Earlier this year, the film “#Manhole”, starring Hey! Say! JUMP‘s Yuto Nakajima, was released in Japan. Since then it has made its way around the world, including a stop at the Berlin International Film Festival. The film was shown this week at the New York Asian Film Festival. Ahead of the screening, I spoke to Yuto, in English via Zoom, about the film, his preparation for it, and what he desires to do as an actor going forward.
*Warning: There are spoilers in this interview!*
What made you want to take on this role?
There are so many reasons. First of all, this type of film is not often made in Japan, so I thought it would be a new experience for me and the Japanese audience. Second, I wanted to show a different side of myself compared to roles I’ve played before. Up until now, I’ve been playing “fine, young men” and thought it would be fun to try something completely different. Also, I thought I could make gaps between the public image of me and Kawamura (his character in “#Manhole“), who has dark emotions, if an idol like me played this role. That’s why I think the producer of this film chose me for this film, because it would work for the audience in a good way.
I just remembered a tweet I read recently about you, about how you’re always laughing. And I thought to myself, “If only they had seen this movie, they would have a totally different perception of you!”
Yeah, totally opposite! I really enjoyed tricking the audience with this role!
How did you prepare for this role?
I stopped drinking water for three days.
Yeah, I did this twice. Two different three day periods. I wanted to change my facial appearance between the first and second halves of the film. This is why I didn’t drink any water.
How did that affect you physically?
My face was totally thin. It was like I was on a diet. But I thought it worked!
Also, staying in the dark set was really, really tough, more than I expected. I had to express different emotions, so I wanted to look different in my appearance.
What was it like filming in the manhole?
Actually, it was two sets, an upper one, and a lower one. It was intense! It was dirty, it stank, and so scary! It was narrower than I expected. The first time I saw a photo of the set from the staff, I thought, “Oh, it’s ok. It’s not so narrow.” But that photo was taken with a wide lens and ended up much narrower than I expected! It was really, really hard to move around in there. I could barely sit up, so yeah, it was tough!
It looked really dirty in there, like muddy…
Yeah, muddy. And there were spider webs!
No, not actual ones, but fake ones to give the set more atmosphere. I thought the set decorator did a great job.
What was it like filming in the bubbles?
Ughh, the bubbles… That was a tough time. When I was in the bubbles, I had to stop my breathing. To make them darker and dirtier, the set decorator put a powder mixture of seaweed and katsuobushi on the bubbles. Speaking of smells, the bubbles smelled like okonomiyaki. It was terrible!
You don’t like okonomiyaki?
No, no, I love okonomiyaki, but not mixed with dirty manhole bubbles. The smell was just off, and very weird! I had never been surrounded by so many bubbles before, so it was a new experience.
I didn’t think you could drown in bubbles, but then I found out you can if they get inside of you. You just suffocate…
Yeah, it’s like being in water. You can’t breathe in there. I had to stop my breathing. That scene was really hard. It was a long cut. The director didn’t say “cut,” so I was just in the bubbles, thinking, “How long will this last?” It went on like that for several minutes.
It was one long shot?
I guess it’s better to just get it out of the way!
I guess so!
Now that I’m thinking more about the film, the ladder climbing! What was that like?
I had to climb that ladder so many times! There were so many different angles and positions involving the ladder. In the upper set, I could use a rope to climb, but the ladder itself was dirty and rusty, so it hurt to grip it.
There were parts where you had to fall off the ladder, deeper into the manhole. What was it like filming that? Did you have to fall all those times?
In that scene where I fell a few times, the director said we had to do it with no CGI, so it was real. I had to climb up the ladder, and fall, and the director would say, “Cut!” And then we would change the angle to the lower set and I would do it all again.
So each fall is really two falls?
That’s a lot of falling! How many times did you fall while filming?
I can’t even count! So many times!
Did it hurt?
No, we did it in a really safe way. There was a huge cushion underneath. It was all quite professional and safe.
The scene where you have to staple your leg close! What was that like? What were you thinking?
There was a silicone prosthetic, and the makeup person used a lot of fake blood. Even though I really wasn’t hurt, it felt like I was hurt.
Did you imagine it was actually part of your leg after a while?
It felt real after a while.
So how did it feel like to have to staple it close?
I had to concentrate on what was in front of me and do it. I had to film most of the movie alone, so I had to do that a lot.
Speaking of which, what was it like filming most of the film alone?
It was lonely. Normally in acting, we are talking like we are now, but not here. The phone call scenes were really difficult. I thought of the film “Phone Booth” with Colin Farrell. I really love that movie. Maybe the director of “#Manhole” was inspired by that movie?
The phone scenes, was there nobody on the other end?
There were people on the other end, off set, but then they edited the phone calls into the final cut.
I was wondering that, because if there is nobody on the phone, how do you get the facial and vocal reactions you gave?
It was difficult. The biggest twist in the film was that I was not really Kawamura, so I tried not to show my evil side in the first half of the film. I played the Kawamura role carefully. I didn’t want to show his evil side.
Speaking of that twist, it was very unexpected! What did you think when you first read the script?
I didn’t expect it either! I was messed up when I read it! I was like, “Wait, I wasn’t really Kawamura? I was Yoshida the whole time? No way! OMG!” And then there’s the plastic surgery, OMG, so scary! Then I closed the script, and thought, “OMG I have to do this! I have to do this! Two roles at the same time!” I have never had the chance to play two roles at the same time, so it was really challenging and a new experience for me. I really enjoyed tricking the audience.
I remember thinking it all made sense as to why he never wanted the police to come help him! At first I was like, “This is stupid! Why isn’t he calling the police?”
Yeah, that’s the first thing we do right? When an accident happens?
But we have a normal thought process because we aren’t killers!
