As the camera slowly pans down on Hong Kong’s famous No.1028 King’s Road apartments, a woman appears in eye-catching red and orange. She starts dancing through the surrounding streets and markets in-sync with a steadily pounding bass and atmospheric pop tune, singing sweet lyrics of romance.
This image is part of Japanese electropop producer (and occasional film composer) Mondo Grosso’s 2017 music video ‘Labyrinth’. The catchy song and mesmerising video currently has more than 28 million views and positive comments spanning multiple languages on YouTube. While certainly a pleasant surprise for many thanks to the YouTube Algorithm, fans of Japanese cinema may be especially surprised by the music video’s dancing singer – Hikari Mitsushima.
Before ‘Labyrinth’ most international fans may have recognised Mitsushima for her work in film. But actually, the song represented a return to roots for Mitsushima, who began her entertainment career at age 11 as an idol in J-pop group Folder. It wasn’t until 2008 with Love Exposure that Mitsushima began building a consistent acting portfolio, kicking off a career that would see her explore a plethora of genres, from jidaigeki and period romance films, to off-kilter comedies and 3D horror movies.
As a result of her on-screen versatility and diverse filmography, Mitsushima was inducted into the 2017 Tokyo International Film Festival’s Muses of Japanese Cinema lineup alongside fellow acting peers Sakura Ando, Aoi Miyazaki, and Yu Aoi. The selection panel noted that Mitsushima “expresses the conflict within us, and the way our actions can betray our thoughts.” In exploring how Mitsushima achieves such depth across genres, we look back on five films which showcase how the actress brings into focus the emotional conflict and uncertainty experienced by women at various stages in life.
Love Exposure (2008)
Appearing in the occasional minor part throughout the mid-2000s in films such as Death Note and Exte, Mitsushima finally burst onto the scene in a major role as rebellious teen Yoko in Sion Sono’s twisted magnum opus Love Exposure.
Perfectly complementing the shifting tones of Sono’s script, Mitsushima lays bare the various facets of Yoko and the complexities between her religion, sexuality, and distrust of men through her opposing interactions with the other players of the film’s central love triangle – her step-brother Yu (Takahiro Nishijima), and the deceitful Koike (Sakura Ando). With Mitsushima utilising her naturally raspy vocal tone and large expressive eyes, Yoko’s steely gazes and shouting matches (often turned physical fights) with Yu are buzzing with the anger she harbours for men as a result of her childhood. Meanwhile when with her ‘girlfriend’, Mitsushima’s bubbly voice and giddy physicality reveals a rather bashful, love-struck side of Yoko to great comedic effect. Beneath these disparate personalities and Sono’s insane scenarios there is a unifying earnestness to Mitsushima’s delivery throughout, making Yoko’s later struggles with religion and identity hit all the more harder.
One such moment that demonstrates both Yoko’s wavering persona and inner-conflict comes when she resists Yu’s attempts to rescue her from a cult. As Sono’s camera is fixed on a close-up shot of Yoko, Mitsushima delivers an impassioned recital of Corinthians 13. The six-minute uncut scene sees her demeanour sway from resistive to enlightened and back, tears welling as the progressive changes in her expression indicate an internal struggle between her buried need for love, her indoctrination by the cult, and her understanding of the scripture.
Perhaps emotionally-demanding scenes such as this — as well as the on-set hardships behind them — are what Mitsushima refers to when reflecting on her Love Exposure experience as purifying.
“People often tell me that I have something boiling up in me, but you can never get rid of it…trusting and working with director Sono actually helped me to come clean and open up,” she said on-set, while also praising her time with her co-stars.
“I was totally bone without flesh, but now I think I have the flesh on top of my bone, or maybe I am reborn.”
With the film’s critical success at film festivals and eventual cult following, Mitsushima’s exposure exploded. Her performance earned her several ‘new talent’ awards in Japan, while director Sono claimed his film “also had the purpose of making Hikari Mitsushima big…it was able to bring out her charm to the world”.
Despite Mitsushima’s discomfort with being known primarily for Love Exposure (“it’s a bit of a disappointment [it’s considered a turning point]” Mitsushima said with a laugh), the actress acknowledges that overall it was a useful experience. In particular, she notes the film allowed her to meet co-star Sakura Ando and signified the first time she was chased after and “broken out of [her] shell” by a director. Both of these points, it would turn out, would prove relevant to her next major film.
