Takuya Misawa hails from Kanagawa and is a graduate from the Japan Institute of the Moving Image. He worked on various film productions as crew including as assistant director to Koji Fukada on Au Revoir L Éte (2013) before making his debut feature with the Kanagawa-set relationship comedy drama Chigasaki Story (2015). Produced by Kiki Sugino’s Wa Entertainment, it made waves on the festival circuit for not only for its well-engineered story of a group of academics and students stuck together at a beach resort but also its directorial style which evoked Yasujiro Ozu. Four years on, Misawa’s second feature The Murders of Oiso demonstrates a complete change of tone despite again being set in Kanagawa.
Taking place in another seaside town, The Murders of Oiso is a noirish slice-of-life story set in the picturesque location of Oiso. It concerns how small-scale corruption is revealed when four friends, Tomoki (Haya Nakazaki), Shun (Koji Moriya), Kazuya (Yusaku Mori), and Eita (Shugo Nagashima) confront the crimes of the people around them and themselves after the death of an influential man in the town. The construction company they work for is used for illegal activities, Eita’s girlfriend far worse abuses are revealed.
Using a number of different narrators and multiple perspectives to reveal what is going on beneath the pretty exterior, the film features lots of twists, turns and social issues and asks for viewers to pay attention. Working with a Hong Kong film crew to create an unusual atmosphere for his actors, Misawa has made a unique and challenging film that brings the audience into worrying space. The film won the Japan Cuts Award at this year’s Osaka Asian Film Festival and it will play at the festival in New York later this year. Misawa took the time to have an interview to explain more about the story, creating the atmosphere and how he got his cast to perform.
How did you come up with the idea for this film?
After finishing my first feature film, I thought it was not enough for me to look at social issues and I wanted to bring my critical thinking about Japanese society to my next project. I wanted to look at labour form and gender balance in The Murder of Oiso. I didn’t want to show those events directly. I wanted the audience to focus on the process of how to recognise the issues of gender balance and so forth.
When you say gender balance?
For example, Kazuya, the main character, I think he’s a typical Japanese male who has the value of homophobia and misogyny. That’s why he’s jealous of Eita. Kazuya also looks down on women and he regards women as a kind of enemy who will break the relationship with his friends.
He doesn’t want Eita’s girlfriend in the workplace and he actually touches her at one point.
But we never see it.
You deliberately leave things ambiguous.
Actually we never watch the moment he touches her. Maybe we can assume he touched but that moment we cannot see. That touching and the violence, we just assume and expect.
You like to look at things indirectly. Why do you favour that style?
So, as I said about bringing my critical thinking about social issues, we never see social issues directly. We only recognise them indirectly from maybe a newspaper or website or an article. We read and listen to information and we expect or assume something as we make a point of view.
So it’s like replicating an average person’s awareness of social issues. It’s an interesting technique and you use non-linear narrative to establish that. How difficult is it to write in that style?
Super difficult and maybe it’s also a hard film for the audience to watch. I try to keep the emotions of the character, even with murders happening, because it is messed up, but the emotions I try to keep. For example, Tomoki keeps trying to keep Shun beside him.
Keep the gang together.
The aftermath of the event actually tells just as much as seeing the event. How did you work with the actors to prepare for the roles and act out different scenes?
I kept two points in my mind on the location. One is eye line, the line of sight of the characters. This is very important to show each relationship. Even if they are alone, if someone looks down we can imagine their interior thinking. The second is the rhythm of the dialogue. You know this film has many layers. By the way, did you recognise that I was writing in the film?
That you are in the film? Yes, you also speak.
Oh, thank you. This is one layer and then the woman’s narration, and there are two or three layers. Each layer comes and goes because I wanted to make an artificial feeling so I asked each character to perform their dialogue blankly. Don’t make it too natural. Try to avoid realism. I wanted it to have a weird, unnatural feeling. For example, an actor changes the tempo of how they say something.
You have a female voice for narration, you appear in it and I initially thought the film was also from Tomoki’s point of view since he has an overarching role and view of what is going on and, at the end, he wakes up and it is like a dream. Why did you choose to use different layers as a framing device?
Similar motivation. I wanted to make the audience think about what the narrative is. What is the story. As I said, people read the newspaper and catch the information and it affects their thinking. If I say this information is the story, I want to make not only one narrative line but others so the audience can, or need, to think more about what happened in the film. What is this story? So I wanted to make the three layers, especially because I write things in the notebook but the woman’s voice speaks. I want to try and imply that the man writes, the woman talks but they are one voice. Maybe they are a different twist in expression and thinking about gender.
Do you have any concerns about how an audience engages with it?
I am still concerned. Despite that, each character’s emotion is enough for the audience to keep watching. I just hope that the audience doesn’t give up.
It’s quite interesting having a non-linear and multi-perspective story. The experience is quite suffocating. I feel like I am in this town and everybody is connected and implicated in a general criminality. Is that the sort of atmosphere you were going for?
Yes, but I want to mention that I created motifs like the bell ringing with the door and cutting the heads off characters in the frame. I talked with the cinematographer Timliu Liu to create some motifs in this film. I hope the audience connects each motif.
