An Interview with Satoko Yokohama, Director of “Ito” [Osaka Asian Film Festival 2021]

While getting a World Premiere in the Competition section of Osaka Asian Film Festival 2021 would be a sign of quality for director Satoko Yokohama and her film Ito, her work ended up taking two high-profile accolades at the event as judges awarded it the Grand Prix (Best Picture Award) and viewers selected it for the Audience Award. These wins are richly deserved as Ito laces a youth film and a heartfelt tribute to all-things Aomori around a charming central performance from rising actress Ren Komai (駒井蓮).

In the film, Komai plays Ito Soma, a high school girl who lives with her father (Etsushi Toyokawa – 豊川悦司) and maternal grandmother (Yoko Nishikawa – 西川洋子) in a small town just outside Hirosaki city, Aomori. Ito embodies various aspects of the local culture, from having a thick Tsugaru accent to an innate skill in playing the Tsugaru shamisen, an ability inherited from her late mother.  Alas, Ito refuses to practice and stays silent due to her embarrassment over her country roots and also her melancholy over never having known her mother. What puts the girl on the path of self-acceptance and self-expression is an unlikely job at a maid café where she meets a coterie of kind people who offer encouragement and get her to embrace her cultural and family heritage on her own terms. You can read my review here

The film is based on a novel by Osamu Koshigaya and while its Japanese title “Itomichi” was shortened to “Ito” for the international version, the story still communicates all of the charms of Aomori. It is the latest project from Satoko Yokohama (横浜聡子), a graduate of the Film School of Tokyo who independently produced her first feature German + Rain (2007) which won the Directors Guild of Japan Newcomer Award. Next came Bare Essence of Life (2009) and The Actor (2015) which have both been screened at international festivals. Both she and lead actress Ren Komai hail from Aomori Prefecture, the setting of the film and audiences will be able to detect their knowledge and closeness really brought out deep details and atmosphere.

Director Yokohama kindly took part in an interview where she talked about adapting the novel, working with Ren Komai to get a moving portrayal of the main character plus an impressive shamisen performance, and what it means to be a filmmaker from Aomori and returning there to shoot a film. 

Satoko Yokohama at Osaka Asian Film Festival 2021 Satoko Yokohama at Osaka Asian Film Festival 2021

This interview was done through the translation skills of Takako Pocklington and the film/festival staff who set everything up.

The Japanese transcript is first and it is followed by English. Click on a link below to be taken to one or the other.

Japanese English

Itomichi Film Poster 2

Japanese

この映画を作ってくださってありがとうございます。青森という土地について知ることができたように思いますし、また、いとという人物の醸し出すものによって物語が生き生きとしてきて、最後の方の場面では涙が出てきました。

この作品は監督の約5年ぶりの長編映画となりますね。銀幕への復帰作品として、この作品を選ばれたのはどうしてですか?

青春ものは今まで作ったことがなかったし、今後オリジナルでシナリオを書くとしてもおそらく若い少女が主役の成長物語を自分が描くことはないだろうと思います。少女、青春、三味線、メイドカフェという、自分のテリトリー外の要素がたくさんのこの原作がとても新鮮に思えました。映画の作り手は常にいくつかの企画を抱えているものですが、今作はプロデューサーの地道な努力により、撮影までの道のり、要するにお金の集め方、それが他の企画より具体的に示されていました。

確か原作者の越谷オサムさんは東京出身ですね。青森の文化についての、越谷さんの解釈を監督はどう捉えられました?

