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Great expectations, great return from rising acting star Mayu Matsuoka

J-Cinema Spotlight: Actress of the month

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Mayu Matsuoka

Kiki Kirin, Japan’s legendary actress who sadly passed away last year, once told her that she had a very forgettable face. For a young actress, you’d think this is a shocking statement, but Mayu Matsuoka isn’t worried: she knows that veteran Kiki meant that for an actress, this is, in fact, a plus — like a true chameleon she can embrace any roles that come her way.

And that is exactly what Mayu Matsuoka, one of Japan’s most recent rising movie stars, has been doing since the age of eight when she joined Japan’s show business world. From roles as a geeky introvert to such of a damaged sex worker, at the age of just 24, Matsuoka’s acting portfolio is as colorful and varied as a Picasso canvas — and naturally, Japan has all eyes on her for a good reason.

The early beginnings

Matsuoka entered Japan’s show business world at the age of eight when she accompanied her younger sister, Hina, to an audition. She was invited to “also give it a try” and just out of curiosity she signed up with the agency. Since then, young Matsuoka appeared in two minor roles in the 2006 movie AKIBA and a TV program in the following year, but nothing more significant would cross her acting career until 2008 when she got a role on Oha Suta, a popular children variety program. Matsuoka left the program approximately two years later to focus on her acting career off the TV screen.

In 2012, she took part in three movies, including The Kirishima Thing (Kirishima, bukatsu yameru tteyo) and Lesson of the Evil (Aku no kyoten), both popular titles in which she played minor roles as a high school student.

In 2013, she appeared in Amachan, a TV drama set in the March 11, 2011 earthquake and tsunami-hit Tohoku region of Japan, which became a national hit. While her role wasn’t particularly memorable, it opened many doors for Matsuoka, including her special appearance as a member of the “Amachan band” in the widely popular music program NHK Kohaku Uta Gassen in the same year. Since then, Matsuoka’s schedule kept being busy, with roles, both on TV and the big screen, coming her way one after another.

The big break

Despite having already secured her first leading role in a film in one of the chapters of the 2016 teenage drama Hokago Lost, it wasn’t until 2017, however, when Japan began to notice Matsuoka’s versatile talent.

Her first solo leading role came with Akiko Ooku’s Tremble All You Want (Katte ni Furuetero), in which she played Yoshika, a geeky company employee who juggles between her constantly changing moods, feelings and two men she can’t seem to decide between. The movie was shown at the 2017 Tokyo International Film Festival (TIFF) and instantly became a hit largely due to Matsuoka’s eccentric performance of a young woman who just can’t seem to decide — a role that seemed to have resonated with the audience to the extent that they chose the film for the festival’s prestigious Audience Award.

This cemented Matsuoka’s status as one of Japan’s top young talents on the rise, leading to her increased appearance both in TV dramas, the big screen and a number of TV commercials.

From Shoplifters to TIFF 2018

In 2018, Matsuoka secured a role in Hirokazu Kore-eda’s Shoplifters (Manbiki Kazoku), the award-winning international mega hit which follows the story of a “family” comprised of social outcasts and damaged souls that lives off of shoplifting while questioning our traditional understanding of what a “real family” is comprised of. The role — which Matsuoka earned via an open audition — gave the young star not only increased popularity, but also a ticket to Europe, and with it — an international recognition.

The movie won the prestigious Palme d’Or award at the 2018 Cannes Film Festival, where the entire movie cast, stayed in the international spotlight months after the event.

Matsuoka returned to Japan with a great smile, ready for new adventures: the first of which was her ambassador position at the 2018 Tokyo Film Festival, a very important PR role given only to stars of a certain caliber. The move showed Japan and the world that Matsuoka was high up there, ready to embrace anything that comes her way.

Mayu Matsuoka 2

With a busier than ever schedule and a number of anticipated leading roles in the pipeline, the road ahead for Matsuoka seems to be nothing but bright. Coming up in 2019 is her second major leading role in the movie adaptation of Riku Onda’s novel Mitsubachi to Enrai (lit. Bees and Thunders), set to be released in Japan this autumn, and a number of other major productions we all can’t help but be excited about.

In the meantime, we can all sit back, relax and rewatch some of Matsuoka’s best works to date, starting from The Kirishima Thing (2012), where a group of high school students try to figure out why a star athlete drops out of the volleyball team, Chihayafuru Part 3 (2018), where Matsuoka plays the rival of main protagonist, Chihaya, the queen of karuta (a traditional Japanese card game), and Blank 13 (2017), a human drama about a son who discovers the unknown life of his father after his death.

Text by: Rose Haneda