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Thursday, July 17, 2008


Aoi Miyazaki: from TV princess to rescuer of trafficked children

Staff writer

It's not just poor etiquette, but very near physically impossible to run in a kimono — the various layers, each wrapped around the body, form a tight cocoon. So the sight of the desperate Princess Atsu scampering at full pace down the endless corridors of Edo Castle as her long kimono — and a gaggle of gob-smacked ladies-in-waiting — trailed behind her was bound to make arresting television.

 Aoi Miyazaki as Princess Atsu
Principled princess: Aoi Miyazaki as Princess Atsu in the hugely popular NHK drama "Atsuhime" NHK PHOTO

The scene, which two weeks ago represented the halfway climax in NHK's hugely popular Sunday night television drama series "Atsuhime" ("Princess Atsu"), appears likely to become a defining moment in the career of actress Aoi Miyazaki, who plays the role of the princess, the wife of the third-last shogun, Iesada. Miyazaki's controlled portrayal of the moment that Atsuhime's emotions finally burst through the weighty and oppressive shroud of manner and custom was strong enough to have this proudly melodrama-proof writer near tears.

"Of all the characters I've played, Atsuhime is the one I respect the most," explains 22-year-old Miyazaki as she chats with The Japan Times at a ritzy hotel in Shibuya. "For a woman of that period (the 1850s) to express her own opinion that much — to say that much — was really rare."

No doubt it was — although Atsuhime's strength was of a kind that doesn't readily translate to a modern, and especially not a Western, context. After all, what inspired her impromptu dash through the castle was a desire to inform her husband that she would from then on give greater allegiance to him than to her father. That Atsuhime might become independent of them both was not up for debate.

Still, in the context of the late Edo Period, when America was demanding trade with Japan and leaders (including Atsuhime's father) from outlying han (feudal domains) were striving to dump the Shogunate and restore the Emperor, the fact that a young princess could voice her opinion and thereby hope to influence worldly affairs was quite something.

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The fact that the current drama is proving so popular (it has maintained ratings of 20 percent or higher for each of its episodes to date) shows that in Japan, at least, the question of if and when and how a woman might seek to change the world still carries an emotional charge.

As it does for Miyazaki, too. The young actress has made a number of attempts thus far — less in her movies and TV shows than in her extracurricular activities — to make statements about things she believes in. Like Atsuhime, however, her outspokenness needs to be judged in comparison with the mores of her country.

For example, if Miyazaki's decisions to travel to India three years ago to "see for myself" the lives of people less fortunate than her, or to Greenland and Denmark last year to "see for myself" the effects of global warming, were to be held up against the manic activism of an Angelina Jolie or a Sean Penn, they would be likely to inspire a condescending look and a whispered dismissal: "Come back in 10 years when you've adopted a couple of those cute Indian orphans, honey."

Nevertheless, in a new film due out at the beginning of next month, Miyazaki makes what is perhaps her first appearance in what Hollywood would call an "issues movie." And it's a humdinger.

In "Yami no Kodomotachi" ("Children of the Dark"), Miyazaki plays the role of Keiko Otowa, an increasingly frustrated staff member at a nongovernmental organization devoted to rescuing young Southeast Asian children sold into prostitution.

Not only is Otowa (and we, thanks to director Junji Sakamoto's prying camera) confronted with the sweaty sex acts of French, Russian, American, Australian and Japanese pedophiles on kids no more than 10 years of age, but she also finds herself caught up in the attempts of a Japanese journalist to uncover something even more sinister: the sale of trafficked children for body parts — namely, internal organs to be used in transplant operations to save the children of the developed world. In the process, the unwilling organ donors are killed.

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Miyazaki's character, NGO volunteer Keiko Otowa, takes cover in the hard-hitting film "Yami no Kodomotachi." © 2008 EIGA "YAMI NO KODOMOTACHI" SEISAKU IINKAI

"I thought the majority of people probably don't know about this," says Miyazaki of the film's gruesome tale. Even less known is the fact — which was proved by the investigations of Sogil Yan, who wrote the book on which the film is based — that it is Japanese clients who make the business possible.

"I think the majority of Japanese people believe that these kinds of problems have no connection with their own lives," says Miyazaki. "I wanted people to know that this is not just a foreign problem."

Far from dealing with "issues" as heavy as a black market in children, Miyazaki's films in the past have veered in the direction of slightly odd psychological dramas. She has tended to play young girls who would remain quiet for the majority of the film until some action or event revealed them to be capable of something unthinkable — such as abetting a heist.

After starting to act in commercials at age 4, Miyazaki had small parts in dozens of television dramas before gaining critical recognition in 2000, when at age 14 she appeared in "Eureka." The three-hour film directed by Shinji Aoyama, which won the International Film Critics Award at the Cannes Film Festival that year, saw Miyazaki play a young child recovering from the shock of having been taken hostage with her brother (played by her real-life brother, the actor Masaru Miyazaki) and a bus driver on a hijacked bus.

In another, "Hatsukoi" (First Love) (2006), which is set during the leftwing student riots of the late 1960s, she is recruited by a friend of her rebellious brother and ends up playing a key role in his successful ploy to steal ¥300 million and thus show up the rightwing political establishment.

One role that was very much outside the Miyazaki mold was the megahit "Nana" (2005), where Miyazaki played the puppy-eyed sidekick to Mika Nakashima's hard-rocking lead. So perfectly did she pull off the dimple-cheeked and golly-gosh naivete of the young country girl that it was easy to believe this was the default mode of the actress herself.

