December 11, 2014


NHK's current morning melodrama (Asadora) is doing something it's never done before: cast a non-Japanese actor in the title role.

Newcomer Charlotte Kate Fox (Northern Illinois University, MFA Acting) plays Scotswoman Ellie Kameyama, wife of Masaharu Kameyama (Tetsuji Tamayama), the scion of a sake-brewing family who brought whiskey to Japan.

Like Hanako and Anne, this is a fictionalized account of real people: Jessie "Rita" Cowan (1896-1961) and Masataka Taketsuru (1894-1979), the "father" of Japan's distilled spirits industry. "Massan" was Cowen's nickname for her husband.

They met in Scotland while Masataka was researching whiskey making. His research paid off well: this year, "Yamazaki Single Malt Sherry Cask 2013" was named the world's finest. Masataka Taketsuru was one of the founders of the Yamazaki distillery.

Yamazaki was subsequently acquired by Suntory. Masataka and Rita moved to Hokkaido to establish Nikka (now owned by brewing giant Asahi).

Fox isn't Scottish and doesn't have to be: 95 percent of her dialogue is in Japanese. Besides her acting skills and onscreen presence, she was probably hired for her ability to speak Japanese. Or recite Japanese, since she hadn't studied Japanese before.

This isn't unheard of for Hollywood actors, though some do better than others. Marlon Brando speaks pretty good Japanese in Teahouse of the August Moon. Richard Chamberlain tries hard in Shogun (but not hard enough). Tom Cruise does surprisingly well in The Last Samurai.

But Fox is tackling a huge amount of material: six 15-minute episodes a week for half a year. When all is said and done, she will have memorized—spoken or reacted to—about 40 solid hours of Japanese dialogue, most of it fairly practical, everyday material.

Boy, is there a dissertation in this. Her pronunciation already qualifies as above average, thanks in large part to her tutor, who preps her scripts using heavily modified romaji. It'd be fascinating to regularly test her language abilities along the way.

She has a fine singing voice and probably a good ear for accents. Though the one thing she readily admits she can't do is speak Japanese with a Scottish accent (her Scottish English accent sounds okay to me).

In any case, considering the challenges of performing in a just-learned language, Fox is doing quite well. She has nice chemistry with Tetsuji Tamayama. Together they reveal Massan to really be a modern family sit-com with a historical setting.

As Peter Payne likes to point out, Japanese women often voice the same complaint as Emma Watson (and idealize American men no less):

The Harry Potter star said that even though men from the UK dress well and have good manners they take two months just to ask her out. Instead an American will come up to her straight away and suggest a date, a boldness she finds attractive.

In that light, by using Fox's Ellie as the extroverted "interloper" in a traditional Japanese family and business, Massan becomes a clever way to talk about marital relationships, and analogize that to Japan's relationships with the outside world.

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