Vancouver International Film Festival: Interviews
Interviews by Barbara Stowe
Making Peace: Soda Kazuhiro, director of Peace, elucidates his theme.
At a Q and A at the Pacific Cinemateque following a screening of “Peace” the night before this interview, Soda Kazuhiro explained that this documentary was commissioned by a Korean border town for a film festival on the topic of peace and coexistence. He almost turned down the commission because he usually works without a premise in mind, finding his thematic thread only later, in the editing room. What began as a short turned into a 75-minute feature that has been well received in Korea, Japan and by the VIFF audience.
What was the name of the town that commissioned the film?
Puju. It’s a border city, between North Korea and South Korea, and it’s right next to the DMZ—the demilitarized zone—which is two km wide along the borderline. That’s where the film festival takes place. Obviously it’s kind of symbolic to have a film festival there with the theme of peace and coexistence, so for them to screen the film they commissioned was kind of a big deal. They were very passionate about it.
Part of this town is in North Korea and part in South?
The town itself belongs to the south. But it’s right at the border between North and South Korea. You feel the tension because the riverbank is all wired up—(here Kazuhiro made a circular gesture, indicating barbed wire)—and there are many military personnel walking around…The opening of the festival was planned to be held at the Freedom Bridge which connects North and South Korea and there were many soldiers protecting the events when we arrived.
Why do you think they chose you to make the film?
I have no idea. I don’t know why they picked me. I’ve done…my previous film, it’s called “Mental”, it premiered in Pusan in 2008 and it won the best documentary award there. That’s probably one of the reasons.
Does the Japanese word for “peace” translate into exactly the same meaning as the English word or are there differences?
Ahh…it’s almost the same I think. It’s funny, usually words have…I mean, they overlap but not exactly, but peace and “heiwa”, I don’t see too much difference.
Taking peace as a subject inherently promises an exploration of conflict resolution. Within the cat society there was a clearly defined conflict and a neat resolution, but within the human society there was no simple resolution. I’m wondering if that was part of your message, that society’s care of its most vulnerable members is a difficult matter without any easy answers?
In terms of message I don’t have any message to convey. My films…if I want to convey a message I wouldn’t make a film, I would probably write an essay because it’s much easier. For me, film is a way to depict the way I see the world and especially when I’m making documentaries I try to recreate my experience…I see some people, I witness some events, I hear stories…that kind of personal experience I can recreate in a cinematic reality and it can include some sort of atmosphere like light or darkness or silence between dialogue…all kinds of life experience you can translate easily…well, it’s not easy but you can translate somehow into cinematic experience. It’s up to the audience what kind of message they take…I mean, it’s not a message, what kind of interpretation they take from the experience they have with the film. So I really don’t have a particular message to convey. But I have my own interpretation, which is not the ultimate interpretation to the film, it’s one interpretation and each viewer is entitled to his or her own interpretation.
Tell me more about your own interpretation.
Okay. When I was looking at the cat society I thought it was much simpler. For example, in the human society if somebody outside is coming into the community there are so many obstacles to clear, for example borders or laws. Even if you want to accept somebody there are things you need to deal with. Humans have egos and that kind of thing gets in the way even if you want to make peace with somebody, right? But in the cat society I thought it was much simpler. And I thought my father-in-law’s interpretation of the way cats live together was so inspiring. He told me in the film that his cats are disappearing one by one and he thinks that cats are kind of giving away their spot to younger and weaker cats. The strong ones are yielding their spot to younger and weaker cats. That is his point of view and his interpretation and I don’t really know if it’s true to the cats but I thought it was very interesting, and it kind of echoed the fact that Mr Hashimoto was almost at the exit of his life, and he was leaving the world, which it made me think about why we die. We see dying as kind of a negative thing but if we don’t die probably this world is so overpopulated with human beings so I think dying is one way of giving away your spot to the next generation, meaning you are coexisting…it is necessary for you to die for you to coexist with the next generation. It made me think about the subject and I thought it was important to make them parallel, the story of the cats and the story of the people in the film.
I think you just answered my next question.
With your portrayal of the compassion of the caregivers, were you saying that how a society cares for its most vulnerable members is a measure of the compassion of that society, and that compassion is the basis of a lasting peace?
