Ryushi Lindsay (website) is an Anglo-Japanese filmmaker working in both Japan and the UK. He currently has two very different films on the festival circuit, the experimental documentary Kokutai (2019) and the drama Idol (2020). The former’s examination of baseball is delivered with a more expressionistic quality created by the rigorous use of formalist aspects of film while the latter is more naturalistic with carries a critique of social conditions in Japan as well as the idol industry. It is clear that underlying it all is a keen awareness of the world which is refreshing to see and engaging to view. Lindsay took the time to answer questions via email about his background, his inspirations as a filmmaker, his motivation for making Kokutai, and the many ideas and collaborations that went into making Idol.
Jason: My first question is which film was the catalyst that made you embark on a career in film?
Ryushi Lindsay: It’s hard to say, really. This is a version of a story that’s been told by so many filmmakers, but growing up, I loved all the tokusatsu stuff and would rope my family into being in little movies I made. My dad has always been disappointed by how much I enjoy Star Wars; as a kid, THAT, was what I wanted to make. I’m actually a sucker for cinematic spectacle, on a very base, emotional level. In a way, my film Kokutai is a confrontation with my own
I wouldn’t say there was one film, when I was a little older, that made me sit up and think, yes, I’m going to make films too. I’m fortunate to be very middle class and to have grown up around artists and filmmakers so it never felt impossible to find success in this industry. It all evolved very organically but I encountered New German Cinema as a student and that definitely played a big role in me considering how and why I made films; Straub-Huillet and Alexander Kluge are inspirations to me, as, of course, is Fassbinder. Adachi Masao’s AKA Serial Killer was my gateway drug to making documentaries in Japan – I was fortunate to go to a 35mm screening in Ebisu a couple years ago, which Adachi did a Q&A at. He advised filmmakers to just get on with it and shoot without worrying about permits, which was something I had been concerned about doing in Japan. That film introduced me to the Japanese New Wave, and gave me lots to think about.
The first project of yours that I was aware of was one where you were involved as a producer, Make-Believers. I must admit that I haven’t seen it but it came across as a pleasant musical with dramatic elements with all its dance routines. It seems to be a world away from your own output which is political, explicitly so in your debut, Kokutai, to your sophomore work, Idol, which is a drama.
Why the interest in politics?
We live in a world of profound inequality. How can one not be political?
Kokutai is a ten-minute expressionistic documentary that presents the pomp and ceremony seen in Japanese high school baseball tournaments in such a way as to make parallels with fascist events of the past. The imagery drawn from the games are shown via a back and white sheen and in slow motion. This manipulation serves to heighten the sense of historical echoes, a sense reinforced by the music which is reminiscent of modern classical music from the turbulent era of the early 20th century. It is a convincing parallel. As a viewer, I felt a tension, even dread, develop as the documentary played out. This feeling is proof that the film worked.
What gave you the idea to make Kokutai?
As I mentioned, I really love the New German Cinema, which, as a student, got me thinking about filmic reckonings with a fascist past. Of course, Germany and Japan have a shared history there.
Kokutai started as a rip-off of (or perhaps an intertext with) Alexander Kluge’s Brutalität in Stein, a film that examines the Nuremberg Party Rally Grounds. I was initially thinking about the Diet building in Tokyo; I used to work around the corner from it, and it sort of haunted me on my commute every morning. There is some scholarly debate about whether early-Showa/WWII Japan was fascist or not, but, for me, a large component of fascism is the aesthetics, which Japan certainly ticked the box for, and continues to do so. I’m particularly uncomfortable with the epic monumentalism of the Diet Building, and wanted to explore that on screen.
I started considering other emblems of fascism in contemporary Japanese culture and remembered doing a lot of marching and standing in formation when I spent time in Japanese schools (my parents wanted me to have at least a taste of Japanese education so I spent a couple weeks in elementary school when I was 7 and 10). I think with the Olympics coming up, that naturally led to Koshien, which was always such a staple of childhood holidays spent in Japan.
I shot some footage of the Diet Building but could never get it to work how I wanted it to, so scrapped that and focused on baseball.
When at a sporting event, when you are caught in the moment with the colours and the sounds, it might be easy to miss the parallels between the pomp and ceremony around a game and fascist events of the past but the film does a good job of finding those parallels and is filled with what feel like visual references to militarism.
Why did you pick up on it?
