One of the highlights of the Osaka Asian Film Festival 2020 was VIDEOPHOBIA, the latest work of Daisuke Miyazaki. A frequent visitor to Osaka, many of his works are youth-focused, with Yamato (California) (2016) and Tourism (2018) being screened at the festival. His films frequently capture the cultural zeitgeist for young people as young women with smartphones navigate various issues to carve out their own niche in the world. Yet VIDEOPHOBIA comes completely out of left-field as it’s an existential horror movie where technology drives a young woman into a fog of paranoia and fear.
Filmed around the less well-known areas of the city of Osaka and shot in black and white, it is a deeply unsettling experience as we witness melancholy 20-something Ai (Tomona Hirota) have a one-night stand with a stranger only to discover that a highly explicit sex-tape has been made of the encounter. It is a shocking discovery that plunges her into a panic that gets worse the more technology manipulates and alters her perception of herself. Things get so bad that she begins to question her own sanity and identity, realizing that the only way to rectify her situation is through total dissolution of her character. The audience is prompted to think about various social issues as Miyazaki pries apart the cracks in contemporary life and how incessant exposure to technology alters how we perceive ourselves. Full review here.
Miyazaki sat down to discuss the making of the film, the real-world topics that form the basis of the story and how he hopes the audience will engage with it amidst the ironies of our always-connected social media landscape.
Why did you create the film?
One day, I was thinking about what happens to all of the photos and digital data, like video and text, that I’ve been using for expression in my life after I die. I thought about the many possibilities of my data left in this world and I felt that it was a bit of a curse of our digital culture, the internet world. That was the first idea.
In Japan, there were several big news stories about revenge porn and that kind of topic but usually I try to avoid those obvious topics because I don’t want to make my film only about one thing. Usually, I start with a simple topic and spread it wider. This time I thought I should use revenge porn as a digital curse that happens in this world and see where it goes with this device called film which can last forever, like even after we die.
It’s quite insidious how technology is so widespread. We all have smartphones with cameras and we are all encouraged to take pictures and live online.
Yes, I think so. When I was a kid I didn’t like my picture to be taken so much, probably because I didn’t like myself and didn’t want to see myself objectively. I just wanted to keep myself as something that nobody could determine, something flexible and moving all the time. When I was called to take a picture with friends, I tried to avoid it all of the time but recently everyone takes your photos and uploads them everywhere and tags you in them and it happens every day so it seems that everyone has forgotten about that awareness and the scary part of taking each other’s pictures so that’s one theme of the movie.
What did you want the main character, Ai, to represent in the film? Is it a younger generation that take technology for granted and doesn’t necessarily think about the dangers?
Ai represents a typical Japanese female or male. She’s female but men are pretty much the same. They work, go home, use the internet and sleep. That’s a typical lifestyle, not only for Japanese but modern humans. But, for me, a character just telling the story is not enough for modern cinema. I wanted to challenge the boundary of cinema. I wanted her to be an observer of herself and this world. She doesn’t realize her surroundings until she gets into trouble, but I wanted her to be like a mirror of this very strange world. A broken world where most incidents are true and fake at the same time. A post-truth world. There’s no rule or obvious truth in the world she sees in this movie but that’s how I feel about this world right now. Like, Donald Trump tweeting every day about national secrets.
The character is naive, she trusts some guy she met at a club so easily. Should we have sympathy for her?
I think the main thing is that people should look at her as a mirror. They should look at her and think about how they live their own lives. My film is like modern art, it’s very interactive. Instead of sympathizing with the character, I hope audiences think about how they are after watching the movie. A critic I met in the lobby, she said she didn’t know what to say about the movie but she had been thinking about it for a long time. I think that is the way that I want the audience to take the film and understand the character.
Had you worked with the lead actress Tomona Hirota previously?
No. Actually, she appeared in one film that a friend of mine shot in my home town, Yamato. She was the main character and I went to the set as a producer and I really liked her face. It’s a very unique face that reflects a lot and when she didn’t speak, when she was silent in the scene, I liked it more. So, I asked her to appear in my film.
How did you prepare Tomona for the graphic nude scenes?
The first thing, I had to go to her agency and give them the script and I said, “There might be some nude scenes and it might be her first.” In Japanese movies, there is lots of unnecessary nudity. It’s quite stupid and shows what the director’s personality is like. It’s simple porn. I told the agency very honestly about the reason we need nudity in the film and how it is connected to the core idea of the movie. Also, I didn’t want to avoid the scene without showing anything because it will weaken the shock value of her video going around. And her agent and Tomona herself said they totally understood what I was saying and that there would be no problem if there are such artistic reasons. I think she was nervous when we were filming. Everybody was nervous because it’s a nude scene but I think we did it well. I wanted to do it like Cronenberg, like A History of Violence, not totally sexual but something like a machine making love.
And when you get to the moment she discovers herself on the internet, it’s like POW, you feel her shock. But the build-up makes it seem like the threat and exploitation of technology is everywhere and it is a matter of time before she falls into a trap. You take lots of shots of surveillance cameras to build up the atmosphere of technology being all encompassing.
I, myself, am very aware of those cameras everywhere. These last ten years it has increased so much and many people are caught by them. For example, on Halloween night, there were many kids playing around and flipping cars and the police checked all of the surveillance cameras which filmed them coming from the station and on the train and going all the way back to their house and they arrested them because they had all the footage, from Shibuya to their house, which is like three hours away. That’s kind of crazy. Now there is technology that can identify you through your bone structure. Everyone is watched by everyone all the time and that should be a pressure for normal people but somehow, most people think, surveillance cameras are good because it keeps them safe. I feel stressed by cameras every day. I wanted to show that kind of paranoia in the movie so I took many high-angle shots to show the main character’s paranoia about being seen by someone or being laughed at by someone. Maybe even the surveillance camera was laughing at her after watching the leaked video.
