A story of love, hardship, sacrifice and…whisky, Massan is set to premiere next month and is expected to be another hit for NHK following the recent successes of Amachan and Hanako to Anne. Based on the lives of Nikka founder Masataka Taketsuru and his Scottish wife Rita Cowan, it is the 91st installment of the channel’s long-running morning drama series and the first to feature a foreign female lead.

By Matthew Hernon

An American actress with a Scottish grandmother, Charlotte Kate Fox beat more than 500 hopefuls to land the coveted role of Ellie, the character whose story is based on Rita Cowan’s. Given her nationality and the fact that she had never spoken Japanese before, the decision to cast Fox as the heroine raised a few eyebrows. The 28-year-old told Weekender that even she was surprised when she got the part.

“I couldn’t believe it,” Fox says. “It’s still a bit of a dream. I was surprised and scared. I just want to do [Rita] justice, showing her courage, restlessness and her lovely eccentricity. Rita’s willingness to love and live no matter what the cost happily mirrored some personal things I’ve been through and I was able to apply my life to hers.

“She was incredibly courageous, especially [given] that time period. After hearing her story I was surprised that a project had not been filmed already, and it only made me more eager to be the one to help bring her to life. What she did, what she sacrificed, how she stood strong in the face of so much hardship and adversity…these facets of her have made her into more than just a character, they’ve made her into one of my personal role models.”


Photo by Tetsuo Kitagawa

The young actress, who grew up in Sante Fe, New Mexico, clearly loves a challenge. It is the first time for her to take on a lead role in a TV series, and what’s more, it happens to be in an alien environment, speaking a language she had never previously attempted to study. Fox tells us she was drawn to Massan and the part of Ellie because she loves an “adventure,” though she admits to feeling some nerves.

“Of course I feel pressure—from three different countries actually,” she says. “I want to properly represent myself as an American, and do what I can as an actor to respectfully portray [Ellie’s] Scottish heritage, as well as accurately portraying her assimilation into Japanese culture. On top of that as the heroine of a national Japanese drama, I have a duty to Japan as well.”

Fox has gone to great lengths to ensure she’s as fully prepared for the role as possible. She informs us that she’s read every book about Rita Cowan she could get her hands on and “is continuing to scour for more information.” She also moved to Tokyo two months prior to filming to get more accustomed to the country, spending much of her time either working on the script—which is all in Japanese, except for a few flashback scenes, or attending language school. The intense course has helped to make her life on set a little bit easier.

“The directions are all in Japanese,” she tells us. “I almost always have my manager/translator there for bigger, more in-depth explanations, but for the smaller quicker ones, I am beginning to pick it up: ‘Right, left, stand up, smile, cry, laugh, look here, action, cut…’ The camera and sound men are really wonderful at charades too.

“That’s not to say it isn’t difficult; it is. There are things that get lost in translation, but everything that happens to me—and I mean everything—I am able to use to help me get a better understanding of what Ellie is going through. I also have to give a lot of credit to the cast…I truly believe that people who are drawn to this kind of business are always able to find a way to relate to one another and everyone here always makes an effort to do so with me. Even if it’s in half broken English, half Japanese or half charades, we all seem to get along quite well.”

One actor she has struck up a particularly close bond with is the male lead Tetsuji Tamayama, whom she describes as a “gentleman” who regularly helps her find her way around the set (while also helping her finish the samples of whisky they receive, as she describes herself as a “a bit of a lightweight.”) The 34-year-old will play the role of Masaharu Kameyama, a character modeled on Rita’s husband Masataka Taketsuru.

Rita and Masataka first met towards the end of World War I, when Taketsuru was in Scotland, learning the art and science of whisky distilling. Although he was the son of a sake brewer from Hiroshima, Taketsuru was drawn to western spirits, and he traveled to Glasgow under the sponsorship of a Japanese company that was hoping to launch its own whisky. Unable to afford tuition at the University of Glasgow, Taketsuru learned his chemistry while working as an apprentice at local distilleries in the area. Rita’s childhood sweetheart had died in the Great War, as had her father, leaving her mother as the breadwinner of the family. Struggling financially, they decided to take Taketsuru in as a lodger.

Despite opposition from both their families, they married soon after and then moved to Japan, taking the secrets of Scotch Whisky with them. Following several years of business struggles, Taketsuru began distilling whisky in Yoichi, Hokkaido, and the rest is history. But none of it would have been possible without his devoted wife.


Fox on set with two of her fellow actors on set

The tale of how the two got together is legendary in this country, particularly in Yoichi, where the couple have their own fan club, a museum paying homage to their lives, and even a street named after Rita. Now they have their own TV program, though as Fox points out Massan is not a direct retelling of their lives.

“While the show is based on Rita and Taketsuru, it is also a morning TV show,” Fox explains. “It’s therefore a bit brighter, more hopeful and more viewer-friendly. The real Rita and Massan (Rita’s nickname for her husband) are there for inspiration. Tetsuji and I are not strictly bound to the true historical figures, so that gives us room to explore their relationship rather than just their circumstances. The integrity and structure of their story remain, but we have been given the freedom to create our own version. At the end of the day, this story is not just about a Scottish woman who struggles to become Japanese, but a biracial couple who, in a time when interracial marriage was almost unheard of, did whatever it took to support one another.”

Massan will first hit NHK on September 29 at 8 am, running for 150 15-minute episodes until March 28, 2015.

Photo by Tetsuo Kitagawa

Charlotte Kate Fox, Massan, NHK morning drama, Nikka whisky