While General MacArthur and Bonner Fellers are historic figures, the lead character of Aya is more of an enigma -- a fictional love who becomes Fellers' entree into all the wonders and beauty of Japanese culture. The search was on for an actress with the allure to drive both Feller's search and his momentous decision about the Emperor -- a fresh Japanese actress who would be a discovery for international audiences.
Ultimately, Eriko Hatsune, a rising young star in Japan who was previously seen in Ang Dhun Tran's film adaptation of NORWEGIAN WOOD, won the role.
"Eriko is a gem," describes Yoko Narahashi. "When you see her you think, where did this woman come from? She is such a beautiful creature."
"When I met her I was quite simply entranced," adds Peter Webber. "She has a fresh and natural acting talent, there is nothing fake about her in the slightest. I think she brings something incredibly special to this film."
For Hatsune the film was a huge journey, one that began with having to learn English and continued as she pierced the vibrant spirit of Aya, which becomes a kind of ethereal specter woven through the entire film. "I learned from Aya how wonderful it is to love from your heart and to enjoy each beautiful moment in life," she says. "And I'm grateful to the filmmakers who let me have the freedom to be me and find the innocence of Aya."
Although Aya herself did not exist, Hatsune did her fair share of research on the time period and specifically on the typical life of a young, single teacher. "I even observed some classes taught by a friend of my mother," she explains. "I saw how the teacher tried to teach with love and I felt this would be the same for Aya in any time or place."
Yet, even the life of a schoolteacher was not exempt from the effects of war. War might separate Aya from Fellers, but it could not stop their emotions, Hatsune notes, even when everything else between them has changed. "What didn't change was the immense love Fellers had for Aya," she says. "Even when they could not see each other, I think she felt supported by his love. There couldn't have been anyone else for one another."
Like Matthew Fox, Hatsune was thrilled that such an organic chemistry seemed to unfold between them. "Matthew brings a warm, calm atmosphere with him," she comments. "He is very honest and polite, but more than that, in him I was able to feel the life that Fellers had lived. I have great admiration for him as an actor."
She also feels that Peter Webber did the utmost to capture that chemistry. "He gave us so much freedom and openness," she observes. "In my scenes with Matthew, he was very sensitive to our space. It was as if he would move around us -- carefully walking on a piece of glass. I was able to explore a depth of love as I haven't before."
That comes across on the screen says Foster. "Eriko understands the subtle art of working in front of a camera," the producer concludes. "As Aya, she has to represent many things in this story and she has the classical, ethereal quality that can do that."
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