Yo Hitoto: Yo! She can act, too

Yo Hitoto is already a singing and songwriting sensation in Japan, attracting armies of paparazzi and adoring fans - and now she has turned to acting. Kaleem Aftab talks to a rising star
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The Independent Culture

It could easily have been a deleted scene playing up Japanese stereotypes from the DVD of Lost In Translation: a herd of Japanese paparazzi stampeding along the Venice seafront accompanied by the rat-a-tat machine-gun whirl of clicking cameras as they hunted images of the two lead stars of Café Lumière. One of them, Tadanobu Asano, is well known to his army of British fans as the Johnny Depp of Asian cinema, but unusually he had been relegated to a secondary role by the diminutive belle at his side, Yo Hitoto.

It could easily have been a deleted scene playing up Japanese stereotypes from the DVD of Lost In Translation: a herd of Japanese paparazzi stampeding along the Venice seafront accompanied by the rat-a-tat machine-gun whirl of clicking cameras as they hunted images of the two lead stars of Café Lumière. One of them, Tadanobu Asano, is well known to his army of British fans as the Johnny Depp of Asian cinema, but unusually he had been relegated to a secondary role by the diminutive belle at his side, Yo Hitoto.

Hitoto is the current queen of J-pop, the Japanese musical form with roots in folk and jazz that first came to prominence during Emperor Showa's reign. Recently a new wave of stars, led by Hitoto, has breathed life into the musical style. Columbia Music Entertainment cited Hitoto as a major factor as to why they recently turned a profit for the first time in seven years. Hitoto's first single "Morai naki" ("Sympathy Tears"), released in 2002, turned her into a star overnight. Her debut album, Tsukitenshin, soon followed and racked up sales of almost one million.

By the time I meet with the 28-year-old singer-turned-actress, she has managed to shake the gaggle of photographers. Hitoto is dressed in an immaculate pleated black-and-white dress and she bows her head in a traditional Japanese greeting giving off a serene, unnerving aura.

In reply to a query about her dress, she chirps to an interpreter, "I don't know what brand I'm wearing! I just brought it in a local Select shop. I'm not fixated on brands like Gucci or Prada, but I do like to mix styles and wear second-hand clothes, what I want to do is be original and have a loose, informal style. I live in this way; very slow and relaxing."

Speaking to Hitoto, it is easy to imagine that she lives in a bubble separated from the outside world, but looking around the marquee where we are sitting, this illusion is shattered. As well as the interpreter, Hitoto's manager, agent and two make-up artists are in watchful attendance. The J-pop sensation may seem oblivious to the madness that surrounds her, but she is clearly a hot property, and her profile is only going to get higher with the launch of her new acting career.

The director of Café Lumière, the Chinese-born Hou Hsiao-Hsien, exploits Hitoto's ability to stay calm in the midst of seeming chaos.Hsiao-Hsien shot the film to commemorate the centenary of the birth of acclaimed the director Yasujiro Ozu, and it takes its lead from Ozu's Tokyo Story. In it, Hitoto plays Yoko, a freelance writer who has recently returned to Tokyo from Taiwan where she has been researching her latest subject, the 1930s composer Jiang Wenye. In a second-hand bookshop in Taiwan she meets Hajime (Asano) after a brief affair Yoko falls pregnant. Back in Tokyo she has to decide what to do and how to break her news to her family. So measured is Hitoto's performance that it's hard to believe this is her celluloid debut.

Hitoto explains that her decision to try her hand at acting was very matter of fact. "Even though I thought that the work of an actress would be very nice, I never thought about acting. That happened because of coincidence. I met director Hou and I wanted to work with him." It seems possible that the director was was inspired to cast her because of resonances in the story with events in Hitoto's own life.

Until her Taiwanese father died of lung cancer when she was six years old, Hitoto was raised in Taiwan. Her Japanese mother then moved Hitoto and her older sister back to her homeland. Hitoto recalls that the family found solace in music, "Music was therapy for me and also for my mother, it was a good for us and that made me want to be a musician."

Then, when Hitoto was 16, her mother died and her sister, six years older, took on the task of raising the teenager. It altered Hitoto's perspective on family relationships. "My relationship with my sister is very distant. We don't have a lot to say but we can understand each other," she explains. "For me my sister is also my father and mother and now she is married she is a woman and there are many roles she has. I think she is more adult than me."

She began writing songs as a means to express her emotional anguish. "I think the important thing is to be honest with yourself; I started writing music because I wanted to cry. I wanted to pour everything out. I want to use music as a process to give a relaxing feeling for people who are ill and ensure that my music can be therapy for them too."

With Café Lumière bringing her to a wider audience, and her second album Hito Omai (which contains the theme tune to Café Lumière and "Edo Polka" a song inspired by the film's director), recently released in Japan, Hitoto's star is clearly on the rise. In her elegantly simply manner she says of her fame, "With celebrity I'm feeling good. It is a better life now. When I was a university student I was a bit poor; now I can invite someone to eat and drink and that's nice." Most of Japan is waiting for an invitation.

'Café Lumière' is showing at the London Film Festival (020-7928 3232) on 4 November at 1.30pm and 6.30pm, Odeon West End, Leicester Sq, London WC2

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