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Killer Smile – Asakura Kayoko

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There is a perceptual problem in cinema that women are not suited for or interested in directing genre movies. Making such an assumption about Asakura Kayoko based on her model-esque stature and charming smile would be a disservice to the well-versed director and passionate fan of genre fare. At the 2014 Etheria Film Night where Asakura’s slow burn horror short HIDE and SEEK screened, feminist magazine ‘Bitch Media‘ reported a man expressing incredulity the evening’s chills and thrills were directed by Asakura and the other female filmmakers who walked on stage post-screening. Many male directors have become reliable brand names of genre movies, but there are few female directors with equal clout. The fact Asakura has had even fewer working female directors in her native Japan to venerate, especially in genres such as horror, makes the attention she has gained to date all the more remarkable.

Raised in Yamaguchi Prefecture, her first encounter with cinema was in the form of Steven Spielberg’s E.T. when she was young child. After graduating high school she left Yamaguchi in order to attend Tokyo Zokei University, but by this time she had become enamored by movies, particularly Tobe Hooper’s Texas Chain Saw Massacre, Jacques Tourneur’s Out of the Past, and Emir Kusturica’s Arizona Dream. Respectively offering a rush of excitement, taut suspense, or a unique world view this eclectic mix of movies still serve as touchstones for her both as a viewer and a filmmaker. Yet, the director she most admires may be surprising to anyone who watches her movies, particularly the aforementioned HIDE and SEEK (which also screened at Cannes) and her feature-length debut, It’s a Beautiful Day a slasher movie with a unique bent and copious bloodletting–all Asakura’s design. As stated before, assumptions can be misleading.

In the same ‘Bitch Media’ article, Punisher: Warzone director Lexi Alexander is quoted as saying: “[…] There is no lack of female directors. But there is a huge lack of people willing to give female directors opportunities.” Asakura continues seeking those opportunities, not to break down gender barriers, but to explore uncommon and thrilling stories through a keen awareness of the types of movies she aspires to make. And as she gradually earns her place among genre directors, Asakura herself is becoming the inspiration for the young female directors who will follow her.

(Editor’s Note: This interview was originally conducted in 2016. Revisions and additions have been made with the director’s supervision)

You saw your first first horror movie, Texas Chainsaw Massacre, when you were 18. Please name some directors who appealed to you or who you wish to emulate.

Steven Spielberg. With the 2015 release of Jurassic World, I think Colin Trevorrow realized a dream he certainly had strongly maintained at one time of becoming [Steven] Spielberg. But I had never before felt such a surprising level of envy, sympathy, and criticalness. It reaffirmed just how much I long to become Spielberg myself.

You’ve said that slasher movies have especially appealed to you because of how the action-movie-like physicality and energy contributed to a sense of excitement. So do you also like action movies?

I do like action movies. When I first watched slasher and splatter movies, the physicality did appeal to me more than the savagery. I also like the energetic silent-era movies like those by [Buster] Keaton. For me, each one are connected.

Morisaki Saaya in Off Season / ©Asakura Kayoko

You’ve singled out Robert Clark’s 1974 movie Black Christmas in an interview as a remarkable piece of entertainment. Is there a certain period in movie history you believe has produced the best examples of the horror genre?

Since I watch movies unmethodically, it’s very difficult for me to talk about cinema segregated by their eras. However, I will just say that I have been inevitably drawn to 1940s movies which seemed to integrate film noir with something that went beyond horror or thrillers. It’s as if the disparity between the conventional and the avant-garde beckoned me to an entirely different plane of awareness. More specifically, Jacques Tourneur’s I Walked With A Zombie and Robert Siodmak’s The Spiral Staircase were among such works.

I’d like both men and women to perform their jobs respectful of one another without being subjected to the stereotypical images of either gender

Your very first short Off Season is actually based on Greg Egan’s ‘The Hundred Light Year Diary’ right? What appealed to you about the concept of the “lie” and how did a science fiction short story inspire you?

‘The Hundred Light Year Diary’ deals with a dissenting individual in a world where people live each day abiding by a written record of their future conduct. I read it with great interest thinking such alienation could possibly occur in every day life as well. And so, I thought about doing a movie in which a young girl anguishes over insisting on an imagined future within a relationship in which romance is not her sole intention.

Off Season was showcased at an event called the “Peach Festival” which gives young, female directors a chance to screen their works. What are your thoughts on the state of women directors in Japan?

Even now, both in Japan and abroad, there are many women working in film, but I think it would be best if praising their activities became common practice even without describing “a female” director or “a female” writer, etc. each and every time. Likewise, I’d like both men and women to perform their jobs respectful of one another without being subjected to the stereotypical images of either gender.

Shijimi in It’s a Beautiful Day / ©King Records

When did you come up for the idea of It’s a Beautiful Day? Did anything change from your initial idea to the finished script?

