Bartender Turned Singer Yu Imari’s Road to Success: “I Felt As Though I’d Failed”

Eight years ago, Yu Imari was close to giving up on his dream of making it as an actor. He’d been in a few plays and dramas here and there, but things hadn’t panned out as he’d hoped so he moved to Fukuoka to run a bar with his friend. It was a job he loved, however, there was still part of him that was determined to make it in the entertainment industry. After around 18 months in Kyushu, he then decided to return to Tokyo after his old manager called and persuaded him to give acting another go.

Fortunately, things have gone much better the second time around. The Saga-born entertainer has featured in a variety of TV dramas and stage productions including the musical version of the popular sword-fighting game Touken Ranbu as well as the spectator participation entertainment show One Piece Live Attraction. In addition to his acting, the 31-year-old heartthrob has also become known for his singing, and last year released his debut EP My Name is…, which he followed up with his second record My Love is… earlier this month.

“I’ve always had a passion for music but never thought I would become a singer,” Imari tells TW. “Obviously as an actor, you’re pretending to be someone else whereas with singing I can be myself. In many ways, I’m reaching out to new audiences as some of my current fans didn’t know I had appeared on TV shows or in stage productions. The first EP, My Name is… was therefore like an introduction basically telling people this is who I am.”

In the succeeding 4-track EP, My Love is…, which features songs such as Hanasanaide and Beautiful, Imari displays his affection for his work and fans. “In Japan, we are usually shy about using the word love directly,” he says. “For me, it’s much easier to say it in a song than face-to-face. With this record, I wanted to get across how much I appreciate the support I’ve been given. It’s quite a simple, chilled out EP. You can hear an R&B influence as well as some K-pop and reggaeton.”

As a youngster, Imari listened mostly to punk music before getting into rap artists such as Dr. Dre and 50 Cent. After graduating from high school, he became a hairdresser but ended up quitting his job to take part in BMX competitions. It was through these events that he got to know the president of 430, a store specializing in BMX clothing. The shop owner then introduced Imari to Japanese actor and singer Dean Fujioka in 2010. Now a big star in his native homeland, Fujioka was at the time more famous in Taiwan.

“We went to a fireworks display together and he advised me to either become an actor or to go abroad,” recalls Imari. “I’d recently failed a modeling audition and was at a bit of a crossroads in my career. Acting appealed to me so I gave it a go. I made my drama debut in Love Stories from Fukuoka (Fukuoka Renai Hakusho). After that, it didn’t really seem to happen for me. I didn’t meet the right people and felt as though I had failed. That’s when I decided to work at the bar.”

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During his time mixing cocktails in Fukuoka, Imari did do some work on local TV so wasn’t completely coming in from the cold when he returned to the entertainment industry in 2013. A year later, he starred in the stage production of the PlayStation game Haruka: Beyond the Stream of Time (Haruka Naru Toki no Naka de). It was bigger than anything he’d done previously and “felt,” he says, “like a real accomplishment.” Since then, he has regularly appeared in plays and musicals, as well as TV dramas. With his music career also starting to take off, the future looks bright.

“I’m not asking for too much,” says Imari. “It’s not like the American dream where you can achieve success overnight and live happily ever after. Of course, I’d love to get huge parts and become a big name around the globe like, say, Ken Watanabe. That isn’t my goal though. The objective is to constantly be performing, whether that be as a musician or an actor. The key word is longevity. If I’m still regularly doing both things 20 or 30 years down the line, I’ll be very happy.”

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