Sakura Andô was born into a family of proudly independent actors and directors whose films pushed past taboos around women and relationships. Her father Eiji Okuda’s film An Adolescent (which stars her mother Kazu Andô) drew mixed reactions in the West due to its controversial storyline, while sister Momoko Andô’s debut LGBT+ romance Kakera: A Piece of Our Life vehemently subverted idealistic and fetishistic depictions of lesbians and women.
When looking at Sakura Andô’s own oeuvre, it is clear she is continuing her family’s tradition while also forging her own name as one of Japan’s greatest working actresses. Since her bombastic major film debut in Love Exposure, Andô has turned to playing marginalised and complex everyday women, highlighting the stories of convenience store clerks, Zainichi Koreans, thieves, and aged care workers.
On her history of picking independent, empowered female characters, Andô has said, “I don’t think I make a conscious choice to appear in female-friendly films…I like to just span genders, or even creatures”. This humanist attitude has seen her stretch her acting ability across a variety of roles all imbued with a deep sense of empathy and understanding, playing everything from an unstable cult leader to a loving lower-class adoptive mother.
Andô’s ability to sympathise and fully inhabit her roles has not gone unnoticed by the Japanese film industry, as the actress has won numerous prizes from prestigious Japanese award shows including a Japan Academy Prize, Japan’s equivalent to the Oscars. In 2017, she was named one of four ‘Muses of Japanese Cinema’ by Tokyo International Film Festival alongside her contemporaries Aoi Miyazaki, Hikari Mitsushima (who acted with Andô in Love Exposure), and Yu Aoi.
But what exactly makes Andô’s work so spectacular? We look back at her most powerful performances to date, breaking down why Andô is more than deserving of her title as a Muse of Japanese Cinema.
Love Exposure (2008)
As far as breakthrough films go, Sion Sono’s insane four-hour epic Love Exposure is quite the undertaking.
Andô’s role as Koike is one of the most challenging, multifaceted parts a newcomer could be tasked with. Koike is many things, all of them outrageous: a local religious cult leader, abusive priest castrator, black-belt street brawler, omniscient mastermind, seductive identity thief, and international cocaine dealer (just to name a few).
Andô not only convincingly pulls off all of these aspects of Koike with ease, but creates a sense of continuity between them by underlying her performance with a constant sense of menace and fragility. The incredible depth of Andô’s acting is on full-display during Koike’s death scene. After breaking Yu mentally, Koike begins cackling with a wicked smile which slowly morphs into a tearful plea for Yu to “fall apart” as she commits suicide. As she lays dying, the emotional scars of her past are brought to the surface for the final time – with a glassy yet sorrowful stare she repeats her violent father’s words as her last: “Give it to me.”
Although Love Exposure was only her third film, Andô’s scene-stealing moments led her peers to recognise the actress as a unique emerging talent. When praising his leads, director Sono recalled, “From the audition there was something different about Sakura Andô compared to the other actresses, she was like an actress from way back.”
In the behind-the-scenes for the film, co-star Mitsushima (who would also become a much-celebrated actress) said “meeting Sakura Andô was the biggest gain from this film”, citing their natural understanding and synergy together as actors.
“We have the same way of thinking and it’s easy to get my message over to her. I don’t have to say everything in order for her to understand me,” Mitsushima said.
Our Homeland (2012)
After several years of mostly supporting parts, Andô returned to a main role and began her streak of strong-willed, authentic female characters in 2012 with Our Homeland.
Based closely on writer-director Yang Yong-hi’s own Zainichi family and history, Our Homeland is a retelling of Yang’s real-life reunion with her North Korean brother in Japan. Seong-ho (Arata Iura) returns to Japan for the first time in 25 years for medical treatment, where he connects with his anti-North Korea sister Rie (Andô, playing Yang’s fictional stand-in).
Our Homeland’s more realistic storyline allowed Andô to showcase a skill which would become a motif of her career — an expert control over body language to externalise deep inner-emotion. Rie and Seong-ho’s final farewell, for example, is performed completely without words. As Seong-ho enters a car headed for the airport, Andô as Rie desperately clings to his arm, her tight grip reflective of the difficulty she has letting go of her brother (both literally and figuratively).
