Now, the Japanese music superstar is making his acting debut in a big way, in Universal Pictures’ real-life war epic “Unbroken” from director Angelina Jolie. The critically acclaimed film follows the incredible life of Louis “Louie” Zamperini who survived in a raft for 47 days after a near-fatal plane crash during World War II—only to be caught by the Japanese navy and sent to a series of prisoner-of-war camps.
The filmmakers had a dificult time casting the important role of Louie’s nemesis and chief tormentor, Mutsuhiro Watanabe, the Japanese prison guard known to his subjugates as “The Bird,” whose life, according to biographer Laura Hillenbrand, “was consumed with forcing men into submission.”
Jolie states: “I didn’t want Watanabe to be someone who was a caricature of a Japanese man who speaks in broken English and glowers. The real-life character of Watanabe was intelligent and well-educated but had something imbalanced about him as a human being. He was a force to be reckoned with and, as Laura Hillenbrand describes him, was ‘a beautifully crafted monster.’”
Having a performer who could play against type was crucial to Jolie. “I was convinced that when you’re looking for an actor to play someone who is volatile and ruthless, you need to cast someone who is the opposite of that, a good guy,” she relays. “We were looking for a performer who could find the deeper side of villainy.” The director was searching for real presence. “There was no obvious choice, and so I had this idea: ‘What about a rock star? What about someone who can walk on stage, say nothing and own it?’ Most actors don’t have that.”
Jolie inquired about the current rock scene in Japan, asking if a talent who might be able to tackle the role existed. The name that came up was Miyavi. Word was, however, that the handsome, young, 6’2” rock musician with a devoted following had no interest in acting. Still, Jolie remained intrigued.
Feelers were sent out to Miyavi through Yoko Narahashi, a respected Japanese casting director. Narahashi had heard that Miyavi was intelligent and serious, but when she contacted him, he explained that he had never thought about appearing in a movie and didn’t believe he wanted to do so. Nonetheless, Jolie traveled to Japan to see one of his performances, after which a meeting was set up. “He was magnetic, thrilling, and when we chatted, I thought he was a truly soulful person, one of the loveliest I’d ever met. He was also incredibly magnetic, and from what he said I could see a wonderful dad and husband,” Jolie commends.
Jolie was sure she had found the perfect person for the role, and offered Miyavi the part. “At first, when I heard about the movie, I didn’t know anything about the story, and I didn’t even know who the director was and I was not sure if I was going to do this or not,” Miyavi says. “Afterward, when I met Angie and she explained what she wants to deliver the audience throughout the story of Louie’s life in this film, I changed my mind right away. I thought it would be meaningful to be a part of this project.”
Miyavi found the script impressive because it was sensitive to both the Japanese and the Americans who had lived through World War II. “To be honest, as a Japanese person I had some reservations about playing this role,” he explains. “But in talking to Angie, I understood that she would be making a film that would be about forgiveness, a bridge between countries and cultures in conflict—one that would contribute to the understanding of different cultures. I decided to tackle this challenge, even if it meant playing a very cruel man. The more evil I become, the more dramatic the story gets.”
With his acting debut in “Unbroken,” Miyavi was inspired by the message of peace which he himself has strived for. As an actor and performer, he uses his body and soul as an instrument in all his performances.
Opening across the Philippines on February 18, “Unbroken” is distributed by United International Pictures through Columbia Pictures.