A Japanese drama that instigated a nationwide debate about female infidelity and societal values, “Hirugao: Love Affairs in the Afternoon” has been made into a heart-wrenching movie that aims to have audiences reaching for the tissues.

Set three years after the television series ended, the film focuses on the illicit relationship between Sawa Sasamoto (Aya Ueto) and Yuichiro Kitano (Takumi Saito), who rekindle their love affair after a chance meeting in a seaside town. The former has already divorced from her husband, but Yuichiro is still married to Noriko. The role of his long-suffering wife is played brilliantly by actress and occasional singer Ayumi Ito, whom The Japan Times recently met at a hotel in Roppongi.

“When it comes to Japanese dramas and movies, the husband is traditionally portrayed as the cheat while the wife stays at home cooking and cleaning,” says Ito, who is also known among “Final Fantasy” fans as the voice behind Tifa Lockhart. “‘Hirugao’ challenges that stereotype. There are many people having affairs in this country and it’s not always initiated by men. Women are also looking for something more exciting in their lives.

“In the TV series, Sawa’s husband is good to her, the problem is that their marriage is sexless. It makes her feel useless so she looks elsewhere for some passion. I think you’re seeing this kind of situation more frequently in Japan. It’s become like a cultural phenomenon.”

A 2013 poll by news-postseven.com seems to back up what Ito is saying. Housewives were asked if they’d ever had an extra-marital affair and 14.8 percent replied yes. Of those, 60.8 percent revealed they’d been with at least two or more partners besides their husband while married.

One place to search for an illicit romance is of course Ashley Madison. Membership of the world’s largest online website for would-be adulterers reached a million users in Japan just eight months after its launch here in 2014, the fastest of any country (though interest in the site may have waned over the past couple of years after hackers claimed there were thousands of fake female accounts). According to a survey taken by the site, 55 percent of Japanese women using the service said they were doing so because they weren’t having enough sex.

“I feel in general Japanese women have become stronger and more proactive, traits that are reflected in Hirugao’s female characters,” Ito says, speaking in fluent English. “While sexual inequality remains prominent in society here, things are slowly starting to change. We (women) now have more power to dictate our own agenda. That’s not to say I condone furin (infidelity). Whichever way you look at it, it’s wrong, but when you see someone like Sawa you can at least understand why she’s doing it even if you don’t agree with her actions.”

For Ito’s own character, Noriko, the affair is difficult to take. A university professor consumed by work, she initially fails to even contemplate the possibility that her marriage might be in trouble. Once the reality of Yuichiro’s infidelity hits home, she doesn’t know how to react. The pair decide to stay together. In the movie, however, Noriko is once again forced to go through the ordeal of seeing her husband cheat.

“Noriko comes across as quite cold and emotionless so she subsequently wasn’t very popular with viewers during the series,” Ito says with a smile. “I saw comments like ‘we wish she would disappear,’ which is quite harsh considering she was the one being cheated on and didn’t actually do anything wrong herself.

“Also, it’s a supporting role so we only get to see the edge of her life. The criticism epitomizes modern-day society. We judge people based on the snippets we see on TV or the web without really knowing anything about them.”

Ito describes the experience of playing a character that was hated as “tough, but at the same time fun.” Before shooting for the film began she re-watched the original series and then made a list of what Noriko had been doing in the three years that had passed. Despite only being in around 10 scenes, the 37-year-old actress is arguably the stand-out performer in the movie, yet she prefers to speak about the virtues of her co-stars than her own acting skills.

“It was fantastic being back on set with Aya (Ueto) and Takumi (Saito) again,” she says. “As well as being super-talented they’re both good friends, so it was easy to work with them. All the scenes felt so natural.”

Now seen as one of the country’s top sex-symbols, Saito’s leading role in Hirugao was a major boost for his career, while for Ueto it was a break from the cute and fun-loving parts for which she’d become known. For Ito, too, the drama was also something of a departure.

“I’d previously always played honest, bright characters, so ‘Hirugao’ was my first time acting in a darker role,” Ito says. “Since then I’ve had loads of parts like that so I guess I should thank Fuji TV for my current reputation (laughs). I don’t want to be typecast, though. I love the versatility of my job.”

Since making her big screen debut at the age of 13 in the film “Samurai Kids,” Ito has featured in an assortment of roles and worked with many esteemed directors, including Michel Gondry, Kiyoshi Kurosawa and Shunji Iwai. It was Iwai’s movie “Swallowtail” that gave the young actress her first big break. She played the part of abandoned teenager Ageha — a role requiring lots of English — that won her Newcomer of the Year and Best Supporting Actress gongs at the 1997 Japan Academy Awards. Co-star Chara, who picked up the Best Actress award, later asked Ito to sing in her band Mean Machine.

“I still partake in music projects with my friend, but acting is my real passion,” Ito says. “I’m constantly searching for ways to improve my skill. I regularly read books by teachers such as Stella Adler and Konstantin Stanislavski , and I take classes in LA. I’m also very serious about learning English. My goal is to be an international actress, so I can’t afford to stand still.”

“Hirugao: Love Affairs in the Afternoon” will be released in cinemas nationwide on June 10.

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.

In a time of both misinformation and too much information, quality journalism is more crucial than ever.
By subscribing, you can help us get the story right.