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.
This interview was done through the translation skills of Takako Pocklington and the film/festival staff who set everything up.
“No idea’s original, there’s nothing new under the sun. It’s never what you do, but how it’s done,” Nas from the album Best of Nas
While every country around the world has its organised crime gangs, few hold the level of mystique and infamy that Japan’s Yakuza does. Their style, codes, hierarchies, history, and their full-body tattoos have long been the subject of books, video games, news articles, and films to the point that they have become part of global popular culture. In Japan, many directors have either worked in the genre of used elements of it in their own films. Consequently, unless a director has a strong story, style, or philosophy, films based on the nefarious activities of Japan’s criminal underworld have a deadening feeling of familiarity. This was not what I felt when watching JOINT.
JOINT tells the story of a guy trying to get clear of the criminal underworld but getting caught up in a gang war. While its story has many plot points familiar from other films, the realistic way it is shot, the details in the narrative and the performances of its cast created an atmosphere that was unlike many other contemporary Japanese crime films and so it felt different. More importantly, the atmosphere was so strong it made the film gripping and I felt that I was taken into a different world, one better reflective of Japanese criminal gangs operating today. It’s pretty remarkable considering that JOINT is the debut feature of director Oudai Kojima.
Born in Kobe in 1994, Oudai Kojima is a director, cinematographer, and editor who makes music videos, commercials, and, now, fiction films. He was raised in New York from the age of 3 to 13. After returning to Japan he studied architecture at the University of Tokyo. His entry into the film world began by studying under filmmaker Tomokazu Yamada for a year and a half before he began production on JOINT, his debut feature. I saw it when it was played at the Osaka Asian Film Festival 2021. He kindly took part in an email interview where he answered questions about his background, the work put in to JOINT to create its realistic atmosphere, and how he got such convincing performances from his cast.
My questions were translated into Japanese by Takako Pocklington while director Kojima answered in both English and Japanese.
The Japanese transcript is first and it is followed by English. Click on a link below to be taken to one or the other.
I wish I were better at writing about acting because every now and then I watch a film where there are astonishing performance that I am spellbound and profoundly moved. In those situations, I want to wax lyrical to do justice to what I have seen. Of course, every other aspect of the film counts, too. When I watched the drama yes,yes,yes I was not quite prepared for the actors who are, raw vulnerable, surprising, realistic, and honest.
Director Akihkro Yano worked with his cast closely and stripped away most movie artifice to get phenomenal performances to convey the emotionally intense situation in his script. The story concerns a family reacting to the news that the matriarch Sayuri (Nahoko Kawasumi) may die. This sets off emotional chain reactions that cause conflict, particularly with teenage son Takeaki (Kazuma Uesugi), before there is eventually, healing. It is a heartfelt story and it felt real. Indeed, it made me cry multiple times and gave a feeling of catharsis as I took in its lesson of learning to appreciate and love those around and thought deeply about people in my own life.
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.
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.
Noriko Yuasa is a director who hails from Okayama, Japan. She graduated from Tokyo Metropolitan University with a BA in Architecture before she entered Kinoshita Production, in 1999, to train as a TV Drama Director. In 2013, she went freelance as a director/producer and, since then, she has worked in both TV drama and film, specializing in project planning, directing and producing.
2015 saw her make her theatrical feature film debut, Udagawacho de matteteyo (Wait in Udagawacho), a romance which was released nationwide. This was followed by a brace of short films which showed growing confidence in her visual storytelling and approach to narrative construction, starting with Looking For My Sunflowers(2014), a story of a salaryman experiencing a shot of nostalgia in his hometown. This was followed by Girl, Wavering(2015), which used contrasting colours and poetic imagery to initiate severe tonal changes in a dramatic story of a high school girl’s life. The next film, Ordinary Everyday(2017), was a psychological horror set in downtown Tokyo that used visual and aural tricks like suddenly swathing the screen in vibrant colours to create an off-kilter atmosphere with ambiguous threats that burst out in a bonkers climax.
