Daisuke Miyazaki was born in 1980 in Yokohama, Kanagawa. A passion for analysing films turned into a career when he started making them while studying at Waseda University. In 2004, he participated in New York University’s summer school that took place in Japan. His thesis The 10th Room won the Christine Choi Award, which is the grand prix at the KUT Film Festival held by the NYU. His following film Love Will Tear Us Apart was invited to be a special screening at the Image Forum Film Festival 2006, which is the largest experimental film festival in Japan.
The next stage in his career was to work his way up through the film world from lighting assistant to acting as an assistant director for Kiyoshi Kurosawa on Tokyo Sonata(2008). Miyazaki’s first feature film, End of the Night (2011), was exhibited at the Montreal Festival du Nouveau Cinema International Film Festival, and received a special award at the Toronto Shinsedai Film Festival. His work on the omnibus film 5TO9 was screened at the Osaka Asian Film Festival 2016 (OAFF) and his second feature Yamato (California) was screened at OAFF 2017.
He returned to OAFF in 2018 with his latest feature film, Tourism, an amusingly hip youth movie following two Japanese girls named Nina (Nina Endo) and Su (SUMIRE) who get lost in Singapore, which was shot in the space of five days. This is the first of a planned five film run which could take Miyazaki around the world.
Miyazaki kindly took part in an interview at the ABC Hall in Osaka midway through the festival where he went into detail about the shoot and his background.
Jason Maher: Thank you for making the film. It’s a really interesting experience. I felt like it captured the dislocation of travelling around a new place. I really liked your directing style.
Daisuke Miyazaki: Thank you very much.
How did you get your start in filmmaking?
When I was in college I was writing film reviews as a critic because I was in a film critic club. After watching a certain amount of films I thought, maybe I should start making them so I started filming by myself but after doing that for a few years I thought I don’t have the fundamental skills of a filmmaker like lighting, storytelling, directing so I went to a school called Film School of Tokyo (Eiga Bigakko) for a while and during that time I was invited to take part in film shoots as part of the crew.
Did that involve working as an assistant director with Kiyoshi Kurosawa?
That’s a bit later. I started as assistant lighting technician in a snowy mountain location. It was a horrible experience but that was my entrance. In Japan, you have to go step by step to assistant director or screenwriter and then you become a director. It’s an old style…
Slowly learning your craft.
But at the same time I was making my own short independent movies, trying and learning, trying and learning.
So is there a specific vision you have for all of your films that you want to keep with each project?
I want to make something new every time. I think 5TO9 was like a film noir and Yamato (California) was like a kind of music drama and this time it’s a little bit like comedy travel movie so every time I try to do something new and try to improve in some way.
That’s cool. You can see that each project has a different subject. I believe this project was in collaboration with the Singapore International Film Festival?
Ah yes, the Singapore International Film Festival and Art Science Museum first offered me a screening during their festival. Budget-wise, shooting-wise, it was supposed to be shot in Japan and it was supposed to be a short film but the budget for Japanese indie movies is usually very low and I wanted to try and shoot in a foreign country so I decided to shoot in Singapore. We only had five days but I think it turned out to be a good length feature film, not too short, a really comfortable size.
It’s just the right length and it’s a mellow space to enter. You said you only had five days to shoot, so was there a lot of pre-planning involved?
Yes, the fundamental reason is because there were only five days and that’s quite short for a feature-length film but I have experience working on very cheap v-cinema productions and I’ve been working as an assistant director for that so I know how to schedule in my brain, like, “I only have two minutes here and two minutes there”, so I used that skill and also in Singapore there are lots of security cameras and there aren’t so many places where you can film freely without permission so I had to walk around all of the places and check where the cameras are and think about how I should film. For the airport scene, I was already in Singapore preparing so, I myself wasn’t out there for that so I had to tell my DP on the phone what to do but before that I had already videod the airport and I had already decided all of the cuts and shots and the frame size and then I sent it to my DP and was like, “Oh I want my actresses coming in from the left side to do this so follow her”. I told my DP what to do with each cut and he tried to copy that.
