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Sunday, Sep. 2, 2012

CLOSE-UP: Satoshi Tsumabuki

Film star Satoshi Tsumabuki moves up to a new stage

Special to The Japan Times

Wearing a headband and tracksuit, Satoshi Tsumabuki — the 31-year-old darling of the Japanese entertainment world — was easy to spot among a crowd of actors in a rehearsal studio in downtown Tokyo recently. He was there preparing for "Egg," Hideki Noda's new play, which opens Wednesday at the Tokyo Metropolitan Theatre (TMET) in Ikebukuro in the first programme after the theater's 17-month refurbishment.

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Good egg: Satoshi Tsumabuki, following a recent press conference in Tokyo for Hideki Noda's upcoming new play, "Egg," in which he plays the leading role. YOSHIAKI MIURA

Tsumabuki is one of Japan's biggest TV-drama and film superstars. And though this is only his third stage role, judging from his first two forays — the Noda plays "Kiru" (2007) and " Minami-e" ("To the South," 2011) — many see no reason why he shouldn't reach dizzy heights in theater as well.

That's if he has time, of course. As is typical of many of Japan's in-demand actors, he's been busy. June saw the release of "Ai to Makoto" ("For Love's Sake"), a young-love movie in which he starred, while in November he heads-up the cast in a bank robbery suspense movie titled "Ogon wo Daite Tobe" ("Flying with Gold"). Then in January he will have a leading role in "Tokyo Kazoku" ("Tokyo Family"), a surefire-hit, big-screen homage to Yasujiro Ozu's epochal 1953 "Tokyo Story."

It's between those choc-a-bloc shooting schedules that Tsumabuki has managed to shoehorn in time as Hirafu Abe, the hero of a fictitious sports team in the upcoming two-month run of "Egg." In fact Noda offered Tsumabuki this role last year right after they finished working together on "Minami-e" ("To the South"), his play exploring mass hysteria and the culture of secrecy in Japan. In casting Tsumabuki, there's no hiding the fact that Noda has an eye for business as artistic director of the publicly funded TMET.

Back in 1996, Tsumabuki's career started in real fairytale style with a nationwide male-only talent search dubbed "Ahopon Project." Organized by three major showbiz companies — Amuse, Horipro and Nippon Broadcasting System — this kicked off by getting all 24,016 applicants to compete in an arcade game in which luck played a part. A shortlist of the top players then received tickets to attend serious auditions through which the huge field was narrowed down to just one winner — the then 16-year-old Tsumabuki.

The next year, his career began with small film and TV-drama roles in which he stood out so much that he was soon fully booked as a film and TV actor. Now, at age 31, he's already played roles that some spend their entire careers working up to, such as that of the samurai hero of NHK's prestigious annual year-long history drama (General Kanetsugu Naoe in 2009's "Tenchijin"). His film roles have also made him a regular nominee for Japan Academy awards, leading him to scoop the best actor prize in 2010 for his role as the anti-hero Yuichi Shimizu in the eponymous film of Shuichi Yoshida's crime-noir novel "Akunin" ("Villain") directed by Lee Sang Il.

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On with the sew: Satoshi Tsumabuki (left) as Mongolian fashion designer Temujin with Hideki Noda as his son Banri in "Kiru" in 2009. © MASAHIKO YAKOU

It was outside the studio where he is preparing for his imminent third stage role, that this young celebrity greeted me with his friendly smiling face. Though our meeting came at the end of a full day's rehearsal, his eyes twinkled throughout the interview as he answered questions thoughtfully and openly — even describing himself as a "mommy's boy."

What kind of child were you?

Until I was 7 or 8 years old I was living in Yamato-gun, which is now part of Yanagawa City in the Fukuoka Prefecture of Kyushu. Though I don't have so much memory of that time, I went to an elementary school that had a policy of pupils spending all day every day barefoot. I was so comfortable, and I think that school — called Mitsuhashimachi Fujiyoshi elementary school — gave a well-balanced education. Now, I look back and realize how such rustic ways built my character in a sense, and that my childhood in Fukuoka definitely remains an archetypal image in my mind.

In fact, it's only recently that I started to reflect on all that — after going to see the site of the family house in Fukuoka that my father had built but then let out after we moved to Yokohama in Kanagawa Prefecture.

The house was pulled down some years ago after it fell into disrepair, and when I saw the empty place where it had been I was bitterly disappointed. In my memory, that house was huge and modern and was like a dream castle. But the vacant plot looked very small and it was covered with rubbish and discarded cans. I nearly cried when I saw that, and straightaway I told my parents that I would build a great house for them.

That obviously shocked you very deeply.

Yes it did. I'd had an easy life and I never had any materialistic desires. Then, for the first time, I strongly longed for something and vowed to myself that I would buy a house for my family.

Until then, every day I'd simply enjoyed my job as an actor and just blindly worked hard on what I was doing. But I thought over my life at that moment, and realized that if I just single-mindedly focussed on acting I might lose lots of important things without even noticing.

Have you ever considered doing anything other than acting?

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Southern accent: Minami (Satoshi Tsumabuki, left) recounts his origin to a mysterious woman named Amane (Yu Aoi). in "To the South" in 2011. © KISHIN SHINOYAMA

I've never ever had such a thought.

At first, I thought an actor's job was easy and anyone could do it if they wanted. That was because I unexpectedly won a big nationwide audition for newcomers when I was 16, and then became a professional actor in major media straight after that. I therefore imagined acting was a pretty simple job and I didn't think there was anything special about it. After all, I had managed to do almost everything I'd wanted to do well enough — whether studying, playing sports or making friends — so I didn't take acting especially seriously.

Do you still think acting is "a pretty simple job"?

No. On the set of my first film shoot I found that I couldn't do anything right or make any movements as an actor should. That was a huge wake-up call.

Ever since, I've just struggled and tried to be a better actor. I think actors are never really satisfied with their work because their aspirations get higher and higher the more experienced they become.

Today, acting is certainly a great part of my entire life, and I can't imagine doing anything else, but I think the task of acting goes hand in hand with my private life. So, as I become more mature as a person, I believe the acting part of me will develop at the same time.

Do you get much free time to yourself?

Yes, I have quite a lot of time to do as I please. If I get enough of a break from work, I always like to go somewhere with my family. I'm single, so it's great to take my parents abroad. I want to show them many places and things, and I also want to share such experiences with them. I am very close to my family and I don't feel ashamed of saying that. I will openly tell my friends, "I have a date with my mum today:' Yes, I certainly am a mommy's boy (laughs).

I used to go out drinking with my friends in my free time, but since I turned 30 I prefer to spend time by myself at home instead. At such times, I often draw and paint with pastels and acrylics. That's just a hobby, though, so I don't have any plans to have an exhibition or anything like that.

As a leading figure in the young generation of actors, how do you perceive your role in the Japanese entertainment world?

I don't want to have any fixed limitations or expectations regarding my selection of work, and I want to try any roles offered to me that arouse my interest.

The role of the hero, or antihero, in "Akunin" ("Villain") directed by Lee Sang Il, was one of the most important jobs in my career. As I got deeply involved in playing Yuichi, a lonely outcast who murdered a woman and was on the run with a social misfit named Mitsuyo (Eri Fukatsu) who he'd met through an online dating site, I thought about the character every moment of the day and I was totally burned out when the filming finished.

However, that experience finally made me realize that my job was primarily just "acting," and that I should stand back from other issues I'd concerned myself with — such as the burden of responsibility for a production's success if I was in the main role, or how to get a theme or message across to the audience — and entrust those to the director or the other staff. Once I realized that, I was able to concentrate more on my acting.

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