Ayako Fujitani is full of surprises.
Before sitting down to chat with a guest about her new movie, she is so polite she seems almost bashful. But during a photo shoot in the lobby of her manager's Beverly Hills space, the actress becomes settled and still and confidently tilts her head just right, betraying her modeling experience: A beauty contest winner at 12, she went on to model professionally.
Now the star of director Michel Gondry's entry in the triptych film "Tokyo!" speaks quietly, apologizing for her English, but as the conversation moves to another room, she snatches up the recorder and cheerily narrates the proceedings. "We're walking through the office. . . . This looks very Los Angeles and Hollywood-like," the newly minted Angeleno says of the futuristic, curved white walls.
For years, the quirky Fujitani was best known for appearing in the Japanese "Gamera" monster movies -- the tales of a giant spinning turtle from Atlantis that defends humanity from less-principled behemoths.
"When I first started it, I'm like, 'Hmm, I'm not good at all as an actress. So I have to get better,' " she says. "Still. That feeling is still there. I guess I'll never be able to stop it."
What she'd prefer not to be known as is the daughter of martial arts actor Steven Seagal and an aikido-master mother who is still teaching at 62. The couple split when she was very young, Fujitani growing up in Osaka with her mother.
"I'm not keeping my father as a secret, but I just want to ignore it," she says, noting it took years to get people in Japan to stop thinking of her as his daughter first.
"We are good to each other, actually. We don't have any weird things going on between us. We're chill."
Also a writer of short stories and essays for magazines, Fujitani at 21 starred in "Shiki-Jitsu," the film version of her first novella, "Touhimu."
"Some people might think, 'It was easy for you to play because you know so much about the character; you wrote it.' But the novel and the movie: different world," she says. "I had to erase all that, the thoughts and the world and the character that I wrote, and develop everything new on the set."
For "Gamera" fans, the distinctly art-house "Shiki-Jitsu," with its dark themes of mental illness and suicidal ideation, was probably a shock to the shell.
"People say they find weird stuff going on in my novels all the time. But at the same time, they always say they find something warm. So I feel that's really good," she says.
The 29-year-old Fujitani has contributed essays and short stories to a number of magazines since her teens. Her first writing job was reviewing movies for an esteemed Japanese pop-culture chronicle, the now-defunct Roadshow.
"I can remember at 3 or 4, I watched horror movies, which is bad to American people," says the lifelong film buff with a laugh. " 'Oh! How Japanese movies are violent!' But my mom let me watch anything I wanted to -- horror, drama, psycho-killer movies, anything."
She cites the remake of the brutal "Funny Games" and the grim but brilliant abortion drama "4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days" among recent favorites. And she is a great admirer of iconoclastic director Gondry ("Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind").
"Even though he's a big-time guy, you just forget about it," she says of the wildly imaginative filmmaker's approach to conjuring movie magic. "He wants to do it himself, by hand. He has so many crew, but he'll say, 'Give it to me, I'll do it!' I helped too, sometimes. It's fun; you really feel like you're all making a film together."
Their segment of "Tokyo!" ("Interior Design," with other segments directed by Leos Carax and Joon-ho Bong) is based on the comic "Cecil and Jordan in New York." Fujitani concedes the surreal story could have taken place elsewhere: "I don't think it's about Tokyo. I think it's about a common feeling of young people who have desires or dreams from the countryside. They come to a big city; the young girl wonders, 'What am I going to do?' That's a common feeling at that age in any nationality."
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Where you've seen her
Unless you're a fan of mammoth, twirling turtles, chances are you have not seen Ayako Fujitani's work. She believes she's the only actor to appear in all three of those 1990s "Gamera" movies. Among a handful of Japanese films, perhaps her most notable screen role was as the traumatized, face-painted lead in "Shiki-Jitsu," the adaptation of her novella, "Touhimu," which she has had to repeatedly assert is not autobiographical. Her lone Western film so far is "The Patriot" -- not the 2000 Mel Gibson movie but the 1998 Steven Seagal flick in which she was cast as her famous father's assistant (Camilla Belle played his daughter).