By Doris Lang and Johan Nordström.
Of the Japanese female directors active in recent years, Ogigami Naoko (b. 1972) is among those who has garnered the most attention, both at home and abroad. In 1994, after graduating from Chiba University’s Image Science program, she went to the United States to study film at the University of Southern California, Los Angeles. After six years, in 2000, she returned to Japan. Her short film Hoshino-kun, Yumeno-kun (Hoshino-kun and Yumeno-kun, 2001) won the PIA Film Festival Award, and she shot her debut feature film Barber Yoshino (2004) with the help of the scholarship she received from the festival. Her subsequent feature, Kamome Diner (Kamome Shokudō, 2006), shot entirely in Finland, became a commercial and critical success. In Glasses (Megane, 2007), her next feature film she continued the slow-paced visual and narrative style previously featured in Kamome Shokudō, and her films began to be called ‘iyashi-kei eiga’ (‘films providing emotional healing’). Her latest work Toilet (Toiretto, 2010) is a departure from this style for which she challenged herself artistically and reinvented herself stylistically within the film medium. Toilet focuses on three siblings living in Toronto and shows how their personal lives are affected by their half Japanese mother’s death and their newfound relationship with their Japanese grandmother.
Film International (FI): Your previous projects have never been more than two years apart. We read that your very first idea about Toilet goes back as far as five years ago. Could you tell us a bit about why this project was different from your previous ones?
Ogigami: Well, first of all, my cats died. I had three cats and two of them died right after I finished my previous film and after that I couldn’t do anything for a year. That is one of the reasons why this and my previous project are three years apart. Though, that’s such a stupid reason, isn’t it?
FI: How did you get your first ideas for Toilet?
Ogigami: My first idea was actually the character of Maury. There was a real story about a Japanese boy who found his dead mother’s sewing machine, started sewing and then eventually wore the skirts he made himself. That was my first idea, but I thought that this is not enough. One of my previous films, Kamome Diner, was shot in Finland. Later, one of the Finnish crew-members came to Japan for the film’s opening. She was so amazed by Japanese toilets and each time she went to the bathroom, she took pictures, showed them to me and said something like: ‘Look at that! That’s amazing!’. Then I thought that for foreigners the Japanese toilet really must be something amazing. So, I mixed these two ideas together and thought that this was going to be my new film.
FI: It seems that in your films you often connect people to their crafts, for instance sewing, cooking and making things with one’s hands. There is something passionate when for instance the characters make the buns by hand in Kamome Diner or when Maury makes his own clothes in Toilet. Is this something you have been aware of?
Ogigami: It’s something very unconscious. My mother always made something for me. For example she made this dress [she points towards the dress she is wearing] and always cooked for me. So, it is maybe my mother’s influence that can be seen in those scenes. It came completely naturally.
FI: Going back to what you previously said regarding the fact that so much time elapsed between the making of Glasses and Toilet, besides the fact that your cats died, were there any other reasons?
Ogigami: Actually yes. Kamome Diner and Glasses were produced by the same team, but I wanted to do something different, and I was searching for the form to do it.
FI: Do you think it took longer because you were shooting in Canada rather than in Japan?
Ogigami: At first we wanted to shoot the film somewhere on the East Coast of the United States. Then we went to New York to see the producer. But filmmaking unions are very strict in the US and the project did not fit in. So, the New York producers suggested we shoot in Canada and that’s why we changed the plan.
FI: What was easier in Canada?
Ogigami: First of all, the unions are not that strong, and Toronto is actually very frequently used as a shooting site for US films, like for example Hairspray (2007). I think it is a very good place for shooting films.
FI: If you compare your experience in Canada with your experience in Finland, would you say that working outside of Japan is more or less the same wherever you go?
Ogigami: Well, I might be a bit nasty saying this, but I got the impression that Finnish people are amazingly slow. They never rush! I appreciated it, because actually after three days of shooting in Finland, I realized that I could not be irritated because I was a guest there and I had to follow their style. Eventually, also the film turned out to have a very slow pace, which is very good. But, they were just so amazingly slow! The Canadians were not that slow, so it was a bit easier to work with them.
