This year’s NHK Sunday evening drama has already entered the history books for one, perhaps inauspicious, reason. On March 12, a day after the Great East Japan Earthquake, NHK announced that the following day’s broadcast of “Go,” as the show is titled, would be canceled to make way for news coverage. It was the first time an episode of the public broadcaster’s annual yearlong drama series had been axed since 1989, when Emperor Showa died.
Whether “Go,” the tale of a princess who lived through the turbulent Sengoku (Warring States) Period (15th-16th centuries), can achieve distinction for more positive reasons now appears to hinge on the appeal of a young actor named Osamu Mukai. This month, Mukai moves to center stage in the drama, playing the role of Tokugawa Hidetada, the man who will become the third husband of Go (Juri Ueno) and then, later, the second Tokugawa shogun of Japan.
Mukai is quite a trump card for NHK to be able to play at this stage. Last year, the 29-year-old was one of GQ Japan’s “men of the year” (alongside the likes of soccer player Keisuke Honda). He has also recently been voted by Japanese men as possessing one of the best male faces — and by women as being an ideal groom. Last month, he was on just about every magazine cover and television program there is and, by the end of 2011, he will have appeared in four major films in the last two years.
It would seem that if anyone can help “Go” push its ratings up from the 17s and 18s it has experienced since post-quake broadcasts were resumed on March 20, to the 20s that it had enjoyed pre-quake, then it is surely him.
Mukai has had an unusual career path for the heartthrob he now is. He didn’t act as a child, and he never set his mind on being a pop star. He actually didn’t seek out the spotlight at all.
After graduating with a degree in life sciences from the respected Meiji University in Tokyo, he ended up taking over management of the Shibuya bar where he worked part-time as a student.
But, at 182 cm in height and with the kind of compact facial features that in present-day Japan define desirability, he soon started attracting attention.
In 2005 he was included in a style magazine as an “ikemen (good-looking) bartender,” and there he caught the eye of a scout at talent bigwigs Hori Agency.
“I hadn’t really thought I’d be an actor,” Mukai tells The Japan Times during a recent interview at NHK’s Broadcasting Center in Shibuya. “I’d never been on the stage, it just turned out that the industry that presented itself to me was the entertainment industry.”
Still, once given the chance to work before a camera — his first job was in a commercial for fruit juice brand Minute Maid — he says that his distaste of failure prompted him to give the work his all.
“At first I got in so much trouble with the directors and producers. ‘You should quit,’ they would say. ‘You can’t act, so you should go home,’ ” he recalls.
In addition to his distaste for failure, Mukai also seems to have benefitted from a talent for creative thinking.
In order to improve his acting ability, he explains, he used to read poetry. “I’d read the same poem over and over and try to do it in the style of different types of people — a high school girl or a businessman,” he says, noting that his favorite poets in such training sessions were 20th-century icons Shuntaro Tanikawa and Kenji Miyazawa.
Still, improvement was a while coming. It was one of his first major roles — as a character in the TV drama “Nodame Cantabille” (2006; about students at a conservatory) — that he remembers as being the most trying.
“With ‘Nodame’ I’d dread going to the set each day. I hated it so much, because I couldn’t do it,” he says.
Nonetheless, Mukai’s career was established on this and other TV work — he attained a pinnacle of sorts with last year’s highly acclaimed and extremely popular “GeGeGe no Nyobo” (“GeGeGe’s Wife”), about the manga artist Shigeru Mizuki — but he only really became comfortable with his acting when he switched to film.
“With film, you spend quite a long time checking what you’ve just taken on video. There are also more opportunities to do one scene in a single cut, so you get more of a chance to immerse yourself in the role,” he says. “There’s a real sense of having achieved something when the director says ‘OK’ after long scenes like that.”
Perhaps because of his height and fetching features, Mukai’s film work to date has tended to stick to a certain pattern. He generally plays young men who, after graduating from school or university, opt to follow the road less traveled by pursing their dreams. Usually there’s a young girl — the lead character — whose love for Mukai’s character remains true even as he (almost) sacrifices them for his greater goal.
In “Hanamizuki” (2010), Mukai’s character, Junichi Kitami, becomes a war photographer; in “Beck” (2010) he is a bass player in a rock band; and in “Paradise Kiss” (2011) his Joji Koizumi becomes a fashion designer.
“Those films are all based on comic books,” Mukai explains when reminded of the similarity between the characters. “There is an element of romantic fairy tale in those books, so I’m conscious of that when I do the work.”
Looking at the three films gives the impression that the Japanese modern-day Prince Charming is not riding a white horse, but engrossed in pursuing his own creative expression, though Mukai has a different explanation.
“I think the comic-book artists choose those professions because it is easy to imagine what they do. You say he’s a fashion designer and the reader understands what that involves,” Mukai says.
Oddly enough all three of those films also include scenes set in New York — where the “artist” spends some time working.
“I went to New York for shooting for ‘Hanamizuki’ and ‘Paradise Kiss,’ ” Mukai explains. “I really got a sense of it being a place where you go to test yourself. There are so many people there from different countries all competing in those fields.”
Ultimately, Mukai too would like to test himself overseas. “I’ve had offers, but we haven’t been able to realize them yet,” he says.
The other challenge he looks forward to is playing a variety of roles in films. He cites 1970s and ’80s hard-boiled-crime film star Yusaku Matsuda as an inspiration, and he would like to try playing villains — like Matsuda did in films such as “Yaju Shisubeshi” (“The Beast Must Die”), which Mukai names as a favorite.
Mukai’s work in the NHK drama “Go” also represents a brand new type of role for the actor.
Tokugawa Hidetada is the third son of Tokugawa Ieyasu, the man who ultimately outlasts Oda Nobunaga and Toyotomi Hideyoshi to unite Japan under the shogunate, in 1603.
As of last week’s broadcast, Hideyoshi (Goro Kishitani) still reigns supreme, although the seeds of his undoing are being sown as he sends out what will ultimately be a failed invasion force to the Korean Peninsula.
Among that invasion force is Go’s second husband, Toyotomi Hidekatsu (Akira, from pop group Exile) — the only man she married by choice. He ends up dying on Korean soil. Hideyoshi, meanwhile, who has taken Go’s sister Chacha (Rie Miyazawa) for one of his own mistresses, sees this as a chance to marry Go off to Ieyasu’s son, Hidetada, and thereby bring his rival under his sphere of influence. While the plan is realized, its ultimate goal, of course, is not.
“There isn’t as much information available about Hidetada as there is about his father or his son, Iemitsu, the third shogun. I wanted to take that as a point of reference and play him like someone who is hard to grasp,” Mukai explains.
“He might act one way to his father then another way to others, another way to women.”
One way that Hidetada does not change, however, is in his relationship with his wife. Hidetada remained married to Go until the end of his life. Significantly, their son, Iemitsu, was the only shogun in 16 generations to be born to his father’s first, or “main,” wife.
Mukai sees the consistency of their relationship as reflecting the gradual attainment of peace under Tokugawa rule.
“There is an element in this program of those two creating what was at the time a very new age. I think they had this power between them, this sensibility, a shared goal. They both experienced war when they were young, but they had this common goal of achieving peace and I think that’s what made them succeed.”
Whether the tale is enough to make “Go” succeed in the context of the continuing Fukushima nuclear power plant crisis is of course another question. But with an actor as dedicated and — perhaps most importantly — popular as Mukai on board, that may just happen.
“Go: Himetachi no Sengoku” airs Sunday from 8 p.m. On NHK-G.