Takeshi Kushida’s feature debut Woman of the Photographs garnered great word of mouth at the Osaka Asian Film Festival 2020. Taken with Daisuke Miyazaki’s Videophobia, it was one of two films at the festival to tackle the idea of technology and social media connectivity and how they distort our view of ourselves. While the former trod a distinct techno-horror path that won it fans, Woman of the Photographs earned buzz with its kinder, almost comedic love story between two characters stuck in the past.
When misogynistic middle-aged photographer Kai (theatre actor Hideki Nagai) meets a former ballet dancer turned social media star named Kyoko (played by the dancer/actress Itsuki Otaki), a strange relationship develops as he leaves his cloistered life and gets sucked into retouching her images after she gets a particularly nasty scar. This forms the basis of a battle Kyoko engages in as she wrestles with whether to show her true self to the world or maintain a fake idealised image. Scars of the body and mind are literally and metaphorically poked and prodded for icky effect to create a story pertinent to our age, how our truth is eroded for fiction, but a seemingly unlikely love promises to snap the two out of their restrictive ways of thinking and save them.
Imaginative visual and aural design helps to create an atmospheric story. Takeshi Kushida took the time to talk his assured debut at the festival.
I’d like to get some background about why you wanted to be a director and also your time in Britain.
I used to play football and when watching a match on TV, there were slow-motion replays and I was attracted to that. That was my first interest in moving images. When I was a high school student, there were a lot of good British films coming to Japan, like Trainspotting, The Full Monty and Lock, Stock and Two Smoking Barrels and so at that time British films were more fascinating for me than American ones so I decided to go to Britain. I entered Kent Institute of Art & Design. It turned out to be quite arty. I was not expected to do experimental works but it was really arty and I saw things I had never seen before. The first time I saw experimental films by Tony Hill and John Smith I almost regretted coming, but, at the same time, there was something irresistible about watching them so I started making experimental films, no-language films and dance films, mostly. That’s how I started making films.
Where did the idea for this film come from?
The first idea came 15 years ago. I came back to Japan after graduating and I entered a TV commercial company and I was an assistant director for an orange juice commercial. There was a Japanese actress in the commercial. Do you know offline and online editing? The director did offline editing and we sent the offline movie to the actress’s talent agency. In the commercial, she has a bottle and she’s smiling but in the image we got back there were a lot of red marks showing us how to edit the image, how to erase wrinkles and remove the bags from under her eyes. I was surprised. I didn’t know about that kind of technology but the online editor erased the wrinkles and changed almost everything about her face. The actress really liked it, even though it’s not her face at all. At that time, I wondered why the actress was happy about that because the modified image didn’t look like her at all, but she liked it. She has an idea of herself in her mind even though it isn’t her so she doesn’t mind her real appearance. Nowadays, a lot of girls change their face on Instagram. The same thing happens like back then. They are more fascinated in the modified image and not the real image. I thought, now is the time to make a movie with this theme because it’s very common, many people do it, not just actors and actresses.
Time is another thing that I was thinking about. An Instagram image remains on Instagram for maybe 10 or 20 years, so if a user gets older and sees a picture of herself, maybe that picture becomes the real her because she feels she only exists in the photo.
There are many themes in the story, an obsession with an ideal image and a need to maintain routines. It’s a very atmospheric world. How difficult was it writing the script?
It sort of came about after I worked with the actor Hideki Nagai on my short Voice. He was so good so I wanted to make a feature film with him about an old man and young lady. It’s a clichéd story but I thought he would perform really well. In Voice, he doesn’t speak at all. In Woman of the Photographs, he has one line. So, I first decided on the character – a man who doesn’t speak and a woman approaches him and the man resists her, at first, but they finally love each other. Of course, it’s a story about an ideal silhouette and the real silhouette. There’s another hidden theme in the film that this is time. He was born in the photograph store 50 years ago and he’s still living in it.
The photo studio set is like a time-capsule.
It looks like time has stopped for him and for her. She is obsessed with an image from her past, from maybe two or three years ago. Then there is the character played by Inomata-san, he lost his daughter 25 years ago and his time has stopped as well. Koinuma-san’s character, she’s wants to be younger in the photo. She is following her younger image. They are all not living in the present. The story is how they return to living in the present.
I was interested in the main character. He is described as a misogynist in some of the text I’ve read. Why did you create that character trait?
I was not good at talking with girls when I was in junior high school (laughter). Maybe, from 12 years old to 20 years old, maybe I spoke a couple of times with girls. (laughter) That’s my trauma. When I make a movie, I make a male character who doesn’t speak to girls. It’s quite simple.
