SNOW WOMAN (Yuki Onna)
February 23, 2017
Q&A guests: Director-star Kiki Sugino and star Munetaka Aoki
Sugino and Aoki are infinitely warmer in person than in their hauntingly frosty film. ©FCCJ
The chilly relationship they depict onscreen is clearly all an act; indie film queen Kiki Sugino and her costar Munetaka Aoki seemed like the oldest of friends during the Q&A session following FCCJ's sneak preview of their film Snow Woman. Trading compliments, laughing frequently, they were relaxed and loquacious, the polar opposites of the characters they play.
After the first three questions had gone to the director, Aoki even felt comfortable enough to break in and say, “I want to answer a question now.” Asked about his (fairly erotic) love scene with Sugino, and his experiences working with a female helmer, the popular actor (Rurouni Kenshin, A Woman Wavering in the Rain, NHK’s Chikaemon) answered by first demonstrating his impressive English skills: “When I got this offer, I was really excited,” he said, “because [Sugino] is really talented as an actress and a producer, and I really wanted to work with her.” Switching into Japanese, he continued, “As an actor, you always want to be inspired by your director, and that goes for male directors and directors who are younger than you. I was able to throw myself into the world of Snow Woman, but I don’t think it was because Ms. Sugino is female. I enjoyed it immensely. As for the love scene, yes, it was the first time I had a love scene with my director, and it was very interesting.”
The costars introduced the film before the screening. ©Koichi Mori
Sugino was marking her third visit to FCCJ, but her first as a director — she had joined us as producer-star of Koji Fukada’s Au revoir l’éte in 2014, and as producer-star of Takuya Misawa’s Chigasaki Story in 2015. A veteran of just 10 years in the film industry, she has been active on both sides of the camera — and internationally — since producing the award-winning Hospitalité, also from Fukada, in 2009. She made her own directorial debut with a pair of disparate features in 2014, one an adaptation of a popular manga (Kyoto Elegy); the other based on an original story about a Japanese couple visiting Indonesia (Taksu). It won her the Rising Director Award at the Busan Film Festival.
Snow Woman, which Sugino also co-wrote and shot in her home prefecture of Hiroshima, earned a Competition berth at the 2016 Tokyo International Film Festival, and accolades like this from Variety: “[I]n her most accomplished film yet, Sugino finds the icy heart of an ancient, oft-repeated story, and makes it her enigmatic own.”
Sugino directed, cowrote and starred in her third feature, her first period piece. ©FCCJ
That story is the ghostly “Woman of the Snow,” from Lafcadio Hearn’s 1904 anthology “Kwaidan: Stories and Studies of Strange Things;” and although it may seem overly familiar to the Japanese (and fans of Masaki Kobayashi’s 1965 Kwaidan), Sugino’s gorgeously lensed reinterpretation offers a suitably modern approach. Make that modernist. It is set in a timeless era when mountaineers sleep in huts under straw mats while factory workers engage in the production of electrical goods; when girls sing in haunting unison as they carry bowls of plums on their heads, where news seems to travel only by grapevine, not by internet.
“It takes place in the present,” explained Sugino, “but in a parallel present. You see influences from the Taisho and early Showa eras in the set design and the costumes. When you go back to the original story, you don’t know if it takes place 1,000 years ago, 100 years ago or now. The essence of the story transcends time. The snow woman as a being really is science fiction, so she can’t be constrained to any period.” She mentioned that the plum-carrying girls are actually engaging in a traditional coming-of-age ritual, but that the song was specially written for the film. “It’s a symbolic moment in the film. The girls [are crossing a river], which is a symbol of the in-between from childhood to adulthood, just as the boat is symbolic of being in between two worlds [the netherworld and the real world].”
Aoki had a superlative 2016, and heads to a 3-month run on the stage in 2017. ©Kochi Mori
The stylized, elliptical Snow Woman is daringly short on dialog and long on such metaphors. The average multiplex-goer may be disappointed with its lack of transparency, but there are scenes of such trancelike beauty and mesmerizing mystery, the arthouse viewer will look past the film’s many riddles, and succumb to its stately pace and poetic power.
One snowy night deep in the mountains, a young hunter named Minokichi (Aoki) awakens to see a beautiful yuki onna hovering over his mentor, Mosaku (Shiro Sano), literally stealing his breath away. “Should you tell anyone,” she warns the hunter, “I will take your life.” Minokichi’s encounter is so surreal, he does not dare to believe it occurred. A year later, he meets and marries a beautiful lass from another village, an outsider named Yuki (Sugino). She bears him a daughter, Ume, and they live a happy, if frugal, existence. But as the years pass, there are several more mysterious deaths, and the villagers begin pointing fingers in Yuki’s direction. Minokichi remains mum, yet his doubts begin to grow. It isn’t until Ume blossoms into a radiant young lady (emerging star Mayu Yamaguchi) and befriends the village leader’s son that his troubles really begin.
