‘I’m angry about a lot of things’: Japanese actor Minami on her new eco-drama with Johnny Depp

Like Cher or Madonna, Minami is a one-name wonder. “I have my French and Japanese family names,” the 34-year-old actor says over video call from a pink hotel room in Tokyo. “But ‘Minami’ is simpler.” She gives a single, decisive nod. “Just write ‘Minami.’” She chose the mononym at 13 when she featured in her first film, Battle Royale, a gory cult thriller about schoolchildren fighting to the death on an uninhabited island. “When I went back to school, everyone said: ‘Your arms are all bruised, you have scratches, what’s going on?’ They thought my parents were beating me.”

Even when telling a story like this with dark undertones, her manner is insistently perky, as though she doesn’t want the listener to misread her as dour. When I ask about her Battle Royale audition, for instance, she blithely recalls “walking into the room and there were 10 men, and they asked me if I could do a handstand, and two of the men held my legs against the wall to help me …” I must be grimacing because she breaks off from the anecdote to reprimand me lightheartedly: “Don’t make that face! It was all fine.”

Her latest movie, Minamata, couldn’t be more different. She plays Aileen M Smith, the environmental campaigner who, with her American husband, war photographer W Eugene Smith (played by Johnny Depp), helped expose the scandal of mercury poisoning in the Japanese city of the title. Wastewater dumped by the Chisso Corporation between 1932 e 1968 caused thousands of deaths and innumerable instances of disability. “The message of the film is not only relevant to Minamata,” she tells me. “It’s about anything environmental. It’s what we need right now. I think Japanese people can feel proud of this film because it’s not just showing the things that went wrong. It also shows our toughness, how we can change the country with protests.”

She senses little of that energy in Japan today. “I’m half-French so I always compare it to France, where the people express whatever they think. Japanese people don’t have that courage. We accept so many rules. I’m very angry about a lot of things and I don’t know whether to say anything about them. It is taboo here if you are a celebrity to speak out.” What is she angry about? “There are people who cannot pay for their food. Did you see Kore-eda’s film Shoplifters? That is part of the truth of what is happening now in Japan.”

It makes sense that an actor not comfortable with the idea of activism should make something like Minamata, dipping her toe in the pool of protest. There is much in the movie that is authentic: Smith’s stark but compassionate images of the victims of the poisoning, which were published in Life magazine, really did bring a vivid immediacy to the crime, boosting its profile on an international scale. And the photographer, who died in 1978, really was attacked and badly injured by Chisso employees.

But there is also the sort of fudging and conflating that happens whenever real events are reshaped for cinema. It was not Aileen who introduced Eugene to the Minamata story, as she does in the film; they were already married when they were encouraged by others to publicise it. More regrettable is the decision to gloss over Aileen’s contribution and photographic talent. Adesso 71, she has recently made peace with this, though it did upset her at first. “It feels like your life is kind of ripped off of you," she told the Kyoto Journal earlier this year. “The movie doesn’t show any of my photographs … In a way that hurts, and it bothers me.”

How does Minami feel about those comments? “I feel nothing,” she says bluntly. “I know how movies are made. Sometimes I do a scene that I think went really well, and then they cut it. That is the same here. The movie is not a documentary.”

She is equally unsentimental about her friendship with Aileen. Ask her about the ways in which her performance was affected by meeting the woman she is playing, and she replies: “Not at all. None. I have big respect for her but I had already decided how to play her.” At least they have one quality in common. She takes a moment to look up the word in English, then says proudly: “‘Stubborn.’ We are both stubborn.”

No wonder she is pleased with the measures that the film’s director Andrew Levitas has taken to try to get Minamata released in the US. He wrote a letter to MGM, later published online, accusing the distributor of planning to “bury” the movie, and imploring it not to perpetuate the cycle of silence which has historically surrounded anything associated with Minamata. “I’m so proud of Andrew," lei dice. “He never gives up.”

Getting the word out about an enduring environmental scandal is one thing. Releasing a film starring and produced by an actor who failed in his attempt to sue a UK tabloid for calling him a “wife beater” is quite another. “What do you think?” she asks. “I want to know.” I explain that it is only to be expected that audiences may be wary of seeing a film connected to a man accused of domestic violence. After all, Depp was recently dropped from the third Fantastic Beasts movie, and replaced by Mads Mikkelsen, for precisely that reason. “Yeah, for sure. It’s very sensitive. But I’m part of the movie so of course I will cheer for it to be seen.”

Minami’s acting work since Battle Royale has been exclusively in Japanese or French productions, among them Naomi Kawase’s 2018 film Vision, in which she played an interpreter opposite Juliette Binoche; Minamata is her first in English. Will she do it again? “What do you think?” she asks – not in an adversarial tone but enquiringly, as though seeking marks out of 10 for fluency. Not that she needs anyone’s approval: she is just back from Hong Kong where she shot a thriller, Mother Tongue, directed by Mike Figgis and scripted by Bruce Wagner (Maps to the Stars).

The reason for her stop-off in Tokyo before returning home to Paris is an unusual one: the Imperial Hotel, where she is speaking from, is hosting an exhibition of her paintings. “So much of acting is waiting," lei dice. “You cannot just create a performance from zero, and I have had many frustrations about that, which is why I began painting when I was 18.” I ask about her style, and she sits bolt upright in her seat; if this were a cartoon, a lightbulb would appear above her head. “I can show you!" lei dice, scooping up the laptop in her arms and marching off down the corridor. There are several people milling around in the gallery when she arrives, so she drops her voice to a whisper and moves her webcam along the canvases for me to see. One shows a woman’s head on the end of a giant matchstick, her hair rendered as flames; in another, a pair of women with strawberries instead of faces communicate via two tin cans and a piece of string. “That one is called Lonely Planet," lei dice. “They are separated and that is the only way they can connect.”

A hurried glimpse at a handful of paintings will hardly result in a watertight analysis but the image of divided or disembodied women does appear to predominate, which makes sense for someone raised by parents of different nationalities. So does she feel French or Japanese? “I met Emmanuel Macron recently and he asked me the same question," lei dice, once she is back in the privacy of her room. “I think I am Japanese in my heart. But I wanted to be funny, so I told him: ‘When I’m in Giappone, people tell me I’m very French but when I’m in France they say I act like a Parisian girl.’ I don’t know if you know but ‘Parisian girl’ is not a good meaning. It is…”

She puts a hand to her mouth, as though trying to stop the words coming out. “It’s kind of like a bitch! Anyway, it was a joke but Macron didn’t move his face. He just said: ‘OK.’” It’s the way you tell them.

Minamata is in UK cinemas now

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