I think so. It does have a lot to do with it I think (compassion), and also not only people, but animals. I travel a lot and if I go to a city where I see a lot of stray cats on the street and if I witness these cats living peacefully and alive I feel, oh, this is a good city because they’re not being pushed by human people, they’re being allowed to live in their spot. And they are the most vulnerable in a sense. If they are around it means the city has some tolerance, and people there are somewhat allowing the feral beings to live. So it is a major…when you have stray cats in the city it tells me if the city is civilized or…I mean usually if you see lots of stray cats you think the society is not civil, but I think it’s the opposite. And also, people with disabilities and the elderly, if they have their spot, their niche in society it means that the society is cherishing everybody’s needs and so it is almost like…I mean, it is probably the basis for peace. Because the war…you know, it’s like Mr Hashimoto was talking about, all the individuality is lost…you can get drafted for 1.5 sen, for the price of a postcard you can be drafted and get killed. In order to do a war you need…the society needs to shift that way…I think if the society cherishes everybody’s needs and reasons to live or everybody’s rights or whatever than you cannot really fight any war. It’s impossible, right? It’s impossible, because in order to fight a war with another country you need a lot of people who are like robots, who are willing to sacrifice themselves for the war.
You say you don’t have a message, but this is activist talk.
(Laughs.) It’s just my interpretation. It’s something I discovered while making the film.
Would you say more about the history of Peace cigarettes?
After World War II the Japanese government started selling tobacco and the first brand of cigarettes they sold was Peace. Japanese people were fed up with war. I was kind of thrilled that Mr Hashimoto had been smoking Peace cigarettes ever since the war because if feels like a metaphor of post-war Japan. It gave the film another layer.
Conquering Dragons and Tigers: Talking with Good Morning to the World! director Hirohara Satoru
(Note: Also present are actor Izumi Mitsunori and production designer Ayako Shinohara.)
Why did you choose the title Good Morning to the World!?
Good Morning to the World! is a song by a band…one of my friends is in it, actually my favourite band. When I started to write the script, that song, it inspired the script or complimented it…that’s why I chose that title.
(Note: The song is used prominently in the film.)
How did the song relate to the theme of the film?
The world, to the protagonist, only means the very small repetitive world of daily life, it doesn’t mean the bigger world outside of Japan. But as certain things happen to him, he goes outside of that small world and meets different people, goes to places outside of that repetitive small ordinary world. Hence that title.
Do you see a theme in your movie?
It’s kind of a thread that appears in all my films, both shorts and features, that we exist in the world in very different ways. We live in this world, no matter how we live or exist or what we do…I don’t want to rationalize or give a reason for these ways of existing but to affirm them. That’s the main theme.
Who or what was the antagonist in the film?
As you saw in the film, the antagonist doesn’t really appear to be there, right? But probably the most prominent scene (that shows the antagonist) is when the protagonist gets up in the morning and his mother is gone, leaving a note and money, and the boy goes to school and before anyone comes into the classroom he writes “Good Morning to World Peace” on the blackboard. And the teacher comes in and the kids come in and nobody says anything, no one reacts, even the teacher doesn’t react, and then the teacher erases it.
To explore it a bit more—would you say that the antagonist is not an external force, but an internal one? I mean, would you say that the protagonist’s difficult life circumstance is the main force he is struggling to overcome?
Yes, I agree with you.
So, would you say, that when the teacher erases what he wrote, and no one reacts, it’s like erasing hope?
The protagonist’s internal reaction to that particular scene is not as strong as being rejected by adults or the outside world, but no one even reacting to what you’ve done makes you feel more alone in the world.
The parallel between the homeless man and the boy…the boy who was homeless in the sense that although he had a residence there’s no real home there…was striking. Did your protagonist identify with the homeless man?
The protagonist, especially at the beginning, wasn’t even aware of (the parallel to his situation), because to him that’s just the way he grew up. But once the homeless person’s body was discovered, he almost unwittingly wanted to do something and he took off meeting people, going to other places, so through that experience to the outside world, from his little world, he may have realized at the end that he and the homeless man had something in common.
How common is it to see teenagers in this situation in Japan, with one parent absent, another parent absent a lot of the time, and no extended family to support them? Was this just a dramatic conceit to heighten the protagonist’s circumstances, or are you portraying a trend in society, either society in Japan or society in general?
