Nozomu Kotaki Spreads Wings With Musical Role

Nozomu Kotaki, a member of the idol group Johnny’s West, is currently starring in his first musical, titled “The Beautiful Game.” The new role comes as Kotaki’s reputation as an actor is on the rise, with his having won the Sugimura Haruko Award for newcomer of the year at the Yomiuri Theater Awards two years ago.

In the musical, an ensemble cast portrays members of a soccer team in Northern Ireland who are trying to go professional amid the Troubles, a violent conflict that lasted from the latter half of 1960s to 1998. The Troubles were driven by hostility between Protestants, who sought continued British rule over the region, and Catholics, who demanded it join the Republic of Ireland.

The music for the show was composed by Andrew Lloyd Webber, a master composer known for his work on “The Phantom of the Opera” and “Cats,” among other musicals. Ben Elton, writer of the musical “We Will Rock You,” produced the script, based on a true story, and also crafted the lyrics. Misaki Setoyama wrote a Japanese script for the production, which she has directed.

The musical was performed at the Nissay Theatre in Hibiya, Tokyo, from Jan. 7 to 26, and will next be performed at the Umeda Arts Theater’s main hall in Osaka from Feb. 4 to 13.

Kotaki, who plays the lead role, was born on July 30, 1996, in Osaka Prefecture. He is a member of Johnny & Associates’ seven-member boy band Johnny’s West, which made its debut with the single “Eejanaika” in 2014. Kotaki is also active as an actor and a model.

How does Kotaki bring to life the main character, who dreams of becoming a soccer player but gets caught up in the Irish conflict? The Yomiuri Shimbun interviewed him to learn his approach before the show opened.

Kotaki has been expanding his range of activities from dramas to films and straight plays. Musicals are still a brand new field for him.

“I wanted to do musicals, but I didn’t expect to play the lead in my first one. It seemed really fast,” he said.

He was surprised at being asked to play the protagonist on his way home from the Yomiuri Theater Awards ceremony, where he served as the host in February last year.

“I was simply very happy. I thought I was suited to the role as I play soccer myself,” he said.

“I heard that Misaki Setoyama was going to take on the production as her first musical. She had written the script for the play in which I was the lead character eight years ago. I felt it was fate and accepted the request without hesitation,” he added.

Through the sixth grade, Kotaki spent much of his time playing soccer. Even after joining Johnny & Associates, he continued playing in matches.

Showbiz, however, left him little time to join in soccer practices, and he ended up as a reserve. “But I would play in the second half and score headers,” he laughed.

Kotaki found that he and John, the musical’s lead character, have more in common than just soccer.

“Both of us are direct, or perhaps you could say we’re not crafty. He may sometimes seem to have no courage, but he is very human and I like it,” Kotaki said.

In past stage productions, Kotaki was able to learn from older, more experienced actors. With “The Beautiful Game,” most of the main cast is the same age as him.

“At first I was nervous. When I met them, they were all straightforward and nice. I feel like I’m finally experiencing adolescence,” he said smiling.

The secret to getting along with his costars is to “reveal myself,” Kotaki said. “I tell them dark jokes to show the other side of my personality and what I really am early on.”

For Johnny’s West, he is often assigned the intro or solo parts. But his own evaluation of his singing is modest: “so-so.”

“I’ve been singing for years, but in musicals you have to watch out for different things. I have to work hard, thinking as if I’m the least experienced cast member,” he said.

To prepare for the show, he took online lessons from a teacher overseas. He has also received instruction from the production’s music director since September last year.

Pursuing realism, tension

To act in a musical set in a time of conflict, he and his costars took lessons from specialists and watched such films as “Bloody Sunday,” “Michael Collins” and “Hunger.”

“I was able to feel the fear of people who did not know whether they would be alive tomorrow, and the tension in the lives of people whose family members or relatives had been killed,” he said.

In rehearsals, he worked to create an atmosphere that reflected such charged emotions, discussing problems with costars and the stage director, Setoyama, as they practiced.

In 2015, a year after Johnny’s West made its debut with the release of the group’s first CD, Kotaki acted in “Morse,” where he had his first lead role in a stage production.

Later, he appeared in a series of TV dramas, and he had his first lead role in a film with “Principal: Koisuru Watashi wa Heroine Desuka?” (“Principal: Am I in a Love Story?”) in 2018.

In 2020, he reached a turning point as a stage actor. When playing the title role for a stage production of “The Elephant Man,” he worked with stage director Shintaro Mori.

“He sees through everything I’m trying to do. That’s why I trust him,” Kotaki said.

In his instructions for Kotaki, Mori emphasized that he must “breathe out completely” so that he has new feelings with which to express the next words.

“I have great respect for him and I want to work with him again. I don’t want Mori to praise my performance too much. Rather, I want him to always be disparaging me,” Kotaki said with a laugh.

Thanks to Mori’s never-ending critical comments, Kotaki was able to clinch the Sugimura Haruko Award at the Yomiuri Theater Awards in 2021 for his role in the production.

Merrick, the protagonist of the play, lives a difficult life due to his abnormal appearance. Acting as Merrick was very challenging, Kotaki says, as it involved rigorously contorting his body.

His acting was highly praised by the selection committee for “depicting the character’s high intelligence, strong curiosity, mischievous boy-like humor, ability to see the essence of things, and overwhelming hope amid loneliness and despair.”

“I like to see plays live, see the actors present on the stage, and feel the realism and tension expressed there. The actors in a play have the privilege of seeing it up close,” Kotaki said, his eyes bright with excitement at discussing acting.

His next goal is performing in a revenge play, Kotaki says.

“Revenge plays bring excitement, thrills and exhilaration. And once the person succeeds in taking revenge, they’re often unsure about whether they’re really happy. I like all these feelings,” Kotaki said.

“In another 20 years or so, I would like to try my hand at Dr. Treves [a surgeon who changes the life of Merrick] in ‘The Elephant Man,’” he added.