- 21 September 2001
by Jasper Sharp
Kitano might have headed West to make Brother, and the influence of John Woo and the Hong Kong directors on mainstream Hollywood cinema is incontestable, but there's been precious little traffic in the other direction. John Williams is the exception to the rule. Born in St Albans, England, he spent his childhood growing up in Wales, making his first film at the age of 14 on a second-hand 16mm Bolex. After studying at Cambridge, he spent two years working as a French teacher in North London before the travel bug bit, and he relocated to Nagoya in 1988. During this time he continued to make experimental shorts and in 1995 formed the 100 Meter Films production group.
Firefly Dreams, a touching story of a cross-generation friendship between a 17-year old tearaway and a carefree octogenarian is the first fruit of this unique cultural background, yet you'd be hard pushed to tell it wasn't made by a local. Midnight Eye caught up with John to discuss the merits and inherent difficulties of bringing the Welsh neo-realist approach of his forefathers to an alien land.
I guess a question you are faced with a lot is what is an Englishman doing making films in Japan? Is this something you ever envisaged yourself doing?
Actually, I usually make a point here of saying that I am Welsh and not English, though nationality is obviously becoming increasingly irrelevant to me personally. I spent most of my childhood in Wales and my parents are Welsh speakers. The difference is often lost on Japanese people but it's a matter of personal pride and perhaps eroding identity. In answer to the second question I never envisaged that I would become a Japanese filmmaker, if that is what I am, but I did envisage becoming a filmmaker from the age of 14, when I saw Werner Herzog's Aguirre, Wrath of God on TV. I can honestly say that Herzog's film changed the course of my life.
What brought you to Japan in the first place? I assume it wasn't with the intention of making films.
I wanted to get out of Britain for a while. I was fed up with the political situation there and it seemed very difficult to get into the film industry. I'd lived in Tunisia for a year when I was a student and I liked the day-to-day adventure of living in another country. My interest in Japan was sparked a little bit by Japanese cinema but also by the experience of working in a Japanese supermarket in North London to make a bit of extra cash. Japan was easy to come to at the time. There were plenty of jobs advertised for English teachers and I had been teaching French in a Comprehensive School in North London so it was easy to get a job here. I planned to stay for a couple of years, travel in Asia, make some cash and finish a script I was working on, which a producer in London had shown a slight interest in. I never imagined that I would settle down here.
One of the first things I noticed about Firefly Dreams is that it looks like a Japanese film. You would never guess that it wasn't an entirely Japanese production. Do you see any distinctions in your style or approach?
Many of the reactions to the film have centred around the apparent strangeness of a
"Japanese" film made by a non-Japanese director. In some ways this is very flattering and in other senses it is somewhat disappointing. I didn't set out consciously to make a "Japanese" film. I'm not sure what one of those is. I was conscious of making some nods to Ozu but I think I've been more influenced in terms of some of the aesthetic choices by recent Taiwanese cinema (Hou Hsiao Hsien and Edward Yang) and some French cinema, including the films Western, Nenette et Boni and Irma Vep. The ingredients of the film (actors, mountains, bottles of beer and bicycles) are mostly Japanese but as far the lighting, cinematography, editing, I think they are closer to the work of the Welsh Neo-realists.
Who???! I take it you're joking here...
Yes, absolutely. As far as I know there is no Welsh school of Neo-Realism.
You manage to avoid the problems that a lot of people have when they focus on cultures which are not their own. You don't seem to project an "English" perspective onto your subject. There's no reason why this film could not have been made by a Japanese director, it seems.
Of course the norm is for films made in Japan by foreign directors to reflect the perspectives and assumptions of the filmmakers, often looking for an intangible "otherness". Not only films about Japan but also British TV programs always seem to focus on the exotic margins of the country - sex is usually somewhere in there, as are all the other generalizations. Festival programmers in Europe and the states also seem to have a penchant for programming films that they feel reveal some intrinsic "Japaneseness" (again sex and perversity are usually high on the list). The thing is that I feel this Japaneseness has much to do with trans-national art elites and very little to do with reality or with good filmmaking. (As for the English perspective it has always been vigorously denied by the Welsh Neo-realists.)
Playing the devil's advocate here, Japan is a very insular country, media-driven and self-obsessed, and seemingly uninterested in what goes on in the rest of the continent it's on and with a generally smug and superior attitude to its neighbours. It is also very proud, places a strong emphasis on its history and tradition, has a very polarised class system and a language in which politeness is so codified that it almost acts as a mask to foreigners. It sounds very similar to another country to me - How similar do you think Japan is to Britain?
