Japan Cuts 2015 Interview: THE VOICE OF WATER, Director Yamamoto Masashi Explores The Lure Of Cults, And Blending Fact And Fiction

Having appeared at Japan Cuts previously with his film, Three☆Points, director Yamamoto Masashi returns with his look at the lure of cults and spiritual awakening in his latest film, The Voice of Water. Director Yamamoto spoke with us about blending reality and fiction in his films.

The Lady Miz Diva: THE VOICE OF WATER sprang from a short film you made. What was the inspiration behind making it a full feature?

Yamamoto Masashi: 
Originally, I was going to make a long feature narrative film. We were going to actually make this film based in our workshop. What we did within the constraint of the workshop and the limited budget; {was} we would just shoot one part of this long feature narrative film. So we made a 30-minute short film, but the original plan was that we would make a long feature of it, anyway.

There are many different aspects to THE VOICE OF WATER. What was your intention when you made this film? I wondered if the movie was several different thoughts you had, all coming together?

I think what's happening in Japan right now is really horrible.  Especially post-Fukushima, there is a sense that it is very claustrophobic to be in Japan right now.  And then I think the current administration, especially the Prime Minister; he is the worst Prime Minister that I've ever had since I was born.  So I think there's a sense of suffering, so I wanted to make a film that has a sense of salvation.  And I don't want to sound cheesy, like salvation, per se, but that something that would save us.

So, initially, there was no idea: I had no idea what I was going to do, and they were holding this workshop and they were all these people in the room and I looked their faces and I thought, maybe I'll come up with an idea.  Hyunri, who was the actress, was one of the members of the workshop.  She has this very special aura that you can feel.  But then I still wouldn't have any idea, so after conducting a workshop for several days, one day I looked around at everyone's faces and then I just felt that that they were not willing to participate - that there was just emptiness - and I felt like, oh my God, this reminds me of sort of a cult religion.  And then I thought, okay I'm going to make a film about a religious cult. That's how this came about.

Then I decided to have Hyunri as a protagonist.  She is a Korean who grew up in Japan, so this would also be the thematic core of the story, thus she is this Korean shaman. How the story unfolds is that, when you have religion as sort of a central theme, so you're not going with whether this is a true religion, or whether this is some sort of a very fake religion, but I'm always interested thematically in something where you can't tell whether it's true or false.  I'm also interested in bringing in the outsider component; so therefore I included all those components into my film and created different kinds of episodes from it.  Then these types of episodes would actually all come together and lead into the major theme, which is salvation.

What was the idea of focusing on a Zainichi or Korean Japanese family?  It is rare to see this side of Japanese life depicted in a Japanese film.

Actually, I was not trying to portray that so much of my film.  It only happened because Hyunri is a Korean woman who grew up in Japan.  Because when you come to a place like New York and there are so many people from so many different kinds of backgrounds; let's say if I was to feature someone from Okinawa, then I would have probably had Okinawa as the backdrop.  Or if it was someone from Cambodia, then I would've had Cambodia as the backdrop.  

In Hyunri's case, because she is ethnically Korean that happens to live in Japan, we had that vantage component brought into the film, just because of who she is.  I wasn't trying to depict some sort of social issues in relation to the Zainichi's position in Japan - because I think the word Zainichi is a little funny to begin with - for me, it's just that she happened to be a Korean person.

Even if you didn't intend for it to happen, as an outsider with a distant sense of the strife that seems to always exist between the Japanese and Korean people, I felt the movie was very eye-opening, including your presentation of some unhappy moments of the history of Korean refugees in Japan.  These days, even the way history is perceived is controversial.  Did you hesitate about audiences thinking it was a social comment?

Perhaps if there is any sort of social commentary that you might have felt in the film is probably something that came later.  Because in the beginning, for me, I depict humanity; I like to depict who the person is all about.  In Hyunri's case, she happened to have been someone who is Korean. What I'm not interested in is to have a bird's eye perspective and then try to look at things from above, then analyze it and try to make something out of it.  I'm always just interested in the person, and the person as a human being, and then maybe later these things will come, but in the beginning, it's just that human person. It's just Minjung.

So, with regard to the scenes with Minjung visiting Jeju Island; people with a lot of knowledge of Korean peninsula history would know what the island is about and what kind of past and had, but in my case, I was talking to Hyunri and then I was asking her about her grandmother, where she came from?  

And in that context we spoke about the grandmother, and then I was very inspired about that connection - that her grandmother had come from that island - so that's how I incorporated that excerpt into the film.  When you're making a film, there are times that the store will come to naturally.  That's why it came to me, so I decided to involve that particular episode into the context of my film.  It wasn't like from the beginning, I was going to do something about Jeju Island.

There are many films about a cult being debunked because the leader is a fraud or criminal, but in this case, the leader is actually a good person who does connect to a spirituality and wants to help people.  Was it your point to say that faith or spirituality has some value?

I think any religious organisation is garbage, but if I were to talk about maybe belief or faith, I think lately I do feel that I am actually a person from the Eastern world.  So, my grandfather, he was a fisherman, and they would go out in the middle of the night, and in this pitch darkness, they would go fishing, so you don't know whether you're up or down, or where the sky or sea is, and they would go out fishing for squid or something. Then there would be this little bit of light, perhaps from those little fish that emits a little bit of light into the sea.  So there is a sense of there is something much larger than you in this world and I really felt that - that there was a very big power.  That was my personal experience

In Japan, in Shintoism, there is a belief that God is everywhere.  God is in all details, so God lives here, God lives there.  One of the founding goddesses is called Amaterasu, who was the Sun God, and one important vessel that we worship is a mirror; when you go to a shrine, there is always a mirror.  So, what I believe in is that a mirror is something that would reflect anything, right?  The belief that we have is that it's actually reflecting the sun, because one of the original gods in Shintoism is the Sun God, however what I think is that whatever is reflected in the mirror is a deity.  So if you see the reflection of a tree, I think that is also God or a deity, so when you see another person reflected in the mirror, that is also a deity.

