Interview: RIDE OR DIE's Mizuhara Kiko and Sato Honami Test Cinema Sexuality, Gender Norms
A combustible erotic tale of two opposites drawn together by a shocking act, Netflix’s Ride Or Die is determined from its outset to push envelopes.
Starring Japan’s It Girl, Dallas-born model, fashion designer/entrepreneur, Mizuhara Kiko, and former Gesu no Kiwami Otome drummer, Sato Honami, Director Hiroki Ryuichi challenges the two actresses with this deeply intimate story of love and obsession that tests onscreen sexuality and gender norms.
The Misses Mizuhara and Sato were kind enough to Zoom in from Tokyo one early morning for an exclusive chat about pushing their limits as actors, working with intimacy coordinators, and presenting a rarely-seen look at Queer life.
The Lady Miz Diva: You are both at different ends of the spectrum in terms of experience in acting projects, with Mizuhara-san having over a decade of acting experience, while Sato-san is relatively new. In either case, RIDE OR DIE’s intensity could be considered risky for any actor. What was it about the project that convinced you to take such a big chance?
Mizuhara Kiko: For about 10 years, I have been acting, but I have never really referred to myself as an actor for a very long time, although it’s been ten years since I made my acting debut in Norwegian Wood. Even with that film, Director Tran Anh Hung had found me in a magazine and he thought the feeling that I had as a person would really fit the character of Midori in that film. I auditioned and I got the role, but that was probably because my personality was very close to the character of Midori, so it wasn’t really about any skill sets that I had as a performer, but that is how I started my acting career.
That film was, as you probably know, very big: It opened doors for me in terms of people asking me to work on different kinds of things. So, I’ve been in films, I’ve been in TV dramas, and so forth. I also continued my modeling career because I love fashion, as well. But I also felt that it’s important to live your life, not just do your work, so I’ve been doing other things like traveling, as well.
I felt always, in Japan, that if you’re going to call yourself an actor, that you had to be somebody that was constantly acting; whether it be on stage, or in films, and so forth, and I felt that I was not that. It was sort of an inferiority complex, if you will. I was lacking confidence in myself in terms of acting. I was comparing myself to others in the past ten years, and that was when I received this offer to be part of this film.
I felt that this is a character, Rei, that kills somebody for the person that she loves. And it’s a character that as an actor, you really need to give your all. It’s a huge challenge to take on a role like this, and I wanted to sort of test myself as to whether I could do it, because I was also thinking of what my future as a performer.
As somebody who is going to express -- what I want to do, what I want to be -- and this was a character where I had to be emotionally so raw, and I wanted to see if I was able to do it, because that would also affect how I would see myself in the future as an actor.
LMD: Sato-san, how did you read the bond between your Nanae and Mizuhara-san’s Rei?
Sato Honami: From the first moment when Nanae contacts Rei, there is a sense of tension that continues throughout the film, I feel. For Nanae, Rei is somebody who knows her vulnerabilities. They have a past in which Rei had -- perhaps unwillingly, for Nanae -- helped her. So, Rei was always a special person for Nanae, for sure.
They start this really awkward dynamic relationship at the beginning, but each of them becomes their crux, if you will, as the path unfolds. Their path is a roller coaster, but emotionally, I think in all the scenes they are connected. But it’s really interesting, because with their dynamic, there are so many things about them that is incompatible, yet they’re always together, and Nanae tests Rei’s love for her many times, and yet, they are not able to part.
That tension that we had from the beginning, I think grows into something like “I need you. You are the only person for me. You are the most important person in the world.” I think that’s the journey that we were able to bring to the film.
LMD: Along the lines of what you said, there are times when it seems like Nanae doesn’t even like Rei, yet they have tied themselves together in this tragic dance.
SH: When it comes to Nanae and as she feels towards Rei, I don’t think that was romantic love. It was more of a sense of happiness, just when she is with Rei. And over the course of the film, Nanae tests Rei’s love for her, and they would quarrel because of that, they would clash emotionally because of that, but I wasn’t too worried about the dynamic there, because I feel that throughout the film the two characters just exist. Everything organically comes from that.
I find that it’s really interesting, the relationship between the two, because they are not exactly 100% compatible, and they feel like they don’t completely understand each other, and yet, they kind of do. And even if they don’t understand each other completely, they can’t be parted, of course. Even if it’s not going perfectly well, there’s a comfortable feeling that comes with that that I thought was interesting.
Yes, of course, the film features many different types of people, including Rei’s family, as well. One thing I thought that was interesting -- this kind of departs from your question, Diva -- is that everybody in the film seems to be saying what they think is right for them, but it doesn’t mean that the other person completely understands that.
I thought that was really intriguing. And even with the central two characters, they feel like they are saying what is right -- their truth, if you will -- it’s not like the other would completely understand that, and yet they can’t be parted. And I really find that relationship adorable in a way.
LMD: Regarding how much input he had to your performances, Director Hiroki stated in the press notes: “Not much. Their conversations are between two women, so it wouldn’t help much for me to intervene. I often observed them from a distance. For example, I would ask them what they thought of a certain scene. Even if they were unsure, I wouldn’t offer them an olive branch. I think they must have really struggled.”
I’ve had the pleasure of meeting and interviewing Director Hiroki, so I wasn’t surprised to read this. Is he telling the whole truth, here? Please tell us about working with Director Hiroki.
