Japan Cuts 2015 Interview: Kudoh Youki Talks Working With Jim Jarmusch And THIS COUNTRY'S SKY

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Japan Cuts 2015 Interview: Kudoh Youki Talks Working With Jim Jarmusch And THIS COUNTRY'S SKY
From her days as a teenage pop idol, to her unforgettable turn in Jim Jarmusch's landmark, Mystery Train, and being one of the few saving graces in Memoirs of a Geisha, Kudoh Youki has blazed a trail in the international film world while doing remarkable work at home in Japan.

Ms. Kudoh spoke with me about her role as a mother at the height of World War II, worried for the safety and soul of her young daughter, in This Country's Sky, and her own history in cinema.


The Lady Miz Diva:  THIS COUNTRY'S SKY is a remarkable look at life during the last days of World War II.  How did you read Satoko's mother?

Kudoh Youki:
  She is not the typical Japanese mother, that's what I liked about her.  Normally, people would like to describe the character of the Japanese mother as so controlling over their kids.  I've seen it that way in many movies, but this character is different; she's leaving some space for her daughter, trusting her, and also she's living her life, as well.  She's living for her daughter, but she's living her life, too, that's what I liked about this character.  That's why when I read the script - because of the authenticity of Japan through this entire film is very unique - it's not very much like Japanese movies these days.

Nowadays, Japanese movies are not very much like Japanese movies; it's more borderless, somehow.  It could be a Korean film, it could be a Chinese film, it could be an American film; it's not very much like a Japanese film.  But the director, and the producer, and also the cinematographer are of the older generation, they are over 60 years old; so all these people were watching good Japanese films when they were growing up.  It's not like young people.  

Young people have always seen American movies and other countries' movies and also Japanese animation, so it's not like the old days.  I'm not saying the old days are the best, but at the same time, there are so many good films in Japan, like Kurosawa's films, of course, and Ozu's films - there's so many great films in Japan which are very much Japan-like.  It could be anywhere, it should be Japan.  That's the kind of films I'd seen when I was young.  So when I read the script, I felt a similar kind of feeling through this film. So at once I wanted to do this character; I wanted to be part of this whole project, that's why took I this part.

It's interesting to hear you advocate for more "Japan-like" films, when you are one of the very few Japanese actors who has had success in international productions.  Is keeping that feeling of supporting Japan part of your motivation when you take a role?

Yes, it could be.  I've worked on many different movies before and I've always loved American films, I also I love European films, I don't care.  Any kind of movie, if I like it, I don't choose movies because this film was made in Japan, or this movie is made in Europe, or anything like that.  I always make a decision depending on the script.  When I read the script, if I have a feeling for the character, or if I have a feeling for the whole project, I want to be part of it.  It doesn't matter if the character is small, good or bad - I don't care about these things.  

But as a Japanese actress, I've seen so many countries and so many people with a patriot type of spirit and I think that's pretty important for everybody to love family, to love country - it's the same thing, but somehow Japan is not like that; we're always criticizing our own country and we are acting so small and we underestimate ourselves, which I think is not fair for the Japanese people. But we are doing that, so I don't think we can help that, but it makes me feel sad sometimes. 

We have so many good parts of Japan, we have so much good character in Japan; we have a great culture, but we're losing it.  That's why want to protect it.  I can see it, because I spent so many years outside of Japan, so I can see the good part of Japan, now.  A long time ago, I never thought about it; I was one of the Japanese kids who always wants to go to foreign countries, exploring many different kinds of cultures and so many new things; but now that I'm getting older, I can feel what is important to me and what I'm supposed to do, and what I'm supposed to tell people.  So maybe that's why I feel more, but I want to tell people and I want to show the culture and the good part of Japan if I can work as an actress.  That's a little bit of my motivation to be an actress.

Director Arai said he felt that the film was actually helped by its concurrence with the 70th anniversary of the end of World War II.  That in its way, it is an antiwar film in a curious time when Japan is trying to become more warlike.  Did you have a sense of that when you are making the film?

Yes, I did have a sense of that a little bit.  People make the same mistakes again and again, and somehow people don't learn things from the mistakes, which is very much a shame. I don't know how come people like to fight and are still making war.  I don't know why we can't stop that.  I think it's a human nature thing, but I would like to believe we can learn.  And especially my country is a very special country who doesn't have a force - we have a protection army, but not a force - which is I think a nice thing.  

I think we should be proud of that.  Because of the whole World War II experience, we were able to make this whole situation right now happen in Japan.  Switzerland is a neutral country; I would like to keep that stance.  I would like to somehow get involved with a movement of how to create more neutral countries around the world.  War is nothing good; people killing each other, the wrong thing can be justice, which is not right. No one can be saved that way, and it leaves scars in the heart and people hate each other for a long time, and that is war.  So, I would like to find out how we can avoid the complications of war.

Sometimes I feel like we should go back to the days of the Coliseum; the strongest people will fight together in the Coliseum, or something.  It's not like using a gun or anything.  No weapons!  Make it more sportslike.  It's not possible, but it could be nice.  Kids fight, but when kids are hitting each other, they learn you get pain when you get hit.  But with a gun or a bomb, you don't feel that pain.  You just press a button and that's it.  That's why they don't treasure the lives of the people and that's a very, very sad thing.

Please talk about that wonderful scene by the river where the mother tells Satoko that she knows she's headed for an affair with Ichige.  Tell us what you think was going on in the mother's head?

Actually, that was my big question for the director, because of the words she says to her daughter, that I would normally not allow you to go to the man who was married and I would normally not allow you to go to his house by yourself, but right now we were in this situation.  And she didn't have any younger men around her and she wouldn't have any chance to see or find another guy.

