Ai Takahashi plays a leading role for the first time in the film "Karaage☆USA" (Fried chicken USA).
Even after marrying comedian Koji Abe, 39, earlier this year, Takahashi, who formerly was a member of a pop idol group, has been active in showbiz as she carefully balances work with her private life.
In the film, Takahashi, 28, portrays a woman raising the stepdaughter left behind by her missing American husband. "[The experience] made me adore children from the bottom of my heart. I really want to have kids and raise them while pursuing my career at the same time," she said.
Now showing in various parts in the country, the film addresses a range of unusual topics.
"When I first received the offer, the title surprised me. I didn't understand what USA was referring to in the title, which made me wonder if I'd received an offer for a comedy," she said.
The movie is set in Usa, Oita Prefecture, said to be the birthplace of karaage specialty shops, and its story revolves around Ayane (Takahashi), the eldest daughter of a family that runs one of these fried chicken joints. She falls in love with an American man (Dante Carver) and elopes with him to the United States, but he disappears and a devastated Ayane returns to her hometown with her husband's daughter from a previous marriage.
Back in Japan, Ayane experiences various struggles as she takes over her family karaage business.
"I feel ashamed now, but [when I received the offer], I'd never been to Usa and I knew nothing about the city. After hearing the details of the story, I started to be won over," she said.
To get into character, Takahashi intently studied English conversation to speak to her "husband" as well as the dialect used by the locals in Usa.
"I can't speak any English, so I desperately remembered the lines using a part of my brain I usually don't use. To pick up English and the local dialect, I had this CD with recordings of the lines in English and the local dialect that I listened to all the time at my hotel on location. Even while I was taking a bath," she said.
"I'm from Fukui Prefecture, and I can tell if someone's trying to speak our dialect like a native. I really didn't want to be viewed that way because I wanted the film to be loved by the people in Usa."
The character Ayane hates chicken, unlike Takahashi herself, who loves it. She said she was shocked at the taste of "genuine" karaage when she went to Usa.
"At the time, my favourite karaage was my mother's. But [karaage in Usa] was far beyond that. The taste was just something else. And they taste good even after getting cold. Of course, karaage I ate before also tasted good, but it's completely different," she said.
What makes karaage there so different?
"In Usa, they fry chicken at 172 C. Many people believe karaage must be fried quickly at high temperatures. But in Usa, it's fried slowly at the right temperature. The same goes for other dishes - even if they're flavored the same, they taste different depending on the way they're fried and grilled," Takahashi explained. "Another factor is their love [for karaage]. Everyone in Usa loves karaage. Each shop has their own specialty - wing tip, leg, or cartilage."
But the film is not just about discovering a way to cook the best karaage. It's also about human warmth, the bonds between people, and the heroine's relationship with her stepdaughter Shirley.
"I felt pretty nervous at first about playing the lead role, but there was so much expectation among local residents, who were saying it would be a good film. Even if they hadn't said that, I would've tried my best, of course. But after that I felt like I had to do even better."
Takahashi, the former leader of the nationally popular idol group Morning Musume, got married on Feb. 14. Since then, she has not only shot the film but also played the lead role in the musical "Akage no An" (Anne of Green Gables) in eight cities across the country. A pretty tight schedule for a newlywed.
"At home, we're supposed to divide up the household chores. But it turns out my husband is usually the one who fixes dinner and waits for me, and I often see him cleaning our house, too," she said.
When the room gets messy, Abe is mostly the one who notices first.
"When I'm cleaning a room, he says something like, 'Oh you finally noticed.' I thought it wouldn't be so hard balancing the roles of wife and actress. But my husband might be the one having a hard time. Now that the musical is over, I'll take my household duties more seriously," she said.
Other former members of Morning Musume, such as Yuko Nakazawa, 41, and Nozomi Tsuji, 27, are also balancing child-rearing with work.
"I frequently meet with Nakazawa-san, I talk with her a lot," Takahashi said. "As she says herself, she changed a lot after having a baby. She tells me things like, you shouldn't take it for granted when your husband cleans the room and takes out the trash. She also told me I have to treasure the word 'arigato' (thank you)," she recalled.
Work, household chores and child-rearing. How to tackle them all at once? Takahashi never once complained about her husband during the interview - it seems consideration is the key.