Greeting visitors of Nakano Ryota’s homepage is a photograph of the director standing with a resigned expressionlessness in an ankle deep river though his trousers are cinched up mid-thigh. Depending on the size of device display it is being viewed, a wider image reveals he is on location which only enhances the tragicomic quality of the photo. The image was undoubtedly chosen for concisely encapsulating the credo at the filmmaker’s core.
Nakano was not, as many of his peers and forerunners may have, particularly enamored with movies or television when he was young. He was, however, conscious of a need to express himself and was attracted to the feedback received from entertaining people around him. In university, this manifested as a foray into music before setting on the road toward a filmmaking career post graduation. His award-winning early short movies as well as his debut feature wrapped somber themes or situations in a unique humor, and at their heart is the portrayal of family which has been central to all his movies perhaps a byproduct of growing up in a single-parent home. In person, Nakano is forthcoming and passionate about his craft. He often will speak of scripts interchangeably with “books” suggesting the importance he places on writing an effective story. Yet, he is surprisingly self-effacing, wielding an easygoing wit that is simultaneously disarming and charming. That is not to say he does not have a firm vision of the movie he wants to make nor is he impish on set, but his idiosyncratic charisma creates a sense of camaraderie between himself and his actors clearly manifested by the depth of personal relationships visible on screen.
No doubt the honesty he demands of his stories–that is to say emotions he doesn’t manufacture outside his own experiences–is also what gives his movies their heart. But no one understands better than Nakano that seeking what Imamura Shohei once described as the “heavy comedy” is a tightrope walk between pathos and joy. Stray too far one way, the work turns maudlin, or farcical on the other. With his first two features earning multiple awards and accolades at home and abroad, Nakano has made a strong first impression and has infused the family drama, a staple of Japanese cinema, with his own brand of bittersweet humor. That both of these were original screenplays may be the greater impact he has and perhaps will continue to have on an industry all too phobic of the unproven.
(Editor’s Note: This interview was originally conducted in 2016. Revisions have been made with the director’s participation)
You have previously talked about being self-expressive from a young age, at the time did you have a favorite television program, manga, etc. which kindled your imagination?
There wasn’t a television program or manga I particularly liked. But there was always a TV nearby and I was watching it. In terms of the roots of my self-expression, I believe I had a strong desire to please others. I was delighted by a someone enjoying what I created.
You’ve often recounted at events and other places how your eyes were opened to the joy of making movies when you were attending film school. What specifically is the most enjoyable thing about film production? Is it giving life to something you conceived? Your interactions with the cast and production staff?
The sensation I had the first time I shot a movie at film school is, even to this day, at the core of who I am. There is a unique gratification to thinking up something out of thin air, and with everyone’s shared effort it becomes a movie. On top of that, you show it to many people and if they tell you they found it interesting, there’s just no stopping. Filmmaking is a thrill I’ve never experienced before. What is the most enjoyable? I would have to say it’s creating a story from scratch.
Your graduating work, As We Go Cheering Our Flaming Lives, won the Japan Institute of the Moving Image’s Imamura Shohei Award and the Tama New Wave Grand Prize. Please share how you felt at the time. Could this movie be the originator of a major theme in your movies: “the missing family”?
Having my first movie receive praise gave me tremendous joy and delight. Because I let my true self out making the movie, though exaggerated, I got this feeling my existence had been acknowledged and that made me happy. The theme of my movie is “how will the family left behind live on.” It’s surely the source of the film themes I portray. My newest movie [at the time of Nakano-san’s response] Her Love Boils Bathwater certainly has inherited this source theme.
On the surface, The Sparkling Amber may seem to deal with “family” and “urinalysis,” but would it be correct to think the movie truly deals with a middle school girl’s fear of losing her family; in other words “death”?
The theme is not “death.” It’s actually “life.” A family member dies, how do those who remain go on living, that is the movie’s theme. The main actors are people who will go on living. I depict “Death” because I want to depict “Life.” I think properly representing both realistically links them to one another.
It was a situation where I hadn’t decided on anything, even a distributor, but I believed that if I made a good movie things would surely go in the right direction
After shooting a number of short movies, what was the reason behind deciding to shoot your feature film debut, Capturing Dad?