SH: Director Hiroki does say that he didn’t say anything; that he didn’t give us an olive branch, but that’s not really exactly the truth. Because when we were struggling with our performances, he would ask me, what the character was thinking? What the character was feeling? He would be a guide for me, and this was from the rehearsals.
He also did mention to us that to be able to construct a dynamic like that between our two characters; that was the approach that he was going to take. So, we knew that. For me, it was more about him sort of pioneering the path that we were supposed to take, and that was my impression of him as a director.
When you talk to him, he would say sort of facetiously, or lie, and things like that, but anything that was essential, that was important, he would convey to us. He was a huge help, I think. I really am happy that Hiroko-san was the director of this film.
MK: As Honami-chan was saying, maybe if Hiroki-san did not say this and that in terms of direction to the actors on the set, he certainly was a guiding light throughout the process. Obviously, the story, the characters, it was a very specific situation; and so there are moments where we would hit a wall as to where we were emotionally, in terms of the characters.
You can’t find an exit, and you’re frustrated, and you’re struggling and confused, and that’s when he would serve as a guiding light. He was able to calm us in those moments. He would tell us, “Remember what was in the last scene?” and then, “What are you feeling now as the character?” And he was able to really calm us down.
That was really strangely interesting. There was one time when I really panicked, and I was watching his face, and strangely enough, I started to calm down. Maybe something was conveyed telepathically; he wasn’t saying anything verbally, but I felt that he was saying ‘It’s okay,’ and I was able to calm myself. He is, as Honami-chan said, always putting the actors first in any situation. He is always thinking about us, and the environment for us.
Obviously, on a film set, technical things can go wrong with the cameras, or the recording equipment, and with emotionally-charged scenes, like when you’re angry, or when you’re struggling; as actor you want it to be just one take, because it is really hard to do many takes of those kinds of scenes, and when there’s a technical failure in those moments, Hiroki-san would actually let the actors be irritated against him.
We were really kind of happy about that; that he was on our side, or feeling the same way, or putting us first. There are other directors who would put the technical stuff first. There are also other directors who would want to shoot different material to be able to edit together and make sense in the editing booth, but Hiroki-san is not like that. He is “Actor first”, and he really is watching you; watching the actors -- what we are able to produce.
And that fact, that he is watching us, gives us a sense of security, as well, and I’m also glad that Hiroki-san was the director of this film, especially because he understood what it was as actors to have to be so raw. He was able to give us a safe place, and he was able to guide us throughout. And maybe I guess he was thinking that he did not do anything because of the way he wouldn’t direct verbally too much on set, but I think he did, and I am very glad and grateful that he was there with us.
LMD: Perfect segue. I feel like Mizuhara-san must have a telepathic connection, too. There are so many moments in RIDE OR DIE that are so intense, and really things we’ve never seen in any Japanese film of this level before. Every director, when they are making something that is groundbreaking, or boundary-pushing, has to create a trust, a secure space for his actors.
Please tell us how Director Hiroki created a safe space for you, specifically during the love scene in the beach shack between Rei and Nanae? What he do to make those moments feel secure for you?
MK: Hiroki-san really worked to make sure there was a very safe place for us. He would make sure that the set for those scenes only had minimal, or the most necessary people inside. There was probably only four people, including the DP. We also had an intimacy coordinator on this production. There was her workings, as well.
But, even if we didn’t have an intimacy coordinator, I think Hiroki-san -- he actually expressed this to us -- he told us that he was going to create a safe space to protect us, and I think even if there weren’t an intimacy coordinator, he would have done the same thing, because that is what he was actually doing.
Obviously, he was worried that technically, things would go wrong; that maybe the sound hadn’t been recording, and so forth, but, nevertheless, he made sure made sure that he did the best to prepare the environment, and he put us first -- the actors first -- and we were able to do it in a very safe place.
LMD: I think many Americans might know Mizuhara-san from her appearance in the Japanese edition of Queer Eye For The Straight Guy, so presenting different aspects of gay life is not new to you. However, it’s not common to see Queer characters at the centre of a Japanese feature. Rei is a lesbian, who initially has a loving relationship with her girlfriend; but while that girlfriend’s family loves and accepts Rei, Rei is closeted to her own family. She is also in love with Nanae, who claimed to have no attraction to Rei when they were schoolgirls, but is not above using Rei’s decades-old feelings to help herself.
Was presenting this story, whose main characters and others fall into different aspects of the Queer diaspora, to the worldwide audience that watches Netflix, part of your motivation for participating in this film?
MK: Well, that there are different types of people in the world is something that I have always thought. That is something that I have always felt. But specifically about Rei, she is a character that was rejected when she came out to her mother, and obviously, that led to struggles, and it was really hard on her, and she decided that she did not have to come out to other members of the family.
But she finds Mika, who becomes her girlfriend, and they form a kind of a new, different-shaped family, if you will. Mika is somebody who understands Rei, and she has this endless love for her. So, she’s almost like motherly towards Rei.
So, what I really wanted to do with the character of Rei, was that I wanted to portray her as somebody who knows love. Who is experiencing love. That is something that I was very conscious of. So, going back to the diaspora, and how there are diverse people in this world, that is something that is de facto: That is how the world is. And if there are people who would recognise that through watching this film, that would be great.
Ride or Die is now streaming exclusively on Netflix.
This interview is cross-posted on my own site, The Diva Review. Please enjoy additional content, including exclusive photos, there.
This interview is cross-posted on my own site, The Diva Review. Please enjoy additional content, including exclusive photos, there.