Mari Natsuki has faced a number of challenges throughout her diverse career but her latest role asked her to attempt something she’s never confronted before — portray an ordinary person.
Previously, Natsuki has taken on roles as a singer, a dancer, an actor, a director and a philanthropist, among others. With such a broad portfolio already under her belt, it’s virtually impossible to encapsulate the 65-year-old in a single word.
Speaking to The Japan Times in December, Natsuki prefers to describe herself as a pureiyā (player) — literally, “a person who plays.”
“When a child sees a toy for the first time, they play with it intensely,” Natsuki says. “I want to perform by channeling that same emotion. Personally I don’t need any labels but if I were forced to choose one, I’d like to be called a “player,” because that’s what I aspire to be.”
Natsuki specifically prefers not to be referred to as a joyū (actress), saying she doesn’t wish to be constrained by labels that suggest she has accomplished her goals.
“Calling someone an actress suggests that they’ve already established themselves as an actress,” Natsuki says. “By comparison, I’m continuously developing. I’m always taking on new roles as a rookie, so I feel almost embarrassed to be called an actress.”
Her latest role in front of the camera is her most challenging yet.
In “On My Way Home” (“Ikiru Machi”), which comes out next week, Natsuki successfully manages to capture the real-life struggles of a middle-aged woman who survived the massive earthquake and tsunami that struck the Tohoku region on March 11, 2011.
Natsuki plays Chieko Sato, a cheerful woman with a warm personality who runs a bed and breakfast in the devastated Miyagi city of Ishinomaki after losing her husband in the tsunami. Despite her overall positive outlook on life, Sato confronts genuine moments of sadness and loneliness as the disaster takes its toll on her family as they attempt to recover from the devastation.
“As a character, Chieko is a combination of various women interviewed for the film and that’s why anyone who sees the film will be able to relate to her in some way — Chieko is someone everyone knows,” Natsuki says. “Every role is challenging but this one was particularly difficult.”
As part of her research before shooting for the film began, Natsuki stayed at a guesthouse in Ishinomaki and talked at length with the owner, asking about her experiences in the wake of the disaster. The woman told Natsuki that she had fallen out with a friend after learning there was a disparity in aid.
“I had imagined how heartbreaking it must have been to go through such a terrible tragedy,” Natsuki says. “However, I never imagined the disaster could ruin friendships as well.”
Natsuki was on Awaji Island, Hyogo Prefecture, in March 2011 and did not experience the disaster firsthand. However, she remembers watching the aftermath on television, staring in disbelief at the events that were unfolding on the screen in front of her.
“The disaster made me realize that people could disappear just like that,” Natsuki says, noting that she encountered few young people in Ishinomaki during filming for the movie.
Natsuki says she decided to take the role in “On My Way Home” to ensure that people don’t forget about March 11.
“I was afraid the memory of the disaster would start to fade after six or seven years,” she says. “This was a chance to make sure it’s not forgotten.”
Natsuki married her partner, percussionist Nobu Saito, a couple of months after the disaster. The pair had been together for some time, and it took Natsuki a while before she felt that marriage was really necessary. However, she started to re-evaluate her position after Saito’s mother turned 90.
“It was a time when people were reviewing what it meant to be a family. It was a coincidence but I had began to feel differently, believing that marriage was not just a piece of paper,” Natsuki says. “I felt my partner’s mother would feel safer if I was a part of her family and not just an outsider. And that is how we became a family.”
Looking back, Natsuki was heavily influenced by U.S. singer-songwriter Janis Joplin as a child. Dying of an overdose in 1970 at the age of 27 with just three albums to her name, Joplin is considered to be one of the biggest rock stars of that era.
“I was in awe of Janis Joplin’s singing and wanted to be able to sing like her,” Natsuki recalls. “However, wanting something and doing something are two very different things altogether.”
Natsuki had been looking to get into a music college when she was offered a chance to sing before an audience.
Performing under her real name, Junko Nakajima, Natsuki launched her career as a pop idol singer in 1971 at the age of 19. Wearing frilly white gowns that looked like wedding dresses, she released two singles before her career flopped.
“I was just doing what I was told but something didn’t feel quite right,” Natsuki says with a laugh. “Looking back, I can see why I didn’t sell.”
Natsuki then spent a year as a cabaret singer, performing on stages across Japan. With just two original songs to her name, she filled out the rest of her set by singing other famous tunes such as “Edelweiss.”
The crowd, however, frequently jeered and told her to “get lost,” Natsuki says. And so she did — for a short time, at least.
In 1973, she was offered an opportunity to perform as a singer under her current stage name, “Mari Natsuki.” She ditched the innocent idol image that had failed so miserably a couple of years earlier and adopted a demeanor that was both bewitching and sexy.
In a husky voice, Natsuki sang “Kinu no Kutsushita” (“Silk Socks”), a song penned by the late lyricist Yu Aku that details a woman’s desire to give up her upper-class existence for a man who could take her “like a beast, lighting my naked body on fire.”
Natsuki says her production company and director “saw a woman with little originality and wanted to turn her into a charismatic woman like Sophia Loren.”
“I figured it was better to take that offer than to be fooling around,” she says.
Natsuki’s career took off and she became a regular face on television. Fate, however, was once again not on her side. She was hospitalized for three months with anemia and, by the time she got out, she had fallen from the spotlight.
