Photo/IllutrationTsuyoshi Kusanagi in an exclusive interview with The Asahi Shimbun (Naoko Kawamura)

  • Photo/Illustraion
  • Photo/Illustraion

Former SMAP member Tsuyoshi Kusanagi will portray an Asahi Shimbun reporter hunting a killer in his first lead acting role since the pop group was disbanded Dec. 31, 2016.

The 43-year-old searches for the murderer of a colleague who was shot dead during an assault on the newspaper's Hanshin Bureau near Osaka on May 3, 1987.

"I began to think about what kind of society would allow for the free expression of speech (when I played the role)," said Kusanagi in an exclusive interview with The Asahi Shimbun.

The true-to-life drama will be broadcast Jan. 27 on the Japan Broadcasting Corp. (NHK).

The show is the sixth in a series of special programs shown by NHK dealing with unsolved incidents.

Others include the Tokyo subway attack by the Aum Shinrikyo cult and the extortion of food product manufacturers Ezaki Glico Co. and Morinaga & Co.

Kusanagi, who has played many leading roles over the last 20 years, will portray Tsuyoshi Hida, who in real life retired from the Asahi in 2017.

Kusanagi said he studied the script hard and also reviewed videos from 30 years ago.

"I was still a junior high school student then," Kusanagi said. "The videos were ones that I vaguely remember watching. There were people, like the bereaved family of (Tomohiro) Kojiri, who was fatally shot, and others who experienced terrible moments at that time."

Kojiri was only 29 when he was shot and killed by a masked gunman. A colleague, Hyoe Inukai, was severely injured in the incident. He died earlier this month at 73.

A group calling itself Sekihotai claimed responsibility for the shooting. It continued to carry out attacks on other Asahi facilities, including a failed bombing attempt.

The statute of limitations for the various incidents expired in 2003.

"Because the perpetrator has never been unveiled, there was a sense of not knowing where to direct the anger and chagrin over the incident," Kusanagi said. "There was a sense of reality in the drama regarding the pride and will of the reporters who faced up to a massive, but invisible darkness and their determination to not give in even while they were bombarded by various developments in the incident."

NHK staff began researching the docudrama in April 2017.

"There was a mood at that time of thinking about freedom of the press as Internet rightists, hate speech and viral tweets made it more difficult to freely express oneself in society," said Yosuke Shinmyo, the NHK director in charge of the program.

Kusanagi said there was one scene in the docudrama that he especially worked hard on because he felt the message contained in it had to be properly transmitted.

The scene involves Hida confronting a far-right activist and saying, "The Sekihotai made the argument that it defined justice as shooting and killing those who hold different views from it. The shot fired at Kojiri was also directed at each and every one of us who are seeking a free society."

Kusanagi made news himself last year after quitting the talent agency Johnny & Associates that he had belonged to since entering the entertainment world.

He formed a new website, Atarashii Chizu (New map), with two other former SMAPsters, Goro Inagaki and Shingo Katori.

Kusanagi said he portrayed Hida as a man whose job meant he had a duty to society.

"Before that, I thought about what I could do as a member of society as well as what my job really was," he said.

NHK staff interviewed not only Asahi officials and former reporters, but also those connected with the right-wing movement as well as police investigators from the time of the initial incident. NHK staff talked to more than 360 police officials in producing the program.

Some experts point to the fact that Sekihotai used the term "anti-Japan" in explaining why the Asahi had to be targeted and that usage took hold since the incident.

"If that incident is considered the starting point of contemporary society in which we often hear shouts of 'anti-Japan' and 'patriotism,' hints about why society has turned into what it is now may be found by looking back at that incident and examining it in more detail," said the NHK director Shinmyo.