Following her breakthrough role in Naomi Kawase’s 2014 Palme d’Or nominated film “Futatsume no Mado” (“Still the Water”), Junko Abe looked as though she was destined to go on to become a big star in Japan. Back then she was known by her stage name Jun Yoshinaga and was viewed as one of the brightest young actresses in the country.
It would have been easy for the Osaka-born performer to sit around waiting for the next offer to arrive. However, she instead decided to take a career break, surprisingly quitting her agency to fly out to the United States for a year to study English and drama at New York University.
“Up until that point in my life I’d never truly believed in myself as an actor,” Abe tells The Japan Times. “I felt my technique needed nurturing and the best place to do that was NYU Tisch School of the Arts as the drama program there is world-renowned. The fact that I could live abroad and learn a foreign language made it an even more attractive proposition.”
During her time in the U.S., Abe’s confidence grew, not only in terms of her acting but also regarding how she behaved around other people.
“Before going to America, I was a closed person,” Abe says. “I studied actors and knew their strengths but didn’t know about myself. With the support of teachers and fellow students, who really understood my character, I was able to open up and accept myself for who I really am. That’s why I ditched my stage name.”
After returning to Japan, Abe, as she was now known, signed with the talent agency Amuse. Since then she has appeared in a wide range of TV shows and movies including the popular NHK morning drama “Toto Nechan” and Kazuya Shiraishi’s yakuza film “The Blood of Wolves” (“Koro no Chi”), released in May of last year.
The action flick won a string of awards including a best supporting actress gong for Abe at the Osaka Cinema Festival. It’s actor Koji Yakusho who received the most accolades, though, for his starring role as Shogo Ogami, a maverick cop suspected of being in cahoots with the criminals he’s supposed to be catching.
“It was an honor to work with Yakusho,” says Abe. “I have so much respect for him. Not just for his acting performances, which are always impressive, but also for the way he behaves backstage. He’s exceptional at building relations with those around him. I learned so much from him and the rest of the cast and crew. It was a fun set to be on and Shiraishi was very passionate about the project.”
In the same month that “The Blood of Wolves” came out, Abe featured in her first English-speaking role as Sachiko in Koji Fukada’s modern-day fantasy film “The Man from the Sea” (“Umi o Kakeru”). Although it had long been her ambition to speak English in movies, prior to her stay in New York she felt she wasn’t ready.
“I realized that when I spoke to (Canadian director) Xavier Dolan at the 2014 Cannes Film Festival,” says Abe. “He’s someone I’ve admired for a long time and would love to have the opportunity to work with. Unfortunately, on that occasion, I was unable to express myself properly, which is a big regret for me.”
The 25-year-old actress is now able to converse well in her second language, as she shows in her latest film, “The Prisoner of Sakura” (“Sorokin no Mita Sakura”), which premieres in Ehime Prefecture on March 16 before opening nationwide a week later.
An international love story directed by Masaki Inoue, it’s set against the backdrop of the Russo-Japanese War, which took place between 1904 and 1905.
Taking on a dual role in the film, Abe plays the leading lady Yui Takeda and her great-granddaughter Sakurako Takamiya, with more than a century separating their stories. The former is a nurse who falls for Alexander Sorokin, a Russian lieutenant and prisoner of war who’s planning on escaping from his prison camp in order to participate in the Russian Revolution.
Sakurako, meanwhile, is a novice director attempting to make a TV program about the conflict that ended with the Treaty of Portsmouth in September 1905. During her research, she comes across a diary detailing Yui and Sorokin’s romantic tale.
“I was excited to have the opportunity to play two formidable female characters from different generations yet at the same time it was quite a nerve-wracking prospect,” says Abe.
“It’s a story about Russia and Japan’s interactions during the war and, within that, the focus is on this romance between a nurse and soldier,” continues the actress. “Yui faced a tough dilemma as she had strong feelings for Sorokin, but family members were against the relationship and she had a responsibility to her country. It’s hard not to sympathize with her plight.”
Yui’s love interest is played by Rodion Galyuchenko, a Russian actor better known for his theater work than anything he’s done in film. Other notable cast members include Aleksandr Domogarov as Captain Vasily Boysman, Yoko Yamamoto as Yui’s granddaughter, and Takumi Saitoh, who assists Sakurako with the documentary. The standout performance, though, arguably comes from Issey Ogata, who takes on the role of the prison director Kono with a great air of authority.
“Ogata’s such an interesting and knowledgeable man,” says Abe. “We weren’t in many scenes together, but he helped me a lot. The two people I spent the most time on set with were Rodion who created a fun atmosphere, and Takumi, who’s like an actor and director rolled into one. Going to Russia together was a great experience.”
While some of the movie was filmed in St. Petersburg, most of Yui’s scenes take place in Matsuyama, Ehime Prefecture, the location of a POW camp that became famous during the Russo-Japanese war because of the humane treatment afforded to prisoners there.
According to official documents, these captured soldiers were not seen as criminals but as honorable men serving their country. They received good food including lots of beef, which was rare at the time, and could purchase alcohol from local merchants.
Under supervision, it was possible to venture into the city, watch sumo, partake in local festivals, and bathe at Dogo Onsen. Romantic liaisons between Russian soldiers and Japanese Red Cross nurses did allegedly take place, though Sorokin and Yui’s love story is a fictional one.
Abe hopes the movie can help to strengthen Japanese-Russian relations which have soured somewhat in the post-WWII years due to four disputed islands.
She says that, “Cinema has that power to bridge gaps between nations,” and that’s why she’s determined to appear in more cross-cultural films in the future.
“The main reason I study English is so I can take on roles that connect Japan to the rest of the world,” she says. “I do get nervous performing in a foreign language but more than anything it’s exciting. Working with people of varying nationalities is one of the things I like most about my job.”
The next international movie that Abe will appear in is “Miss Osaka”, a co-production between Japan, Denmark and Norway, written and directed by the Stockholm-born author and filmmaker Daniel Dencik. The thriller is currently being filmed and is slated for release in spring of next year.