FI: Could you tell us a bit about the casting choice of the three main characters Maury, Ray, and Lisa? Obviously, the characters are quarter Japanese, because their mother was half Japanese. Was it intentional that you chose three Canadian actors who are obviously not half or quarter Japanese. Did you ever consider choosing a cast of half or quarter Japanese?
Ogigami: Basically, it is really hard to find actors who are half or quarter Japanese. But especially quarter Japanese people sometimes look completely Western. I requested that the three actors should have dark hair and dark eyes and hoped that that would be okay.
FI: So, you made this choice just because it was very hard to find quarter Japanese actors?
Ogigami: Yes, but I also made the choice to use Western actors instead of real quarter Japanese actors because this story is a kind of fantasy.
FI: Then can this be considered a surrealistic element of the film?
FI: In almost all of your films, food plays a significant role. One could almost go as far as to say that your work is like a celebration of food. Ever since Kamome Diner you have been working closely with food stylist Iijima Nami. What is it you want to express through food?
Ogigami: Especially in this film, and probably also in the other films, I wanted to express that the time of eating together is such a happy moment. The family members in this film are quite different and distant from each other, but whenever they get closer I use food as an element that binds them together. But I also intend to express that this happy moment will not last forever – that it is completely futile. Also, making food is usually very time-consuming, but then it is eaten in just a few minutes.
FI: I think in your films, especially in Toilet, but also in Kamome Diner, the process of producing the food also plays a special role. The way it is prepared already acts as a binding moment for the people who are involved in it.
Ogigami: Especially in this film, I wanted to show that they were making food together. I also made gyoza [a type of dumpling] together with my mum. So, it was important for me to show that process of preparing the food together, because they were one family.
FI: How was it to work with food stylist Iijima Nami, and how did your collaboration come about?
Ogigami: Well, one of my producers at that time [during production of Kamome Diner] had worked as a producer of TV commercials. He collaborated with her before, introduced me to her and then I interviewed her. When I saw her hands, I thought they were very special. I mean, she is… a bit chubby. And her hands look so gorgeous. I understood why she could make such good food. She also has a very warm personality.
FI: So that is why you chose to collaborate with her again in Glasses?
Ogigami: Yes, but she also gave me lots of ideas, like for example when I went to her office where we had a ‘food meeting’ and she made gyoza for us. At first I thought I would start the cooking scene with wrapping the dough around the meat. But when Iijima was cooking, she was even preparing the dough herself. That looked really good, and so I used this idea in the film.
FI: The response towards your films has been mostly positive. Are the things that people told you after the screenings actually the same things that reviews picked up on? Or do you feel that there has been a difference in the way they your films were perceived?
Ogigami: Well, actually I don’t read reviews, because I am a little bit scared. I don’t want to read anything bad about the film. Some people told me that Kamome and Glasses did not have any story. But I made a story! So I was a little bit confused by that reaction, that some of those films were seen as just being based on atmosphere.
FI: Perhaps it was meant in the same way as with some of Ozu’s films, in the sense that they are based more on the interactions of certain characters and the mood of the different scenes than on a specific narrative plotline.
Ogigami: Yes, I have been told that before, that some of my films are a little bit like Ozu. And I really like Ozu, so that of course made me really happy.
FI: Your film style in Toilet is very different from that of your previous films. There are a lot more close ups, moving shots, short focus shots, and music in this one. Was there a conscious choice on your behalf to make a break with your previous style?
Ogigami: Well, that has a lot to do with the kind of criticism that I received previously about not having enough story in my films, and that they had too much of a ‘relaxed’ feeling. I wanted to break with that. This time I didn’t want to let the audience relax. And I think that carried through into the visuals, this one has more of a rock and roll feeling. From my previous experience I had gradually gotten to know my own unique rhythm, or pacing. In a way this film, shooting in another country and the dialogue not being in my own mother tongue, was a challenge in the sense that I wanted to see if I could change all that and experiment with the visuals but still retain my own colour or flavour.