越谷さんの描く青森は、都会にはない田舎の素晴らしさと同時に、昔のような勢いを失いつつあるリアルな地方都市の様相どちらも描かれていて、青森出身の私も大変共感できるものであり、青森を緻密に観察した上で描かれた小説であることがすぐわかりました。現在の青森のポジティプさとネガティさが共存しつつ、その中で青森の伝統芸能である津軽三味線や県民が愛する岩木山が律と存在していて、まるで青森という土地を窓から覗かせてもらってるような、そんな感覚でした。

小説を脚色することについて少し伺っていいですか? 原作のどういう部分を取り上げたのか、また、青森の文化に焦点を当てるために何を変えたのかなど。

原作にはたくさんのモチーフありましたが、映画で全て描くのは難しいので、主人公の気持ちの流れ、道筋を作るためにどんなエピソードが必要かを取捨選択していきました。主人公が彼女なりのやり方で世界と交わろうと努力する姿を描くことが何よりも一番大事なのではと思いました。そのために、「彼女の知らなかった世界」として青森空襲という、原作にはない歴史的事実を取り入れました。

撮影の期間はどれくらいでしたか? 撮影ために、故郷青森に帰られて、どんな風に感じましたか?地元での撮影は楽でしたか?

3週間弱です。青森で映画を撮るのは短編も入れると四回目です。毎回地元の方に多大な協力をいただいていて、正直頭が上がりません。いつも思うのは本当に人が温かいということです。撮影中には両親が差し入れを持っていつも来てくれますが嬉しく照れくさいです。安心すると同時にやりづらさがいつもあります。

映画の主人公いとを演じた駒井蓮さん、彼女は青森出身ですよね。彼女をキャスティングされた理由として多分それが大きいと思うのですが、そのこと以外に彼女を起用したのは何故ですか?

駒井さんは原作の主人公とは性格も見た目も異なりますが、根気強く努力家で負けず嫌いある点は原作と通じていました。彼女自身、俳優としてもまだまだ伸びしろがあります。

頭で考えて作り込んだような堅苦しい芝居でなく、持ち前の純朴さと素直さで芝居をどんどん進化させることができることが、彼女の一番の魅力でした。

主人公いとは津軽弁を話します。一外国人として鑑賞して、津軽弁がいかに理解しがたい方言であるかというのが、あの字幕からよくわかりました。監督なら、津軽弁をどう説明されますか?また(他の地方の)日本人は津軽弁をどのように認識してると思われますか?

文明の発展とともに、異質なものは排除され全てを標準化していく作業が当たり前のように行われますが、日本で使われている多様な言語は歴史の痕跡でもあるので、残していくべき大事なものだと思います。青森生まれの私にとっては津軽弁よりも標準語の方が異質なものでもあります。津軽弁が他からどう思われているに関してはあまり関心がありません。

駒井蓮さんは津軽の方言やアクセントをどうやって身につけられたのですか?練習して覚えられたのですか、それとも元々津軽弁に馴染みがあったのでしょうか?

彼女は津軽出身であり津軽弁はネイティブ言語なのでそこは苦労しませんでした。

Itomichi Film Ren Komai Playing a Shamisen

映画の最後に、物語のクライマックスでもある4分間の三味線の演奏があります。駒井蓮さんはあのシーンをワンテイクでOKを出されたのですか、それとも何テイクか撮られたのでしょうか?

演奏シーンは様々なカメラポジションを一台のカメラで撮影していますので、一発OKというわけではないですが、彼女が三味線と一体化していたので、NGはほぼありませんでした。彼女の演奏の集中力が素晴らしかっただけに、何回も繰り返しているとテンションが落ちてしまうと感じ、なるべく少ない回数で撮り切るために、こちらも撮影技術的な失敗はないようにいつも以上に気を使ったと思います。

豊川悦司さんは、この役で、穏やかで優しいムードを醸し出してられます。怒っている時でさえ、こちらがまあいいかあって思えるような、そんな雰囲気があります。それと、彼のキャラクターも彼の娘と同じくらい外れてるというか、何か妙ですよね。豊川悦司さんをキャスティングされたのはどうしてですか?

