It’s early May and actress Mei Nagano, 21, is at Tokyo’s Hanazono Shrine doing publicity for her similarly named action comedy, “Jigoku no Hanazono” (literally, “Flower Garden of Hell”), titled “Office Royale” in English.
It’s an appropriate place to have an interview, the shrine is said to be a favorite spot for businessmen to pray for success, and it’s just a stone’s throw away from Kabukicho, an entertainment district that has long been a stomping ground for underworld types (who are occasionally known to stomp each other).
“Office Royale” is based on an original script by the comic Bakarhythm, and it stars Nagano as an OL (office lady) clerk working at a big company and leading a mundane existence. Among her colleagues, however, are yankī (delinquent) OLs belonging to factions that fight pitched battles for corporate supremacy. The contrast between the peaceful lives of the protagonist and her pals and the war-like goings-on around them is a source of laughs, as well as a surprise when we find out that Nagano’s character is not so ordinary after all.
Directed by Kazuaki Seki, a music video veteran making his first feature, the film may focus on the gags but also satirically comments on Japanese society’s tendency to turn a collective blind eye to what it finds strange, uncomfortable or, in the case of the feuding factions, comically violent.
Back at Hanazono Shrine, Nagano was asked by an emcee what she had prayed for.
“That the film be a big hit, of course,” she replied. “But since not all theaters are open now, even though a lot of films are on release, I also prayed that theaters all over the country might open safely.”
Nagano then held up a votive placard, known as an “ema,” on which visitors to the shrine traditionally write their wishes. It read: “zokuhen” (sequel).
She may only be 21, but Nagano is a showbiz pro. She made her acting debut in 2009 when she was cast in the low-budget actioner “Hard revenge, Milly: Bloody Battle.” Her long list of credits includes a starring role in the 2018 NHK morning drama series “Half Blue Sky,” which she landed after beating out 2,366 competitors in auditions. She also played the female lead in “Teiichi: Battle of Supreme High,” a hit 2017 comedy about an epic power struggle in a manga-like elite high school.
With the prayers over, Nagano joined me in a room inside the shrine, where we sat across from each other at a table divided by a clear partition. Naturally, I asked her about the hoped-for sequel.
“People active in various areas got together to make the film,” she says. “We had a strong team, and during filming everyone was motivated and had confidence in what they were trying to do … there really aren’t many films like that. That was a growth experience for me. So, I want to see how the world of the film unfolds further.”
She adds that she was excited about the project even before reading the script.
“I’d heard that Bakarhythm had written it and that Mr. Seki would direct it so I knew it would be interesting,” she says. “That’s why I wanted to do it before I read the script. After I read it, though, I knew for sure that it would be a really interesting film.”
“Office Royale” features a number of action scenes that are executed with a level of skill that is surprising given that most of the actors, Nagano among them, are not action specialists.
“Those scenes worried me at first,” she says. “I thought I’d find it hard to curse at people in a loud voice, and I’d never done action scenes before. I didn’t know what it felt like to hit people.”
Nagano trained for four months under the supervision of action director Minoru Tomita.
“I practiced extra hard, starting from zero,” she says. “The style was closest to kickboxing, but the action patterns that we were actually going to be using in the movie were already decided. So I worked on those, with the action director giving me detailed instructions.”
When I tell her the action scenes have real impact, she looks pleased.
“I thought that comic elements were unnecessary in the action scenes,” she says. “The story is a comedy but I wanted to show (my character) fighting for real. Everyone in the cast thought along the same lines.”
To that effect, Nagano’s character, Naoko Tanaka, is not your typical mild-mannered OL, though she tries to act like one. Like Clark Kent, she hides her true identity until she suddenly reveals it in one of the film’s funnier scenes.
“I thought of her as a mob character,’” says Nagano, referring to the kinds of non-player characters that populate the backgrounds of video games. “As the heroine, Naoko has monologues in the movie, but she is also always thinking about the close friends who are around her. So I saw her as someone who never tries to be the center of attention. She does also have this big delusion in her mind, but I tried not to exaggerate her too much.”
“Office Royale” will have its international premiere at the Far East Film Festival in Udine, Italy, in June. As I serve as a program adviser to the event, I tell Nagano it’s unfortunate that she won’t make the trip there due to the pandemic. However, there’s always the sequel, right?
“I’d definitely like to try,” she says. “I want to shoot a film in a foreign country.” That wasn’t exactly what I’d meant, but the prospect of Nagano battling her OL opponents in Udine’s Piazza San Marco, makes me want to write an ema of my own: “‘Office Royale’ in Italy.”
“Office Royale” opens in cinemas nationwide on May 21. For more information, visit the film’s homepage.
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