I find it so easy to draw a parallel between Koshien and the 1936 Olympics, or at least the aesthetics of Riefenstahl’s Olympia, as I obviously didn’t witness Berlin 1936 firsthand. Koshien is this erotic death orgy; we watch young men at the peak of their fitness sacrificing themselves for their school, and there’s this idea of training until they vomit, bleed, or pass out. Many carry lifelong injuries as a result of the gruelling practice and long games. And it’s a national spectacle: it’s on NHK, my grandmother watches it, they play the finals on public screens. Twice a year, the nation’s attention turns to this massive sporting event and the heroes are immortalised in public memory.
It’s this idea of spectacle that I find so easy to link to fascism, influenced by Susan Sontag’s essay, ‘Fascinating Fascism’.
What was your approach to the creation of the film? Did you shoot a lot of footage and shape something out of it or was there a lot of preplanning involved?
I had ideas of what I wanted to shoot, having watched a lot on TV as a kid and doing subsequent research. I had a basic list of the areas I wanted to film, but no explicit structure in mind. I shot and edited myself, and it was a process of finding the film in post. I was really uncertain whether it worked, until we put the score to it, and everything came together cohesively. Andy’s score carries the film and helps move the film from glorification to more critical engagement with spectator sports.
Idol is Ryushi’s latest film and it is a 20-minute drama closer to social realism. The story concerns a single mother named Miyabi (Ryoka Neya) and her young daughter Kasumi (Miyu Sasaki from Shoplifters), who is a member of an idol group. When Kasumi is dropped from the group, her mother takes drastic action to get her back in the line up lest they face financial ruin. It recently played as part of the Short Shorts & Film Festival Asia and features different shades of criticism of idol culture and Japanese society.
Idol looks quite different again. It’s your first drama. What was the inspiration for the film?
For Idol, I read an article about the child idol industry, and the power imbalance between the looked-at idols and the looking-at audience really struck me. I had been watching a lot of short films and realised I needed a strong story beat for the story to revolve around, which is where the kidnapping came from. It recently occurred to me that, as a child, I had an almost paralysing fear of being kidnapped, so I think that’s the origin of that idea.
Did you feel any trepidation embarking upon a drama?
I had made fiction films with friends as a teen, and as a student, so in some ways I had more narrative than documentary experience. Certainly, I was a little nervous to direct in Japanese; even though I’m fluent in everyday situations I still don’t know all the industry jargon. The industry politics are a little different here too, so it was about navigating all of that.
I recommended this film to a friend who went on to watch it at the Short Shorts Film Festival and she said it is a clear example of Kishotenketsu. Would you agree? How did you come up with the story and what did you do in terms of research for the world of idols?
I’m glad to hear you recommended the film to a friend. I wasn’t writing towards kishotenketsu but I’m happy some Japanese-ness comes through unconsciously. I read some yonkoma manga like Sazae-san and Kobo-chan at some point so it’s perfectly possible I absorbed that storytelling structure. I do think short films lend themselves to that style.
It’s a very anti-idol film because it lacks the glamour in locations, effects, and the camera placement and distancing from characters etc. The jump into colours is obviously a huge difference. You use very specific colour palettes, with pinks and purples for the performance, darker and sickly colours for the more disturbing scenes, and a warm peachy colour for the more intimate ones.
What was your inspiration and was there a lot of pre-planning/storyboarding involved?
Our cinematographer, Matt De Sousa, and I did a fair bit of research and planning in preproduction. We wanted very specific colour schemes and lighting to construct a sort of heightened reality; people who know Japan will recognise, for example, the green-tinged light in Rie’s apartment.
I always wanted to frame a little wider and avoid closeups, trying to be less scopophilic and less commercial, and also to let the viewer’s eye rove. I wanted to distort the image slightly as well, to create a sense of unease and, again, disrupt the beautification of our cast, so I did a lot of research into lenses. We looked at the cinematography of Wong Kar-Wai’s Fallen Angels a fair bit, and though I couldn’t find the 6.5mm lens they shot that film on, I did find a set of hand-made Cineovision lenses in a rental house here that had the perfect imperfection. We landed on shooting the entire film on an 18mm, which also let us be a bit more Wellesian in our blocking. We went in with a very specific plan, and thanks to a really great crew, were able to execute that plan as intended.
Ryoka Neya is the centre of the film. She gives a fantastic performance as the mother. How did you discover her and what qualities made you cast her?
We shot the film in late 2018, and by then, Neya was already a star in the indie scene. I was introduced to her by our casting director, and both her look and her previous work meant I knew she was perfect for the role.
Her character’s behaviour takes a shocking turn that works for a dramatic film. However, when talking about the role with Ryoka Neya, were there any concerns about the audience’s suspension of disbelief?
I never really had any concerns about suspension of disbelief. People do irrational things on-screen and real life all the time and I believed the audience would follow along. In developing the character, I really let her take the lead, and while we did some rehearsal to get everyone comfortable, I think it’s important that the role come organically from the actor.
