In person, Dean Fujioka casts rays of human sunshine.
Chatting candidly before a screening of his new film, Marriage, at the Foreign Correspondent’s Club of Japan, the actor-musician-“influencer” tempered his celebrity wattage with genuine amiability, proving that his reputation for being down to earth is not just industry PR.
The Fujioka supernova first began glowing in 2006 in Hong Kong and Taiwan, where he parlayed a successful (albeit unplanned) modeling career into a series of attention-grabbing roles in television and film.
After signing with Amuse, Japan’s leading management company, in 2011, there was initial confusion about his provenance.
“I was treated like a Taiwanese actor who can speak Japanese,” he recalls, “but one who knows a little more about Japan than other Chinese celebrities.”
His first project became the controversial, fact-based I Am Ichihashi: Journal of a Murderer in 2012, which he directed and starred in.
For several years, he split his time between TV projects in Japan, Taiwan and North America — where he appeared in eight episodes of the 2014-2015 detective series The Pinkertons – and Japanese indie films.
It wasn’t until 2015 that Fujioka became an overnight sensation in his homeland.
Appearing on public broadcaster NHK’s morning TV drama Here Comes Asa, he played the real-life father of Osaka commerce, Tomoatsu Godai, with an impossibly charming, breezy confidence.
It was a perfect dovetailing of the role with Fujioka’s own buoyant personality. Male viewers yearned for his let’s-change-the-world fighting spirit; females yearned for a man who would cherish and cheer them on, as Godai had done for Asa, the title character.
The series became a cultural juggernaut.
During its six-month run, the “Godai-sama boom” continued unabated, cementing Fujioka’s “reverse-import” status as Japan’s first Asia-wide star. His presence drove Here Comes Asa to record-setting viewership, and Fujioka, to a stratospheric level of popularity.
He admits he never saw it coming.
“My manager told me about Mr. Godai’s legend in Osaka,” he says. “The more I studied him, the deeper I felt what he might have been thinking.
“He basically devoted his entire life to the future of Japan. He didn’t care about how much money he made or how people perceived him. I could really look up to him.”
When the role came to him, “The bone structure of the character was already there, but I wanted to project the positivity and the light he brought to Osaka. I wanted to show how passionate he was about what he was doing, and what he could do for others with the new information and techniques he [learned overseas].”
Fujioka worked with veteran NHK director Shinichi Nishitani on Here Comes Asa, and while the series was running, they made a TV movie together, Noisy Street, Silent Sea. With Fujioka’s newfound celebrity, they were also able to fast-track a feature project.
The resulting film, Marriage, opening in Japan on June 24, is the long-awaited adaptation of a bestselling novel by Areno Inoue, about a marriage scammer.
Nishitani cleverly cast the swooningly handsome Fujioka as the conscience-free conman, earning instant audience sympathy for the character, whether or not he deserves it.
Fujioka’s lothario is not a hero, far from it: he separates his victims from their savings accounts and destroys their notions of romantic bliss.
But he’s also not quite a villain, not even in the women’s eyes. There is apparently a dark secret in his past, and this is at the root of his fraudulent schemes.
Kenji Urumi (Fujioka) is perpetually polished and happily married to Hatsune (Shihori Kanjiya).
He just happens to make his living from marriage cons, slipping in and out of whatever skin suits his latest conquest.
For avid reader Asami (Eriko Nakamura), he is a popular web novelist with 500,000 followers; for classy magazine editor Mana (Wakana Matsumoto), he is a budding restaurateur who can also tickle the piano keys with just the right seductive pizzazz; for Hatoko (Tamae Ando), who despairs of the future as she stamps marriage license applications at a city office, he is a suave wine connoisseur.
Then there’s Ruriko (Shuko), Kenji’s partner in crime, a former target who realizes she can keep him close only by sharing in the spoils of his misadventures.
She provides him with a “never-ending supply” of lonely hearts in need of love. But one day, he meets his match in Yasue (Hisako Manda), who digs into his past and reveals the ugly truth.
Deflecting suggestions that he’d chosen the role of a scoundrel to counteract the Godai-sama effect, Fujioka says, “I really wanted to work with Mr. Nishitani again. The process of working with him is pretty addictive. I got hooked on it.”
Nishitani, in remarks during the Q&A session following the FCCJ screening, admitted he was “blown away” by Fujioka’s magnetism at first sight.
After working with him, he also found him to be “an actor who can really immerse himself in a role. He plunges into it with full commitment. This time, I wanted to widen the spectrum of his roles, to show how charming he is, how he can sweep women off their feet and put a spell on the them.”
But it is really Godai-sama’s heart that beats in Fujioka’s soul. He admits that in his early youth, he’d wanted to escape Japan partially because he suffered from debilitating hay fever every spring (it’s a national affliction).
When he went off to Seattle to study IT in college, he hoped to be the next Steve Jobs or Masayoshi Son.
“I wanted to become the boss of my own company. But for some reason,” he laughs, “that didn’t work out.”
After traveling around Asia and being scouted in Hong Kong, he discovered his milieu: “Somehow, I bumped into the right people and got inspired in so many ways. I was able to find my own passion, and to get connected to society. As an ex-pat, connecting to local society was really special. I felt a sense of belonging.”
Already fluent in English, he soon added Cantonese and Mandarin. “With language skills, I was definitely able to learn more than if I were monolingual, because so much information, knowledge and wisdom is available in English and Chinese.
Language is literally more important than having a passport. That’s something I really want to emphasize to my kids and to the younger generation.”
Fujioka also wants to encourage offshore exploration: “With such vast technology and ease of transport, it seems like such a waste not to try new things. It might give you different perspectives, or shed new light on things.”
“And it’s fun! It’s definitely better than not trying at all. Even if you fail, even if you take a risk, what matters is how well you live. As someone said, your legacy is how many hearts you’ve touched.”
But with Fujioka’s Indonesian wife and three children living in Jakarta, he admits that finding a work-life balance has become a mounting challenge.
“The clock is ticking. I really have to find a place where I can continue my career, as well as be a responsible father. I know my family will support my dream 100 percent; we’re strongly bonded and I have total faith in them. But it’s a tough dilemma, and I’m searching for an answer.”
Meanwhile, the borderless opportunities continue apace.
He is currently the face of Canon’s EOS M5 and M6 cameras in 17 countries outside Japan, and a documentary filmmaker is following him during concert appearances around Asia.
A new film with a high-profile Japanese auteur goes into production soon, and two titles have been announced for early 2018.
But what he really wants is a musical. “I’d really like to do a film like La La Land,” he enthuses, “whether in Japan or wherever I get the opportunity.”
Phones should begin ringing off his management company’s hook any minute now.