I'm always uncomfortable about sentences which ascribe opinions and attitudes to a whole country. Some of what you say is obviously true about some people and agencies in Japan, but it's false to ascribe this to "Japan". As for the insularity it's probably more true of Britain I'd say. I find young Japanese people much more "global" than the majority of the young British people I meet, but I don't meet so many of them so I probably shouldn't say stuff like that. In my films I also try to avoid any kind of generalization. It would have been easy to slip into certain kinds of cliché about high-school girls and country people but I've tried to play against or away from that.
Do you think that if you were making films in England, you'd probably have told exactly the same story as in Firefly Dreams?
I doubt it. The story was born in my head in Japan and based on people I met here. I can't really imagine this particular story transposed to Britain. I hope it is a universal story, but I think a lot of the details are quite specific to here (Japan) and now.
Do you keep strong ties with your motherland, still?
I recently joined the Cymdeithas Dewi Sant (The Tokyo Welsh Society) after meeting a Japanese woman who was learning Welsh. (Which is stranger - a Japanese woman who wants to learn Welsh or a Welsh man who wants to make Japanese films?) I try to keep up with the political situation and the music and films, as I also teach courses on British Cinema and British Music at Jouchi (Sophia) University. Every time I go back to Britain I do feel slightly estranged, but at the same time I discover things I love about the place: the beer, the landscape, the cheese, the lamb chops, the parsnips. I miss the parsnips most of all.
The film looks lovely, by the way. There are certain scenes such as when Naomi and her cousin are cycling through the forest which are very poetic, or when Naomi discovers the old cinema poster of Koide-san's film in the attic. It definitely benefits from its rural setting in Horaicho, which I find very interesting, because most Japanese films I've seen stick firmly within city limits. Was this something you had in mind when the story was conceived - to portray the other, more timeless side to Japan, rather than focus on this hyper-efficient modern culture?
There have also been a lot of films with country settings recently. I'm thinking of Naomi Kawase's Suzaku and Kohei Orguri's Sleeping Man. Also there was Kore-eda's Maborosi. I have problems with the way these directors treat the countryside. They often imbue it with a sense of mystery and nostalgia. I tried to avoid doing that in Firefly Dreams, but I did want to treat the countryside in a lyrical way.
However, I can't really say that Firefly Dreams presents the countryside in a realistic way - the economic reality of the area where we shot is rather harsh and the social system very conservative. Most young people (especially women), leave because they don't like these aspects. In the future if I make another film in the countryside I'd like to explore these elements more, but for this film I really wanted a beautiful backdrop and a sense of timelessness to play against the time of the city and of youth and also Mrs. Koide's own sense of time.
You seem to have a great degree of empathy for the character of Naomi. Do you know, or have you known characters like this?
Naomi is modelled on myself a lot, but also on a young girl I met during my first year in Nagoya, who was having a lot of trouble at home. I also met and interviewed several high school girls and had some women friends carry out more interviews when I wasn't there, as I thought the girls might open up more to them. One thing I remember clearly from the interviews was that there was a long discussion about how the high school girls felt misrepresented by the Japanese media. In the last few years there's been a lot of youth bashing going on here. It's interesting to note that this is not a new phenomenon. Young people have been bashed in Japan since the Meiji period at least.
I really like the idea of what you are saying in the film - that essentially Naomi and Koide-san are essentially the same character, just at completely different stages in their life. It is especially interesting in terms of Koide-san's generation having lived through the war, their subsequent defeat and occupation, the economic miracle from the 60s onwards, whereas this new generation represented by Naomi have had everything handed to them on a plate, and consequently have never had to struggle for anything. They've never been forced to actually to do anything, so consequently their lives are rather directionless. In fact, Naomi's life is actually incredibly boring in comparison to the older woman.
Yes, you've hit the nail on the head. Although the younger generation have so many choices in terms of what they can buy, I really wonder how many choices they actually have in terms of how they can live. Of course, the women of Koide's generation were much less free, but the women who did challenge the status quo in the pre and post war years were very inspiring.
There's been quite a strong trend in the films featuring direction-less, tearaway teenagers in Japan recently. (Tokyo Trash Baby, Bounce Ko Gals, Love / Juice etc) Why do you think this is? I don't really see it as a phenomenon entirely unique to Japan.