That’s really amazing because there is, on the one hand, a real sense of spontaneity, like you have just showed up and the actors have wandered into the frame like real tourists and you’re shooting on the fly but it sounds like you did a lot of planning. Did you have storyboarding and other elements?
For the airport scene I had storyboarding and I did plan quite a lot. It does look natural Compared to the shooting period, the planning went on for a long time. I took a lot of time preparing because I knew that I couldn’t do so many things so there was no time to be confused.
The way you play around with the aspect ratios really fit the characters. What sort if aesthetic did you want for the film?
I told my DP that the bright colours of Singapore was one thing that was interesting for me, like the purples, greens, yellows, oranges in the little Indian area, like those shiny colours are really interesting for me so I told my DP that I want the tone of the AGFA film stock used by Yasujiro Ozu in which vivid colours come up and then, for the frame, I intended to change it a lot like a smartphone screen being this size or an Instagram kind of size and with each cut I tried to change something and keep the audience interested in it because the story is about girls getting lost and walking around so I thought about how I could keep the mind of the audience stuck to the screen. That was a big thing for me.
I think it really worked.
I loved the switches in shooting styles like the on-screen text when they were streaming, that was really entertaining. [Laughter] You talk about location specific problems with regards to security cameras, were there any other surprises that came up?
Everywhere I went, let’s say, shooting in the temple or going inside that Muslim family’s home, I had intentions as a director that I wanted to do something but I was told that, traditionally, this is right, so your way is not right or correct so I myself was learning so much about the culture out there, the society and Singapore, and it was like a big tour for me. It was surprising. I did prepare a lot but on the set I studied the diversity of Singapore.
You go to different areas like the Hindu and Muslim areas as well as Chinatown and you meet a variety of Singaporeans, were they professional or non-professional actors?
Three of the main characters are professional, the rest are amateurs like my friend or my friend’s friend.
Like the Chinese lady who helps Nina, is she a professional?
She’s my good friend and I really like her voice and the way she laughs. The real her keeps on talking all of the time so I asked her, “can you act?” and she said, “oh I have never acted so I can’t”, and I said, “it’s okay, I’m going to direct so you can relax”.
She’s really good at communicating with Nina and the camera [laughter] and I really loved the conversation they have where she talks about anime because I have done things like that so it felt real. Did you have any specific way of directing people?
I basically tried to expand the good part of a person whether it’s their voice or how they talk or the angle they smile at. First I try to seek what’s the good part, the fascinating part of each person and then I try to extend it in a cinematic and theatrical way so the way you talk is interesting but if you talk a little bit faster it will become more fascinating. I do have in my mind what character I want to direct but I figured out recently that the best way is to find the best part of the actor and the original person and expand it.
The film captures some of the best moments of being a traveller such as when a stranger welcomes you into their home or shows you an aspect of the city you wouldn’t see as a tourist like the scene on the rooftop with the band. Was that spontaneous or pre-planned?
That’s from my real experience. I was drinking in Singapore and then my friend invited me to this one-room apartment and there was a really cool band playing inside. They told me that there are many underground bands who play in a room or a house and this youth culture is getting really hot in Singapore. I knew that band and for the final scene I wanted to show the landscape of the skyscrapers of Singapore at the same time, like a cool thing and the very touristic artificial thing at the same time was the theme of the movie so I was location scouting the area and actually that scene was supposed to be shot inside, one floor under the rooftop, and they said you can check out the rooftop so I climbed this big ladder to the rooftop and I asked, “can I use this place?” and they said, “yes, if you can bring up the equipment”, because we had to climb the ladder but everyone, every extra and people who went there cooperated and took heavy amps and guitars and filming equipment up the ladder and then we shot it.
It sounds like a really great atmosphere on set with everyone working together.
