By Jin Kiyokawa / Yomiuri Shimbun Staff Writer“Can even I become [strong]?” In a clear, pleasant voice, Asuka Saito delivered her line, standing confidently in the center of the stage, as she played the protagonist of a manga-based play about a high school girl working hard at a martial arts club. Over the past year or two, Saito has been raising her profile among the members of Nogizaka46, a super idol group known for its many attractive girls. The 18-year-old played her first lead in a play when the stage adaptation of “Asahinagu” was presented from late May until earlier this month in Tokyo, Osaka and Nagoya.
Saito is popular for the contrast between her charmingly small face and cool presence. On stage, however, she revealed another charm she possesses by portraying a sometimes-bumbling heroine who is good-natured.
In the manga by Ai Kozaki, the heroine, Asahi Tojima, belonged to the art club in junior high school. In high school, though, she starts practicing naginata — a martial art that uses halberdlike poles — after she finds out that the sport lacks participants.
The manga, which has been serialized in Big Comic Spirits magazine since 2011, won the Shogakukan Mangasho award in fiscal 2014.
Other Nogizaka46 members also performed in the stage adaptation, and a film version of the manga will be released on Sept. 22, although the main characters, including the heroine, will be played by different members of the group.
Saito said it was particularly challenging for her to understand the personality of Asahi, who is totally different from her.
“It’s OK for Asahi to work [to do things] in a way that doesn’t look very smart,” she said. “In contrast, I’m supposed to behave as an idol star should, so I initially thought I shouldn’t make myself look uncool or like I was trying desperately to do something.
“She is straightforward and bold, making others think that she can do something revolutionary — something I was finally able to understand only after sincerely tackling the role.”
Saito was the youngest member of Nogizaka46 when she joined at the time of its formation in 2011, but soon found herself irritated when she served as a so-called “under member,” or a member who is not allowed to sing the singles.
At meet-and-greet events for their third single “Hashire! Bicycle” (Run! Bicycle), Saito was told to just help the members who had been selected to sing hide behind the curtain before their cue. “I was depressed to see other members, rather than me, in the limelight,” she said.
In the “Asahinagu” play, Saito found one scene that reminded her of that difficult experience, and was thus able to put more of her emotions into her performance.
During a summer training camp for her naginata club, Asahi was the only one told to draw water from a well. “I know I’m not as good as the other members, but I have no idea why I’m not even allowed to hold a naginata,” she says to herself.
Whether it is an idol group or a sports club, members share good and bad times even as they compete against each other. After she started high school, Saito became fascinated with books, and this gradually helped her dispel her own frustration.
“I’ve changed a lot,” she said. “I used to be so influenced by others, but now I don’t care what people say.”
The star apparently made this comment because she has become philosophical by learning about people’s complex feelings from the novels she has read.
Saito is often described as “cool-headed,” but she said it’s only because she is not good at showing her feelings.
“Every person has different sides to them, so I don’t mind what others say about me,” she said. “However, I sometimes think, ‘Well, that’s not actually correct,’ although I won’t say that.”
Saito began her rise to stardom around this time, probably because such a brave approach added to her charm, or perhaps because fans began to see her true nature.
When Nogizaka46 released a single in October 2015, Saito was one of the members chosen to sing the song, and even as one of the so-called “fukujin” (god of good fortune), who performs the choreography in a conspicuous place. The star got her first spot in the center of the front row for the group’s 15th single “Hadashide Summer” (Barefoot summer) in 2016.
Her first photographic collection, titled “Shiosai” (Sound of the surf), has sold more than 120,000 copies since its release in January. For the group’s third album, “Umaretekara Hajimete Mita Yume” (Having this dream for the first time in my life), released in May, Saito sings her first solo — although it is only included in the album’s Type-B first-press limited edition — and is also a featured artist on the album released by music producer Shinichi Osawa’s Mondo Grosso project, along with others such as UA, bird and Hikari Mitsushima.
Even though Saito has risen to become one of the main singers of the group, “I still lack confidence,” she said. “However, I can do my best now by convincing myself, ‘I can do it,’ just before going on stage.”Speech