FI: You have previously studied in Los Angeles for six years. Why did you choose to go to America? And what are your thoughts about film education in Japan?
Ogigami: Well, I actually didn’t have any previous experience from filmmaking, and I almost didn’t watch films at all. Films didn’t interest me, and I studied photography first. But gradually I got more and more interested in, perhaps not film, but in moving pictures. When I realized that, then I thought that if I was going to study moving pictures, then probably the best place would be Los Angeles. At that time I didn’t think there would be any good film schools in Japan. Now there are some, but back then there were very few.
FI: The Los Angeles film program was 3 years?
Ogigami: Yes, but I took three and half years to graduate, and also I had one year just studying English. And then after I graduated I had one year of practical training. I remember that the studies were very hard. Especially because all of the American students were so egoistic. They didn’t much care about me, the only Japanese there at that time, especially since I couldn’t speak English that well. However, the program was very good. I remember that I had a very good writing instructor, who taught me how to write a story and so on. So after one semester I had one script. And because the program was so good, gradually I became more sure that I really wanted to make films. And also the education in the States was very different from the one in Japan. The teachers were really interacting with the students and even things that you thought you would never be able to do became things that you could do.
FI: When you returned to Japan, did you feel that there was a big difference in shooting films in Japan compared to the States?
Ogigami: I think it is difficult to say. Maybe ten or twenty years ago when someone wanted to become a director he or she had to start from a low position like assistant director; then after ten or twenty years maybe he would be a director.
FI: Have you, or did you, ever consider working as something else than a director, or a photographer?
Ogigami: I’ve always thought that if I took on another profession, I would have become a Barbie doll designer. Or at least someone who creates or designs dolls or toys. Because even when I was fourteen years old I was still playing with toys and dolls. When I was doing that my brother came into my room and seeing me playing with those toys, he was so shocked that he went and told my mother that she should take me to the hospital because there must be something mentally wrong with me. Because I was so grown up but still playing with dolls. However, I heard them talking about it, so after that I quit playing with those toys, but I still wanted to!
FI: So far all of your films have been well received, and Kamome and Glasses also performed very well at the box office. What do you think is the secret of your success?
Ogigami: With Kamome no one was expecting it to be a success. However, after shooting was finished I knew that it was going to be very good. I didn’t know if it would be a success or not, but I had faith that it would be good.
FI: Scandinavian design is very popular in Japan, and it is featured throughout the film. Do you think that this and the fact that you shot it in Finland played a part in its popularity?
Ogigami: I didn’t think so much about the design of it until I was on set in Finland and reflected on the very beautiful interior design of many places, and I of course tried to incorporate some of that into the film. However the reason that I shot the film in Finland was that during the shooting of my previous film, my assistant director was a man and somewhat older than me, and he was so jealous that I was the director that he was really mean, always trying to bully me. So I told my producer that next time I wanted to make a film in some other country. And my producer, who had been to Finland several times, recommended that country to me.
FI: There has been much talk about the growing number of active Japanese female film directors recently. Some have described it to be almost something of a boom. Do you perceive this to be the case?
Ogigami: No, I don’t think that is the case, and also I don’t really like to categorize myself as a ‘female director’, but perceive myself to be just ‘a director’. I’m making films not as a female, but as a human being.
Johan Nordström is a Doctoral Student at the Department of Theatre and Film Studies at Waseda University, Tokyo. He also works as a freelance writer and a film curator.
Doris Lang is a research student at the Graduate School of Social Sciences, Hitotsubashi University in Tokyo. She also works as a freelance writer.
Our thanks to Colleen Laird who contributed to some of the questions above. Pictures: © 2010 ‘Toilet’ Film Partners.
Read Nordström & Lang’s interview with Momoko Ando, director of Kakera, here.