Understanding Ueto, Japan’s reluctant star

To play her role as a celebrity in a new TV drama, Aya Ueto learns about the high life

by Robert Michael Poole

“I never wished to become an actress or a star who performs on TV,” explains Aya Ueto, the prominent model and actress. “I took this role because my management gave it to me.”

The role in question is that of Alice Mitazono, a wealthy hotel heiress who meets a poor widowed father of three named Taro Sato, played by Yusuke Kamiji, in the new Fuji TV drama “Celeb to Binbo Taro” (“The Celebrity and Poor Taro”).

As “CM Queen” for 2008, having raked in some $3.6 million in endorsements, one might think that Ueto, 23, is familiar with the celebrity lifestyle. But having come from humble beginnings to succeed in Japan’s notoriously hardworking aidoru (acting and modeling talent) industry, the sad truth is far from it.

Coming from a broken home where she dreamed of being a child-care worker, in 1997 she found a leaflet offering a ¥2 million prize for the winner of the seventh All-Japan National Young Beauty Contest. Thinking she could get a big house to bring her family together, she entered and won, aged just 12.

Since then she’s barely had time to look back, having starred in a stream of high-profile television dramas such as “Koukou Kyoushi” (“High-School Teacher,” 2003, where she played a high-school girl in love) and manga adaptation “Ace wo Nerae!” (“Aim for the Ace!,” 2004, in which she played the lead — the role of Hiromi Oka, a struggling tennis player). Ueto’s rise to prominence, though, came when she played the assassin Azumi in Ryuhei Kitamura’s international hit film of the same name (2003) and its sequel, “Azumi 2: Death or Love” (2005).

Backstage at Chiba Marine Stadium while filming for “Celeb to Binbo Taro,” Ueto bounces into the room with the cheerfulness that has placed her among the most recognizable faces in Japanese entertainment. Dressed in a glorious white ensemble topped with a tilted white fur hat, it’s as if she has stepped right off the red carpet. Her eyes are full of eagerness and fascination, and her answers surprisingly direct and honest.

“I thought (the role of Alice) would be tough, because I couldn’t imagine the lives of celebrities,” Ueto laments. “My life was rather similar to poor Taro’s. But I realized that (Alice) was a lively, unrestrained, fashionable girl, so I could manage to play the role with passion and energy. One of the similarities between me and the character is that I am easily influenced by others.”

Alluding to her own experiences in the often secluded world of Japanese aidoru, she continues, “She was raised in a luxurious environment where she couldn’t see the lives of others, so she just didn’t know much about the world.”

Having grown up relatively poor in Nerima, Tokyo, Ueto can relate to both characters, but it’s clear where her sympathies lie. “The difference (between Alice and I) is that I’m confident that I could live without much money,” she says. “I think that rich people sometimes don’t know how to love the poor because rich people can get things too easily. They don’t use their heads and hearts to understand the planning that goes into realizing one’s dreams; it’s just provided for them. If you have little money, you learn how to socialize, gain experience and meet wonderful people in life.”

“Celeb to Binbo Taro” follows the relationship between the two worlds, and Ueto believes the message to the viewer is to value the things money can’t buy.

“Alice can’t buy great memories, while on the other hand, Taro has lots of love and friends. The show is asking the viewer, ‘How much love do you have that money can’t buy?’ “

For a Japanese entertainer, reaching the wealth of a character such as Alice is a pipe dream. The truth is that even women as successful as Ueto may receive little more than an average monthly wage from their management company, where they are usually treated as employees. In the case of advertising megadeals, they tend to receive a tiny commission on top of their salary.

In return, such aidoru have to work prodigiously hard. Ueto says that her 23rd birthday this year was the first she has had off since she was 12, and she spent the time at home alone in tears.

“There have been many times I’ve wanted to quit this job, because I couldn’t take the time to communicate with people and to hang out with my friends,” she explains.

