A young screen veteran who began her acting career during her early-teens, Aoi Miyazaki is one of Japan’s most popular actresses. Miyazaki made her break-out performance at just 14 years-old in Shinji Aoyama’s four-hour odyssey on trauma, Eureka (2001), where she starred alongside her brother, Masaru Miyazaki, and Koji Yakusho.
From there she displayed her versatility as an actress across a range of different projects. In films like Nana (2005) and Brass Knuckle Boys (2008), Miyazaki showed that she can hang in popular manga adaptations and comedies; succeeding in the kind of archetypal characters one expects from these films. Meanwhile, Miyazaki’s choice of romantic lead roles in Heavenly Forest (2006) and Virgin Snow (2007) propelled her public star quality in the mid-2000s.
Since then, she has had the fortune of working with several big-name directors in Japan. Miyazaki has worked with director Shinji Aoyama on films Eli, Eli, Lema Sabchtani? (2006) and Sad Vacation (2007); Yuya Ishii on the Japan Academy Prize-winning drama The Great Passage (2013) and The Vancouver Asahi (2014); Ryuichi Hiroki on Yellow Elephant (2013); and Hirokazu Koreeda on his original television drama series Going My Home (2014).
Today, her starpower continues to shine and her contributions to Japanese cinema’s international stature are valued by the local industry. We look back at some of the actress’ most memorable performances on film and share what Miyazaki and her colleagues have said about her work.
Harmful Insect (2002)
Following a handful of supporting roles in film and television, director Akihiko Shiota cast Miyazaki in her first major feature lead role for his bleak coming-of-age drama, Harmful Insect. It was Shiota’s first film to be built around a single performer, unlike his previous films Moonlight Whispers (1999) and Don’t Look Back (1999) which offered co-lead roles.
As Sachiko, an alienated schoolgirl who spends her days aimlessly roaming the streets, Miyazaki’s central performance is what drives Shiota’s pessimistic film. On casting Miyazaki, Shiota said in an interview with Midnight Eye that he was moved by her performance in Eureka and that he felt she was the perfect fit for Sachiko.
“I think she’s the best actress I could ever hope to find. Maybe from now on, I won’t be able to find another actress who is that good. She has great intuition, so even if this character can’t be explained with dialogue, she understood well what it was she had to express by using her face and posture. From the beginning I only thought of Aoi for this role.”
A perfect example of the intuition Shiota refers to can be found in a pivotal classroom scene, where Sachiko drags a table across the room right before the film cuts to a montage of delinquent mayhem. Other actors might have chosen to verbalise Sachiko’s anger, who at this point in the film is fed up with the rumours surrounding her past. But Miyazaki instead reacts quite plainly and mildly, as though crashing through the classroom furniture with another desk was the only natural response to such a tiring accusation. Her face as she does so is expressionless, suggesting Sachiko is completely done with her school and wishes to no longer have anything to do with anyone at it.
Miyazaki’s ability to know what kind of emotion would best serve the narrative, and how to deliver that without dialogue, is a quality that would continue to serve her well in future films.
Miyazaki continued to climb the ranks as an actress to watch following Harmful Insect, often going back and forth between commercial fare and independent features. In the same year as her hit shojo adaptation, Nana, Miyazaki also featured in Hiroshi Ishikawa’s Sukida, a quiet indie drama spanning two time periods — one in the past and the other in the present.
Miyazaki appeared in the former time period as the young version of Yu, a teenager with a crush on an amateur guitarist, Yosuke. When most people think of Japanese films, the term ’emotionally restrained’ is often used – and it isn’t hard to see why when filmmakers like Ishikawa are at work. Known for his improvisational style of filmmaking, actors on the set of Sukida were given the freedom to discover their characters in the moment. It’s an approach that might frighten actors who respect boundaries, and even Miyazaki found Ishikawa’s approach intimidating at first.
“On the day of the shoot, the director would sometimes tell me, ‘It’s okay to forget the script.’ There were even scenes where we just worked with a keyword and improvised all the dialogue. Sometimes you had no idea what your partner was going to say so it was nerve-wracking. I think [with this method] we were able to create that organic feel,” she said in this interview with Excite.1This quote was translated by Margarett Cortez.
Demonstrating the naturalistic results of this approach is Miyazaki’s performance in one scene capturing all the highs and lows of young love in a single kiss by the river; all without ever saying a word.
Outside of the film, Ishikawa’s unusual filmmaking approach left an impression on Miyazaki.
“The way I think about my job and the way I approach acting has really changed since taking on this role. Time flies and I realised how we don’t have a lot of time to spend with our own characters at all. I learned to enjoy that short amount of time being in character.”
Though Sukida struggled to find an audience, Miyazaki valued the experience with Ishikawa so much that she would collaborate again with him on the therapeutic 2013 road movie Petal Dance.
Music and musicians would become recurring motifs in Miyazaki’s work by 2010. In films like Eli, Eli, Lema Sabchtani?, Nana, Sukida, and Brass Knuckle Boys, music was either a major part of the film’s storytelling or characters. With Solanin, the 2010 coming-of-age drama based on an award-winning slice-of-life manga series about a young woman, her boyfriend and their band just trying to survive their 20s, Miyazaki peaked with her music-themed movies by becoming a featured performer, not just a supporting act.