Those things are very, very strange things to say, because these are just kind of opinions that she said to her daughter.  So I asked the director, "What is she saying, because it's really not making sense to me."  It's not easy for me to understand, because being from this period, with my idea of being a mother, it's really difficult to think that way, it was two totally different things. 

The director said, "You know what? In that period, we were believing if we lost the war, American people were going to invade Japan and then the men will be neutered, and all the women and girls will be raped. So if we lost the war, maybe her daughter will never experience love with anybody and she could be raped. Never finding her first love and she's going to lose her virginity and not knowing if she's going to be killed". That's how he described the mother's feelings and I completely agreed with it.  It was very smooth after I understood the situation.

Please talk about Nikaido Fumi, who, like you, has worked from quite a young age in the film industry and is gathering an impressive roster of quality work.

First of all, I fell in love with her on the first day, because she's so innocent and she's a very attractive looking young girl.  But at the same time, she's very hungry about being an actress: She's very persistent and she has a determination toward being an actress.  It's not very often to see this kind of young person in Japan, right now, so she's a very special one and that's the fact that I fell in love with.  

Also, she was asking me to speak to her in English during the film shoot.  She wants to learn how to speak English. Of course she's thinking toward a foreign career, so maybe that's important for her, so she asked me on the first day.  So I said to her, "Yes, sure, I can do that because whenever I can help, I would love to help you."  It was kind of an interesting shoot, because we were in the old traditional Japanese-style clothing and we were talking in "enemy language." {Laughs}  We were talking in English all the time.  We still talk to each other in English.

You shot MYSTERY TRAIN in America with director Jim Jarmusch when you were all of 17 years old.  What spurred your initial desire to reach out past Japan with your film career at such a young age?

Well, actually, when I was 14, I was an idol.  Whenever I did a well-known, quality film, I was thought of as a Japanese idol, and at that time, in that era, people expected me to not speak out my opinions, at all.  When I was on TV, I should only say, "Hai, hai, hai. Yes, yes, yes."  They didn't want to see anybody with any knowledge; they like somebody very immature and a little bit foolish.  

Japanese men have a strange idea of a cute girl, who is supposed to be very innocent with no opinions at all.  That means they have power over them - I don't know, maybe the feminists will get after them for that. {Laughs} It was true; I was always expected to always be like a doll with no opinion all, but I was a very strong-willed child.  I had my opinions.  Whenever I had to say something, I was not intimidated to say what I didn't like, or what I liked, or what I think, which was not allowed.

Also, in Japan, once you release your name and you have become popular, you have no chance to do any auditions, at all.  They will choose you.  You must wait until you get a call.  I didn't like the fact that I was on the waiting list and not doing anything.  So I was like a nervous wreck; I cried so much and I wanted to quit my work.  Being an actress was like my big dream after I was scouted on the street, but I wanted to quit so badly my actress work, or my idol work.  

But I couldn't go back to school because they were going to laugh at me, and I still was in junior high school - I couldn't quit school.  I had another couple of years to go.  I became confused and I got to the point where I wanted to kill myself, but one director told me that America is different.  Even if you are the winner of an Academy award, you're still going to do an audition.  That you, the young generation, should live for your career in a foreign country instead of only Japan.  So being an actress in a foreign country became a huge dream.  I got the courage to live because I had a dream, and that was how I started learning English by myself when I was 14.

It was a dream to get the audition from Jim Jarmusch over the phone, because I was not able to get to America to do the audition.  So the producer really was against the fact that Jim wanted to use me for the part, so we had a really, really hard time, but I pushed myself so hard over the phone to Jim, and so I got the part.  It's a good memory though.

Yesterday, I saw Jim Jarmusch and we spent a few hours together in the afternoon.  We had so many things to talk about, because we have a long history together.  But it was very lucky for me to have him in my life and that he was able to give me this greatest opportunity, ever.  Mystery Train is still my favorite film in my life.  I feel like that is my right part.  I never, ever met any kind of part better than the character in Mystery Train, unfortunately.

You have also produced a film {THE WIND CARPET}.  Is that something you want to do more of?  Will you ever direct?  I feel like Japan could use more amazing female filmmakers.

Right, we have to create more talented women filmmakers, because man's perspective of women is different from ours.  Japan is still little bit of an ancient country in that sense; men are controlling society pretty much still, in many ways.  So, I think it's better for us to have more talented women in the future.  A couple of months ago, I got an offer to be a director of one film, and it didn't work out.  But in the future, if there's any chance that I can direct, I would love to direct a film, for sure.

Tell us what you took away from making THIS COUNTRY'S SKY?

This movie is not forcing you to feel something.  It's pretty much giving you space to feel what you think.  There's not a lot of description of the characters very much, and this movie is very unique in that way, because normally, many films insist that you cry.  They're forcing you to cry with the music, with the story; they will force you to go up and down.  

This movie is so quiet, but it's not boring.  The conversation is very interesting and looking at this human drama is interesting enough to enjoy, which is very unique that way.  It's not like a roller coaster type of drama.  But in the end, I felt tears well up in my eyes; I was so moved by the fact that this young girl had never experienced regular love.  This type of young teenager should fall in love with someone her own age, and they would try to go out and have fun together, slowly they get involved and they're going to experience everything normally.  But in this, she was forced to fall in love in this difficult situation.

I felt that I love peace.  That's it.  War is never the answer; so it's leaving a scar on the hearts of the people, and no one is very happy with it, and we're still fighting.  It's very sad. Somehow I wish we could find a way that we can have peace and live together on this small planet, because we are the same creature.  We are not different from each other.  That's how I felt.


This interview is cross-posted on my own site, The Diva Review. Please enjoy additional content, including exclusive photos there.

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