Yuasa’s works all feature vibrant use of colors and this factors in with her latest work, Coming Back Sunny, a short film about first love as experienced by a color-blind schoolgirl which pops and fizzes with different colors that are used to emotionally expand the story. Yuasa recently raised funds through Kickstarter to help pay for festival fees to bring the film to more audiences around the world but this campaign came at the start of the Covid-19 crisis which saw film production and exhibition around the world postponed, cancelled or forced to go online. This was something of an unprecedented event for the global film industry and so, this interview, conducted by email, was a chance to talk about the film as well as find out how the crisis has affected Yuasa’s project, and the importance of festivals.
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.
Some cursory research into the career of Hideo Jojo will turn up a whole slew of movies that ranging from pink films to V-Cinema. Jojo got his start in filmmaking by producing 8mm movies while studying at Musashino Art University before he entered the industry as assistant director on pink films. His directorial debut, Married Women Who Want a Taste (2003), won the Bronze Prize and New Director Award at the 2003 Pink Grand Prix. To date, he has written and directed over 100 works and won awards and fans in Japan and internationally. His career is as varied as it gets and recent titles include the screenplay for Neko Zamurai (2014), directing the horror movie Corpse Prison (2017) and even a Gachi-ban movie (2008). With such variety, it stands to reason that he would be able to direct a charming youth drama based on a stage play.
On the Edge of their Seats is based on an award-winning stage play created by a theater group from a high school in Hyogo Prefecture. It takes place during a hot summer’s day at a baseball match between high school teams in a tournament that leads to a final played at Koshien Stadium. Being able to play at Koshien in the final is a big dream for all high school baseball players in Japan and it often comes up in films. However, it’s not so much the drama happening on the field of dreams that is the concern of the film but what is going on with five characters in the stands as they work out some dramas that have occurred in their final year of high school. As they interact, they reveal some of their feelings and help each other learn to look at life more positively. The film is a real charmer built around some lovely characters and brought to life by a charismatic cast who are perfectly guided by Jojo’s sharp direction.
Hideo Jojo participated in an interview at the Osaka Asian Film Festival where the film received its world premiere. The interview was conducted with help from the interpreter Keiko Matsushita while the translation was made with the help of the interpreter Takako Pockington.
The life of twenty-something woman Sakura (rising star Mayuko Fukuda) changes when she quits her office position and takes a job at a nursery. This impulsive decision puts her in the orbit of a girl named Ai whose father, Shindo (Kohei Ikeue), seems to be struggling to raise her without her mother around. Again listening to her inner impulses, Sakura gets involved with the two as she subconsciously works through various feelings related to her own fractured family. Little does she realize that this process will lead to the reconfiguriation of her relationship with her parents.
A minimalist psychological piece,Good-Byeis the third film from director Aya Miyazaki and it received its world premiere in the Indie Forum section of the Osaka Asian Film Festival 2020. One of the youngest directors at the festival, Miyazaki only started making films while studying at Waseda University where she learned under the supervision of Hirokazu Kore-eda and Tamaki Tsuchida. She currently works for a movie company but took time to appear at OAFF to introduce and discuss her latest film.
The interview was conducted with help from the interpreter Keiko Matsushita while the translation was made with the help of the interpreter Takako Pockington.
Yukari Sakamoto is an indie director who started making films while she was studying Philosophy at Sophia University. Her film Obake was part of MOOSIC LAB2014 and won the Best Actress and Musician awards. After that, she studied editing at the Tokyo University of the Arts, Graduate School of Film and Cinema where she majored in film and directed music videos. Since then, she has been the assistant producer on the the major feature Eating Women (2018) and directed part of the omnibus movie 21st Century Girl (2019).
Sakamoto’s latest work For Rei derives some of its details from the director’s background to create a deeply personal picture of a modern young woman navigating complicated feelings. The titular protagonist (An Ogawa) goes to philosophy class and lives with a kind boyfriend, but the trauma of her parent’s divorce has caused an ambivalence towards the people she should be closest to, and herself. This is a feeling that gnaws away at her over the course of the film which is shot in a subjective style to analyze this young woman’s attempts to understand herself.
Sakamoto sat down at the Osaka Asian Film Festival to talk about the making of the film, how she translated her background onto the screen and some of the design choices she made. The interview was conducted with help from the interpreter Keiko Matsushita while the translation was made with the help of the interpreter Takako Pockington.