NEW YORK — Angelina Jolie didn’t want to cast “a stereotype of a Japanese prison guard” when choosing an actor to play the sadistic officer known as the Bird in Unbroken.
“And so I had this thought of someone who would have real presence … I thought a rock star,” Jolie said at a New York Press conference in early December.
She ended up casting Miyavi, whose real name Takamasa Ishihara, a handsome and hyperstylish 33-year-old Japanese songwriter-guitarist known for his dramatic string-slapping style and flamboyant onstage presence.
Unbroken is Jolie’s second time directing. It’s based on the true story of Olympic runner Louis “Louie” Zamperini (played by British actor Jack O’Connell), who survived a plane crash into the Pacific during the Second World War, where he was marooned for 47 days. Starving and near death, Zamperini was picked up by the Japanese military, spending more than two years as a prisoner of war where he endured unimaginable torment.
As detailed in Laura Hillenbrand’s meticulously researched 2010 bestseller, the PoWs suffered most at the hands of Mutsuhiro Watanabe, who singled Zamperini out for the harshest treatment.
Zamperini survived to forgive his captors — even the Bird — after a religious conversion after returning to the U.S.
The story is “controversial,” said the soft-spoken Miyavi, who was dressed in a tailored charcoal grey suit and black shirt.
There have been calls for the film to be banned in Japan because of its portrayal of prison camp atrocities.
The movie contains no mention of the most contentious part of the book, that some Japanese were engaged in wartime cannibalism.
Miyavi, who was seated next to Jolie at a long table in a Manhattan hotel meeting room, said while some Japanese “didn’t want to represent any negative side of the country I was born and raised (in), but she (Jolie) said she wanted to make something meaningful and could be a bridge between America, Japan …”
Onscreen, the Bird is a psychotic and unpredictable presence, who repeatedly beats Zamperini with a bamboo staff while devising increasingly manic ways to torture him.
“I’m not used to hitting people,” Miyavi continued.
“I’m always hitting strings on the guitar, not people. It was a tough process but the more evil I become the more dramatic the story gets and to deliver the message to the audience, that’s our mission. So I tried to imagine they killed my family, my daughters, I would do anything to protect my family. It’s insane but that’s the situation everyone was in.”
Miyavi, said his wife, Japanese-American singer Melody, “got scared” when Jolie showed her some of his early scenes during filming.
“That was a compliment,” he said with a slight smile to laughter from reporters.
“I have two daughters, 5 and 4, and I think it’s still early to let them watch this film but their father keeps hitting people — torturing, killing, it’s tough,” he added.
“But the message of this film is really meaningful to everyone, even to Japanese people. I was scared, but even my family, or my children, will receive Louis’ strength and his attitude toward life,” said Miyavi. “So I really think it’s going to be so meaningful to everyone who is suffering.”
Jolie said Hillenbrand’s book describes the Bird as well educated “very striking, very strong, physically,” which led her to consider a musician, someone who had enough stage presence “to stand in front of thousands of people and hold that.”
She said Miyavi had “never acted before and wasn’t looking to act either, so we had to convince him” to take the role of the “driven and imbalanced” Japanese camp commander.
“I looked him up and I was blown away by his talent and his ability but I wanted to know what he was like as a person before his talent as an actor,” Jolie explained of her decision to talk to Miyavi about Unbroken. “I believed strongly if you are playing somebody dark you have to cast someone who is in fact a very balanced and good person; somebody who does not enjoy violence, who doesn’t indulge in it.”