My thinking had been to shoot a feature film by the time I turned 40. It’s a harsh industry so I was also considering giving up on this line of work if I hadn’t produced any results by 40 years of age. Therefore, I made Capturing Dad with a “make or break” mindset. It was a situation where I hadn’t decided on anything, even a distributor, but I believed that if I made a good movie things would surely go in the right direction. As a result, it won an award at an international film festival in Japan, secured a foreign sales agent, screened at the Berlin International Film Festival, and ultimately led to a domestic theatrical release. But thinking about it now, I also incurred a hefty debt to make it so it was a fairly reckless. I think I realized my debut because of effort, passion, connections and also luck.
Please talk about Watanabe Makiko’s various suggestions and ideas regarding the role of the mother she frequently made at the scriptwriting stage as well as on set. Did she provide any guidance to the two young actresses playing her daughters?
I have already forgotten if places in the script had been changed with Watanabe-san, but on set we worked at bringing our respective ideas for the role of the mother closer to construct the character. “Would she say this line?” “Alright then, let’s change it a bit to be more like her.” In that manner. There’s a scene the mother is ironing the children’s clothes which Watanabe-san said she wanted to do it because she could one-hundred percent express the feelings of the mother, so that was a newly invented scene that had not been in the script.
I don’t think Watanabe-san provided direct advise to the two girls. They spent time together, talked a lot with one another, and just created a sense of being a family. Acting with Makiko-san was a learning experience for the two actresses.
Before filming began, you instructed Ms. Watanabe and the two actresses playing her daughters, Yanagi Elisa and Matsubara Nanoka to spend time together as if a family in order to build those bonds between them. But beyond the parent-daughter relationships, a connection was born between the two sisters as well. In a press conference at the Foreign Correspondents Club of Japan (FCCJ), Ms. Yanagi commented about a scene she was proud of: “In the scene the sisters quarrel, I kicked her for real. It’s because a mutual trust existed between us the scene could happen.” Even without your instruction, did you notice the trust between them was steadily growing stronger as filming progressed? As with Ms. Watanabe, did Ms. Yanagi or Ms. Matsubara offer ideas for their characters?
In general, as you shoot a movie, the performances come to exhibit a convincing relationship at the final stages of a production lasting many days. This is natural because [the actors] have been acting together the whole time, so if that’s the case I wanted to begin the production after that relationship had been established at the very onset. Without fail, I make an effort to build those relationships prior to filming. For the two daughters, and also Watanabe-san, on top of rehearsals I had them exchange emails each day and communicate with one another. As such, from the beginning of production they had developed a close relationship to some extent. As filming progressed they got along too well and on the day of their quarrel scene, from morning, I forbade them from talking to one another and kept them apart. I had to go to that degree. That’s how strong their relationship grew day after day. Because I could see enough of a sisterly bond between them just as they were, I don’t think they had suggested any ideas themselves.
How significant is the SKIP City International D-Cinema Festival to Capturing Dad, particularly the impact of being chosen for the SKIP City D-Cinema Project after winning awards there?
I think of SKIP City as the initiator of my filmmaking career. They discovered me and introduced me to the world. Prior to winning the awards, I discussed a theatrical release with a distribution company and was turned down. So, if it wasn’t for the D-Cinema Project it’s possible there wouldn’t have been a theatrical release. By getting released, it reached people, the industry came to know of my existence, and the next opportunity came around. A producer who saw Capturing Dad called on me to make a movie together from an original script. That is how Her Love Boils Bathwater was born.
What did you learn from your experiences going to foreign film festivals as the movie began to attract attention abroad, both for yourself as a filmmaker and the Japanese industry as a whole?
Take for example Ueda Shinichiro’s One Cut of the Dead. The reason this movie connected with people abroad is something directors and producers need to think about. Capturing Dad going to (foreign) festivals and its success abroad gave me that experience and insight.
Sometimes filmmakers don’t know they wanted or needed to experience their movies’ response overseas. Even I didn’t know until Capturing Dad did well abroad
The fewer young filmmakers know or acquire this experience spells trouble for Japanese cinema. Very few directors have such experience, but most important are producers who have gone out and experienced this and are consciously are aware of what makes movies appealing on a broader scope. Sometimes filmmakers don’t know they wanted or needed to experience their movies’ response overseas. Even I didn’t know until Capturing Dad did well abroad. It opened my mind to how important the experience of gaining that feedback in different regions is to my filmmaking.
However, I really don’t like it when the movie plays abroad but doesn’t connect locally. Some may say to forget about the local market and focus on the foreign, but I try to make sure it’s as appealing at home while having appeal abroad.
