Tokyo: Rising Star Mayu Matsuoka on Oscar Contender 'Shoplifters,' Her John C. Reilly Obsession

Courtesy of Getty Images
Mayu Matsuoka

The 23-year-old co-star of Hirokazu Kore-eda's Cannes Palme d'Or winner shares lessons learned from the late, great Kirin Kiki and why the #MeToo movement has been slow to take hold in Japan.

Mayu Matsuoka's delightfully kooky performance as a nerdy introvert in Akiko Ooku's Tremble All You Want was one of the great discovery's of the Tokyo International Film Festival last year. The turn cemented her status as one of Japan's top young talents on the rise, while also helping the film win the festival's audience award.

Since then, Matsuoka has become known to cinephiles the world over thanks to a nuanced supporting role in Japanese auteur Hirokazu Kore-eda's Cannes Palme d'Or winner, Shoplifters.

Japan's official selection for the best foreign-language film Oscar, the movie follows a Tokyo family of small-time crooks that takes in an abused child found on the streets. Matsuoka plays an alternately steely and vulnerable teenager who works part time in a striptease booth in the city's Byzantine red-light district. She stars opposite Sakura Ando; Kore-eda favorite Lily Franky; and Japanese art-house legend Kirin Kiki, who passed away earlier this year.

Matsuoka makes her triumphant return to the Tokyo film festival as the event's 2018 talent ambassador. Shortly after stepping off the stage of the festival's opening ceremony, the 23-year-old actress sat down with The Hollywood Reporter to discuss her experience working with Japan's most acclaimed auteur, the life and career lessons she gleaned from Kirin's inimitable example, and a Hollywood actor she enjoys watching so much that she has used his name when playing video games.

How do you approach your role as a talent ambassador for the Tokyo film festival?

The Tokyo International Film Festival is a festival that is very close to my heart, because it's in the place where I was born and bred. I also feel a connection with the festival because my film last year, Tremble All You Want, won the audience award here. Of course, I've now had my very first experience traveling abroad to participate in an international festival, but it was in Tokyo where I first met with people and press from overseas — and I'm very thankful that so many people come from so far to visit our festival. 

What was your experience like on the set of Shoplifters, and how was working with director Kore-eda different from your past collaborations?

So, it was actually an audition that got me into the film. The way the character was originally written was quite detached from me, so I thought maybe I wouldn't get it. But then I got the news that I had won the part, and I was told that director Kore-eda rewrote the role to make it closer to who I am. I don't know how people shoot overseas, but what first struck me about Mr. Kore-eda's directing style on set is the way he directs children. I can say this because I began as a child actor myself. Child actors here in Japan are very well-trained, and their posture will be very erect and they will say "ohayo-gozaimasu" ("good morning") very formally to greet their director. [Does an impression of a stiff, serious child bowing to her director] But the children on Mr. Kore-eda's set are so different from that. They're free to play around chaotically, throw pebbles and be themselves. On Kore-eda's sets, children really have room to be themselves as children — he allows for that kind of freedom. Maybe this is why he captures such special performances from children.

In Shoplifters you had the chance to work alongside the great, late Japanese actress Kirin Kiki in one of her final roles. Was there any advice she gave you as a younger actress starting out?

The first thing she said to me is that I have a forgettable face. She said you don't have a distinct face, so next time I meet you, I may not remember you. I was quite shocked, but then she said that's actually better for an actress — it means you can try on many parts. And befittingly, as Ms. Kiki said, so far I have been able to play very diverse parts. In Tremble All You Want, I played an introverted otaku [or nerd] girl. On the other hand, in the film I am shooting right now, I play a pianist who is quite sure of herself and confident. So I plan to aggressively carve out my career and follow Ms. Kirin's advice. I will use this indistinct body and face to try out as many roles as I can and create all different types of characters.

Your character in Shoplifters is quite tough and wise beyond her years, but also profoundly vulnerable in moments. How did you and Mr. Kore-eda go about shaping the character?

There were many discussions with Mr. Kore-eda before we began principle photography. And because the character is a kind of sex worker, we also went to one of those shops to see what it was like. And I really fully was able to grasp and understand the character of this girl, and I was able to understand why she was living in that house. It was because she felt apologetic simply for being. Her feeling was not "Why was I born?" but this feeling of apology for existing. I wanted to convey this as much as possible to the girls, or people, out there who have had these same kinds of sentiments.

Shoplifters was critically praised around the world as a great artistic achievement — I believe it has a perfect score of 100 on Rotten Tomatoes. But there was some criticism from certain quarters in Japan about its portrayal of the country. Many visitors perceive the country as a very rich, advanced society with few visible social problems. But the film shines a light on the existence of poverty and real social issues. What's your take on this issue and the way the film represents the country? 

First of all, I was solely focused on my role and creating a strong character, so I was quite surprised when I heard that there was that kind of criticism toward the film. But if the film has served as a catalyst to bring about this kind of discussion about Japanese society, I believe that was within the realm of Mr. Kore-eda's intention.

What criteria do you use when you are seeking out roles?

The reason that I like this work is because I want to bring smiles to people. I want to give them the energy to step forward into another day and another day. One of my favorite films is The Truman Show. When choosing future projects, the criteria would be to involve myself in projects that people enjoy, and also films that depict the social issues that Mr. Kore-eda explores. I want to explore the strife and the darker, grittier aspects of human life, but in films that show characters who are striving yet to live — [who have] that will to live. I've always really loved and appreciated the way John C. Reilly, for example, pursues and enjoys such a plethora of roles. I'm a big gamer, and whenever I give my video game character a name I usually use "Reilly" in there somehow. He is the best.

Are there any other actresses or actors that you look to for inspiration or perhaps see as a model for how you would like your career to progress?

Kirin Kiki. One simple thing that was very charming about her is that she didn't carry a lot of stuff around with her. She was very simple. She also wasn't at all didactic. She didn't give a lot of direct advice. But just by being around her and being in her vicinity, she somehow made you reflect upon yourself and wonder, "hmm. ..." She had that effect on you. In the future, I aspire to be like her. I don't want to be didactic — not always concerned with being right or wrong — I just want to live in a very simple way, in the way that she did. Not being about glitz and glamor, but just living a very rich, authentic life and having that reflected in my acting.

The American film industry has undergone a lot of change over the past year in the wake of the #MeToo movement, which has since spread to many parts of the world. The Korean industry had a fervent #MeToo period, and now Bollywood, just over the past couple of weeks, has seen #MeToo allegations against prominent directors and producers. But the movement hasn't really come to Japan much. Why do you think that is? Do women in the Japanese industry face these same injustices that have been exposed in the U.S., and do you think change is needed here, too?

Tough question! I think the problem pertains not only to the film industry, because I have many friends working in other industries. I do feel that many people have been hurt and bruised — not only women, but many men as well — by both words and actions. It seems that, perhaps, there are many people here who are very good at pretending not to see or not to notice. So I presume that many have to face these struggles alone, internally. If film can perhaps help serve to acknowledge these struggles and offer at least some soothing remedy, that would be a very good thing.

Is there anything else you would like to add?

I'm so very happy that you have come all the way here to the Tokyo film festival to meet me, a young Japanese actress. I only hope my work meets your expectations and that my efforts can help contribute energy to Japanese cinema.