances, then again I don’t think I ever will be.”

“It was quite strange,” she says. “Usually a book is published then it is made into a film, this time it was the other way round. I hadn’t even finished it, yet Hideaki had already made his mind up. He was working on the script while I finished the story. I basically let him get on with it and didn’t interfere. Also while I was acting I tried to forget about the original character from my book and create a new one in my head.”

Touhimu was placed in the movie booklet where it was discovered by giant corporation Kodansha, who went on to publish it. Whilst the novel and film were not massive commercial successes, they were both critically acclaimed, with Shiki-Jitsu winning the Artistic award at the 30th Tokyo International Film Festival. No longer simply seen as the child from Gamera with the Hollywood father, Ayako Fujitani was being recognized for both her acting and writing skills.

“Being Steven Seagal’s daughter, I could understand that was a hot topic when I first started in the industry,” she tells us. “I have never had a problem talking about him, I just generally prefer not to, especially when I am doing a movie as I want people to concentrate on the film.

There are of course still those who can’t see past who my father is, but at the same time I have realized that there are people who know about my work that don’t know I am related to him. That has surprised me. I think the fact that I have developed as an actor has helped, though I am still nowhere near satisfied with my performances, then again I don’t think I ever will be.”

Her reputation as a female actor was further enhanced in 2008 when she played the role of Hiroko in the anthology film Tokyo. The movie, shot in Japan’s capital, contains three segments written by three foreign directors: Leos Carax, Bong Joon-Ho and Michel Gondry. Fujitani worked with the latter on the first segment, “Interior Design”. The Academy Award winner (Best Original Screenplay for Eternal Sunshine of a Spotless Mind), also made a short documentary about the actress titled How to Blow Up a Helicopter (Ayako’s Story). The pair clearly have a strong working relationship.

“I see Michel as a ridiculously smart seven-year old,” she says. “The set is like his playground. That’s not to say he doesn’t work hard, he just has so much fun with what he does. While the camera is rolling he will yell out new ideas for me and I would have to improvise. He works like that a lot and I am sure it must be hard for some crew members, but it something I really enjoy.”

Fujitani will no doubt be hoping that some of Gondry’s talent has rubbed off on her as she pursues a new career as a director. She has already made a 10-minute short film and a behind-the-scenes documentary for a Japanese horror film. Next up is her first feature, though she is not allowed to discuss any details of that just yet.

In addition to her directing, acting and writing, she has also been translating one of her favorite novels: Stitches: A Memoir written by David Small, from English to Japanese. Then there is her music. When she was younger she sang songs for the band of renowned author Ramo Nakajima, who passed away in 2004. More recently she got together with Ayumu Matsuki to form a duet known as LucaRuca, whose songs are marked by their upbeat feeling. For Ayako Fujitani it is yet another project in her incredibly diverse career—one wonders what new challenge she will take on next.

Ayako on:

Working with Giant Robot magazine: I was a fan of their stores, but I didn’t really know about their magazine. It was only when they called me for an interview that I started reading them and I thought they were really cool. During the interview I asked if I could write for them and they said yes. They are having a bit of a break at the moment, but I’d like to do something for them again in the future.

Living in LA and Tokyo: I move between the two which is fun because they are so different. Los Angeles is nice and quiet but at the same time so big, you need a car to do anything there. Tokyo, on the other hand, is really condensed with everything so easily available, sometimes you want a car to escape from it. I don’t really see too many similarities between the two, Tokyo is more like New York.

The best movie she has seen this year: I recently watched Gravity, directed by Alfonso Cuarón. He made Children of Men, one of the best science fiction films I have ever seen and I think he has done another amazing job with this movie. Much of the film focuses on the isolation of one character (Dr. Ryan Stone played by Sandra Bullock), but rather than feeling bored you are captivated. I am not sure if it will be a big hit here in Japan, but I thought it was excellent.