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Actress Kirin Kiki remained at top of her craft until end of fight with cancer

Kirin Kiki answers questions at a press conference on May 14, 2018, after "Shoplifters" won the prestigious Palme d'Or at the Cannes Film Festival in France. (Mainichi)

TOKYO -- Kirin Kiki, who passed away from cancer on Sept. 15 at age 75, remained an actress of extraordinary depth and width until her last moments, loved by many for her straightforward statements.

One of the last movies she stared in was "Shoplifters," directed by Hirokazu Kore-eda, which won the prestigious Palme d'Or at the Cannes Film Festival in France in May this year.

Becoming an actress was almost a coincidence for Kiki. She saw a casting call put out by the Bungakuza theater company and simply decided on a whim to give it a shot. However, in her career, her colleagues included top-class actors and actresses of the time, such as Haruko Sugimura and Hisaya Morishige, and she competed with her contemporaries Mayumi Ogawa, Shin Kishida and others to hone her acting skills.

Her unique appearance and unparalleled rhythm created an innocent and humorous atmosphere, enabling her to star in popular TV drama series such as "Shichinin no mago" (Seven grandchildren), "Terauchi Kantaro Ikka" (The family of Kantaro Terauchi) and "Mu Ichizoku" (The family of mu) in the 1960s and 1970s. She also grabbed the attention of viewers with her comical commercials.

Kiki's reputation as a film actress became firmly established after she was diagnosed with breast cancer in 2004, and had a mastectomy on her right side the next year. She explained her shift to the silver screen was "because the tempo of television is too fast to really play a role." As she aged, she came to develop a kind of detachment from worldly affairs.

In the 2007 movie "Tokyo Tower: Mom and Me, and Sometimes Dad" directed by Joji Matsuoka, her role as a warm and loving mother was highly acclaimed. In "Still Walking" (2008) with director Hirokazu Kore-eda, Kiki starred as a hardworking housewife taking care of her stubborn husband. In director Masato Harada's 2012 "Chronicle of My Mother," she appeared as the shy mother of a popular author.

A native of the Kanda district in Tokyo's Chiyoda Ward, she was coveted by directors young and old and played diverse roles across a full spectrum. In the 2015 film "Red Bean Paste" directed by Naomi Kawase, Kiki was a former Hansen's disease patient. She was also a reliable housewife living with a strange painter in the 2018 movie "Mori no iru Basho" (A place where Mori is) under the directorship of Shuichi Okita. Many of the roles she played were pivotal in the films, earning her a number of awards. She was also decorated with the government's Medal with Purple Ribbon in 2008, and the Order of the Rising Sun, Gold Rays with Rosette in 2014.

Her stage name at the time of her debut in 1964 was Chiho Yuki, but in the 1970s, she sold it off during a charity auction on a TV program, saying she had nothing else to offer.

Kiki did not have a management office, and received job offers to her own telephone. She freely revealed her private life and her beliefs, subjects other actresses still tend to avoid. This included her second marriage to rock star Yuya Uchida in 1973, with whom she had a daughter named Yayako Uchida. Her son-in-law is the popular actor Masahiro Motoki.

She was known for her invective remarks toward her directors and costars during premier appearances for films, but was still loved by many. She used to say that she was "ready to die" and "will accept everything, anything." She remained married to her husband Uchida, although they lived apart for decades. She was like a breeze going through a tightly controlled society; someone who lived and acted freely and at ease.

(Japanese original by Tomomi Katsuta and Yoshiaki Kobayashi, Cultural News Department)

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