I've only seen the last two and I thought they were crap. Both of them simply bought into the "enjo kosai" phenomenon. As far as I could tell this was pretty much invented by the media. Of course it was going on, but probably to a far smaller extent than it would have without the hype. Neither film was realistic and Bounce Ko-Gals had to keep its central character pure and unsullied right to the end, which was a total cop-out.
Sorry - what is "enjo kosai"?
Enou kosai translates roughly as 'paid companionship'. About three years ago this phrase was applied to the phenomenon of high school girls prostituting themselves to make money to buy designer goods. The mass media jumped on it as a great story, Ryu Murakami wrote Love and Pop, which became the film and an academic wrote a book about it, which was a bit of a bestseller. All in all, the whole phenomenon had the feel of something "invented" by the media. Of course some girls were doing this (they do in every country) but I suspect that more did it after the story broke. Many of the girls were also not having sex as it turned out. Middle-aged men were happy enough just to pay for their company. Recently the words seemed to have faded from the media.
Catching all the nuances of a 17-year old Japanese girl must have been difficult - for example, she speaks in a very slangy sort of feminised Japanese. Obviously as Japanese is not your first language, I was wondering how much of this was written or designed by you, and how much was brought to the screen by your actress, Maho Ukai?
I wrote the dialogue in English originally and had it translated by a very good translator. I worked on it with the actors after that and of course Maho was only three years older than the actual character so she had no trouble doing the slang. I hear it spoken around me all the time but it's still pretty hard to catch it and write it.
How is your Japanese at the moment?
Fine thank you, but I still prefer to write in English, though I have started writing more stuff in Japanese recently.
Can you tell me a little more about this girl? I believe it is her screen debut. Was she anything like the character she played?
Not in the slightest. She hated having her hair dyed for the part and like many girls of university age here seemed to want to repudiate her high school years as quickly as possible. She's also, obviously, a hard-working, focused and ambitious actress.
And what is the background of Yoshie Minami, who plays the older Mrs. Koide? She appears to have quite a distinguished acting pedigree.
Yoshie Minami was in the Takarazuka before the war but gave up acting during the war. Afterwards she became a film and stage actress. She had a small part in Kurosawa's Ikiru, but her main love is the stage. She's done all kinds of theatre from traditional Japanese to Shakespeare and Genet. In the last twenty years she's appeared a lot on TV, usually cast as the kindly old granny. We only had her on the set for ten days and she was amazingly energetic, funny and inspiring.
The production notes mention that you moved out to Japan in 1988. What were you doing out there in the 10 years or so before you started work on Firefly Dreams?
Basically I've been making films all the time, starting on 8mm, then doing stuff on digital video and on 16mm. I've travelled quite a bit in Asia. I went to Sri Lanka several times and shot a 50-minute documentary on video about the political killings in the South of the country, which I showed in several places in Japan. I made a 70-minute film called Midnight Spin, which was shown at the Raindance Film Festival in 1996. Most of the time I've supported myself by teaching English.
How did you get into in filmmaking? Do you have any formal training?
I have no formal training but I've been doing stuff related to film since I was in university. I think if I'd gone to film school I could have speeded up the process a bit but film school is so expensive. Most of the projects that I worked on in Japan I regarded as my own training. It wasn't until this film that I actually thought I was working on something that could be shown to a wider audience. (The documentary on Sri Lanka was an exception but it was not very good technically.)
I can't think of any other instances of a foreigner mounting an independent production targeted at a Japanese audience. How difficult was it to get the film made, in terms of raising finance, and organising the cast and crew?
Every aspect of it was difficult but it helped that I had lived in Nagoya for ten years and had aquired a sort of small reputation there as someone who could complete a project. The whole process was long and frustrating because we really didn't know what we were doing when we started. A lot of the casting had to be done in Tokyo, as most actors leave Nagoya. Also, all of the post-production was done in Tokyo, apart from the picture edit, which I did on a second-hand Steinbeck. We were able to find crew in Nagoya because I'd met and worked with the cinematographer, Hayano, and the lighting director, Sugiyama, before.
Did you find that being a foreigner helped in this respect at all? Were people receptive to the idea of funding a film directed by an Englishman, or did a lot of people laugh in your face?
