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SNOW WOMAN


SNOW WOMAN (Yuki Onna)


February 23, 2017
Q&A guests: Director-star Kiki Sugino and star Munetaka Aoki


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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.”  

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                       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.”

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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].”

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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.

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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.”

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                                                                                                                                                                               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.”

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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.”

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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.”

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©Snow Woman Film Partners

Coverage


CHIGASAKI STORY


 September 17, 2015
Q&A guests: Director Takuya Misawa and producer-star Kiki Sugino


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The producer and director share one of many laughs during the Q&A session.

After playing at major film festivals around the globe for the past 10 months, scooping up the Best Screenplay Award in the Future Forward Section of the Beijing Film Festival, and earning accolades for being such a congenial homage to Yasujiro Ozu, Chigasaki Story finally arrived at FCCJ for a sneak preview ahead of its theatrical debut in Tokyo over the weekend.

Our announcement had trumpeted: “There’s nothing like an effervescent comedy of manners to cure the late-summer blahs… Inspired both visually and musically by Yasujiro Ozu (with a little Woody Allen thrown in), the tale is infused with light, bright sentiments and low-key mellow-drama, anchored by a charming young cast.”

We also mentioned that Chigasaki Story is set in the beautiful 115-year-old Chigasaki Inn near Shonan Beach, the actual retreat where Ozu wrote some of his greatest works, including Late Spring (1949), Early Summer (1951) and the masterpiece Tokyo Story (1953). And we highlighted the director’s use of frames-within-frames and “pillow shot” interludes eliding time, favorite Ozu devices.

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Misawa had assisted Sugino on two prior films, the extent of his apprenticeship before taking the directorial reigns himself.

So there were some surprises in store during the Q&A session after the screening, when first-time feature director Takuya Misawa was asked whether he’d planned to pay homage to the classic master from the beginning. “We didn’t actually set out to make a story about the Chigasaki Inn,” he admitted. “That only came about later in the production process. The original script stipulated ‘an inn’ for the location, and it wasn’t until we went location hunting and found the Chigasaki Inn, which luckily gave us the okay to shoot, that we made changes to the script so it was set there.”

Then came the kicker: “I wasn’t necessarily trying to pay homage to Ozu while we were shooting. But during the editing process, I started feeling that it seemed a bit like an Ozu film. So I made some changes to certain scenes to improve [the similarities], but without deconstructing what I set out to do. Some of the ‘pillow’ scenic shots were filmed during post-production.”

A young Japanese man in the audience noted that he found the film to be more like an Eric Rohmer or a Woody Allen work, and Misawa was pleased: “One of my favorite directors is Woody Allen, especially the way his characters aren’t quite what they seem.”

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Misawa gave his producer one of the juiciest roles in the film,
and she nailed it. Bottom photo ©Mance Thompson

While the maturity of his vision belies his age and experience — Misawa is still a student at the Japan Institute of the Moving Image, the film school begun by Shohei Imamura — Chigasaki Story does focus almost exclusively on the under-30 set. Innkeeper Risa, who’s inherited a traditional guesthouse from her parents, is hosting a group of archaeology students led by Prof. Kondo, and awaiting the arrival of her former airline colleagues Karin (a terrific Ena Koshino) and Maki (a deliciously uptight Sugino). They’re coming to attend Risa’s wedding party, which is being held several weeks after the actual wedding in Hawaii. Risa’s staff includes the shy student Tomoharu, who immediately attracts the attentions of the flirty, long-legged Karin. Tomoharu is also the object of fellow student Ayako’s secret affections, and he ping-pongs between the two women without noticing their increasing jealousy. Maki begins her own seduction of Prof. Kondo, with whom she had studied eight years earlier, but the professor has someone else in mind. The friendships, feuds and flirtations, fueled by drink, finally erupt on the eve of Risa’s Hawaiian-themed wedding party.

