Up until last year, 24-year-old Hikari Mitsushima was best known as a former member of the Okinawan idol group Folder 5.

Then she returned in fine style, wowing critics and cinemagoers alike with her role in Sion Sono’s critically acclaimed, four-hour exploration of religion and romance, “Ai no Mukidashi” (“Love Exposure”). Now she’s a searing hot property as one of Japan’s most in-demand young actresses.

“My working environment has changed a lot,” Mitsushima said during a recent interview with The Japan Times at the Eurospace Theater in central Tokyo’s Shibuya Ward. “Now I get more offers to star in films.”

Mitsushima, looking very pretty with a new hairdo (done the day before, she said), continued, saying, “This may sound typical, but in terms of ‘breaking out of my shell,’ I think I’ve changed after playing that role in ‘Ai no Mukidashi.’ “

On screen in that film, Mitsushima does battle in a miniskirt against a group of guys, flashes her panties, makes love with a girl and manically recites biblical phrases in a performance that won her many film awards, including Best Female Performance at the Fantasia International Festival 2009 in Montreal, Canada, and Best New Artist at the 34th Hochi Film Awards in Tokyo.

“I gave my all in that performance, feeling that it’s OK if I die during the shooting,” she added.

But didn’t she have any hesitation about some of the risque scenes?

“Not at all. I was desperate. I thought about those things (showing her panties, doing love scenes with a girl, etc.) before going to the shooting. So, when I was doing those scenes on a street, I just thought, ‘Oh, those passersby are looking at my underpants.’ I didn’t give a damn about it,” she said as she broke out laughing.

The fast-paced film, which is about three young people — Yu, a pervert who becomes a charismatic, candid photographer; Koike, the leader of cult named Zero Church; and Mitsushima’s Yoko, a teenage girl who is brainwashed by Koike — tells of full-throttle love as it explores religion and human nature, powerfully and often humorously depicting raw emotion along the way.

It is a vehicle into which Mitsushima pours her high-octane, youthful energy in a performance that, she explained, was the result of Sono’s harsh guidance.

The director repeatedly browbeat her, demanding that she should “inspire people” if she really was an actor — and let out more of herself to do so.

“I think it was the first battle in my career,” Mitsushima confessed as she reflected on those days of struggle.

She said that during the filming she freed her emotions — as she was covered in sweat and tears — for the first time in her professional career.

“I feel relaxed after playing that role. I let go of all my anger, my sorrow, and all those feelings that had piled up inside me but had nowhere to go. I was purified,” she said.

B orn in 1985, the first child of physical education teachers in Okinawa, Mitsushima grew up surrounded by adults.

“I had more chance to talk with adults then children of my age,” she said. “My parents’ colleagues stopped by our house almost every day to chat and drink while looking after me and my brothers and sister.”

“That environment made me and my siblings the kind of children who find it difficult to get along with other children of the same age,” she said, adding that her family became very close to fill in the space left by not having many friends at school.

In 1997, at age 11, Mitsushima debuted as a member of Folder, a seven-member boy-and-girl J-pop idol group. Then, in 2000, the group later transformed into the more widely known Folder 5, with a lineup of just five girls, releasing eight singles before disbanding in 2003.

“When I was a junior high school student, I was put into a dormitory for girls in show business away from my family. Though I had to step out into society on my own, I was too young to know how to behave,” she said. And to deal with the world as a professional idol when she was in Folder 5, she said she soon learned to “fake it.”

“I studied adults’ faces . . . I was good at making superficial facial expressions,” Mitsushima said, laughing as she recalled the years she worked as an idol. “When I look at my pictures from those years, I don’t know who that girl is. My face looks fake.”

But in the process of “faking it” and behaving the way adults wanted, Mitsushima said she lost touch with her real feelings.

“I questioned myself every day about what I really thought, but I couldn’t figure it out. I think I had little time confronting myself. I was kind of running away from the real me. During that time, I couldn’t even have a decent conversation with my family.”

That began to change after she started acting.

“Being an actor, I started to confront the characters I played. I started to have real conversations with directors and other actors. And through such changes, the habit of studying people’s faces began to wear off,” she explained.

In fact, though, Mitsushima’s made her first screen appearance at age 11, after being selected through auditions for a role in the monster flic “Mosura 2: Kaitei no Daikessen,”(“Rebirth of Mothra II”).

“I was selected just for being a girl who looked ‘Okinawan and energetic,’ ” she said modestly. “When I look at my performance in the film now, it’s so awful to the point that it is funny. But back then, when I first saw that performance, I was moved by myself. Somehow my face on the screen looked like it was trying really hard to express something.”

