Leaving a Strong Impression: The Artistic Endeavors of Natsuki Mari


From voice acting in Miyazaki Hayao’s Spirited Away to fronting a band inspired by the music of Janis Joplin, Natsuki Mari’s career has covered a lot of ground. Her other activities have included well-received theatrical works that explore physical performance and a project supporting families in developing countries. Her varied resume has won her a large following among young Japanese women.


Relaunched her singing career in 1973. Has appeared in numerous films and TV dramas. Received the Minister of Education’s Art Encouragement Prize for New Artists in 1984 and the Japan Academy Award for best actress in a supporting role in 2003. Has given her Inshōha (Impressionist) series of conceptual art theater performances overseas since 1993 and run the development support organization One of Love Project since 2009. Also wears many other hats, including narrator, radio personality, editor-in-chief of an online magazine, and author. In 2014, was appointed as an advisor to the Tokyo Organizing Committee of the Olympic and Paralympic Games.

International Theatrical Success

INTERVIEWER  Your best-received work is the conceptual art theater work Inshōha [Impressionist].(*1)    

NATSUKI MARI  I started the Impressionist series in 1993. I took the show to places like France and Poland because it wasn’t accepted in Japan. Being an avant-garde work, it just wasn’t understood here, so much so that newspapers called it “a work of self-indulgence.” When I went overseas, curious to see what the response would be like, the audiences in Paris, Poland, and Germany all showered us with bravos. Their delight was night and day compared to the cool reception in Japan. I’m the type of person who thrives on a bit of praise, so I made another work and toured places like Avignon and Edinburgh. I came back to Japan asking myself why I couldn’t get domestic audiences to come see my show and launched my own management company to get the Impressionist going.

INTERVIEWER  Perhaps overseas audiences found your show positive and challenging.

NATSUKI  I agree. I’ve had comments to the effect that Japanese artists typically bring along a variety of traditions, like the kimono, but that there’s no hint of Japan about me. At the same time, I found it tough being abroad when I was asked about politics in my first overseas interview. I would also get questions about my philosophy, and these experiences made me stronger and helped me to brush up my act. To continue down the road with the Impressionist, I knew I needed to steel myself and really get down to it.

The Impressionist NÉO Vol. 2: Cinderella. (Photograph by Hiro Kimura.)

Supporting Moms and Children in Ethiopia

INTERVIEWER  I am also interested in your support work in Ethiopia, which you started in 2010 through the organization One of Love Project. What prompted you to do this?

Natsuki Mari at the One of Love Project Gig concert. (Photograph by Ryūgo Saitō.)

NATSUKI  Having no children of my own, at first I picked three countries that I had never been to and simply sent money as a child sponsor. Later, when I became life partners with a musician and we were talking about traveling, we decided to go meet the children with musical instruments in hand. As it turned out, we came home from the trip very happy. We launched an organization called One of Love Project so that we could provide further support.

We started the project in Ethiopia, where we help improve the education environment for children and the work environment for women. We raise the money to send to Ethiopia by organizing a live concert called Gig every year on June 21, World Music Day, and through sales of roses at florists who support us.

Inspired by Janis Joplin

INTERVIEWER  What are your musical roots?

NATSUKI  My roots, I would say, are in classical music. Although my father worked for a trading company, his love was music, and I grew up hearing him play classical music on the piano. So that’s where my roots are. But when I started listening to Western rock music in my adolescence, the songs and voice of Janis Joplin electrified me, and I wanted to be a singer like her. That was the first time I thought about a career in music. When I followed an invitation to become a singer, though, my debut album was in the kayōkyoku pop genre.

For the longest time, Janis’s music to me was purely for listening. But when I formed my own band about thirty years on, I decided to “borrow” her songs and do blues rock.

INTERVIEWER  Did you aspire to Janis Joplin’s way of living as well?

NATSUKI  I only learned about her life later on, so at first I was just drawn to her singing. All of her songs are about love, but I didn’t know they were love songs at the time. That voice of hers really got me.

Natsuki Mari at the One of Love Project Gig concert. (Photograph by Ryūgo Saitō.)

