The poster for Nishikawa Fumie’s The Azemichi Road depicts a young girl in school uniform captured ecstatically jumping mid-air on a country dirt road. It’s a pastoral image processed to resemble a painting that invites the viewer to speculate the story within. Though a poster is no means representative of the movie itself, in this case, the image does give insight into the Tokyo native.
Nishikawa loved to draw manga and write stories in elementary school. She was studying to pursue that path when her eyes were opened to the wonder of movies during high school. Her ambition shifted from illustrating a picture to telling the story within it; to bring that image to life. It’s a fundamental component of her craft apparent in her graduate thesis at London College of Communication where she went after high school to study film & video production. Nishikawa wrote, shot, and produced While You Sleep. With its evocative title and simple premise of a teen awakening to family realities when her mother falls into a deep coma, the movie expanded upon the ideas they conjured, and resulted in the Eva Tang directed short world premiering at the Venice International Film Festival.
Upon returning to Japan, Nishikawa held down part-time jobs and TV related work leading up to her theatrical debut in 2006 with Anokoro…Summer Memories. But it is in her third movie, The Azemichi Road, her craft took on an additional dimension. While in England, Nishikawa experienced being a minority for the first time in her life which motivated her to tell the story of a shy, hearing-impaired girl who finds the means of expressing herself through dance. Depicting the lead character overcoming preconceptions reflected her change in worldview as well as an awareness of the link movies can have to society. From Chicago to Indonesia and Seoul, its reception at festivals globally not only reflected its relatability, but demonstrated to Nishikawa the borderless power of cinema.
Movies are said to be picture frames onto other vistas outside your own. Nishikawa had already realized this in her youth and has continued to expand upon the breath of those vistas. And now adding motherhood to her skillset, it should virtually be a foregone conclusion for the social concerns child-rearing engenders to find their way to the images she, as with her children, brings to life.
(Editor’s Note: This interview was originally conducted in 2013. Revisions have been made with the director’s supervision)
Your graduation work While You Sleep screened at the Venice Film Festival, for a new graduate, was that confidence building?
I was so young then, without much confidence in my directing [skills], and actually I had chosen [to study] cinematography at the time. Though my script was selected by the school and I could have directed it, I asked a Singaporean friend instead. On this movie I was the screenwriter, cinematographer, and production manager.
Despite being this little movie shot on 16mm black & white film, I was so ecstatic to have it screened at an esteemed international film festival like Venice. The story is about a Japanese family, but it was shot in London. Stripping away specific contexts such as “Japanese” or “London,” the neutral manner of storytelling depicted a story of a family living ‘somewhere’. I think this technique was the reason Venice accepted it. Moreover, I believe there is a close connection to my self-confidence since this story’s narrative approach is put to use in my later movies.
Has studying film production abroad made it easier or difficult to work with actors & crews in Japan?
Both. When I returned to Japan, I knew absolutely no one in the film business and so I struggled very much since I didn’t know what I should do to enter the industry.
The type of people who think: “I want to study film abroad” are, after all, probably too uncommon. Back in my 20s, I had sensed “a girl who studied film abroad” wasn’t what the Japanese film industry was seeking…even though I consider myself a very typical Japanese. On the other side of the spectrum, there were, of course, people who took an interest in my background. 12 years have passed since I returned to Japan, but at long last I’ve come to be surrounded by people I can trust or look up to.
For me, the best thing about studying abroad is it became possible to “interpret” cultural gaps for Japanese and foreigners. There was a workshop where foreign filmmakers shoot period or historical dramas at a production studio in Kyoto called the “Kyoto Filmmakers Lab.” At this workshop, I was assigned to intermediate between the craftsmen who have honored the traditions of Japanese cinema and the free-thinking, young directors from abroad. It was then I understood the significance of my having studied overseas.
Can you give a few specific examples of those cultural “gaps” that existed between Japanese and foreign staff? Did you tend to agree with one side more than the other?
For example, while waiting on a set in Japan, the outgoing, young, student filmmakers would exchange contact information with the actors, or directly inform them of the shooting or rehearsal schedule. But in Japan, the shadow cast by the talent agencies to which the actors belong is considerable and therefore such behavior, even with unknown talents, doesn’t really happen. Watching it gave me butterflies in my stomach. There is the saying, “when in Rome, do as the Romans” and this hinges on that. I, myself, attach great importance to the interpersonal relationships found in Japan and moreover, I felt this encompassed the work entrusted to me, so I gave an explanation to the foreign staff and they caught on. There were Japanese staff members who criticized such free-spirited directors, but I understood how those directors felt. I was certainly like them when I studied abroad.
But in Japan, the shadow cast by the talent agencies to which the actors belong is considerable and therefore such behavior, even with unknown talents, doesn’t really happen.
As an another example, during the production of a period movie, there was not enough time to prepare the hair or wigs of the extras, so they weren’t going to be captured in the frame despite being on set. The seasoned hairdresser dedicatedly set the hair and crafted the wigs for extras who only appeared tiny in the frame. The hairdresser didn’t want any work he/she did not properly do to be filmed by the camera. On this occassion, there were not enough wigs, so there was a proposal to bundle a woman’s hair up, but because such a hairstyle did not exist at the time, the hairdresser was opposed to it. However, all the director wanted were extras in the shot as soon as possible since the hair style wouldn’t be filmed closely enough to make out such details. As a person who makes movies, I completely understood the director’s stance. I can’t recall now what ultimately resulted, but if the hair wouldn’t be shown, then I wonder if a middle-ground between various opinions such as putting on a hat or tying a towel [around the head] would have been acceptable.
