A leader of Japanese cinema’s 1990s New Wave, Hitoshi Yazaki dropped off the radar for more than a decade, returning in 2006 with “Strawberry Shortcakes,” a widely praised drama about four lonely women in search of, not just a partner, but reasons for living. In his new film, “Sweet Little Lies,” the heroine has found her partner — but is still looking for fulfillment.
In person, Yazaki is soft-spoken and polite, but also quick to smile and laugh, as though he still found the PR process fun — or at least privately amusing.
Did you have Miki Nakatani in mind when you wrote the role for Ruriko?
When I met her for the first time, I saw that she had the sort of tension and personality that could make the character come to life. If I didn’t have her (in the role) there would have been no reason to make the film. I was really lucky to come across an actress like that.
Juichi Kobayashi, who plays Haruo, is a dancer inexperienced in acting. Were you concerned that Nakatani might be too much for him?
Actually, yes. (laughs) I think he himself was kind of nervous. But when I first met him, I was impressed with his softness — that is, his adaptability. I thought he would be fine just as he was .
The married couple — Ruriko (Nakatani) and Satoshi (Nao Omori) — seem to represent the “sexless marriage” phenomenon that has been written about so much.
The couple is something of a puzzle. They aren’t defined by any set of rules. I don’t think of them as representative of any sort of social phenomenon.
In the usual melodrama about a marriage, you can pretty much tell how the couple is going to turn out, but with yours I didn’t have that feeling at all.
Actually, I don’t know myself. That’s the theme of the film — that we don’t know about a marriage. But by the end they’re definitely headed in a positive direction.
The film has a pared-down quality — you’re focusing only on the essentials. I’m thinking of the scene when Ruriko declares her love to Haruo. She just looks straight into the camera and says “I love you” but it has a big impact.
That’s all because of Miki Nakatani’s power as an actor, not me. (laughs) There were difficult lines (in the script) that worried me a bit — I wondered how she could say them — but she did a great job with them. She’s really great.
Were you thinking at all about classic Japanese films, since your theme is one they treat quite often?
When I was brought this story I was happy to do it since I had been wanting to make a film about a couple for a long time. I was really influenced by Mikio Naruse and other great directors — they made me want to (try this sort of film) myself.
The teddy bears that Ruriko makes are not just toys, but works of art. Also, when she is making them we can see her expressing her feelings, as when she jabs one hard with a needle.
Before making the film, I had never met a teddy bear artist, but in preparing for the film I was able to meet several. Also, Nakatani made some bears herself. My staff and I — everyone made bears. (laughs) What impressed me what how much imagination goes into making them — it’s not just (following a pattern).
For about 10 minutes at the end there were several places where I was thought, “Is it going to end here?” — but it didn’t. Then, when it finally ended, I thought, “OK, this feels right.”
I had a lot of trouble with the ending. I thought of several ways to end it before I came up with one.
Your previous films have screened widely abroad. Is that what you plan for this one?
Yes, I want to take it abroad. I hope that foreign audiences will find some of it funny. (laughs) I put in some humorous touches. In Japan, audiences generally don’t laugh very much. Abroad, though, they laugh a lot — even in places where there’s not a lot to laugh at. I’m looking forward to that.