In Singapore there are so many people who love movies and they are really enthusiastic about it and many people want to help each other. If someone is having trouble, many people will come and help each other and so the shoot was like that. Even though I am Japanese, they treated me like a local person and supported me a lot and without that I don’t think it would have been possible to shoot it in five days.
So your own experiences on the shoot informed the movie a lot.
I started to like Singapore much much more after the shoot.
I’ve never been to Singapore, is the Merlion really disappointing?
It’s okay. I didn’t want to say, “this is boring” or something like that. I want to be quite positive about everything in my films so it’s okay. That area is very cool. It’s very plastic but as a sight-seeing place I think it’s good and also, in that scene, somehow everyone (the public) was wearing orange and so when the camera pans there’s so much orange in the frame so that was a really interesting coincidence.
Visually distinct. It’s the second time that you’ve worked with Nina Endo. Why did you bring her back from Yamato (California)?
Somehow I become really good friends with my actors after shooting. It’s probably because my directing style is not like, “I want to do this so can you act like that?”
Yes, it starts from “Hi, how are you?” and, “What food do you like?” “I think this part of you is really good.” This sort of personal communication goes on forever on the set so we become good friends. I thought about Hanae, too, but this time I wanted to do something for the younger generation. I want high school girls and young college girls to watch Tourism and say, “Oh, this is so cool!”. Nina is one of those fashion icons for the young generation so she was perfect for the role. She speaks English but not perfect so I thought that would be really effective to use, and her age was perfect for the role. I shot Yamato in 2015 and two years had passed and her acting got really good so all of those factors made me choose Nina first and then the rest of the cast was decided.
SUMIRE, she’s Tadanobu Asano’s daughter and she’s a fashion icon as well. Was this her first acting role?
I think she was in River’s Edge and maybe a few films before but this was her first time acting in a foreign country but still, she was not super used to acting so it was quite interesting. First, I felt she wasn’t so sure what she could do, so I made her confident during the process, like “You are great just being there but can you do a bit of this?” Every time I film an actor or actress, I try to show their best acting or best face in their career and I think Sumire was really good. I mean, she already has a few films, but this was her best acting role so far.
Yeah, she has a good comedic approach, like deadpan serious as seen when she recounts encountering the ghost. [Laughter] What was the meaning behind the ghost?
One big idea of this project was to step across all of the borders in this world like, sexuality, country, nation, dead, living, past, future, earth, space, whatever. I was trying to cross all of the borders with this movie. Anything can happen in this world and everything is to be supported and it’s a positive thing, is what I wanted to show in this movie.
What does the film mean to you?
Until my last film, Yamato (California), I tried to show how hard the world is and how it is a dirty place but also there’s beauty inside which is what I tried to show in a bit of a hardcore style. This time I wanted to be more positive and I wanted to show the younger generation the possibilities of the world. You can touch your smart phone all day long but if you get a $200 ticket and fly to somewhere, there’s something you can’t imagine and something 3D instead of 2D and it might change your life drastically. I wanted to show how much possibility and beauty there is in the world if you have the courage to step out.
You did it perfectly with the film because Nina encounters so much kindness. She could have just been wandering around touristic areas but she gets to know new urban spaces and real people. What is the meaning behind the Elvis t-shirt that she wears?
That’s quite a coincidence but I do like Elvis and you know, they talk about Elvis as a ghost in Jim Jarmusch’s movie Mystery Train. I really like that movie and I was writing a novel about it a few months before the shoot and I imagined Elvis like a ghost and he’s still wandering around the world in his Cadillac and then Nina had that Elvis t-shirt and Tourism is a story about ghosts and the living, so it was a coincidence and a perfect fit.
You want it to appeal to young people which is why you chose to have specific actors and gave the characters direct-to-camera interviews where they tell the audience that they work in Tsutaya and Book-Off, typical part-time jobs staffed by young people, why did you use that technique?