Led by Miyazawa Rie, the cast for your second feature-length Her Love Boils Bathwater is impressive. You’ve been quoted as saying when you were writing the script you imagined how she would perform the role of the mother. Is that true? What were feeling when you actually saw here acting out the role on set?
It wasn’t Miyazawa-san. It was the role of the daughter. I wrote only with Sugisaki Hana in mind. I imagined her while writing it. Sugisaki-san was outstanding, easily surpassing my vision. Though I hadn’t imagined her in the part, Miyazawa-san superbly played the character of Futaba I had written. I could only see a trusting mother-daughter in Miyazawa-san and Sugisaki-san .
Pieta in the Toilet director Matsunaga Daishi commented on Sugisaki Hana’s force of personality: “She is an amazing actress who has the capacity to lead those around her.” Did you notice that “capacity to lead” on the set of Her Love Boils Bathwater?
Yes. When she was acting there were times I sensed she was suddenly leading those around her. Her ability to completely step into her role is exceptional. Occasionally, in scenes she was acting with Miyzawa-san, there were instances I could recognize she was influencing Miyazawa-san. When both display such fine acting, the crew can also be charmed and won over by that acting. I, too, was drawn in many times.
In regards to the theme of this movie, you have said “I depict ‘death’ because I want to depict ‘life’.” This contrast resembles the “Heavy Comedy” often spoken of by Imamura Shohei whom you admire. Please explain just how important to your filmmaking is this concept of the connection between life and death; or laughter and sadness.
It’s very very important. What Imamura-san spoke of, the heavy comedy, is a fundamental element of my movies. “Life” and “death”, “laughter” and “sadness” are contrasts, but they are not on opposite sides, rather they’re side-by-side. Therefore, two antithetical sensations are always a paper thickness apart. Were I to think of them as opposites, my movies would not be portrayable. I continue to attach importance on people who exist with death in proximity–the experience of a family member’s death, and how those left behind go on living; as well as the laughter within sadness–since funerals are emblematic of this, I’ve depicted them a number of times.
After “Bathwater” I got a lot of offers to adapt original works to film but I kept rejecting them–there were a lot of manga adaptations but I had no interest as they already exist in visual form and I didn’t want to visualize them again
The movie won or was nominated for many prestigious awards locally, and was chosen as Japan’s entry to the Best Foreign Language Film at the Academy Awards. How significant were these accolades and what did you take away from its success?
Winning and/or being nominated for Her Love Boils Bathwater was a body blow to the local film industry. It was an original script by an unknown director that performed well at home and abroad–which I desperately sought. On the other hand I did learn something new. Europe did not accept it well where audiences and critics felt it was too sentimental. But it did very well in Asia. Even though Capturing Dad was well received in Europe, I may have gone too far though they’re both stories about families. I picked up on things that worked in “Capturing” and put them along with other elements which, to Europeans, went too far. That was another revelation for me.
What led to your decision to make your latest feature The Long Goodbye? The material certainly lends itself to your brand of storytelling.
After “Bathwater” I got a lot of offers to adapt original works to film but I kept rejecting them–there were a lot of manga adaptations but I had no interest as they already exist in visual form and I didn’t want to visualize them again.
When I picked up ‘The Long Goodbye’ I immediately thought this could work plus thematically it was something that needed to be made now. It’s a story about Alzheimer’s Disease but not in that typical sad, loss-of-everything angle. Of course it has poignancy but it takes the stance that because of Alzheimer’s, losing one’s memory and becoming senile is a matter of fact. That’s the nature of the illness. For example, it’s the story of a father who gradually forgets his wife is his wife. That’s going to happen. It’s Alzheimer’s. But in his heart, he has a sense this woman is someone important to him. That doesn’t go away. When I read that, it was the deciding factor this story could be made.
This is the society that is coming in the future and if it can play some role then it has to be made and why I wanted to make it. And it is something relatable at home and abroad.
To conclude, this final question is asked of every interviewee. If you could send a maximum 15 word message to yourself 5 years in the future, what would it say?
I expect you to still be realizing creativity.
2019 – The Long Goodbye
2016 – Her Love Boils Bathwater
2012 – Capturing Dad
2013 – Oniichan wa Senjo ni Itta ?!
2013 – Shizumanai Mittsu no Ie
2009 – The Sparkling Amber
2006 – ROCKET PUNCH
2000 – As We Go Cheering Our Flaming Lives
Excerpted from a full interview to be published in curated eBooks which will be offered for sale sometime in the near future. Please bookmark the Indievisual blog, Backstory, for news when the eBooks are available for purchase.