歳を重ねても何にも縛られていないような、豊川さんが醸し出す自由な雰囲気がとても好きでした。豊川さんなら、娘と近すぎず離れすぎず絶妙な距離感を持った父親を演じてくださるだろうと思っていました。原作では津軽弁を話す父親ですが、豊川さんに決まってから、東京生まれで津軽弁は話せないという設定にしました。生まれも話す言葉も異なる親子の異質さが、この映画の魅力の一つになるのではと感じたからです。

いとのお祖母さんを演じた西川洋子さんは、確か津軽三味線の名手だと。西川さんをキャスティングした経緯を聞かせて貰えますか?

三味線演奏に長けていて津軽弁を話せる、かつ映画の登場人物としての風格を兼ね備えている人となると西川さんしかいませんでした。お芝居はほぼ初めてでしたがシナリオを深く読み込んでいて指摘も鋭くアイディアも豊富で、豊かな人間味にいつも魅了されていました。撮影中もごく自然にアドリブのセリフを足されてて驚きました。

津軽にとって、津軽三味線がどれほど大切なものなのかを説明していただけますか?

この映画で初めて津軽三味線というものを勉強したので私も決して詳しくありません。ただなぜか津軽三味線の音を聞くとほっとするのですが、無意識的に青森に生きる人の細胞に刻み込まれている音なのかもしれません。津軽弁と同じく、守り残していくべきものだと思います。守る努力をしないといずれ消えてしまうものかもしれません。

宇野祥平さんも登場されてますね。監督の作品で、宇野さんを見るのはこれで三回目になります。宇野さんを起用されるのはどうしてですか?

何百本もの映画に出演している俳優ですが、小慣れた芝居ではなく、いつでも初めて映画に出る新人のように初々しさを持って演技をしてくれるからです。初々しさの中にも、こちらの想像を超える芝居を見せてくれる奇跡的な瞬間が面白いです。

英語タイトルにする際、原題「いとみち」を短くし、なぜ「いと」としたのですか?

簡潔なインパクト。

監督にとって青森とは?

血肉。

Itomichi Film Ren Komai and Yoko Nishikawa


English

Thank you for making the film. I felt like it taught me a lot about Aomori and the spirit of Ito really made it come alive in a unique way and the final sequences made me shed tears.

This is your first solo feature film as a director in nearly five years. Could you explain the reason why you chose this film for your return to the cinema?

I have never made a film about youth. I wouldn’t write a coming-of-age story about a young girl even if I have the chance to write an original script in the future. I found the original novel very inspiring. The story contains many elements, such as a young girl, youth, Shamisen and maid café, which were out of my territory.

Filmmakers generally have several projects in their hands. A producer I work with had made great efforts to initiate this project. He proposed the planning with details, from financing to shooting the film (mainly the means for getting financial backing). His proposal was much more concrete than other projects.

I believe that the original novelist, Osamu Koshigaya, is from Tokyo. How did you find his interpretation of Aomori culture?

Koshigaya-san illustrated Aomori as a place that has a certain rustic charm you wouldn’t find in capital cities but also a place that has lost some of its vigour, a feeling that you might find in a provincial city. As a person from Aomori, I could empathise with his portrayal of the place. I could tell that he wrote the novel by closely observing Aomori. The story portrays both the positive and negative side of present-day Aomori. It includes the traditional art of Tsugaru Shamisen and Mt Iwaki, which is loved by the residents. It made me feel as if I was looking at Aomori through a window.

Could you explain a little about adapting the novel? What did you use or change to highlight the culture of Aomori?

There are many motifs in the original story, but it is hard to depict all of them. I looked through and filtered the episodes whilst considering how I could illustrate the flow of the main character’s feelings and their journey. I thought what I needed to do was to focus on the main character, who was making a great effort to interact with people around her in her own way. Therefore, I inserted the episode of the Aomori Air Raid as “the world she didn’t know”. It was a historical event that wasn’t in the original story.

How long was the shooting period and what was it like returning to Aomori to shoot? Was it easy to work there?

It took a bit less than three weeks. It was the fourth time for me to shoot in Aomori including short films. I can’t thank the local people enough who helped me every time I shoot there. Whenever I go back, I realised how genuinely kind they are. My parents always come to see me and bring some snacks for us. It is nice to see them, but I feel a bit embarrassed. Whilst I feel at home, I also find it hard to concentrate on working.

