Japan Cuts 2016 Interview: THE ACTOR Director Yokohama Satoko on Walking the Tightrope Between Art and Entertainment
After her surreal exploration of country life, Bare Essence of Life (aka Ultra Miracle Love Story) screened at Japan Cuts in 2010, director Yokohama Satoko visits this year’s festival with The Actor, a triptastic peek into the mind and soul of a bit player. Director Yokohama spoke with me about art, influences, wrangling some of Japan’s most venerable stars to be bit players themselves, and the challenges of funding innovative film.
The Lady Miz Diva: Between BARE ESSENCE OF LIFE and THE ACTOR, you show a gift for non-linear storytelling. Why does the avoidance of a straight line attract you?
Yokohama Satoko: I think my films tend to be a mixture of reality and fantasy. I think oftentimes our dreams or thoughts we have in our head are very much part of our reality. So, when I make that into a film, I think it naturally becomes this mix of fantasy and reality.
LMD: I felt that so many moments in THE ACTOR could have done well in other mediums either as stage plays, such as Kameoka’s audition for the Spanish director, or as animation, like his long bike ride to see Murota again. What was the idea behind having such visual variety? Do you ever question whether the audience will hang in with such changes before their eyes?
YS: So, yes, as you said, after I made the film I did realise that this film is different from a normal film in the way it represents different scenes. I think a lot of the times the audience will wonder, ‘Well, was that scene a dream? It’s quite unrealistic.’ I’ve heard them say that they are not sure what to make of a certain scene.
I think an actor is someone that goes from their everyday life to a very unrealistic world; they are not themselves anymore. They are constantly going back and forth between reality and unreality or fantasy. I think in order to depict that in film, it really needed those very striking, different tonal shifts.
I think that mixture of reality and non-reality is the personality of (the character) Kameoka Takuji, himself, so that’s what I tried to do. I didn’t worry so much about how the audience would react to those shifts.
LMD: THE ACTOR is based on Inui Akito’s novel, but I wonder if in your adaptation of the screenplay, any insights from some of the great actors you have worked with in your career contributed to the depiction of Kameoka’s daily life and his ups and downs?
YS: Actually, the writer of the original novel, Inui, he worked as an actor, himself. A lot of the episodes that he includes in the novel are inspired from his own experiences shooting film and TV dramas. That was the basis of the novel. I think what’s effective in the film is not so much my experience, but Inui-san’s experience. But when I was reading the novel, I knew immediately that this was a world that I knew about, as well, so I readily understood where he was coming from. It really stirred the imagination very easily. It was not a world that I was unfamiliar with. In that sense, it was very fun to adapt.
LMD: Have any actors seen the film and told you that they identified with it?
YS: Yes, I’ve had a lot of actors say that to me because Kameoka Takuji is not a popular star; he plays a lot of bit and supporting roles, and in Japan, there are many, many actors like that, that have only been supporting the film from the sidelines. I think those people really see themselves in the picture.
LMD: Please talk about your Actor, Mr. Yasuda Ken. What made you feel he was the right one to symbolise the life of an actor?
YS: Mr. Yasuda actually comes from a theater and stage background. When I went to see his stage play, he was playing a very comedic role and he was playing a role almost in the image of Chaplin. I was very struck by his ability to show through not emotional, but physical means. I think this role of Kameoka, he’s not a very emotional person; he’s someone that expresses through the body, just by standing there. So I thought that given Mr. Yasuda’s physical ability, that it would make a very interesting role.
LMD: THE ACTOR features many respected actors throughout the cast. How were you able to say “cut” and judge how much time to feature each one?
YS: Yes, from Yamazaki Tsutomu to Mita Yoshiko, they are veteran actors of Japan, so it was very hard for me to say “cut.” Their performances were so good, so you’re right, it was very difficult because I wanted to show them for as long as possible.
LMD: It’s an impressive calibre of many stars that take such small, supporting roles throughout the film. How did you approach them about adding to the atmosphere?
YS: I actually approached a lot of these actors saying, “I’m so sorry, it’s actually a small part that I’m asking you to do.” So, for example, I actually asked the great veteran actress, Mita Yoshiko, to join by writing her a letter to tell her that it was going to be a small part.
However, by having these great and established actors to play the small roles, I actually felt that it was giving the film a stronger backbone that way. I also think it gave the film a new way to be appreciated, because by having these great actors do these supporting roles, I hope the audience would actually find it interesting to see that these great actors are playing these small roles on the side.
LMD: This is your third feature film. What is your approach to working with the veteran cast members who have made movies for decades? Were they open to your direction as you saw it, or more collaborative?
