Japan Cuts 2018 Interview: Actor/Filmmaker Saitoh Takumi on Life on Both Sides of the Camera With BLANK 13 and RAMEN SHOP

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Japan Cuts 2018 Interview: Actor/Filmmaker Saitoh Takumi on Life on Both Sides of the Camera With BLANK 13 and RAMEN SHOP
Beginning his career as a model at age 15, Saitoh Takumi has made his mark as an actor, singer, photographer, radio host, and blog writer. 
 
Because he wasn’t busy enough, Saitoh graced the Japan Cuts film festival with a triple threat; two films in which he starred; Ramen Shop, and Last Winter, We Parted, and his first directorial feature, Blank 13.  Saitoh spoke with LMD about his experiences on both sides of the camera.
 
The Lady Miz Diva:  After watching RAMEN SHOP, I guess the first thing I want to ask is, how is your cooking?
 
Saitoh Takumi:  My parents own a restaurant, so I did a lot of cooking, already.  This time, for the first time when I was training before shooting, I was trying to make a lot of ramen soup in my house, but there was too much smell.  That was not fun.
 
LMD:  How did you become attached to RAMEN SHOP?
 
ST:  Eric Khoo is a special director.  I liked his movie, Tatsumi, and his other films.  His films have never been shown in Japan, only Tatsumi.  But, I understood his wanting to show Singapore to the world, and he made a lot of strong creations.  I respect him.
 
He was looking for a Japanese actor.  Of course, I wanted to try to audition.  So, we did a Skype audition maybe two years ago; that was our first contact.
 
LMD:  So, this had been in planning for a long time.  What was it about the character of Masato that made you want to pursue it?
 
ST:  Masato is like myself.  His mother is Singaporean, and his father is Japanese, but he doesn’t know Singapore culture, or history.  His father dies, and he follows his parents’ memories to Singapore.
 
For myself, this was my first time going to Singapore with this shoot.  I felt everything in Singapore, the food, the people, and the culture; like a documentary.  My parents are Japanese, but I really felt emotional about Masato.
 
LMD:  As you mentioned, this was your first time visiting Singapore, so I’m curious what was it like for you to film in this new location, and interact with the international cast?
 
ST:  They were so great.  The actor who played my uncle, Mark Lee, he is a comedian, and a singer, and a director.  He was always joking, and he always had an open heart.  I really like him.  We did a lot of talking like a real uncle and nephew.  
 
A lot of the scenes were ad-libbed, which is a specialty of Mark Lee.  A lot of scenes between us were not in the script.  He spoke in new words to me, and I had to capture his words, his sentences, so I had a fresh reaction.  Eric Khoo didn’t do screen tests between us, so everything was very natural, but really scary. {Laughs}  Mark gave a lot of new situations to the script.
 
LMD:  So, this occasion where you had to ad-lib, or improvise, was that new for you?
 
ST:  Yes, it was.  As an actor, there is a feeling of restraint, or constraint, when you work with a script, and to work with a structure, in that way.  And Eric, as well as myself – I also did this with my own work – we’re both trying to capture a lived-in time, and to capture these real moments.  Of course, it is not so much the challenge, but I actually think this approach is the correct way of approaching.  So, I spent as much time as I can to live as Masato, so whenever I needed to start acting, I could react this way.
 
LMD:  You can feel a lot of warmth between the cast members.  How much time did you spend offscreen building the bonds that we see onscreen?
 
ST:  Actually, that feeling of warmth was there to begin with.  Maybe that speaks to Eric Khoo’s character, or person, himself.  One thing I did notice, that is perhaps different from Japan; in Singapore – and I also found this in Korea – food is actually seen as a very important place; a place of communication, a place for bonding.  And so, breakfast and lunch, I was often asked, “Takumi, have you eaten?  Have you eaten?”  That was a very important place in order to create these bonds; and through food, we did establish a lot of friendships through conversation.  
 
I’m not sure whether it’s a calculated thing, or maybe that is something that is true of these countries and the way people live there, but I definitely felt that the more I hung out with them, the more food I ate with them, I liked the cast and staff more and more, and they became like family to me, and I feel like that is shown in the film.
 
LMD:  In RAMEN SHOP, the reason why Masato, who is half-Japanese, is not accepted by his grandmother is due to lingering hostilities some Singaporeans have regarding the Japanese occupation during World War II.  There is an important scene where Masato goes through a war museum, and hears eyewitness accounts of the Japanese atrocities.  
 
Doing that scene could be considered quite controversial for a Japanese actor.  Did you have any hesitation about those moments, and how they might play to the Japanese public?
 
ST:  The Japanese people, they don’t know the history -- and me, too.  I read the script, and I was surprised.  It was too shocking.  Older Singaporeans, from that time, they knew the history.  They knew that, but we don’t know.  A lot of Japanese go to Singapore for sightseeing: Everybody takes photos for Instagram, and they’ll eat something, and go back to Japan.  They don’t know the history, and I was the same.
 