Kakera: A Piece of our Life (2010)
While Love Exposure’s lesbian relationship is framed voyeuristically and somewhat exploitatively, Mitsushima’s 2010 queer romance film Kakera: A Piece of our Life stands in stark contrast.
Consciously avoiding fetishistic depictions of lesbians and women, Momoko Ando’s debut feature focuses on the smaller moments between women traversing friendship and romance, including all the up-and-downs which affect all relationships.
With seemingly little social life outside of an unsatisfying relationship with her boyfriend, quiet college student Haru (Mitsushima) is approached by the extremely-forward Riko (Eriko Nakamura) at a cafe. The two begin hanging out regularly as friends, although Riko harbours romantic intentions. As Haru slowly accepts turning their relationship romantic, Riko’s possessiveness begins to take a toll.
On casting Mikushima in a more reserved role, Ando says she wanted to bring out a side of the actress unknown to audiences.
“Hikari had never played a quiet character before,” Ando told Midnight Eye, acknowledging she was aware of the actress thanks to her role alongside her sister Sakura in Love Exposure.
“I wanted to cast the characters completely opposite from how the actresses are in real life. Hikari Mitsushima who plays Haru is really energetic and just says anything she wants to say, while Eriko Nakamura who plays Riko is quite quiet…It was a kind of mirror casting.”
“I thought it would be much stronger if I could try and bring out this other side to the characters that is hidden deep inside the actress rather than just show them as they are in real life.”
Mitsushima also recalls being forced to bring out unpleasant parts of herself aesthetically and emotionally to support Ando’s vision for her film. Make-up was not allowed on-set and Mitsushima was told to grow her armpit and other body hair. In an attempt to emphasise Haru’s lack of direction in life, Ando intentionally ignored Mitsushima on set to “make her really depressed and lost throughout the whole process”. Mitsushima also drew a parallel between her character being told she “smell[s] like an animal” in the film to her difficulties on-set, saying “I think I really was an animal. I was being fed and existed.”
“Now it is funny when we are talking about it, but it was really hard during the filming. Yet as a result, I was able to portray ‘adolescent Haru’,” Mitsushima reflected at a showing of the film.
Sawako Decides (2010)
For her next major film, Mitsushima combined the reserved and self-assured aspects of her previous roles for the evolution of her titular character in Sawako Decides.
Five years after moving to Tokyo from her countryside hometown, Sawako (Mitsushima) appears defeated and aimless. Mitsushima’s empty-eyed expression, monotonous recital of the phrase “it can’t be helped” at any inconvenience, and panicked stuttering at the mere chance of offending anyone plays into director Yuya Ishii’s use of dry humour to highlight the detachment of youth from their sense of self.
After a family emergency pulls her back to her hometown, Sawako reframes her previous assertion that she is a ‘lower-meddling’ woman with no control over life. She now proudly owns her identity as an ordinary person in a spectacular release of built-up frustration. Mitsushima switches from pensive to explosive, showing audiences Sawako’s true emotions through excellent control over volume, pacing, and body language, without forgetting that Sawako is still a bit awkward when it comes to such soul baring communication.
Director Ishii praised how Mitsushima brought to life Sawako’s awakening, saying of the actress, “I had the impression that suddenly something sparkled or that there was someone with shining splendour. She also had the powerfulness of going forward.”
Mitsushima, meanwhile, believes the strength and earnestness that Sawako possesses is unlike any woman of her generation. Such a challenge made the actress all the more determined, reportedly telling Ishii that “the role and this work [Sawako Decides] are necessary to my life.”
“It was a role that I had to throw away my pride and the clever wisdom that I had acquired so far in my life,” she said. “It is not about ‘to make’ but…[to] ‘break’ myself and strike against everything.”
From 2010 to 2011, Mitsushima showed no signs of slowing down, appearing in eight different films by directors like Takashi Miike (Hara-Kiri: Death of a Samurai) and Lee Sang-il (Villain). However, it is the less-known Tormented in 2011 which represented many new firsts for the actress, including her first time as a lead in a horror film.
