Tokyo’s dark side

John Williams talks about his new movie 'Starfish Hotel' and being a foreigner in Japan's film industry

by Mark Schilling

Welshman John Williams first came to Japan in 1988, intending to stay two years, write a script and return to Britain to make a movie. He ended up making eight shorts, a documentary and finally a feature film — the drama “Firefly Dreams” — all in Japan and with Japanese casts and crews. Released in 2001, “Firefly Dreams” — a homage to the traditional Japanese cinema Williams loved — was an indie success in Japan and widely screened abroad.

His second film, the noirish mystery/thriller “Starfish Hotel,” has also traveled the international festival circuit, winning awards and accolades, including the top prize in Luxembourg’s Cinengyma Film Festival International Competition, but it is altogether different in budget, style and theme.

Williams himself has changed since his early days as a struggling filmmaker in Nagoya. Now based in Tokyo, he has his own production and distribution company, 100 Meter Films, which has helped with line production and more recently coproduction of a number of foreign films shot in Japan. He is also active as a producer, university lecturer and workshop facilitator.

The Japan Times visited the 100 Meter office in Yotsuya recently to talk to Williams about “Starfish Hotel.” Open and friendly, Williams looks like an expatriate everyman, but he is articulate, opinionated and quietly determined — the last quality having served him particularly well in the still far from internationalized local film business.

How did “Starfish Hotel” come together for you, especially the mix of Eastern and Western elements?

It started very simply. I had just moved to Tokyo after living in Nagoya for 12 years. I was living in Kamishakuji near the railway lines, and the place would shake every time the trains went by (laughs). I was really miserable, and Tokyo seemed really dark and depressing. I would see Takeshi Kitano’s face on the trains, on advertisements, and it was as if this guy was watching me. I noticed that people in Tokyo were burying themselves in books on the train. Everybody seemed sort of disconnected from everybody else. So that’s how it started — a story about a man like me, floating in his middle years. He comes home one day and finds that his wife has disappeared and it’s got something to do with a book and this malevolent godlike figure that’s watching him. And because I was reading a lot of Haruki Murakami and seeing a lot of noir, I thought I wanted to make something noirish, something with a lot of shadows in it. So the idea was to have a thriller, a detective story in that very shadowy world. As I was writing it, I realized that there were parallels between the shadowy things in film noir and the shadowy things in Japanese ghost stories. But really it’s a personal film about a man who’s looking for his identity, I suppose.

How did you organize the various elements in your own head? Was there a key — an image that everything flowed from?

Well, I worked very hard on the script. Although the film has a complicated story, it also has a very classical three-act structure. It starts with the everyday problems of this guy. Then his wife disappears, and he sets off to look for her. Then it escalates and there’s a turning point. What I’ve done, though, is taken out all the signposts that say “here we’re going into the past, here we’re going into a dream.” I know it’s risky, but it’s an attempt to take the storytelling to a different level. The film is about how we make sense of our lives by telling stories about ourselves. All those people in the Tokyo trains are going into fictional worlds to find something that’s missing in their own lives. Very often, though, our narratives about ourselves break down, and we find ourselves in a dark hole, be it depression or breakdown or death. So the film plays with that theme — how the stories we make about ourselves are created and destroyed. I’m aware that is abstract territory to go into. So I hope that the conventional man-who-lost-his-wife story will pull viewers through. I also know that this is film that will divide audiences — those who are looking for a straight genre film will be disappointed. But some people really respond to it and really get it.

One key to understanding it is “Alice in Wonderland” — [you reference it in] the name of the main character [and] the guy in the rabbit suit.

That’s a story I keep coming back to in all my films. It can be read in so many ways. A character jumps into this other world where she doesn’t understand the rules and tries to get out of it but at the same time enjoys the confusion of being there. The rabbit is the animal guide that leads you to the other world. I was a little disappointed that [some viewers] saw the rabbit as a kind of “Donnie Darko” reference. When I was writing the script, I hadn’t seen “Donnie Darko.” Instead, the rabbit is more from “Alice in Wonderland” and “Harvey” (laughs).

Usually a character like that is an attempt to bring comedy into the film. In yours, though, the rabbit is not cute at all.

He’s the opposite of cute. This is my revenge on cute culture, if you like.

The way Akira Emoto plays the role reinforces that impression — there’s something dangerous about him.

There’s something dangerous about him as an actor, too. He works in a way that I really like. It’s all unconscious. He doesn’t do much prep, he doesn’t learn his lines until the very last minute. He’ll try anything. That puts the other actors on edge — but that’s fantastic. He’s always trying to bring comedy in — and the best comedy is dangerous comedy. Is he going to make us laugh or is he going to bring a knife out and stab us?

As the hero enters the novel’s world, I had to wonder — is he dreaming all this or is it being dreamed through him?

That’s the intention. There are three or even four possible ways to read the ending of the film — and they’re all logically possible. That’s where it parts company with the three-act structure, where everything is tied up in the third act. [Writer Jorge Luis] Borges said that the ending of a mystery novel is always the most dissatisfying part. It becomes like Clue, the board game, with Colonel Mustard and his hammer (laughs).

The character that Kiki plays — Kayoko — is obviously a real human being, but there’s an otherworldly, nonhuman quality about her.

Yes. . . . I compared her to a fox. She’s got a very striking cinematic face. In real life, she’s this extraordinarily beautiful human being, but on the screen, she’s got an angularity about her that’s interesting and a way of moving that is a bit odd. Is she somebody [the hero, Arisu] conjured up? Did everything he did with her at the Starfish Hotel really happen two years ago — or did he just imagine it, as something he would have liked to have done?

You signed Koichi Sato from the beginning of the project, but when you sat down to talk to him about the role, did he really understand what you were trying to do?

He’s a completely different actor from Akira Emoto. He’s a very analytical actor. He reads the script and thinks about what the character wears, what the character does every day. All the little details — he builds it up from that. He has this almost Method acting approach: “Why am I doing this?”

Do you feel that as a foreigner in the Japanese film business you have to carve out you own territory, to somehow distinguish yourself from Japanese directors?

Yes, it’s complicated. One film festival replied that my film doesn’t fall into their parameters because I’m not Japanese. If they don’t like the film that’s fine, but I’ve worked here for 18 years, with Japanese actors and crew, so why isn’t my film considered to be “from Japan?” I consider myself an insider-outsider. I’m not flying in here to make a film about Japan. I’ve lived here a long time, making Japanese films within the Japanese film industry. But because I spent the first 28 years of my life in another country, I’m something different. When you live here, you realize how diverse Japanese society is and how diverse the Japanese film industry is. Other people are working here who are not Japanese, who are Chinese or whatever. But still — sometimes I think I want to make a film under a Japanese name and see if I get a different reaction (laughs).

See related link:
“Starfish Hotel” review — Falling down the rabbit hole