Life is full of surprises. Life in Japan overflows with them – like stumbling upon your new friend who lives in Tokyo while playing a tourist for a television commercial (the details of which must remain secret until its release) in a tiny alley off Higashi-Ginza.
Yes, I find much of my new life in Japan bursting with surprises. And I don’t just mean the culture, customs, and cuisine. It’s the unexpected moments like bumping into a gothic bride, bedecked in black damask while donning a heavy fascinator and Victorian parasol, which really amaze me. A secluded shrine, quiet enough to hear a pin drop, only two hundred feet from my supermarket; the intense silence of the trains, no matter the occupancy; the crowds, so intense that they carry you with them – no steps required – surrounded on all sides, you seemingly float down the street. These are the surprises that I relish, reminding me just how lucky I am to get this short-but-sweet glimpse into another world.
Undoubtedly my new occupation is, by far, the biggest surprise. I never expected to be in Japanese television dramas or featured in their commercials. For one, I don’t speak Japanese. I might be good with languages, but I’m not that fast! Second, I’m short, even by their standards! And third, I have almost no experience in front of the camera. But evidently none of that matters. I have something special, something unique: blonde hair!
Yep, that’s pretty much all it takes. Well, I don’t want to sell myself too short… You must be willing to embarrass yourself at auditions – they love overacting, and you need to be very familiar with the train system, which looks like an intricate circuit board, the latest in Japanese technology. But otherwise, it’s the land of opportunity for the fair of hair.
The experiences can be quite thrilling. Going to all the “touristy” attractions in Tokyo on someone else’s dime, having an entire hot spring to yourself, and getting your own personal hairdresser who follows you around, comb at the ready, to fix any stray hair that dares fall out of place. But more often than not, it’s tedious.
Shooting the scene for the first time is a bundle of butterflies from nerves and excitement. You’re trying to remember where to walk, what to do, which emotions to give, all while listening for your cue in Japanese! But by the tenth rendition of the event, you’re bored, the director’s tired, and the four-year-old playing your child is over it! That’s when you muster everything you have left and pray that this truly is the “last take,” a phrase that often deceives.
But how, you might ask, do you perform in Japanese? I could lie and tell you I have excellent mimicking skills. But, truth is, words aren’t necessary. Pretty much every project I do will be dubbed on the editing floor. My smooth, slightly southern accent, along with years of diction training, will be distorted into high, screechy squeals that sound like an eight-year-old on Christmas morning. Ah well.
Instead, scenes are improvised and my “lines” are, well, whatever I feel like saying. Frequently, my costars and I will discuss the latest fashion trends with despondent faces and long sighs, because it doesn’t much matter what we say, as long as we portray the emotions required. The director says something like, “you’ve just been in a car accident. You awake and look around. Then you begin to be scared and scream for help.”
So I replicate these actions, taking my time (because the Japanese are fond of soap-opera-like facial expressions that last an eternity!). But then I am corrected. “Yes, but you’ve just been in a car accident. You awake and look around – slowly… twice. Then you begin to be scared and scream for help.”
So I make it slower and look around, twice. “No, no. You’ve just been in a tragic car accident. You awake and look around slowly, twice. Then you begin to be more scared and erratically begin to scream for help.” And so it goes, on and on, ‘til they are satisfied with my emotional progression.
I filmed a scene today and was told to be happy walking down the street. I obliged. We cut, and I was asked to be happier. So I tried again. Then a third attempt. By the fourth, I looked like a beaver attempting to attract a mate. Sadly, I think they actually liked the fourth take, beaver-face and all.
Getting a job is very interesting. Sometimes there is an audition; sometimes it’s solely based on picture-selection. And frequently the schedule is very last minute. You might not know the time or place of a job until the night before. You might not even know you got the job until then.
You register with as many agencies as possible – there are no unions here and no restrictions, so it’s a bit chaotic. They might call or email you about a potential job. You must then decide a) if you are available for both the audition and shooting dates b) if it’s worth paying the travel to and from the audition site – which can get pricey c) if you want the part – frequently they are underpaid for an enormous amount of time and energy and finally d) if you should hold out for a better opportunity that might come along later. Once you agree to hold a date, you’re stuck. So if someone offers you double for an easier shoot, too bad. You’ve already promised your time.
Exciting though it may be, there are a few downsides to this new profession. The utmost is inconsistency. It isn’t guaranteed. You might go a while without a job, or you might get a great offer to work on your husband’s one day off or your birthday. So then you have to make difficult decisions. Second, there’s cost. It’s expensive to go back and forth to Tokyo, sometimes up to $30 round trip. So it’s an important consideration. And finally, time. The hours can be heinously long. I had one day last week that was over 24 hours including travel, with more than 20 hours of shooting. It’s exhausting. And the train trip each way varies between 45 minutes and two hours, depending on destination. I am used to Alex getting up at the crack of dawn for work. I’ve always sympathized and felt horrible when we stayed up too late. But now that I am also rising at 4am, for a shoot in north Tokyo, I insist on being asleep by 9:30! Double-standard, to be sure, but necessary. The girl needs her beauty sleep!
Generally, it’s been a fantastic way to experience Japan. I’ve had a variety of jobs: commercials, promotional videos, voice-overs, TV shows, YouTube episodes, English lessons, etc. The oddest was, perhaps, my day as an “Italian shopper” wandering the stores of the Galleria (a fiction easy to reproduce as I spent six months there, often frequenting the glamorous landmark, staring longingly into the Louis Vuitton flagship store). But I digress. I was meant to help train Japanese makeup artists who are moving to Milano in March to open a new store. Supposedly they spoke Italian and needed practice.
They did not speak Italian. Which was fortunate for me, because I was desperately out of practice. If I’d known in advance, I might have refreshed my memory. But no. I simply walked into the room at 9am to discover my nametag: Caroline Turco, Italian. So we spent seven hours getting to know each other with shaky Italian and a lot of hand gestures. I learned the word for eyeliner – “eyeliner” (said with an Italian accent) – and they learned that Caucasian faces do not need 15 layers of lotion. Seriously. I was practically dripping. By the time I left, I felt as if someone had thrown a custard pie in my face, with dollops of cream dribbling down my chin in large chunks. Warning: should you be in Milan this March, avoid Japanese cosmetic stores!
My favorite job was behind the microphone. A voice-over for a well-known Japanese tech company (I’ll post it when it premieres). My “audition” consisted of recording a few lines in the “voice memo” app and emailing them to the agent. Then coming into Tokyo for a matter of minutes to record, waiting for the client’s approval, and finished! Certainly the best paying job I’ve had, calculated in an hourly wage.
But the most rewarding part is the novelty of it all. Each new job means new people, from all over the world. I’ve worked with predominantly Japanese crews but most of the other actors are Russian, Italian, French, Moldavian, Australian, British, South African, Thai, the list goes on and on. Not too many Americans, actually. This job is truly a cross-cultural experience, and I am soaking up every moment. I love the surprise: new locations in and around Japan. New crews, new directors, new interpreters (a necessity!). And new projects. It keeps me on my toes, that’s for sure.
I’m not going to be the next Jennifer Aniston, though I’d love to take a sip from her fountain of youth. But I am getting paid to have fun, and you can’t ask for much more than that. Making new friends from all over the world, comparing life experiences, working on my Japanese (which is going very slowly), these are the things that make it all worthwhile. These are memories that I’ll keep forever. Life’s little surprises!