Tadanobu Asano was born in Yokohama to a Japanese father, Yukihisa and mother, Junko of Japanese and European ancestry. His maternal grandfather, Willard N. Overing, was from Winona, Minnesota. Willard's father Jacob was Dutch and his mother Ellabel was Norwegian.
His father, an actors' agent, suggested he take on his first acting role in the TV show Kinpachi Sensei at the age of 16. His film debut was in the 1990 Swimming Upstream (Bataashi Kingyo), though his first major critical success was in Shunji Iwai's Fried Dragon Fish (1993). His first critical success internationally was Hirokazu Koreeda's Maboroshi no Hikari (1995), in which he played a man who inexplicably throws himself in front of a train, widowing his wife and orphaning his infant son. He also worked with Koreeda in the pseudo-documentary Distance in 2001. His best known works internationally are the samurai films Gohatto (1999) and Zatoichi (2003), as well as the critically acclaimed film Akarui Mirai (Bright Future).
He acted in Katsuhito Ishii's 2003 film The Taste of Tea, which premiered at the 2004 Cannes Film Festival. He appeared as the lead actor in Last Life in the Universe (2003) by Thai director Pen-Ek Ratanaruang and starred in a follow-up film by Pen-Ek, Invisible Waves, in 2006. In 2007 he starred as the young Genghis Khan in Sergei Bodrov's Oscar-nominated film Mongol. In Villon's Wife (2009), he played the part of an alcoholic writer, though he has since stated that since he doesn't actually drink alcohol, he based his performance on people he knows, a lot of whom drink.
The extensive range of Asano's film career is due in part to his decision no longer to appear in television programmes, even though TV work in Japan is generally more lucrative than film acting.
He is a musician; he formed the band MACH-1.67 with director Sogo Ishii in 1996 and, from time to time, plays in the bands Peace Pill and Safari. He is an artist and a model, most notably for Japanese fashion designers Jun Takahashi and Takeo Kikuchi, for whom he filmed a series of commercial spots directed by Wong Kar-wai. Asano and his father run the actor's agency Anore Inc. which represents Japanese actors like Ryō Kase and Rinko Kikuchi.
- Mysterious good looks
- Psychotic offbeat character portrayals