VIFF 2011 INTERVIEWS
Interviews by Barbara Stowe ¦ Photos by Joseph Montague
The Bulletin interviewed Japanese filmmakers at the Sutton Place Hotel during the 2011 Vancouver International Film Festival. Japanese auteurs were victorious once again this year at VIFF’s Dragons & Tigers Awards, with several features—Our Future and Recreation—receiving nominations for the prestigious prize, and director Yoshihiro Nagano nabbing the $10,000 award for his disturbingly believable portrait of the world of juvenile delinquents in Recreation.
The Unbearable Heaviness of Not Being (Who You Really Are): Director Kashuo Iizuka and Lead Actor Riku Hyuga Ponder Our Future
Director Kashuo Iizuka—who also wears the multiple hats of screenwriter, editor, producer, and cameraman—sits still and focused on a striped silk couch in the hospitality suite of Vancouver’s Sutton Place Hotel. He is wearing a fitted puffy jacket, dark pants, and sporting a softly spiked halo of short hair; his gaze is direct and clear. Beside him, lead actor Riku Hyuga, tense in hoodie and jeans, hunches into himself.
Does the title of your film signify anything that an English speaking person wouldn’t pick up on?
The title doesn’t have any different meaning, it’s the exact same title translated into English, but it is deliberately brought in twice, once at the beginning and again at the end. The reason for this is that at the beginning of the film there’s a lot of uncertainty about what’s going to happen, there’s anxiety, and it leads you into the story; at the end of the film there’s a new beginning being told, and therefore “our future” is about to happen.
You’ve said that this film is very autobiographical, so I was wondering if any of the bullies portrayed in the film, that is the actual bullies in real life, have seen the film? And if so, what was their reaction?
No, as far as I know they haven’t, but there’s one character “Masumi” in the film who I hadn’t told about the film, and I just happened to meet Masumi at a screening, so that was a big surprise for both of us.
How did Masumi react to the film?
She had very positive comments. She said she loved the film, that it was very interesting. However, she would not elaborate on any of the experiences brought up in the film…perhaps purposefully.
We know from statistics here that LGBT teens are much more likely than other teens to attempt, and even commit, suicide. I wondered if in Japan, if you know either anecdotally or statistically, what the situation is like there?
I know of some figures in the USA that have been released. In Japan, perhaps because so many people are still in the closet, I don’t know if there are any statistics.
Your name, “Kashou Iizuka”…I know some people here change their names when they feel safe to be who they really are…is this the name you were given at birth, or have you changed it?
This is not my real name. I was born with a different name and am legally known by another name, but I have always been known to those around me by this name.
(To Hyuga): Is “Riku Hyuga” the name you were born with, or is it a name you’ve chosen?
This is a completely different name, an actor’s name.
Does it have any special significance?
It was a name given to me by a classmate, who studied with me.
What was most difficult for you, in portraying the main character?
We’re different individuals, so the most trouble I had was portraying the director’s experience, rather than my own.
(To Iizuka): Can you compare and contrast this film to other LGBT films, such as for instance the Swedish feature released in 1998 that became quite a famous teen coming-out movie, Show Me Love? That was the North American title, it had a different title for European release.
Two major points that are unique perhaps to this film and serve to educate the public: the first is that this film portrays teens who are younger than the characters in most coming out films I’ve heard of that have been screened worldwide; the second is that in Japan right now, and over the past few years, there are a number of celebrities who are female in a male’s body (women who dress as men), the opposite to what I have experienced. This is widely known in Japan—Japan is learning that there are these people—but there is very little knowledge of the reverse.
One difference in Our Future to other coming out films was the way you emphasized the importance of a supportive community for LGBT teens…such as the other teens in the movie who were gay or transgendered or lesbian, that your protagonist hung out with. In the Q & A last night you said that LGBT support is not open in Japan but that people often find it through the internet. I wonder if there is any danger of threat or violence to LGBT teens through these connections, or if teens would feel safe attending such groups?