Minokichi and Yuki in the woods. ©Snow Woman Film Partners
Lauding the director’s aesthetic mastery of the medium, one journalist asked Sugino about her inspirations. “I’ve really been inspired by Daiei movies, which I love, especially the work of Kenji Mizoguchi and Yasuzo Masumura,” she enthused. “For this film, I drew a lot of inspiration from Kozaburo Yoshimura and Yasujiro Ozu, especially Ozu's use of color in Floating Clouds. They inspired me to become a filmmaker, and I think you can feel their spirit in this film, in its depiction of the traversing between the netherworld and the [real world]. I suppose some people were hoping for more of a contemporary take on this folklore story, but I think it blends aspects of classic and contemporary cinema.”
Left: ©Kochi Mori, Right: ©FCCJ
Discussing the impetus for her adaptation, Sugino explained: “I read [Hearn’s] book about 4 years ago. He was born in Greece, then lived in Ireland and the US, working as a journalist, and ultimately, came to Japan and naturalized as a Japanese. Through his work, he wanted to convey the spirit and virtues of Japan to both the Japanese and non-Japanese. I think he also wanted to convey the spirit of coexistence [even] with something you can’t quite grasp or someone that is different from you. Considering the intolerance toward immigrants in Europe and the radical philosophies developing in the US, I think it is so important to keep in mind that coexistence is one of the cornerstones for building the future. I think [Hearn’s] story reflects this ideal, and that’s why I felt there was a lot of meaning in making it into a film in this day and age.”
Asked about the earlier adaptation by Masaki Kobayashi, Sugino said, “I love Kobayashi’s Snow Woman, which is faithful to the short story. “But I wanted to take a different approach. I didn’t want to copy his work, and we had budget limitations [that Kobayashi didn’t have]. So the question was, what type of point of view do I imbue the film with, how do I bring a new twist to it? That’s where the daughter comes in, the daughter of Yuki and Minokichi, a half-breed between a human and non-human. I think [her existence] also makes it relevant to this day and age.”
Emerging star Mayu Yamaguchi plays the "halfbreed" daughter of Sugino and Aoki. ©Kochi Mori
Commenting on assembling her cast and crew, Sugino said, “I was able to assemble my favorite actors and actresses for this film. I had Mr. Aoki in mind from the very beginning. I hadn’t even completed the script when I went to him with the story, and it was like a dream, being able to work with him. I don’t think I’m someone with special leadership skills, but I feel strongly that I have more passion than other people. When I want to do something, I find a way to do it, I find a way to tell people that I want to involve them in my project. I think maybe I’m more persistent than others. I don’t know if I have the technique to convey what I want, but I have passion and I put it in a straightforward way, albeit clumsily at times.”
Aoki brandishes his new Honorary FCCJ Membership card after the event. ©Kochi Mori
She concluded, “I really enjoyed the process of making this film, because all the actors, not only Mr. Aoki, were so committed to it, and we were able to collaborate a great deal.”
“What choice do you have,” laughed Aoki, “when the Snow Woman looks into your eyes and warns you that she’ll kill you? You just have to put everything you’ve got into the film.”
On a more serious note, he added, “Ms. Sugino's personality attracts a lot of people. She has this power.”
Countered Sugino, “Mr. Aoki is only saying such kind words because we’re in front of the press.”
But Aoki got in the last word: “She really is the Snow Woman. We shot this film last year and it was a very warm winter, but whenever she came on set, it would snow. The cast and crew started wondering about her. But it made us all believe that it was going to be a wonderful creation and a wonderful film.”
©Snow Woman Film Partners
CLOSE-KNIT (Karera ga Honkide Amu Toki wa)
February 8, 2017
Q&A guest: Director Naoko Ogigami
Writer-director Naoko Ogigami's new film focuses on family ties, but not the typical kind. ©FCCJ
“Unconventional” is an adjective that describes nearly all of Naoko Ogigami’s characters, from the Japanese women who open a washoku restaurant in Helsinki (Kamome Diner, 2006) to the frazzled city dweller who learns how to “twilight” on a quaint island (Megane – Glasses, 2008), to the grandmother who longs for a Toto Washlet while living overseas (Toilet, 2010), to the young woman who rents cats to people who need pet therapy (Rent-a-Cat, 2012).
So it comes as a surprise that while the writer-director’s first new film in 5 years, Close-Knit, includes its share of unconventional characters — including a transgender woman as the protagonist — it is really her most conventional work yet, if “conventional” is understood to mean “sure to appeal to a broad audience.”
Appearing at FCCJ shortly before she was due to leave for the film’s world premiere at the Berlin International Film Festival, and speaking without an interpreter, Ogigami explained why Close-Knit feels different: “One of my challenges was, I’m really fed up with people calling my films iyashi-kei eiga [akin to ‘films that promote emotional healing,’ a genre that Ogigami has been credited with starting], and I wanted to do something new. I think I have done something new, and if it attracts a different audience, that’s great. My previous films were almost all fantasies, so I tried to make this more realistic.”
