MIZUHARA KIKO | THE ATTACK OF AUTHENTICITY
In this period when Japanese magazines have become hot commodities, there is almost no young girl who doesn’t know Mizuhara Kiko’s name, or at least recognize her unique face. In Norwegian Wood she portrayed the frank Midori, and like a pure, inexperienced doe she invaded everyone’s vision. Her atypical side is what has left a deep impression within us all.On a heated afternoon in Tokyo, we arrive at the photoshoot set in a Japanese garden. Just as we begin to organize the clothes, a petite girl approaches with the lightest of steps, almost like she is creeping around. That is Mizuhara Kiko herself, the one appearing on all the major magazine covers, in every large department store, in all the television sets along the Tokyo streets. Her gaze, voice, and smile all contain something magical, and she stands right in front of us. All the staff members call this young woman with the faint smile: Kiko.
She’s smaller and more delicate than we imagined; a clean, flawless face that looks at least five years younger than on screen. “Is this what I’m wearing today?” She asks in fluent English, “It’s really beautiful. I’m really looking forward to working with everyone today!” Right after she finishes, she happily returns to her own lounge for hair and makeup. In person, she truly makes one think of Norwegian Wood’s Midori – completely free and immediately developing familiarity with anyone she encounters. Like the character herself, just fully in the flesh.
When we converse, I ask her to use three words to describe herself during childhood, as a model, and her current state. She answers in Japanese, “探検、エスケープ、野心,” meaning “exploration, escape, and ambition.”
ESCAPE, TOKYO ADVENTURES
Kiko’s mother always knew that she had a modeling dream. When she was 13, a fashion magazine in Tokyo held a talent search, and mom mailed her details to the publication. Surprisingly, Kiko was selected, and mom became manager, which began her life of traveling between home and Tokyo, of transitioning between school and photo studios.
“I think I was 16 or 17 when I first decided to move to Tokyo and model full-time.” That decision, like an escape, allowed her to invest everything into her profession. “Here I feel completely at ease, like it’s my home. I don’t need to worry about others, and what made me different actually became an advantage. I realized that after all, I don’t need to be just like everyone else.”
After moving to Tokyo Kiko grew up fast, with countless magazine appearances and advertising campaigns. The speed of her rise to fame seemed difficult to fathom. “I discovered that due to my height, I did have limitations as a model. At first it was hard to accept, but later I thought – if I can’t become successful as a model, I’ll just be myself. Allow everyone to get to know the real Kiko every single day, and not just as a familiar face on magazines.”
AMBITIOUS, I AM KIKO
A few years ago, some personal matters forced Kiko to terminate her contract, and her acting career went on hiatus as well. “Do you regret it?” I ask. She thinks about it and laughs,“ Not completely. I believe what happens in the past molds who you are today, whether they’re good or bad. Just like now, I guess, when I start to act the feedback can be positive or negative. I have to remember that I’m still in the learning stage. Even if I’m criticized and feel embarrassed, I can only do my best and keep pursuing improvements. Sometimes it’s stressful, and my results aren’t always up to par, but it’s all part of the process, nothing to have regrets about.”
“Because of acting, filming commercials, everyone has started to know who Kiko is. When I’m modeling I can just be ‘pretty,’ and no one will have much commentary about that. Now things are different – people will review my acting skills, my appearance – one thing on top of another. Before I had concerns about this, but later on I realized that haters gonna hate for no reason, and I can’t change that.”
ATTACK OF THE YOUNG WOMAN
Norwegian Wood opened many huge doors for Kiko. The adaptation of manga Attack on Titan is now in theaters, and she portrays the lead female Mikasa. Everything seems to have gone according to plan, but when she first encountered acting, her heart always held some resistance. “I love watching films – just being part of the audience – so I never thought about becoming an actress. After landing Norwegian Wood I was thrilled at first, but the weight of the role’s importance made me nervous. The pressure was enormous, and I didn’t have much confidence. After filming ended I even told myself: ‘I will never act again.’ However, many film productions kept requesting me after that, and the scripts were to my liking, so I agreed to do more. Maybe it’s just the road fate wanted me to take.” She says with another laugh.
“Before I took on the Attack on Titan role, I already read the manga and was a devoted fan – I really loved Mikasa. She is a beautifully mysterious yet cold young woman with incredible appeal, so when I was requested for the role I was beyond thrilled. In order to showcase her toughness, I went to the gym consistently and watched tons of action films. There are countless fans for this series, so I already expected negative reactions to the announcement of me as Mikasa long ago. But no matter what, I know I did my best.”
On the day of the shoot, with staff surrounding her at all times, Kiko must move between the lounge and the garden many times. Plenty of onlookers catch her presence and scream her name in excitement before they gather to watch the shoot and take their own photos. Only in a few short years, she accomplished the goal of having others recognize Mizuhara Kiko. She’s no longer just an unforgettable pretty face on magazines. “Of course I’m very grateful for what I have today, but sometimes I do long for the days when no one knew who I was.” She says.
“I’m still getting used to all this. Becoming comfortable with how outsiders look at me and judge me is the hardest part. Before I used to love going to Disney World and laugh out loud as I have fun. But now I can’t do that any longer. I hope everyone sees the real Kiko as someone who is a positive influence and role model. Someone who can bring inspiration, you know. But to become that person, these are all sacrifices. As I’m gaining notoriety and putting full effort into everything, I’m still anxious and fearful.”
When interviewing huge stars, there is a sense of self-preservation: as if you can see through them, but not completely clearly. However Kiko’s feeling is authentic. She doesn’t hide her fragility, and she doesn’t pretend to be someone else. “I really enjoy films that reflect reality, the true emotions of life that aren’t being fabricated for the silver screen. I’m thoroughly moved by such movies, and I want to emulate them in every way, especially in my lifestyle. Many well-known people tend to surround themselves with falsehoods, so no one can figure out what is actually genuine. Maintaining authenticity for myself is a powerful attitude, and it can influence both those close to you as well as your wider audience.”
When production finishes, Kiko takes off the cool façade she dons in front of the camera lens to chat with some elder ladies to the side. On the path back to the lounge she gently hums to the music broadcasting from her phone and wiggles her body to the beat. It’s Japanese singer Takeuchi Mariya’s “Yume no Tsuzuki” (“Endless Dream”). It’s her favorite song at karaoke, and its 90s style suits the older soul she seems to possess. A few steps later, a cat lazing on the ground catches Kiko’s attention, and she proceeds to lie down herself to tease it. Her humming of the lyrics continues, “Baby baby, don’t look so sad. There’s gonna be a better tomorrow…”