Actresses I ♥: Rie Miyazawa

Young trendy idols aren’t my thing and I’m not a fan of the coquettish virginal image that so many emerging actresses in the Asian drama industry feel compelled to adopt/affect. Oh I know it’s mostly due to market forces and socio-cultural expectations. Looking “cute and innocent” is still prized above the actual ability to act by most media executives and sad to say, viewers as well.

It’s ironic then that kicking off this series category is an actress who began her career in the late 80s as one of Japan’s original bishoujos. Thrust into the limelight when she was 11, Rie Miyazawa is proof that it is possible to take charge of the car wreck that your life has become and re-invent yourself as a respected actress. 

The Early Years

Of Dutch and Japanese parentage, Miyazawa began her career as a wildly successful child model, (no) thanks to her ambitious mother, who doubled up as her manager. (Just in case you were wondering, she never knew her father.) It didn’t take long for her to become a household name and pretty soon, she was raking in more yen than she knew what to do with. Here she is in 1989, all playfulness and light:

Offers to appear in television dramas and cut music records followed in quick succession and then, that bug that often afflicts female teen idols (you know the one where they start pole dancing/acting in “edgy” music videos because they’re all grown up) came a-calling and in 1991, at the tender age of 18, she released Santa Fe, a nude photo book that nuked her girl-next-door image right out of the water. Predictably, the higher-uppers at NHK were not amused and promptly dropped her from one of their programmes, not that it mattered to her newfound legion of admirers.

Soon after, she got engaged to a rising sumo star, only for the engagement to be called off a few months later. Speculations flew and suffice it to say that the Japanese media had a field day. Even The Independent picked up the story. (It must have been a really slow news day for Britain.)

Things went pear-shaped for Miyazawa from there as she became known more for her suicide attempts, fights with her mother and problems with anorexia. No one would have been faulted for thinking that her career was over but she refused to be written off and slowly began picking up the pieces again.

Making a Comeback

Rie Miyazawa as Officer Zhuang Jingwen in The Cabbie

While Miyazawa has a number of dramas to her name, it is really through movies that she’s made her mark as an actress. Given that she’s a relatively big name in Japan, she could very easily have chosen the easy route and acted in a big-budget commercial production. But she didn’t. Instead, she acted in two consecutive Chinese language movies in the early noughties – The Cabbie (運轉手之戀), a Taiwanese black comedy about a taxi driver who falls for a traffic cop (trivia: It was Taiwan’s submission for Best Foreign Film at the 74th Academy Awards), and Peony Pavilion (遊園驚夢), a movie about the doomed romance between a lonely opera singer who marries into wealth and the female cousin of her husband. (Trivia: Joey Wong came out of retirement to act in this movie, after which she promptly retired from the industry again. You can read more about Peony Pavilion here.)

Peony Pavilion MV (Note: The international trailer is crap so have the official MV instead. If you understand Mandarin, you can watch the movie at Tudou.)

Critics were finally forced to eat crow when she won the Best Actress award at the Japanese Academy Awards for her elegant performance in Yoji Yamada’s The Twilight Samurai (2002).

She followed that up with an equally restrained and poised performance in the film adaptation of Haruki Murakami’s short story, Tony Takitani (2004). It’s definitely not a movie for everyone but if you’re drawn to themes of alienation and loneliness, then do give it a try!

I just found out that she lost the role of Sayuri in Memoirs of a Geisha to Zhang Ziyi. I’m actually glad that she didn’t get it because I would have been very sorry to see her in that Asian fetish movie (no disrespect to Zhang intended.)

Why I ♥ her: Because she’s a survivor and I respect people who can turn their lives around like she has. Because she is a truly elegant actress who understands that less is often more. Because she can convey heartbreak with a single sidelong glance. Because she is doing what she wants to do, even though some of her films may have most people scratching their heads (case in point: Gelatin Silver, Love). Take your pick.

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3 comments

  1. It was a nice read and very inspiring as well. From what I have seen of kdrama and kpop( do not know about the japanese entertainment industry), it seems the space available for young actresses and teen idols is especially very limited. Mostly, you are reduced to an image esp. true of k-pop. And the backlash u get once you refuse to become anything other than your image is frightening. So Kudos to Rie Miyazawa for her courage to break out of her image and esp for showing other actresses how you can turn your life around. Btw. what’s her current standing in the industry? And are there any others who have chosen to walk a different path like her? Such stories are truly inspiring!
    Will definitely check out her work.

    1. Thanks, novkid! I like to read allKpop to see how many times they can use the words “innocent” and “cute” in one day. Sometimes you get “sexy” and “cute” or “innocent” and “glamorous” but it’s always one or the other.

      “the backlash u get once you refuse to become anything other than your image is frightening”
      True. Actresses get a lot of backlash from the public when they try to do their job as well. For example, just look at some of the things that Soompiers wrote about Song Ji-hyo re: her role in A Frozen Flower. People were saying she was desperate to revive her career and some even insinuated that she did it because her co-star was hot. That’s just so dumb. Some people seem to forget that an actress’s job is to act, not hawk products in commercials. To be honest, I don’t think it was a great movie but if an actress wants to take a gamble and go beyond the roles she’s been playing, then who are we to condemn her for it?

      To answer your question, Rie Miyazawa is still a big name in Japan, but obviously, she’s no longer as famous as she was 10-20 years ago. Not too sure about other actresses in the Japanese industry. Miyazawa’s case is the most well-known because she was such an icon when she was younger.

  2. “Some people seem to forget that an actress’s job is to act, not hawk products in commercials.”
    Yeah, very true. I don’t think there is any hope for such people.
    Watched the Christmas special of ‘Running Man’ and it was hilarious. Song Ji Hyo is simply amazing. Can’t believe it’s the same girl from GOONG!

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