(*1) ^ Inshōha: The Inshōha (Impressionist) theater is Natsuki Mari’s mode of artistic expression, exploring physical performance vis-à-vis art, language, and space. The series has been presented to critical acclaim in countries including Britain, France, Germany, and Poland as “conceptual art theater.” Natsuki has produced 10 works in the series to date as director and performer. She founded the performance group MNT (Mari Natsuki Terroir) in 2007, where she trains young performers and hopes to stage shows both in Japan and overseas. The 2014 Impressionist show was based on Cinderella, putting a new spin on the classic tale while seeking in it the epitome of beauty.

The Cabaret Years

INTERVIEWER  You’ve been through some hard times as an artist.

NATSUKI  Looking back, the hardest thing for me was that I was a bad singer. Sure, I have two or three hit songs under my belt. If I had talent, though, I think the hits would have continued and I would have become a singer who could fill concert halls. My songs, my voice—they just didn’t have the magic. So I ended up singing in cabarets for about eight years. There were many rough moments, like people shouting abuse at me and other unnerving experiences, but those were things I could get around. It was my lack of singing skills that I found most distressing.

At one point I resolved to stay in this line of work through my twenties, even if my career didn’t take off. When I heard my thirty-year-old voice I told my agency that I was done, and then later I was invited to go into theater.

Natsuki Mari at the One of Love Project Gig concert. (Photograph by Ryūgo Saitō.)

INTERVIEWER  That was in the 1980s.

NATSUKI  Yes. I finally found what I wanted to do in my forties, and that was the Impressionist. My entire career until then had been like a prologue. In theater, it was nice that I progressed from small-theater productions to musicals, and working with stage directors Ninagawa Yukio and Suzuki Tadashi also helped set my acting career on a smooth trajectory. I’ve been fortunate. There now are three main aspects to my work— the Impressionist, singing, and One of Love Project—and it would be ideal if I could make a living and a business out of the three.

Discovering Voice Acting

INTERVIEWER  You did the voice of the witch Yubāba in Miyazaki Hayao’s Sen to Chihiro no kamikakushi (Spirited Away).

NATSUKI  In 1990, I went to New York for six months, where I learned how to market myself. I had sent a video of my Impressionist shows to Studio Ghibli, asking them to take a look. I think it was producer Suzuki Toshio who saw it and contacted me. After hearing my voice director Miyazaki Hayao created the characters Yubāba and her twin sister Zenība for me, and that’s how I got cast.

Until then I had never seen anime, let alone Ghibli films. Having no idea how incredible it was to be in a film by Miyazaki Hayao, I did it as just another job. But then everyone was amazed that I had voice acted in a Ghibli film. So I went to see Spirited Away in a movie theater, and it was good. The film even won an Oscar, and I’m glad I did it. So that’s the story.

INTERVIEWER  Delivering with your voice must require considerable expressiveness.

NATSUKI  I’ve come to enjoy voice work since doing Spirited Away, because with voice acting you can’t create a strong presence unless you make full use of pitch, intensity, and tempo—the basic elements of acting—and channel all of that into your character. At the risk of being misunderstood, I might say it’s about technique. I’ve learned a lot from voice work, and I enjoy narrating even now.

INTERVIEWER  You’re also an advisor to the Tokyo Organizing Committee of the Olympic and Paralympic Games.

NATSUKI  I’m guessing that former Prime Minister Mori Yoshirō [president of the Organizing Committee] thought of me because he remembered that I won the Minister of Education’s Art Encouragement Prize for New Artists when he was education minister.

Coming from the entertainment industry, my first thought regarding the Olympics has to do with the opening ceremony. The athletes have beautifully honed bodies, and I’ve always wondered why they have to wear uniforms that make them look so unshapely at the opening ceremony. We should have the uniforms made by talented young Japanese individuals who are active abroad, leave it in the hands of a promising designer, or something like that.

“I Always Think of Myself as a Rookie”

INTERVIEWER  Your stage performances these days are very energetic and have a strong following among young women. How do you keep up all that energy?

