The most harrowing story actress Ayame Misaki has to tell is her own

by Matthew Hernon

Contributing Writer

Model-turned-actress Ayame Misaki has played a variety of roles over the past decade, including a soldier in “Attack on Titan” and a manipulative hostess in the film “Judas,” but her own story is arguably more dramatic and harrowing than any role she has appeared in.

The Kobe native was only 5 when her room started shaking on the morning of Jan. 17, 1995. It was the start of the Great Hanshin Earthquake, a disaster that killed close to 6,500 people, injured around 40,000 and left more than 300,000 displaced, including Misaki’s family.

“I’ve forgotten many incidents in my life but I vividly remember that day and my time at the evacuation center,” Misaki, now 29, told The Japan Times in an interview that took place prior to Monday’s magnitude-6.1 earthquake in Osaka. “I can still hear the screams. All around I saw dead bodies and people lying under rubble. Those images have never left me.”

She said food became scarce at the shelter where she stayed, and she and her family would often go days without having a bath.

“Initially, everyone was on good terms promising to cooperate,” she recalled. “As time went on, though, you could feel the tension rising. I often saw adults arguing. I believe people’s true character comes out when we’re faced with such dire situations.”

Misaki, her parents and four sisters spent around 12 months at the evacuation center before being moved into temporary accommodation, where they lived for the next four years.

“We were very poor,” she said. “There wasn’t much to eat and sometimes our utilities would be cut off because the bills weren’t paid. I was born in the Heisei Era (which began in 1989) but felt like I was living in Japan directly after World War II.”

In her final year at elementary school, Misaki’s parents divorced. She never saw her father again and her relationship with her mother broke down.

“Looking back, it was like a drama,” said the actress. “My sisters and I just had to get on with things the best we could.”

Her luck began to change in 2004 when she won the Best Gravure Award at the 29th Horipro Talent Scout Caravan, a contest that is seen as a gateway to the world of entertainment. The teenager was soon being featured in magazines on a regular basis.

“Given that it was an annual competition I thought the job was only for a year so I wanted to make the most of it,” Misaki said. “I really appreciate the modeling and acting opportunities I’ve been given since. I never set out to be an actress, it just happened … and I’m glad that it did.”

After making her screen debut in 2006 in TV Asahi’s 10-part psychological mystery “Kissho Tennyo,” Misaki scored parts in such action series as “Cutie Honey: The Live” and “Tokumei Sentai Go-Busters.”

In recent years she has picked up more serious roles and was widely praised for her performance as struggling writer Misako in Naomi Kawase’s “Radiance,” which was shown in the main competition section at last year’s Cannes Film Festival. At a screening there, the cast and director received a 10-minute standing ovation from the 2,000-plus audience at the French Riviera’s Grand Theater Lumiere.

In an interview with The Hollywood Reporter, Kawase described Misako as an arrogant, no-nonsense kind of character and said she “had that kind of feeling” about Misaki too when she saw her audition. The reportedly hard-to-please director also spoke of the time she threw the script over a bridge because Misaki focused too much on what had been written down and subsequently wasn’t showing enough intensity.

“(Kawase) was very strict,” Misaki admitted. “The set was quiet and serious. She didn’t want the cast engaging in idle conversations between shoots or contacting our managers. It was about being in character the whole time and never losing focus. She knows when you aren’t being genuine and pushes you to reach that next level.”

Misaki said the atmosphere on the set of her most recent film, “Born Bone Boon,” couldn’t have been more different, describing it as “relaxed with lots of joking around.” Written and directed by Toshiyuki Teruya, also known as Gori from comedy trio Garage Sale, the story centers around the rare Okinawan ritual of senkotsu, in which the mummified bodies of ancestors are excavated three to seven years after their interment so the bones can be washed.

Despite the dark subject matter, “Born Bone Boon” is a light-hearted comedy about a dysfunctional family. Misaki plays a central role as Yuko, a hairdresser who returns home for her mother’s senkotsu ceremony and surprises everyone by revealing she’s nine months pregnant.

“I wore the silicone pregnant suit for the entire month of shooting, only taking it off to bathe,” Misaki recalled. “It was heavy and uncomfortable, but the overall experience of filming in Okinawa was wonderful. I loved being able to pop outside and see the ocean. Also, the cast got on well and Gori-san made it a lot of fun.”

In fact, it was the comedian’s involvement in the film that motivated Misaki to take on the role in the first place.

“I was going through a tough time and felt destroyed physically,” she said. “I wasn’t sure if I was in the right profession and turned down many parts. I was 90 percent sure I’d do the same with this one, but then my manager mentioned Gori’s name and I immediately said yes. We were on a variety show together before and he made me feel so relaxed. It was great working with him and I felt rejuvenated after.”

Looking ahead, Misaki said she would one day like to work abroad to help promote Japan to the world. She already has a big fan base in Brazil and will be visiting Sao Paulo in July for the annual anime convention “Anime Friends” to speak about, among other things, her artificial human character, Escape, from “Tokumei Sentai Go-Busters.” Beyond that, her main goal is simply to enjoy life.

“Twenty-three years ago I survived the Hanshin earthquake while thousands of others weren’t so fortunate,” she said. “It’s important that I make the most of my time on this Earth to honor those who passed away that day.”

You can check out more of Ayame Misaki on Instagram at @misakiayame.