Ayumi Ito made her movie debut in Nobuhiko Obayashi’s “Mizu no Tabibito: Samurai Kids” at the age of just 13. Three years later a gripping performance in “Swallowtail Butterfly” won her the Best Newcomer and Best Actress in a Supporting Role prizes at the Japan Academy Awards, in addition to the Best New Actress accolade at the Takasaki Film Festival.

By Matthew Hernon

She has gone on to star in a number of critically acclaimed films and dramas, including “All about Lily Chou-Chou,” “Tokyo,” “Gantz” and “Hirugao,” as well as performing as the voice actress for Tifa Lockhart in the popular role-playing game,“Final Fantasy.” She was also the lead singer for Chara and Yuki’s group, Mean Machine, who reached number seven in the charts with their album “Cream.” This month Ito is set to play the lead role in NHK BS’s new show “Sono Otoko, Ishiki Takai Kei.” Wanting to hear more about that and her career to date, Weekender recently decided to sit down and chat with the stylish actress in Shibuya. We started at the very beginning.

I hid under the table during my first audition.

It was for the film “Mizu no Tabibito.” I was in my early teens and incredibly shy. My mother and grandfather both dreamed of becoming actors but didn’t make it so they really wanted me have a go. I had to perform for fifteen minutes in front of all these people—it was terrifying. The director Nobuhiko Obayashi must have seen something he liked because he hired me—I’m not really sure what it was though [laughs].

I like to step out of my comfort zone and take on challenging roles.

I prefer a bit of variation in my work: I’ve been an innocent young girl, a rape victim, a pop idol, a spy, a feminist; I’ve even performed as a sexy superhero in a computer game (Tifa Lockhart in Final Fantasy—the character the New York Times described as the “pin up girl of the cyber generation”). I’ve been really fortunate with the roles I’ve been given.

I had to collapse and die while performing Japanese archery on a horse.

That was one of the most testing scenes I’ve done. There have been many others—trying to look eloquent as I dived into a 10-meter aquarium, attempting to speak English and Chinese like a native speaker, reciting Claude Debussy’s “Arabesque No. 1” in “All About Lily Chou Chou.” Before filming it seems like it’s going to be very hard, but once you start it’s a lot of fun. I love it when the director challenges me; it gives me that extra motivation.

The most fun I had on set was actually during a very emotional scene.

It was in “Sayonara, Kuro”; I was contemplating suicide and the dog “Kuro” comes and stops me. In between filming he sees me talking with the director and I’ve still got tears in my eyes—he comes over and starts licking my face with dog food all around his mouth. It was really funny. I think animals and babies can create the most entertaining moments.

I want to be acting in Hollywood in two years.

I’ve worked with two foreign directors (Michel Gondry in “Tokyo” and Tian Zhuangzhuang in the “Go Master”) [and] I learned so much from both of them. Their filming styles were really different to Japanese directors. They would keep shooting continuously, and only do two or three scenes a day. Of course having a much bigger budget helped in this regard. I also think it’s less hierarchical—there’s no feeling that the director is superior to everyone else or anything like that. I love appearing in Japanese films as well: it is just interesting to see the differences close up. There are so many directors I’d love to work with in the future—David Fincher would be the ultimate.

I’d never studied acting until last year.

I decided to go to a school in LA for three months at the back end of 2014 and it was the best thing I’ve ever done. I was in a workshop in Japan five years ago, but in terms of an actual course, it was my first time. The main method they taught us was the Meisner technique which involves a lot of repetition. The focus is on the impulsive reactions of the people performing rather than their words. Since studying in America I’ve realized that the most important thing about acting is the connections you make with your fellow cast members. A scene can be truly gripping when there is real chemistry between actors. The classes really opened my mind in this sense.

Singing live on stage was surreal.

Unfortunately I only got to do it once as the members of the group (Mean Machine) all had other commitments. It was at Shibuya Ax and I was freaking out as I got on stage—I mean I’d never even acted in front of a live audience before, just cameramen and production staff. About 20 minutes into the gig it kind of dawned on me that all those people had come because they wanted to see us. After that I could relax and enjoy the show. It was like a heavenly experience.

Not everyone gets Chara’s lyrics.

They can be difficult to understand at times because she has a different mind to others. She’s so unique and creative. I first met her during the filming of ‘Swallowtail Butterfly;’ she told me she liked my voice and then five years later offered me a place in the band. It was so much fun performing with her and the other girls; they are all really talented. I’d love to work on something together again, but I know they are all so busy.

My latest character is one of the most intriguing roles I’ve ever had.

Her name is Haruko Tsubokura and the program’s called “Sono Otoko, Ishiki Takai Kei.” She’s quite a stubborn lady who has worked her way up to management level at her company. Then along comes this young guy who thinks he knows it all and she has to spend most of her time teaching him. He’s from the Yutori Sedai—the younger generation in Japan who studied under a pressure-free education system—and doesn’t seem to take responsibility for anything. She has a hard time working with him, but it’s interesting to see how their relationship develops.

“Sono Otoko, Ishiki Takai Kei:” http://www.nhk.or.jp/dramatopics-blog/31000/206767.html

Ayumi Ito’s website can be found here: http://ayumiito.com/