Yan is the feature debut by Keisuke Imamura, a cinematographer who began his career by teaching himself to shoot independent films while studying at Nihon University’s Department of Fine Arts. After graduation, he apprenticed with KIYO and made his debut as a cinematographer at the age of 24, first with indies before moving on to bigger titles. An early collaboration with the director Michihito Fujii on Kemuri no Machi no Yori Yoki Mirai wa (2012) proved to be the beginning of a fruitful relationship as they would work together again on Tokyo City Girl (2015), Day and Night (2019) and The Journalist (2019). Imamura’s career has encompassed titles as diverse as the drama Phantom Limb (2014) and manga-extravaganza Teiichi: Battle of Supreme High (2017).
For his feature debut Yan (review here), Imamura retains the glossy look of his big films but uses it to channel the intimate story of a man discovering his roots and making it as sensuous as possible so we feel his emotions. Tsubame (Long Mizuma) is half-Taiwanese, half-Japanese and living a comfortable existence in Tokyo. However, a request from his father to track down his older brother Ryushin (Takashi Yamanaka) leads to the unearthing of painful memories of a family separation and his own alienation due to his dual-heritage status and the departure of his mother (played by the pop star Hitoto Yo). It’s a universal story that sees Tsubame find peace with himself and connect with a mother he never understood. Imamura sat down after the world premiere of the film at the Osaka Asian Film Festival 2020 and talked about its background.
This interview was conducted with the help of the translators Keiko Matsushita and Takako Pocklington.
Thank you for agreeing to do interview. I think your film is very beautiful. The camerawork really translated the emotions of the characters. Can you describe the background of the film?
[Emiko] Matsuno-san, [the planner] offered me the project. It was already decided that the story contains the themes of discovering where your identity is or your relation to your mother and also that it should be shot in Taiwan when I was offered it.
How did you work on the script?
I had a rough plot at first, and went location hunting with my staff. I started it with finding a shooting location.
There are a lot of the camera movements and editing techniques in the film. Did you storyboard the process or was it spontaneous?
I didn’t draw a storyboard for this film. I had already had an image in my head when I read the script since I did the camera work as well. This time, rather than deciding on how to set up a shot beforehand, I often went to the scene and took pictures with the actors and everyone moving.
Because you’ve had lots of experiences working with other directors as a cinematographer, you have confidence just spontaneously creating all these shots.
I remember the atmosphere or style of shooting physically without thinking. I usually shoot whilst looking at the script and create a style like that or whilst discussing it with the director and I did it the same way for this film as well. Reading the script, then entering the story. The way I went into the story was different this time though as I played both role of cinematographer and director, there wasn’t much differences between two roles in shooting.
Could you visualize the film quite easily in terms of creating specific aesthetic look to give the emotions to the characters?
My usual role is shooting things created to a certain extent already, but this time I joined the team as a director and I could get involved in the film from various aspects. I could start with creating the image of the settings, for example, (the interior and exterior of) the house in Taiwan and in Japan. I am usually not involved in editing either but as I was shooting by myself I remembered every moment of each take, so I could edit it. I thought this (being a director and cinematographer) could be more interesting than just shooting as a director.
The story contains themes of family and discrimination. Discrimination seemed quite prevalent. Tsubame experiences it in Taiwan. His brother and his mother also experienced it in Japan. Was it a particular theme you were interested in?
This is a story set in Taiwan and Japan but even within Japan, in a regional or urban area, or even different parts of Tokyo, you might question where you belong, … It could also mean, not just an actual place, it could be a place where you can feel that you are accepted. I think there are lots of people who could feel that way and could empathise with the characters.
Yes, it was powerfully delivered. People in the west may not be familiar with Japan and Taiwan’s relations, how deeply connected they are. Would you like to describe them?
I think that Asia has been attracting global attention lately, like Asian films or visuals. It seems that there are lots of films or visuals themed on diverse culture. Something like Joker or Parasite… I think there are not many Japanese films that focus on people who have an ordinary life, but there are lots of films with these themes in the world. I thought if I depict these themes in settings in Asia or Japan, people would be interested in them.
I can’t think of many other Japanese films that have Taiwanese characters that aree available in the west. Takashi Miike’s film like Shinjuku Black Triad Society or Dead or Alive have Taiwanese characters or people of Taiwanese descent but these are very extreme depictions. Could you describe the shoot? Did you work with the Taiwanese crew, how different is it working with Taiwanese crew and Japanese crew?
I worked with almost same number of Japanese and Taiwanese crew. Of course it depends on each person, but they were all nice and helpful. I have worked abroad quite a few times, in America and in France. I tend to work with local staff, not taking my own staff. Taiwan is (physically) close to Japan and also characteristically close as well. The Taiwanese staff were interested in Japanese staff and also the way Japanese work. It was really nice that they were interested in us just as much as we were interested in them.
Could you talk about the casting of the film? One of the themes of the film is duality and that applies to some of the cast, like a lot of actors have roots in other countries. Long Mizuma was born in China but lives and works in Japan, Yo Hitoto is from Taiwan but lives in Japan. Did you have them in mind when you read the script or did you go for a casting process?
The main actor, Long Mizuma, was cast from the beginning. He even came along with us for the location hunting. He already presented himself as Yan at the time when this project started. It seemed like it was himself in the story. Since I am an ordinary Japanese and don’t have any background as half-Taiwanese or half-Japanese, I wanted to cast someone who has got that background and they also helped me to understand what it is like or how they feel about being half Taiwanese/Japanese. I appreciated that I could listen to their own feelings and they have actually experienced the same things as depicted in the story. Their own stories were also incorporated into the film. They helped me on the storyline as well.
Takashi Yamanaka is Japanese but he plays Ryushin in the film and he’s a mixed-race person with Japanese and Taiwanese heritage. How did he perform?
Yamanaka-san couldn’t speak Chinese, he hadn’t even been to Taiwan before, so I asked him to learn Chinese intensively before shooting. He probably had a much more tough time than others during the shoot. Acting in the Chinese language for him must have been very hard. However, I thought he looked naturally half Taiwanese/Japanese and his acting made him look like Ryushin. He was practicing his Chinese until the very last moment before shooting and I think he is good at picking up language by ear. The local people also gave him praise.
As you were working with Taiwanese actors, did you use the local casting directors?
I cast Ryushin’s son Youan. I saw several children when I went location hunting and chose the childhood Youan from among the children. I chose other characters by seeing photos or videos, which I had received beforehand. I deliberately chose Taiwanese who have grown up and reside in the location rather than actors. That’s why they looked natural and accustomed to the town.
As a cinematographer, who is your biggest inspiration?
Bong Joon-ho. You know his latest one is Parasite… I like Bon Joon-ho’s films. I like his pictures … his camera blocking.
As a director, who is your biggest inspiration?
Among Japanese directors, I like Kon Ichikawa or Kiyoshi Kurosawa. I like directors whose films I watched when I was a student.
Another question I’d like to ask…Who is your favorite Taiwanese director?
Edward Yang and Ko I-chen.
Thank you very much for making the movie.
Yan was shown at the Osaka Asian Film Festival on March 8 and 11.
My interview was published on VCinema on April 20th.