Later in the film, the character is transformed and then played by Sumire. How did you meet her?
It’s a funny story but I didn’t actually show that it’s her [Ai] in the film, I wanted to leave open the possibility that Sumire is somebody else, a bit like David Lynch’s Lost Highway. Anyway, I asked Tomona, “Is there someone your size that looks like you that could maybe star in this movie,” and she said, “I don’t know but my room-mate is an actress and she’s as tall as me and maybe she could do the role.” So I contacted her agent and met her. She looks kind of plastic, like a robot, but in a good way, and I asked her to act like that. I thought that she would fit the translated Tomona since they both know their habits and body-language because they have been living together for a long time. Fortunately, she fit.
Sumire’s portrayal of Ai is completely different, really confident with her boyfriend, but the final shot, Sumire is looking directly at the camera and is radiating paranoia.
I don’t say for certain that it is Ai. She probably changed her outside self and nobody knows the original her but she hasn’t changed what is inside. For me, that last hand is the gentle touch of her nice boyfriend but even if her nice boyfriend touches her, she probably has a nervousness from what happened. I didn’t want to make a simple ending. People might think it’s the guy from the club who has come back again or maybe that guy had plastic surgery to become the boyfriend. Maybe AI can be the boyfriend. There are lots of possibilities in that ending. Many possibilities is one of the things of the modern world and it can all be true. That way of thinking can be very nihilistic and violent at some point because in that environment, everyone is correct so we could just concentrate on ourselves and our opinions which is a very sad and isolated thing. I hope the ending is showing something to overcome that nihilism.
You can’t say for certain Ai is being portrayed Sumire. So there is that interpretation that she could be crazy.
She could be crazy. The last girl could be someone who is not connected to Ai at all. There is a lot of space for interpretation and that makes the film interesting and cinematic and modern.
In terms of the theatre scenes where the acting instructor is trying to get people to portray different characters, to lose their original identity and transform. That’s what you are trying to say?
Yes, exactly. That scene is like the metaphor of the whole movie. Everyone says you should be yourself, you should express yourself but no one knows who they really are and that was my kind of challenge with this film, asking the audience, “OK, you are telling everyone to be themselves, but do you know who the hell you are?” (laughter)
Normally, when we try to be ourselves, we use other people’s perspectives and judgments as a basis.
Of course. We live like a mirror among ourselves. Sometimes we forget about it and become one way forcing something to each other.
You had a Henrik Ibsen play, The Ghosts, can you explain how it’s tied into the themes of the film?
This is what I always do with my films. When I think of something and translate it into something, like language, it changes from my original image and if I change it into English, it’s going to change again. So, in every process, everything changes into something else. I think it’s the same with money. Money changes into an item and that item changes into some other item and I thought that Ibsen’s play was talking about that. Those kinds of metaphors where money, trade and language, they shed their qualities, that’s what I felt when I was reading the play. This film is about that, who you are and what is the original you. Aren’t you trading something and aren’t you using many masks when you are living in this world? I think this story is connected to money and capitalism as well.
You’ve shot in Osaka but it’s in less glamorous areas like Nishinari and Tsuruhashi. Can you explain why you did that?
I’ve been to Osaka like, every year, to visit the Osaka Asian Film Festival or while working, and let’s say, the Umeda area or the Nakanoshima area, they are quite modern and we don’t watch it on TV so much because it’s not the traditional Osaka image. Dotonbori is the traditional image but it’s very touristic and while I did shoot in Dotonbori a bit, I shot it from a boat and a few shots on the bridge. I knew there were much older and interesting locations in Osaka that should be exposed in cinema, something not done recently but seen in films by Oshima and Kumashiro, the old great directors of Japan. I wanted to use these areas to show a totally different side of Japan and a totally different side of Osaka and I also wanted to make a kind of homage to Oshima and Kumashiro with this film.
Why did you shoot in black and white?
Osaka is famous for being a colorful and shiny city but, for me, it is quite black and white. Also, it’s the theme that I mentioned. The world is very black and white right now, there is no grey so I wanted to show the exposure latitude of the grey, that there is a lot of grey in the world. That’s why I chose black and white. Also, digital is 0 and 1. That feels kind of like black and white, so how can I show something between 0 and 1. I did some camera test and the water areas of Osaka were the main location. Filming the water in color was not so interesting but in black and white, it was very interesting. It was like filming something very cursed.
The film is topical and it is something people around the world can relate to. What has audience reaction been to it?
It’s interesting because when I screened it to my crew and cast, I would say that 40% of the audience were like, “we didn’t understand but it’s great and we were shocked,” and then there was another 40% who were like, “we didn’t understand and it was shitty.” When I screened in Montreal [at the Festival du Nouveau Cinema], I think 30% of the audience was like, “Oh my God, this is great. I don’t know how to explain it but it’s good.” and the rest were like, “No, we don’t understand it at all.” The first screening at Osaka, I was expecting 80% of people saying nothing because they don’t understand the film and 20% of people thinking, “oh, maybe it’s me in this movie,” and feeling very connected to the film but, after the screening, so many people were tweeting what they thought about the film and the scene that they liked, so somehow the Osaka audience are very sophisticated. They understood well when it came to this film so I’m very lucky was what I felt when I saw the reaction on the social media.
VIDEOPHOBIA was shown at the Osaka Asian Film Festival on March 7 and 10.
My interview was published on V-Cinema on April 07th.