Natsuki returned to the cabaret scene and performed on various stages for the next eight years, which ended up taking up most of her 20s.
By this time, however, Natsuki, had come to the conclusion that enough was enough. She decided she would not spend her 30s in such a “bad environment” and, as a result, tried her hand at the world of theater.
Surprisingly, Natsuki says she lacked confidence in her own singing ability at first, doubts that ultimately carried over into her acting ability.
After a decade of soul searching — working with directors and playwrights such as the late Yukio Ninagawa and the late Hisashi Inoue — Natsuki started a series of theater programs titled “Impressionism” in 1993. Although she now works with a team, she initially did everything by herself, from the production of the show to the direction and acting performance.
Natsuki says the title of the series is a nod to impressionists such as Claude Monet and Edouard Manet who went against the traditional way of painting inside the studio and carried their easels outside.
“The spirit of impressionism was cool,” Natsuki says. “I was at a point in my career where I was feeling defiant, and I was confused about how I felt about the world of theater and music.”
At the time, her theater productions were not well received in Japan. So she packed her bags and went to Europe, successfully traveling from the U.K. and France to Poland and Germany before ultimately returning home to try and perform in Japan again.
Natsuki went on TV in an attempt to promote her production, something she admits to not liking. The “Impressionism” production has evolved over the years to what she calls “Impressionism Neo” and she now bases its themes on children’s stories such as “Little Red Riding Hood” and “Cinderella.”
“The original ‘Impressionism’ was too self-centered and people couldn’t follow it. By comparison, children’s stories are universal and people should already be familiar with them,” Natsuki says. “That said, I don’t always follow the original stories.”
All of Natsuki’s fairy tale-themed performances come with a twist. For example, her 2009 “Impressionism Neo” titled “Our Little Red Riding Hood” opens with eight toilets on the stage. Seven women dressed in black appear on stage one by one, dancing sensually to a blues melody as they each make their way to one of the toilet seats. They have been locked inside the bathroom stalls for being naughty, Natsuki says.
She says she came up with this concept because she was influenced by the way the wolf in the original fairy tale targets Little Red Riding Hood for disobeying her mother’s instructions.
“The dark side of children’s fairy tales that you can see as an adult fascinates me,” Natsuki says. “I want to create a performance that blows people’s minds.”
Offering a helping hand
Natsuki is constantly evolving.
She has been involved in voice-acting for famous animated films, including Studio Ghibli’s “Spirited Away.” She has also collaborated with musicians such as Anna Tsuchiya and Toshinobu Kubota, performed at Kyoto’s Kiyomizu Temple, acted in countless TV shows and movies, sang the national anthem at the 2004 FIFA World Cup preliminaries and published several books.
She had also always dreamed of being the lead vocalist in a band. Her husband, Saito, helped her accomplish this by forming the blues band Gibier du Mari in 2006.
“I’m constantly in search of not for what I can do, but what I can’t do,” Natsuki says. “You never know until you try. … I’m on a never-ending journey of self-discovery.”
In recent years, Natsuki has also helped to support disadvantaged children in developing countries. One day, Saito invited her to visit countries such as Bangladesh and Ethiopia in order to meet these children and see with her own eyes what their lives were really like.
The reality these children face is harsh and Natsuki discovered that many live on no more than $1 a day. She was also shocked to find that many children give up their education to work for their families.
In Ethiopia, Natsuki noticed that every restaurant would have a beautiful red rose on their dining tables, thanks to the abundance of the flowers on the nation’s farms.
This discovery inspired Natsuki to launch an annual project titled One of Love in 2008. One of Love attempts to raise money through a concert held on World Music Day (June 21) each year.
The project raises money from the sale of home-grown original Mari Rouge roses, as well as individual and corporate donations. Natsuki uses the money to donate much-needed supplies to local schools, including stationary, textbooks and uniforms.
“I was shocked to learn that these children only had two choices in life — study or work,” Natsuki says. “Those who chose to work had to give up on education and were illiterate. Education is important and I want the children to have that opportunity.”
There was, however, one year that One of Love did not send anything to Ethiopia. Following the earthquake and tsunami in 2011, children in Ethiopia sent Natsuki an email and asked for the money to be sent to victims of the disaster instead.
That year, the project donated a motor vehicle to Fukushima, which has been used to help transport children between evacuation centers and schools to continue their education.
“I am hoping that we will eventually become large enough to support both children inside and outside of Japan,” Natsuki says. “At the moment, however, I am hoping to continue offering support at certain milestones so that people don’t forget about the disaster.”
‘Live each day to the fullest’
At 65, Natsuki shows no intention of slowing down. In 2016, she formed a vocal group called And Roses with celebrities such as Tomomi Kahara, Anna Tsuchiya and Lilico to help support the reconstruction of the Tohoku region. Last year, she voiced Grandma Tala in the Japanese release of Walt Disney Pictures’ “Moana” and is credited for voice work on Wes Anderson’s forthcoming “Isle of Dogs.” She also serves as an adviser for the Tokyo Organizing Committee of the 2020 Olympic and Paralympic Games.
In terms of her underlying philosophy on life, Natsuki loves to quote something James Dean once said: “Dream as if you’ll live forever. Live as if you’ll die today.”
“Living is not about breathing but taking action,” Natsuki says. “My goal is to live each day to the fullest, because you never know what might happen tomorrow.”