That was one of the reasons I wanted to take on this role.
Yeah, because like you said, you wanted to change the perception of you, “the idol.” Not me doing the thing you did in Berlin, “idol song.”
— 묭묭(ง •̀_•́)ง (@JumP_171114) February 20, 2023
How did it feel to play the protagonist, and then the antagonist?
I had never played a role like this, like Yoshida, before. It’s been a dream of mine to play a dark, or at least significantly more morally complicated role like this. I have always played “fine young men” so many times before, wearing suits, and being of high status. But I really wanted to show a different side of me, to audiences in general and to my fans. It’s been effective. I’m an idol, so I thought that if an idol like me played this role, it would be really surprising. It was really fun, a new challenge, a new experience, and very rewarding.
How have your fans reacted to this role?
Same as you! “Wow!” I have so many fans who accept and support what I do, so I hope they were happy to see a new me.
After seeing you in this role, I would think the fans would think, “Ohh, I knew he was talented, but he’s even more talented than I thought! He’s playing this monster!”
The use of social media in the film is very reflective of today. What do you think of this?
Social media… I think it’s very handy, but I also think it’s a bit risky. There are various risks in using it. We have to be careful in how we use it. Not to treat people bad, and not to hurt anyone. We need to learn how to use social media properly. As depicted in the film, especially in the scene where Kawamura is agitated by people.
You talk about using social media properly, and there’s that one scene where the co-worker is tied up and assaulted due to bad social media usage. Your character is like, “This person did this to me, so someone go get him!”, and then someone does…
It’s like a mob mentality. That’s one thing I’m really scared of. This could really really happen. Social media is really handy, but comes with a lot of risk.
The film plays on the idea of wanting to be someone else. Has there ever been someone else you wanted to be?
Luckily, I’m happy being myself, so I’ve never wished to be someone else. But as a child, I loved “Star Wars.” I mean I still do. I thought about being a Jedi, using the Force, using a Lightsaber. It’s a kid’s dream!
Who knows, “Star Wars” is still going on…
Yeah, I believe I could make it a reality. I really, really, really, want to be the one who’s involved in those huge kinds of projects.
What was the Berlin experience like?
It was an honor, because I didn’t think I would be the one from Johnny’s to go to a big film festival like that.
But I really wish I could go to New York for the New York Asian Film Festival. It’s an honor that the film is being shown there, and I hope the audiences are enjoying it.
I was on Twitter today, and someone was shocked to see your “#Manhole” poster on the side of a bus stop in New York.
Yeah, I never imagined that this would happen. My poster in New York? In front of Lincoln Center? Yeah, I saw that on Twitter too. I’m there!
— Johnny & Associates (@johnnys) July 14, 2023
Yes, you’re here in spirit, in movie form and poster form!
You’ve gone viral online with your video from the film’s Berlin press conference, where you say, “I was like, OMG, ‘#Manhole’, that’s it?” What do you think of this?
I remember that, but I didn’t know about going viral! I think it’s a good way to promote the film! I’m really happy to learn this. But like I said in Berlin, I thought, “‘#Manhole’? What kind of film is that?” To be honest, I was a bit nervous being in Berlin at such a big film festival, so much of it is a blur. But it was a really valuable experience.
AND I WAS LIKE “OH MY GOSH MANHOLE…THATS IT?” pic.twitter.com/qLyD24zmyh
— wauwa (@YAOTOMEHlKARU) July 17, 2023
What is your dream role?
I’m passionate about acting, but really greedy, so I want to play so many characters! I have expanded the range of roles I can play with this film. I want to play someone like Joaquin Phoenix’s role in “Joker.” I’m really interested in playing real-life people.
It’s good that you’re thinking of the next role while playing one role. Because you’ve shown with “#Manhole” that you can play more than just “fine, young men” in a suit. You can do a role like “Joker” now. It’s very smart.
I’ve just started challenging myself by playing a role like Yoshida. I really want to play all kinds of roles.
You mention both Kawamura and Yoshida, so did you ever look at them as separate characters or one or…?
I thought of them as separate characters, and I tried to even trick myself. To trick the audience, I thought I had to even trick myself. I tried not to realize that I was Yoshida the entire film, so it’s really difficult to keep a balance between the two characters. It’s hard to maintain both of their emotions at the same time.
You know the film’s secret, but nobody else does, so you can’t let on too early the secret. Like the body you see in the manhole is really Kawamura, the person Yoshida killed, and assumed the identity of. I was so confused when Kawamura left his old job and was then killed by Yoshida. I was thinking I was watching another movie!
Thanks for the compliment! It was crazy!
Yoshida kept up his identity as Kawamura so well! He was about to have the perfect life!
It was difficult to play Yoshida, because I’ve never felt that sense of envy that he has. I spent a lot of time thinking about it.
At the end of the movie, there is whistling and then a thud. What was the thud?
I’m not even sure. Maybe the director knows. There is the possibility that he is still alive. A lot of the audience think he’s dead. I think the director wanted to leave it open.
Do you think he’s alive?
Yes. I think Yoshida has a high vitality, so even if something is really difficult, he will do everything he can to get through it.
I was thinking that he’s down there, and that he’s given up and realized there is no way out, so he’s bashed his head against a rock to kill himself. But maybe he’s alive now that you say that…
The song that I whistle at the end, I suggested it to the director.
What song is it?
Kyu Sakmoto’s “Sukiyaki.” In Japanese, the title is “Ue wo Muite Aruko”, which means “looking upward”, so there is a double meaning. The song is satire. I fell in the manhole and I’m trying to escape.
That’s really smart!
Another funny thing is that I have performed the song with Hey! Say! JUMP, so there’s even more levels to the inception.
This is very much not a Hey! Say! JUMP movie!
No, it’s definitely not!