In Singapore, the first scene was in the museum.  Of course, I understood in the script, but when I heard that one woman talking about what happened to a baby, I didn’t…  The voiceover was from a documentary about this story, but I didn’t know about it before shooting.  That was a real reaction, my real reaction.  I was so surprised, and so sad.  Yet, they are so nice in their relationship to Japanese people, but we don’t know the history, but they know that.  I was too ashamed about the Japanese school system.
 
LMD:  I feel like when actors make a big journey, as you have with RAMEN SHOP, you cannot help but take something away from the experience.  You talked about learning about Japanese occupation of Singapore, but was there anything else that you took away from this experience?
 
ST:  One thing about Ramen Shop, is that it was a coproduction between MK2, a French company, as well as Singapore, and Japan, and so, I learned a lot about what it means to be in an Asian coproduction.  And, of course, it was important that France was also part of it, but I felt like these kinds of international coproductions is very apt for these times.
 
So, actually, in two days from now, I’m going to Tokyo, and then I’m going to be staying for one night in Tokyo, and I’m actually flying to Russia to be on another set.  This is also going to be a coproduction; it’s a Russian and Japanese coproduction.
 
This offer came to me once I started working at coproductions, such as Ramen Shop.  I believe I’m going to have a very special experience in Russia, this time.  I do hope that maybe as an actor, this will be the kind of work that I do, which is to work in a lot of international coproductions.
 
LMD:  Your filmography varies from dramas, comedies, romance movies, action films, manga adaptations and crazy, exploitation flicks.  What does it take to bring you to a movie?  What do you look for as an actor?
 
ST:  That’s actually based on what the creators can find in myself, in myself as an actor, and also sort of as a material, and to see what they can present, and what they can use of me, and what kind of roles that they can do.  
 
The thing about myself, and people in general, it’s hard to sometimes to understand what you’re capable of, and what kind of things that you are made of:  So, when a creator presents a new role, something that I personally wouldn’t have come to, that’s very exciting to me.  I find it very fortunate when somebody finds something new in me.  And I feel that is a scary idea to feel that as an actor that’s set for this kind of role, to be called this role is a very scary idea to me.  But I hope that I can continue to play very different roles, and be very malleable.
 
LMD:  There are a number of filmmakers that you’ve appeared with over several, or many projects.  Is comfort, or having a good relationship with the filmmaker part of what goes into your choice of roles?
 
ST:  Yes, that is certainly true, but, actually, in terms of my career, I worked up to where I am today, and that took me a long time to get to where I am.  And so, as long as my schedule allows, I want to often be part of those projects; whether that’s a big, major studio production, or an independent.  I don’t mind whichever.  So, it’s almost like whoever asks first, and who I can really fit in my schedule.
 
LMD:  Now on to your feature directing debut.  How did BLANK 13 come to you?  What was it about Hashimoto Kôji’s story that appealed to you?
 
ST:  I was first inspired by the fact that oftentimes, we have sides to ourselves.  Sometimes, you only see people’s sides that you or me understand, and you or me know: And a lot of people have other sides to them, and those sides show in other situations; depending on who they’re with, and they show different colors depending on the situations.  Even for myself, depending on if I’m hanging out with my parents, then I see a different side to them, as well.
 
When I heard of Hashimoto-san’s story, I was inspired to understand and figure out what these different sides are, and what can be revealed depending on the situation.
 
LMD:  The film is very purposely separated in two halves: One half is straight flashback, and the other half has a lot of dark comedy.  Was that written in the original story, or was that something you envisioned? 
 
ST:  While the movie is basically based on the script, however, on the first page of the script, I wrote, “Well, so, this is how everything is going to flow, but you don’t actually need to memorise the dialogue,” and I signed my name next to it, and that was the statement that I wrote in my writing.  
 
To me, that was one way that I wanted to tell this story: It was another way to tell them that they should improvise on the spot, as well.  That was my message to them.  Luckily, I was working with great actors and comedians, included, so I really wanted to use these live essences that were available to me by using these people and their live performances, and try to get this almost umami, or essence, out of them.
 
LMD:  So, how much was scripted and how much was improvised?
 
ST:  About half-and-half.
 
LMD:  Normally, I like to ask actors how they like to be directed; with strict instruction, or a more collaborative approach?  After what you’ve just said, and knowing that you are primarily an actor, I take it that as a director, you prefer the collaborative approach? 
 
ST:  A lot of the people that I worked with for the film, are people that I have been very good friends with.  But, the people who played the leads often were people that I met for the first time.  A lot of them are people that I respected for a long time.  And because I am somebody that already works within that industry, that is something that I had a lot of respect for.  
 
As somebody who is in the same industry, I was almost fearful to ask them to be part of the project, because I understand just how much talent they have; and that included Issei {Takahashi}-san, Kanbe {Hiroshi}-san, there’s also Matsuoka {Mayu}-san, and, of course, Lily Franky.  All of these people are people that I have respected, and the main leads in the film are people that I felt very strongly about.
 
