Appearances can truly be deceiving. Just ask anyone who has met Kiki Kilin, whose demure appearance belies a razor-sharp mind and a wry sense of humour.
“I used to be very short-tempered and would fight with anybody, especially with people with power or authority,” she confides through an interpreter, during an exclusive interview.
She has since mellowed, she claims, but there was a time where this feisty spirit extended to her own marriage in the 1970s, with the first three months of tumultuous matrimonial life peppered with ferocious arguments that would often end with the police pulling up at their doorstep.
“He’s a rock ‘n roll kind of guy, very extreme,” she says of husband singer/actor Yuya Uchida, who sounds like the bad boy next door, notorious for being thrown behind bars on more than one occasion, including for once brandishing a knife at a rock promoter for allegedly paying Japanese singers less than their foreign counterparts.
“We have been married for about 45 years, but only lived together for the first three months. We fought every day, so living separately is the most ideal arrangement,” she shares candidly.
Now, they see each other perhaps once a year, no more. “But you never know what he might do, so my great joy in life is looking forward to what he gets up to next,” she laughs.
The petite actress, who turned 73 earlier this year, was recently in Kuala Lumpur at the launch of the 13th Japanese Film Festival in Malaysia. Dressed in a kimono, with her greying hair in a simple bob, Kiki bears an uncanny resemblance to the elderly maternal roles she has come to be well-known for playing in films.
Her astute on-screen portrayal of the quintessential wise old woman has won over many hearts, and with it, many awards, including the prestigious Japan Academy Prize thrice.
It is precisely this kind of role that she has been taking on for the past 30 years, perhaps even more, of her acting career.
“In Japan, the common understanding – at least traditionally – is that beautiful women become actresses. I’m not conventional in that sense, so I’ve never had a lack of roles to play.
“They tend to not want to take on the grandmother role even though they are much older than me. They say, ‘Oh, I’m much too young to play a grandmother’, and that’s why all these jobs keep coming to me!” she relates.
With her shrewd observations of people around her, and her propensity for tongue-in-cheek remarks, Kiki clearly has a knack for endearing herself to people around her.
The veteran actress might be known for her perceptive roles on the big screen, but in more intimate circles, she is also infamous for being frank and forthright.
When asked what was memorable about her visit in Malaysia, she described the magnificence of the thunderstorm she witnessed from the hotel room window on the morning of the interview.
“I have never seen thunder and lighting from so high up before. I was also taken aback by how many tall, sparkly buildings there are in Kuala Lumpur. It reminded me that everything concrete will disappear one day, including myself,” she says.
Kiki has been acting for almost 60 years, first in a theatre troupe, then was a familiar face in commercials and television shows in the 1970s, before moving on to films.
In 2014, she was awarded The Order Of The Rising Sun by the Japanese government for her achievements in promoting Japanese culture. Earlier this year, she received the Lifetime Achievement Award at the Asian Film Awards in Macau.
Such is her dedication to her craft that she continued acting even while struggling with various medical issues, notably a detached retina in 2003 and a breast cancer diagnosis two years later.
This was also about the time she crossed paths with director/producer/screenwriter Hirokazu Koreeda (After The Storm, Our Little Sister, Like Father, Like Son), a meeting that she describes as “a very happy and fortunate event.”
“In any role you take on, he demands that we present it in such a way that shows the human residing within. I was always that type of actor. But until I met Koreeda-san, I had not come across someone who could recognise that, or was looking for an actor who could do that,” she says.
Despite her prolific acting career, it was only in these last 10 years or so that acting became more than just a way to make a living.
“Since I could see when my death might be coming, I didn’t need to work so hard and earn a living,” she says with a straight face, even as her eyes twinkle with amusement.
She does not have a manager, does not work with an agency, does not even have her own office. “I work on my own and carry my own bag. But then again, this means that everything I get paid for acting goes into my own pocket!”
In a world where fame and status is often measured by outward appearances, Kiki acknowledges that she is a bit of an oddball in this sense. “In Japan, there aren’t many others who are like me. If you are an actress, the number of people in your entourage determines your status. When you perform in a play in the theatre, how many bouquets you receive is a sign of your popularity. You end up being totally surrounded by flowers, like you are at a funeral,” she deadpans.
When she does receive flowers, despite instructing people not to do so, she re-gifts them to the people she works with. “Who do you like?” she might ask a staff member. “Michael Jackson? Then these flowers are for you, from him”.
“I change the greeting card so that it looks like it is from their favourite personality and give it to them,” she confesses, with a mischievous glint in her eye.
“And then someone who knows me well enough would see the card and ask me, ‘So Michael Jackson can now write in Japanese?’.” That’s just the kind of person she is.
But away from work and mischief, she shares that everyday life is a far cry from the perceived glitz and glamour of being an actor. “I like cleaning up, tidying things. There’s been quite a lot of improvement in my house, but there is still a lot to do,” she says simply.
And just like that, you see the gentle elderly movie roles she is so well-known for emerge.
She is a bit of an enigma, and if this isn’t what keeps her going on, it certainly is a reason for those who have met her to look forward to seeing more of her..