Very few people laughed in my face but I'm sure a great many snickered behind my back. Reactions verged from the disbelieving to the cynical. A hard core of close friends (both Japanese and foreign) gave me a lot of support. The people in the neighbourhood where I lived in Nagoya were extremely supportive, as were the people in Horaicho where we shot. The film could not have been made without the support of all these people. (Usually that gets said as a kind of politeness but in this case it's absolutely true.)
How has the film been received so far, both in terms of Japanese audiences and critics, and foreign festivals?
It's been very favourably received by the general public and the critics here. I think the foreign festivals have been a bit shy of the film as it is easily perceived as a "novelty project", but it was liked by the audience at Karlovy Vary. It may take another few films before I get taken seriously by festival programmers.
Where does your interest in cinema stem from?
Saturday Morning Film shows for kids when I was living in Scotland, between the ages of five and eight, and then James Bond films and westerns, and then Aguirre, Wrath of God, when I was fourteen. Aguirre was part of a BBC 2 series of "Foreign Films" that was showing on Sunday nights. After Aguirre I tried to watch as many as I could. I remember Kurosawa's Dersu Uzala, Godard's Alphaville and Widerberg's Adalen 31 from that series.
Were you at all influenced or inspired by Japanese cinema? If so, were there any particular directors or films which were particularly influential?
Before I came to Japan I'd seen a few films by Kurosawa, Ozu and Mizoguchi but the ones I really loved were Kurosawa's Dersu Uzala (not even shot in Japan) and Ran. The two Japanese films that really impressed me before I moved here were Itami's Tampopo and Sogo Ishii's Crazy Family. Friends of mine were heavily into Ozu, but I didn't get Ozu at the time. After I came to Japan I barely watched Japanese cinema at all for the first few years. It was just too much hard work to sit through films I couldn't understand. Then I met Peter High, who teaches Japanese cinema at Nagoya University (and who has written one of the best books on Japanese film, The Imperial Screen), who introduced me to the work of Mikio Naruse. After that I began to watch more Japanese film and tried to catch up on what I'd missed out on.
Suddenly I discovered that I liked Ozu a lot. Seeing Ozu's films without all the usual baggage that is brought to them, I thought they were simply incredibly fresh and honest. I've tried to keep up with contemporary cinema too, but I find a lot of it incredibly self-indulgent and out of touch with reality.
What do you think of the current state of Japanese cinema? Or are you more interested in films made outside of Japan. Do you keep up with British cinema?
I think Japanese film is in a bad way. There are some directors who may blossom into greater things, such as Kore-eda, Kawase and Shinozaki, but they will face great difficulty getting financing to make films on a regular basis. The "cult" directors such as Shinji Aoyama, Kiyoshi Kurosawa and Shinya Tsukamoto are talented but marginal in my opinion. I guess this reflects my personal tastes as much as anything else. Kazuo Hara is probably the most interesting filmmaker around at the moment but has only made four films in the last twenty years (again because of financing problems, I imagine.)
Film, as an art form, is marginalized in Japan anyway. I don't know whether the self-indulgence of the new wave of directors is a result or a cause of this. Most Japanese people are not in the slightest bit interested in watching a film like Eureka (three hours and forty minutes of unrelieved boredom). Why should they be when they have to pay so much for the experience? (Eureka was showing at the same theatre in Tokyo as Firefly Dreams for the price of 2,500 yen).
Much of this must be laid at the door of the Hollywood dominance of world cinema I suppose, but on the other hand, does a film like Eureka do anything to change this? (Apologies to Shinji Aoyama for singling this film out but it does epitomise some of the problems of recent Japanese independent film for me.) There are plenty of interesting stories to be told about everyday people in ordinary situations (especially now that the economy is sliding into ruin). Where are the filmmakers who want to do this? Where are the Mike Leighs and Ken Loaches of Japan?
What are your plans for the future now? Have you got another film in preparation?
We have a lead on some financing in Nagoya for a film about a battered mother and her nine-year old son who run away from an abusive marriage to start a new life. It's a mixture of realism and fantasy, based partly on the folk story, Peach Boy. I have a couple of scripts that I'm working on, which could be shot on digital and I'm considering that as an option. One of them is a cross between Rashomon and Crime and Punishment, about a deranged student who murders a homeless man and then befriends the man's family. I'm also working on a traditional Japanese horror story, based on Akutagawa's The Hell Screen, but that needs a big budget. In other words no shortage of projects, just looking for cash.