Actor Denis Akiyama’s career included child psychology, playing in Toronto’s music scene, and Broadway – but he found his largest audience while playing the arch-nemesis of Keanu Reeves’s character in the dystopian thriller Johnny Mnemonic.
It’s a part that would have defined many actors’ careers, but for Mr. Akiyama, who died of cancer on June 28 at the age of 66, it was simply another role in a life that seemed to know few bounds. By then he had already been cast in a film by director David Cronenberg, lent his voice to a number of popular animated series and courted political controversy with a hit song on Canadian radio.
“He was a soulful guy that was going through life doing things that interested him,” long-time friend Tony Duggan-Smith said. “It’s not surprising many people felt really strongly about him.”
Mr. Akiyama began his professional life as a child psychologist, meeting his wife, the former Danielle O’Connor, while on the job.
In his downtime, he dabbled in music as part of Pukka Orchestra, a Toronto new-wave band that grabbed headlines with their 1984 single Cherry Beach Express. The song unabashedly addressed police brutality in Toronto, leaving some in the force feeling bitter about the attention it drew.
It wasn’t long before Mr. Akiyama switched gears to pursue acting. He enrolled in George Brown College’s theatre program and began to score roles in Canadian TV series such as Seeing Things and Check It Out.
But it was a part opposite Pat Morita in 1987 drama Captive Hearts, a pharmacist in Mr. Cronenberg’s Dead Ringers and guest appearances on CBC-TV series Street Legal that solidified his career in show business.
He also voiced roles in popular animated series, including Silver Samurai in the 1990s version of X-Men and villain Malachite on Sailor Moon.
Mr. Akiyama forged a presence in the theatre as well, performing in Sally Han’s Naomi’s Road, Hiro Kanagawa’s The Tiger of Malaya and both the Toronto and Broadway productions of Miss Saigon.
His profile increased when he starred as Shinji, the laser-whip wielding Yakuza villain who chases down Mr. Reeves’s Johnny Mnemonic in an attempt to extract the data package stored in his head. The high-profile film was Mr. Reeves’s follow-up to the blockbuster smash Speed and gave Mr. Akiyama a major part in a Hollywood co-production.
“I believe they put the down payment on their first home off that movie,” his son, Kintaro Akiyama, said of his parents.
The elder Mr. Akiyama went on to star in numerous other movies filmed in the Toronto area, including Resident Evil: Afterlife and Repo Men. He also played Prince of Kushin in the Disney film Eloise at the Plaza, in a role alongside his son.
In 2015, he appeared in Adam Sandler’s comedy Pixels as Toru Iwatani, the real-life designer of the Pac-Man video game, who unsuccessfully attempts to stop the giant video-game character from devouring the city.
His final project was the TV comedy Carter, led by actor Jerry O’Connell and filmed in North Bay.
“Anyone who would’ve seen him two months ago might not have even known he was really that sick,” his son said.
“He was also a very strong-willed, strong-charactered man. And that stayed with him until the very end.”
In addition to his wife and son, Mr. Akiyama leaves his daughter, Miya Akiyama, and brother, Barry Akiyama.
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