The London-based actress talks about her recent role in 47 Ronin and the Japanese dilemma of hikikomori. Read on to see her performance in an innovative music video.
By Mike Sullivan
Hailing from Tokyo, Haruka Abe lived in the UK and the USA as a child before returning to Japan to attend high school. She starred in a few NHK dramas as a child and although she had a place to study at Aoyama University, she ultimately chose to move to London to attend Rose Brudord drama school where she graduated with a 1st class Bachelor of Arts degree. She has starred in a number of short movies and TV programs, a number of these were made in challenging conditions such as Choose which was written and filmed within 48 hours in London in between filming in Budapest for 47 Ronin.
An actress with an eye for roles with a difference, she also starred in Precision, a film that was also completed within 40 hours, and can count Sean Pertwee and Johnny Vegas as past co-stars. She has been in movies directed by Richard Curtis as well as Carl Rinsch’s upcoming 47 Ronin which also stars Keanu Reeves, Hiroyuki Sanada and Tadanobu Asano. Next year she will have roles in independent feature films as well as a recurring role in a major TV network comedy drama, Edge of Darkness. Her impressive resume includes playing both vulnerable characters and very strong ones, this versatile actress is representative of how multi-cultural British TV has become while clearly showing that a Tokyo born actress can find success in the UK.
In the upcoming movie 47 Ronin you play a supporting role to Koh Shibasaki’s Princess Ako, what kind of experience was it to be part of a movie that includes so many Japanese stars as well as Keanu Reeves?
It was incredible. I never dreamt that I would be able to work with Japanese stars I had admired as a teenager whilst living and working in London. I squealed when I found out who was cast in the film. We shot in Budapest and in London, and had some very interesting chats from the art of filmmaking to politics. And it was nice to be able to tell my mum the names of actors she actually knew!
What do you think you learned from your co-stars?
It was really inspiring. They were humble, grateful, and friendly. Everyone—especially Sanada-san—worked so hard so that the world portrayed in the film, while being the fantastic vision of the real Japan, respected and was truthful to the real spirit of Japan.
Originally you are from Tokyo; please tell us about your Japanese roots, your move to London and how you got into acting.
I was born in Nerima, Tokyo. I moved to NYC and London as a child but moved back to Tokyo when I was 11. I attended Gekidan Himawari in Ebisu as a teenager. I got into Aoyama University but I chose to go to a drama school in London in order to pursue acting (my mom still isn’t too happy about this decision). Now my family lives near Odaiba, which is awesome. I’m a big geek and love saying hi to the Gundam statue!
How do your family feel about your chosen career and about living in London rather than Japan?
They are great, they let me to be who I am and I’m really grateful for that. They have never voiced any objection towards my life choices and always told me to pursue what I want to do. They do want me back in Japan I think, and I miss them a lot, but thanks to Line and such it’s so much easier to stay in each other’s loop.
You have starred in a number of short films, one that really stands out is Hikikomori (Pulling Away) which is about a young girl who plays games and never goes out. To what extent could you identify with this? Why do you think this kind of behavior has become so widespread in Japan?
My character in Pulling Away is torn between the idea of leaving her room and facing the real world and staying in her safe, cocooned sanctuary where no one can hurt her. I can really identify with this dilemma. Sometimes it just feels easier to slip into lethargy and “stop caring” rather than to fight your way in the world and face disappointment or heartbreak. Japanese society tends to encourage people to blend in rather than to stand out, and I think the physical and emotional connection between people is becoming weaker and weaker. So I think some young Japanese people get left out and find it easier to withdraw into their shell rather than to confide in friends.
Stanley Pickle was a stop motion movie which won 33 international awards, for each scene you hold to pose for quite some time – how challenging was this role and how satisfying was it after you had finished shooting?
It was definitely a challenge physically. I trained in physical theater which really helped because it allowed me to have a good physical awareness and to break down the movements while exploring the character’s emotional journey. I really enjoyed filming it and it’s a very special film for me, so for it to win so many awards was a real cherry on top.
With roles in a number of UK TV shows under your belt, and an upcoming recurring role in a major channel (ITV) production that will be broadcasted next year, it seems like you are becoming a regular face on British TV!
(Haruka laughs) I’m not quite there just yet! But I think British TV drama is great and it’s a real pleasure to be able to take part in British productions.
Besides 47 Ronin you have roles in a number of independent movies coming up, is 2014 looking very busy for you?
There are few projects I’m in talks about, but nothing is set in stone. Everything is so last minute in my line of work. I could be in an audition room on Monday and be on a plane to Prague on Wednesday. So it’s really hard to predict how my year is going to turn out. The down side of it is that it’s impossible to plan a holiday, but the upside is that my life is full of surprises!
Abe recently starred in a video for “Rather Be,” a song from the English band Clean Bandit. Partially shot around Tokyo, Abe plays a chef who hallucinates members of the quartet in her daily life. A creative video, and well worth the watch!
Main image: Screen capture from the film Precision