In 2000, Riko Narumi made her first appearance on TV at age 7. She has worked steadily in both television and film ever since, and has 24 entries in her filmography, ranging from the drama “Shindo”(2007), where she played a troubled teen piano prodigy, to quirky comedy “Seaside Motel” (2011), in which she became the pouty girlfriend of a degenerate gambler. Narumi, however, has become better known for her mature-for-their-age characters who gaze out at the world with skeptical, mysterious eyes.
In her latest film, Hitoshi Yazaki’s “A Cappella” (“Mubanso”), Narumi plays a Sendai high school girl who is serious and sweetly naive — an ideal Narumi role. But when I met her in a small rental office in Shibuya to talk about the film, she was — unlike her introverted adolescent character — the complete adult professional, if one sniffling from a bad cold. Watching her try to look interested and engaged when she was probably longing for hot tea and a warm futon, I felt all my critical quibbles about the film disappear into the ether.
The film is set in the late 1960s and early ’70s, a turbulent time in Japan and elsewhere. Were there any aspects of the era that were hard to grasp?
Unlike now, people were very energetic. They had a strong desire to better the world. You could say they were more adult.
I don’t want to sound like a guy with a rori-con (“Lolita complex,” referring to a mature man with an attraction to young girls) (laughs), but I think high schoolers back then were more mature.
I’ve been watching you for about 10 years, since you were in “Shindo.” Back then you often acted older than your age. But this role required you to act mentally and emotionally younger. Was it hard to go in reverse like that?
It was a tough challenge that required a lot of effort. I had never portrayed a character who felt such strong love for somebody, so I used everything I had to make myself feel that way.
How would you compare yourself to her?
We’re similar in that we both tend to take a step back and look at ourselves objectively. We’re opposites in terms of how we look at romantic relationships.
Did you read the original novel to prepare?
No, I didn’t think it was good to know all the details that were cut from the book.
Yazaki seems to remember that period well. The film gets a lot of subtle visual details right, such as how the walls in those old coffee houses were stained from the heads of the customers. (laughs) Was he also hands-on about the details of your performance?
No, he was a man of few words. But after a good take, his face was very expressive. In a way, it was easy to read him.
Like you, your “A Cappella” co-star Sosuke Ikematsu has been doing this since he was a kid. Was he easy to work with?
Very easy. When I was tired from my hard schedule, he was a stabilizing influence. He never panicked or got excited about anything. It was really comforting to have such a reliable guy in the cast.
Your character does a lot of growing up. Did you have any trouble portraying that arc?
My character has to accept a lot of things in the course of the film, some not so pleasant, and sometimes I wanted to run away from the set because of the stress.
But it was also a role I could fully immerse myself in. Looking back, I’m grateful I had the chance to take on a role like that.
You’re 23 now. Do you see “A Cappella” as a first step toward more mature roles?
I hadn’t really done a romantic drama before, so it was definitely a new challenge. I know this film will have a very important place in my work.
What advice would you give your 14-year-old self?
Be freer because it’s alright to have fun making movies.
You’ve starred in comedies, but you’ve had a rather serious image since you were a teenager.
It’s true that I took on similar roles in my teens. I tended to play mostly precocious girls back then. That’s why I’d like to take on more true-to-life love stories in the future.
Are you more confident about yourself as an actor than you used to be?
I feel more nervous than I used to. I feel the weight of responsibility more.
More than when you were 15 or 16? I didn’t think about it much back then.
Do you see yourself expanding your career abroad?
I’d like to improve my English. I’d also like to work with filmmakers I admire like Lars von Trier, Wes Anderson and Gasper Noe.
That’s about it, thank you. Do you have a cold?
Yes, I do.
I told her to take care of herself, and she stood and smiled as I left. If she reached for the tissue box, it was after I closed the door.
“Does she have any more interviews after me?” I asked her public relations person. “No,” she said. “You were the only one today.” Clattering down the stairs, I tried to tell myself she hadn’t left a sickbed to do this interview. And I silently promised Riko Narumi a lifetime of good reviews.
IN FIVE EASY PIECES WITH TAKE 5