Japan Cuts 2017 Interview: Director Miyazaki Daisuke on YAMATO (CALIFORNIA)'s Political and Musical Inspirations and Implications

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Japan Cuts 2017 Interview: Director Miyazaki Daisuke on YAMATO (CALIFORNIA)'s Political and Musical Inspirations and Implications
For his second feature film, Miyazaki Daisuke decided to turn his camera to his home town.  Setting a young rapper’s search for her own voice through the incessant roar of a neighboring US military base, Director Miyazaki and I chatted about Yamato (California)’s political and musical inspirations and implications.
 
The Lady Miz Diva:  Speaking with your star, Ms. Kan Hanae, she revealed that through this film, she felt more able to express her feelings when rapping.  Is that why we’re seeing an aspiring rapper as the focus of your story?
 
Daisuke Miyazaki:  I don’t know.  I think Hanae is always expressing herself. {Laughs} She expresses herself so much, but for me, rap was something that…  I’m usually very quiet and I don’t talk so much.  I don’t meet so many people.  But I started rapping as killing time in my room, and I would sometimes rap with my friends for fun; I think that also helped in the making of my character and expressing myself, as well.  Maybe that was kind of reflected inside of the movie, but the theme of the movie is how she starts to express herself to others.  Basically, she kind of gets stage fright when she sings in front of other people, but in the end, maybe her rap isn’t getting much better, but she finally gets self-confidence to sing in front of the audience.  That was the theme of the movie, so maybe that is related to what she said.
 
LMD:  There is an older rapper that Sakura looks up to and she sneaks into a club to see.  Was that an artist that you know, personally?
 
MD:  He is a very, very famous rapper in Japan.  I’d say like top three, at least.  His name is Norikio, and he is from around my hometown, which is called the Sagami area.  I really wanted to do something with him, but since I respect him too much, and I think it was too much to do maybe a drama with him; as a start, I wanted him to star as a musician in my movie, maybe as himself.  He is such a famous rapper, and a great and talented rapper, so I was kind of nervous filming him.
 
LMD:  I presume he took care of his own music?  What about the freestylers we see in the street, and of course I want to know who wrote Sakura’s amazing rap?
 
MD:  {Laughs} So, for the live scene, of course, Norikio sang his song, which I asked him to sing, because his debut album was like the origin of that story.  I read it and I was moved so much because no one knows about our city; it’s close to Tokyo, but no one knows about it.  And all the album was about that, how he grew up and how he was kind of a neighbor with the militaries and stuff.  So that was a very far influence to the film, I think, which I heard like 10 years ago.  In the record, he actually sings out, “Yamato,” and I was so touched that I even emailed him, “Oh, I never heard anyone singing about Yamato in music, so I was really touched.”  So, that song is the best song in the album that I like, so I asked him to sing that song.  
 
And for the freestyle of the opening scene, most of the guys prepared their songs for the scene, but coincidentally it worked out pretty well.  I did ask them to sing this kind of a song, or this kind of a song, and she will come out and say something.  So there were some fixed rhymes inside, but they made their lyrics by themselves and brought it there.  I think it’s kind of interesting, because it is very different for each rapper.  
 
And with Sakura, I did have a lyric that I wanted her to sing, but as you know, Hanae expresses herself very much, so on the set, she was saying, “I don’t want to sing this.”  That happens all the time.  She says, “It’s not because I don’t want to sing, I think this character won’t sing this,” is what she says.  And also she had something that she herself wanted to sing as a half-Korean and Japanese, and also she’s a struggling actress at the same time, so she herself had things that she wanted to sing.  
 
So, I told her that she could write and she could sing whatever she wanted, as long as it’s not too far from what I wanted to say.  Pretty much I would say, “That’s too much, Hanae.  Please don’t use that word because it’s gonna spoil the whole movie later.”
 
LMD:  You mentioned being inspired by Norikio’s debut album, so what really was more the genesis of this film, the influence of that album, or wanting to show your home town to the public?
 
MD:  So, as you can see, my home town is very boring.  Everyone goes to 7-Eleven or the mall every day.  It’s quite boring.  So, when I started filmmaking, I didn’t have any idea of doing anything in my city, since it was too boring.  But as an artist, you always want to do something in your home town.  So, my friend came to my house, and I was saying, “I want to do something in my home town, but it’s so boring.  What do you think?”  During that conversation, this noise of the airplane came, and he said, “What is this?”  And I told him, “Oh, there’s a base right there.  We’ve been suffering, but we got used to it.  I don’t care about so much, but thank you for reminding me,” is what I said.  From that experience, I thought maybe this sound might be something very critical for the city?  
 
