Novelist, illustrator, scriptwriter, radio host, and even as a singer, Lily Franky mastered many arts before his muse called him to become one of Japan’s most popular character actors. Receiving Japan Cuts’ Cut Above award, Franky spoke with me about his appearance in The Shell Collector, his many upcoming films, and his relationships with some of Japan’s finest directors.
The Lady Miz Diva: Please tell us how you feel about receiving the Japan Cuts Cut Above award before the New York audience?
Lily Franky: Actually, I didn’t know until I had arrived in New York that I had won this award, so I’m so surprised. I thought that I was simply coming to introduce the films at the screenings here.
LMD: You have led many different lives as an illustrator and artist, photographer, writer, radio host and singer; what made you decide to turn to acting?
LF: In terms of performing in movies, it really happened by accident. I had no prior experience and all of a sudden somebody asked me to be in a movie, and just as I was wondering whether I should do it, I was asked to do another one, and so on. I think in terms of acting, my fate is being moved by outside forces and other people. My feeling does not change whether I’m drawing or being in a film.
LMD: Of all the mediums you’ve worked in, is there one that is most satisfying or gives you the greatest expression?
LF: For acting, I think I have the most freedom, because when I am illustrating or writing, I do that under my own name, but I can be somebody entirely different when I’m acting. If I was under my own name and I wrote something, I think I would be self-critical; I would worry that everybody will think I was stupid, but when I’m acting under a different name, I don’t care how I’m perceived.
LMD: Your portrayal of a sketch artist in ALL AROUND US shows that you take researching a role very seriously. THE SHELL COLLECTOR is the first time you’ve played a blind person. Please talk about your preparation for this film.
LF: In the beginning, I simply watched all the movies from all over the world that had a blind character to see how it was done by other people. In most instances, in most of these films, the blind character tends to have a special ability because they are blind. With The Shell Collector, the protagonist even though he is blind, I wouldn’t say that he has a particular ability. So what I did was to really study under an actual blind person who taught me all of the mannerisms and movements they usually go through.
In the case of The Shell Collector, the professor lives in a very isolated island. The majority of the film is steeped in fantasy, but at the same time I wanted to make it as realistic as possible and show that it is possible for this man to be living alone on his own, even though he is blind. And a blind person, when they touch something, they don’t simply touch it with the palms of their hands; they also touch with the back of their hands, and even when they’re turning on a fire, they always first check the temperature with their hands. All of these little things that I did to bring reality to that situation.
LMD: Please describe how you read the role of the professor in THE SHELL COLLECTOR. We are only given slight hints of his life before coming to the island, or why he chose such isolation. Did you make a backstory for him?
LF: I think my portrayal of the professor is very close to any professors that you would find in their 50s, because they always have this desire to escape from reality. It really portrays one man’s desire to escape, to seek solitude and run away. At the same time, he ends up understanding that he can only fulfill his life with other people, no matter how much he tries to escape.
LMD: Director Tsubota (Yoshifumi) is also here for the film. He’d only done one other feature before THE SHELL COLLECTOR. Does working with new filmmakers excite or inspire you in a different way than working with some of the well-known directors you’ve acted for?
LF: When I work with famous, very esteemed directors, I go there to study, to learn; but with new directors, I go there to have a session together. When I work with new directors, I tend to collaborate on a very deep level. We talk very long hours about the project itself.
LMD: THE SHELL COLLECTOR was avant-garde and experimental, was that part of the attraction you had to appearing in this film?
LF: It’s very tough for these non-commercial films to be made in Japan these days. When I heard about the film, that it was so avant-garde -- typically, films like these end up ending as a project -- so I was quite surprised when we started shooting.
LMD: Speaking of well-known directors, you’ve worked with several of them multiple times: One Hitoshi, who is at this year’s festival with BAKUMAN, Miike Takashi, Hashiguchi Ryōsuke, and of course, Kore-eda Hirokazu. Opposite to the question, I asked about new directors, is there a comfort level with working with directors more than once?
LF: Even more than that, I’m just happy to be invited by these esteemed directors and work with them.
LMD: Director One said that you and he just got on really well socially and whenever he would talk about a project, you were very supportive and would agree to work with him. Is personal compatibility important when choosing to work with a director?
LF: Yes, but there is a downside to that, because when you become too friendly in private, gets difficult to turn down their offers.
LMD: With that familiarity, do you feel that you have the advantage of more easily expressing a point about something in the script? Do you feel more comfortable making a contribution?
LF: When you’re working on films with the same director two or three times, it’s good because you have that prior knowledge of what the director desires and whether they want improvisation or not, so I have a foundation to lean on when I make a film with them. But I don’t typically make it a point to say or add anything on the set; I just do what is asked of me by the director.
LMD: You have a great relationship with Director Kore-eda; you seem to compliment the special mood of his films so perfectly. Please talk about being directed by him.
LF: In terms of Director Kore-eda, we’ve worked on three films together. On set, he has a very special Kore-eda mechanism that makes you forget that you’re even shooting a movie.
Yesterday, Director Hashiguchi’s films were playing here and I just went wandering around on my own and ended up in Lincoln Plaza, and I saw that Our Little Sister was playing there. It was just a coincidence, but it made me realise what a cool city New York is, but not only that, but how cool Director Kore-eda is. I immediately took a picture of that poster and sent it to him to show him that Our Little Sister was playing in New York.
LMD: Did he respond?
LF: Actually, we have a group line between Director Kore-eda and the four actresses that played the sisters.
LMD: What is your approach to choosing roles? You such a varied and interesting filmography; playing supporting roles though you could easily play leads.
LF: It comes down to the script, and also the director, and the two combined will let me know whether it will be an interesting film or not. Even if it is an unknown director, I will take a look at their projects from when they were still trying to make it as a director, and if I see potential there, I will work with them.
I think I have a good nose for it, because my career as an actor is not as long as my career as a scriptwriter, so I know that if this director writes the script, I know that it will be a good film.
LMD: I love the film, TOKYO TOWER: MOM AND ME, AND SOMETIMES DAD, which was an adaptation of your award-winning autobiography. Were you asked by the filmmakers, including Odagiri Joe, to advise during the film?
LF: Actually, Mr. Odagiri, he never read the original book when he was preparing for the role. But the reason why he decided to play the role was because of his mother, actually. When she found out that he was being offered the role, she said, “You have to do this.”
On the other hand, Kirin Kiki, who played the mother, she came to me and said, “Let me borrow every piece of clothing that your mother wore. Every photo that she has.” She wanted all of that. So I sent her some of the writing of my mother that I have never shown anyone. Kirin Kiki alone could see that.
LMD: What was it like for you to see that onscreen?
LF: It made me so happy and overwhelmed, because it felt as if this film, Kirin Kiki, Odagiri-san, and all the crew of the film; it was if they were attending this great funeral for my mother.
LMD: In researching for this interview, I realised you have seven films in the pipeline going through 2017. What motivates you to work so much?
LF: There are so many directors that I love, and I love film itself, and so if a filmmaker that I’m interested in is trying to make this film, I will always want to participate. It’s almost like making a film is just going to the theater for me.
LMD: As you said, you’ve spent many years as a scriptwriter, you have starred in so many films, worked with amazing directors, so when will we see a Lily Franky-directed film?
LF: It was actually a dream of mine to become a filmmaker before and after, so the more films that I appear in as an actor, the more I understand how tough it is to be a director. So, I think it’s impossible. (Laughs.)
This interview is cross-posted on my own site, The Diva Review. Please enjoy additional content, including exclusive photos there.