Set to reprise her role as spirited ninja Misao Makimachi in the “Rurouni Kenshin” films, Tao Tsuchiya says she still has to pinch herself sometimes to believe she’s part of the action-adventure series.
Well, there’ll be no doubting it soon enough when “Rurouni Kenshin: The Final” hits screens later this month, followed by “Rurouni Kenshin: The Beginning” in June.
Based on Nobuhiro Watsuki’s manga, the films follow the exploits of Kenshin Himura (Takeru Satoh), a former assassin turned protector seeking to atone for all the blood on his hands. After defeating his nemesis Makoto Shishio in the third film, 2014’s “Rurouni Kenshin: The Legend Ends,” Kenshin decided to hang up the sword and retire with his partner. However, when his favorite restaurant is destroyed by a man who is hell-bent on punishing Kenshin for a past murder, our protagonist is pulled back into the action.
Tsuchiya, 26, was still a teenager when the first “Ruroni Kenshin” movie came out in 2012. It was exactly the kind of film the burgeoning actress wanted to be in, and the action scenes left a big impression on her, but at the time she was struggling to book roles.
“I was so blown away by the original, I saw it twice in the first week,” she tells The Japan Times. “I wondered why I couldn’t get into movies like that. I was athletic, working hard and trying for many parts, yet it just wasn’t happening. When I heard about the sequel, ‘Rurouni Kenshin: Kyoto Inferno,’ l decided to audition. But didn’t think I had a chance.”
Tsuchiya was wrong. She was chosen to play Misao, a feisty teen whose optimism provides a stark contrast to the film’s dark narrative. Misao first crosses paths with Kenshin after she attempts to steal the master swordsman’s weapon, leading to an entertaining fight scene. She then tags along with him to Kyoto, hoping he’ll lead her to Aoshi Shinomori (Yusuke Iseya), a ruthless assassin who killed her adoptive grandfather, but also happens to be the love of her life. Romance in the age of samurai was never clear cut.
“In the last movie, I felt Misao’s dissatisfaction,” Tsuchiya says. “Despite being a ninja, she hates violence and that fight (between Aoshi and Kenshin) left her angry. Her frustrations boil over in the coming movies. I’m delighted to have the chance to play her again and bring more to the emotion of the character and the action scenes.”
Tsuchiya’s interest in acting was first piqued after watching Tim Burton’s 1990 gothic fantasy “Edward Scissorhands,” which inspired her to try acting in an elementary school play. Despite enjoying the experience, however, something wasn’t quite right as she struggled with pronunciation.
“I was diagnosed with ankyloglossia,” Tsuchiya says, referring to a condition also known as “tongue-tie.” “Before that I just thought I wasn’t good at enunciating. After I found out it was a treatable medical condition, I underwent surgery to have part of the web of my tongue cut. That had a huge impact on my life and career, opening me up to new worlds within acting.”
Tsuchiya went on to make her film debut at the age of 13 in Kiyoshi Kurosawa’s “Tokyo Sonata,” which won the Jury Prize of the Un Certain Regard section at the 2008 Cannes Film Festival. Though it was only a small part, she says it was “an unbelievable and unforgettable experience,” made even better by the fact that she was able to work with Teruyuki Kagawa, one of her acting heroes.
In the years that followed, Tsuchiya made a name for herself in various dramas and films, including the teen fantasy drama “Orange,” for which she won a Newcomer of the Year award at the 39th Japan Academy Prizes.
One of her bigger breaks came in 2015 when she won the lead role in national broadcaster NHK’s asadora (morning drama) “Mare.” Tsuchiya also had to play the role of spokesperson for the network, taking part in such events as the end-of-year musical extravaganza, “Kohaku Uta Gassen.”
“I was filming (the preceding morning drama) ‘Hanako to Anne’ on the day of the audition,” Tsuchiya says. “There was supposedly an asadora jinx that the person playing the younger sister of the heroine — which I played in ‘Hanako to Anne’ — was never chosen as the lead in the following series. Despite banging my head on the door on the way out, my luck was in. I managed to book the role and break the curse.”
As well as performing in “Mare,” Tsuchiya wrote the lyrics for the opening theme song, “Marezora,” which she says was heavily influenced by a piece of advice that her mother had given her: “Life’s not just what’s in front of you. If you want something, go out and get it.”
Tsuchiya has clearly taken her mother’s words to heart, branching out into both dance and music. In 2016, she appeared in the Japanese music video for Australian singer Sia’s track “Alive,” causing a bit of a buzz online. She also gave singing a shot, recording the tracks “Felicies,” for the dubbed version of the animated film “Ballerina,” and “Anniversary” with Dish vocalist Takumi Kitamura.
“I’ve always had a complex about my voice, including when I appear in musicals, but I now try to look at it as a chance to express myself and have steadily become more confident,” Tsuchiya says. “I feel more at ease dancing as I’ve been doing it since I was 3, but with the Sia video I was nervous because the original music video (with child karate champion Mahiro Takano) was so impressive. I gave it everything I had.”
The popularity of the music video earned her some recognition overseas, as did her role as Usagi Yuzuha in last year’s “Alice in Borderland” on Netflix, which was a hit in Asia and Europe.
Aside from the “Rurouni Kenshin” films, Tsuchiya has another project set to be released this summer: “Jump!! The Heroes Behind the Gold.” The film tells the story of test ski jumpers at the 1998 Nagano Olympics, specifically Jinya Nishikata (played by Kei Tanaka), who missed the cut for the national team yet remained a vital component of their success.
“I portray Jinya’s wife, who’s constantly there to support him,” Tsuchiya says. “In preparing, it wasn’t just about mimicking her speech or mannerisms, but also trying to display that closeness between her and her husband. It helped that Kei and I had worked together on ‘The Cinderella Addiction’ so we had that familiarity with each other. I enjoyed playing a real-life person.”
While Tsuchiya is set to have a busy year promoting her various acting projects, she’s looking beyond the entertainment industry to live up to her mother’s words.
“It’s important to keep challenging myself as an actor while continuing to grow as a human,” she says. “I’ve just graduated from university, and my goal now is to go to troubled environments, do more charity work and use my privileged position to help others.”
“Rurouni Kenshin: The Final” and “Rurouni Kenshin: The Beginning” will be released nationwide on April 23 and June 4 respectively. For more information about Tao Tsuchiya, visit ameblo.jp/tao-tsuchiya (Japanese only).
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