And yet here she is, disproving presuppositions left, right and center. Aoi Miyazaki is tall enough (163 cm) to make a Western man double-take, and has an unflashy Muji-meets-ethnic fashion sense and fetching locks of permed hair teased down around her face. Her trademark smile — her eyes seem to recede in deference to a broad grin — is not on constant offer, but must be won. And it's only when you see her in person that you suspect it is the fault of overzealous makeup artists that she tends to look like a child on screen.

But, more to the point, far from chatting about boyfriends and music — a la her character in "Nana" — the real Miyazaki seems most comfortable discussing how she was motivated to act in "Yami no Kodomotachi" out of a desire to raise awareness about this particularly frightening social problem.

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Aoi Miyazaki and her brother Masaru survey an iceberg in Greenland in a photo from the book "Love, Peace and Green: Tarinai Peace 2," which follows their investigations into global warming. © SAORI TSUJI © SHOGAKUKAN

"By acting in the film I thought, as an actor, I might be able to help people," she says.

Does she expect the film will inspire Japan's best and brightest-eyed to form an army of Keiko Otowas?

"Otowa's strong desire to contribute spins out into frustration at the thought of just standing back and watching," observes the actress. "She's a very impatient person.

"But, translating thoughts into actions is important, so after watching this film, I think people will understand this kind of thing is really happening, and arrive at the conclusion that inaction is no longer an option. People will understand that they have to do something."

While evidence of Miyazaki's social conscience has been scarce in her previous films — and even scarcer in her advertisement work, which includes extended campaigns for the insurance company American Family (Aflac) and Tokyo Metro — it is evident in a book project she has completed with her brother Masaru.

In 2005, the siblings traveled to India, where they spent a week witnessing for themselves the problems of poverty. With a cameraman in tow, they traveled around slums and spoke to locals and representatives of NGOs and charities. They wrote a book, "Tarinai Peace (The Search for Earth's Missing Peace)," about their experiences, noting down such musings as, "It's painful to think that the kids from the slums, or the kids who are discriminated against — they might fall in love with someone, but no matter how much they love them, they can never go out with them."

A year later, the pair went to Denmark and Finland and investigated the effects of global warming.

Miyazaki said she was lucky enough to be taken overseas many times by her parents when she was young, so she has experienced enough not to be "shocked" by much. Still, she says, her experience of talking to fishermen in Greenland and then, a little while later, fishermen in the Maldives was shocking.

"Up until then, the fishermen in Greenland had to go out by dogsled to work, but now they can go by boat, because the ice is melting," she says. "So they are now able to catch many more fish and they're like, 'We're lucky!' But in the Maldives, the people are saying, 'Save us! Save us!' because their islands are about to disappear under water. The two groups of fishermen are so far apart, but they're so connected."

These and other experiences were discussed in a second "Tarinai Peace" book, published in 2007.

Miyazaki's respect for the environment grew out of another aspect of her upbringing. "My parents used to take us camping all the time," she says.

She names without hesitation the Nasu highlands in Tochigi Prefecture as an old camping haunt. "We went there often," she says. "We'd look at the stars and make campfires. I really remember those times well."

The camping trips also instilled in the young actress a strong sense of family, and in particular, a strong respect for her father.

"When you're camping, it's dad who sets up the tent and does the cooking. It's important that children have the chance to see their father in those situations. It instills in them a respect for their fathers and strengthens the bond between the family."

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Deadly pursuit: A Japanese reporter urges Miyazaki's character to abandon her dangerous quest of rescuing children from traffickers in Thailand in "Yami no Kodomotachi." © 2008 EIGA "YAMI NO KODOMOTACHI" SEISAKU IINKAI

It's tempting to suggest that this respect in turn motivated Miyazaki to get started on her own family early. Last year, she married the actor Sosuke Takaoka ("Crows Zero"), three years her senior. Still, Miyazaki continues to work under her maiden name and maintains a close relationship with her brother. She mentions that the two hope to go camping soon.

Miyazaki says she spends her free time going for drives in her car. "I like driving — and singing while I drive," she says. She also likes watching old Japanese films.

The actors she most respects at the moment are Keiko Matsuzaka and Tomoko Nakajima, two of the dozens of big names she is now working with on "Atsuhime."

"There's a lot to learn from the way they spend their time on the set," she says. "They're always very calm and kind to everyone. If you're going to make something together then that is a really important attitude to have."

Somewhat surprisingly, Miyazaki is stumped when asked which foreign actors she most respects; she can't name a single one. Still, she says she would "love to" work on a foreign film, and is keen to try working in English.

Not that she has time for such things at the moment. A starring role in an NHK drama means there is little time for anything else. The 14-month shoot started last August and won't finish till October (the broadcast ends in December). "I spend most of the day in the studio," she says. "When you're inside all day you lose track of the outside world. I'm not photosynthesizing much these days!"

When she does get back out into the sun, though, chances are she will continue in the direction indicated by "Yami no Kodomotachi" — and, if so, Japan might find it has a talented actress with a genuine social conscience to boot. Not that she's likely to rival Angelina Jolie, but then again, if she can find a way to run in a kimono, who's to know what she's capable of?

"Yami no Kodomotachi" opens Aug. 2 at Cinema Rise in Shibuya and will open at other cinemas around the country shortly thereafter; "Atsuhime" screens each Sunday from 8 p.m. on NHK-G, 6 p.m. on NHKS-hi and 10 p.m. on NHKS-2.

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