- 29 March 2010
by Jasper Sharp
Born in 1982, the daughter of actor-director Eiji Okuda and essayist Kazu Ando, and the sister of rising starlet Sakura Ando, Momoko Ando is certainly no stranger to the world of cinema. After graduating from the Slade School of Fine Art in London and studying film at New York University, she returned to Japan where she initially worked as an assistant on her father's films while harboring strong ambitions to become a director in her own right. The result is her delicately nuanced debut Kakera: A Piece of Our Life. Marked by a "Japanese emotional sensibility and a slight British edge" as the biography on her agent's webpage puts it, it is a free adaptation of Erika Sakurazawa's manga about a lesbian love affair and boasts a soundtrack by former Smashing Pumpkins guitarist James Iha.
Kakera received its world premiere at London's Raindance Film Festival where it played as part of a special program of films by Japanese women directors. It was released simultaneously in London (by Third Window Films) and in Tokyo. The following interview was conducted by Jasper Sharp in two parts, during Momoko's trip to London to introduce her film at Raindance and in Tokyo in March 2010.
Can you tell me a bit about the origins of Kakera? It is based on a manga, which interests me because in terms of the framing and shot composition, the style is very simple and clear, and dare we use the word, 'manga-esque'. Your background is originally in fine art though, is it not?
It came from a manga called 'Love Vibes' by Erika Sakurazawa, who's quite a famous comic writer in Japan, but I probably changed around 80% of the story. Perhaps I shouldn't really say this out loud, but I actually only read the original once and never opened it again because I didn't want to be too influenced by it. I used to study painting and sculpture so I come from an arts background. I just knew if I looked at the comic too many times, the images might stick with me, because a manga is like a film storyboard, isn't it? I drew my own storyboards for every scene, so I didn't want them to be the same. When I was writing the script, I was thinking more in terms of images than in the way the story fit together. I first came up with the images that I wanted to shoot, then directed and edited everything myself.
Can you tell me a little more about this process?
It all comes from my dreams and my drawings. So when I write scripts, each scene and every cut comes from the images I have within my head. I also keep a dream diary. The script I am writing now, which is an original story, for example, originated from my dreams. It's quite an interesting process. I usually don't remember what I've written because I'm half asleep, so when I go back to it, it's usually pretty crazy and quite interesting to read. So this is where my scripts come from, by putting my dream diary and all my notes together later, and over time I refine them and the story gradually changes.
I think it works quite well like this, because between consciousness and unconsciousness you become aware of things you weren't conscious of before. Kakera, of course, is based on someone else's original story, so I had to re-edit and reconnect the various pieces and do quite a bit of work on it, but some of the scenes come from my dreams.
One thing I realised is that I'm quite keen on colours. For example, there's the scene where the girls have flowers in their hair, which is used in one of the publicity stills. I tried to make Haru and Riko's costumes as monochrome as possible, because when you watch really good old black and white films, you sometimes experience more warmth and feelings than you would with a colour film. Sometimes you can't remember with a monochrome film whether it actually was in black and white or not, because you fill in all the colours in your head yourself. So this was the reason I only used vivid colours in key scenes.
What I believe in most is the power of people's imagination to fill in what isn't there. This is one of the reasons why I didn't want to show the two girls having sex, because if you want to imagine that kind of scene, you can. To make people imagine this, I decided to put in quite a violent sex scene between Haru and her boyfriend at the beginning of the film, while for the rest of the film you really only see the girls just holding hands.
How did the project come about?
It actually started with a producer who was looking for a young female first-time director. She had acquired the rights to the manga already and wanted to find a director for the project, so came to me. We started work on the script, then in the middle of this process the production company started having problems with another film, so we didn't have the money to make it anymore.
It's quite a well-known manga then?
The writer is very famous in Japan, but this particular story is only a very short comic book, not part of a series or anything, and it's about ten years old. She did quite a few "girls love" stories like this, so the people who are into this kind of thing know about it, but the story itself is not so well-known and it's sort of old now, which is how I was able to change so much when I wrote the script.
Can you tell me about the casting?
I wanted to cast the characters completely opposite from how the actresses are in real life. Hikari Mitsushima who plays Haru is really energetic and just says anything she wants to say, while Eriko Nakamura who plays Riko is quite quiet, very girlie, sweet, and a bit dreamy. In real life, she's like Haru. It was a kind of mirror casting. Everyone has two different sides to their personalities, I believe, so I wanted to bring out this other side to the actresses. Men are quite straightforward, I think, and find it quite difficult to show their real feelings to their girlfriends. But a woman, especially Japanese girls, I find, usually have two very different sides to them, myself as well. I thought it would be much stronger if I could try and bring out this other side to the characters that is hidden deep inside the actress rather than just show them as they are in real life.