Hyuga: One thing that I have found, sharing my experience, is that there is no danger per se but a lot of these relationships remain as internet friends, and we never meet in person, so there is always the doubt in the back of the mind, is this person I’m talking to really in the same position as I am, or is the person just doing this out of curiosity maybe? Is he or she really transgendered? And there’s always this distance that you’re keeping, perhaps because there’s an anxiety that there might be danger there.
What about your families? Are they supportive?
Iizuka: As partly revealed in the film, I talked to my parents when I was in high school. For the first two to three years there was very little communication…both sides needed time…but now my parents are very supportive and they did come see the film.
(To Hyuga) What about your parents?
I haven’t told my parents at all yet. Especially with the film coming out, I’m going to have to.
This must be very difficult!
The main thing is that there’s a local film festival coming up, actually next week, and the first screening of the film is October 10th, and my parents are coming to see it. So I have to talk to them.
I feel for you.
(To Iizuka): About what you were saying regarding females in male bodies being a more acceptable thing in Japan, (i.e. in celebrity culture) while the opposite remains taboo; here, we have a famous singer k.d. lang, who sometimes performs dressed as a man, so when you’re talking about celebrities she comes to mind. Also we have “Drag Kings”…are there “Drag Kings” in Japan?
These celebrities are known in public as comedians, almost ridiculed. For instance children could be ridiculed in school if their parents were known as Drag Kings. These people aren’t on TV to reach out to the public, but more as comedians. It’s well known, but it’s not as understood as it should be and therefore the public still has a ways to go to fully accept these people as having their own rights.
The book that explained about gender identity issues was very important in the film. Is there any official government acknowledgement of LGBT issues in Japan? Otherwise, where would a book like this (that looked like an official government publication) come from? An LGBT support group?
It’s not an official government publication but a publication put together by five individuals and some of these individuals are doctors who represent the government, so yes, there is some acknowledgement by the government of these issues. There are legal issues covered in the book, and it is put out by a publisher that is well known, not a small press.
(Interpreter: Paul Baldwin)
Youth on the Edge: Director Yoshihiro Nagano and Lead Actor Kazushi Hashimoto Plumb the Dark Depths of Recreation
Yoshihiro Nagano, whose credits on this Dragons & Tigers Award-winning feature range from writing and directing to producing and editing, leans forward, clasping his hands. He is impeccably turned out in a dark suit, blue-and-white striped shirt, black shoes buffed to a bright shine, and narrow tie. Lead Actor Kazushi Hashimoto is a vivid contrast, clothed from head to toe in the traditional style of his home town, complete with fan, which he uses to adeptly punctuate his remarks.
(To Nagano): At the Q & A yesterday, you said this film was partly inspired by an incidence of bullying you witnessed when you were young. Can you describe that incident?
I was with another friend, we were in the washroom, and behind us this was going on. These five or six boys were in Grade 11…I was in grade 12…and this group of boys had been quite well known in school for doing this many times, and had sometimes looked at me provokingly in the corridor. So with this friend of mine, well, we talked to each other, said “they’re doing it again”, and we just left. Then I went immediately to the homeroom teacher and said, they’re doing it again in the washroom. You understand, this was a very common occurrence. And the teacher said, “You could be lying to me. I didn’t see it.” I was very upset at that response from a teacher. What a terrible teacher! I didn’t think too much more about it but the next day at school I saw that the guy who they’d been kicking had a broken nose, and one of the guys who’d been doing the kicking in the toilet had a broken kneecap. When I witnessed the extent of the injuries the next day I was shocked.
In your film, as in others in recent years by young Japanese auteurs, the adults are absent. Parents, teachers, other authority figures, they all seem to have abdicated responsibility for youth. Is this a fictional conceit, or how common is this actually in Japan?
