Moët Hayami is an indie filmmaker who was born in Shiga Prefecture. She began her career by graduating from Ritsumeikan University’s visual department and Waseda University graduate school. Since then, she has worked on many films and commercials in different positions from production design/management, art direction, costume design, and as an assistant director. Projects include West North West (2015), directed by Takuro Nakamura, and Ryutaro Nakagawa’s award-winning film Summer Blooms (2017). She has written and directed shorts of her own and with Kushina, what will you be she has made her debut feature film.
Kushina tells the story of the inhabitants of a village of women hidden from the world in a forest somewhere in Japan. Their peaceful existence is disturbed when an idealistic anthropologist (Yayoi Inamoto) arrives and becomes attached to a girl named Kushina (Ikumi Satake). This connection deepens making tensions rise between Kushina’s mother Kagu (Tomona Hirota) and her grandmother Onikuma (veteran actress Miyuki Ono) who disagree over the future of the girl.
The film received its world premiere at the Osaka Asian Film Festival 2018 where it went on to win the Japan Cuts Award. The interview took place after the first screening.
The penultimate question features a bit of a mood spoiler so consider skipping it to get the maximum emotional punch.
Jason Maher: I was really blown away by what I saw on screen because you had created a whole universe and characters who fit into that universe. Could you tell me a little about pre-production?
Moët Hayami: First, me and my cinematographer went to the countryside to make a story. We went to an abandoned area and I imagined an image of one woman who is climbing up and the people who live in the abandoned area show their faces because they are waiting for her. That image I didn’t use in Kushina but maybe that image is in the future of the characters. The reason why I made the film is, I wanted to create a world where I feel cosy, somewhere where I belong. I don’t think my soul is in this world so I want to mix different cultures and everything that I like so Kushina is one of my worlds and to make the imaginary world strong I created the characters Onikuma, Kagu, and Kushina. They are not Japanese names but by using those unique names, it increased my imagination.
Jason Maher: In terms of the visuals, I felt that every scene was perfectly shot, like it could be a frame from a graphic novel. How much pre-shoot design did you do?
Moët Hayami: First, me and my cinematographer went to a museum to see pictures and we liked the same picture by Frederick Leighton. Study at a Reading Desk (1877). Do you know the picture? The girl is sitting and reading a book but she looks kind of bored. We liked that picture really much and through the texture, we felt the story and we thought, let’s do that. So we made up our minds before the shoot about covering every angle. These days, movies have fast editing but this is my first feature film so we needed to concentrate on individual shots so we decided to not cut too much because we wanted to make a strong film.
Jason Maher: The camera angles, shot composition, and mise-en-scene, everything was perfect. How did you find your experiences as a set designer and an assistant director on other films helped you with this film?
Moët Hayami: To be honest, I’m not good at being an assistant to somebody. When I joined other projects I always felt very stressed because I always wanted to make my own film so I don’t have a good answer. I don’t want to share my passion with another project.
Jason Maher: One of the strongest elements in the film is the location. It’s like Onikuma had stumbled upon an abandoned village and she had brought it back to life. In terms of set design, did you have overall control?
Moët Hayami: Yes, almost, but I did many things, clothes, set design, production management. I think I did more. Of course, I didn’t build the set, I borrowed the place and decorated it so I combined the design with the atmosphere at the location. If I had a bigger budget, I would want to create the whole set but I couldn’t do that this time so I embraced the atmosphere.
Jason Maher: This is truly an indie film. In terms of the script, it’s very unique with a largely female cast. Did you have any issues with finance?
Moët Hayami: I paid for everything by myself with help from my parents, but, still, the cost was very low because the actresses understood the situation. Even though she is very famous, these days she’s not working very much…
Jason Maher: Ono-san?
Moët Hayami: Yes. I took the script to the agency where Ono-san’s manager is vice-president and he quickly sent the script to Ono-san and she read it and she really liked it so, on the very same day, she sent a message to me, “Okay, I’ll do it.” We didn’t have money but she and the others understood the situation and they helped a lot.
Jason Maher: What was the response to the script from the others?
Moët Hayami: They were all pretty interested in it and, at the same time, the script is kind of unique so they could not imagine what was going on so they were curious. Hirota-san, Kagu, she felt hers was a very difficult role, maybe because Kagu is 28-years-old, and in those days, Hirota-san was also 28 and she felt a connection to Kagu at some point.
Jason Maher: You have tight control over visual elements, did you create a specific atmosphere on the set to get people to interact in a certain way?
Moët Hayami: I hope so but my production was not organised well, so maybe they helped me. They are very good actors and the set or location, maybe it helped them.
Jason Maher: The location is fantastic. Did you want it to be a character by itself? You use lots of close-ups of nature and you use lots of natural sound at points so it felt like it became a character in itself. Was that your intention?
Moët Hayami: Yes. So, as I mentioned with Frederick Leighton and texture, I wanted to pick up the details. I really like Ghibli. Miyazaki-san tells everyone how important nature is and its power, so I have learned that kind of thing from Ghibli. I had written the details of the natural world in Kushina‘s script. Usually, the writer doesn’t write those kind of things and some of the crew advised me to delete it to make the script clear. I didn’t think that nature was one of characters, but it was necessary for me to give life to each of the characters.
Jason Maher: That’s a really interesting answer because it brings to mind imagery from Totoro no Tonari and Mononoke Hime, it feels almost mystical and otherworldly at times. Also, another reference I got was Narayama Bushiko.
Moët Hayami: Narayama Bushiko! Actually, I really like Narayama Bushiko and when I saw it I thought I want to make that kind of film. Narayama Bushiko also had close-ups of nature so maybe it influenced me.
Jason Maher: Were there any site specific challenges to filming there?
Moët Hayami: We went to many locations, one of them was to Jukai, the Sea of Trees, the suicide forest. We shot in that area and the police came. The main area, the abandoned village, there is a path leading to it from the city but it is hard to get there on foot. There are no signs. Actually, for the insides of the houses we chose to shoot in the city. I hope nobody noticed.
Jason Maher: The use of the song “Que Sera Sera”, after the credits, [hits left side of chest] it got me. Did you have the idea to use that song from the very beginning or did it occur to you during the filming?
Moët Hayami: From the very beginning, actually. I made this film for my mother. When I was 20 I had a very bad relationship with my mother. The only thing we connected with was “Que Sera Sera”. When I was 20 I wanted to join the film industry but my parents disagreed so we argued every day but “Que Sera Sera” comes from the movies and my mother always sings that song so I feel that connection at some points so I decided that if I made my film I would use that song.
Jason Maher: What does the film mean to you, then?
Moët Hayami: This is another story about my mother and me. When we had a bad relationship, I went abroad to Vancouver, and she went to the station to see me off. At that time I got a letter from my mother but I couldn’t read it. I stayed in Vancouver for seven or eight months, and the day before I left Vancouver, I finally read the letter and it was not what I expected. I felt very sorry for my mother and I understood her thanks to that. Since then our relationship has gotten better so “Que Sera Sera” is like a tribute and I want to thank my mom.
As winner of the Japan Cuts award, Kushina, what will you be will been screened later this year at Japan Cuts in New York.