Actress Junko Abe bursts into international cinema
After his decisive role in the film “Futatsume no Mado” (“Still the Water”) by Naomi Kawase, nominated for the Palme d’Or in 2014, Junko Abe seemed destined to become a big star in Japan. At the time, she was known by her stage name Jun Yoshinaga and was considered one of the brightest young actresses in the country.
It would have been easy for the Osaka-born artist to sit still while waiting for the next offer. However, she instead decided to take a career break, surprisingly leaving her agency to fly to the United States for a year to study English and Drama at New York University.
âUntil that point in my life, I never really believed in myself as an actor,â Abe told the Japan Times. âI felt my technique needed strengthening and the best place to do it was NYU Tisch School of the Arts, because the drama program there is world famous. The fact that I could live abroad and learn a foreign language made it an even more attractive proposition.
During her time in the United States, Abe’s confidence grew, not only in terms of her game, but also in the way she behaved around others.
âBefore I went to America, I was a closed person,â says Abe. âI studied actors and I knew their strengths, but I didn’t know myself. With the support of teachers and fellow students, who really understood my character, I was able to open up and accept myself for who I really am. That’s why I gave up my stage name.
After returning to Japan, Abe, as he was now called, signed with art agency Amuse. Since then, she has appeared in a wide range of TV shows and films, including popular NHK morning drama “Toto Nechan” and Kazuya Shiraishi’s yakuza film “Blood of Wolves” (“Koro no Chi “), released in May of last year.
The action film won a series of awards, including Best Supporting Actress for Abe at the Osaka Film Festival. It was actor Koji Yakusho who received the most accolades, however, for his starring role as Shogo Ogami, a maverick cop believed to be in cahoots with the criminals he’s supposed to catch.
âIt has been an honor to work with Yakusho,â says Abe. âI have so much respect for him. Not just for his acting performances, which are always impressive, but also for his behavior behind the scenes. He is exceptional at building relationships with those around him. I learned so much from him and the rest of the cast and crew. It was a fun set and Shiraishi was very passionate about the project.
The same month that âThe Blood of Wolvesâ was released, Abe starred in his first English-speaking role as Sachiko in Koji Fukada’s modern fantasy film âThe Man from the Seaâ (âUmi o Kakeruâ). Although she had long had ambitions to speak English in films, before her stay in New York, she felt she was not ready.
âI realized this when I spoke to (Canadian director) Xavier Dolan at the 2014 Cannes Film Festival,â says Abe. âHe is someone I have admired for a long time and with whom I would like to have the opportunity to work. Unfortunately, on this occasion, I could not express myself correctly, which is a great regret for me.
The 25-year-old actress is now able to converse well in her second language, as shown in her latest film, “The Prisoner of Sakura” (“Sorokin no Mita Sakura”), which will premiere in the Ehime prefecture on March 16. national opening a week later.
An international love story directed by Masaki Inoue, it is set against the backdrop of the Russo-Japanese War, which took place between 1904 and 1905.
Playing a dual role in the film, Abe plays the main lady Yui Takeda and her great-granddaughter Sakurako Takamiya, with more than a century separating their stories. The first is a medic who falls in love with Alexander Sorokin, a Russian lieutenant and prisoner of war who plans to escape from his prison camp to participate in the Russian Revolution.
Sakurako, on the other hand, is a novice filmmaker attempting to direct a television program about the conflict that ended with the Treaty of Portsmouth in September 1905. During her research, she stumbled upon a newspaper detailing the romantic history of Yui and Sorokin.
âI was thrilled to have the opportunity to play two great female characters from different generations, but at the same time, it was a pretty nerve-racking prospect,â said Abe.
“It’s a story about the interactions between Russia and Japan during the war and, inside, the emphasis is on this romance between a nurse and a soldier,” the actress continues. âYui was facing a difficult dilemma as she had strong feelings for Sorokin, but the family members were against the relationship and she had a responsibility to her country. It’s hard not to sympathize with her plight.
Yui’s love interest is played by Rodion Galyuchenko, a Russian actor best known for his work in the theater than for anything he has done in the movies. Other notable cast members include Aleksandr Domogarov as Captain Vasily Boysman, Yoko Yamamoto as Yui’s granddaughter, and Takumi Saitoh, who assists Sakurako in the documentary. The outstanding performance, however, arguably comes from Issey Ogata, who assumes the role of prison warden Kono with a great air of authority.
âOgata is such an interesting and knowledgeable man,â says Abe. âWe weren’t in a lot of scenes together, but he helped me a lot. The two people I spent the most time with on set were Rodion who created a fun atmosphere, and Takumi, who is like an actor and a director at the same time. Going to Russia together was a great experience.
While part of the film was shot in St. Petersburg, most of Yui’s scenes take place in Matsuyama, Ehime Prefecture, the site of a POW camp that became famous during the Russo War. -Japanese because of the humane treatment of prisoners.
According to official documents, these captured soldiers were not considered criminals but honorable men in the service of their country. They were given good food, including beef, which was rare at the time, and could buy alcohol from local merchants.
Under supervision, it was possible to venture into the city, watch sumo, participate in local festivals, and swim at Dogo Onsen. Romantic liaisons between Russian soldiers and Japanese Red Cross nurses are said to have taken place, although Sorokin and Yui’s love story is fictitious.
Abe hopes the film can help strengthen the Japanese-Russian relationship which deteriorated somewhat after World War II due to four disputed islands.
She says that “cinema has this power to bridge the gaps between nations”, and that is why she is determined to appear in more cross-cultural films in the future.
âThe main reason I study English is that I can take on roles that connect Japan to the rest of the world,â she says. âI get nervous when I play in a foreign language, but above all it’s exciting. One of the things I love the most about my job is working with people of different nationalities.
The next international film in which Abe will appear is “Miss Osaka”, a co-production between Japan, Denmark and Norway, written and directed by Stockholm-born writer and filmmaker Daniel Dencik. The thriller is currently filming and is slated for release in the spring of next year.
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