“If I thought too much about my future plans, I would kind of get stuck,” says Natsumi Abe. “So I just try to concentrate on the next day’s work and do it as well as I can.”
It’s a serious statement on work ethic, but when Abe says it she delivers it with the shining smile that Japan fell in love with during her days as a teen idol in the popular girl group Morning Musume. She’s now 31 and a committed actress, but the Muroran, Hokkaido, native still exudes the sweet demeanor of “Natch,” her nickname from when she debuted in 1997 as one of the five original members of the group.
Abe is currently deep into rehearsals at the Kanagawa Arts Theatre (KAAT) in Yokohama for “Miminashi Hoichi (Hoichi the Earless),” a new play based on a creepy 1904 novella written by Yakumo Koizumi — as the Greek-Irish immigrant Patrick Lafcaido Hearn (1850-1904) was known after taking Japanese citizenship.
“Hoichi the Earless” is a ghost story about a blind biwa (Japanese lute) player named Hoichi, who is almost spirited away to the underworld by an infant ghost who’s a fan of his music. Hoichi’s master, a monk, saves him by writing a sutra all over his body, which fends off the ghost’s power. However, he forgets to write on his ears and although Hoichi continues to play on in the real world, the ghost takes his ears and thus he can no longer hear his own music.
Created by renowned dramatist Amon Miyamoto, who is now KAAT’s artistic director, this new work expands on its author’s original by adding the role of Hearn, who, like Hoichi, was permanently separated from his mother.
The character is just one new element that renders Hearn’s foray into the shadows of Japanese folklore more realistically, and Abe plays both little Hearn and the ghost of the real-life Emperor Antoku who was made to drown himself in 1185 at age 8 after his Taira clan was beaten in battle by its Minamoto rivals.
Pretty dark for a former teen idol. When The Japan Times spoke with Abe, she was on a short break from a solo concert tour, a stark difference from the world of ghostly characters she inhabits in “Hoichi the Earless.”
“It may sound like a model student’s answer, but still today my fans look forward to seeing me and they spent their money to meet me … so it’s an incredible feeling,” she says of the desire to continue performing as a singer.
Abe picked up her go-get-‘em attitude during her Morning Musume days. The all-girl song-and-dance troupe was hugely influential in blazing a trail for the current popularity of AKB48 and other such multimember idol acts. AKB48 and its sister acts also have Morning Musume to thank for the schoollike system that continuously refreshes its fans’ ardor as older members “graduate” from the group to make way for fresh new faces. For Abe, graduation came in 2004, and since then she’s combined a solo pop career with acting — particularly in live theater.
“In Morning Musume there weren’t such strict rules imposed on us as today’s AKB members seem to have to uphold,” Abe says. “We just disciplined ourselves. Of course we were very conscious of being a girl group, but each of us thought it was really important to show our personality and character. Otherwise, an individual can’t shine in a group with lots of members. So, I have always thought about who I am and still try to show the fans my character.”
Abe says that when she got the offer from Miyamoto to be in the play, she was a bit flustered.
“He had such high expectations of me,” she says. “And as I have to operate bunraku-style puppets for the first time ever in this play, I was extra nervous. Once I decided to take his offer, though, I wasn’t worried any more. In fact I just want to show to people that this is a role I really can do.”
Abe’s confidence likely comes from the considerable acting experience she’s already notched up working with Miyamoto. In 2008, she played a lovelorn lady’s maid named Liu in a musical version of Giacomo Puccini’s opera, “Turandot.” The following year, she took a role in Bertolt Brecht’s masterpiece “The Threepenny Opera,” in which she played the innocent heroine, Polly.
Abe says it was her role in “Turandot,” though, that became the turning-point in her career. That was the moment she realized the joy of live theater.
“One of the biggest attractions of theater is that everyone there shares in the experiences actually happening on the stage,” she says. “The audience can see everything, so the actors can’t hide and cheat easily as they’ll be found out. That’s so different from TV and film acting, and it’s what makes it so challenging — but rewarding.”
She adds that she particularly likes how Miyamoto carefully considers his actors’ and staff’s opinions as he directs, and then sometimes adjusts or reworks the text during rehearsals.
“This is my third time working with him, and every day I ask him many questions about my character and the theme. The ghost of Emperor Antoku is just a little boy, but he has achieved enlightenment about the meaning of life and a bit of that rubbed off on me — though I don’t know what the universal truth is as I’ve never died (laughs).
“All the same, while I’m reciting the lines I question myself about life and today’s society. For instance, nobody can live by his or herself alone, as other people and also the past all factor into how we live in the present. So, though nobody can escape death, I believe audiences will receive positive messages from this piece.”
As for that other skill of bunraku — which both Abe’s tragic young emperor and her young Hearn so enjoy — the actress confesses, “It’s quite complicated because I have to suppress my existence as a puppeteer, but still recite the characters’ lines with feeling.” She pauses. “People often wonder how to put a spirit into puppets, but I want to try and draw their spirit out.”
As deep as such reflections may seem, right after the day’s rehearsal Abe had to switch back into her role as Natch and head off to sing in Nagoya on the final day of her solo tour.
“Since I became Natch at 16, I’ve now been an entertainment idol in Japan for 15 years,” she says. “It’s not just a case of looking back nostalgically and saying it was the best time of my life. It was absolutely everything to me then and I was driven to my limits both physically and mentally — we all were.
“An idol’s world is a very cosmetic one, though, and it’s important to be kawaii (cute) as Natch. But in the theater world as Natsumi, I can create and show an unexpected part of myself in the characters I play. Actually, I want to do both — be an idol singer and a stage actress at the same time. I’d like to discover an unknown Natch for my unknown future.”
“Miminashi Hoichi (Hoichi the Earless)” runs April 13-21 at Kanagawa Arts Theatre in Yokohama. For more information, call (045) 662-8866 or visit www.kaat.jp.