Perhaps it is Close-Knit’s serious consideration of LGBTQ (and other pressing social) issues that lends it a greater sheen of realism, although there are still several quirky characters and scenes with the director’s patented eccentric humor. The story of a very modern family, it begins when fifth-grader Tomo (Rinka Kakihara), is abandoned by her often-absent mother. Already resourceful, Tomo heads for her uncle Makio’s (Kenta Kiritani) place. There, she meets his beautiful girlfriend Rinko (Toma Ikuta), who warmly welcomes her and proves to be a much better mother than her own. But Rinko is transgender, and soon, Tomo is being bullied by classmates for her new “weird family" (among less gentle name-calling). When Tomo fights back and the police are called, Rinko helps calm her by showing her how to knit, and how to work out her anger with each stitch. Rinko herself has been knitting strange, colorful objects that she terms her “worldly desires.” When she has made a certain number of them, she says, she will conduct a “manhood memorial service,” and file papers to legally change her gender. With Makio and Tomo’s support, Rinko will not only reach her goal, but also be inspired to pursue a dream that she thought was outside her reach.
Ogigami admits she wanted a beauty for her leading lady, and she got one in Toma Ikuta. ©FCCJ
Close-Knit features a trio of extraordinary lead performances, two of them by major movie stars — Toma Ikuta (The Mole Song, The Top Secret: Murder in Mind) and Kenta Kiritani (Too Young to Die!, Gonin Saga) — marking the first time that Ogigami has cast big names. The third performance is by a complete unknown, preteen Rinka Kakihara, who more than holds her own.
Although she didn’t have Ikuta and Kiritani in mind when she wrote the script, Ogigami admitted that she knew “I needed [an actor with] a beautiful face, since he had to [convincingly] play a woman. The first time I saw Ikuta-san in a film was 7 years ago, and I was so impressed with how beautiful he is. So he was always in my mind. I finished writing and started thinking about casting, and I thought he would be good for the role. But he’s from Johnny’s [Jimusho, the notoriously controlling management company], and I thought even if I offered him the role, he would have to decline. But fortunately, he said, ‘Yes.’
“Once Ikuta-san decided to do this, I thought for his partner, I had to find someone taller than him, but with a [gentle demeanor]. When Kiritani-san was young, he used to play hotheads all the time, but as he got older, he started getting calmer, and I thought he would be good.” As for Kakihara, she enthused, “I found her at an audition. She’s an absolute genius. I had a lot of rehearsals with Ikuta, but not so many with Kakihara. This was the first time she’d been in a film, and she was just a natural.”
Since the film “pushes social boundaries,” as one journalist put it, he found it surprising that the bulk of the budget came from status quo monolith Dentsu. “It was very hard to find financing,” admitted Ogigami, “because it’s based on an original story, and it’s very hard, nowadays, to make films [that aren’t based on bestselling novels or popular manga]. But Dentsu came aboard.” Asked if that was before or after Ikuta had signed on to the project, she laughed, “About the same time.”
Asked what had inspired the story, Ogigami said that she’d spent 6 years in Los Angeles during her 20s, and had had a lot of friends who were gay and lesbian. “When I came back to Japan, I didn’t have many friends who were sexual minorities,” she explained, “and that was awkward for me. I realized it’s still difficult for people to come out of the closet in this country. That was one of the reasons I made the film.”
An Argentinian journalist mentioned that her country had just begun educating teachers to treat trans children according to the gender with which they identify, thereby doing away with the longheld notion that they are abnormal. “In the film,” she noted, “Rinko’s mother completely accepted her when she was young, unlike the boy’s mother [a friend of Tomo’s who may be gay]. Did you base these characters on real people?”
Kiritani and Kakihara in the film. ©2016 ”CLOSE-KNIT” Film Partners
Ogigami responded, “I found an article in the newspaper about a transgender woman [Natsuki Majikina], who told her mother when she was 14 that she wanted to have breasts. Her mother knitted fake boobs for her. I went to her mother to ask her about this. She said she always knew that her daughter was different, but she always accepted her. On the other hand, I have a friend who’s gay and Catholic, and says that he will never tell his mother, as long as she lives.”
Asked about other research she’d done before writing the script, the director said, “Since I’m not a sexual minority myself, I was worried about whether I was allowed to make this kind of film. If I don’t have any prejudice or discrimination, I thought it would be all right. But I didn’t want to hurt anyone, so I asked my transgender and gay friends to read the script, to make sure no one was offended.”
Close-Knit is an apt metaphor for the film’s themes, referring as it does not only to the creation of new family ties and the bolstering of old ones, but also to the actual act of knitting — an important feature of the story that required several months of intense practice before filming commenced.
Noting that the film encompasses a number of important social issues beyond LGBTQ concerns — bullying, elder care, youth suicide, family estrangements and abuses that repeat from one generation to the next — one member of the audience suggested, “I think it would be great if families could see this film together.” It wasn’t entirely clear which definition of “family” he meant, but “the family of man” is just about right.
- Naoko Ogigami’s latest film offers another take on the Japanese family
- Close Knit: Naoko Ogigami contra los prejuicios