Also, the relations between the US and Japan is becoming different from what it used to be 20 years ago.  There’s lots of discussion going on about that, so I thought maybe I could do something showing the relationship, but not too obviously.  I wanted to focus on the drama, but there’s this background of US and Japan – that is the balance that I saw.  
 
Also, it’s been 10 years since I heard that album, and I’ve been into hip-hop, pretty much.  I do listen to any kind of music, but hip-hop was my top choice for those 10 years.  So, I want to do something related to hip-hop and with my home town, and that turned out to be this movie.
 
LMD:  Why did you choose to make your protagonist female?  
 
MD:  As you might know, Japan is a very mannish, macho society, it is said to be.  So, women are very quiet and they obey all the time.  It’s probably an image, but it’s the same.  In the past 20 years, the relationship between men and women is changing very much; the women are super strong, so, it’s sort of interesting to see how they act and what they are thinking, because in the social system, men are still very controlling of society.  Relation wise, or society wise, I feel like women’s powers are much bigger in Japan than in any time in history.  
 
So, instead of using like an Eminem kind of gangster rapper, I thought it would be quite interesting if I used a woman, which is pretty much is strong and starting to get control in Japan.  In the movie, it would be very new.  
 
LMD:  When we first meet Sakura, she is a ball of anger, but I was curious about her anger because she’s a bit older than a teenager, so it can’t really be chalked up to teenage angst or raging hormones.  Where is her anger coming from and what guidance did you give Ms. Kan to keep Sakura from becoming this one dimensional angry person?
 
MD:  This anger is kind of difficult to understand by many people, I think.  But as I said, fundamentally, there is nothing to do in our town, it’s quite boring; everything is 7-Eleven and the mall.  We ate the same thing out of the convenience store every day.  It’s quite difficult to realise whether we are human beings or animals like that.
 
So, with that kind of a thing, some people get very quiet- become like an animal - but a person like me, I got very pressured and I got very angry about that same thing going on.  That is what I wanted to describe in the film.  Even Hanae said she doesn’t totally understand why she is so angry?  But that is the scene of the city I’ve been living in.  In my city, last year there was a big massacre at a disabled facility; that is just a neighboring city from Yamato.  
 
It makes you question, ‘What do I mean?‘ ‘What’s the value of me?’ ‘Why am I repeating this every day and there’s no change?’  We can go to Tokyo, but it doesn’t change anything.  Depression is everywhere in my town, in my area, and that’s one thing I wanted to describe besides any hormone things.  I’m not sure if I was totally able to describe it, but, the shrine, inside the mall, everywhere you go, it’s the same scenery and flat; that made me very depressed when I was quite young.
 
It’s fine, because nothing changes every day, so if you want to hang out with your friends, it goes on forever, so it’s okay.  But it felt very awkward and strange for me at some point when I realised how much we are controlled and everyone is wearing the same thing.  There’s a lot of people wearing the same T-shirt in the same small city, and that’s not right, is what I thought.  Fortunately, I had a chance to go to foreign countries, and then I saw the same thing; there’s a mall and people wearing the same T-shirt, and I thought, ‘This is okay, but this is kind of depressing for me and what is my originality,’ is what I thought.  My emotions probably turned into this character.
 
LMD:  What does the character Rei represent?
 
MD:  Rei is based on my experience with my American friend, who loves Japanese culture so much.  His family loves Japanese culture so much that they go to karate school, and ate sushi all the time – that kind of a family.  So, when he came to Japan, he was quite surprised by how different it is from what he imagined.  He was staying at my house for a while, but as I said, he was super bored with the mall and the 7-Eleven.  So, he also got rage in like one week.
 
He was very nice, he is still my good friend, but I asked him, “What do you seriously think about Japan?”  So he started to say, “We are taught in school that you guys are a copy of the US.”  And that was a very big event for me; I actually didn’t think that a Japan lover like him would actually think that way, so there becomes a gap between the image of the Japanese from Americans, and the real Japan, and that gap had been a really big topic of my life for a while.  The image of Japan versus the real Japan, and how can I make the gap smaller between the imaginary Japan and the real Japan using {my} art form was my struggle all the time.  So, I think the character represents that question.
 
