It has been 10 years since Yui Aragaki made her debut as an actress — first as a teen in the sci-fi TV series “Sh15uya” (“Shibuya 15”), and then in a breakthrough role as high school student Yoshino in the dramatic series “Dragon Zakura.”

Now the 26-year-old actress is headed back to school, this time as a teacher, in the film “Kuchibiru ni Uta wo” (“Have a Song on Your Lips”).

“An ideal teacher for me is someone who never lacks love, even when they have to be strict,” Aragaki tells The Japan Times. “I find it heartwarming to think of teachers being able to carefully watch over each individual (student).”

In “Kuchibiru ni Uta wo,” Aragaki plays substitute teacher Yuri Kashiwagi. At first, Yuri is far from Aragaki’s “ideal teacher,” seen by her students as unapproachable and difficult to please. Years earlier, she was a career pianist, but her fiance was killed in a traffic accident and that set off a nervous disorder that causes her hands to shake. She gave up the piano and subsequently built an emotional wall around herself.

“I was very careful with expressing Yuri’s emotion,” Aragaki says. “I could have acted even more hateful, but I think that would have obscured her true feelings. I wanted (the audience) to realize that it’s this emotional wall that stops her from reaching out.”

Yuri returns to her hometown on Nagasaki Prefecture’s Goto Islands to work at her old junior high school. She rediscovers her passion for music when members of the school’s chorus ask for her help in getting into a national singing competition.

“The trusting relationship between my character and the students builds slowly from the chorus practices,” Aragaki says. “Since there was some distance between Yuri and her students, I intentionally dealt with the young actors in a similar way offscreen. For many of them the experience of playing such key roles in a film was new, so I wanted them to be able to react naturally.”

Recalling her own years as a teenager, many of which were spent in the spotlight, Aragaki admits that even though she enjoyed her youth, she never had a specific goal or passion like the students of the film do. “Kuchibiru ni Uta wo” is based on a novel by Eiichi Nakata, and Aragaki says the writer constructed characters with complex back stories: a girl who’s left by her father and a boy looking after his disabled brother are just two examples. She believes the filmmaker, Takahiro Miki, picked up on this and is hinting at the quiet power that all youth seem to possess.

“It’s surprising to learn that these young characters are carrying such heavy burdens on their tiny bodies,” she says. “Director Miki said this as well, but they’re at an age when all they can really do is deal with the way things are.”

Yuri looks to her own childhood to deal with her current situation and draws strength from re-reading an essay she wrote when she graduated junior high that asks, “Who are you comforting with your piano playing?” She realizes that returning to the instrument she abandoned is what will help heal her.

“Kuchibiru ni Uta wo” will be out in cinemas just in time for the turn of the new school year. As the interview draws to a close, I ask Aragaki if she has any advice for those young people who are about to take a new step in life.

“If you start to feel overwhelmed by tragedy, just understand that life is about taking the good with the bad. I think that will surely soothe you,” she says, adding that she plans to follow her own advice. “Everything should work out in time.” If she has problems, she says, “I’ll try to relax and manage things at my own pace.”

“Kuchibiru ni Uta wo” will show in cinemas nationwide from Feb. 28.

In line with COVID-19 guidelines, the government is strongly requesting that residents and visitors exercise caution if they choose to visit bars, restaurants, music venues and other public spaces.

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