Your disdain for organised religion makes me wonder about cult followers in the film. The people who follow Minjung are all broken or very fragile.  Was that fragility intended to say something about the type of people who follow cults? Did you also research cult followers?

In terms of the type of people depicted in the film, because I wanted to portray the theme of salvation, I wanted to focus on the people who actually needed that help, who needed to be saved. That's why I have these types of people in the film.

With regard to researching cult followers in the film; there was this religious organization in this four-story building that I went to, because my intention was to maybe film without any permission - guerrilla style filming.  The production crew told me that this was a good place to go, so I went in there.  In the film, there is a DJ-type priest, actually this organization had a similar style; they had all these monitors and there was this Korean priest giving this speech in Japanese.  

They actually received me with politeness and showed me around, and they stayed with me the whole time, and even asked me out for dinner, but then I thought, 'My God, I'm not going to go out to dinner.'  So it was kind of funny in that sense.  But I realised that what they want to do is get a lot of money.  'Pay your dues, then something good could happen to you,' was the impression I had.  What they were trying to preach was very easy because it was basically. 'Give me the money.'

What does the water represent? At first it seems as if it's the way Minjung receives her divine messages, but then we see it running under her after she is assaulted and it appears during other tragedies, and there's the burning leaf in the tank.

It is a reflection, like I had told you about the reflection in the mirror.  Thematically, I've actually used water or green in my films in the past, so contextually I think it just happened that this is what I want to show as the reflection, because the reflection is the deity, and I think there is a mysterious component that I feel about water, so I wanted to use water in that sense.

Here as in your previous films, you mix fact with fiction; using archival footage and photographs of real events in your narrative.  What is the allure of using real footage in your films?

When I'm actually going to do a reenactment of something that happened in the past, it would be nice if I actually have the footage.  When it comes to that incident that happened on Jeju Island, it was very hard to find that footage, because it's something that even the Korean government didn't admit that happened until very recently.  From the Japan side, it was very hard to find anything relevant.  I went to a Korean newspaper company and they told us we would be able to use what we used in the shot.  If I had more time, maybe I could have negotiated with certain players and then acquired more relevant footage, but what is important is that when I actually make a film, the reality is very important.

I would like to depict a certain type of reality, because I like to show through my cinema this element of what is real and what is unreal.  So through this practice, even if I'm making a drama, I would like to have a certain level of reality, so that it is almost real.  That is what I like to portray and that is why I like to use archival footage because it adds this realistic component to the feature film.  That idea is also reflected in what I do in terms of acting, and also in terms of how I use the light in the film, and also the technical aspects of the film.  I'd like to have this realistic component no matter what I do.

For example, the blind lady in the film is actually my mother.  So what she's saying in the film is her.  It's what she really is facing.  The yakuza guy has been in several of my films and he's a buddy, but he is actually sort of a quasi-yakuza.  He's the real deal, he's not an actor.  So that's a reality.  The reason that I like to enlist these people comes from this idea of how can I actually invoke certain level of realism into my film, although it's a fiction?  When you look at all the followers in the film, the young ones almost all came from the workshop, so they are not well-known actors, so I think they really embody this being no one, but trying to be someone.  That component adds a certain level of realism into my films.

You've been hailed as an icon of independent Japanese cinema, but I'm interested in your feelings about crowdfunding?  Is it easier for you to make films now that you can directly receive funding from fans and the public?  Also, while crowdfunding is a great innovation, I've seen a lot of terrible films made through crowdfunding, recently.  As a director and the person behind your own production company, Cinema Impact, what advice would you give aspiring independent filmmakers about making a good film?

I don't have so much advice because it's other people's business. {Laughs} Premise-wise, I think it's a good thing that there are different ways of actually raising funds, and crowdfunding is another means to raise funds.  But, I do realize that when you look at the films themselves, there aren't that many interesting films out there. 

However, I'd actually like to mention three people that I trust; Tomita Katsuya, who actually made this film, Saudade.  He is based in Thailand and is trying to get a film made.  Then there's Takeshi Fukunaga, his film, Out of My Hand, was shown {during the festival}.  He is based in Brooklyn, and made a film in Africa.  And then there is Hasei Kohki, who is based in the Philippines. 

So I really have a good feeling about people like them, because they haven't lost this sort of romanticism about what it is a filmmaker; what is it like to make a film. But there are a bunch of filmmakers out there who are just kind of making films here and there, and I guess it maybe satisfies their desire to be a filmmaker, but then they'll make two or three films that are not so interesting, and then it's something that they did in their life, and they'll probably just move on.  

But it's their life, so what can I say?  They should just fulfill their dreams.  But going back to those three people, I think it's really important to have a very good understanding of what it is to be a filmmaker, and to have solid content to create something really interesting.

Can you tell us about any upcoming projects you have?

I've already written three scripts in collaboration with a screenwriter, and there's one more idea based on a book written by another person. So, I've three scripts now and one book, but they're all expensive. So, when I go back, I think I'm going to join a religion.

I think you have to lead the religion, so you can get the money.

Maybe that's a good idea. The Yamamoto Masashi religion.  Yes, that's what I'm going to do. {Laughs.}

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