Akira Takanohashi was also another standout in the film. I liked his verbal combat with Miyabi, especially, the line, “How about getting a job?” just before slamming the door in her face. That like was very cutting. How did you find him and why cast him?
We auditioned a lot of people for that part, and he was really the standout. He embodied the character physically; he has brilliant presence on screen, and nailed the perfect level of nastiness. In real life, he’s the loveliest guy – he even brought snacks for everyone on set.
You have two child actresses in the film, Miyu Sasaki and Sawa Takahashi, and they both give very sympathetic performances. Why cast them and what was it like to work with child actors?
Of course, Miyu Sasaki is best known for playing Yuri in Shoplifters. She’s an incredible actor, and when our casting director mentioned her, she was the obvious choice. We must have auditioned about ten actors for Ami, and Sawa Takahashi was the right amount of innocent and mature for the part. Both were amazing to work with, contrary to W. C. Fields’ adage.
What was your process for working with the actors? Did you do lots of rehearsals and create backstories or did you allow the cast freedom to act?
As usual, we didn’t have the budget for extensive rehearsals, but we did have some time with almost all the cast. Rehearsal was about building character relationships, and building comfort and familiarity between our adult and younger cast. I have a theory that actors generally have a better idea about what they’re doing than the director; usually the director is the least experienced person on set by virtue of (generally) working on at most one film a year. I wanted the performances to be natural and to come from the actors, so I was receptive to their ideas. That doesn’t mean I didn’t direct the cast at all; it was a collaborative process.
Watching the film, I was impressed with the setting and mise en scene, and I read an implicit criticism of society with regards to poverty and single mothers as well as a critique of idol culture. Forgive the glib comment but, it’s reminiscent of Shoplifters. Are you inspired by Kore-eda or maybe Ken Loach?
While I wrote Idol before I saw Shoplifters, it is a wonderful film and the comparisons are understandable (and flattering), especially considering our cast. I love Kore-eda’s films and I wish I had his optimism and ability to find and create beauty in tragic settings.
Filmmakers like Ken Loach and Andrea Arnold are definitely more conscious inspirations for me. Now that I think about it, there’s a kidnapping in Fish Tank, isn’t there. The more I reflect on my work, the clearer the influences become. Having grown up in the UK, filmmakers like Loach and Arnold loom so large over our film culture, in a positive way, and I admire and revere their work so much. I hope one day to be half the filmmaker they are.
Having made a drama and a documentary as a director, what do you see the strengths of each format?
I can only really answer this from a very personal and pragmatic perspective. With Kokutai, that was for the most part just me and a camera, so the film cost very little to make. I find it liberating to make documentary because there’s more room for experimentation and lower stakes; failure is less scary because there are fewer people for me to let down!
On Idol we were fortunate to have an amazing executive producer, who put up the budget and gave us complete freedom to do what we wanted. This allowed me to bring on a brilliant cast and crew, with whom I could collaborate, with whom I could discuss how to make the film, who brought fresh ideas and approaches to the table. It’s this ability to work with so many people that I think is the true strength of narrative.
Making Idol, I truly discovered what a difference having money makes. This is, in fact, the weakness of fiction filmmaking – one needs access to so many resources. Even the “we made this film for no money” story we hear so often is myth. If, for example, you’re not paying your cast and crew, they are effectively putting up the budget by donating their time and their previous financial/temporal investment into their own skills and investment.
We’ve been hearing for a good decade now that technology has democratised filmmaking – this is barely the case. You still need a cast and crew and locations. You still need skill, which is a time and money investment. You still need knowledge, which is a time and money investment. You need access to all the above, which the average person is not likely to encounter on the street. Filmmaking is not accessible, and it really needs to be. We (speaking from a British-Japanese perspective) need more accessible funding from start to finish. Make education and experimentation possible for people who currently can’t afford not to work. Fund their films. Investing in the arts results in tangible and intangible cultural and economic benefits, and we need more of it.
You have two films on the festival circuit right now. Do you have any more ideas for films?
I’m hoping to make Idol into a feature film. I do think we maximised the plot of the short, though, and it has evolved very naturally into a fairly different script, though the themes and essence remain the same.
I’m also starting preliminary work on a short documentary about the Daigo Fukuyu Maru incident, which I hope to shoot this year or next.
I have other projects in various stages of development, and what I do next is rather dictated by covid at the moment.
I would like to thank Ryushi Lindsay for taking the time to answer these questions.
You can see Kokutai online as part of the Spain Moving Images Festival 2020 (available globally, I believe)