Ryohei Suzuki beefs up for a kingly role in Mishima-penned play ‘The Terrace of the Leper King’

by

Special To The Japan Times

Ryohei Suzuki’s body has been put to the test over the past 12 months.

Last spring, the Nishinomiya, Hyogo Prefecture-born entertainer shed 20 kilograms to prepare for the role of a tuberculosis patient in the TBS drama “Tenno no Ryoriban”(“The Emperor’s Cook”). Shortly afterward, he gained 30 kg to play overweight high school student Takeo Goda in the live-action film adaption of manga “Ore Monogatari!!” (“My Love Story!!”). The 32-year-old now lives at the gym in preparation for his role as the muscular King Jayavarman VII in the Amon Miyamoto stage production of “Raio no Terasu” (“The Terrace of the Leper King”), the final play by iconic author Yukio Mishima.

“It has been pretty tough,” Suzuki tells The Japan Times. “Losing so much weight for ‘Tenno no Ryoriban’ was the hardest as it went on for about six months. I would wake up at 2 a.m. every day, constantly hungry. Eating the same kind of food and no more than 800 calories daily was mentally draining, whereas gaining weight for ‘Ore Monogatari’ took its toll physically, particularly on my stomach. I put on around the same amount as Christian Bale did between ‘The Machinist’ and ‘Batman.’ Except he had a few months to prepare, I had just 40 days (laughs).”

Bale famously shed 27 kg for “The Machinist” before packing on 45 kg to shoot “Batman Begins.” Hollywood, and in particular the Oscars, have previously been impressed by the physical transformations of Matthew McConaughey (“Dallas Buyers Club”) and Charlize Theron (“Monster”). Suzuki seems just as committed.

To get ready for his role as Jayavarman, a 12th-century Cambodian ruler who strove for a perfect mind and body, Suzuki has been going to the gym five days a week and regularly downs protein shakes. It appears to be having the desired effect, the posters for “Raio no Terasu” show him looking like a bodybuilder; however, he’s still not satisfied.

“Yukio Mishima describes Jayavarman as having this incredibly strong, almost flawless body so I still have a long way to go,” he says. “I actually hate going to the gym. I do it because I love not just playing a part, but actually becoming that person. I want to look and feel like the king. He’s a complex character facing up to an inner struggle between body and soul.”

This is Suzuki’s first play in three years, and he comes across as almost giddy at the prospect of starring in a production written by Mishima, one of Japan’s most iconic modern figures. The fact the play is also being directed by Amon Miyamoto is simply icing on the cake. The 58-year-old was the first Asian to direct a Broadway musical (“Pacific Overtures,” which earned four Tony Award nominations) and is a highly revered figure in the world of theater.

“Amon has worked abroad a lot and you can see that in the way he operates,” Suzuki says. “In Japan, the director-actor relationship is very much like a teacher-pupil one. With him it’s different. He really understands actors and is more like one of us. Mishima’s words can be quite difficult, but even if you don’t fully understand them you can still really appreciate this play and that’s down to the genius of the director.

“It’s visually stunning, it feels like you are actually in Cambodia.”

As part of his research Suzuki visited the spectacular Bayon Temple in Angkor, Cambodia, which is the main setting of the play, to try to get a better understanding of what the king experienced. Even though it was the actor’s first time there, he already knew quite a lot about the place.

“I studied it for my UNESCO World Heritage exam,” he says with a grin. “I have a level-one qualification. But there is also a master class, so I’m hoping to eventually get that. It’s something I decided to do after watching loads of travel programs.”

Suzuki is actually something of a one-man talent show. During the conversation it’s revealed that he can do magic tricks, he can sew and he’s especially good at languages. The interview is conducted in fluent English (he has a level-one certificate in Eiken) and he won a German speech contest while at school.

His strongest talent, however, is acting. From the snarling gang leader in colorful hip-hop flick “Tokyo Tribe” to the soft-spoken husband in NHK morning drama “Hanako to Anne,” Suzuki is a versatile performer who relishes the opportunity to tackle different kinds of roles as he gets “bored easily.” One of the parts he is most well-known for is also one of the strangest jobs he’s ever had — a role in Yuichi Fukuda’s 2013 comedy “HK Hentai Kamen” (“HK/Forbidden Superhero”) where he played a high school student who turned into a fighting machine by wearing women’s underwear as a mask.

“Only in Japan,” he says with a laugh. “I had panties on my face and just a thong to cover up my private parts so people often ask if I felt self-conscious, but the answer’s no because it’s part of my job. I don’t feel embarrassed exposing myself emotionally as an actor and it’s the same about exposing my body. I’m prepared to wear, say and do whatever the director wants me to.”

In the run-up to the Academy Awards, which were held Sunday, there has been a lot of media focus on a lack of people of color in the film industry. While a lot of attention was given to the absence of African-American nominees, the controversy also highlighted a shortage of roles for people of Asian decent. Best supporting actor nods have gone to Japan’s Sessue Hayakawa (“The Bridge on the River Kwai,” 1957), Mako Iwamatsu (“The Sand Pebbles,” 1966) and Ken Watanabe (“The Last Samurai,” 2003), but Asian faces are still rare on the big screen. With Suzuki’s attitude, look and English ability (he previously lived in Oklahoma for a year), you can’t help but think that if Hollywood is looking to diversify, he could be the perfect candidate.

“Definitely, I’d love to go overseas and work with great actors and directors from all over the world if I got the chance,” he says. “It doesn’t have to be Hollywood. My aspiration is to increase the presence of Asian actors globally. That said, I’m not actively looking for a chance right now because I think there are still many more things here for me to do. I want to gain more experience as an actor in my native language by continuing to take on challenging roles while also improving skills such as voice training, sword fighting and improvisation.”

Leonardo DiCaprio had better watch out.

“Raio no Terasu” (“The Terrace of the Leper King”) runs from March 4 to 17 at Akasaka ACT Theater in Minato-ku, Tokyo. Times and ticket prices vary. For more information, visit hpot.jp/stage/raiou.

  • Mari Iwa

    Wondering why Japanese female actors who have been nominated (or even won the award are not mentioned…?