This is a very common thing that’s happening. I remember when I was in school, the kids in the back, instead of sitting at their desks they might be lying down on the top shelf in the back of the classroom, and would the teacher say anything? No! So you’re right, the adults are not present, they have given up or have abdicated responsibility.
Is this a recent phenomenon in Japan? Did it come about as a result of the “relaxed education”?
I have met very good teachers who I respect, but there are a lot of teachers—who I tried to depict in this film—who are not really looking at you, they’re looking at your grades. They always tell you to work hard, but they don’t really see you as a human being. That’s one of the things I wanted to say.
Your characters were very believable. Taking for example the scene outside the grocery store where two characters are just sitting and talking…it’s a really quiet scene, there’s nothing going on in a big dramatic manner but a great deal is going on in a deep emotional sense, and I wondered, how were you able to direct that scene so well, and (to Hashimoto), how were you able to play your character so believably?
Nagano: That scene developed out of one line that Rin says during their conversation about shoplifting. Akira asks, “Why did you do that?” and she says, “I couldn’t be bothered to pay.” That line actually came out of something I read about a girl shoplifting cosmetics. She was arrested, and of course the parents were called in, and when they asked her how she could do such a thing, she said, “I couldn’t be bothered to pay.” When I read that, I felt like I got it, how these things happen. So, the whole conversation started from that line. Actually, Rin has to be very trusting and relaxed to say that to Akira. Although Akira likes An, he can talk about really serious or honest things with Rin. I directed the whole conversation towards that one line.
Hashimoto: That was the most difficult scene, because the director kept telling me, that’s not it, relax, do it differently, there were so many takes! Because of that, I’m really moved that you asked that question.
What was the budget?
About $2,600. And no guarantee for the actors.
Ah, the true test of a director: how many people you can get to work for free.
Why the hair-dyeing scene? What was that about?
In Japan, when you go to school, there’s a thick book of rules. Dyeing hair is a no-no. You can get beaten, grounded for months or otherwise punished. As you may remember, Kazu—the baseball player—dyed his hair before summer vacation came. Akira didn’t have the courage to dye his hair while school was in, he did it during the summer. He looks up to Kaz, because Kaz is strong and independent and doing things that Akira admires. He wants to become like Kaz, or even go beyond him.
Are there any references in your film that non-Japanese might not understand?
All I can think of is the hazing that happens to the baseball team. I don’t know if that could happen here…
We do have hazing in university, in fact it’s been banned because people have died. Speaking of which, your film echoes several famous movies about juvenile delinquency that end in tragedy: Rebel Without a Cause and West Side Story…were you aware of any references (you’re making) to these films, or to any Japanese films about juvenile delinquency?
Not the films you mentioned, but I showed Elephant by Gus van Sant to the cast because it was based on a real incident and was very true to life.
You said in the Q & A last night that your previous film was about youth suicide in Japan. We know that the statistics are high, do you know how high they are currently?
The general number for suicides that everyone knows is 30,000 a year, but the actual number is higher, because some suicides are not recorded as such.
For both of you, what’s next on the horizon?
Hashimoto: I don’t have a concrete wish to portray any particular characters, but Akira’s character in Recreation was quite different from myself, and because of that experience I’d like to play a character who is totally different from myself.
Yoshihiro: I do have a plan, but it’s not concrete enough to put into words yet. What I know for sure though is that, at least in the near future, I will be making films about our generation. Like Recreation, told from the point of view of our generation.
(Interpreter: Kimiyo Kamamura)
Labour of Love: Director Yuya Ishii Enlarges on Mitsuko Delivers
Are you sick of the word “cool” or “iki” by now?
Writer/Director Yuya Ishii, looking comfortable in grey hoodie, black jeans, grey socks and black runners, reacts with a long, loud, and very free laugh.
What’s the coolest thing you’ve seen in Vancouver?
Maybe I haven’t seen it yet. For one thing, I’ve been working.
Because of a heavy work schedule, the auteur has spent most of his time in Vancouver working in his hotel room.
