Interview with “Reiko and the Dolphin” Director Shinji Imaoka at the Osaka Asian Film Festival 2020

At the Osaka Asian Film Festival 2020 were two veteran pink film directors: Hideo Jojo and Shinji Imaoka. Both had brought dramas far away from what many might have expected of them. The former, a bit of a journeyman director, had made a teen-centric movie centered on baseball and a cast of characters looking to the future while the latter delivered a heartfelt drama about the passage of time.

Reiko and the Dolphin is a film that speaks of the aching loss of a loved-one. Adapted from a scenario Imaoka wrote just after the 1995 Great Hanshin-Awaji Earthquake, it’s Japanese title is even more poignant and direct to the subject-matter: Is Reiko There? The story involves an ordinary couple, Ichiko (Aki Takeda) and her writer husband Tasuke (Hidetoshi Kawaya), who lose their daughter in the earthquake. We track their lives over 25 years as the two experience ups and downs, life and death. Thoroughly normal experiences that run the range from gently amusing to harrowing. Reiko’s presence haunts them but Imaoka handles this downbeat subject matter with grace and a philosophical air.

Shinji Imaoka kindly sat down to talk about the genesis of the movie and how it was made just before the 25th anniversary of the earthquake. This interview was conducted with interpretation from Keiko Matsushita and Takako Pocklington.

Where did the idea come from?

I became a director in 1995. I had been an assistant director for pink films and then became a director in 1995. At that time, it was kind of a trend among pink films to contain actual events and my seniors such as Director Takahisa Zeze and Hisayasu Sato also adapted real events into their films. There was the earthquake that occurred in the same year as I became a director, then I wanted to use it as a theme of a film. That was my initial motive.

You are famous for pink films but this film is dramatic. Why did you choose to making it in a dramatic style?

After the earthquake disaster in 1995, I wrote a scenario and released it to a pink movie company at that time. However, my proposal wasn’t accepted because the company president said that he doesn’t’ like films with a storyline with a child’s death. And over twenty years later, I was offered backing by someone who would sponsor me to make a film on whatever subject I wanted to do. Then, I dug up my old project and rewrote the script for an independent film not for pink film, that’s why I shot this as an independent film.

So this originally started as a pink film, then became a drama.

I had originally written it as a story in the aftermath of the earthquake, but now twenty years after that, I had the idea to depict time from the view point of a married couple who had experienced the earthquake. Like, “What have they been doing for these twenty years?”

Very impressive. You covered so much time. It felt like the actors aged over the film. Was that the only intention, to cover 25 years of their lives?

Yes, but the budget was very little, it was impossible to create production design of the past and the present or take twenty-five years to shoot with the same actors so I tried to shoot in places where things haven’t changed since before the earthquake and have remained as it is. I took a whole year to shoot it in different seasons which would convey the flow of time. I shot it whilst thinking about how to portray time.

Do you think that coming up to the twenty-fifth anniversary since the disaster, was it easier to get the film made?

Well… I thought about what it would mean to depict time. I thought it wouldn’t be like simply using effects by production design. It has also been twenty-five years since I became a director. There are lots of changes in my life as well—like I got married and had children. I didn’t have any intention to make some kind of anniversary film for the disaster. It doesn’t need to be a big historic event. I just wanted to portray the lives of ordinary people who weren’t spotlighted in the history, who just keep getting on with their life after the disaster.

Repetition happens a lot…like Ichiko always marries a writer. It felt like the characters were stuck in a circle. And the dolphins just swam around the circles.

I didn’t even think about it. I did it unconsciously.

What would you describe the theme of the movie as?

I don’t have any strong theme in this film. However, when losing a good friend or someone precious, I would be at loss what to do for the rest of my life. People often say, “Try to forget about her/him and get back on track” but I think that would be wrong. I want to keep remembering her/him forever. The important thing is to keep going with your life without forgetting your loved one.

I felt like, at the end of the film, the characters, the parents Tasuke and Ichiko could finally move on from losing Reiko but only after lots of repetition. There is a different character, Hiroshi, who remains unchanged and seemingly unaffected by events. What is his meaning in the film?

When you depict a long track of time like twenty-five years, you will show how everything has changed, but I thought it would be nice if there is someone who would never change. He is not exactly a fairy but I thought that it would be a great relief for us to have a presence like him. This person has existed since the universe was created and will exist forever. I wish we could have someone like him, it would be fine even having him just passing by. Actually, by the way, he is a friend of mine, I asked him to be in the film.

One of the fun characters. Again it fits in with the idea of repetition.

Wow, you are very observant.

How different is this from pink films you shoot.

Pink films are commercial films. You should shoot a film within a time-frame and in a certain place, and it is very limited so it was challenge for me to express what I like under these limited conditions. On the contrary, I was able to do whatever I want and take plenty time to shoot it this time. Those are the differences of my stance on shooting between this film and pink films. Funny enough, but I found it rather difficult to shoot this, I didn’t know where to start it.

I read a 2014 Japan Times interview for The Woman of Shinjuku. You described the difficulty of working in the Pink film industry. How would you describe the industry now?

It is getting scaled back. There is not much demand for the work, so everyone works on it whilst doing other jobs. It is a pity because pink films are a unique genre, a bit different from adult videos. The industry is declining.

So you are going to move more into dramas?

I am not bothered. Film making keeps changing. I used to shoot films with 35 mm film but now I do it with digital. Like independent films, you could make interesting things with any kind of medium. You could even shoot by iPhone. I would be willing to do whatever if I found something interesting.

Like with the film Tangerine

And also I like women and like shooting their naked bodies.

There is at least one scene like that in this film. How did you go about casting the film?

I myself live in Tokyo, so I thought it would be very difficult to shoot in Kansai for a year. I thought it would be tricky to take actors or staff from Tokyo to Kansai with me so I decided to cast people who live in the Kanasai area. I put some adverts on the internet and in local notice boards and had a public audition.

Why did you cast the actors for Ichiko and Tasuke?

I auditioned. I met about seven people and had a chat with them and chose those actors. I felt as if they approached me rather than I chose them. I felt like those roles fit them.

You know what I mean? Let me see…when you enter a shop and choose something, you may have a feeling that some items would appeal themselves to you to buy, as if saying “Please pick me”.

Just judging by their energy. What would you hope audiences to take away from the film?

Maybe you will experience ups and downs in your life, but to be alive is a great thing. To live is fun. We all die some time, everyone will die some time and your everyday life won’t always be smooth and fun. Even though I feel like that I still want to speak out loud and say that life is fun. I would like audiences to spend their life with the feeling that it is great just to be alive. The time you watch the film is a great time but also the time you are able to watch it is a great time.

Like the characters, you carry on.

Reiko and the Dolphin was shown at the Osaka Asian Film Festival on March 6.

This interview was published at VCinema on April 14th

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