It’s part of the theme I was talking about. I wanted to cross the border between the documentary and fictional film world. I wanted to show that in this movie anything can happen. It’s all from my experience interviewing younger people in Yamato for Yamato (California). The actors look like they are talking naturally and it feels improvised but the dialogue was written. I think it would be nice to shoot it as a real documentary.
It’s really good at getting the sense of reality conveyed, as if these are people plucked out of Yamato itself but then there’s the narration which felt like it came from extra-terrestrials. At the end it promises to continue five years in the future in New York. Do you have intentions of carrying on Nina’s story?
Yes, I’m thinking of five stories about tourists and then the fifth story in New York is my plan. When I was filming, at first it was like a joke, I mean, I wanted to show the stories expanding out of this movie and spread to the world but after finishing I thought it worked out quite nice and I really wanted to do this again. I want to travel and film at the same time so, yes, I think I will go to other Asian countries or Eastern Europe and try to go on with the series.
Will Takayuki Yanagi go on the next journey?
The next journey I am planning is in China. Takayuki gets sick of Japan and Yamato and moves to the mountains in China and then he sends them (Nina and Su) a letter, like, “why don’t you come to China?” and then the movie starts from the scene when they receive the letter, and there’s one more person who is living inside of the house instead of Takayuki so three girls head to China but they can’t use their smartphones and they get lost. [Laughter]
That sounds amazing already, a fantastic follow-on. When do you start shooting?
I think I already have the story so I’m looking for investors, maybe Chinese investors but Japanese investors, too. Some people were quite amazed by the story and the platform is very simple since it’s about two girls who go to a country for a few days. I hope it’s not super difficult to find a sponsor compared to an original story project. I hope I can do it, this year or next year, because I have to reach New York in five years, right? [Laughter]
So it will be another journey for the next Osaka Asian Film Festival.
I hope so. That will be interesting.
I hope Tourism gets to travel around the world because it’s very contemporary. The music at the end is very melancholy, could you explain a little about that?
Sure, the last movie I used hip hop and noise rock but this time I was trying to do something more avante garde. I was talking with a Singaporean underground band, which I came to know over the last few years. Maybe making the music was the longest process during the film making. They made the music very quickly and then they sent it to me and I said, “Can you change this? Can you change this?” and they fixed it and we did this for several months and so that was very original and that was like making another film at the same time because they tried to make an album which is like a soundtrack and out of that I chose the music but it’s my first experience where the soundtrack came before the shoot. I could think of the rhythm of the movie in my mind and direct. For that dance scene I woke up in the morning and thought about dancing but it was not in the script so I suddenly told the actresses, “guys, could you dance now?” and they said, “no, it’s too early in the morning,” and I said, “Please think about the dance in the car and we’ll do it in the afternoon.”, and then they asked, “Why do we need a dance scene?” and I said, “Because it’s cool. We’re going to do it. Believe me.” The crew also asked me during the shooting, “Is this okay? Is this funny? Is this working?” but I was quite confident that it was funny and adorable when they started dancing. I was playing this very basic beat on the set and afterwards I asked the track maker of Yamato (California) to make a new one and then changed the original music into a new one.
It’s a fantastic scene that always brings a smile to my face and other reviewers have highlighted that scene.
Thanks. [Laughter] I’m still not sure, can Western people enjoy this film, the scenery of Singapore? I’m also afraid if they can’t tell the difference between Japan and Singapore. It sure was intended to show how similar Japan and Singapore are in the centre of the city but there might be people who can’t even tell the difference between Singapore and Japan. For example, the airport scenes are very similar, so they might think it is the same country. The story starts with very basic ideas about modernisation and stuff but there are some differences in each country and very interesting diversities, which was what I wanted to show in this film. I hope that Western people can understand the differences.
I think you get a sense of that with the film. Nina goes off the beaten track and she leaves the touristic areas and the diversity of Singapore is brought to life.
Tourism was shown at the Osaka Asian Film Festival on March 10 and 15.
This interview was published on April 28th at VCinema.