The idea for It’s a Beautiful Day was born out of discussions in 2010 with Mr. Yamaguchi several months after I worked on Tales of Terror which he produced as well as It’s a Beautiful Day. Filming began in the spring of 2012, a little under two years later. Between then, my wish to shoot in America was answered, Kim Kkobbi agreed to appear in the film, and a variety of settings changed, but the basic idea remained unchanged.

You shot the first half through the standard “shot list”(*) style used in America. Being educated in the “cut breakdown”(**) style, was editing the movie, at least the first half, difficult?

The “shot list” method creates rhythm in editing through lots of shot footage. The “cut breakdown” method, in contrast, suggests an editorial rhythm through the exacting [attention] to the interval between shots or performances. The difference between them is something I am still incredibly interested in now.
Even from before, I’ve been making movies with the sense that editing is the starting line. So, I did things as I always have. The fact it was the edit of my first feature length movie seemed more of a challenge to me.

*In most western moviemaking, a list is prepared by the director and/or cinematographer of camera angles or types of shots envisioned for each scene in the script. During editing, all angles and shots are examined then assembled regardless of the order those shots were filmed.
**In Japanese filmmaking, the script is broken down in order by the number of cuts required in the script from beginning to end. Scenes are shot for those cuts. During editing, the cuts are then assembled as they were planned. Pre-cutting a movie is discouraged in western filmmaking.

Nakamura Asaka in HIDE and SEEK / ©Asakura Kayoko

You obviously put a lot of thought to the characters of the two brothers. They seem to be archetypes of the genre, but not stereotypes . Are you very aware of prior portrayals and consciously steer away from them?

This is a movie in which characters are affected by the unusual story and go through changes, so I didn’t want to do away with archetypal qualities. I don’t believe stereotypic characters are things which should be avoided, instead how they’re used is probably more important.

What was the impetus for the short film HIDE and SEEK?

I wanted to try two things: shoot in a [traditional] Japanese home and tell a story conscious of its visual storytelling. Specifically, creating a story which builds up to the climax through visual storytelling was very important to me at the time.

I don’t believe stereotypic characters are things which should be avoided, instead how they’re used is probably more important

You had an interesting exchange in an interview about the different views of the supernatural between Japanese and western movies. Western ghosts appear like their living selves and interact with the living world in interesting ways (Ghost, The Frighteners for example). Why do you think Japanese ghosts always seem to only display a sadness or vengeful quality in J-Horror?

It is probably due to the preconceived notion being very strong in Japan that ghosts spawn from grief and anger. However, rakugo (traditional Japanese comical stories) featuring ghosts with bold, comedic elements that stand this notion on its head have existed for a very long time. Why ghosts have had this kind of intimate presence in Japan for so long is rather curious.

Regarding the spin-off web series for Sono Sion’s Tag, were you given a lot of freedom on the script as long as you stayed consistent with the feature? Was it the same for the other two directors in the project with whom you debuted in Tales of Terror ? Did you help one another out?

Rising has no connection whatsoever to Sono’s movie. As long as it was a story tracing the origin of Sato based on the keywords “Sato” and “tag,” I could do anything. I was given a very high degree of freedom.
It was stimulating for the three of us to see one another’s production process just nearby. There was very little exchanging of ideas, but I think we all identified with this resolve to create something good.

[ED.: The two other directors are Ohata Hajime, director Metamorphisis (Henge) as well as a segment in ABCs of Death 2 and Naito Eisuke, director of Let’s Make the Teacher Have a Miscarriage Club and the Slamdance screened short The Prince of Milk]

Kitaura Ayu and Takeda Rena in Real Onigokko Rising: Sato no Shotai / ©Real Onigokko Film Partners

What can you tell us about the movie you just finished shooting?

It’s a love story in which a killer turns up. It deals with the theme of diversity or the acceptance of others.

These questions have regarded you as a “horror director” but considering your influences–both cinematic and literary– perhaps that’s not correct. How would you categorize yourself? A director of movies dealing in human behavior perhaps?

As for myself, I like horror as well as genres other than horror and want to make such movies so perhaps how you describe it is right.

To conclude, this final question is asked of every interviewee. If you could send a maximum 15 character message to yourself 5 years in the future, what would it say?

Always make movies more interesting than the last.

Filmography

Features

2016 – RADWIMPS: Hesonoo (documentary)
2016 – Dokumushi: Toxic Insects
2015 – The Idols and the Undead
2013 – It’s a Beautiful Day

Shorts

2016 – Real Oni-Gokko Rising: Sato no Shotai
2014 – Magic Circle
2013 – HIDE and SEEK
2010 – Don’t Peep
2010 – A Vacant House
2010 – Off Season

Official homepage

www.kayokoasakura.com

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.