Actress Nikaido sets her own agenda

by Mark Schilling

Special To The Japan Times

Many young Japanese film actors start as models or pop stars and then, as they accumulate magazine covers or CD sales, move into TV and films. Many also play versions of themselves again and again on screen, which may suit their fans just fine, but makes for repetitive viewing.

Born in Okinawa in 1994, Fumi Nikaido followed this well-worn path, becoming a model for the teen fashion magazine Nicola before making her acting debut in 2007. Nikaido, however, disappears into her roles, creating characters that are radically different from each other, from the swaggering gangster’s daughter in “Jigoku de Naze Warui? (Why Don’t You Play in Hell?)” and the bubbly Gothic Lolita girl in “Shijukunichi no Recipe (Mourning Recipe)” to a cool-eyed student in the coming-of-age drama “Hotori no Sakuko (Au Revoir l’Eté),” which is showing now.

Her breakthrough, however, was her role as the much-abused girlfriend of Shota Sometani’s violent teen hero in Sion Sono’s 3/11-themed drama “Himizu.” Screened at the 2011 Venice Film Festival, the film divided critics, but won Sometani and Nikaido a joint Marcello Mastroianni Award for best young actors. Since then she has appeared in a succession of indie films, as well as a scattering of TV dramas, while steadily distancing herself from the button-cute kid of her early fashion stills.

Meeting Nikaido at October’s Tokyo International Film Festival, I was impressed not only by the easy, confident way she conversed with the foreign media and film people in English, but her initiative and drive. She told me of her plans to study English abroad and enter Keio University. “I’m not going to do a regular major,” she explained. “They’re going to let me plan my own course of study.” This independently minded 19-year-old made her more passive industry peers, appearing at orchestrated festival events behind phalanxes of handlers, look like so many nursery school children being trundled about in carts.

Meeting Nikaido again this month at the Foreign Correspondents’ Club of Japan prior to a special screening of “Au Revoir l’Eté,” I was struck by the contrast between her laid-back character in the film, who director Koji Fukada had described to me as a “blank sheet of paper,” and the 157-cm human dynamo before me. Surrounded by a mostly foreign crowd, she was firmly shaking hands, beaming electric smiles and chatting away in a mix of Japanese and English, now even better after a two-month stay in New York. If the acting thing didn’t work out, she’d have a bright future in politics.

Once the interview proper began, in a small room off the FCCJ lobby, I remarked on her range of roles — and she described how she happened to play three simultaneously: tough chick Mitsuko in Sion Sono’s “Why Don’t You Play in Hell,” the daughter of a powerful Heian Period (794-1185) clan leader in the NHK maxi-drama “Taira no Kiyomori” and the easygoing but observant Sakuko in “Au Revoir l’Eté.”

“In the morning (as Sakuko) I’d mess around in the river and chill out, but in the afternoon I’d be swinging a sword (as Mitsuko) and the next day I’d be wearing a 12-layer kimono and playing a Japanese from the old days. As I was doing these completely opposite roles, the character (of Sakuko) just emerged, like a kind of a miracle.”

She admits that she “discovers things about myself doing films.” “That’s why I want to try various types of roles,” she adds. “More than that, though, I want to appear in good films — that’s the first priority.”

But making those good films, she believes, requires more than an individual commitment. “On a film set we’re always pushing each other to make it better,” she says. “That’s why I like films: You’re making this one thing together with people who are mutually supportive.”

Asked for her favorite of the directors she’s worked with to date, she mentions Kazuyoshi Kumakiri, who filmed her in “Watashi no Otoko (My Man),” a drama set for a June release about the relationship Nikaido’s character has with an older male relative (Tadanobu Asano) who raised her after she lost her family in a tsunami.

“Mr. Kumakiri and I could understand each other’s feelings without words,” she explains. “We shot that film in January of last year, and we got to understand each other and build a relationship of trust.”

She describes what she calls her first “fateful meeting” with the director three years ago at an audition, when she was 16 and “having a lot of doubts about this job.”

“Our eyes really locked, though we didn’t say anything to each other — I was shy with strangers then,” she says. “There were 10 people at the audition and after everyone had performed, he asked me to do it again. ‘Miss Nikaido, one more time, please.’ At that moment I decided I had to work with him, even though I failed the audition. I went home regretting that I hadn’t made it. So I was really glad that I was finally able to make this movie with him last year.”

She had a similar chance encounter two years ago with Koji Fukada at the Tama Cinema Forum Film Festival, which was screening his 2011 comedy “Kantai (Hospitalité).”

“A magazine asked me for my 10 favorite films of the year,” she reminisces. “I said that ‘Hospitalité’ was No. 1 and that I’d like to work with Mr. Fukada.” Meeting him and producer/actress Kiki Sugino at the festival, where he was being given a best new director award, Nikaido says, “I told him right away I’d like to work with him. I was really lucky.”

But Nikaido is well aware that in the movie business she must make her own luck. Her latest project has been to persuade Iranian director Amir Naderi, who shot the 2011 ode-to-cinema drama “Cut” in Tokyo, to cast her in his next film. “Last November and December I was studying in New York, when Mr. Naderi was also there,” she says with a mischievous grin. “I wanted to work with him so I was kind of pursuing him, almost like a stalker. I do research on the people I want to work with.”

Though Naderi is scheduled to begin shooting his next film in May, raising money has been a problem, Nikaido admits. “He told me that I should get famous in Japan so he’d have an easier time getting the money together. I have to try hard to get famous this year for Mr. Naderi.”

But the sort of fame “Pacific Rim” star Rinko Kikuchi found in Hollywood is not what Nikaido has in mind. She lists her objectives for this year: Work with Naderi, enter college this spring and improve her English. “In the process of accomplishing those goals, I’ll discover something new,” she says. “That’s always the way it is.”

“Hotori no Sakuko (Au Revoir l’Eté)” is currently showing nationwide.