The multitalented actor talks about playing roles on both sides of the law

By Matthew Hernon

When Dean Fujioka flew out to America to study web design at Seattle University, his dream was to become a successful entrepreneur like Bill Gates or Steve Jobs. Unfortunately things haven’t quite worked out the way he was hoping for; yet at the same time he certainly hasn’t done too badly for himself. Over the past decade or so he has worked as a model, musician, actor and director, becoming a bigger name in Hong Kong and Taiwan than his native Japan. His latest role is in “The Pinkertons,” a popular American detective drama that began airing on WOWOW earlier in April.

The program’s central character, played by Angus Macfadyen, is Allan Pinkerton. Founder of the Pinkerton National Detective Agency,  he rose to fame in the mid 1800s when he claimed to have foiled an alleged conspiracy to assassinate Abraham Lincoln. The organization, which is still in operation today, brought down some of America’s most notorious criminals and by the end of the 19th century had more agents than there were soldiers in the United States Army.

Dean Fujioka plays Kenji Harada in the historical series

Dean Fujioka plays Kenji Harada in the historical series

“Being in the Pinkertons has been really educational for me as I knew nothing about North American history,” Fujioka tells Weekender. “After getting the part I started doing my research and as soon as I saw the unblinking eye logo with the motto ‘We never sleep’ I got the feeling that it would be an intriguing show. My character is also interesting. He’s a noble samurai-like guy called Kenji Harada who goes out to the States to take revenge on a diplomat who killed his father. I’m in eight episodes—and take the lead in one—so it is quite a big role.

“I felt an added pressure to produce a flawless performance because the level of professionalism was higher than what I was used to from working in Asia. I think there are a number of reasons for that: for a start the budget is on a completely different scale. I also think acting is seen as a well-respected profession out there. In this part of the world you can be asked to work 20-odd hours with hardly any break and then you’re expected to be fresh again when they wake you at 5am the next morning. It’s not like that in the States. I think it’s the country where most actors want to end up and I’m no different.”

His prospects look good. The Fukushima-born star has got the model looks, charm and language ability—he speaks English, Mandarin, Cantonese and Japanese—to make a big impression internationally. He’s also made a habit of being in the right place at the right time. His modeling career took off after he was discovered by a magazine editor at an open mic night during a trip to Hong Kong. He went on to appear in numerous magazines, TV commercials and films before being scouted by a producer who offered him a role in a Taiwanese drama.

“I was comfortable in Hong Kong and earning more than enough to survive, but as an actor you’re always going to be tempted by new challenges,” Fujioka says. “Going to Taiwan was a strategic decision—it gave me the opportunity to broaden my horizons and learn Mandarin, which of course is more widely spoken than Cantonese. A couple of dramas I was in (“Corner with Love” and “Miss No Good”) were really popular, so I started getting a lot of attention there. I had to wear sunglasses and a mask when I went out, which is something I struggled to deal with. I started to question whether that was the kind of life I wanted and then decided to quit the agency I was with and started focusing on my music.”


Playing a Killer

The Story Behind Two Roles

The Pinkerton Files
The Baltimore Plot
Murdered in 1865, Abraham Lincoln was also the target of an alleged assassination attempt four years earlier while en route to his presidential inauguration in Washington. Warned by Allan Pinkerton that there was a plot to ambush him when he changed trains in Baltimore, the President-elect boarded a sleeper train under an assumed name with Pinkerton agent, Kate Warner, who posed as his sister.
Jesse & Frank James The Pinkerton Agency was called in to bring the notorious robbers, Jesse and Frank James to justice in 1874. After the man assigned to capture them, Joseph Whicher, was found murdered, Allan Pinkerton vowed vengeance. He staged a violent raid on the James homestead the next year, which led to the death of the James’ 8-year-old half-brother and the maiming of their mother. The incident caused outrage and created sympathy for the James brothers. Following his greatest failure, Pinkerton gave up the chase.

Tatsuya Ichihashi
On March 24, 2007, Tatsuya Ichihashi raped and strangled English teacher, Lindsay Hawker, and then buried her in a bath of sand and compost soil at his apartment. Two days later the criminal fled barefoot as the police circled outside his place. He spent the next two and a half years on the run, staying at various locations around the country, including an uninhabited island in Okinawa. He used false names and took on manual labor to pay for his plastic surgery. The surgeries eventually led to his arrest, as one of the clinics became suspicious and called the police. He was captured on November 10, 2009, while attempting to board a ferry to Okinawa. Tatsuya Ichihashi was sentenced to life in prison in 2011.

Although he is a talented, soulful singer with a real passion for music, Fujioka was not about to give up on his acting career just yet. In 2010 he signed with Japanese agency Amuse and the first project they brought him was the highly controversial “I Am Ichihashi: Journal of a Murderer,” a film based on Tatsuya Ichihashi’s book “Until I Was Arrested.” Written while awaiting trial for the brutal rape and murder of English teacher Lindsay Hawker, the journal describes the tactics the fugitive used to evade the police, including changing his name, hiding on a deserted island and even performing plastic surgery on himself with a razor blade and a pair of scissors. Whilst there is nothing about the actual crime in the story, many critics believe it was distasteful to make the movie just 18 months after Ichihashi’s arrest. Some have also suggested that a film like this risks turning the criminal into something of a tragic hero. Fujioka—who directed, played the lead role, and wrote the music—told Weekender it wasn’t his or producer Toshiaki Nakazawa’s intention to glorify Ichihashi in any way.

“Throughout filming it was always on my mind how important it was not to offend the soul of the victim or her family,” he says. “We certainly weren’t trying to defend the killer’s actions or show any kind of admiration for him. I just felt that there was a story to be told and lessons to be learned from this episode. I did try to get in touch with Ichihashi; however, his attorney said that while he knew the film was being made he wasn’t in the right frame of mind to speak about it. I then tried to reach out to anyone who knew him well.

“I had mixed feelings while making the movie. I’d always wanted to play a killer, but I was really unsure about this particular role because I’d been out of Japan for so long and was initially unaware of this incident. I was offered just an acting role at first so I decided to do some research and then meet up with the executive producer to discuss the issue. At that time a lot of people were telling me I shouldn’t do it. My friends and family thought I was crazy. They said I wouldn’t get TV work or any kind of endorsements. The first question that came to mind after reading the book was why would anyone want to publish something like this? Also who would be interested in reading it? I was puzzled. Sadly things like this happen every given minute, so what was it about this particular case? As I’d been out of the country I was curious about what was going on beneath the surface in Japan – the way young people were becoming desensitized to violence. Therefore, I also accepted the offer to direct it, hoping I could help eradicate this kind of thing by showing it through a movie.”

It was a brave decision by Fujioka that could have backfired and seriously damaged his career. Fortunately for the 34-year-old, his reputation remains intact and his career continues to go from strength to strength.

It was a brave decision by Fujioka that could have backfired and seriously damaged his career. Fortunately for the 34-year-old, his reputation remains intact and his career continues to go from strength to strength. What the future holds remains to be seen—he admits to indulging his curiosity and going off to try new things. Over the years he has worked as a DJ, done some photography, been an amateur boxer and tried various martial arts. He is now into a form of Chinese sword dance called jian wu, and is hoping to perform on stage with his crew from Taiwan sometime soon. However, the father of twins has a hectic schedule that is only likely to become busier following his American debut in the “The Pinkertons.” The young man who once dreamed of being an entrepreneur is now living the dream as an entertainer.