Born in Hiroshima in 1981, Genta Matsugami is a film director who operates the creative production-house16 bit.inc. He graduated from Osaka University of Arts in 2005 and his graduation work won a prize in the Pia Film Festival Award of that year. Demolition Girl is his debut feature. It has already distinguished itself on the festival circuit, first at its world premiere at the Slamdance Film Festival in Utah in January, where lead actress Aya Kitai won an honourable mention for her performance, and then at the Osaka Asian Film Festival in March where it scooped the JAPAN CUTS award. This means it will receive a screening at the JAPAN CUTS festival in New York in July. It has easy to see how the film has impressed audiences as it presents a refreshingly honest and concise depiction of working-class life in Japan.
The story of Demolition Girl focuses on a high school student named Coco (Kitai), who seems trapped in her small-town existence because of her poor background and a family who drag her down. Despite being working-class, she aspires to go to university in Tokyo, seeing this as a way out of poverty. University is tough to enter and expensive so she needs to work hard whether by studying or dabbling in the fetish industry by making illicit “crush videos”. The audience will root for her as they see the obstacles she faces and her determination not to give up and audience engagement is hooked by a persuasive performance from Kitai in her acting debut (she had previously won the MissiD 2017 Fantasista Sakurada Prize).
This is a film that displays class consciousness for contemporary Japan as Matsugami tells a compelling story of someone displaying determination in desperate circumstances at a time when poverty is on the rise, small business are going bankrupt faster than ever, and social mobility is flatlining. It also presents a defiant female lead, an inspiration at a time when people are under intense pressure in and outside of work.
Genta Matsugami took time out after the second screening to talk about the background of the film and the casting of actors in an interview conducted with the help of Keiko Matsushita and later transcribed by Takako Pocklington.
Jason Maher: What was your inspiration for this film?
Genta Matsugami: There are several factors. It was three years ago when I started planning this film. I have been feeling everything is not right in current-day Japan, perhaps in the entire world. Problems in Japan have become prominent especially after 3.11 (the Fukushima nuclear disaster in 2011). It is because grown-ups are hopeless, that’s why contemporary Japan is hopeless.
The main characters are teenagers, high school girls who are forced into a difficult situation although they shouldn’t need to take any responsibility for it.
However, there is no point just being depressed about it. We need to get over it and keep living. I wanted to make a film with a message that, “even so, we will live on”.
So why did you choose to focus on working-class characters?
There are lots of working-class people in Japan. If there is no hope for working-class people, then there is no hope for the country. I would rather depict their lives than some well-off people’s lives. People with lower incomes struggle for their lives. It is a serious problem. I thought if I avoid depicting it, I wouldn’t be able to render my message to the audience.
Would you say that the themes of the film are hope and aspiration?
I don’t want to divide grown-ups and children into structures but obviously, the grown-ups should be blamed for creating the current situation. It is not the responsibility of teenagers’ and yet they will suffer social damage. I thought if I didn’t portray it, I wouldn’t be able to portray hope itself.
Casting of the characters is very important.
Yes, it was very important, because if I made a wrong choice, I wouldn’t have been able to convey my messages fully. I took time and carefully chose the people.
How did you discover Aya Kitai and what did you see in her as an actress?
I asked many people. Then I just looked for someone by myself because my budget was tight, then luckily found her in Tokyo. The first reason I chose her is her face. It is not only that her face is beautiful but it also has a strong characteristic and I had the vision that she would make a strong impression on the screen when I first saw her.
Her father is played by Yota Kawase. It was important for him to have a charm and gentleness to his character because the main character’s situation is so bad. How did you go about casting him?
The character, the father, is a total waste of space. If he is just a scumbag, the viewers would see him as a hateful person but I believe that even if a man is useless, the man can still be humane and somehow lovable. I think the father’s characteristic worked well for a total balance in the film. And, since Aya Kitai has no acting career and this film is her first film, I thought if some veteran actors supported her, the film would be firm and look realistic.
How did you prepare the actors for their roles?
It depends upon the person because each actor has different careers and styles. For Aya, I asked her just to try hard rather than be concerned about acting skills. Even if she tried to act technically, she wouldn’t be able to gain skills so easily. What the viewers get impressed by is her sincere attitude towards acting.
What sort of research did you do?
Firstly, I thought I needed to do proper research about crush videos, a motif of the film, because I am not a crush video fan or a creator of crush videos. There are lots of things I didn’t know about, then some acquaintances put me in touch with a director of crush videos and I watched some crush videos as well. However, of course, I was not making a documentary film so I pondered how I could insert crush videos as a drama component into the film.
Did you do storyboarding for the film, because every shot is perfectly?
I have never drawn storyboards because I can’t decide what I want to do without seeing actual performances at the location. I need to see the presence of the actors on the set, how things look like through the camera or angle of the shot.
And, I want to value cameraman’s sensitivity or feelings.
Yes, it’s really impressive because you used a variety of different techniques.
Ah, that wasn’t me. We have an excellent cameraman, well…cinematographer.
You were at the Slamdance Film Festival in America with this film. Have you noticed a difference between the way that Japanese audiences and Western audiences react to this film?
Today’s screening was the Japanese premiere of the film, so it is a bit hard to say, but I didn’t see much difference in the audience reaction between here and US. In the US, I received a nice comment from the audience saying it was a nicely balanced story and very interesting. And the main actor, Aya Kitai, her presence was brilliant.
Do you think it is important to display working-class life?
Yes, It’s a reflection of society in Japan. The social condition of the country is clearly reflected on there.
Are you inspired by someone like Ken Loach?
Yes, I really like Ken Loach. But please take this comment as a joke, I wanted to avoid my film being like a lecture so I took a different approach. I respect Ken Loach though…
It’s a good approach, it is a good film. One last question, what would you want audiences to take away from the film?
It’s not a happy end but it wouldn’t leave you just with despair or a pessimistic view of life. I would be happy if the audience has a positive thought for their life when they see the main character’s strength and growth.
She never gives up and that’s the main thing. Thanks for the interview and thanks again making this film. I hope the next screening goes well.
Thank you. The film opens in Tokyo in the summer.
Demolition Girl was shown on March 10 and 12 at the Osaka Asian Film Festival.
This interview was published over at VCinema on May 18th.