TV

Aoi Okuyama: From Hokkaido to the mean streets of London

by Matthew Hernon

Contributing Writer

A captivating Anglo-Japanese crime thriller series that explores the butterfly effect of a single murder in two separate cities, “Giri/Haji” (Duty/Shame) has been well-received by both fans and critics alike. Writer Joe Barton (“Humans”) and director Julian Farino (“Entourage”, “Marvellous”) have been lauded for the BBC-Netflix co-production, which looks at the impact and actions of the yakuza through a number of compelling characters, many of whom are morally ambiguous.

The quality of the acting from a glittering cast has also been highly-praised, with Emmy award-recipient Kelly Macdonald (“Boardwalk Empire,” “Trainspotting”) and Takehiro Hira (“Sekigahara”) leading the way in their starring roles as detectives Sarah Weitzmann and Kenzo Mori. However, for many viewers, it’s the pairing of Aoi Okuyama and Will Sharpe, playing Mori’s rebellious teenage daughter Taki and drug addict Rodney, repsectively, that really steals the show.

Okuyama, described as “extraordinary” in The Independent and “a revelation” in Radio Times, makes her screen debut in the series. A die-hard Harry Potter fan, Okuyama, 20, decided to become an actor after graduating from high school with hopes of one day becoming part of J.K. Rowling’s franchise.

She enrolled at the UPS Academy actors’ training organization in Tokyo, founded by Yoko Narahashi. The renowned casting director, who helped launch the Hollywood career of Ken Watanabe, told Okuyama about the role of Taki. The actor, who had never auditioned for anything before, decided to give it a go.

“It was all new, so I didn’t think I had a chance,” says Okuyama. “The process started with a video audition and then I had to perform in front of the director and other crew members when they came to Japan. The last time was with Hira. I had so much fun, but it was over before I knew it. While it was a great experience, I was sure that would be the end of it.”

She was wrong. Just before going into class, Okuyama, then age 18, was informed that she had been cast as Taki.

“It took a while to register,” she says. “I’m always watching Netflix at home and now I was going to be in one of its shows. Even after getting home, I still thought I was dreaming. Once reality set in, I signed up at an English school and started preparing for the part, thinking deeply about the character.”

Firstly, it was important for her to get inside the head of Taki, who follows her father Kenzo to London. A detective in Japan, he has flown to the U.K.’s capital in search of his capricious brother, Yuto (Yosuke Kubozuka), who has been accused of a murder that brought an end to a long-running yakuza truce. As tensions mount, the siblings end up on different sides of the fence during an epic battle in the city’s Soho neighborhood.

“It’s difficult for Taki,” says Okuyama. “She respects her father but struggles to communicate with him. As for her uncle, she loves him and thinks he’s cool, yet is aware he’s done bad things. She’s an opinionated girl who’s determined to go her own way even though she’s not sure what the right direction is. You can see her grow as a person while in London.”

On screen magic: Aoi Okuyama says she became an actor after realizing her dream of becoming a wizard was unlikely to come true.
On screen magic: Aoi Okuyama says she became an actor after realizing her dream of becoming a wizard was unlikely to come true.

Closely connected to the characters of Kenzo and Yuto, Okuyama spent a lot of time with Hira and Kubozuka both on and off set.

“They were like father figures, always offering advice,” she says. “Both have so much experience in the industry. I remember the first day being in a taxi with Kubozuka. Suddenly, it dawned on me that I was sitting next to the guy from ‘Go,’ a film I love. That was a strange feeling.”

Another actor she struck up a rapport with was Will Sharpe who plays the part of Rodney, a prostitute in London. Like his character, Sharpe is Japanese-British. In addition to his acting, he’s known as a writer, with credits that include the movies “Black Pond” and “The Darkest Universe,” as well as the sitcom “Flowers,” starring Oscar-winner Olivia Colman.

“I immediately thought he was a genius,” says Okuyama. “He’s very humorous and constantly coming up with ideas. I really enjoyed getting to know him. We got on so well and I think that showed in the relationship between Rodney and Taki. It felt natural.”

With the rest of the British cast there were some language barriers, but Okuyama still managed to strike up a good relationship with them and they sometimes surprised her by speaking Japanese. They also taught her some English slang.

The Hokkaido native says she worked hard on her language skills and became quite good at listening, though sometimes found it difficult to know whether people were joking or not, particularly director Farino. “He usually was,” she says with a laugh.

One cast member Okuyama was particularly excited about meeting was Kelly Macdonald, who played Helena Ravenclaw in “Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows — Part 2.”

“I told her I was a fan of the movie, but not how crazy I was about it,” says Okuyama. “I also saw her in ‘Trainspotting.’ Being a big star, I thought she might be quite cool, yet she was so down-to-earth and cute, constantly asking us if we’d like some of her Jelly Babies. She also tried to teach me some Scottish English.”

Listening to Okuyama, it’s clear she had fun filming and surprisingly, given that it was her first time, she didn’t seem to suffer from nerves.

“I slept for 13 hours before the first shoot,” she says, while smiling. “I’m generally quite relaxed, and everyone made me feel welcome, so it was fine. I know how lucky I am to have made my debut in an international show with some amazing actors and such a powerful story. I don’t think there are other yakuza dramas or films like this. It’s unique and once you start watching, it’s difficult to stop.”

Shooting was split between the U.K. (around 8 months) and Japan (roughly 3 months), taking place in various locations. For the Japanese cast, it was an opportunity to visit parts of the British Isles they normally wouldn’t, such as Rye and Hastings in the south of England.

“It was my first time in Britain, and it was as good as I imagined,” says Okuyama. “I enjoyed just walking around, looking at the architecture, going to markets, that kind of thing. The shopkeepers were very interesting. As for the food, it’s better than people say, especially curry. Hastings was very beautiful; however, (London’s) Brick Lane was probably my favorite destination, along with the Harry Potter studio tour, of course.”

The actor still hopes to one day land a part in a Harry Potter-related film. Although the main series has finished, there’s always the “Fantastic Beasts” films, and they’re unlikely to be the last of the spinoffs. Featuring in a highly reputed British-Japanese production so early in her career certainly won’t have done her prospects any harm.

“I’ve always dreamed big,” she says. “I used to want to be an astronaut or a wizard. When I finally realized the latter was actually impossible, I thought the next best thing would be to try to get into acting. A lot of people laughed and said I was childish, but my friends and family have always been very supportive. I hope one day I can realize my goal. For now, though, I want to focus on improving as an actor and hope to take on a variety of different roles.”

“Giri/Haji” is now streaming on Netflix. For more information, visit www.netflix.com.

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