Despite being holed up in a Tokyo hotel room for a press junket, 28-year-old actress Asami Mizukawa is surprisingly upbeat. However, she gives an unusual response when asked about the new TV mini-series she is starring in.
“If you’re looking for (light) entertainment, I’m sorry, I wouldn’t recommend it,” she says with a slight chuckle. “It’s not fun to watch, that’s for sure.”
Mizukawa isn’t joking; her new project is quite emotionally challenging. The six-part mini-series is a live-action version of the manga “Crime and Punishment — A Falsified Romance,” which was written by Naoyuki Ochiai and inspired by Russian writer Fyodor Dostoyevsky’s 1866 novel “Crime and Punishment.” Ochiai’s manga is just as provocative and intense as the original story, which is considered one of the most important works of modern Russian literature.
“It’s not an easy story to watch,” Mizukawa continues, “but I hope it will leave an impression in the minds of viewers.”
Dostoyevsky fans shouldn’t expect the series to be a complete reproduction of the Russian classic, but it still delves into the same philosophical issues surrounding murder and redemption as it copies much of the plot and some of the lines. However, both the manga and mini-series feature contemporary Japanese characters.
The novel’s male protagonist is the cash-strapped, college dropout Rodion Romanovich Raskolnikov, who acts on his extreme ideas about killing for a higher purpose. In the manga he has been replaced with Miroku Tachi (played by Kengo Kora in the mini-series), a college student-turned-hikikomori (social recluse).
Echika Ameya, the character played by Mizukawa, is similar to Dostoyevsky’s heroine, Sonia, who is forced to become a prostitute to support her family. In the same way that Sonia offers moral support to Raskolnikov as he wrestles with moral dilemmas after fatally beating a pawnbroker, the equally tormented Echika helps Miroku come to terms with his murder of two high school girls.
However, Echika has dimensions not found in Sonia; Mizukawa feels she has an “addiction to unhappiness,” which has propelled her to marry a high school teacher who had raped her in the presence of his male students. Echika is also emotionally turbulent, and often turns violent toward Miroku.
“She is extremely strong-willed and mentally tough,” Mizukawa said about Echika at a press conference last week. “Her strength is beyond my imagination. But at the same time, she has this tendency that, without her knowing, makes her choose a path that makes her even more unhappy.”
Mizukawa, who has a 15-year acting career behind her since her first TV appearance in a housing-company commercial in 1996, says she found this character particularly hard to comprehend, let alone to sympathize with.
“My first reaction, when I got the script, was that I had no idea what (Echika) was thinking and what reasons her actions were based on,” she says. “I thought I received a very difficult role to play.”
Mizukawa has a reputation for being calm and frank, and she’s even been dubbed a “cool beauty” by Japanese media. But even so, such an intense role was difficult to prepare for. Unlike actors who read books or interview their character’s real-life counterparts to get a better sense of the roles they’re to play, Mizukawa says her preparation style is to get as much inspiration as possible from the script when she reads it for the first time. She then tries to act spontaneously on the set — of course while keeping the chemistry with her peers in mind.
On the day before shooting one particular scene of “Crime and Punishment,” however, she was at a loss as to how she should interpret Echika’s emotions. It was a scene that had Echika detained by a shady salaryman in his basement. Miroku comes to free her and, during the resulting exchange, Echika suddenly punches her rescuer in the face and tells him to drop dead.
Mizukawa admits she nearly succumbed to the temptation to look up the original scene in Ochiai’s manga at this point.
“I couldn’t understand at all why Echika behaved the way she did,” she says. “I actually opened the manga and gave it a quick glance, but then shut the book right away. I could have got a lot of ideas about how to do the scene had I read the manga, but I felt it was important not to read it (and instead act on my own impulses).”
Mizukawa says she eventually made the decision not to “understand” Echika.
“While there were many things I didn’t understand about her, it wasn’t necessarily a negative thing,” Mizukawa says. “Often times, we all act in ways that make little sense to others, like how we get pissed off by the little things people do, or how you can suddenly feel attracted to someone you once hated. I tried to look at it like Echika’s actions were a bit of an exaggerated version of our own (irrationality).”
Still, Mizukawa says the six-week shooting (which began in January) was mentally distressing for many of those involved, not just the actors. She recalls that at one point in the shoot, the crew started crying while watching her and Kora perform. The drama contains scenes recalling a group sexual assault and of teenage girls prostituting themselves.
“I’ve been working as an actress (for a long time), but this was the first time I played a woman who I couldn’t empathize with,” Mizukawa said at the press conference. “To act this role, I had to work really hard to bring out raw emotions from deep within and let those emotions speak the lines. I think viewers might be overwhelmed by the character and find her unattractive. But I think it’s fine, if she doesn’t come across as an attractive woman.”
Despite the heaviness of the content matter in “Crime and Punishment — A Falsified Romance,” Mizukawa says she would never have turned down the job.
“Oh no, I’m not that big,” she laughs. “I’m not at a stage of my career where I can choose my jobs yet.”
She might be close, though. Mizukawa shot to fame last year in NHK’s yearlong historical drama series “Go,” in which she played Jokoin, a character based on the real-life widow of a 16th-century samurai and the older sister of the title character.
Mizukawa adds that the feedback she gets is worth the exhaustion she goes through.
“As Kora said at the press conference, you can be an indispensable actor in a drama,” she says, referring to Kora’s remarks that the mini-series would not have been possible without Mizukawa’s contribution. “In reality, someone else could have got the role of Echika, but I happened to get it. And when it was all over, people said the drama would not have been possible without me. That’s when I feel most rewarded about my job.”
And what does she think her character — and the story itself — will mean to viewers?
“I know that Miroku’s character is (also) hard to empathize with, and he will not be liked by every viewer,” she says, “but in this society, there are probably men like him, as we see (in the news reports of) many baffling crimes that take place all over the country. I think what’s important to see is not Miroku’s actions per se, but the psychology behind all the characters, including him, Echika and the other high school girls (in the mini-series’ prostitution ring). I think it’s the ways their feelings are manifested that mirror today’s society.”
“Crime and Punishment — A Falsified Romance,” will air every week for six weeks beginning April 29 at 10 p.m., on Wowow Prime Channel. Viewers need a subscription to watch the channel, but the first episode will be aired free for nonsubscribers. For more information, visit www.wowow.co.jp/dramaw/tsumitobatsu/ (in Japanese only).