Tormented focuses on the story of Kiroki (Mitsushima) and her younger brother, who after a trip to a movie theatre are haunted by ghosts and a figure in a giant rabbit suit.
While the premise sounds outlandish on paper, the film manages to tie together what are initially monsters used for cheap jump scares into symbolic explorations of Kiroki’s PTSD, suppression of guilt, and inner-torment of not being sure what is real. Mitsushima says it was the film’s blurred lines between reality and imagination — not the scares — which drew her to the project.
“I read the script and there was something that touched me emotionally,” Mitsushima said. “I can’t handle ghosts, but I am charmed by things possibly occurring by human’s imagination, or perhaps they are not just imagination.”
Mitsushima was faced with the added challenge of presenting to audiences a mute horror lead, an interesting inverse of the ‘scream queen’ trope of Western horror films. As such, the actress relied on exaggerated body movements and more subtle facial expressions to communicate. In a scene which puts into question Kiroki’s presentation of events, Kiroki desperately tries to retrieve her brother from being sucked into a cinema screen. Distressed and frantic she is held down by audience members, until a sudden cut shows her actually being restrained in a mental institution – her arms and body resisting restraint by doctors, but her face blank and withdrawn from the chaos around her.
On tackling a role without using her voice for the first time, Mitsushima told Movie Walker, “When I could not speak words, my other feelings came out at their extreme, or perhaps I should say, I felt they were sharpened.”
The End of Summer (2013)
From uncertain realities to uncertain desires, Mitsushima waded further into new territory in 2013 with the 1950s-set period drama The End of Summer.
In the film, middle-aged kimono-maker Tomoko’s (Mitsushima, who undertook stencil dying lessons in preparation for the role) hatred of being alone sees her embroiled in two simultaneous romances. After leaving her husband and child suddenly, Tomoko enters an eight-year affair with married man Shingo (Kaoru Kobayashi), while also exploring a romance with the younger Ryota (Go Ayano). As Ryota begins to detest Tomoko’s relationship with Shingo, Tomoko is also no longer content in being Shingo’s ‘other woman’. Emotionally exhausted and unsure as to what she wants, Tomoko reflects upon her romantic history.
Although Mitsushima was already a well-established actress by 2013, she was still only in her 20s and says that she felt like a newcomer acting for the first time when it came to playing the much older Tomoko.
“I troubled Director [Kazuyoshi] Kumakiri many times with ‘I can’t do it because I don’t understand’,” Mitsushima recalled. “Sometimes I would get nervous when I saw the directors’ direct sight, sometimes I felt relieved, so I feel like I was bargaining every day.”
Describing her as a “clumsy actress” who isn’t afraid to experiment with the script to bring “the character closer to herself”, director Kumakiri believes Mitsushima’s difficulty in portraying Tomoko actually led to a sense of deeper authenticity, reflecting the character’s own indecisiveness.
Such contextual differences, yet deeper similarities, between Mitsushima and her character make Tomoko’s development throughout the film feel more pronounced. Throughout the early stages of her relationships, Mitushima draws on her youthful energy to highlight Tomoko’s naivety and tendency for her emotions to overcome her. Later moments of Tomoko taking control of her independence display a restrained strength and maturity unseen in Mitsushima’s previous roles, and a sign that the actress is capable of digging deeper past surface-level details to tap into the essence of her characters.
Since The End of Summer, Mitsushima’s big-screen output has slowed down. With just a few leading roles since 2013, most notably in 2017’s Life and Death on the Shore, Mitsushima seems to have turned her focus to television. In 2013 she was the lead in the award-winning drama Woman, and in recent years has appeared as part of ensembles in shows Prison Princesses and Quartet and had a small voice-acting role in the film Mary and the Witch’s Flower.
With no films slated at the time of writing, Mitsushima’s next project is one which will see her recent dips into music and television collide. Mitsushima has been cast as the lead in Netflix’s upcoming 2022 romance drama First Love, based on the hit songs ‘First Love’ and ‘Hatsukoi’ by Japanese pop star Hikaru Utada. With Netflix’s worldwide accessibility to audiences and Utada’s name value in the West thanks to her work on video game series Kingdom Hearts, Mitushima looks set to add ‘drama lead’ to her growing list of recognised careers outside Japan.
Japanese sources and quotes translated by Canwei Hong.