The role of media in society has changed significantly over the last several years. It’s becoming more difficult to tell if media influences the masses or if the masses influence the media. Ogata Takaomi was becoming aware of this blurring of lines between sensationalism and journalism almost a decade ago. An avid lover of cinema since childhood, the Fukuoka native speaks of movies with an eager grin and a mild manner which belie the movies he has made. At the age of 25, he left the startup-up he founded as a partner and traveled abroad extensively. It was then he began to see the only way of life and society he knew in an entirely different light. His filmography is a gallery of thought-provoking studies intended to shed light on the biases instilled by society and the media in all of us.
Ogata’s filmmaking is likely best described by the old adage “walk a mile in another man’s moccasins”. Having once aspired to journalism, he is unwavering in his dedication to steer his stories away from sentimentality. Instead, he prefers to create an experience, an hour or two spent living as another person as a means to confront people with their preconceptions and does not shy away from honest portrayals of difficult or uncomfortable subject matter. Therefore, Ogata’s movies are not for the feint of heart. His directorial debut, Never Ending Blue, laid bare self-mutilation, Body Temperature illuminated idiosyncratic love, and Sunk into the Womb bore witness to child abandonment. Resolution–an answer–is not something he provides. Whether or not someone leaves the theater satisfied is not really his objective. He would rather show people things from which they’d normally turn away and intentionally leave questions to which they themselves must find the answers.
Naturally, such unflinching looks at the world are not the biggest box office draws. But Ogata has always had a mind for business. He puts as much thought to their financial return as their thematic impact, skillfully self-managing screenings and rights exploitation to allow him to be that rare independent filmmaker who fully finances his movies himself without relying on freelance work to do so. This affords him the ability to choose the topics and develop the stories which matter most to him. More than anything, it gives him the latitude to continue affecting society through cinema one movie, one audience member at a time.
(Editor’s Note: This interview was originally conducted in early 2016. Revisions have been made with the director’s supervision)
Though you’ve stated it before in various interviews, please explain again why you chose to shoot narrative fiction instead of documentaries. In particular, you felt documentaries had limitations, right?
“The camera is draconian, but with regards to human life, there are things it simply can not photograph. One is the moment a person dies. Another is when people are making love. Will a camera be allowed in such a place of personal sadness? And as soon as a camera intrudes upon where people make love, a man and woman already cease being naturally intimate. However, if it were drama, that moment can be portrayed.” These are the words of (Krzysztof) Kieslowski when he recognized the limits of documentary film and shifted to narrative movies.
Generally speaking, a documentary is thought of as a non-fictional work shot without pretense while the participants are considered to speak truthfully. However, if cameras are turned on people, they exaggerate or shy away to a greater or lesser extent. The subject ceases being their true self which is where I think documentaries reach their limit. Even so, directing three movies has taught me fictional movies also contain documentary elements, and vice-versa. Nowadays, when shooting a movie I no longer think there is a difference between documentaries and narrative fiction.
Some of your favorite directors were formerly documentary filmmakers such as the Dardenne Brothers, Kryzsztof Kieślowski, and Kore-eda Hirokazu. What influence have they had on your own movies?
I don’t think I’ve been especially influenced, but a regard for others and an observant eye is essential for a good dramatic movie. Since the Dardenne Brothers and Kieślowski were originally documentary filmmakers, that is what I may have learned from their movies.
With regard to your debut feature Never Ending Blue, the color “blue” is often associated with “sadness.” Did you intend to express the circumstances of the central character, Kaede, in the title or was it just coincidence?
For the “blue” of the title, it does have the meaning of “sadness” as you’ve stated, but is also the “blue” of the sky. It is meant to show both the irony that no matter how cruel the circumstances are for Kaede, a cloudless blue sky stretches overhead, and the hard reality she exists under the very same sky as those of us who continue to turn a blind eye [to her situation].
Lead actress Mizui Maki was very courageous for appearing in the movie so as to impart her own true life experiences. Just how pivotal was she to your intention of subjecting the audience to Kaede’s daily life and making them understand her actions?
Initially, I had no intention of casting someone with a background of self-mutilation. First of all, there aren’t many actors who are openly public about their wrist-cutting, etc., but more than anything, I wanted the movie to avoid taking a self-destructive person’s standpoint. However, Ms. Mizui had ceased harming herself at the time of the shoot and generously demonstrated such behavior with composure and impartiality. Because of this, I think the movie’s persuasive power was amplified.
Kore-eda’s Air Doll and Craig Gillespie’s Lars and the Real Girl both deal with the same subject matter as your second feature, Body Temperature, but their themes differ. Lars… seems to be about how a community rallies to support a young man in finding “real love” while Air Doll essentially taps into ‘Pinnochio’ albeit in a more peculiar manner. Your movie, however, is about a “lifestyle choice,” isn’t it? Rintaro chooses to love a doll over a human being. In other words, whether a love doll or a person of the same sex, “love” shouldn’t be limited to just “men and women” right?
That’s exactly what I think. In recent years, there has been an appreciable acknowledgement of a diversification of “gender”, and love not being limited to just a man and a woman is continuing to be a matter of fact. However, when the object of love is not human, very few strides have been made toward acceptance. Androids have become lifelike, and in the near future, love won’t be restricted to between just humans, right? At that point in time, will purposefully breaking an android or love doll, the existence of which will be no different from a human to someone, be considered destruction of property or murder? Or will a unique law similar to today’s animal welfare laws be possible? I’m very curious about this.
Androids have become lifelike, and in the near future, love won’t be restricted to between just humans, right? At that point in time, will willfully breaking an android or love doll…be considered destruction of property or murder?
The title Body Temperature most likely isn’t just referring to human biology. What does it symbolize for you?