Many aidoru often see their youth disappear as they work on project after project while their stock is high, and few more than Japan’s current golden girl. Not only does she express regret for missing out on much of her teenage years, while her friends were gaining valuable life experiences, but she shows a barely concealed discontent with her life in a goldfish bowl, attracting both sympathy for her plight and admiration for her commitment. In 2008 alone, Ueto has graced nearly every advertising space in Japan for one reason or another, from billboards and shop windows to TV commercials and entire trains, for companies such as Fuji Film, Lotte, Coca Cola and Softbank.

“I never intended to enter the entertainment world, so I haven’t been intimidated or particularly interested when I’ve seen my face lined up on the shelves of convenience stores,” she declares.

Her career actually began in earnest with acting and singing in parallel. While her early J-pop four-piece Z-1 broke up in 2000 after only five singles, she signed to Pony Canyon in 2002 and has put out four solo albums, the latest being 2006′s “License.” Her forays into acting eventually took over, and she now continues her singing for the sake of her fans only, at occasional live shows.

“When I’m acting, I never get a chance to meet the people who always support me, so when I sing in front of them it’s a good opportunity,” she says. “I’m not so good at singing, so (I see it as) entertainment just for my fans. I sing to communicate with them.”

Shedding light on the stresses that build up when a new aidoru is starting to gain popularity and has many things to do at once, she explains, “It was almost like playing (at first), like recess at school. It didn’t feel like a job. But then I started to get tense and be put under pressure, so I needed to try really hard.”

Ueto fell back on her friends and sympathetic staff at her management company, Oscar Promotion, to help deal with the pressure. “My management invited my friends to my ‘official’ birthday party (aidoru often have a fake birthday generated by their management and made public), to a studio I was working in but didn’t like, or to a music show where I would be nervous. I couldn’t have continued without those friends and the people at my management who recognized my effort.”

Behind the bubbly personality, it becomes increasingly clear that Ueto is actually a self-conscious girl full of self-awareness and a desire to do the best that people ask of her, even knowingly to her own personal detriment. As her acting career has progressed, she’s been able to more easily create a public persona that belies her real self.

“When I’m singing, I sing as Aya Ueto, and it makes me feel so shy in front of the cameras or audience,” she says. “My heart beats so fast that I don’t want to sing in front of people. When I’m acting, though, I am in front of people (disguised by) a character, name and the show’s title.”

But perhaps her most famous character to date is the aforementioned Azumi. The movie’s bloody story, originally a manga by Yu Koyama, tells of a young female assassin in feudal Japan who must kill supporters of the Toyotami faction that threatens the Tokugawa clan. Azumi questions the morality of killing innocent civilians and children as a way to prevent a more bloody future war. Ueto hasn’t taken on a major film role since, although she has a supporting role as Rimi, a vocalist in a school band, in Shun Nakahara’s film adaptation of Akimi Yoshida’s manga “Sakura no Sono” (“The Cherry Orchard — Blossoming”), which is in theaters now.

” ‘Azumi’ was my first film, and it was of such a high quality that it gave me a feeling of achievement,” she says. “I’ve been offered so many films (since then), but the stories were not as good as ‘Azumi,’ and I have such a reputation for that performance that I haven’t yet been able to step forward to the next film.”

Ueto talks proudly of “Azumi,” as if she feels some kinship with the assassin’s struggle over the rights and wrongs of following the orders of others, and of the values of love and compassion that Azumi suppresses in order to complete her deadly assignments.

“When I get a role, I try to interpret the character as much as possible to play that role,” she explains. “Maybe because I don’t have confidence in myself, I can’t satisfy myself if I don’t bring out everything or more of myself, (so I put in) 100 percent or more.”

The future for Ueto is unknown. She would be happy for more international success, saying, “I wish to convey the wonderfulness and tradition of Japan to other countries.” But for now, she’s just concentrating on each project as it comes her way.

“I really didn’t like being called an actress at first, and I got a complex about it because (it carries) an image of deceiving people,” she admits. “But now I want to find my way into a character and express the character realistically. Someday I’d like to be an actress who can perform like that.”

“Celeb to Binbo Taro” is on every Tuesday evening at 9 p.m. on Fuji TV. “Sakura no Sono” is now showing.