Ren Komai, the film’s lead character Ito, is from Aomori Prefecture. That must have been a good reason to cast her. What else made you select her?

Komai-san is quite different from the character in the original story, both in personality and appearance. However, some of her traits such as patience, a hard-working attitude and her determination are similar to the main character in the original story. As an actor, she has a lot of potential to grow. She didn’t overthink her acting, she managed to evolve her performance through her genuineness and honesty. That appealed to me.

Ito, the main character, speaks with a Tsugaru dialect. As a foreigner, I found the subtitles conveyed that it is a dialect that is sometimes incomprehensible. How would you describe it and how do Japanese people find to it?

The development of a civilization often leads to cultural standardization, eliminating heterogeneity. However, a wide range of dialects used in Japan contain traces of our history and should be preserved. Standard Japanese sounds rather peculiar compared to Tsugaru dialect for me, a person who was born in Aomori. I am not particularly interested in how other Japanese perceive the Tsugaru dialect.

How did Ren Komai pick up the dialect and accent? Did she have to learn it or was she familiar with it?

She is from Tsugaru and a native Tsugaru speaker, so there was no problem on the matter.

The film features a four-minute shamisen performance at the end. Did Ren Komai perform that in one take or was it done in multiple takes?

We shot the performance scene with one camera from several angles, so it was not one take. Despite this, she made hardly any mistakes and she played shamisen as if she merged with the instrument. Her concentration on the performance was brilliant. I was concerned that she would lose impetus if I kept repeating it, so I tried to shoot the scene with as few takes as possible. I also paid careful attention to try and not make any technical failures.

Itomichi Film Etsushi Toyokawa and Ren Komai

Etsushi Toyokawa has a gentle energy in this role. Even when he is angry, you feel that it will be alright. And his character is almost as quirky as his daughter. Why did you cast him?

I liked the laid-back vibe of Toyokawa-san. Even though he is getting older, he seems to remain free and unbound. I thought he would be great for the role of a father who keeps a comfortable distance (neither too close nor too distant) with his daughter. The father in the original story spoke with a Tsugaru dialect. However, after Toyokawa-san got the role, I changed the background to the father being from Tokyo and unable to use the dialect. I thought it would be another charm of the film to illustrate the uniqueness of the father and daughter whose birthplaces and dialect are different.

I believe that Yoko Nishikawa, the actress who plays Ito’s grandmother, is a prominent shamisen musician. Could you explain more about casting her?

I couldn’t think of anyone else but Nishikawa-san for the role, since she plays shamisen expertly, speaks Tsugaru dialect and also possesses a personality similar to the character in the film. Although this was almost her first acting role, she showed a deep understanding of the script and gave me lots of meaningful advice. I was fascinated by her fertile humanity. She also surprised me with her spontaneous ad-libs.

Could you explain the importance of the shamisen in Tsugaru?

I was not so familiar with Tsugaru shamisen, so this film was my first time learning about it. I don’t know why but I feel relieved whenever I listen to the sound. I suppose it might be because that the sound of Tsugaru Shamisen is subconsciously imprinted in the bodies those who were born and live in Aomori. I think we should preserve it as well as the Tsugaru dialect. I anticipate that it might disappear if we don’t make efforts to protect it.

You also have Shohei Uno appearing in your film. I have seen him in three of your works so far. Why do you cast him?

He is a highly-experienced actor who has appeared in hundreds of films but, despite this, he always acts as if he is a newcomer shooting a film the first time. His performances are always much more inspirational than I expect. I enjoy that kind of miracle moment he creates when he shows something beyond our expectation.

Why was the Japanese title Itomichi shortened to Ito for the international title?

Succinct impact

What does Aomori mean to you?

Flesh and blood

Ito will be released in cinemas across Japan on June 25th.

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