LMD:  So, what was the reaction when you approached them about being part of the film?
 
ST:  Actually, casting, I left to my producer, Ms. Kobayashi, so she knows best.
 
Kobayashi Yuiko:  They all happily accepted.  The only issue was everybody had busy schedules, so the difficulty was trying to make sure that their schedules were aligned.
 
LMD:  Both BLANK 13 and RAMEN SHOP have a theme of reunion and making peace with the past.  Are these themes you look for in your projects? 
 
ST:  Actually, I’ve never chased after the sort of themes, but oftentimes, they sort of come to me; so I wonder if maybe there’s something at the basis of my work where these themes do come to me?  I wonder perhaps the work that I will continue to do will have these themes incorporated?  But then again, in the other film that I’m in at this festival, Last Winter, We Parted, I’m in a very different role.  I play a cameraman who is quite crazy, so, that to me is also interesting.
 
After shooting Ramen Shop, I got back to Japan, and two days later, I was back on set, this time for Last Winter, We Parted.  So, those were two incredibly different roles.
 
LMD:  I was curious why you didn’t give yourself the role of Kôji?
 
ST:  {Laughs} Maybe because I didn’t want to be in my movie.  To think of myself being in my own movie makes me incredibly uncomfortable, so, I didn’t want to do it. {Laughs}  The only reason I’m actually in BLANK 13 as the brother character, is because the actor who was supposed to play that character was no longer able to make it, so I was sort of filling in that hole, myself.  But moving forward with my directorial work, I don’t plan to be in my work.  
 
LMD:  Has directing your first full feature given you a different perspective?
 
ST:  One big difference that I felt, is that this time it was actually getting released.  And so, basically, in my past work, whether those were shorts, or documentaries, or music videos, they never played in a theater; but this time, by doing this project, I actually got to experience the film as a business for the first time.  
 
In terms of how I shot the film, it hasn’t really changed since my past work, at all, but to actually have a work that is going to get released, I started to really think and understand about the relationships that need to be kept with the theaters themselves that are going to release the film.  And so, what I did was I actually wrote a letter to every single theater that was showing my film, to say, “Please, take good care of my film.”  That is actually something that director Sakamoto Junji also did, so I actually followed his lead and did what I knew that he does.
 
LMD:  You’ve worked steadily since the early 2000s in film.  What has working with some of Japan’s greatest directors including Miike Takashi, Kawase Naomi, and Sono Sion, taught you when it comes to your own direction?
 
ST:  One thing is that a lot of these directors are working overseas, and they’re often creating films not only for the Japanese audience, but in fact, for the audiences who live abroad.  And I learned from a lot of these directors, that where they’re actually aiming for their films to get to, is at a world stage.  
 
And at those world stages, the audience could tend to be more strict, or they might be more critical; and so to be able to present themselves on a bigger world stage is something that I learned.  And I really believe that not only directors, but anybody -- whether they are performers, or any creators, in general -- should be aiming for a bigger stage in this way to achieve that sort of world standard.  I was able to learn this from these leading figures.
 
LMD:  Besides those Japanese directors that I mentioned, who were some of the directors, or some of the films that made you say, ‘I want to direct?’
 
ST:  Many, obviously, but luckily, when I was actually finishing my film, I was able to come across three creators, which were Denis Villeneuve, Nicolas Winding Refn, and Xavier Dolan.  All these three people, I was able to meet, whether it was through magazines, or on TV.  One person, Xavier, I was actually able to meet at a Louis Vuitton event, and there I was able to talk to him and tell him what I have been doing, and really exchanged our identities as creators.  
 
So, to be able to meet these three people felt incredibly important to me at this time.  I have to admit that they’ve influenced me in lots of ways, whether that’s conclusively, or not, they’ve influenced me a lot.  I feel very lucky and special to have met them at this time.
 
LMD:  You mentioned the Russian coproduction, but what other projects do you have coming up?
 
ST:  Other than the Russian coproduction, in terms of my directorial work.  I have a horror movie coming out: It’s about a stain on a tatami.  It stars Kitamura Kazuki.  People are really liking it, as far as I know.  Actually, I was Kitamura Kazuki’s manager about 20 years ago, so to have Kitamura-san as the lead of the movie that I’m directing, makes me incredibly happy.  
 
Other works that I’m working on… I’m actually working with Ms. Kobayashi, who is sitting here.  We have a lot of projects coming up.  Some of them are films that won’t be able to be screened on TV in Japan.  
 
Other than that, in terms of production; I don’t necessarily work as a producer, but what I do try to do is to support.  And so, I’m trying to help create an environment where directors that I respect are able to do their work.  So, I hope to nurture that kind of environment, and be a helping hand in that way.  So, all in all, I have more than ten projects at work.
 
This interview is cross-posted on my own site, The Diva Review. Please enjoy additional content, including exclusive photos there.
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