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Looking for love, and an English teacher

Actress Kazue Fukiishi opens her heart about her new TV drama set in the U.N. Refugee Agency

by Edan Corkill

Actress Kazue Fukiishi looked perplexed when I asked if she could see herself ever marrying a foreigner.

“It would take a lot of love, a lot of love, a huge amount of love,” she said, finding further conviction with every repetition of the “L” word. “I haven’t had the chance to meet that many foreigners.”

Perhaps not. But the 26-year-old has had plenty of chances to think about the subject of international marriage recently. In the five-part NHK drama, “Kaze ni Maiagaru Biniru Shito” (“Plastic Sheets Blowing in the Wind”) which kicks off Saturday evening at 9 p.m., she stars as the headstrong Rika Kudo who marries her American boss at the Tokyo office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees after a short but fiery romance.

The only problem is that the boss in question, Ed (Chris Peppler), is a man with a mission. Ed can’t let a problem go unaddressed — whether it is half a million refugees in Sudan, or a “plastic sheet blowing in the wind” (hence the clumsy title), he is the one who has to get out there and try to hold things together. And not even the best entreaties of his newly acquired and merely endearingly assertive young Japanese wife are going to stop him.

“With someone like Ed you need to be either very strong, very confident in yourself, or you need to be prepared to be messed around with,” explained Fukiishi.

As is revealed early in the drama, Rika isn’t any of those things — or not to the degrees required. As Fukiishi put it, Rika “divorces Ed because she loves him” — she wants to set him free to pursue his passion.

But not all Western men would be quite as work-oriented as Ed, I assured Fukiishi — or if they were, they probably wouldn’t marry someone like Rika in the first place. Nevertheless, the actress retorted, she thought that having to bridge cultural differences in a marriage would not be easy — regardless of who the foreigner was.

“I take English conversation classes, and when I say to my American or English or Canadian teacher that I’m making this or that drama, they say ‘Who is in it?’ And when I tell them they are like, ‘Hmmm.’ They have no idea who I am talking about,” Fukiishi explained.

Sitting up in her seat at NHK’s Shibuya broadcasting center, she announced, “If that sort of gap becomes apparent in just a 40-minute conversation lesson, imagine what would happen during a whole life together!”

Hence, in Fukiishi’s words, the need for a whole lot of love: “Huge.” OK, so what about just working with foreigners? Much of “Biniru Shito” is filmed in the Tokyo office of the UNHCR, which in addition to the American Ed has several other foreign faces. Did Fukiishi’s experience on set give her any insights into what the increasing numbers of Japanese who now work under foreign bosses (all those at Sony, for example) are going through?

“I think it must be difficult to work in such an international office, of course, as there is so much you don’t have in common,” she started, “But, on the other hand, there would be lots of fresh discoveries (and) surprises, which would be good, I think.”

What did she make of Ed’s habit of occasionally letting out very un-Japanese guttural roars of frustration while sitting at his desk?

“Well, if I couldn’t handle that, I’d quit,” she said.

Rika, meanwhile, takes it upon herself to be a calming ale to Ed’s tantrums, and it is from there that the first sparks of a relationship emerge.

Potentially implicating an office close to home, I ventured, “Did you know there really are Westerners who yell at their desk like that?”

“No, really?” Fukiishi said in disbelief.

“Yes,” I assured her. “That was real.”

“Wow. You mean, The Japan Times . . .”

A second opportunity to confirm the veracity of the program’s depictions came at a recent preview screening. In attendance was none other than the real head of the UNHCR’s Tokyo office, Daniel Alkhal, on whom both the author of the original novel and Chris Peppler had based the character of Ed.

“Do you yell in the office?” I asked.

“Not like that,” he laughed. “Although, I feel like it sometimes. As a protection officer, you are always working with refugees and you’re always trying to get them out of prison, or out of the very difficult situations that they are in,” he said. “If I did yell, I don’t think the staff would be so supportive,” he continued, revealing that Rika’s placations had perhaps reflected positively in his eyes.

How about office romances?

“I tell you what, this never happened. This would be against the rules. It would not be very appreciated within the office,” he said with a laugh.

The veteran “senior protection officer,” who has worked in “Turkey and Bosnia, and Lebanon for four and a half years,” said he thought there could have been more discussion in the program about why Ed was single in the first place. “This work does weigh on your personal life a little. It does affect you,” he said, before admitting that he himself was still single.

Perhaps I could have set him up with Fukiishi. The actress eventually admitted that, “my management office recommends I date a foreigner — to improve my English language skills.”

It turns out that perhaps the closest experience she’s had to getting out and holding down the plastic sheets herself was to travel to Britain six years ago and New York four years ago — each for about two weeks, to study English.

“People don’t recognize me in the U.K. or New York. It’s really refreshing, and interesting. I can walk around in a state of nakedness — psychological nakedness,” she explained. Fukiishi has a habit of expressing things in the most peculiarly evocative of ways. I hate to imagine the dumbly curious smile that crossed my face in response to that comment, but whatever it was, it worked in eliciting an elucidation.

“Like in Japan, I have to be careful not to do anything embarrassing, because people will recognize me. That doesn’t mean when I go overseas all of a sudden I have a desire to do embarrassing things, but I can become just an ordinary Japanese girl. That is really refreshing,” she said.

Toward the end of the drama, Rika must decide whether to remain in Tokyo or follow in Ed’s footsteps out into “the field” and work directly with refugees. Fukiishi says she probably wouldn’t be able to make such a bold step herself. “I kind of like the comfortable life,” she said, but she added that in some ways her taking on the role of Rika itself required courage.

“I hesitated a lot,” the actress said. “You know, it’s a Saturday night slot, which I thought was really good, but would I be able to pull off the lead role?”

Fukiishi has lived much of her life in the spotlight. Her father, Tokuichi, was a famous baseball player, and she has acted in dozens of TV programs, dramas and commercials (including one for Uniqlo that has turned into a YouTube hit — the tall and slender actress appears topless, from behind, before squeezing into a tank-top). “Biniru Shito” is her first turn at starring in a major weekend drama.

“I decided that the fact that the offer came meant that someone was telling me I should give it a try,” she said.

The task was made slightly more arduous by the fact that her costar, Peppler, was new to acting. A bilingual radio host who is half Japanese and half American, Peppler was insistent during a recent press conference that Fukiishi’s calm and professional approach had made it possible for him to pull the part off.

In the end, I think they were both helped out by some fast-paced editing, but nevertheless, whether it was bridging cultural divides in marriage, trying to reconcile professional ideals and home-life realities, or just letting out a guttural roar, they were each clearly giving it their all.

The first episode of “Kaze ni Maiagaru Biniru Shito” will be shown from May 30 on NHK-G from 9:30 p.m.