In all honesty, it symbolizes “communication”. There are many forms of communication that exist, but even among these, the transfer of “body temperature” through touch, particularly between the two characters, is still primal for humans and remains an unrivaled form of communication in my opinion.
Both Never Ending Blue and Body Temperature depended on a great deal of trust between you and the cast. Did you begin building such trust at the casting stage, during rehearsals, or on set during the filming? Also, did you do anything different between your first and second movies?
The most important factor in casting is an absolute belief toward my film, simply because we can’t make a movie together over a long period of time without it. Beyond that, I set aside time to have a thorough talk with the lead actor(s) after he or she has been cast. Then, I try to have the script reflect the feeling I get from them in that conversation. Body Temperature had a male protagonist, and being male myself, the direction I gave (Ishizaki) Chavetaro might have become very meticulous, which was not the case on Never Ending Blue.
In one interview for your third film Sunk into the Womb, you recounted being frustrated with the two child actors for not being able to perform scenes as written in the script or follow your direction. Some days, you couldn’t get anything done. In those moments could you feel some empathy for parents or at least understand your younger sister’s experiences as a single mother?
Though they’re called child actors, at the ages of 3 and 1, they’re not yet cognizant of a thing called “work,” and it’s the age they want to be with their mother. To a child, [shooting] a take means being separated from their mother. As the call for “action” got closer, they seemed to fret more. From the very first day of the shoot, the schedule greatly fell behind, and there were scenes which couldn’t be shot due to time so I started to become impatient. As I began to sense the movie was in danger of not finishing, I gradually got more and more irritated with the children. And then, it reached a point the children would burst into tears just by my approaching them. That’s when I realized how I was feeling might just be identical to the disposition of my own mother exhausted by child-rearing. Of course, child-rearing is much, much more difficult. But after realizing this, I became open to script changes and the schedule also moved forward by being children-centric. I was determined to create a stress free environment for them if at all possible. In doing so, the shoot curiously seemed to progress rather smoothly.
Prior to the start of filming, you had discussions with actress Izawa Emiko in order to work out the background of the mother character, how she was raised, etc., and decide on the simplest shape of the character for her to portray. She wanted to research parents who neglected their children, but you asked her not to do so. Did you think that would have changed her performance? Or perhaps you wanted to avoid a “performance?”
Basically, I have numerous discussions with the lead actor, and let the script reflect those discussions. It was no different on Sunk into the Womb. However, because this was a movie based on an actual incident, as an actor, Ms. Izawa would most certainly study up on the case or look into abusive mothers.
Making people look at the realities they intentionally avoid seeing, isn’t that the foundation of journalism?
However, doing so runs the risk of her concept for her character becoming the one-sided demonization society brands such mothers, so I told her to think about what a “regular” mother would feel, what are her thoughts, what are her likes, what kinds of conversations does she have, among other such things. But, sure enough, Ms. Izawa did look up various things about the mother involved in the incident.
Considering you first aspired to journalism, has being able to envision through the power of fiction a less easy to digest scenario when the mass media does not, for example when covering the actual abandonment case Sunk into the Womb is based, fulfill what you think journalism should be doing?
It’s not necessary to express in movies a repeat of what other media are able to convey. Furthermore, with today’s new media simply conforming to the moods of society, it seems to have relinquished the function it should fulfill. Making people look at the realities they intentionally avoid seeing, isn’t that the foundation of journalism?
You have stated that you are inspired more by paintings, not movies, for your works. Never Ending Blue was inspired by Munch’s ‘Puberty’, and Body Temperature by Klimt’s ‘The Kiss’. Sunk Into the Womb was inspired by Segatini’s ‘The Evil Mothers’. What captivated you about this painting ?
I had gone to the Belvedere in Vienna to see the paintings of Egon Schiele and Klimpt, but was enthralled the moment I found it. A nude woman in a snow field is coiled in dead branches, an infant suckling from her breast. The title was ‘The Evil Mothers’. I thought it needed no explanation. This painting has given me a great deal of inspiration; in fact, I have a concept for a movie called “The Evil Mothers.”
With regards to your own craft or technique, after four movies do you have any regrets about quitting film school in order to shoot movies? How has your technique changed from your first movie?
I have absolutely no regrets. With each and every movie the quality improved, but that was due to the staff around me. This is just a personal theory, but I think someone aspiring to become a movie director is better off cultivating their scrutiny of society and others rather than studying technique.
You’ve recently finished your latest movie, The Hungry Lion. Can you explain the timing for making this movie now? And what is the meaning of the title?
In recent years there seem to be greater opportunities to think about the function of information in society. I don’t think I’m alone in this. I’m sure many people agree. In particular, there is a disregard for the human rights of victims and their families involved in crimes and accidents due to their sensational nature. News reports by various media are escalating the use of people’s real names and their private photographs. Furthermore, questionable information about victims are constantly being exposed on the internet. This movie depicts the potential for videos and information to be used as instruments of “violence”. We are being flooded with videos and information all around us, creating a situation in which anyone can be a victim, as well as the perpetrator. In this day and age, especially, something needed to be made to serve as a warning to us about this. That is why I made the movie.
As with all of my movies up to now, this was made using a painting as a motif. That painting was Henri Rousseau’s ‘The Hungry Lion Throws Itself on the Antelope’. I also borrowed its title. Naturally, it has a meaning, but I think those who watch it will hopefully find their own answer as well.
[editor’s note: “The Hungry Lion” world premiered at the 2017 Tokyo International Film Festival’s Japanese Cinema Splash section.]
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?
Seek out other [means of] expression beyond movies.
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.
2017 – The Hungry Lion
2013 – Sunk into the Womb
2011 – Body Temperature
2009 – Never Ending Blue
2014 – The Eve