From Momoclo pop idol to leading lady, Akari Hayami tells TW what she’s learned about being true to herself, relationship conflict­­ and building bonds with co-workers on set.

Being part of one of the country’s most famous idol groups may sound like a dream for any young Japanese woman, but for Akari Hayami it never felt right. The Tokyo-born performer was one of the original members of the popular all-female group Momoiro Clover (now known as Momoiro Clover Z, though often referred to as Momoclo) when they formed in 2008. She quit after three years to focus on her acting and modeling career. 

Despite the huge success of Momoclo since, Hayami has no regrets about leaving the group as her subsequent career has continued to go from strength to strength. She’s graced a variety of magazine covers and appeared in a number of series and movies including the popular morning NHK drama Massan and Yuichi Fukuda’s successful action comedy flick Gintama. Her latest role is a lead in Shunsuke Arita’s light-hearted comedy film, Onna no Kigen no Naoshi Kata (Handling Method for Grumpy Woman) that looks into the differences between the male and female brain when it comes to relationships. 

Keen to hear more about her role in the film and her time with Momoclo, TW caught up with the 24-year-old actress at the recent Okinawa International Movie Festival. 

“I don’t think my personality suited being an idol,” reveals Hayami. “I was given the opportunity to join Momoclo after graduating from elementary school and as I’m a naturally curious person I thought I would give it a go. It sounded like something fun and that often proved to be the case. Things were great with the girls and I’m glad I had that experience, but I wanted to act. It was just more appealing to me.” 

“As an idol, you’re expected to behave in a particular way, always smiling, being cute, that kind of thing. It just wasn’t me”

“I knew I couldn’t go on in the group,” adds Hayami. “As an idol, you’re expected to behave in a particular way, always smiling, being cute, that kind of thing. It just wasn’t me. One of Momoclo’s biggest strengths was, and still is, their openness. We always showed our real selves, whether that be laughing or crying. I just wasn’t feeling it and while I could have carried on, I didn’t want to deceive the fans, the girls or myself. The best thing to do was to leave.” 

At Hayami’s final concert in April 2011, Momoclo performed a special song for the outgoing star while fans held up blue penlights (representing her image color in the group). One of her first big roles after quitting was in Universal Music Japan’s cheerleading movie Cheerfu11y. She then played the lead in Saiji Yakumo’s 2014 teen romance My Pretend Girlfriend before going on to appear as the swordsmith Tetsuko Murata in the jidaigeki action comedy film Gintama, based on Hideaki Sorachi’s manga. 

“I think people now recognize me more as an actress than a former idol,” Hayami tells TW. “I was in the group for less than three years, whereas I’ve been acting for around eight years now. Some of my followers didn’t even know I was in Momoclo and have subsequently become fans of them after watching my films. Of course, there are also many who knew me from my time as an idol and have continued to support me since. I don’t mind either way. As long as there are people out there who enjoy watching what I do, I’m happy.” 

According to Hayami, the biggest strength she has as an actress is her ability to get on well with everyone. “Building close bonds with fellow actors and crew members,” she says, “makes it a lot easier to perform as it takes away any awkwardness while also helping to create a fun environment while you work.” She certainly seemed to enjoy being on set for her latest film, Handling Method for Grumpy Woman, where she appeared alongside a relatively young cast including popular actor Yuta Hiraoka and former SKE48 member Rena Matsui. 

“We had a great time,” she says enthusiastically. “The majority of the movie was shot at the wedding reception place and filming for that took just five days. We all had our own rooms, but none of us wanted to go back to them. Instead, we would always gather on a communal sofa, squeezed in, chatting through the night. It was a great production to be involved in.” 

Hayami plays Ai Majima, an A.I. student at university gathering data for her graduation thesis about how men can make women feel better about themselves by analyzing the brains of both sexes. To aid her studies she decides to work part-time at a wedding hall. Her knowledge comes in very handy at one particular ceremony in which several relationships threaten to implode. Based on Ihoko Kurokawa’s critically acclaimed essay of the same name, it is a fun and at times moving film that took home the Audience Award at the Okinawa International Movie Festival. 

“The plot is very interesting,” says Hayami. “Reading through the script, I learned a lot of things I hadn’t previously considered regarding the different thought processes of men and women. My character is an expert at solving problems and very scientific in her approach but as she gets to know the people in the story, we see her human side come out. She empathizes with the male characters rather than just telling them they are going about things the wrong way.”

Having just tied the knot herself toward the end of 2018, Hayami feels her own marriage could benefit from some of the words of wisdom expressed in the film. “It could help prevent some potential arguments,” she says, smiling. “We’ve been in a relationship for a long time and not had any big bust-ups but there have been times where I was confused as to why he said something or why he was behaving in a certain way. Doing this film has made it easier for me to see things from his perspective. I think I’ve become more understanding.” [Laughs]

“The way [Japanese] go about resolving things may seem a bit different, though, and that could be interesting for foreign audiences”

“Having only lived in Japan I can’t say what happens in other countries, but I’m pretty sure the conflicts you see in the film occur all over the world,” continues Hayami. “The way we go about resolving things may seem a bit different, though, and that could be interesting for foreign audiences. I hope those watching laugh, cry and feel joy. I think it’s a particularly good movie for people in relationships. I suppose the main message is to treasure your partner.” 

Enjoying life as a newlywed, Hayami appears to have achieved contentment both at home and work. As for her time as an idol, she will always be grateful for the opportunity she was given but has no desire to go back. She does continue to support her former group, however, and keeps in touch with all the members.

“Momoclo has a special place in my heart,” she says. “Due to our schedules, we can sometimes go a long time without seeing each other, but when we do get together it’s as if we’ve never been apart. I’m delighted they are doing so well, and they are very happy for me. There will always a close bond between us.”