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Friday, Jan. 18, 2013

ENTERTAINMENT SPOTLIGHT

Fujiwara chases a scoop in news-themed thriller


By TOMOHIRO OSAKI
Staff writer

There aren't many celebrities who would make good journalists, but something tells me Norika Fujiwara is one. She's well-traveled, socially active and not constrained by the mechanisms of public-relations strategies.

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Spreading goodwill: Actress Norika Fujiwara says she wishes her fellow performers were able to donate more of their time to charitable activities in public. PHOTO CHIEKO KATO; STYLIST: SEIKO IMAI; HAIR: TAMIKO SONOBE

In the new WOWOW mini-series "Onna to Otoko no Nettai" (which is rendered in English roughly as "The Passionate Zone between Women and Men"), Fujiwara, 41, plays journalist Sonoko Miyabe. She gets a tip that the revenge-obsessed Satoshi Shindo (Atsuro Watabe) plans to kill the person he thinks is responsible for a terrorist attack that left his wife and daughter dead. What follows is a game of cat and mouse that fires up libidos and exposes the seedy underbelly of politics, business and the media.

"Commercial Japanese TV stations would rarely dare to tackle these issues," Fujiwara tells The Japan Times. "But if you think about foreign movies such as 'The Insider' and 'The Constant Gardener,' those kinds of controversial topics come up all the time. So I was fascinated with the script when I first received it."

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Chasing stories: Norika Fujiwara plays journalist Sonoko Miyabe in the cable TV thriller "Onna to Otoko no Nettai."

Fujiwara says that as shooting progressed she became keenly aware of the grave responsibility involved in being a journalist and the potentially life-altering consequences any kind of misstep could cause. Often outspoken, she sounded uncharacteristically ambivalent about what she'd do if she was forced to make the kind of choices her character makes.

A few years earlier in the story, Sonoko had discovered that a construction company falsified reports on the earthquake-resistance levels of its housing projects and subsequently convinced a whistle-blower to let her disclose the wrongdoing. At the last minute, he changed his mind and begged her not to disclose what he had said. She felt the public needed to know and went ahead with the disclosure, and the whistle-blower was then attacked by his colleagues and severely injured.

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Atsuro Watabe stars as the revenge-obsessed Satoshi Shindo.

"The scene where Sonoko decides to run the prepared video (of the whistle-blower) was one of the most unforgettable for me," Fujiwara says. "The excruciating pain of having to make that decision haunted me so long after we'd finished the scene that I was still speechless during the times we weren't shooting. It made me very aware of the gravity of the responsibility of journalism. Honestly, I don't know what I would do in the same situation."

Perhaps this sincerity is all the more reason why Fujiwara voices concerns over Japanese tabloid magazines. She repeats a common complaint from celebrities about the reporting of incorrect details and it being built into a scandal.

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A deadly terrorist attack was responsible for setting Watabe's character down the wrong path.

"There have been moments when I wish Japanese journalists did more decent research and pursued the truth," she says. "If we try to deny what is reported, it leads to an endless cycle of tit for tat. Magazine publishers take advantage of our rebuttals to write another scandalous story. That's why our management agencies often just tell us to keep quiet."

Fujiwara says she worries the silence is seen as a sign of acquiescence that basically results in a lose-lose situation for the subject of the scandal.

"I want reporters to have the courage of their convictions and stop trying to make money by fabricating stuff," she says.

While journalistic ethics have obviously been on her mind because of the mini-series, there's no doubt that her views on tabloid journalism have been reinforced as she has tried to draw attention to her charity work.

"Every time I fly overseas to visit countries such as Afghanistan, Cambodia, East Timor, Bangladesh and Kenya, it's devastating to learn how people are being treated so terribly there," Fujiwara says. She has been, however, deeply encouraged by the resilience of the children she has met on her travels and this prompted her to visit an elementary school in Tokyo to teach the children there about conditions elsewhere in the world. She recalls that the Japanese schoolchildren were shocked to hear about the problems kids face in other countries, but after about a week they wrote her letters pledging their desire to help people in need.

"Like those children, I think everyone has the ability to comprehend what's going on," she says. "It's just that people tend to think those problems are far-removed from their own reality. If they were to come to really understand the situation, and sympathize with it, they could use their imaginations to take the first step toward acting to help. I'd like to be a catalyst for that process to happen to them."

Those hardships became easier to comprehend after the Great East Japan Earthquake on March 11, 2011. As a native of Hyogo Prefecture, Fujiwara saw the damage the 1995 Great Hanshin Awaji Earthquake in Kobe had on her hometown. She wasted no time in contacting the Japanese Red Cross Society to let them know she could help.

Later, she also raised money through "Smile Please," a fundraising body she had established in 2010 to ensure the sustainability of her own charitable activities and strengthen ties with other nonprofit organizations. As of March 11, 2012, the website states the organization has donated ¥73 million to earthquake victims, including a ¥63 million donation to the Japan Red Cross Society on March 31, 2011. Even visiting the areas affected after the earthquake and tsunami helped cheer up locals, according to the actress, and she recalls that visits by high-profile musicians and actors to Kobe after the 1995 quake helped her neighbors there.

Fujiwara's enthusiasm for charity work has earned her comparisons to American actress Angelina Jolie, who along with British actress Julie Andrews, Fujiwara cites as inspirations.

Despite the apparent goodwill such activities generate overseas, Fujiwara says that many in her industry hesitate to follow her lead.

"I often encourage younger actors and actresses to come along with me (on charitable excursions), but they always refuse because they say their talent agencies won't allow it," says Fujiwara with a touch of disappointment. Japanese management companies tend to keep their talent on a short leash and the general impression seems to be that such an overt show of philanthropy could be met with public sneers.

Fujiwara has received some criticism on Internet forums, but she brushes it off. Her attitude toward doing what she thinks is right is similar to how her character in "Onna to Otoko no Nettai" perceives her role in the world. She says one difference between her and Sonoko, though, is that her character shows difficulty coming to terms with the shortfalls of her younger partner, journalist Shuhei Nomura (Kento Nagayama). At one point when the two are on a stakeout, Shuhei bemoans the experience as a waste of time and "analog." An offended Sonoko berates him for trying to find the easy way out.

As a voracious reader of youth-fashion magazines, Fujiwara says she doesn't feel as alienated from the younger generation as perhaps Sonoko does.

"I think people in their 40s or older should be more open-minded when listening to what young people have to say," she says. "And young people for their part should embrace the life experience of their elders, too. That's key to building the future of Japan."

Does this mean Fujiwara has no problems with young people in Japan today? Unfortunately, there is one thing about the way they behave that she thinks needs drastic improvement.

"I want young Japanese men to do more to make us feel beautiful," says Fujiwara, citing a recent "pleasant" working experience in Italy, where the men missed no opportunity to lavish compliments toward the beauty of their female colleagues. "Be more confident in flattering women. Even when there is the slightest change in the color of a lipstick they use, be sure to notice it."

The mini-series "Onna to Otoko no Nettai," will air every Sunday at 10 p.m. for six weeks beginning Jan. 20 on WOWOW Prime Channel. Viewers need a subscription to watch the channel, but the first episode will be aired free for nonsubscribers. For more information, visit www.wowow.co.jp/dramaw/nettai (in Japanese only).


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