Yang says Andô’s performance forced her to reflect on, and even re-evaluate, her time with her brother in Japan. “During the shooting, I realised that sometimes fiction can be more real than documentary,” Yang said. “When I watched Ando Sakura act, I realised I must have had her face expression when I said good-bye to my brother. I didn’t know that before and it was an interesting experience.”
Our Homeland was also a learning experience for Japanese audiences. The film contributes to Japan’s long history of Zainichi representation by bringing further attention to Japanese-North Korean repatriation on film. Although it didn’t make a huge impact on the Japanese box office, Asian film academic Adam Hartzell notes those who did watch it were often repeat viewers, while broader audiences were exposed to the film’s story through fashion magazine spreads and editorials. Meanwhile, Andô’s reputation as ‘one-to-watch’ continued to grow in Japanese critic circles, winning three ‘Best Actress’ awards for her performance as Rie.
Despite supposed warnings Andô might not acquire major roles following Our Homeland, two years later she again found widespread acclaim in her sister Momoko’s film 0.5mm.
Following a tragic accident while looking after an elderly patient, Sawa (Andô) is fired from her job as an aged care nurse and forced onto the streets. Still yearning to help others, she finds new homes by caring for Japan’s elderly, bringing a spark to each one’s life.
The three-hour run-time and episodic structure of 0.5mm gives Andô plenty to work with. Each new home and elderly man presents their own story arc. In one story, where Sawa forces her way into caring for senile mechanic Shigeru (Toshio Sakata), Andô switches effortlessly between coercive, caring, and fiercely defensive. Sawa first comes upon the mentally-ill Shigeru putting holes in bike tyres and threatens to report him to the police. With a kind demeanor and friendly voice, it is jarring and uncomfortable seeing protagonist Sawa physically restrain and intimidate the confused old man into letting her look after him at his home.
While her conflicting behaviour can be confusing, it soon becomes clear Sawa truly does care for Shigeru. When he gets swindled out of money she breaks into an almost childlike tantrum out of frustration. Later, Sawa shows courage beyond her years by protecting Shigeru from yakuza in a stand-out scene where she emasculates a loan shark with crude taunts and physical attacks. Even when shaken by these incidents, Sawa’s first thought is not of herself, but to reassure her terrified old friend by comforting him with gentle words and a shoulder to cry on.
On crafting such an unpredictable character, writer-director Momoko says Sawa was not intended to be a realistic person, but an ideal of overbearing kindness who reveals more about her surrounding characters than herself. The decision to craft such a vague and symbolic protagonist was inspired by her admiration for sister Sakura, whose sympathy as an actor is comparable to her character’s in 0.5mm.
“Sawa is like a goddess, like Mary Magdalene. Sakura Andô is my sister and she has been my muse since she was born, so I wanted to use her muse-ness in film,” Momoko said. “She is able to sympathize with and resonate [with] anything because she sensitively feels [it in her] own life.
“Sakura sincerely lives cherishing what actors, who have a job to play characters [and] who are in different times and in various situations, need to sense.”
100 Yen Love (2014)
0.5mm was only one half of a knock-out 2014 for Andô, whose next role as a boxer in 100 Yen Love pushed the actress to new limits and allowed her to fulfill a childhood dream.
Just as she was realising her dream of acting, Andô also developed an interest in boxing after being encouraged by the 2000 American film Girlfight. However, she recognised at the time that female representation in boxing media was severely lacking, commenting, “While I thought about how great the movie [Girlfight] was it was also a little saddening. Around that time there were very little girls that boxed which had me always wondering when the next boxing movie is going to come out”.
Fourteen years later, Andô herself would be part of the answer to this question with her performance as slacker-turned-boxer Ichiko in 100 Yen Love.
At its core, 100 Yen Love is a coming-of-age movie for those in their thirties. Following a fight with her family, 32-year-old Ichiko moves out into the real world for the first time, where she finds her first love, a job in a convenience store, and a passion for boxing which encourages her to discover want she really wants in life.
The most apparent change in Ichiko throughout the film is her physical appearance. In just 10 days Andô had to go from being overweight to having the physique and movement of a professional boxer to shoot the film’s final brutal boxing match (in which she took real punches). Reflecting on the hardships of transforming her body and skills for the final fight scene, Andô says she undertook so much training she “understood what people mean when they say they will work to death”.
