By Jin Kiyokawa / Yomiuri Shimbun Staff WriterYuki Ogoe is known as the prince of “2.5-dimensional works” — such is his knack for portraying lead roles in drama and stage adaptations of popular manga.
Among the characters he has played, the protagonist of “Yowamushi Pedal” (Weakling pedal) — a work adapted from a manga about high school students competing in cycling races — is such a perfect fit that it now seems impossible to imagine any other actor in the role.
The manga series, by Wataru Watanabe, started in the Shukan Shonen Champion weekly magazine in 2008. It has gone on to sell more than 17 million copies so far.
Ogoe has starred in the manga’s stage adaptation and also played the lead in both last year’s TV drama version and its sequel, now being broadcast on Sky PerfecTV. “Yowamushi Pedal Season 2” follows the protagonist’s school as it competes against the top school and rivals at the Inter-High School Championships.
At 168 centimeters tall and weighing just 47 kilograms, the slender 23-year-old Ogoe has a gentle face and big, bright eyes — just like Sakamichi Onoda, the lead character of “Yowamushi Pedal.”
Sakamichi, whose first name means slope, is a freshman at a public high school in Chiba Prefecture, and also a model figure and anime otaku (geek). He often rides his bike all the way to Tokyo’s Akihabara district, a Japanese subculture hub. This helped the boy develop strong legs, which caught the attention of his classmates. Sakamichi joins his school’s cycling club and eventually finds himself transfixed by road racing.
During a recent interview with The Yomiuri Shimbun, Ogoe described Sakamichi as a weakling.
“However, Sakamichi can express his feelings straightforwardly to others,” the actor said. “I can’t do the same thing, as I’m the kind of person who keeps my feelings inside.”
The stage adaptation of “Yowamushi Pedal” gained attention for its innovative theatrical approach. The actors held onto only bicycle handlebars during racing scenes.
“I found it challenging and frightening that we had to express something that was not there,” Ogoe recalled. “In contrast, in dramas we can express [the characters’ feelings] just by making small gestures or moving our eyes, which I think is an advantage [for dramas].”
The TV drama of “Yowamushi Pedal” gave Ogoe his first lead role in a small-screen production.
“It’s often the case that different actors play [the protagonist of a manga] for stage and live-action adaptations,” he said. “I feel grateful that I’ve been chosen for both.”
During shooting for last year’s TV drama adaptation, Ogoe enjoyed exchanging realistic lines with his fellow actors, which helped him realize once again how fun acting is.
“In the latter half of shooting for the program, we said to each other it’d be nice if we could work together again,” he said. “Now we can appear in this sequel thanks to the support our viewers have extended to us.”
A Tokyo native, Ogoe has been working in the showbiz world since the age of 3. “It was like a private lesson for me, something I took for granted because I had already been working in this field before I realized it,” he recalled.
However, Ogoe was not offered a major role until he was a high school student, when he starred in the second season of the enormously popular musical series “Tennis no Ojisama” (The Prince of Tennis), based on a manga of the same title.
“I was so desperate,” Ogoe recalled. “I had to learn so many things at the same time because I hadn’t sung or danced before.”
He played the lead character from 2010 to 2014, performing in 518 shows.
Earlier this year, Ogoe played a character on stage that most people know: Nobita — the best friend of Doraemon, the much-loved robot cat of the eponymous manga and anime.
Despite the stardom he enjoys today, the professionalism Ogoe has developed through his long acting career has helped him to remain humble. Until winning the lead role of “Tennis no Ojisama,” the actor “repeated the process of going for auditions and failing,” he said.
“I always think it is not a given that I will have an acting job like I do today,” he said. “It’s so important for me to appreciate that and to make efforts [to get offers]. Actually, I’m still uncertain [about my career].”
In portraying Sakamichi, Ogoe has been strict on himself — he has had diet restrictions, muscle training and runs. He also surprised his fellow actors and staff by showing how fast he developed the techniques for controlling a specialized type of bike. He did not appear to struggle during the months-long shooting in the mountains.
“I feel like doing everything I can [to play the lead],” Ogoe said. “I hate to be a loser and never want to say, ‘It’s so hard.’ That’s [because of] my pride.”
Asked about his future goals, Ogoe said he hopes to continue working in showbiz.
“I hope to continue taking up challenges 20 or 30 years from now, while feeling the same way,” he said. “It’s so exciting to express something, and more than that, I feel happy when I can convey something to others. This is a wonderful job that can move people.”
“Yowamushi Pedal Season 2” features high-level competitions between Sakamichi’s team and its rivals.
“It has many highlights, such as scenes in which we cycle in groups, and how the bonds and friendships among the characters are depicted,” Ogoe said. “I’ve discovered how wonderful bikes are — how fast they can go and how light they are.”