Hikari had never played a quiet character before. She came in for the audition for the part of Riko, but I chose her for Haru's character. I met so many other girls while trying to cast for this part, and even if they were good for the role, it was like a puzzle as it had to be a good combination of how the characters played against each other. So this is why I chose this mirror casting approach.
I'm particularly interested in your choice of Hikari Mitsushima, who was in Love Exposure.
Hikari started her career when she was about ten or eleven as a singer in this idol group called Folder 5, so she's pretty famous for that, but she's trying to do more independent films now. She's a bit, well, weird... but in a good way! I think all good actresses are pretty eccentric, so she's quite typical in this respect. Very shy on the one hand, which is why she talks a lot, but she's very interesting because she reads a lot, she thinks a lot, and she also writes. She's quite a creative person. She's really good fun and smart when you talk to her. I only met her properly at the audition. I knew about her through my sister Sakura, who acted with her in Love Exposure, but we'd never actually met before.
We had a small screening at a festival in Japan called Yufuin, just before the international premiere at Raindance. This festival is mainly attended by otaku and real film obsessives, and a lot of Hikari's fans came up to me after the screening in disgust and were like, "Ugh! She's got hairy armpits and you showed her changing her tampons - I didn't know that she even has periods. What's going on! You can't show this, it really shocked me! How am I going to ever get over this!" I thought they were going to hang me.
Then again, in Love Exposure she had all those under-the-skirt shots.
Yes, but it's more like typical 'idol' type stuff, isn't it. Knickers are all right to see, but probably not armpits. This is why I really wanted to show these kind of scenes, because so many of these crazy men have this idealistic image of women, and all these weird lesbian fantasies and so on. A lot of men also asked me why didn't I shoot any lesbian bed scenes, but I just didn't really want to show it. I think it's interesting how a lot of men get these sort of ideas about women.
What about Eriko?
She's so sweet. I'm quite good friends with her now, and we go for coffee pretty often. The good thing was that before we shot the film she was doing everything that her agency told her to do, like how she should act and dress in public. She was a typical idol, appearing in swimsuit photo shoots, for example, and as the token pretty girl appearing in small parts in films. But then she realised while we were making Kakera that she actually wanted to act seriously, and she doesn't care about how she appears in the films, which I think is quite positive. She wasn't in so many films before - one called Shikyu no Kioku, directed by Setsuro Wakamatsu in 2007. I think she changed so much during the shooting of Kakera. Before this, everyone was telling her exactly what to do in her career, which is typical in this sort of idol system.
Hikari was also pretty similar, I think. Before Love Exposure she was in lots of films, as she'd had a really long career since she was a child, even though she's only 23 now. She was in the 1997 Mothra film, for example, when she was little.
There have been quite a few women directors who have emerged over the past few years. Some emphasise the role their gender has upon their films, while others downplay it. What's your take on things? Is it a big deal?
I don't think it matters to me personally, but probably in Japan it does matter because it's a very male industry still. I was working as an assistant director for four years and was sometimes the only female assistant director. There were many women working in costumes and make up, but I was the only female assistant.
It's quite interesting that in the selection of films directed by women that screened at Raindance, where Kakera got its world premiere, you have films like, for example, Sachi Hamano's Lily Festival, which hasn't had a proper release in Japan because a lot of distributors said "Who wants to see a film about old women's sex lives", or Yuki Tanada's Ain't No Tomorrows, which your sister also appears in and which shows the sexual awakening of a group of high-school students, and it seems it's definitely the girls who are the most in control. Actually, the guys in this second film come off as such real dicks, it made me squirm with embarrassed recognition. I think it's interesting that films like these are almost turning the tables on the male characters and viewers, while at the same time deconstructing these fantasy images men have of women.
Yes. I was at Sachi Hamano's screening, she's a real pioneering woman director in Japan. She was one of the first women directors so she helped to open the door for us. What she was saying, which I really believe very strongly, is that as a female director, what's the point in trying to copy exactly what men do, or trying to masquerade as a male director? We should try and make the type of films that men can't make. So this might have come across quite strongly in my film, perhaps. It's not like a feminist thing or anything, but I am able to make this sort of film because I am female.
So for you it's something more spontaneous than premeditated then?
The main female characters are really strong in Kakera, but the male characters are actually pretty unpleasant, I thought.
Probably it's based to some extent on my own experience, so I'm kind of saying a big fuck off to my old boyfriend - I won't mention him by name! I know he hasn't seen it yet of course, but hopefully he'll realise what he's done if he does!
Did he used to play around with guns then?
Ummm... Actually, I think I've met some quite weird people in my life, you know, with weird hobbies and stuff. But I think sometimes maybe you have to dig around through your painful memories and past experiences to be creative.
How much of yourself did you actually put in the film then?