I myself grew up in a family of five, an unbroken home, but I believe that boy’s family situation is typical or very common. Even if he has both parents they probably both work, so the situation is very similar and also as you said the extended family situation is becoming more and more rare in Japan.
Mr Mitsunori, you played the truck driver in the film? Have you acted a lot before?
Yes, I am a professional actor.
And, Ms Shinohara, as production designer, what were you responsible for on this film?
(Laughter from everyone in the room erupted).
Back to Mr Hinohara: How high is the suicide rate among youth in Japan?
The exact number of youth I’m not sure of, but officially there are 30,000 suicides a year in Japan. If you include “missing persons” the number is 100,000. I had a high school friend who committed suicide. People of my age, I’m 24, probably you can’t find anyone who hasn’t had someone that they knew, in that 24 years of life, that committed suicide. It’s that prevalent.
What are you happy with about the finished product, and what elements, if any, are you unsatisfied with?
There are many elements, but if I pick one: I’m very satisfied with the protagonist’s story, but the story itself shows that the sixteen year old boy doesn’t really know any thing outside his ordinary life. And I realized that that reflects on me, I don’t really know outside of my small existence. And just like that boy didn’t realize until the end of the story that he didn’t know about (people outside his circle), that’s something I wished I could have gone into, in a little more depth.
Is there a band called the Frank Pandas?
(Laughter all round.) No.
Postscript: Good Morning to the World! won the $10,000 Dragons & Tigers Award for Young Asian Cinema, beating out seven other films from Japan, China, Thailand, South Korea, Singapore and Vietnam. At the awards ceremony on October 7 at the Visa Screening Room, Satoru was as tongue-tied as any Oscar winner, gasping: “Someone please tell me what just happened here!” The Bulletin caught up with him several hours later on Granville Street, after he’d had time to process the moment.
How do you feel?
Very happy. I finally feel it.
How long did it take to sink in?
I went back to my room, opened the box and looked at the award. Then I finally got it.
What are you going to do with the prize money?
I don’t know yet.
The Bulletin wished the young director well as he stepped into a limo, on his way to a celebratory dinner.
Sisters Are Doin’ It for Themselves: Icarus Under the Sun
Would you each please each, in turn, talk about your background in film.
Abe : We went to the same art school and were in the same oil painting department, and in second year we suddenly decided to make a film, not a short but a feature length film. Icarus Under the Sun is the second feature film we made.
And did either of you have any other background in film?
Takahashi: Not particularly. But we both loved film, and although we have no experience, I had friends who’d made films with computers and animation, and I thought we could borrow their equipment. I had a little experience from studying media in high school. Maybe we could have done it differently but…actually, the first film was a disaster but still, when we finished it we just felt such a sense of accomplishment and that gave us confidence. On this (second) film, things went much better than we ever imagined they would, and we had fun, so it gave us a sense of satisfaction…I don’t know if I’ve answered your question?
Abe: This may be a strange thing to say, a strange answer, but before we made the film, and as I wrote the script, I thought we could make the exact film that I wrote on paper. I struggled so hard with oil painting, trying to express what was in my head, that finally I quit, but with film I learned that there’s nothing you can completely control and that knowledge completed the huge gap between what was in my head and what happened in front of my eyes. I learned it can be fun (to be spontaneous), so that was my big draw to make film.
In the film, a number of characters talk about being sick, but there are no signs of illness. Were you trying to create a theme about imagined illness?
Abe: The illnesses are true, especially when the characters are talking about mental illnesses like panic disorder, agoraphobia, depression and anorexia. I actually have panic disorder, for instance, but I have no physical symptoms. Physically I’m completely healthy. But when (a person with panic disorder) gets symptoms, they feel like they’re dying. I’m totally afraid of dying. I think (that’s a good thing)…I mean, I wish I didn’t have this illness, but I don’t want not to be afraid of dying.
Would you talk a bit about your new film?
Takahashi: It’s totally different from Icarus. When we started, we had noticed a similarity in the films of Japanese female filmmakers, and we tried not to go the same route. Hence we made a totally different film from theirs, without a typcial“female” point of view. But for our graduation project we didn’t care (about that), we just wanted to make a film with the tone and colour and energy of summer. It’s very “pop”, very youthful. It’s called Hanjuku Tamago, which means “soft-boiled egg”.
No interpreter was used for the interview with Soda Kazuhiro. Kimiyou Kamamura translated for the other interviews.