Much like her character Meiko, Miyazaki spent a lot of time before and during production learning how to play the guitar and getting her vocals right. Music video director-turned-filmmaker Takahiro Miki was impressed by Miyazaki’s commitment and was stunned by her performance as a musician for his debut feature.
“Miyazaki has an exceptional strong singing voice, I even got goosebumps,” Miki said in a piece by Cinema Today (as translated by fan blog Kawaii Joyuu). “Due to the tight schedule we unfortunately haven’t been able to record her playing the guitar, but she’s definitely rocking it as well.”
In the same article, Miyazaki herself was interviewed about the climactic scene where her character performs the title song (which was written by popular Japanese band Asian Kung-Fu Generation) before a live audience — a first for the actress.
“It was a really big thing for me to end the filming with a live scene. In that scene we had to play every single tune from the beginning to the end of the performance. It was also very tough for the whole staff and extras, we’ve worked together until the end and I’m glad that we’ve been able to do a satisfying finish.”
Although the performance is slightly edited in the final cut, you can see Miyazaki’s whole set uninterrupted on YouTube!
Wolf Children (2012)
It might seem odd to list a voiced role as one of Miyazaki’s best given her aptitude for physically expressive performances, but as Hana, a mother who moves to countryside Japan with her two children in Mamoru Hosoda’s beautiful portrait of parenthood, Wolf Children (2012), Miyazaki brought the same kind of buoyancy to the part that can often be found in her more lighthearted live-action fare.
Equal parts naive, tender and emotionally resilient, the role of Hana was a suitable fit for the actress, according to Hosoda. In the press notes for Wolf Children, Hosoda found harmony between player and part when he auditioned Miyazaki for the role.
“Aoi was wonderful. She really was Hana. She’s cheerful in a way but carries a sense of tension about life, and I thought it was very close to what Hana carries. Hana has the strength and capacity to accept everything that happens, to overcome them, and to move on, and I thought Aoi had them too,” he said.
In our own interview with Hosoda, the director also emphasised that he wasn’t just looking for someone that suit the role on a technical level — but that they truly inhabited the essence of that character in their everyday life.
“My view is that when I choose these people, it’s not because I choose them because they’re really good technically or that they have really good voices – of course all those things are important – but for me, what’s more important is that the actress or actor’s personality, character and way of living – their human element – would have to be close to the character that I want to portray. That’s why I felt that she was the closest to Hana and that’s why she got the role.”
From Ken Watanabe to Suzu Hirose, Lee Sang-il’s ensemble murder mystery Rage is stacked with talent from top to bottom and it can be easy for any actor to get lost in the shuffle. Thankfully, a standout performance by Miyazaki makes her one of the best aspects of Lee’s film.
Playing the part of Aiko in the film’s Chiba-set storyline, Miyazaki’s role is in many ways unlike anything she has tackled before. Prior to Rage, Miyazaki’s roles weren’t quite as complex. A depressed and broken woman desperate to cling onto any good in her life is certainly a far cry from the cheerier roles that most would associate her with. Even Miyazaki herself had trouble understanding the character at first, as she explained through an interpreter at a Q&A screening of Rage at the 2016 edition of Toronto International Film Festival.
“When I was trying to think about, ‘Why did she say this?’ or ‘Why did she act that way?, I really couldn’t get it and it was really difficult for me to figure out this role.”
Once she was on set though she used those feelings of doubt to charge the character. “I felt that Aiko-chan was a person who couldn’t really understand herself and the emotions she had, and that she was very spontaneous, that she didn’t think too much or too deeply before acting.”
The nature of the film and her character required the actress to muster the ability to express pain in ways she hadn’t yet explored on screen. No more is this evident than in her most emotional scene, in which a psychologically fragile Aiko realises her recklessness has pushed away the only thing she values in life. Rarely does Miyazaki emote with such force in her films but again, given the context of the character and story being told, her reaction to the outcome of her betrayal should justifiably devastate her to the point of hysteria.
Still, Miyazaki’s noted strength as a performer, expressing through silence and body language, also shine through during her character’s quieter moments, particularly in two scenes where audiences can visibly see the internal battle of doubt that her character is fighting: one at a pier looking at a wanted poster and another in bed with the man she suspects could be a murderer.
If Rage proved anything, it’s that Aoi Miyazaki shouldn’t be overlooked when it comes to heavyweight roles and that she is as much a major acting force as her contemporaries in Japan. After Rage, Miyazaki took on a small handful of supporting roles before taking a break from acting altogether, settling into her biggest role yet: mother to a newborn baby.
And with time away from the screen, we have to wonder if Miyazaki will gain a newfound perspective on future roles and whether they will continue to be as meaty as films like Harmful Insect or Rage. Nonetheless, we look forward to the actress’ eventual return to cinema screens and hope to see more incredible performances from one of Japan’s most charming muses in the future.