For most countries, there’s a time-honored tradition of the model-turned actress. But, for all the success stories like Uma Thurman, Milla Jovovich or Cara Delevingne, Cindy Crawford and Naomi Campbell have served up some hilarious misfires.
Japan is no different.
When we meet Ayame Misaki, a top Japanese model turned actress, at the 11th Okinawa International Movie Festival, she is totally in on the joke, her successful career proving herself to be no Cindy.
Key to her successful second act, is likely the fact that she has never taken herself too seriously. “I became a model to make money. No other reason,” says Miskai, 29, who became a top “gravure” model before she turned 16.
Appearing in men’s magazines in lingerie – no different to the life of an average Victoria’s Secret model – enabled her to escape the poverty of a childhood scarred by the devastating Kobe earthquake of 1995.
“I was born in a poor family and we lived in a shelter for a year after the earthquake. As a teenager the only thing I could think of was getting into show business. I just wanted to make money for my family,” says Misaki who worked to support her four sisters. “I never said no to any work that came to me.
“I was only five years old when the earthquake struck, and it had a huge impact on my childhood. Kobe is known for its big economic disparities – some people have a lot of money while others are very poor, like my own family. As a child I really felt that difference, particularly at school where I was so ashamed of being poor. That was a big part of my emotional journey.
“For many years, our water or gas and electricity was regularly cut off because we couldn’t pay our bills. Both my parents were gamblers, so it was crazy,” she adds with great candour.
Graduating from glossy magazine covers, today she has starred in more than 20 movies, including 2017 Cannes prize-winner Radiance; her latest dramedy Born Bone Born showcased at Okinawa International Movie Festival.
Delighted to return to these idyllic southern islands of Japan, she reminisces over how she first visited here, at the tender age of 15, for a magazine photo-shoot, returning again last year to film Born Bone Born on location.
Having appeared in countless TV series in Japan, her decision to pursue film was almost an after-thought: “I don’t really admire or revere other actors. I didn’t get into this career because I was longing to be a movie star or to be famous – it was more out of necessity,” says Misaki who will admit to enjoying Matthew McConnaughey and Marvel movies.
With no formal training, she relies on her instincts, for example, wearing a prosthetic belly for a month prior to filming her role as an unwed pregnant woman in Born Bone Born.
“I’ve played a pregnant woman many times on TV,” she laughs. “But, in this, I actually give birth, so it felt quite different. I spent an entire month with a silicone bag round my stomach, never taking it off except for when I showered. I would go out everywhere and eat in restaurants and actually experience what it’s like to be pregnant. I learned at junior high school English text-books how ‘practice makes perfect’ and I try to bring it to my work every time. I don’t just learn and listen – I always try to do whatever the role involves.
“I feel my talent is in expressing myself and squeezing out my feelings and emotion into the world. For example, if I am in a romance movie, it’s not about watching other romance movies; instead I have to fall in love with someone in my own life. I like to keep it real,” says the actress who was briefly wed to a man she met at a mahjong game.
Previously dating a Kiwi, she visited New Zealand with him, although regrets not having the chance to discover Australia and says she would love to expand her Asian-centric career to work there.
Looking back on her life, she says, “I’m actually thankful for those harsh childhood experiences because it made me pursue my career. My dad died when I was 17 and my mother had a mental disorder which meant she needed care, so I haven’t seen her for 5 years.
“I have worked solidly for 15 years and am proud of what I have accomplished.”