Though widely known in the West, St. Joan of Arc is an obscure historical figure for many people in Japan. Maki Horikita, who portrays the 15th-century French war heroine in the upcoming TBS stage production “Jeanne d’Arc,” rises to the challenge of making Joan’s tragic life story relevant for a Japanese audience. It is also the first-ever stage performance for Horikita, who, at 22, is one of the few young actresses in Japan with a solid reputation for her craft.

“I have received feedback from people who have seen my work in the past, but I’ve never acted right in front of an audience, or felt people’s reaction on the spot,” Horikita tells The Japan Times. “I look forward to (performing on stage) very much.”

Horikita is a native of Kiyose, western Tokyo. She was scouted by Sweet Power, a management agency known for aggressive scouting of young female starlets, when she was in her second year at a local junior high school, where she served as deputy president of the student body. Also the vice-captain of the school basketball team, Horikita was stopped by a scout for the agency on her way home from practice. Soon after signing with Sweet Power in 2002, she passed an audition for a part in the 2003 sci-fi movie “Cosmic Rescue,” before landing her first leading role in the BS-TV drama “Keitai-Deka, Zenigata Mai” (“Cell Phone Detective Zenigata Mai”) later that year.

Since then, Horikita has had a stellar seven-year acting career, appearing in a long list of TV dramas and films and picking up more than 10 awards along the way. In 2008, she was nominated for the Japan Academy Prize’s Best Supporting Actress Award for “Always: Zoku San-Chome no Yuhi (Always: Sunset on Third Street 2),” in which she played the role of a young woman who comes to Tokyo from the countryside for work during the rapid economic growth era of the late 1950s.

But it was actually her role the same year as Princess Kazunomiya in the popular yearlong NHK Taiga Drama series “Atsuhime” (“Princess Atsu”) that attracted the attention of Akira Shirai, who directs “Jeanne d’Arc.”

Moved by her portrayal of the subdued but strong-willed woman wedding a Tokugawa shogun in the turbulent last years of the Edo Period (1603-1867), Shirai, also a TV actor, told the producers of the show he would take up the directing job only if Horikita would agree to play the lead character, according to an interview he gave in the December issue of the Japanese- language stage magazine Theater Guide.

“I was not personally involved in the casting of ‘Jeanne d’Arc,’ so I haven’t thought deeply about why I got this role. But Mr. Shirai asked me to do it, saying he saw strong determination in my acting (of Kazunomiya),” Horikita says quietly, eyeing this reporter straight and exuding a tough-at-heart quality that sometimes makes her appear guarded. “He said I have something in common with Joan of Arc.”

In fact, Joan of Arc — who was born circa 1412 and raised by peasants in the village of Domremy, eastern France — had a fierce personality. At the age of 12 or 13, she started hearing “divine voices” that told her to liberate France from the English domination of the Hundred Years’ War (1337-1453), and to lead the Dauphin (royal heir apparent) to the city of Reims for his coronation.

When she was 16, she acted on “God’s vision” — and left the village to see King Charles VII, who was impressed by her and gave her an army to lead the French campaign against the English. Joan, however, was later captured by the Burgundians, sold to the English, tried by an ecclesiastical court, and burned at the stake at the age of 19.

One of Horikita’s biggest challenges is to make such a story resonate with Japanese viewers, most of whom are non- Christian and who may only vaguely recall Joan’s name from a history textbook. In a special feature program aired last week on BS-TBS ahead of the production’s opening at the end of this month, people who were asked their impressions of Joan in a vox pop showed little knowledge about the tragic story of the French martyr. “A strong woman,” replied one woman, while another just said: “Gaijin (foreigner).” A third interviewee could only murmur: “I think I heard about her in history class . . . “

Horikita — who is only a few years older than Joan of Arc was when she died — acknowledges Joan’s low name-recognition in Japan, saying she is a “distant figure” for her as well. Still, she claims that her character in the play, whose script was written by award-winning playwright Kazuki Nakajima, is convincing enough to move an audience here.

“The script written by Mr. Nakajima depicts Joan’s inner turmoil really well — from the time when she went to meet Charles VII to the moment she was burned at the stake,” she says. “It would normally be really hard for anyone to empathize with the feelings of someone like her. But I’m convinced that Joan of Arc will resonate with viewers in this production.

“In staging the story in Japan, we have depicted her determination and her purity, not just her strong (Christian) faith, because we don’t want people to think that it’s a story that takes place in a completely different world.”

Shirai also told Theater Guide that he has explored the play’s raison d’e^tre in Japan, 579 years after Joan’s death.

“The first thing I wondered about was the meaning of staging ‘Jeanne d’Arc’ in Japan now,” he said. “To be honest, I wondered, ‘Why now?’ . . . I think young people today share this sense of vexation about the state of the country, and have even given up on (changing) it. They often say, ‘There is no point in working hard,’ or, ‘Rich people are born from rich families only.’ I wanted to change such feelings of stagnation.”

For her part, Horikita says she prepared for her stage acting by training her voice and building her stamina through running and other exercises. She also visited France in September, touring several Joan of Arc-related sights — including her birth house in Domremy and the city of Orleans, which had been seized by English forces and which Joan with her army liberated, scoring her first major military victory. But what inspired the actress the most was the city of Rouen in northern France, where Joan was executed by burning.

“I went to the public square where the burning took place,” she says. “I also visited the place where her trial was held. . . . I could sense her emotions.”

Despite her rich acting experience, Horikita says she can never feel satisfied with her job. “I find acting really rewarding, because no matter how many roles I play, I never feel fully satisfied with my performance,” she says. “It’s challenging and tough every time. I always encounter one hurdle or another, and I somehow manage to finish it and get people to see the results of my work.”

What is her definition of a good actress? This question she answers rather figuratively.

“You know, I get many opportunities to work as Maki Horikita — appearing in TV commercials and variety shows,” she says. “But when I’m acting, I want to be recognized as the person I’m playing. For example, when I’m playing the role of a scary person, I want viewers to think, ‘Oh, this person might actually be this scary in real life.’ When I’m playing a cheerful character, it would be nice if people believed that I’m a cheerful person.”

“Jeanne d’Arc” opens at Akasaka Act Theater (inside Akasaka Sacas, 5-3-2 Akasaka, Minato Ward, Tokyo) on Nov. 30 and runs through Dec. 19. Starting times vary. Tickets are ¥9,500-11,500. For more information, contact Kyodo Tokyo at (0570) 064-708, or visit www.jd2010.jp.

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