Those paying attention to the credits may have raised an eyebrow at the name of one of the cast members, namely, “Mickey Curtis.” And those with enough curiosity about Japanese culture (in other words, free time) would have taken a trip to Google Images and discovered, with some shock, that Mickey Curtis is the septuagenarian actor who portrays the old shamisen master – the one who abducts the film’s protagonist in a cab.
The name isn’t a total joke. Mickey Curtis was born in 1938 to a Japanese father and a Canadian mother. His real name is Brian Kachisu. As “Curtis” is pronounced “kah-chi-su” in Japanese, this is a pun. Without reading his full bio, it’s easy to overlook the irony in casting this man as the old guard of a traditional Japanese instrument. Curtis is something of a legend in Japan, partly as a prolific actor, but largely as a career musician who has made a point of absorbing as much Western influence as possible. One of his early career activities was singing for soldiers at Allied base camps around Japan. This may have influenced, to an extent, how his career unfolded – he achieved stardom after forming a rockabilly trio with two other Japanese members. Naturally, a great portion of his repertoire, even today, consists of covers of American 50’s songs.
(A cover of Elvis’s “Blue Suede Shoes.” Curtis on vocals.)
In the late 60’s he formed a new band, “Mickey Curtis and Samurai,” and embarked on a European trip that lasted several years, calling it “ongaku shugyo,” or “music training.” The concept sounds Asian, but the music they soaked up was obviously Western. Their 1971 album, “Samurai,” is often noted for its prog rock and jazz influences. Curtis and his band could be seen as a part of the Japanese pop music movement dubbed “Group Sounds,” or GS for short. Following the Beatles’ tour of the country in 1966, countless bands emerged which copied the band’s “group” structure and choice of instruments –typically a lead singer, guitarist, bassist, and drummer.
But it was clear that by the late 60’s, Curtis wanted to move on. After all, he’d been copping American pop music since the 50’s, a good decade before GS took off among the Japanese youth. He was no longer content to simply copy Western bands, and chose to put himself at the cutting edge of Western popular music, alongside King Crimson and Pink Floyd. He was no longer borrowing from the “scene;” he became part of it. In the 70′s he moved back to Japan and became mainly a record producer and actor.
(70 y.o. Curtis sings Elvis Presley’s “That’s All Right.”)