Ryoko Yonekura Keeps Chin up in Corpse-Filled Drama

The Yomiuri Shimbun
Ryoko Yonekura

Ryoko Yonekura puts in a spirited performance as the star of the drama “Angel Flight,” which started streaming exclusively on Amazon Prime Video on March 17.

The series chronicles the happenings at Angel Hearse, a Japan-based company that transports the bodies of those who have died abroad to their loved ones back home. The Japanese title offers more detail for potential viewers: “Angel Flight: Kokusai Reikyu Sokanshi” (“Angel Flight: International body repatriator”).

Angel Hearse is loosely based on an existing company that repatriates the bodies of expats who have died abroad and non-Japanese residents who have passed away in Japan.

Company president Nami Izawa, played by Yonekura, makes the most of her strong conviction and energy to take on each mission in the face of various challenges, together with her somewhat oddball associates such as new recruit Rinko and chairman Kashiwagi.

The six-episode series is based on Ryoko Sasa’s book of the same title that won the Takeshi Kaiko nonfiction literature award.

Izawa is characterized as a dependable woman with leadership ability. Yonekura, with her attractive looks and intense eyes, has been the driving force behind various hit roles on screen and stage.

She left many concerned about her welfare last year when she had to pull out of a starring role in a musical because of health issues.

In a recent interview with The Yomiuri Shimbun, she spoke candidly about the draw of “Angel Flight,” and about her current state of mind.

Seeing corpses as individuals

The original nonfiction book describes cases in which the company’s staff cleans and embalms a corpse that was badly damaged during the transport process.

“There are these moments when I can believe that the person has come back to the body for an instant,” the author quotes the president as saying.

Nami Izawa, played by Ryoko Yonekura, works on a repatriated body in “Angel Flight.”

“I thought it’s really awesome to take on a job that no one knows about, or that people aren’t ever aware exists, and to complete the task by regarding each corpse as an individual person,” Yonekura said, explaining why she accepted the role.

Before appearing in the drama, she learned about the art of treating and restoring corpses. She also went inside a vehicle in which bodies are treated, and had numerous meetings with the company president, after whom her character is modeled.

“She’s really an energetic person,” Yonekura said. “While shooting scenes about body restoration, I called her many times, and she gave me a lot of great advice on how to put makeup on corpses, hints about cleaning them, what to say to a dead person and how to dress them.

“That’s important because actors playing the dead go completely limp like a real corpse, making them very heavy and difficult to dress.”

What it means to live

One might envision “Angel Flight” as a show that exposes the misery of death, but that would be far from the truth.

“It’s not that kind of drama,” Yonekura said briskly, as if to alter a mood that would have otherwise turned dark.

“There are people who undertake jobs that must be done, never thinking that decomposing bodies are awful or scary. The job of directly facing death has taught me the significance of life and how important it is to have pride in one’s work.”

Izawa, left, visits a slum in the Philippines in search of missing remains.

She added that the drama will no doubt become an important milestone in her acting career.

“It’s not that I’m doing this because it’s streamed worldwide, but it’s great that this story is shown globally. It comes with a message that anyone in any country can feel connected to,” said Yonekura, who had her hair clipped short to play the role.

Bouncing back from hardships

Yonekura was born on Aug. 1, 1975, in Kanagawa Prefecture. She started working as a model in 1993 before becoming an actor with a successful career on the big screen and on TV. Since appearing in the Japanese production of “Chicago” for the first time in 2008, she extensively performed in the musical on Broadway.

However, she had to step away from the show last year, both in Japan and the United States, because of severe lower-back pain and other ailments.

She had to fight through the back pain during the shooting of “Angel Flight,” which began shortly before the theater production.

This is the Year of the Rabbit according to the Chinese zodiac, and is also Yonekura’s birth year. It brings high hopes for her.

“Last year was tough, so I’d like to hop like a rabbit this year. My life is about half over, so I’m thinking of doing whatever pops into my head, and also things I want to do, and stay true to myself. I’m no longer young, so I’ll keep the things I have to endure at a minimum, and do whatever I think is right,” she said.

Many of Yonekura’s hit roles have been strong-willed women such as a genius protagonist in the TV drama “Dr. X: Surgeon Michiko Daimon.”

That is often the image others have of Yonekura. But, she says she lacks such boldness.

“My acupuncturist once told me, ‘You seem like that, but actually you aren’t, are you?’” That was really a shock. But I thought, maybe it’s so. Just once, I’d like to get back to how I used to be,” Yonekura said.

It will soon be three years since she parted ways with her longtime entertainment agency and struck out on her own. In the meantime, her physical woes continued with intracranial hypotension syndrome in addition to the back issues she experienced last year.

“Things were so tough at times that I regretted breaking away from the agency,” Yonekura said. “But that’s a testament to living life. Sometimes I’m positive enough to think, ‘Everything adds to my experience,’ or I become more negative and think, ‘Nothing is easy.’ Both are my true feelings.”

And yet, it seems that Yonekura is now able to accept hardship as a blessing.

“In my case, because I’m an actor, I think it’s great if [hardships] can be useful for a role in a play,” she said. “Even if I face something much harder than that, I might find it easy because I may be better equipped to deal with it than before. I hope I can make the most of the experience as a life lesson now that it has happened.”