Pacific Rim is Guillermo del Toro's big love letter to Japanese monster movies like Godzilla and anime like Neon Genesis Evangelion. Too bad Japan isn't exactly in love with Kikuchi.
The actor made a big splash internationally with her role as Chieko, a deaf high school girl. This didn't only put her on the map in the West, it did the same for her in Japan. Nobody really knew who the heck she was.
Kikuchi didn't make a name for herself like many Japanese celebrities and actors typically do, which is either by appearing in numerous TV dramas, variety shows, or in a string of commercials. The Japanese film industry is a shell of its former self. TV is king.
Even though she did appear in a few dramas, such as Liar Game, prior to Babel, and she did some car ads, Kikuchi never was really able to parlay that into becoming a huge star in Japan.
After Kikuchi was nominated for an Academy Award, the first Japanese female to get an Oscar nod in 57 years, and became the face of Chanel, Japanese success remained elusive. She did top an opinion poll about who Japan was most proud of internationally, but that seemed to flitter away. The TV commercials dried up, and she didn't appear on variety or talk shows. Thus, people just kind of forgot about her.
A Livedoor News article from 2007 talked how in the wake of her international success, Kikuchi wasn't exactly in demand back at home and wasn't popular with Japanese housewives. When you don't have a fan base, being a talented actor isn't enough in Japan.
On 2ch, Japan's largest bulletin board, a thread talked about why Kikuchi hadn't become popular in her home country. The thread is fairly brutal (actually, it's really brutal), and some say her looks aren't appealing to Japanese, while others commented about the graphic nudity in Babel. Some didn't even know who she was.
But one of the main issues seemed to be how in Japan the mass media and the country's entertainment complex work in tandem. Her success was achieved outside of that realm. And then when she actually did appear on Japanese TV, she seemed somewhat awkward and not exactly quick with quips—a necessity to survive in mainstream Japanese show business. For many Japanese it's perhaps baffling why she, out of all the Japanese actors, has been successful abroad. For Americans, it's probably akin to when particular entertainers become far more popular in foreign countries than in Hollywood.
Since Babel, Kikuchi has done mostly foreign film work (though, she did do voice acting on two Mamoru Oshii anime). Next year, she'll be appearing in two major films, 47 Ronin with Keanu Reeves and the previously mentioned Pacific Rim. This one-two punch could help her finally achieve widespread popularity at home. Or, more likely, those films will add to an already impressive resume.
The End of Gyaku-Yu'nyū [Neomarxisme]