Film

The meteoric rise of Mayu Matsuoka

by Mark Schilling

Contributing Writer

As a film critic, I occasionally come across something on the screen that sets off fireworks in my brain. It happened with Sakura Ando’s explosive performance as a desperate boxer in “100 Yen Love” and with the funny, surprising and moving zombie comedy “One Cut of the Dead.” And last year it also happened with Mayu Matsuoka

When I saw her play a nerdy 24-year-old obsessed with a junior-high crush in Akiko Ooku’s “Tremble All You Want,” the words “brilliant comic talent” appeared in my head framed by sparklers and pinwheels. In my four-star review of the film, I called her performance a “star-making turn” — it feels good to be right.

Following its premiere at the 2017 Tokyo International Film Festival (TIFF), where it won the Audience Award, “Tremble All You Want” became a hit in Japan and screened at festivals overseas. Now Matsuoka is back as TIFF ambassador (which is essentially a glorified PR person), but in the past year she solidified her acting credentials with a role as a sex worker in “Shoplifters,” the Hirokazu Kore-eda drama about an ersatz “family” of petty criminals that won the Palme d’Or at Cannes.

Meeting Matsuoka ahead of the TIFF lineup announcement on Sept. 25, I’m struck not only by her sparkly red dress — a fireworks display in fabric — but also by her cheery, glad-to-be-here demeanor. Some actors simply tick down a list of talking points as they speak with reporters; Matsuoka is totally present.

Asked about the changes in her life since her first TIFF (and her first-ever film festival) a year ago, she gets right down to cases. Preparing for the red carpet, she says, “I thought about how not to get outshone by other actresses, so I was just concerned about my own appearance — about how this dress would look or how people would like this hair style.”

But as she made the festival rounds — Cannes, Toronto, Shanghai and Japan Cuts in New York — she noticed that other actresses were following their own dress sense and felt that she was “stuck in a boring place” fashion-wise. “So this year I’m going to wear something really gorgeous,” she says with a smile that hints of mischief. “I think it’s all right to make the red carpet a little livelier.” Indeed.

Besides upping the wattage of her style, Matsuoka has raised her international profile by appearing in “Shoplifters.”

“It wasn’t by design, not at all,” she says. “I auditioned for ‘Shoplifters.’ I’d been called in to audition for another of Mr. Kore-eda’s films, but it didn’t happen; someone else was cast. I didn’t feel frustration or sadness at that time. I thought it was something like fate.”

The outcome of her audition for “Shoplifters,” she felt, “would be a little different.” “(After the audition) I went home telling myself I would keep trying because I really wanted to work with Mr. Kore-eda. Then the word came that I’d been cast. I didn’t feel anxious about whether I could handle the role since Mr. Kore-eda said he had thought of me when he created it. So I was able to approach it with confidence.”

Sakura Ando, who plays the “mother” in the film, and the late Kirin Kiki, who plays the “grandmother,” are two of the best actresses of their respective generations, I tell her. Matsuoka agrees. “For me Sakura is my near goal and Ms. Kiki is my long-term goal,” she says. “The distances are different, but both are on the same path. There are many wonderful actors and actresses in Japan, and they are all people I respect, but Sakura and Ms. Kiki are actresses who headed in the direction I am trying to follow, if just a little.”

Matsuoka has also become a frequent presence on TV variety and radio shows, often serving as host.

“I love them both,” she says. “And the stage too. Ms. Kiki, who I loved, did all kinds of work, everything from TV and comedy skits to dramatic acting and narration. I want to do that as well, even the kinds of jobs that leave a bad taste in your mouth. I want to have various experiences regardless of genre.”

But unlike her idol Kiki, who handled her business affairs herself with the aid of a fax machine, Matsuoka belongs to the Hirata International agency, together with established stars Aoi Miyazaki and Mikako Tabe. “I’m just 23 so I trust the agency to balance my work load,” she says. “They protect me from jobs I shouldn’t be doing,” she adds cryptically. “I just want to do work I love every day.”

Her ambitions extend internationally as well, though she admits she doesn’t know why Hirata added “International” to its name. “Since they’ve called themselves ‘International’ I think they want to be involved in Japanese films that can be shown at foreign film festivals,” she says. “And if I have the chance, I want to work abroad, definitely.”

But English is a peak she has yet to conquer. “I studied this year, but it was tough,” she says. I suggest studying abroad to her, citing “Tremble All You Want” cast member Kanji Furutachi as an example. He lived in New York for several years, I tell her. “I didn’t know that! I didn’t know that at all!” she exclaims, her eyes wide with surprise. “No wonder he’s so cool.”

“His English is really fluent,” I say. “When we talk, it’s half in English and half in Japanese.”

“I’ve learned something,” she says, her eyes now narrow with determination. “The next time we do this it will be half in English.” And judging by her accomplishments thus far, she’s only half joking.

The 31st Tokyo International Film Festival takes place between Oct. 25 and Nov. 3 at various locations in Minato Ward, Tokyo. For more information on screenings and showtimes, visit 2018.tiff-jp.net.