Regarding The Azemichi Road, what led to you answering the “call for film proposals” by the talent agency?
Ordinarily, I direct or edit videos for corporate advertising. When I was editing footage of artistes represented by this talent agency, they invited me [to participate] so I submitted a proposal.
As the director, how did you convey “being hearing impaired” to your young lead actress—who can be taught the technicalities of signing, but performing as someone who doesn’t hear seems challenging even for adults?
I made all the young girls who played hearing impaired girls wear earplugs and hearing aids to experience what is it like to not be able to hear.
In Oba Haruka’s case, I had her concentrate more on playing a hearing impaired Yuki more than just not being able to hear. I think the way she converted to Yuki was splendid. I’d actually like to ask her how she did it.
You shot the film in 10 days. Did that mean you needed to quickly adapt the schedule based on conditions of the day?
Because it was a summer of bad weather and lots of rain, schedule coordination was challenging. There was one day make-up and costume were ready, but we couldn’t shoot. That was the first day for the six dancers known as Jumping Girls. The assistant director said, “It was a good day to discern the mood on set before their performance,” so I don’t think it turned out to be a [complete] waste.
A movie set or location is greatly swayed by the weather or the situation at the time; the cast, staff, and the director as well really have no control. On this occassion, it was raining so the girls lost the chance [to perform]. The call sheet they received that morning was meaningless and both staff and cast had to deal with a schedule in which a tentative scene to be shot was undergoing changes. For young actors like those girls, I think it turned out to be a day for learning to acknowledge they were leaping into that kind of situation.
The global financial crisis changed distribution plans for the film—actually cancelled them—do you believe the attention received from the festivals in Japan and abroad you applied to while the film went unreleased ironically might have been beneficial?
In terms of a long-running work, even if it was released as planned I don’t think the screenings would have continued up to this day [Ed.note: the movie screened as recently as November, 2016 at the Kid’s International Film Festival in Okinawa]. So, the cumulative exposure at film festivals has been rewarding.
The reaction from international audiences, especially from young people at children’s film festivals was quite positive, how did it feel as a director to move & energize your audience that way?
The screening at the Chicago International Children’s Film Festival was the first time the movie screened before an audience. It hadn’t even been shown to Japanese audiences so I was quite anxious as to how it would be received.
Furthermore, I think there are a lot of studios and production companies in the Japanese film industry that merely make planning & producing, then recovering costs their objective rather than the substance of the work.
However, 800 children watched it with incredible enthusiasm. After the screening, I saw young African-American girls start doing the dance from the movie. That’s when I became aware of the power of film
It felt like a drawing which up until now was on the backside of a canvas, being suddenly flipped over and emerging as the main image. I realized what I had done for myself had turned into something for people’s benefit.
How did you get involved with Hazan wo Tadoru Tabi, the film about Japanese ceramicist Hazan Itaya which was part of the Ibaraki Prefecture Project to commemorate the 50th anniversary of his death? Had there been a script already in place?
The offer came from someone I met when I went to shoot in Ibaraki Prefecture for a job. The (project) planner had a concept and the screenwriter wrote the script in line with that idea. It was then I was allowed to also inject my own opinions.
In the film’s souvenir pamphlet you mention that at first you “wanted to make never before seen movies that move the audience.” 10 years after graduating you felt “earning a living” or “pleasing the investors” was enough. But making “Hazan” has revived your “resolve” as a filmmaker. Can you expand on what this “resolve” means for you?
I don’t know just how many directors are out there who can be dedicated to a movie a well-to-do production company is making for its own benefit. As for myself, however, I step back at the “phase,” one might say, the thing that must be made has already been predetermined. Furthermore, I think there are a lot of studios and production companies in the Japanese film industry that merely make planning & producing, then recovering costs their objective rather than the substance of the work.
If there exists today a director who makes movies in the vein of Hazan Itaya’s words, “exert blood and sweat for the sake of art,” [Ed.note: rough translation] then I think he or she is truly worthy of respect. I’m acquainted with several directors who make with their own money the short films they crave [to see]. Though they haven’t yet managed to make a theatrically released movie, I admire them.
Knowing that Kazan was in his 60s by the time he was able to live an adequate life, if I pursue something I truly love such as movies to such a degree and achieve a somewhat comfortable life by my 60s, that may not be such an unfortunate thing in my opinion.
You’ve spoken about the connection movies have to society, particularly the social role of movies, fiction or non-fiction. One aspect of this is to provide opportunities for children to realize the enjoyment of shooting a movie. You’ve even held a workshop at your elementary school alma mater. Are these activities something you wish to become more involved moving forward?
Yes. In recent years, the opportunities for children and young people to go see movies beyond those specific to them have been in decline, so I want them to discover various genres and artists exist in movies. I want to hold the kind of workshops where children shoot and screen the movies themselves in order to also build a fascination for this culture we call “cinema.”
As a mother, do you think your future works will reflect concerns for the welfare of your child?
Yes, I do. In recent years, the issue of children living in poverty has been a growing problem. I’m thinking about a movie in which I’d like to depict the story a family’s rejuvenation with that issue as one of its themes.
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?
Someday make movies a staple of everyday life with your family.
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.
2015 – Hazan wo Tadoru Tabi (documentary)
2009 – The Azemichi Road
2007 – soeur
2006 – Ano koro…Summer Memories
As Screenwriter or Producer
2002 – While You Sleep (short, dir.: Eva Tang)