By Emi Yamada / Yomiuri Shimbun Staff WriterIn January 2007, two months before the couple were supposed to wed, the bride-to-be suddenly fell into a coma. The groom-to-be remained by her bedside and supported her recovery when she regained consciousness. After eight long years, Hisashi and Mai Nakahara finally tied the knot.
At the wedding, the groom was seen beside his new wife as she smiled in a wheelchair. Footage of the couple was posted on YouTube by staff at the wedding venue, and the story has moved so many people it has now been turned into a film.
Takeru Sato costars as the quiet Hisashi, while Tao Tsuchiya plays his disease-stricken fiancee in “Hachinen-goshi no Hanayome” (The 8-Year Engagement), now showing in theaters. Based on a book the couple wrote, the film was entirely shot in their home of Okayama Prefecture and neighboring areas along the Seto Inland Sea.
The story starts when Hisashi, a car mechanic, meets Mai for the first time at a drinking party. Both of them have terrible first impressions of one another, but that changes and they start dating. As the couple gets engaged and sets the date for their wedding, Mai begins suffering headaches more and more frequently, with the cause unknown. One day, she completely loses consciousness.
At the hospital, Mai is diagnosed as having developed anti-NMDA receptor encephalitis, a disease that affects the immune system. It causes a consciousness disorder and sends her into a coma. His fiancee does not seem likely to recover any time soon, but Hisashi encourages her by visiting her hospital room every morning on his way to work.
Sato said he was shocked when he saw TV footage on the couple’s story.
“This severe turn of events and such a wonderful miracle actually happened in reality,” he said. “I hope to convey the astonishment I felt at that time to as many people as possible through my acting.”
The 28-year-old actor described the passion he feels for his role, but he looked composed as soon as he was asked about his approach to playing it.
“I want it to seem like the real Hisashi-san is there on the screen,” he said. “More simply, to make it seem like real life, but that was really hard.”
Sato held many discussions with director Takahisa Zeze, and they reached one conclusion: not to act.
“As if Hisashi-san were expressing his own feelings through my words,” he said. “Of course, I learned the script by heart and read my lines, but during shooting, I didn’t feel like I was speaking lines at all.”
In a scene where Hisashi proposes to Mai, the character feels relieved as she accepts his offer, to the point of sobbing. Sato flashes a smile that is almost exactly the same as the real Hisashi’s, as seen in a documentary about them.
“Really?” Sato said when told this. “I met Hisashi-san several times, and his smile remains strong in my mind. I thought this would be the key for me playing him.”
To smile like the real Hisashi does, Sato intentionally moved his facial muscles every day before attending the shooting.
“I found there were so many muscles I hadn’t used before,” he said. “I think my own smile has changed through playing this role.”
Sato, a Saitama Prefecture native, started his acting career after being scouted in the Harajuku district of Tokyo as a second-year high school student. He was visiting there for the first time with friends to look for clothes.
“At that time, shows featuring failed takes often aired on TV,” he recalled. “By looking at what’s behind the production [of programs], I was getting interested in the profession as an actor.”
Sato’s rise to stardom has been so swift, he can be described as a “Cinderella boy.” Starting with his first lead in “Kamen Rider Den-O,” a 2007 tokusatsu superhero action show, he has been driven to absorb any acting experience he can get. When starring as a legendary swordsman for the “Ruroni Kenshin” film series based on the popular manga, he believed he could “create action scenes that nobody has ever seen before.”
Sato also played the lead in the 2015 TV drama “Tenno no Ryoriban” (The Emperor’s chef), for which he won the Hashida award established by acclaimed scriptwriter Sugako Hashida.
Sato doesn’t have that many dramas and films under his belt when you consider the expertise and recognition he has established over the past decade or so.
“This may sound overly confident, but I was desperate to ‘win’ in any work I get,” he said. This mind-set concerns not only the content, but also the box-office revenue or viewership ratings. “I was so desperately trying to get to an even higher place as an actor.”
With this mind-set, Sato chooses only a few works a year so he can put his all into each one.
Asked about how he hopes to step up his career over the next decade, Sato said dryly: “I don’t really think so much about what I hope to do.”
However, he said his mind-set is changing as his 30th birthday nears.
“When I’m older, I can get a wider array of roles to play,” Sato said. “At the same time, however, there’re also some characters I can never do again,” he added, citing as an example a teenage character in a high school uniform he once played for a TV drama.
“You can only live your life once,” he said. “I’ve realized you can’t get something back once you lose it, and this has helped me switch to a new mode. Now I feel like performing a wider variety of roles, probably because I can afford to a little bit more than before.”
Sato will portray the polar opposite of Hisashi in his next role, a film adaptation of the manga “Inuyashiki” to be released next year. He will play a man who commits indiscriminate murder after having his body replaced by machinery.