To add even more stress on Andô, 100 Yen Love was shot out-of-order over the course of two weeks, with ‘sloppy’ and ‘boxer’ Ichiko scenes sometimes shot back-to-back. In order to achieve such a drastic transformation in time, Andô drew upon Ichiko’s character development to influence her physical form.
“Human facial features are a mysterious thing, they seem to change with our mood.” Andô said. “Ichiko in the beginning of the movie is living a life where she uses none of her muscles, so starting from my face down [to] the rest of my body, I relaxed all my muscles. Then when we suddenly had to shoot a scene where Ichiko has slimmed up, I did one round of punching the mits. Doing these movements causes your facial features to change and gets rid of swelling which allowed me to do the scene.”
Andô’s extreme dedication to the role wasn’t just limited to her appearance. She wanted to inhabit every aspect of the character to get “in to the part and not just the surface”, proven by the changing mannerisms and subtleties which make Ichiko’s transformation all the more remarkable. As slacker Ichiko, her movements are sluggish, awkward and stiff, while her low voice and vacant stares seem to say ‘leave me alone’. Following her transformation into a boxer, Andô communicates Ichiko’s newfound determination through contrasts. Her motions now take on a swift, elegant quality. Her voice and demeanor are more enthusiastic and animated, while her gaze is no longer empty, but filled with passion.
“I believed that convincing everyone with my [initial] sloppiness rather than my looks would be a leading factor as to whether the movie is interesting or not,” Andô said. “Even if the director told me you don’t have to go that far, it just made me want to go further.”
More than a decade after her debut, Andô continues to bring a compassionate and empathetic touch to her resilient underprivileged characters, as seen this year in Hirokazu Koreeda’s Shoplifters.
Andô plays Nobuyo, the matriarch of the poverty-stricken Shibatas. Throughout the film, Nobuyo’s morality and trustworthiness is in flux, as audiences’ initial impression of her as a caring adoptive mother to Shota and Yuri is complicated by a criminal history and questionable motives.
Even when surrounded by a cast of Japanese acting legends including Lily Franky and Kirin Kiki, Andô not only held her own as Nobuyo, but impressed acclaimed director Koreeda. On her performance, Koreeda commented, “Whenever I was on set, I could just feel how [Andô] brought this character, a woman who really wants to be a mother, completely alive. I was moved by her performance and that doesn’t happen every day.”
This emotional impact Koreeda speaks of is on full display during Andô’s third-act interrogation scene. With the camera fixed squarely on Nobuyo’s face as she answers questions from police, Andô delivers an utterly heartbreaking performance with little dialogue. Andô’s intricate body language, from her eyes filled with a deep sadness to the slow manner in which she wipes away her tears and covers her mouth, is enough to convey the crushing revelations and emotions Nobuyo is going through internally.
Her performance during this scene was influenced by her personal life and an interaction between the actress and director Koreeda. Andô, who has a child with actor Tasuku Emoto, confided in Koreeda that “In my family, I never call myself ‘mother’”. So when it came to filming the interrogation, Andô says she was caught off-guard by the question around whether Shota and Yuri call Nobuyo ‘mother’.
“I didn’t want to show my tears so I tried my best to hold them back but in the end it was futile,” Andô said.
Shoplifters represents a new level of global attention for Andô. The family drama has seen worldwide media recognition thanks to its Cannes win and is set to get a general cinematic release across more than 25 countries (a large jump from Love Exposure’s supposed five).
Meanwhile in Japan, Andô is further expanding her profile and range in the ongoing morning drama Manpuku. The up-beat series marks a significant departure for Andô, who plays the cheerful Fukuko with an exaggerated goofiness largely absent from her acclaimed film roles (just look at this opening!).
With Andô’s star rising both at home and abroad thanks to a strong career filled with varied, complex characters , one can only speculate where she will go from here. Will she continue her trend of working class everyday women, return to extremes like in Love Exposure, or tackle something else entirely? Regardless of which direction she chooses, it will be exciting to see which roles Andô will bring her trademark empathy and fervent dedication next.