- 14 May 2007
by Tom Mes
The Soup One Morning, a zero-budget debut feature shot on video in the lead actor's tiny apartment, signaled the arrival of a pair of exceptional talents: the filmmaking combo of Hiromasa Hirosue and Izumi Takahashi. An intense film about one man's mental deterioration and its effects on his relationship, it won the grand prize at the PIA Film Festival in 2004 and grabbed awards in Vancouver and Rotterdam. The pair returned the following year with The Lost Hum, an equally claustrophobic study of almost casual abuse. Fourteen is the pair's third feature and the first made with professional means thanks to a PIA scholarship. At the International Film Festival Rotterdam (IFFR), where Fourteen was awarded the NETPAC prize for best Asian film, Midnight Eye met up with director Hiromasa Hirosue.
You are always mentioned in the same breath with Izumi Takahashi, who has been your creative partner for several years now. Could you explain how this collaboration between the two of you functions?
Basically, we first discuss the basic structure of a film, tossing general ideas back and forth between ourselves and just chatting about things. When we come up with a basic framework, Takahashi goes off to write the script, after which I add my own ideas and things I want to express as director.
Is this by now the relationship, him writing and you directing?
We tried out several ways over the years, dividing the tasks between us, but by now we've sort of figured out that this is the way that best reflects our respective strengths - him writing and me directing.
That also implies that you intend to continue working together.
Yes, that's correct.
So it hasn't happened yet that one of you came up with an idea that the other didn't care for, and then decided to pursue it on his own?
I can't really see myself starting a working relationship with anybody else at the moment. We just discuss things we'd like to depict, things we'd like to make films about, and we do that until we find something we agree on. Even if we don't see eye to eye at first, we talk about it until we come to some sort of agreement.
How did you two originally meet?
We actually met through a magazine that ran classified adds for people who were looking for friends or others with common interests. There was one add by someone making independent films and that's how we got together. This was around the year 2000. It was a gathering of people who were interested in making their own movies. We weren't there to plan any actual film projects, we all just talked about filmmaking and shared our experiences. Takahashi and I then sort of separated from that group in order to really make films together. He happened to own a video camera back then, so he would shoot and I would do the acting. Those films didn't really have a director, we were just using the equipment we had and trying things out.
What had you been doing up until then, without a camera?
I was in a theatre troupe, acting on stage. But even back then I already felt that film was the most appealing method of expression for me.
Was there any particular influence or experience that led you toward that realization?
I distinctly remember seeing Seijun Suzuki's Zigeunerweisen when I was 18. That had a really strong impact on me. Those images were so powerful that I felt a great joy watching them.
That's very interesting, because we can safely say that the style of your films is vastly different from Suzuki's.
Hmmm. Yes. (laughs). Of course, the world of Seijun Suzuki is accomplished as it is. There is no point in trying to do things the way he did, because all you could ever be is a bad imitation of Seijun Suzuki. Imitating him is pointless.
How did things evolve from those early experiments with Takahashi's video camera to making The Soup One Morning? How did you go from making shorts to deciding to tackle a feature?
In those early days we only did shorts, up to thirty or forty minutes in length. While making one short after another we both started to realize that we complemented each other really well. Takahashi compensated what I lacked and vice versa. We developed this symbiosis, almost, in which we got to know each other's strengths and weaknesses. In a sense, that realisation told us that we were ready to tackle a full-length feature.
What sparked the idea of The Soup One Morning, a film that deals with mental illness and the radical change in someone's personality?
The Soup One Morning is basically Takahashi's film, in the sense that I had very little to do with the production, aside from acting in it. We discussed things at the script stage, but after that it was all him.
Your films tend to deal with abuse or rather with abusive relationships. What is it about the subject that it continues to fascinate you over several films?
I think that in living daily life, the way people treat each other - in other words, communication - is the most crucial aspect of human relationships. No matter how I deal with a certain subject matter, it always ends up focusing on that aspect.
The previous two films, The Soup One Morning and The Lost Hum, showed very particular examples of abusive relationships, but with Fourteen we get the impression that this is something that is present in social interaction between people at large. As if it's some kind of national sickness.
It's of course true that the problem of bullying is omnipresent in the media in Japan and that it's a social problem. But actually, in this film I tried to just depict what I was feeling at that time, when I was fourteen, mainly this feeling of insecurity. But it resulted in the depiction of something broader, a wider problem, even though that wasn't my intention. I just wanted to express my own feelings as a 14-year old.
Maybe the fact that it wasn't intentional makes it even more pertinent. Perhaps that indicates an unconscious awareness that this is present in society around you. Watching the film you really get the sense of perpetually repeating behaviour, a vicious circle.
You can see that especially in the character of the female teacher, how she goes from perpetrator to victim of bullying and violence. Although she has all these hopes and ambitions to do something about it, she is then again betrayed and falls victim again. Like you said, it's like a vicious circle.
In terms of the almost subconscious behaviour of the characters, I felt it even stronger in the character you play and in the other teacher played by Teruyuki Kagawa. For them it's simply the way they behave. They're not seeing a psychiatrist like the female teacher does, they simply behave that way.
I did try to add subtle changes, like the piano scene toward the end, when my character is scolding and confronting his student. I wanted to show that there is still some hope for change for this character.
What struck me about the film visually is that there are a lot of shots of people from the back - people walking, running, or cycling. What was the reasoning behind that?
With that point of view I wanted to stress the fact that they are actually bystanders or onlookers. Not active participants.
Fourteen is obviously the biggest scale you've worked on so far. You're working with a professional crew and actors. How have you experienced that change?
It was also the first time I was able to shoot on film. I have to say that compared to when we shot things on video, it does take more time to get things done. That's something I clearly felt (laughs). And honestly speaking, I'm not keen on shooting on film again.
I guess if you come from such an independent background, you always have the freedom to go back.
Yeah yeah, exactly (laughs).
And how was working with name actors like Teruyuki Kagawa?
I was 100% satisfied with the cast of this film. Especially in the case of Kagawa, because I admire him a lot. He gave me even more than I expected from him.
So, you've now made your PIA scholarship film, like many directors before you. Normally that means you are on the threshold of entering the Japanese film industry proper. How does that prospect look to you?
Well, when I see what happens to most of these directors that go on to make mainstream films or that enter the commercial circuit, I notice that they have to throw out at least fifty percent of their own ideas. There are a lot of limitations and regulations that they have to stick to, so if we do find people that will allow us to do 100% what we want to do, of course I wouldn't mind. But otherwise I will just stick with the independent films.
So if Toho approaches you with an offer to make a two-hour romantic drama, you're likely to turn it down?
If they give us full freedom to shoot it the way we want to shoot it, then that's okay. But that's not very likely. (laughs)
But there is something to be said for moving back and forth between commercial and independent films. I guess there are other things to be gained from making commercial films, like being able to work with professional crews and professional means. Such experiences can also enrich you as a filmmaker.
You've got a point there, but at the moment we are very clear about what we want to do. The benefit of gaining experience by doing a commercial film does not quite outweigh the frustration we would feel from the restrictions that come with such a project.
So I assume you will hold on to your day job for the time being?
Yes. (laughs) Unfortunately.