The Impressionist NÉO Vol. 2: Cinderella. (Photograph by Hiro Kimura.)

NATSUKI  At my roots, I see myself as being untalented. That’s what prompted me to start my own Impressionist show in 1993—as an “escape from despair”—and I’ve continued to work on the series since then. I always think of myself as a rookie and do whatever piques my interest. I don’t stick to a single field. Instead, I discover more aspects of myself by taking different approaches, and that may be why I appear energetic.

INTERVIEWER  You take on new challenges all round.

NATSUKI  Yes. I sing, I act, I create—and I’ve spent the last four decades discovering myself through all of that.

INTERVIEWER  Today you’ve come to exude a strong presence and confidence.

NATSUKI  I probably come across as doing what I like. It isn’t easy maintaining a coherent image of who Natsuki Mari is content-wise—I keep coming up with new ideas, so I’m all over the place, and everything that I do ends up being a bit half-baked. At some point, I sold myself on the idea that the only way for me was to capitalize on my strength as an all-rounder.

Get in Touch with Your Hearts, Young Women

INTERVIEWER  What are your thoughts on the strong drive in Japan to fully tap into “woman power”?

NATSUKI  There are women who say that the status of women in Japan still leaves a lot to be desired, but I think you blame things on others when you don’t have your own opinions. As I see it, today’s society is a place where you can readily make your way up if you know how to present yourself and have your own philosophy. What Japanese women need is the ability to convey their appeal. That includes politicians.

INTERVIEWER  What do you think of young women these days?

NATSUKI  They’re quite smart and sensible, almost to the point of being too cute by half. Pervasive access to the Internet seems to have made them top-heavy with knowledge. They have strong skills, but there’s something lacking in the human aspect, like doing things face to face.

They also don’t take action. You need to do things to make new discoveries. The experience that you gain from all the action brings you more heart and love. Ultimately, it all comes down to love—you should work out of a sense of love. I believe life is measured by how many times your breath has been taken away, and there’s nothing worse than a job that doesn’t touch you.

Overcoming Japan’s “Culture of Immaturity”

NATSUKI  Once women have established their career, you would think the next step is to be of service to others. The thing about Japanese culture is that it’s juvenile—people tend to live their lives so focused on themselves. Volunteering and donating aren’t very big in Japan, but there’s a great sense of joy in doing something for others.

If more Japanese women were to live life speaking their minds and expressing their love, I think we would have a country full of attractive women.

INTERVIEWER  As someone on the front lines of society, you see the immaturity of Japanese culture with painful clarity.

NATSUKI  Kyary Pamyu Pamyu is perfectly fine as a character representing “Cool Japan.” What bothers me is the lack of overall balance. Japan has a way of concentrating on a single standard of value. Whereas the West views women as getting more attractive with age and has roles for actors and actresses of all ages, in Japan the only roles that come around for someone of my age are of old women. And the scripts don’t even depict the pasts of these old women, instead relegating them to the backdrop. I don’t see why there can’t be a script that tells her story, all eighty years of it if that’s how old she is.

Men Need a Culture Shock

As for young men, I think they should spend a few years working in a developing country, where life isn’t nearly as easy or convenient as it is in Japan. I may sound radical, but I’m actually for military conscription. If that’s not going to happen, then it would do good for everyone to go work in a developing country for a year or two and experience some culture shock. People in Japan have become far too numb to how blessed they are. Like the women, Japanese men tend to be childish, and there are very few who have a mature air about them. They all seem nerdy.

Even in the film world, there are few directors who can talk about all aspects of the film, such as costume, music, and the set. In my view, being a film director means knowing music, books, fashion, food—everything. A mature, attractive man who has a grip on everything would be able to make a good film.

INTERVIEWER  How about directing your own movies eventually?

NATSUKI  I’d like that. Film is something I’m interested in.

(Originally written in Japanese and published on April 3, 2015, based on an interview conducted on February 27, 2015, in Yoyogi, Tokyo. Banner photo: The Impressionist NÉO Vol. 2: Cinderella. (Photographs by Hiro Kimura.))

music film theater Miyazaki Hayao Ghibli