10 Young and Talented Japanese Actresses & Their Career Defining Works

Japan’s film industry is full of beautiful and talented actresses, so it can be difficult to stand out, with actresses usually reaching the height of their career only when they get to their 30s. However, there are actresses who managed to cement their place in the industry while still young, proving themselves capable artists with enough talent to support an entire film even if they’re not the lead. Here are 10 such actresses as well as their career defining performances:

#10 Fumi Nikaido

Fumi Nikaido was originally a model based in Naha, Okinawa, before being cast in Koji Yakusho’s Toad’s Oil in 2009. She went on to star in numerous films from internationally acclaimed Japanese directors, particularly Shion Sono, whose Himizu managed to snag Fumi the Premio Marcello Mastroianni Best Young Actress Award in the 68th Venice International Film Festival.

Breakthrough Movie Role

Why Don’t You Play in Hell? (2013)

  • A film about a war between two rival yakuza clans, the daughter of one of the yakuza bosses, a group of indie filmmakers, and a random bystander who will serve as the catalyst for a violent confrontation between all the parties involved.
  • Fumi Nikaido plays the role of Mitsuko Muto, one of the Yakuza bosses’ daughter and the obsession of the other Yakuza boss.
  • The role is brilliant because it is a believable portrayal of a rich, spoiled, and rebellious teenager but instead of coming off as annoying, Fumi manages to make you sympathize with her plight – that of being railroaded into a life that she neither wanted nor asked for. She also comes off as endearing, cute, and quite possibly the snarkiest character in the movie.
  • She also kicks a lot of ass in the film.

#9 Ryoko Hirosue

Ryoko started out at the tender age of 14 when she joined the P & G cosmetic model competition, before making her TV debut as a singer on the program TK Music Camp. Her debut as an actress happened at age 15, for Fuji TV’s Heart Ni S, followed by the comedy series Shota no Sushi, which won her the Best Newcomer award at the 10th Television Drma Academy Awards in 1995.

Breakthrough Movie Role

Wasabi (2001)

  • Wasabi is a French action-comedy film that focuses on a loose cannon French policeman who goes to Japan after receiving news of an old flame’s death, only to receive sole custodianship of the French/Japanese girl Yumi, who is being hounded by the Yakuza.
  • Hirosue plays Yumi, the energetic and rebellious French-Japanese teenager that the protagonist must protect. Many foreign fans first saw Yumi through this role, and became interested with the energetic and cute yet highly volatile teenager who can smoothly shift between charming the audience and annoying the protagonist. There’s also a twist in the movie as to her past and her connection with the protagonist.

#8 Sakura Ando

Sakura Ando is a Tokyo-based actress who started out as a supporting actress for various films, earning various awards in the process including Best Supporting Actress for the films Love Exposure, Kuhio Taisa, Tsumitoka Batsutoka in the 31st Yokohama film Festival in 2010, and a nomination for the same category at the 4th Asian Film Awards for A Crowd of Three.

Breakthrough Movie Role

Ai to Makoto (2012)

  • Based on the manga series of the same name, Ai to Makoto is an action/musical love story that follows the daughter of a well-respected and wealthy family and a juvenile delinquent who is currently hunting the leader of a female gang.
  • Sakura plays Gum-Ko, which she played effectively – in many scenes blending a chaotic (sometimes scary) body language with a sweet voice that would fit in well with an enka song.

#7 Hikari Mitsushima

Hikari Mitsushima started out in 1997 as a teenage idol singer via the J-Pop group Folder 5. She made her acting debut two years later in 1997, via the film Rebirth of Mothra II and became a full time actress in 2005. She appeared in the live action adaptation of the Death Note manga, and won a number of awards after appearing in Sion Sono’s Love Exposure.

Breakthrough Movie Role

Love Exposure (2008)

  • Love Exposure is about a young devout catholic boy who is kindhearted and faithful, but tries to commit as much sin as he can because confessing it is the only way he can talk to his parish priest father. He eventually meets a young teenage girl named Yoko while disguised as “Miss Scorpion,” and falls for her; unfortunately, Yoko fell in love with Miss Scorpion.
  • Hikari Mitsushima plays the complex role of Yoko, who is deeply religious but overzealous in her beliefs to the point of resorting to violence.
  • Hikari also doesn’t shy from fanservice while doing a lot of martial arts scenes.

#6 Chizuru Ikewaki

#5 Kou Shibasaki

Based in Higashi, Osaka, Chizuru Ikewaki is an actress who got her break in 1999 via the film Osaka Story, which got her the Best New Talent award a year later at the Yokohama Film Festival. She has since continued working and starred in 14 more films from 2002 to 2014, and was cast in 2 TV dramas, 2000’s Summer Snow and 2012’s Penance.

