The Japanese actress Rinko Kikuchi is the epitome of charming discordance. There’s her fashionably offbeat everyday look: a printed romper over black tights worn with buckled creeper boots and oversize sunglasses. And when she speaks in careful English—which she’s been studying for two years—her delivery is succinct and frank, though accompanied by an impish grin. Asked about the flight gear she donned for her role as a pilot trainee in Guillermo del Toro’s summer blockbuster Pacific Rim, she says simply that the costumes were extremely heavy. “You actually can’t do anything in them.” As for Mizuki, her character in next month’s fantasy samurai film 47 Ronin? “She’s really evil and a bitch,” Kikuchi says with evident delight.
The 32-year-old grew up in Kanagawa and, fueled by her love of samurai and Western films, got into acting as a teen. She scored parts on local TV and in a Japanese indie movie before being cast as a troubled young deaf-mute in Alejandro González Iñárritu’s 2006 film Babel—a role that earned her an Oscar nomination and, in 2007, a Chanel campaign.
She has since moved to New York, where she lives in a cozy East Village apartment. She misses her cats—who stayed behind with her parents because she didn’t want them to go through U.S. quarantine—but is happy to be immersed in a more international film world. “I think most Japanese directors like when you’re more sweet or cute,” she says with a giggle. “I’m too tough.”