Why did you choose your lead actors?
Hideki Nagai is in SEINENDAN [a theatre troupe], they are led by Hirata Oriza. Have you seen his way of directing?
I’ve only seen his name mentioned in articles.
It’s like he’s directing dancing. His direction is mostly always about the timing: “give a space for half a second,” “give a space for a second.” So Nagai is used to giving perfect timing for acting. Otaki-san, of course, she was a dancer and she has strong eyes so she can express with her eyes. He can express with his timing, she can express her feelings with her eyes, so that’s the combination.
How did the actors react to the script?
Nagai-san said, “I’m the leading actor but I don’t have to remember many lines so I’m happy.” (laughter) When I explained the script for the first time, I gave them technical notes like, “90 minutes, color, target audience: men, age: 35 or over 35” (laughter) because I am 37 years-old. Sometimes, I don’t have a movie I want to watch in a cinema. There are usually pop idol films so I thought I have to make a movie for myself. However, Otaki-san thought it doesn’t have to be a film for males, the film could appeal to a younger female audience.
It’s very topical and easy for everyone to engage with because social media and editing tools are so ubiquitous. It also helps that the chemistry was good between the actors. Actually, I want to talk about the image of Kyoko in the tree, when they first meet, was really good. It’s a bit like a meet-cute. How did you come up with it?
I wanted to do this film a little like a comedy. It’s funny that we hear her voice but she’s so small on the screen. I thought it was humorous.
You have carefully controlled imagery and editing.
I storyboarded everything. I always want the audience to watch the center of the image. The sweet spot. (Kushida begins drawing images of how he frames a scene) I always put important things there. If two people are talking, I don’t shoot like that, I move the camera to keep the talking character in the center of the frame so the audience will concentrate on the film.
Certain special effects were used.
Whenever I used the special cuts and effects, it was to express how we are leaving reality. I wanted to make it clear the difference between illusions and reality. The special effects are an entrance to another world. Some of the techniques I learned from Satoshi Kon films.
Like Paprika. He is a master of transition. And Slaughterhouse Five. I was very influenced by those films. The one good thing about using special effects is the audience can think about what is going on. We can wake up the audience’s sixth sense so that’s a good thing.
In terms of sound, it is heightened. Why did you make that choice?
Some sounds are heightened. What I decided to do in this movie is to emphasize the space around the sound. If there is no sound in the movie, it can emphasize the acting. There is one sequence where she [Kyoko] asks if he can stay at his place. It is a shot of the two of them. She looks at him. He looks at her. There is no sound for three or four seconds. The next scene, the woman is already in the room and ready to sleep. There is a space of only four seconds and it can express that he is annoyed. In this film, he is often annoyed. By heightening sounds, I can give him space. There is another practical reason. I had to shoot this film in ten days so I couldn’t wait if there was a helicopter flying overhead and ambulances passing by (laughter) so it was very helpful for me to make the sound afterwards. We didn’t care about the sound while we were shooting.
So ambient sound isn’t used so much and there’s a lot of ADR. How about the praying mantis, was that the actual sound of it eating?
Not at all. (laughter) It’s impossible to capture such a small sound. It was the crew. We went to a 7-Eleven and bought onigiri and sandwiches and we ate them in front of the camera and maybe we had 8 or 10 layers of sound which we combined to make the sound of the mantis eating. We used that sound 4 or 5 time.
Yoshihiro Nishimura, the splatter director, was involved in this project. How did he join the film?
I’m a big fan of him and I was quite lucky that Nishimura-san’s wife is the teacher of my stylist, Masae Sakurai. She was my contact to him.
Oh, so Sakurai was her apprentice?
What was it like working with him?
He is a genius. I gave him a script and then he gave me four or five prosthetic scars for the character. (Kushida starts drawing images of the scars) – flesh, scratch, open, gross and so on. We selected the most suitable one.
It’s like Cronenberg body-horror.
Yes! When I met him for the first time, he asked me what sort of scar I would like – Cronenberg or Lars Von Trier! (laughter)
Very specific! Because you used the heightened sound effects, it was reeeally bbbrrrrr. Gross. (laughter). Despite the body-horror, the film is very topical since we all use or wee are all familiar photos and image manipulation so it should do well with a wide audience.
Woman of the Photographs was shown at the Osaka Asian Film Festival on March 9 and 12.
This interview was first published on VCinema on April 30th