LMD:  I’d read some reviews of Yamato (California), where the writers embrace the film as being this brash, bold, anti-US, "Yankee Go Home" statement, but I didn’t quite see it that way.  What would you like to say the actual meaning of the film is?  
 
MD:  I mean, it’s easy to make it like that.  It’s much easier to advertise with that kind of catch.  The "Yankee Go Home" movie is easy to say, but if you really see the movie, there’s nothing so anti-US, or anti-Japanese.  I mean, it’s anti to both of them, but what I wanted to say was, of course I do love some parts of the US; like culturally, I love everything.  There are some points that I don’t like, for example, the contract with Japan, which is still affecting our country, I think is totally unfair.  But that is that, and this is this.  The same with the Japanese government: I do love Japanese culture, and there are good some histories, but there are some that histories and bad things that they’ve done, too.  
 
So, what I tried to do was combine both of them, instead of anti-anti-everything – because I think the world is too much anti-everything - I hate this guy, or I hate this guy, and there’s fighting all the time, and there’s no positive result coming up.  
 
So, instead, this is good, but this is bad, and why don’t we use the good parts and make a positive thing, is what I thought.  Instead of showing an obvious political opinion in my movie, I thought my movie would be a chance for people to discuss about what’s going on, ‘That character thought like that, or this character thought like that, but what do I think?’  Is there another way of thinking, is what I tried to show.
 
LMD:  As you say, this is your home town, and you are framing it and showing it to the world.  In the process of doing so, did you see anything differently?
 
MD:  Yes, totally differently, because as I said - I’ve been saying it several times - that it is quite boring - there is nothing, so it was quite a big thing to turn nothing into a cinematic landscape.  During the shooting, I think that this boring landscape turned into something interesting, at some point.  So, at the end of the shooting, we had a meeting – like all the crew and all the cast – and I told Hanae, “Thank you for changing my super boring city into a movie.”  And I hardly cry, and I don’t get emotional, usually, but somehow, I was about to cry because I really thought she turned this stupid, boring landscape into something that looks like a movie.
 
LMD:  In preparing for this interview, I read that you had worked with some great directors like Kurosawa Kiyoshi and Leos Carax, please tell us what you learned from those experiences?
 
MD:  Most of the directors with whom I worked and who I’ve been influenced by, don’t yell on set, or directly do something with the actors.  Basically, they are kind of away from the set.  So, they are kind of like the God on the set.  And they kind of control the weather and the atmosphere.  So, I kind of thought, ‘Oh, so they were meant to be directors, probably, so they don’t have to do so much.’  When the weather is a little bit bad, or when the AC is too cold, maybe they control it a little bit. {Laughs} 
 
But the interesting thing is, how they prepare for the film; they are like a sports team coach.  They are very good at like encouraging and making the crew and the cast passionate before the shooting, so on the set they don’t have so many things they actually have to do.  
 
So, that’s what I stole from them, I think.  So some of the actors at the shooting said, “Director, you actually have to direct us on the set.”  I said, “If I didn’t direct, how would it turned out to be such a weird movie?”  {Laughs}
 
LMD:  Reading a little bit about your upcoming project, I feel like we got maybe a couple of clues in this film; Rei has an Okinawan mother and the subject of the US base… Am I warm here?
 
MD:  Yes, I’m trying to work on a four hour project called The South End, which is in Okinawa.  Okinawa is a small island, but it has lots of islands that go toward Taiwan and China.  Each of those islands were independent countries before, so they speak different languages, and their cultures are very different.  So I am trying to do instead of a road movie, I’m trying to an island movie.  
 
Also, I will do something with the mainland, with the base, because if it is someone who is not totally connected to Okinawa and the Okinawa base, and made something that is anti-base: as I said, it is the anti- anti-, which doesn’t make anything.  But since I do have the experience of living beside the base, maybe I have something to connect with them, is what I thought.  
 
I was kind of afraid, but I showed Yamato (California) to Okinawan directors, and they said, “Oh this is very real and I like it very much.”  And they said, “Maybe you could understand our pain,” and I said, “Yeah, we do have the same pain,” and maybe I could do something out of that?
 
This interview is cross-posted on my own site, The Diva Review. Please enjoy additional content, including exclusive photos there.
 
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hip-hopJapan Cuts 2017Kan HanaeMiyazaki DaisukerapYamato (California)

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