For the past 10 years, New York’s Japan Society has hosted Japan Cuts; the largest film festival showcasing Japanese films in North America. This year, the film festival closed its program with the new film by one of Japan’s freshest talents, Satoko Yokohama. The Aomori native and Film School of Tokyo graduate first rose to prominence with the New Directors Award (from the Directors Guild of Japan) and Osaka Grand Prix winning film German + Rain in 2007.
Less than a decade later she has a multitude of shorts under her belt and a feature, Bare Essence of Like (aka Ultra Miracle Love Story), which played the international festival stage and cemented her as a filmmaker on the rise. Like her previous film, her new feature The Actor is a love story, based on the novel by Akito Inui. The film shines a spotlight on the familiar but too often unappreciated character actors. The kind of performers we all recognize but rarely know their names… like our middle-aged title character Takuji Kameoka, an excellent actor who’s never been given that starring role.
Ken Yasuda (best known for his voice work in films for Studio Ghibli) plays the alcoholic, run-down character actor tired of going unnoticed, who is swept off his feet by a beautiful bartender, played by Kumiko Aso, who previously worked with Yokohama on Bare Essence. The Actor has already proven to be a major success in Japan and its recent success at international film festivals suggest it will eventually make its way to global audiences.
While Satoko Yokohama was in town to celebrate the honor of closing out the festival, I took the opportunity to speak with her about the film and her career as one of Japan’s premiere female filmmakers.
Q: What was your inspiration for wanting to make this movie?
A: This film is based on a novel, but that was self-contained and had a singular story. So I had to think about how to turn it into something that could sustain two hours and make sure it would stand on its own as a movie. One of the biggest changes I made was, the original novel ended in a very inconclusive, open-ended way. So that gave me a lot of freedom to go in any direction and I knew I would have freedom with my adaptation. Usually when a book has a more conclusive ending and the writing is especially rigid, there’s less room to make you own decisions about where things would go. But I really liked the idea of an actor as the protagonist, that whole idea really excited me.
Q: Did you talk with your actor about his own experiences being a character actor in films, compared to the life of a leading man or celebrity working in films?
A: Mr. Yasuda is the star of the movie, and this is his very first starring role as well. He’s known for his supporting roles in films, and has been around for a long time. He’s a familiar face in Japan. So I really relied on him, because there weren’t many things about this character that he didn’t understand. He felt very close to him and brought his own experiences to the role.
Q: how does the fact that you are focusing on an actor, rather than an actress, affect this story?
A: If it were to be an actress the same age as Mr. Yasuda, around early 40s, women have to start making decisions regarding marriage and having children. A lot of her private life starts to affect her work life, and in the film I’d have to start reflecting that. And I feel including that would have weighed the film down and made it a lot heavier than I would have liked. I very much wanted to focus on the specifics of an actor’s life, and if it had focused on an actresses it would have become a story of a woman who happens to be actresses and I would have felt it had to be more realistic. The story of an actress, the private and professional life are so tied together, you can’ ignore either one. So I would have worried about deviating from the central theme of the film, which is what it’s like to be a working actor.
Q: His love interest has to feel very different from all the other characters in the movie, because she’s a bartender and not part of the film world. When working with Kumiko Aso, what kind of first impression did you need her to make on both him and the audience?
A: She’s very much the film’s heroine and the only lone flower in the film. I wanted the audience to fall in love with her as soon as he sees her, because he’s so struck at seeing such a beautiful, striking woman in such a shoddy bar. And I wanted their romance to feel both as realistic and magical as possible.
Q: Opening the film with an action packed movie scene that is eventually revealed to be the making of a movie, did staging that make you look at movie making from a third person perspective and see some the ridiculous qualities of the industry?
A: I always feel that way when I’m directing a movie, it always feels very strange and funny. And filming a scene like that, outside in the “real world” really obstructs people’s everyday lives. If someone drives down the street as a car would, we think they’re interfering, so we block off roads and stop traffic. It’s bizarre.
Q: What was it about the story and premise that made you think the light, comic tone, almost the bouncy quality, fit this story?
A: It’s very simple. For this specific film, I didn’t want to include any kind of social message. I aimed for comedy because I didn’t want audiences to feel like they had to think about too many difficult things while watching it. I wanted to give people a break and my goal for this film was to make people laugh. So I approached the material looking for a story which would give me that opportunity.
Q: Having the film already come out in Japan and be successful, and now bringing it to international audiences, are you curious about how audiences unfamiliar with Japan’s film industry are going to interpret it or how universal the movie will feel regardless of their own profession?
A: I love having the opportunity to showcase the idiosyncrasies of the Japanese film industry. But when we screened the film a the Tokyo International Film Festival, I realized that a lot of the films that come from other countries that make their way to international festivals and eventually to the international box-office are dark and depressing stories, films that depict war and historical injustices. And there’s a place for those films and Japan has their own social issues we need to address. But it says a lot when we are given the opportunity to show our sense of humor to international audiences as well. I think representing your country in film with a comedy can say a lot and be just as meaningful as those big dramas.
Q: The fact that Japan Cuts choose to make this film their Closing Night Film has added significance because it is comedic and you are one of Japan’s few female directors to have broken through a male dominate industry, even more male dominated than in the US. How are you feeling about premiering the film at Japan Cuts and the honor of closing the festival?
A: I’m so happy about it, because it is an honor. In Japan, female directors are still very rare and I really sincerely hope that there will be more opportunities for women like me, so if this opens any doors, I’d be so happy to be a part of that change. I know it’s rare to close festivals with comedies, and I think it says a lot about why Japan Cuts is an important festival by closing with my film. It is a movie which encourages audiences to relax their shoulders a little bit and just enjoy the pleasure of movie watching.
© Lesley Coffin FF2 Media (7/26/16)
Top Photo: Writer-Director Satoko Yokohama
Bottom Photo: Kumiko Aso and Ken Yasuda in The Actor
Photo Credits: Japan Cuts