Shinji Aoyama is the director as cinephile. That is, while winning awards for his own films, including two prizes at Cannes for his 2000 drama “Eureka,” he has long been a serious student of films by others, beginning with his days at Rikkyo University as a disciple of eminent film scholar Shigehiko Hasumi and continuing after as a writer and lecturer on cinema, with six volumes of criticism to his credit.
All of which may make Aoyama sound formidable (an impression strengthened by his impeccably trimmed hipster beard). But when we chat about his new film “Tomogui (Backwater)” in a restaurant banquet room he is invariably patient and good-humored, even when he feels my questions are wrong-footed.
The film, which premiered last month at the Locarno Film Festival in Switzerland, began, he says, as a sort of sequel to “Sad Vacation,” his 2007 film starring Tadanobu Asano, Aoi Miyazaki and Eri Ishida about a driver-for-hire who reconnects with the sister of a jailed friend and confronts his long-estranged mother.
“In the novel and film (‘Sad Vacation’), the drama is constructed around this circle of women, but they never meet each other,” he says. “But I wanted to make (‘Backwater’) with women connecting as a really important motif. That is, the women in the film form a kind of invisible circle, an invisible space of their own.”
Another aim, he adds, was to make a film “with the taste of Nikkatsu Roman Porno,” a revered series of softcore pornographic movies from the 1970s and ’80s. “The base wasn’t just Nikkatsu Roman Porno,” he explains. “It was Japanese films from the Showa Era (1926-1989).”
Working with scriptwriter Haruhiko Arai, a Nikkatsu Roman Porno veteran, Aoyama wanted to incorporate that ambience into the film’s sex scenes, including the genre’s characteristic violence, while presenting the women as something other than submissive fetish objects. “At the end the women go on to win,” he says. “If that didn’t happen there would be no clear-cut victory. The women have the power, the life force to achieve that. That was the thing I wanted to bring out the most.”
Also, though the film is framed as an (unseen) adult man looking back on his 1980s youth in the Yamaguchi Prefecture port town of Shimonoseki, it is anything but nostalgic for a vanished era. “There is no sentimentalism in it at all,” Aoyama says. “Instead it looks at that time as through a telescope at a distant landscape.”
Playing the teenage hero, Toma, is 20-year-old Masaki Suda, who at the time of his casting had appeared in several episodes of the “Kamen Rider” superhero action series but not a lot else. Nonetheless, at his audition he struck Aoyama as a standout among the 10 or so young actors on the shortlist.
“He’s really shy, though I’m the same way,” Aoyama says. “At the audition he couldn’t bring himself to look me in the eye. Instead he was looking down at the floor, but every once in a while he would glance up and our eyes would meet. There was something penetrating about his gaze — and I knew he was the one. He reminded me of young actors from the Showa Era who had the same kind of intensity.”
In addition to the lead actor, the film’s riverside setting also expresses the atmosphere of the era. In particular, Aoyama focuses on the pollution, with close-up shots of waste fouling the waters even as the hero fishes in them.
“What made me decide on the setting was all the trash lying around,” Aoyama says with a laugh. “As for why: Rivers in the Showa Era were filled with trash. They became a lot cleaner with the (current) Heisei Era, but I wanted to show how it was in the Showa.”
Despite this and other positive changes, Aoyama does not believe that the impact of the Showa, with its dramatic mix of disastrous war and turbulent postwar booms and busts, ended with Emperor Showa’s death.
“For me there is a direct link from the war to the present,” he says. “The end of the Showa didn’t mean the end of the postwar period. The problems generated by the war are still with us, from the nuclear-reactor disaster to the Northern Territories issue. It’s just that the equator or the center line of all this (historical progression) is the end of the Showa and the death of the Emperor (Hirohito). The film looks back at that half-forgotten time, but the problems (of that era) are all exactly the same today.”
Despite the film’s many Japan-specific references, from the sad state of the environment in 1988 to the gamy flavor of Nikkatsu softcore porn, Aoyama found the 3,000-strong Locarno audience sensitive and receptive.
“They were an exception to the usual foreign film festival audience that leaves as soon as the credits start,” he explains. “When the ending music played — a famous Italian tune (‘Torna a Surriento’) — they all knew it. They applauded and even the ones who were about to leave stopped and listened. Then they applauded again.”
After all the overseas acclaim, however, Aoyama had to return to a Japan that has become less hospitable to his brand of serious cinema, with many directors of his generation and younger abandoning art for entertainment of the more extreme or commercial sort. Aoyama, however, has no intention of joining them.
“It’s the path I’ve chosen,” he says. “As much as I can, I want to become even more alone.”
For a chance to win one of three pairs of tickets to see “Tomogui (Backwater)” at the theater of your choice, visit jtimes.jp/film. The deadline is Sept. 17.