Does the film have a different title in Japanese?
Literally, the Japanese title means, “my stomach is like this.” Japanese tend not to express meaning directly, like for instance saying “I am pregnant.” If someone is angry, we often do this.
He makes the sign of devil’s horns, poking his index fingers up on either side of his forehead.
Like, “my wife is angry.”
You have a wife now, since last October. Have you experienced the anger of a wife?
The room erupts with laughter.
Last night was the world premiere of your film. What did you think of the audience reaction?
There was 100 times more laughter than I expected. I’m not sure how to interpret that, whether it was a good or a bad thing. The film is not really meant to be 100% funny. There are lots of elements of loneliness, sadness, moments when the characters are in real difficulty and so on. Although there are funny moments, I wanted the audience to see these different elements in the work.
People sometimes laugh if something strikes them at a deeper level. Last year, watching Sawako Decides at the VIFF, I though it was evident from the quality of laughter that people were laughing not just when it was funny, but when there was a sense of self recognition or an appreciation of beauty. One thing for sure anyway, your sense of humour is unique. Were you born with it, or did it develop over time?
Well, while my life experience must inform my work, I don’t think the sense of humour can be studied or polished or otherwise manipulated… it’s just there.
You demonstrate a unique cinematic rhythm in both Mitsuko Delivers and Sawako Decides. Both films start slowly and build to a tremendous extended climax. And in Mitsuko Delivers, the protagonist is in labour, at her physical and emotional limit for such an extensive period of time—how do you get your actors to sustain the kind of physical and emotional energy needed to get through this kind of emotionally heightened sequence?
This is a very interesting question. I’m very happy to have this question, because for me the pace, the tempo of the film is more important than the image. Some people misunderstand me when I say this, because in film the image logically comes first. But for me, the sound has more priority. So the pace of the dialogue and then the tempo and pace of scene changes… all this is so important. I never do a reading together with the actors before shooting. I just have them on location with me and do test shoots. And inside me I have my own tempo. The variations in rhythm I want are so minute: for instance one beat, a half-beat, a tenth of a second and so on…I ask the actors to show me and I’ll say make that a half-beat longer or shorter. So that’s how I make film. Although recently I shot a short film, and had a reading of the actors beforehand, and I found that quite interesting and enjoyable. So I may start doing that now.
There was that moment near the end when “Mama” came downstairs, and she was just vibrating with energy, actually oscillating… I wondered if you’d directed her to amp up her energy to that point, or if she was just feeding off the energy of the other actors at that moment?
Also there is another sequence, with eight people in a small room…confusing, right? It can be slapstick, but when several people get into that high tension, confused situation, it’s…to start with, it is very difficult to give a cinematic direction (to achieve that), so what I do is, well one preparation I make is that when everyone comes to location, if I come myself in a state of high tension—unsettled, in a high energy, confused state—the actors will pick up on that. And another manipulation I make is to give them dialogue changes on the spot. Keep them really on their toes. But at the same time you can’t push them to the edge too fast. You have to stop just before they get really confused. I can’t prepare for that. That’s one reason I don’t do a reading ahead of time. Another thing I think is that if the acting is interesting, the expression is interesting, and the movement is interesting, then no matter how big or small, the audience will be drawn to that movement, that expression.
The score was wonderful. Is it available on CD? And how did you work with the composer, Watanabe Takashi?
To answer the first question: in Japan at the moment the CD market is really down, but one of the finest recording companies in Canada is preparing to distribute the score though iTunes. And in regards to your second question about how I work with Watanabe-san on the score: I put a line in the script where I want music, and then I put a title on it like, “the men squabble,” and he comes up with the music. And then we work on it together.
The film ends with all the characters going to Fukushima and a bomb going off, so I have to ask, was the film completed before the tragedy at Fukushima?
In fact, shooting finished five days before the earthquake at Fukushima.
(Interpreter: Kimiyo Kamamura)