That, she says, was when she first thought acting could be the career for her.

However, she had to wait until 2005 to embark on a real acting career. It was then, after about eight years of trying, that she finally got a role in the children’s TV drama “Ultraman Max,” in which she played an android named Elly. She went on to appear in other TV dramas, on stage in theater and in movies — including a supporting role in Shusuke Kaneko’s “Death Note” in 2007.

From then until 2009, the roles she got were mostly playing pretty, dolly types that reflected her idol image. In that year, though, she starred in “Ai no Mukidashi,” Kaneko’s “Pride” and Daihachi Yoshida’s “Kuhio Taisa.” In all three films, she displayed an intense energy and power that drew widespread critical acclaim. T his year, Mitsushima — although she says it’s not intentional — seems to have widened her acting scope and revived her image as a “tough, powerful and aggressive girl.”

In Momoko Ando’s recently released “Kakera,” a story of a romance between two girls with opposing personalities, Mitsushima, for the first time, plays an indecisive and quiet girl — and turns in a laudably controlled performance.

“All of my uncool sides were picked up in that film,” she said as she described some of the difficulties she had on the set.

“I knew that the director, Ando, was ignoring me intentionally, but being left alone while other actors were receiving detailed performing instruction step by step wasn’t easy,” she said. “I was in a state similar to that of menstrual periods. I was very frustrated, but had no energy to do anything. . . . I was sleepy all the time, to the point I wanted to go into hibernation,” Mitsushima admitted with her characteristic laugh.

“There is a line where a girl says to Haru (Mitsushima’s character), ‘You smell like an animal.’ I think I really was an animal. I was being fed and existed,” she said.

In our interview, however, Mitsushima slowed down when talking about the time spent filming “Kakera,” saying: “I don’t know why, but it’s really difficult for me to talk about that film. My body and soul were separate during the filming.”

By contrast, in another independent film, “Kawa no Soko kara Konnichiwa” (“Sawako Decides,” slated for May 1 release), Mitsushima seemed to have had a fun time playing a comical part.

“My head was clear all the way through the shooting. I was healthy,” she said. “I found the story very funny. I read the book, freeing my five senses, laughing and crying,” explained the actress about Yuya Ishii’s deadpan comedy about the changing life of its protagonist, Sawako, played by Mitsushima. “I really wanted to be in the film, so I negotiated directly with the director, telling him he would regret it if he didn’t cast me.”

Mitsushima’s character is a spiritless office worker who spends her days at a dull job mainly serving tea to male colleagues and dating a guy she’s not even sure she likes. That changes when her father collapses and Sawako takes over his business, a shabby packing factory in a town somewhere in the sticks.

“I understand about her feeling of doing the best with what she has, and not by changing her career or her boyfriend. There is a line where Sawako says to her boyfriend, ‘I don’t know whether I even like you, but I want to get to like you and I’m trying.’ I think it’s cool that she doesn’t ask him to make her love him, but she asks him to try together,” she explained about the character she played.

With a deadpan face and almost no makeup, Mitsushima brings lots of her own humor to the film. In one memorable scene, she dons a boring white uniform and cap and belts out a factory song she’s made up with the employees.

“That scene made me smile with satisfaction. During the filming, I was happy to show my defects. I opened my mouth so wide that you can see my fillings and also inside my nostrils,” she said, again breaking into laughter.

Mitsushima will appear with SMAP member Takuya Kimura in a Fuji TV drama titled “Tsuki no Koibito” (“Moon Lovers”) that’s set to start in early May.

After that, her film “Akunin” (“Villain”) is set to open in the fall — and it’s a movie the actress said she’s “most afraid to watch” because she was “very confused on the set” and thinks her performance is either “feast or famine.” But she won’t reveal anything else about the film.

However, perhaps as a hint, she said that after releasing her emotions in “Ai no Mukidashi,” she is now always looking for a place to free herself more.

“I always want to do something that both I and the audience can enjoy. I love acting and I’d like to continue this profession, but if there is any other field where I can free myself more and people can enjoy it, I’m willing to move on,” she said.

“Also, I have a dream of doing something with my brothers and sister one day. We are very close, and each of us has a very strong personality. So if the four of us get together, I think we can accomplish something big.”

“Kakera” is now showing at the Eurospace Theater in Shibuya, Tokyo; “Kawa no Soko kara Konnichiwa” opens May 1 and will also be shown at the Eurospace Theater.

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