YS: Working with veteran actors, I found that they actually had more of a hungry, fighter spirit than other actors that I’ve worked with. I felt that they don’t settle for anything, and they are much more adventurous in their work. For me, a lot of my work was trying to keep up with how adventurous and experimental they were. I felt they were much more aggressive, and in that way, I actually learned a lot by working with them.
LMD: In BARE ESSENCE OF LIFE, you used Matsuyama Kenichi’s real accent and the townspeople of the location you shot in. Is there inspiration using found resources in your films?
YS: I’m from Aomori Prefecture, where the film took place. So, I think the countryside is very much part of my personality, because it’s definitely not Tokyo. So, naturally, what flows out of me is the local colors of the countryside. It’s not so much that I have a certain appeal for it, or that I’m pulled by the countryside, it’s just something that has always been inside of me.
I came to Tokyo from a very rural place, but by moving to Tokyo, I gained a very objective perspective that allows me to really contemplate what the countryside means to me and explore that through my films.
LMD: In many films, we see the plot of the person from the small town finding a new life in the big city. In both THE ACTOR and BARE ESSENCE OF LIFE, your characters move from the big city of Tokyo to smaller towns to find new lives. Is that a purposeful reversal?
YS: Yes, you’re right, in a lot of my films, my characters return back to the countryside. In Japan, we call it the U-turn back into the countryside from the city. But perhaps that is a reflection of the closeness that I feel to my countryside where I’m from. But also, in this film, The Actor, in Japan, a lot of the times the actors are always going from place to place and doing location shoots, and so on, in that sense this film is very much a road trip movie.
LMD: This is the first film that wasn’t from your original story. You adapted the screenplay from Akito Inui’s novel. Can you compare the process of adapting a film from someone else’s source as opposed to your own?
YS: In terms of kind of a difference in working with an original scenario and then working with adaptations, one thing is when I’m working with my own adaptations, I get much more emotional. It’s much more personal to me and therefore I have these exact images of how I want things to be. As opposed to if I’m working with another person’s work, then I can actually think about it as the image-worthy things, and think about how best to adapt it into a film and kind of feel little bit more removed from it. In that sense, I felt a difference by working in those two worlds.
LMD: I can’t think of THE ACTOR without thinking of avant-garde theatre or surrealist art. Did surrealist art have any influence on this film?
YS: Rather than straightforward realism, I definitely prefer something that’s slightly off kilter. I find pleasure in trying to seek how to change the reality that I see into a work of fiction. I find a lot of pleasure in rebuilding my reality in a work of fiction.
Therefore, I am kind of leaning toward a fantasy or surrealist state. So, I guess when you categorise, I think I probably do lean toward what is more surrealist work, but in terms of artworks that I generally tend to like are works that show and express to me how they see the world in their own eyes and how they represent the reality that they see.
LMD: What would you like audiences to take away from THE ACTOR?
YS: I really want them to feel free as they watch the movie. I really don’t want to tie down the audience or make them feel uncomfortable by telling them what to take away or think. When I made this movie, I was very free and I did when I wanted to do. So, I am very curious to know what they will find out of it, but again, I don’t want to tell them anything about what they should feel, and I also feel like that’s not something I can even do. So, overall, I just really want them to be as free as possible.
LMD: What is coming up next for you, Director Yokohama?
YS: I’m actually currently thinking about the next story, where the main character is a female, who is about the same age as I am, who is a translator. I’m thinking about how she has to kind of grapple with working against style.
I actually haven’t even written out the script, yet; it’s still in the idea stage. I’m really hoping that I can write the scenario this year and hopefully have it shot next year, but the Japanese film industry is always kind of in flux, so I never know if it is actually a possibility, but the goal is to really try and shoot it next year.
LMD: When you make films that are as diverse and unusual as yours, what is it like for you to try to acquire funding, and then to bring in actors of the calibre that we see in THE ACTOR? I’m curious about your being an unconventional director in a conventional industry.
YS: Sure, there are some rigid rules within the Japanese film industry, but I guess I do really feel that actors and producers alike, as well as myself, are always seeking interesting things and interesting projects, and so I do make these estimations of what will help to gather funding. However, at the end of the day, we are always looking for something interesting; therefore it is kind of a tightrope walk to do filmmaking.
To realise that there are these rules, yet we are still trying to do these interesting things, and that
kind of thing can actually be fun. If I can make a movie that does this perfect balance of doing what I really want while still figuring out the rules, I think the film itself can be a much happier entity, and that is something that I really find joy in. Even if there are tough things that happen, as long as I am walking the tightrope, I can have fun.