Denis Akiyama, Actor in 'Johnny Mnemonic' and 'Pixels,' Dies at 66

Courtesy of Kintaro Akiyama
Denis Akiyama

The Toronto native was prolific across film, television, stage and anime for four decades.

Denis Akiyama, who battled Keanu Reeves in Johnny Mnemonic and portrayed the real-life creator of Pac-Man in Pixels, has died. He was 66.

Akiyama died Thursday in his hometown of Toronto after battling a "very rare and aggressive cancer," his son, Kintaro Akiyama, told The Hollywood Reporter. "He went peacefully into the light on the morning of the full moon," he said.

Akiyama was in Captive Hearts (1987) opposite Pat Morita and in David Cronenberg's Dead Ringers (1988), and he played a mobster landlord in Balance of Power (1996) opposite Billy Blanks and Mako. He also worked often in thrillers like Sidney Lumet's Guilty as Sin (1993) and Michael Apted's Extreme Measures (1996).

On stage, Akiyama performed in Miss Saigon on Broadway (1992-93) and was a central figure in several Asian-Canadian plays, including Philip Kan Gotanda's Song for a Nisei Fisherman, Sally Han's Naomi's Road and Hiro Kanagawa's The Tiger of Malaya.

A noted voice artist, Akiyama was heard in the 1990s as Watcher Prime in Fox Kids' Silver Surfer, as Silver Samurai and Iceman in X-Men and as the warrior Malachite in Sailor Moon.

However, Akiyama's most memorable roles were as the yakuza assassin Shinji in Johnny Mnemonic (1995), hunting down the title character (Reeves) for the data-storage device implanted in his brain, and as the real-life creator of Pac-Man, Toru Iwatani, in the computer-animated comedy Pixels (2015).

In his brief but surprisingly moving performance in the latter, Akiyama attempts to calm down the giant Pac-Man, who's terrorizing the city. "I will talk to him. He is my son. Hello, my sweet little boy. Look how big you've grown," he says as he approaches the iconic arcade character. Pac-Man responds by biting off his hand.

(Iwatani appears earlier in a cameo as a technician fixing an arcade game.)

Born on May 28, 1952, Akiyama studied psychology at York University and later worked in child care before turning his attention to acting at George Brown College.

"Since we only have one life, and I chose to be true to my talents, it was a very serious moment for me. I always knew I had a purpose; I had to really be courageous. I just wanted to do the work," he said in a 2013 interview. "I wasn’t concerned about fame — and, I knew my Japaneseness was going to influence the outcome."

On television, Akiyama was seen on Suits and 12 Monkeys and on such Canadian shows as She's the Mayor, Rin Tin Tin: K-9 Cop and, this year, Carter.

"My dad was an actor and consequently a relentless entertainer," his son said. "He shared his love and guidance with the world, which had a lasting impact on me throughout my formative years. I was lucky enough to work with him professionally on a picture, [2003's] Eloise at the Plaza, in which we played a father and son. That film eternalized a wonderful and magical bond that was both real and fictionalized. His grace and wisdom will remain and continue to guide me and the rest of the world through life.”

Survivors also include his wife, Danielle; daughter, Miya; and brother, Barry. In lieu of flowers, the family has requested donations to the Canadian Cancer Society.