Japan Cuts 2018 Interview: HANAGATAMI Star Kubozuka Shunsuke on a Story of Youth During Wartime

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Japan Cuts 2018 Interview: HANAGATAMI Star Kubozuka Shunsuke on a Story of Youth During Wartime
Hanagatami, the latest work from director Obayashi Nobuhiko, is a fever dream of youth during wartime.  Solidly surreal and sweating with sexual tension, the auteur cast his story of teenagers with actors in their twenties, thirties and forties.  
 
At Japan Cuts, star Kubozuka Shunsuke spoke with LMD about bringing the maestro’s passion play to the screen. 
 
 
The Lady Miz Diva:  We were all shocked to hear about Director Obayashi’s illness last year.  What was it like to be part of what was an impassioned dream come true for him in making this film? 
 
Kubozuka Shunsuke:  Director Obayashi is someone who, over the past ten years, he grew me as an actor; so, for me, being part of this was extremely important.  It was also a dream come true for me, as well.
 
LMD:  What was your reaction when director said you would be playing a 17-year-old boy? 
 
SK:  Yeah, I was surprised. {Laughs} I asked twice. {Laughs} That wasn’t a really a problem for the director, how old the actor, how old the character.  For him, he just wanted them to be themselves.
 
LMD:  What was it like not only to play a teenager, but one who is growing up in a very innocent era, and so is even less mature than today’s teens?  There has to be a whole different physicality from a 17-year-old from the 1930s, versus a 17-year-old from our current time.  What kind of research or studying did you do?
 
SK:  As opposed to focusing on how my character moves, or each part of the acting, I focused on studying.  Eighty percent of my research was the historical and cultural background of that context:  What kind of writers were trending?  What kind of music they listened to during wartime?  That’s the kind of research I was doing.
 
LMD:  As far as the feeling of those people at that time right before World War II, what did your research find?
 
SK:  For them, too, it was the first time to experience a war.  So, as opposed to thinking, ‘What would they have thought?’ I experienced the war for the first time, as well, as I researched.  So, I was just honest and true to myself, after, with the foundation of that knowledge, what I would do?
 
LMD:  But in your physical portrayal of Toshihiko, you can clearly see he is meant to be a very young person; he doesn’t have the grace or self-possession of an adult.  I don’t think you can learn that from books?
 
SK:  I didn’t think each part about the details of the movement, but the one direction that Director gave me was, “You are the storyteller.  You are the scribe.” I am the only one who survives in the story, so I wanted to emphasise the difference; the uniqueness of my character among the rest.  So, once I was thinking about that overarching concept, that’s just how the movements came to be.
 
LMD: How did you first read Toshihiko?  What did you make of him?
 
SK:  There is the part in the foreword when it is mentioned that the character of Toshihiko has a brightness that saves everyone -- an innate brightness.  It is a very strange wording, so every time I was confused about the character and the script, I would go back to the foreword and those words, and try to understand the meaning of them.
 
LMD:  I wonder why he was so stuck on the two friends, Kira and Ukai?  They were terribly glum and depressing.  Especially Kira, who is a dog murderer.  What need did they fulfil in Toshihiko’s life?
 
SK:  I think this is a description of Toshihiko’s character, but I think he has a cloudless, pure character.  At first, he might seem kind of aloof, but it’s actually a purity.  He has a spongelike character of emotional sensitivity, so, I think that’s something that people around him find attractive, and I feel like that’s how they come to him.
 
LMD:  Toshihiko seems like the only true innocent in that close group.  Was that to do with his living in Amsterdam before coming to live amongst these people in Japan? 
 
SK:  I think probably his going to Amsterdam is part of his highly-educated background, the book emphasises that, but his purity might be a result of the anxiety and excitement that comes from coming back and wanting to get along well with everyone.  That kind of engenders his purity and his innocence, maybe, I’m not so sure.
 
LMD:  We never see Toshihiko’s father, and I wonder if that was part of his attraction to Kira and Ukai?  He’s always talking about how “manly” the two are.
 
SK:  First of all, it’s impossible for him to have paralleled his father figure onto anyone, because at the time, it was kind of common for children to feel like their father was very distant; a cold figure.  But especially for Toshihiko’s case, it is totally on a different level, it’s out of the question.
 
LMD:  Is it possible the attraction was sexual between Toshihiko and Ukai and Kira?  We see the naked horseback riding with him and Ukai, and the frequent extreme physical closeness with Kira.  Toshihiko doesn’t really seem to be sexually attracted to any of the lovely girls around him. 
 
Later on, we do see one same-sex romance develop, so I felt it could’ve been a possibility.  Did Director speak about that for Toshihiko?
 
SK:  There was not explicit direction from the director about this, but it’s very clear and obvious from the script.  And I feel for Toshihiko, there is no boundary in sex; he is interested in people as like this fluid thing.  It doesn’t really matter what their gender is.  There is also his relationship with Mina; he does like her, too.  He doesn’t like her because she is a woman, or not, it doesn’t have to do with her gender, as such.
 
LMD:  This is not your first collaboration with Director Obayashi, You’ve worked with him steadily since SONG OF GOODBYE (2006), which was quite early in your career.  Then, you went on to make five films together, including HANAGATAMI.  How has your collaboration grown?
 
SK:  Director Obayashi really accepted me as like part of the family.  I first met him when I was 22, in 1996, so it’s twelve or thirteen years, and I’ve grown.  Each time, it’s a very different collaboration, so I feel very close to him, like a father.
 
LMD:  Did working on HANAGATAMI feel different than your other collaborations?  Did Director do anything that surprised you? 
 
SK:  So I think from 2011, director Obayashi’s style has changed very sharply.  As a result, all of us actors have also received that influence, and have also changed in that way.
 
LMD:  This film is quite avant-garde.  Often, I felt like I was watching surrealist theatre.  Frequently, you seem to be acting against green screen, or flat backgrounds.  Was that variety of settings and environments challenging? 
 
SK:  At first, yes, I was a little bit troubled by this, but after asked the director, “How should I feel about this?”  He said, “I don’t even know, either.”  Nobody knows! {Laughs} There was this overarching feeling of relief to be part of this, so we just don’t trust in his eye, and his sense.
 
LMD:  What was working with this director Obayashi taught you that you will keep in your professional life?
 
SK:  To live freely and honestly.
 
LMD:  As you may know, director was here at Japan Society in 2015 for a retrospective of his work.  What does it feel like to represent director Obayashi’s work to the New York audience that loves him?  
 
SK:  I feel pure happiness.  This is the third day I’ve been here New York, but I just feel like this is the peak, and it’s the end of the festival.  I’m probably the most excited at the festival, right now. {Laughs}
 
LMD:  What is next for you?
 
SK:  I’m going to continue being an actor in Japan, working on movies and dramas.  I just came back from working on director Obayashi’s newest film, which was being shot in Hiroshima.  So, I want everybody to be excited about that.  It’s called Theatre by the Shore.
 
LMD:  What message would you like for audiences to take away from HANAGATAMI? 
 
SK:  There are so many outlets for where to think, but basically, it’s supposed to be entertainment, so I just want everyone to enjoy it.
 
This interview is cross-posted on my own site, The Diva Review. Please enjoy additional content, including exclusive photos there.
 
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HanagatamiInterviewJapan Cuts 2018Japanese CinemaKubozuka ShunsukeObayashi Nobuhiko