Quite a lot. I mean, I haven't actually had a girlfriend before, but I believe you can't really express what you don't know, so if you haven't really got hurt by someone before you can't really imagine how this feels.
I don't know how "out" in the open lesbianism is in Japan, but I get the impression the subject is kept quite undercover.
Yes, it is. The weird thing is, it's almost like there were a number of things that happened that led to the final form of Kakera, like pieces of a puzzle falling into place. One of these was just when I was writing the script, my best friend told me she might fancy another girl. It was almost exactly like how it happened in this movie. They both seem really happy together now, like they've found their life partners. It seemed like I went through her experience with her, as I'm her best friend. She was totally straight before, but she liked someone who just happened to be a girl.
I think the character of Haru is very Japanese. Many young Japanese girls feel quite lost. They don't know what they want to do in their lives, they're not even sure if they are in love with their boyfriends or not, and they're always trying to follow what others are doing. We've had some private screenings and it seems like many young girls feel some sort of connection with Haru's character while male viewers tend to like Riko more. It's not like there's any lesbian sex scenes or anything. I wasn't trying to make a "lesbian" film. I just wanted to say that before we talk about being a woman or a man, we should figure out how we should try to live our lives as human beings. We've all got hearts. That's the message.
You lived in London for a while. To me, Kakera doesn't really feel like a typically Japanese film. It has a different feel to it. How much of London do you think is in it, or perhaps, how much do you think your foreign education influenced the film?
A lot. It's almost like I wish I could shoot in England, because I moved here when I was fifteen, so these were my teenage years, my youth, my whole experience. I think I was just so influenced by England and all my friends are here too. It's almost like I found it quite difficult to shoot in Japan because things that are in my head aren't sometimes structured in the same way Japanese people think. So there's a very large influence. Music too...
Talking of which, the music fits the mood of the film really well. Can you tell me a little about your collaboration with James Iha, the former guitarist of Smashing Pumpkins who scored the film? It's not his first score, as a couple of years ago, he also worked on Nobuhiro Yamashita's Linda Linda Linda.
This was a really amazing experience. Because I live in Tokyo and he's usually based in New York, I sent him some footage and he saw it and started to compose for some of the scenes, but I did actually go to New York and we worked on the music in the studio for about a week. It's quite amazing but there's one scene, with Haru tossing the tangerine up in the air at the end, and I hadn't imagined that the music would be in that kind of touching, slow and sad style. I had a more upbeat atmosphere in mind, but when I heard it, it made me more conscious of things I wasn't conscious of when I was shooting or writing the scene. It was like, usually "one plus one equals two", but here it equalled five, or six for example, and I think this is how is should be when collaborating with other people.
Can you tell me about the fuss about the poster in Japan?
This was actually quite a funny incident. I actually know the poster designer very well. I've known him since I was little, and he's one of the best in Japan. I originally didn't want to ask him because maybe I know him too well, and I felt kind of bad because usually he charges quite a lot of money for his designs, and we didn't have that much available. But then I thought, with something you gave that much love to create, you shouldn't collaborate at the end with some complete stranger, but someone you know well.
The original idea was that we should go with some sort of girlie Sofia Coppola-type visual, you know, with flowers and pink and a kind of cute girls movie style, so it would be easy to attract this sort of audience. But then I thought, well, I'm not really a girlie type and when you actually see the film, it's not really like this at all. I mean, in one sense it is, but not in a twinkle twinkle kawaii sort of way. You can't cheat the audiences that way. So the promoter and the designer said why don't we use the word 'balls' on the poster, which is in the plot, you know, when she kicks Ryota she says something which doesn't really translate very well between English and Japanese, but it's basically to the effect of "Just by having balls do you think men are better than women?" On the left-hand side of the poster are the Japanese words 'kintama', meaning 'testicles', and on the rights is written 'oppai', or 'boobs', and then elsewhere you have words like 'sex', so there were all these taboo kinds of words. And then there's the image we used as well. I think it worked well, because it caused a bit of a scandal over here. What we've done is erased the third character, using fuseiji, or a blank character, so you can still read 'kinOma'. I think this works better, because it forces people to use their imagination a bit more. It's a bit more erotic.
The film is set for a more-or-less simultaneous release in London and Tokyo, so I was wondering what sort of questions you've been getting from the Japanese media.
Interestingly, I've been getting interviews from not only film magazines, but fashion magazines too. For example, the magazine So-en is coming out in a few weeks, and they wanted to have a special photo-shoot with designer clothes for me with Hikari and Eriko. So this is probably the first time you get to see actresses with the director all together on the same page promoting a film, not as a director but as a model. So this is what we're trying to do, a kind of new way of promoting the film. It's kind of embarrassing, I guess, but fuck it, you have to get people to come and see the film somehow!