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While gender-fluid characters populate the plotlines of manga and anime series, there’s still a lack of representation in mainstream Japanese media. One Yomiuri TV drama hopes to bring a little more color to what has been a largely binary palette.”

Based on “My Androgynous Boyfriend,” a manga series by the artist Tamekou, “Colorful Love: My Androgynous Boyfriend” centers on rookie manga editor Wako (Ai Yoshikawa) and her relationship with Meguru, whom she rescued from bullies while at high school together. Often mistaken for a woman, Meguru enjoys wearing makeup and dressing in a genderless style.

Playing the part of Meguru is 19-year-old actor Rihito Itagaki, who won praise for his performances in the film “The Promised Neverland” last year and the TV series “Kamen Rider Zi-O.” Like his co-star Yoshikawa, “Colorful Love” marks his first lead role in a drama.

“There was a mix of nerves and excitement going into it,” Itagaki tells The Japan Times. “It’s a part I didn’t have to prepare too much for as Meguru and I are so similar. I felt comfortable with the clothes and makeup, and it’s great being able to work with Ai. Her character allows Meguru to be himself and that gives him the confidence to be more assertive and not hold back.”

Much like his character, Itagaki says he also enjoys expressing himself through fashion and makeup, a facet of his personality that he discovered acting in plays at junior high. This may explain his affinity with Meguru, who first appeared in Tamekou’s manga in 2018 in the monthly magazine Feel Young, which is geared toward young women.

“It’s a romantic comedy with two lead characters whose love for each other is pure, and there’s something remarkably comforting about that,” Itagaki says. “It’s also a story that addresses several issues pervading Japanese society, including feminism — not only in terms of how it applies to women, but to men and those who don’t identify as either male or female.

“We can’t look at these issues as one sex versus another, or minorities against everyone else. Progress can only be made by cooperating with one another, and you can see that in (‘Colorful Love’).”

While the Yomiuri TV series is Itagaki’s first lead role, he has been working in the entertainment industry since the age of 2 when he made his debut as a model. Naturally, he can’t remember the specifics of his first steps into the public eye, still he has fond memories of commercial shoots as a child.

“They were lots of fun because I could dress up in wild clothes and become a different person,” Itagaki recalls. “That triggered an interest in acting. As a child I was more into dramas than anime, and was particularly inspired by powerful scenes in which actors displayed strong emotions.”

Itagaki made his big-screen debut with a small role as the child genius Ryuo Edogawa in Sakichi Sato’s 2014 thriller “Tokyo Slaves.” The actor then went on to appear in the Jumpei Matsumoto mystery “Embers,” as well as various TV shows. His most significant role prior to “Colorful Love,” though, has been math prodigy Norman in the live-action adaptation of Kaiu Shirai’s bestselling manga series, “The Promised Neverland.”

“Of course, I was delighted to get the part, but the overwhelming feeling was one of anxiety as Norman is an iconic character for a lot of people and I didn’t want to let anyone down,” Itagaki says. “The response seemed positive, which was a relief and made me very happy.”

Itagaki discovered a different (yet familiar) outlet to express himself while working on the 2019 medical show “Cheers to Miki Clinic.” During filming, he became close with lead actors Masanobu Ando and Takahiro Miura, who frequently shot photographs in between takes.

“Ando and Miura were constantly clicking away on their cameras while on set and the vibe was really good,” Itagaki says. “I jokingly mentioned that it would be nice to do a photobook. A few months later, I heard from my management about the ‘Rihito 18’ project and that (actor) Hayato Ichihara would be involved as well. I was keen to do it immediately.”

“Rihito 18” is a collection of artistic shots by the three actors with Itagaki playing the part of muse in an array of androgynously styled outfits. Most of Ando and Miura’s pictures were taken amid the natural settings found on islands in Kagoshima Prefecture, with Miura opting to give his model a more grown-up look. Ichihara’s shots, meanwhile, put Itagaki in the cafes and back alleys that populate Tokyo to bring out a more youthful energy.

“It was interesting to see their contrasting techniques,” Itagaki says. “With Ando it was like being on a movie set as he was trying to create a story. Ichihara had a more relaxed and delicate style, and Miura would take the pictures without me even realizing. I hadn’t experienced anything like that before. It was fun.”

Although Itagaki is clearly a natural in front of the camera, he says his main focus will remain on acting and continuing to explore where his particular look takes him.

“I’ve been fortunate to have been given so many great opportunities at such an early stage of my career,” Itagaki says. “I love the photo shoots — and drawing, which is another passion of mine — but ultimately my main goal right now is to continue improving as an actor. Meguru is my first starring role and hopefully there will be many more to come.”

“Colorful Love: My Androgynous Boyfriend” airs on Thursdays at 11:59 p.m. on Yomiuri TV until June 3. Episodes are also available to stream on Hulu Japan. For more information, visit www.ytv.co.jp/colorfulovele (Japanese only).

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