Breakthrough Movie Role

Josee, The Tiger and The Fish (2003)

  • Based on the novel of the same name, Josee, The Tiger and the Fish follows university student and part time worker Tsuneo as he accidentally meets Josee, a disabled girl his own age during an accident with the pram she is using.
  • Chizuru plays the titular Josee, and it’s the role that brought her a lot of attention, even from foreign countries like South Korea, due to her portrayal of a disabled girl who tries to be hopeful, longing for a normal life, yet is frustrated because she knows full well that it’s never going to happen.

An actress and singer who debuted in 2000 via the cult classic Battle Royale, which raised her profile overseas and got her other high profile roles including the role of Tsubaki Sakurai in the 2001 film Go, in the process earning her several awards such as the Best Supporting Actress Award of Japanese Academy, the Hōchi Movie Award, the Kinema Junpō Award.

Breakthrough Movie Role

Battle Royale (2000)

  • An adaptation of the action thriller novel of the same name, Battle Royale focuses on a fictional Japan where rampant crimes among teenagers have prompted the government to mandate a deadly game in which students must kill each other.
  • Kou Shibasaki’s Mitsuko Souma was one of the many standout characters in the film – a beautiful but deadly femme fatale whose sociopathic tendencies resulted from a tragic childhood. She’s one of the strongest combatants in the contest, and is the 2nd main villain.

#4 Yuriko Yoshitaka

Yoshitaka started out as an actress in 2006, at the age of 18, as the lead role in the film adaptation of the award winning novel Snakes and Earrings. The role got her noticed by the public, and she was named as the fifth most promising young actress of 2009 by Oricon, as well as the freshest female celebrity.

Breakthrough Movie Role

A Story of Yonosuke (2013)

  • The film focuses on the titular young man, who moves to Tokyo in order to go to college. He makes friends and has some unremarkable adventures. The film then jumps forward 20 years later, Yonosuke has died and we get to see the effect he had on the people he encountered.
  • Yuriko plays the role of the rich girl Shoko, who became the object of affection for Yonosuke. The role is remarkable because Yuriko manages to infuse it with tenderness and just the right amount of wit, which prevented the character from becoming mediocre and annoying as other similar characters have been.

#3 Mao Inoue

Mao Inoue originally debuted in 1999 as a member of the u-15 idol unit, but gained fame when she was cast in the Japanese TV drama Kids War, before reaching the zenith of her career and winning awards when she was cast in the Hana Yori Dango series.

Breakthrough Movie Role

The Snow White Murder Case (2014)

  • The Snow White Murder Case is based on novel "Shiro Yuki Hime Satsujin Jiken" by Kanae Minato and focuses on a murder that occurs in a cosmetics company.
  • In the film, Mao Inoue plays the prime suspect Miki Shirono. The role is brilliant because it plays with viewer expectations and perception – with Miki originally presented as a bad woman and worthy of being a suspect, but through various conflicting testimonials from witnesses, as well as the brilliant portrayal from Inoue herself, the viewer will start to doubt as to whether Miki is actually a bad person or a victim of circumstances.

#2 Yoko Maki

Maki debuted at the age of 19 when she was cast in the 2001 film Drug, but she got her true big break when she was cast in the modernized remake of the iconic vengeance film Lady Snowblood, The Princess Blade. She’s also had enough appeal to have been cast in an international film, The Fast and the Furious: Tokyo Drift, though the role was small. Many foreign fans likely saw her first in the horror film The Grudge.

Breakthrough Movie Role

The Ravine of Goodbye (2013)

  • The Ravine of Goodbye is a murdery mystery that focuses on the death of a child, with the prime suspect being the mother herself, and a neighbor that she was allegedly having an affair with as an accessory.
  • In the film, Maki plays Kanako, the wife of the man accused of being accessory to the crime. The role is complex, because – SPOILERS ALERT – it was revealed that she met her husband 15 years ago, when he was a star athlete and was one of the men who gang raped her. How she ended up marrying and loving the man who ruined her life is one of the mysteries in the film.

#1 Erika Sawajiri

Erika Sawajiri is a model, singer, and actress who started in 1999 by passing a Stardust audition after graduating from elementary school. She became part of the idol unit Angel Eyes, and started a film career via the movie Mondai no nai Watashitachi. She has since earned many awards for both her music and film work, including Fuji TV’s Visual Queens in 2002, Best Newcomer Award in the 79th Kinema Junpo Awards, and the Best Actress in a Leading Role in the 36th Japan Academy Awards.

Breakthrough Movie Role

Helter Skelter (2012)

  • Helter Skelter follows famous celebrity Ririko, who had several cosmetic surgeries done in order to maintain her looks. But once the multiple surgeries take their toll on her body, she starts to get miserable and takes it out on the people around her.
  • Erika Sawajiri turns in a notable performance as Ririko, a woman who is at the peak of her career but so desperate in her attempts to preserve her top spot that she’s willing to get multiple surgeries done. Once the surgeries prove to be unwieldy, she falls apart at the seams, starts getting frustrated and self-destructive, to the detriment of the people around her.

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