Does Julia Roberts hate Japan? The local media were obsessed with this question prior to the Hollywood star's first-ever trip here last month to promote her new film, "Eat Pray Love," based on Elizabeth Gilbert's best-selling memoir about her journeys to Italy, India and Indonesia.
The only evidence they had for this supposed enmity was that Roberts had never been here. Japan is one of the most important movie markets in the world, so the fact that the No. 1 female movie star in the world opted not to come for so many years can only mean she doesn't want to, went the rationale.
In addition to a joint Tokyo press conference for both Japanese and Korean journalists (does the Korean press think she hates Korea, too?), Roberts agreed to do individual interviews for television only.
Thinking that Roberts would be more forthcoming with a young woman, Fuji TV's "Toku Da Ne" assigned one of its novice female announcers to do the interview. A veteran male announcer coached her on how to conduct a conversation with a foreign celebrity and advised her to save her best question for last. That turned out to be, "Do you like Japan?" Having only arrived the day before, Roberts responded the only way she could. "This is all I know about Japan," she said, indicating the room.
The question was pointless but representative. The "Toku Da Ne" segment was more about Fuji TV than it was about Roberts, because that's what show biz journalism boils down to: who gets the best quote, the most revealing photo.
Roberts knows this better than anyone. She entered the press conference with that famous big smile to a flurry of clicking cameras. Asked by the chipper female emcee to say hello, she did as she was told. "Hello press," she said, then reconfirmed the ground rules. "All the flashes are intimidating. I guess when those stop, I start. I think that's how it goes."
Protocol is a two-way street, so while the photographers obeyed, Roberts apparently couldn't go any further until she said "Konnichiwa" with producer Dede Gardner, who shared the dais.
Then the inevitable question: Why did it take so long to come to Japan? But the emcee couldn't put it that bluntly and ended up asking about the "process through which this trip was realized."
"Just my good fortune to finally find myself in Tokyo with all you nice people," Roberts replied with mock exuberance.
When someone asked which of the exotic locations in "Eat Pray Love" "made the biggest impression," a question she'd obviously heard before, Roberts refused to play the game.
"I am fascinated by our world's desire to pick a favorite of everything," she said. "What was your favorite food? What was your favorite country? Who's your favorite guy to act with? It's fascinating; which is a nice way of saying I'm not going to choose a favorite."
She was equally dismissive of the question about her supposed new love of Hinduism. Roberts turned her answer into an indictment of the media's habit of misconstruing everything.
"I had a conversation with a writer, and when you're sharing things over dinner it changes form, and in the age of Twitter things get distorted.
"I should stick with what my mom told me 22 years ago: 'You're an actor: act. Don't talk about politics or religion.' "
Politics or religion might at least have been interesting. The press conference provided little that would endear Roberts to the Japanese public or promote the movie.
It's not as if she was being purposely pugnacious. She answered most of the questions straightforwardly if not necessarily with enthusiasm. She saved that for her attempts at humor.
When a radio DJ mentioned her name was Love, Roberts asked her if she had sisters named Pray and Eat. After a journalist introduced herself as from a magazine called This Movie is Great (Kono Eiga ga Sugoi), Roberts demonstrated her inimitable cackle and said, "Now that's a magazine you want to be in."
The humor could be squirm-inducing, too. A non-Japanese reporter asked her to reflect on what it was like "being an American woman" in these countries. He was probably trying to draw out a reaction to one of the negative comments Western critics have made about the movie, which is that Gilbert's confessional style translates as American solipsism on the screen. However, he was so cautious and tentative that the question made no sense, and Roberts pestered him to rephrase it.
"I keep trying to bail you out and you keep going right back in," she said as the room rocked with laughter. "But you're cute. You try so hard, and I appreciate that." Then she handed the question off to her producer.
The reporter may have been thoroughly humiliated, but he can always say that Julia Roberts once told him he was cute.