Stage

Capturing Haruki Murakami's 'eccentric atmosphere'

by Yukari Tanaka

Contributing Writer

“As a university student, I never even imagined that I could be an actor. Because, to me, they only existed on screen,” says Yuki Furukawa.

Now a well-established actor, Furukawa is largely known for his portrayal of Naoki Irie in “Mischievous Kiss: Love in Tokyo,” a television series based on Kaoru Tada’s romantic comedy manga series “Itazura na Kiss,” which aired in 2013. His portrayal of Naoki — a cocky, smart and charming high school student — won the hearts of many girls, gaining him an army of fans across Asia.

“I would have never pursued acting if I hadn’t had an amazing opportunity,” Furukawa says, referring to an event organized by HoriPro, one of the biggest entertainment agencies in Japan, as part of its 50th anniversary celebrations in 2010. Involving 10 “Mister Campus” (good-looking and talented male students at universities in Japan) contestants, the event was an audition to discover potential actors. Furukawa, who was selected as Mister Keio at his now alma mater Keio University, was invited to the contest and won a Special Recognition Award.

Born in Japan, Furukawa moved to Toronto, Canada at the age of 7 and attended a local school. After spending eight years in Canada, he moved alone to New York to attend a Japanese high school, spending a total of 11 years abroad before returning to Japan for college.

The 31-year-old says he faced cultural barriers upon his return.

“I had a lot of trouble getting used to the senpai-kōhai (senior-junior) relationship. I didn’t know how to use Japanese honorifics up until high school. I also struggled with bowing — I just couldn’t understand it,” says Furukawa. He adds that the senpai-kōhai issue also caused problems when he began acting in Japan as the Japanese entertainment industry is notoriously strict when it comes to such relationships.

“Sometimes I also struggle with how my words are too straightforward, which might partly have to do with me being a kikokushijo (a returnee from overseas), but I don’t really filter things like Japanese people do,” Furukawa says. “So sometimes people misunderstand me, and because of it, there was a time when I barely spoke to anyone.”

Furukawa says that growing up bilingual, speaking Japanese and English, has made it easier for him to work outside of Japan, but this has not always worked in his favor.

“I’ve auditioned two times for Hollywood before where I was told both times that my English is too good,” he says. “What that means is that they are generally looking for someone to play a ‘Japanese person, ‘which means they are not interested in someone who speaks English fluently. In fact, I was told both times to try to speak it badly to better fit their image of a ‘Japanese person,’ both verbally and physically.”

From July 31, Furukawa will be starring in “After the Quake,” a Yutaka Kuramochi-directed theater adaptation of two short stories — “Super-Frog Saves Tokyo” and “Honey Pie” — by Haruki Murakami. Set around the Great Hanshin Earthquake in 1995, the stories shed light on secondary victims of the natural disaster. The two stories have been merged into one hybrid for theater, with Furukawa performing as Junpei, a young writer trying to make a living out of writing short stories for publication.

“When I first read the book and the script, my understanding of Junpei was that he is very shy, as he is unable to express his feelings, especially towards Sayoko, his college crush,” Furukawa says. “But based on our rehearsals so far, it seems like the director, Kuramochi-san, doesn’t really want me to stick to that idea because it’ll only limit my movements and expressions, so he told me to let go of that image and try different things. Honestly, at this point it is hard to tell how Junpei will turn out to be in the end.”

Furukawa says the combination of the two stories is, at times, complicated.

“The four main characters’ actors will all be playing multiple roles as we also narrate stories for each other,” says Furukawa. “So when ‘Super-Frog Saves Tokyo’ is being performed on stage I will be narrating, but once the story is switched back to ‘Honey Pie,’ the Frog starts narrating.

“The lines are not necessarily all conversations. Sometimes I speak on behalf of another character and their feelings, then all of a sudden I start having a regular conversation, then I start speaking to the audience and then back to verbalizing my own feelings. Once the stories are nicely blended, you finally start feeling that eccentric atmosphere unique to Murakami’s world.”

In rehearsals, Furukawa shows himself to be receptive to new ideas and subtle directions and his performances clearly have plenty to offer to help bring stories to life. One can only look forward to his version of Junpei.

Six years ago in London, Furukawa took part in an Anglo-Japanese production, “Anjin: The Shogun and the English Samurai,” playing a Japanese Catholic priest.

Spending a couple of weeks with the Royal Shakespeare Company crew and surrounded by both British and Japanese cast members, he says the experience was extremely different and refreshing.

“In Japan, for example, when we all get together for script reads, the seats are already decided for us according to our roles and positions,” says Furukawa, “but that is not how it was in London as everyone sat wherever they wanted to.

“Here, people are very serious and only bring water, but in London they had snacks all over and were eating them while reading their lines. There was definitely more of a fun aspect to the entire process because there was more freedom.”

Having also worked on Chinese and Korean productions, Furukawa says that every place has its own on- and off-set vibe that reflects its cultural characteristics.

“I certainly don’t think one is better than the other, they’re all just different approaches to different things and the ideal would be to get the best of both worlds,” says Furukawa with a smile. “I do think it’s great that Japanese people are always on schedule, but because the majority of people who decide to pursue this industry do it not because of money but to follow their passions, sometimes I do feel that it could be nicer if Japan also had some of the more ‘fun’ aspects that I’ve experienced abroad.”

Despite his years in the industry, Furukawa says that he still has a lot to learn. He says that because acting has no definitive answer and is retirement-free, it allows him to continue to explore unlimited possibilities and take on further challenges.

“After the Quake” will run from July 31 to Aug. 16 at Yomiuri Otemachi Hall in Chiyoda Ward, Tokyo. For more information, and to purchase tickets, visit https://horipro- stage.jp/stage/kaminokodomo2019.

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