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As critic Derek Elley earlier noted, “This type of film is much more difficult to pull off than it seems, but Misawa shows a remarkable assurance in both writing and direction, helped by an expertly picked cast.” He was also helped by Wa Entertainment, a boutique production-distribution company that hired him as an intern in 2012. He served as Sugino’s producing assistant on the Koji Fukada comedy Au Revoir l’Ete (which we screened at FCCJ in January 2014), and then served as her assistant director when she made her Indonesia-set film Taksu last year.

Even in Japan’s independent film community, a chance like that given to Misawa is exceedingly uncommon. As Sugino explained, “I’ve been working as a producer, as well as acting, since I was 25, and I often met with cynical comments and attitudes from people in the industry. So I really wanted to break through that wall. Because I think, if there’s something you want to do, why not do it? Why not take on the challenge? I really relish working with young people who have the passion and the energy to do that.”

Misawa described being given just three requirements for his script — summer holiday, beach, students gathering — and Sugino interjected, “ This all started because we [Wa Entertainment] really wanted to do something for him. We provided the framing for the project, but as the executive producer, I wanted him to bring as much of himself into the film as possible, to give it his own flair.”

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Wa Entertainment head Sousuke Ono (in red tie) and Chigasaki actress Juri Fukushima
(to his left) join Sugino and others in the bar following the event. ©Mance Thompson

After an audience member praised him for the film’s dialogue, Misawa admitted that he’s always eavesdropping on conversations in family restaurants, since they’re a good source of chit-chat, and he paid tribute to the improvisatory skills of his actors, hinting that several of the scenes were heavily ad libbed.
 
As for the catchy score, he explained: “The music came about during post-production. I did try matching the visuals with classical music, but I ultimately chose to use jazz, which Woody Allen does. He uses ragtime, which arrived early in jazz history. It came on the scene around the time that the Chigasaki Inn started business, and I thought that was relevant, as well.”

After what will surely be a successful theatrical run for Chigasaki Story, Misawa’s next milestone will be film school graduation next spring, but he is already working on several new scripts. It’s not often that a first feature feels like a mid-career high mark, and we can’t wait to see what he directs next.

As for Sugino, who has won Best Actress awards in Japan and a 2014 Rising Director Award at the Busan Film Festival, as well as been the focus of special sections devoted to her work at the 2011 Tokyo International Film Festival and the 2013 Taipei Film Festival, she is eager to continue having it all. She has finished six projects in the past 18 months, including acting in upcoming films from Kiyoshi Sasabe and Ronan Girre. “I really don’t have a favorite genre,” say Sugino. “I want to try all types of films and roles, whether they be quiet and nice, or angry and hysterical. And I want to work with people from many other countries as well.” International directors, take note!

  Photos by Mance Thompson and FCCJ.

Chigasaki poster
©2015 wa entertainment, inc.

Media Coverage


AU REVOIR L'ETÉ


 January 9, 2014
Q&A guests: Director Koji Fukada, producer-actor Kiki Sugino
and star Fumi Nikaido


Kiki Sugino, Fumi Nikaido, Koji Fukada

The captivating Au Revoir L’ete, the award-winning new film from director Koji Fukada, kicked off our 2014 Film Night screenings. Three years after his blackly humorous Hospitalité scooped up awards and wowed international audiences, Fukada’s charming homage to Eric Rohmer has been following suit on the festival circuit. Fukada was joined by next-generation film royalty producer-actor Kiki Sugino and star Fumi Nikaido for the Q&A, during which Nikaido revealed that she had been shooting Sion Sono’s Why Don’t You Play in Hell?— in which she plays a bitch on wheels at the same time as Fukada’s film. In Au Revoir L’ete, Nikaido (of Himizu fame) plays the beguiling 18-year-old Sakuko, who accompanies her aunt to the countryside for a few weeks in the waning days of summer, meets a variety of local characters, befriends a Fukushima refugee who works part-time at his uncle’s love hotel, and observes the increasingly complicated love lives of her aunt and other adults with growing interest. Leisurely paced and gently comical — but packing an emotional punch or two — Au Revoir L’ete brought a ray of summer warmth to a frigid January day at FCCJ.
Photos by Koichi Mori except where noted.

REVOIR LETE Hotori no Sakuko 77p2

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