An interview roundtable with Atsuko Maeda (前田敦子): Beyond AKB48

Atsuko Maeda, front and center, in an advertisement on the 109 department store in Tokyo's Shibuya neighborhood. (photo by Yuan-Kwan Chan / Meniscus Magazine)
Atsuko Maeda, front and center, in an advertisement on the 109 department store in Tokyo’s Shibuya neighborhood. (photo by Yuan-Kwan Chan / Meniscus Magazine)

There is a scene in “Tamako in Moratorium” where the title character’s father discovers that his lazy daughter’s lone attempt at a job application ends in failure.  Tamako had apparently tried to audition her way into one of Japan’s ubiquitous all-girl groups – an irony given that the young actress playing her is currently one of the biggest Japanese idols on the scene.

Atsuko Maeda, the former lead of AKB48 and now, at 22, striking out on her own as an actress and solo singer, delivers a solid performance in an otherwise sleepy work by director Nobuhiro Yamashita (“Linda Linda Linda” and “Matsugane Potshot Affair”).  Miles away from her dolled-up days in the AKB48 juggernaut, Maeda as Tamako toils through life for a year to the growing consternation of her single father, who financed her university education in Tokyo only to see his daughter return home with no job prospects.  In a quiet reflection of the “freeter” and “NEET” phenomenon gripping Japan, Tamako’s lethargic daily routine reduces to passing out, eating (and eating some more), and superficial encounters with people in her small town.  Her frustrated father realizes that he must guide his daughter’s future or else she will risk a reality equivalent to the bleak TV news reports that they sit through at dinner, depicting a dire economic situation in Japan.

To promote “Tamako in Moratorium,” Maeda packed in three days of guest appearances at the 2013 Busan International Film Festival, site of the film’s world premiere.  One of those events was a closed roundtable with journalists where she briefly discussed the film, her work philosophy and other topics.  Meniscus Magazine was the only English-language publication invited to the exclusive roundtable, and we have translated excerpts of Maeda’s Japanese Q&A session with various reporters.

Atsuko Maeda - 2013 Busan International Film Festival
Atsuko Maeda appears at a press roundtable in Busan, South Korea, on Oct. 4, 2013. (photo by Yuan-Kwan Chan / Meniscus Magazine)

Question: Is this your first time in South Korea?

Atsuko Maeda: Yes, [this is my] first “job-related” trip.

Q: You walked the [Busan opening ceremony] red carpet yesterday. How was it? And how is your visit to Korea in general?

A: I’ve privately visited Korea three times, but I’m happy to be here for my job. Korean actors are all gorgeous. So I feel like I’m in a foreign country.

Q: You started off your career as an “idol” and then became an actress. I’m sure these are two different types of jobs. What are the differences?

A: The way I approach these two jobs hasn’t changed, but the surrounding environment has certainly changed. But I feel like I’ve been able to do my best from one job to the next. I’m getting used to it now.

Q: The image you want to show to the audience as a singer and the image you want to show as an actress must be different. If you want to portray yourself as a singer versus as an actress, what are the differences?

A: I’m still singing solo. Even when I’m singing, the way I perform is all up to me. So I don’t really think there’s much of a difference. What is common across these two types of jobs is I want people to see who I really am.

Q: Please tell us why you took up the [lead] role in “Tamako in Moratorium.” Such movies are called “coming-of-age” movies, which are receiving a lot of attention in this film festival. Did you pick this role because it was a coming-of-age movie?

A: I’ve really liked the work of Director Yamashita from before. I worked with him previously on a movie called “The Drudgery Train.” On the day of the premiere for that movie, he told me that he had an idea for [the character] of Tamako. Since I really liked him, I was happy that I was able to act in this new movie as well.

Q: Do you have any favorite Chinese movies?

A: What would be included in China? [As in, does this also include Taiwan?]

Q: Tony Leung [Chiu-Wai] was supposed to appear in a movie called “1905” [with you].  Did you have any expectations for this movie? What made you want to act in it? [Ed. note: “1905” was a drama scheduled to be directed by Kiyoshi Kurosawa.]

Atsuko’s manager: If you want Atsuko’s comment on this movie, please just quote, “I was very much looking forward to it, but the production itself was canceled. So it was unfortunate.”

Atsuko Maeda - 2013 Busan International Film Festival
Atsuko Maeda’s film “Tamako in Moratorium” was her second with director Nobuhiro Yamashita. (photo by Yuan-Kwan Chan / Meniscus Magazine)

Q: Is the dress you are wearing today and the one you were wearing yesterday on the red carpet a pair?

A: The one I’m wearing today is designed by a brand that I often wear. Yesterday, because I was walking on the red carpet, I wanted to wear something that I can’t otherwise wear. But I knew everybody would appear very sexy, so I tried not to compete with the others on that level because I can’t compete.

Q: The movie [“Tamako in Moratorium”] takes place over a period of a year. If you had one year to yourself, what would you do?

A: The movie actually depicts Tamako’s worst period, which is about six months in duration. When her dad tells her to go to Tokyo, the movie ends. If I was in the same position, I think I would need about the same amount of time just to make up my mind. And only then I would start doing something.

Q: In the future, what kinds of roles do you want to play? Are there Korean actors you want to work with?

A: I met director Kim Ki-duk yesterday and I thought he was great. But I was speaking with Director Yamashita and we were saying that we want director Bong Joon-ho to see “Tamako.”

Q: What kind of roles do you want to play in the future?

A: This time, I played someone who was really lazy, so I don’t think there could be a lazier role. I’m interested in the time period before I was born. Experiencing that is a privilege that only actors can enjoy. I’m sure it’ll be difficult, but I’m interested in something in the past.

Q: You appeared in a historical drama on NHK. What were the most challenging aspects?

A: The NHK drama just came on air but the filming itself has already finished. I never thought it was hard.

Q: Apart from acting and singing, what do you like to do?

A: In my private life, I like to watch movies, foreign TV dramas, just like any other girls. I also like to cook. I also like to walk. Just wandering around.

Atsuko Maeda - 2013 Busan International Film Festival
In addition to a press roundtable – at which she is pictured – Atsuko Maeda walked the red carpet in the opening ceremonies and spoke in a public Q&A with “Tamako in Moratorium” director Nobuhiro Yamashita at the 2013 Busan International Film Festival. (photo by Yuan-Kwan Chan / Meniscus Magazine)