Fumi Nikaido Takes Manhattan

Three films in two film festivals in one city comprised the whirlwind week of Fumi Nikaido, yet the 19-year-old Japanese actress remained unflappable. In New York for both the New York Asian Film Festival and Japan Society’s JAPAN CUTS, Nikaido, who won the 36th Japan Academy Prize for Newcomer of the Year in 2013, was poised and genuine as she granted interviews, introduced her films, and participated in Q&A sessions.

NYAFF screened Au revoir l’été and My Man, winner of the Golden George for Best Film at the 36th Moscow International Film Festival in late June, and presented Nikaido with the 2014 Screen International Rising Star Award.

In Au revoir l’été Nikaido plays a teenager who failed her university entrance exam but learns a lot about life during her summer vacation. In My Man, she becomes romantically involved with the man who adopts her after both her parents perish in a tsunami. In the JAPAN CUTS offering Why Don’t You Play in Hell?, she’s the daughter of a yakuza who kills her ex-boyfriend by kissing him after placing broken glass in his mouth.

“I love them all. I love all the roles I’ve played,” Nikaido says during an interview with JapanCulture•NYC before the screening of Why Don’t You Play in Hell? on July 10. “In No Otoko (Brain Man), I played a psychotic murderer. I was only 17 at the time, and I was instructed to lose 5 kg (11 lbs), and I had to shave off my eyebrows. There were scenes where I was fashioning a bomb. It was a very crazed character. Of course, I couldn’t love that character, but I had a real affinity toward it. And I was glad to play the role. Part of me sometimes says, ‘Oh I should just quit!’”

Nikaido shows no signs of quitting, or for finding “safer” characters.

“It really concerns what appeals to me and what I want to be involved with on set,” Nikaido says of how she chooses roles. “I take a very holistic view of the film itself, and I also feel that some encounter with the film is very faded, so it’s up to my intuition as well.”

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Fumi Nikaido. Photo ©Ayumi Sakamoto

Nikaido was born in Naha to an Okinawan mother and a Tokyoite father and moved to Tokyo when she was a child.

“I was still very young so I don’t have an extensive memory, but I do love Okinawa, and it was a very formative experience for me,” she says. “At the same time I didn’t have a lot of friends there, but I look back on Okinawa with a lot of fondness, and whenever I want to see my grandparents or my mother or miss the food, I think of Okinawa.”

She thinks of New York with fondness as well.

“It’s a very special city for me,” Nikaido says of New York. “Just being here uplifts me and makes me happy.”

This was her third visit to the city; her previous was last year, when she spent two months here to study English.

“The very first, most important, and crucial step for me is to learn English, and I can’t do anything without that,” she says. “It was very important for me to study that, and at the same time I went around with my producers to meet directors whom I love in the city. New York City is an aesthetically pleasing place and just to place myself in the city is just inspiring for me.”

Nikaido also filled her days with visits to MoMA and other museums and taking in the culture.

“Currently I’m in a Japanese university, and perhaps through my university I’ll be able to come to New York City again,” she says. “I love the city so much, and it’s always been my dream to spend half the year in Japan and half the year in New York City.”

But the indie star isn’t quite sure about a move to LA.

“Of course I’m curious about Hollywood films,” says Nikaido. “I’d simply love to observe the set of a Hollywood film. It’s such large-scale filmmaking, so that would be interesting. But for me American film doesn’t equal Hollywood. I just want to be involved in something that’s interesting, that excites me. Plus I love French film as well, so I would love to work with French directors.”

Saying that American and French films would be limiting because they would offer her only Asian roles, Nikaido feels that testing the waters of Korean film “would be good because the possibilities are expansive. I was also very moved when I read a book by a second generation Japanese American, so those are the kind of roles Asian Americans can have. Because of that, I’m going to continue to study English.”

Chances are we’ll continue to see Nikaido in roles as varied as yakuza daughter, psychotic murderer, and perhaps a Nisei in a World War II internment camp. The determined young actress with a maturity seldom seen in a 19-year-old has a firm goal.

“There is a part of me that really wants to present a masterpiece to the world.”