When we think of the Japanese women that grace the big screen, characteristics that come to mind are classic looks, undeniable cuteness and versatile talent. But in recent years, Japanese cinema has also seen a rise in popularity of actresses who take on challenging roles showing another side of female beauty: strength, passion and the ability to empower other women (and even men) through demanding performances in bold films. In this article, we introduce three contemporary actresses currently surging in popularity in Japan and who are successfully becoming recognized on the global stage — just as they should!
1.Yu Aoi (蒼井優)
Her signature look — long black hair, husky voice and an unintimited manner — tells you that she is not afraid of any challenges. From lighthearted romantic comedies to heartbreaking human dramas to horror and thriller films, Aoi’s work spans pretty much every J-cinema and TV genre. Since her debut in Shunji Iwai’s controversial 2001 film All About Lily Chou-Chou in which she played a high school girl dating elderly men for compensation, she has starred in over 50 movies, 30 television dramas, numerous musicals and plays, in addition to countless appearances on regular TV programs and commercials. She is also a model who has graced the covers of Japan’s most popular fashion, beauty and lifestyle magazines.
Born in Fukuoka, Aoi made her stage debut at the age of 14 as Polly in the 1999 rendition of the musical Annie — a role she landed after competing against 10,000 applicants at the audition. That helped launch a movie and accompanying fashion career before she focused almost entirely on film after successful roles in the teen romance Hana and Alice (2004), Letters from Nirai Kanai (2005), Hula Girls (2006) and the romantic Edo-era drama The Lightning Tree (2010). In 2008, after many solid TV appearances in supporting roles, she landed the starring role in the series Osen, one that won her even more fans.
Known for saying that “nothing scares her,” Aoi continues to take on difficult acting challenges. In preparation for her role in Welcome to the Quiet Room (2007), where she played an anorexic girl in a women’s-only mental hospital, she went on a drastic diet, losing seven kilograms to inhabit the skin of her character. Aoi has so far won 30 movie awards, including Best Actress for her performance in Hana and Alice, Best Supporting Actress for Yamato, six awards for her performance in Hula Girls and seven gongs for her outstanding performance in the heartbreaking 2017 drama Birds Without Names, including Best Actress. In 2017, she also starred in the live-action adaptation of the famous dark fantasy comic series Tokyo Ghoul, a film which was shown at the Japanese Film Festival in India in 2017.
In 2018, together with Sakura Ando, Hikari Mitsushima and Aoi Miyazaki, Aoi was selected as one of the four “muses of the silver screen,” actresses who are making an outstanding contribution to the Japanese film industry, at the 30th Tokyo International Film Festival.
- She is very good at ballet, a talent that comprised a pivotal scene in her memorable performance in Hana and Alice.
- She loves kakigori (Japanese shaved ice) so much that she has purchased a professional machine to make the treat at home herself.
- She is a huge sumo fan.
2.Yuna Taira (平祐奈)
One of the most promising young Japanese actresses working today, at just 19, Yuna Taira already has a solid acting portfolio in cinema and TV. With the massive appeal of her role in the 2017 film ReLife, an even more promising career is on the horizon.
Born in 1998 in Hyogo Prefecture in a family with five siblings — two of whom are also well known public figures — Taira became interested in acting from an early age. Her debut would have not happened, however, if it weren’t for her mother and grandmother who applied on her behalf for an audition for the 2011 movie I Wish (Kiseki) — a role she landed. Her innocent looks and undeniable talent have since led to roles in at least one movie and TV drama per year. The year 2017 was by far her busiest, appearing in a total of eight movies, including her biggest hit and first leading role as Chizuru Hishiro in ReLife, a romantic comedy/drama about an unmotivated businessman who gets his once-in-a-life chance to go back to high school and change his life. Taira plays a girl who is tops in academics, but otherwise shy, without friends and desperately dreaming about a reason to change her life and become more popular — a dream that eventually comes true. The movie was a major success, pushing Taira up the ladder of popularity in Japan. ReLife was also the opening movie at the Japanese Film Festival India in New Delhi, where Taira was invited as a special guest. It was the first time for her to attend a film festival outside Japan and she enjoyed immensely taking part in a talk show and interacting with fans who had joined the event. Both ReLife and Mumon: The Land of Stealt, in which she starred in 2008, were screened in several Japanese film festivals in the Asia-Pacific region winning popularity among local fans.
Her latest movie, Honey, is set to be released at the end of March 2018.
Taira is the younger sister of popular TV personality Airi Taira, who is married to soccer player Yuto Nagatomo.
- Taira is the youngest of six siblings.
- She has promised her mom that she won’t shave her eyebrows or drink coffee until she turns 20. She has so far kept the promises.
3.Mugi Kadowaki (門脇麦)
With a boyish look and somewhat detached, distant appearance, Mugi Kadowaki is a mysterious persona to many: a soon to be renowned jewel in Japan’s film industry.
Born in Tokyo in 1992, Kadowaki always dreamt of becoming a professional ballerina. She devoted her youth to classical ballet, but gave up her aspiring career while still in junior high school, feeling she lacked the skill and drive to become professional. Determined to have a career on the stage, however, and inspired by actresses Yu Aoi (our first on this list) and Aoi Miyazaki, Kadowaki decided to pursue a film career. By the time she graduated from high school she had already sent her resume to an agency. She debuted on TV in the 2011 series Misaki Number One!!, a high school series about a passionate young teacher who leads an underperforming class through a major mindset change. Her performance won critics’ approval, leading to several commercial gigs (including one as a ballerina for Tokyo Gas) and eventually a film debut in 2012 and a leading role in Yuichi Onuma’s 2013 work School Girl Complex Hosobu Hen.
Her career has since taken a major leap forward, with film and TV appearances one after another. A leading role as Tama in Niju Seikatsu (Double Life), where she plays a mysterious university student who ends up following people around and discovering their deepest secrets, was her biggest hit to date and a major breakthrough in her acting career. The film was screened at the 2017 Japanese Film Festival in Australia, along with Her Sketchbook, another of her movies from the same year. The screenings were followed by a Q&A session with Kadowaki herself, who had been invited as a special guest. The film attracted major attention from local viewers and media. That same year, she took on a challenging role as a boy in the theatrical play I am Shingo, proving that her acting is borderless and up to any challenges that come her way.
In 2018, Kadowaki won the prestigious Elan d’or Award for Newcomer of the Year. She has also won three other gongs for her 2014 role in Love’s Whirlpool, in which she played a university student with an exceptionally high sexual drive. Kadowaki is today one of the most popular faces on Japanese big and big screens with many other exciting opportunities coming her way.
- Her first name Mugi means “wheat” and is her real name. She was given the name in the hope that she would grow “up to the sky” like the tall grain.
- She used to be shy in high school and would spend most of her time alone at home, so much so that she would rent videos at the local rental store in an alphabetical order.
Our three muses on this list have successfully proven through their careers that there is a growing trend in Japan to popularize strong female characters and ambitious roles that challenge people’s perceptions that it’s mainly the looks that gets one up on the big screen. These women are powerful, fearless and are serving as essential role models for young fans both in Japan and abroad — and we can’t help but be excited about everything they are yet to show the world!
Text by Alexandra Homma