So you have, for the four central characters, you pick relatively unknown actors. Yusaku Mori, who plays Kazuya, has more experience than the others. Why did you select him and how did you build up the chemistry of the actors?
I met Yusaku Mori five years ago at the Osaka Asian Film Festival when I showed Chigasaki Story. He was here for Fires on the Plain and I met him at the festival’s welcome party. At that time, we said “hi, bye” (laughter) but I kept watching his performances on TV and in movies and I felt his performances were quite good. When I needed to choose the cast, four main characters, the three guys had to be relatively tall while Kazuya, while he is the most powerful in the group, he is a bit short and it’s a good contrast but this is a minor point. The most important thing for me when choosing the cast is good communication, on set and before shooting, when we talk about the script and character, it’s very important.
You allowed the actors to explore the roles?
We shared a kind of common sense. Five years ago, even though we shared five minutes, I knew Yusaku had good communication skills.
His character is very layered. On the one hand he is a bully on the other hand he is also a victim of circumstances. You deliberately made him sympathetic.
It’s kind of like a coin. He is a victim of the family as the only son who must succeed in the family business and he felt pressure and that stress makes him a bully.
An aspect of duality to this character and the town also has duality. On the surface it is beautiful and ordered but on the other hand it has dark social issues. Is this a comment on Japanese society?
Yes. I want to mention one thing. I said I want to bring my critical thinking to Japanese society but Japanese society also means myself. I also have the same problems and same issues. In this respect, this is why it’s very hard to write the script because I was sometimes a bully and sometimes the bullied child and also felt pressure from my family and community. Actually, I grew up in a similar situation to Kazuya.
It’s just a general aspect of the human experience and how we can be both good and bad.
In terms of the visual style, you mentioned you talked to your cinematographer about capturing certain things. Did you storyboard it? How hard was the visual design?
We didn’t have a storyboard, we just talked and made a memo each night. Timliu Liu also from Hong Kong and he came to Japan before location scouting and he stayed in my home for three or four nights and we talked about this film. I remember he asked me to make a character bubble, a character map and mark out directions of emotions, to make it clear.
So it was getting the emotions of the characters and then you can decide how to shoot the scenes.
I asked him not to be too realistic or make it too close to the emotions of the characters. I wanted some distance.
The use of Dutch angles made it feel like a noir.
A noir, yes.
And, there’s a lot of tension from a horror tone when Shun walks through Ito’s house with the menacing flashback and there’s the sound of vinyl scratching which sounds menacing. It’s great audio design? Could you elaborate on how you used it to relay the story?
The sound design team were also from Hong Kong and they were excellent. I asked them to help create a noir feeling, a bit of a horror feeling, but don’t make the audience too scared, don’t use make the sound too meaningful. Like with the bell ringing, I wanted similar sounds and the soundtrack to have the same motif as the melody. It’s very abstract. I shared my image of this film. This film is like a spiral shape. Repetition but something different. They heard this request and made the sound different.
I didn’t mention before but some action happens out of frame. Sometimes we may not understand what happens out of frame. For example, at the warehouse, Kazuya may be touching Eita’s girlfriend but I told them about each event but don’t make it too meaningful.
How did Oiso as a location help with the story of the film?
I think this film didn’t show it directly but Oiso has a lot of historical connections to the modernisation of Japan. For example, Hirobumi Ito, the first Prime Minister of Japan, and Shigeru Yoshida, another Prime Minister, both had houses there. Other key guys related to Japan’s modern history had a second house there and some citizens in Oiso are proud of that and other historical things. I think it’s similar to Japan for me. The location is actually beautiful, it’s very small but there are various locations, seaside, countryside, mountains. At the same time I felt like the place was a bit ruined. The wind keeps coming from the sea and metals rust and this image fits in with my image of this film. It also takes place in the autumn. Beautiful colours but the leaves are going to die or be reborn.
Eiji Iwamoto’s music is really good. You worked with him on Chigasaki Story. Can you explain more about the music?
Actually, he’s not a professional musician, he’s an ex-professional. He also lives in Chigasaki and we were introduced by friends. In this production I told him that with this film I want to make the music have an impressionistic motif and I asked him to watch the Nagisa Oshima film, A Treatise on Japanese Bawdy Songs (aka Sing a Song of Sex). That film also has different layers and Oshima also used impressionistic music. It’s not similar but it’s all about developing emotion through the music until the last song.
It’s a very good track, I wanted to download it.
Maybe I can put it on Spotify (laughter)
It would be very popular. Would you say Oshima is an influence?
Before I wrote the script, Oshima was. Nagisa Oshima also described Japanese history and social systems so I wanted to write something like Nagisa Oshima.
It’s good to tackle subjects in such ways for the diversity of subjects in Japanese films. Do you have anything you want to say to the audience?
The theme is about inner thinking, something people may not know. It’s about the expression of inner thinking.
Thank you for doing the interview.
The Murders of Oiso was shown at the Osaka Asian Film Festival on March 7 and 14.
My interview with Takuya Misawa was first published on VCinema on March 24th.