The long, bone-chilling gaze of new director Ayumi Sakamoto

by Mark Schilling

Special To The Japan Times

Directors have various ways of communicating in interviews — beyond the usual talking points, that is. Koji Fukada drew me geometrical diagrams to explain the intertwining relationships in his coming-of-age drama “Hotori no Sakuko (Au Revoir l’Ete).” Studio Ghibli producer Toshio Suzuki sketched me Ghibli-esque cartoons with a suprising fluency as he discussed the gestation of a new Hayao Miyazaki film. But Ayumi Sakamoto, director of the so-called female-frenemy drama “Forma,” is the only one I’ve met who shapes the air with her hands as she talks, conjuring up images of a sculptor working with unusually pliable clay. A sculptor, I should add, with precise ideas about her art and articulate ways of expressing them.

That precision is important. “Forma” is Sakamoto’s first feature after working on the crew of veteran indie director Shinya Tsukamoto, and it starts slowly and minimally, with long cuts and no explanatory narration or music. Watching the enigmatic first scene, in which a woman walks around an office with a cardboard box over her head, I wondered if I would make it through the film’s 145-minute running time.

But when this box-wearing office worker, Ayako (Nagisa Umeno), reconnects with a long-lost high school classmate, Yukari (Emiko Matsuoka), an uneasy tension develops and steadily builds as their pretense of friendship devolves into suspicion and enmity. The tension climaxes in a gripping 24-minute cut.

At an interview in a trendy Harajuku shared office/house, Sakamoto tells me she trusted viewers to understand the characters’ emotions and actions, without needing to spell them out.

“Everything is in the audience’s hearts already,” she says. “That goes for the climax and what comes after. The film and I don’t have to explain everything. Instead, it’s better to let the viewers decide in their own hearts.”

She also says she relied more on gut instinct during the editing process than any notions of what a proper length for a given scene should be. “I think it’s dangerous to say you should cut just because a scene is long. I used what I thought was necessary,” she explains.

At the same time, Sakamoto worked out detailed back stories for her characters with scriptwriter Ryo Nishihara. “But I try not to push all that (on the audience),” she adds. “I just show it.”

She also did not try to push her own interpretations on Nagisa Umeno and Emiko Matsuoka, the unknowns who played the two principals.

“More than telling them what to do, I talked with them about their characters’ feelings and about why they did what they did. We had a lot of discussions about that sort of background stuff.”

Sakamoto does not think that as a female director she necessarily has to tell women’s stories, “but I think it was good that, as a woman myself, I depicted women (in ‘Forma’),” she says.

“The one thing I was most conscious of was empathizing. That is, I was really aware of my tendency to empathize with Ayako and Yukari from a woman’s standpoint. I took a step back so as not to do that. If I hadn’t you wouldn’t know who is saying what, me or the character. Also, when you focus on only one character you blur all the various ways of entering into the film.”

Sakamato’s method of viewing her characters from an objective distance is particularly striking in a crucial 24-minute scene. Not to give away too much, but the scene is shot via a character’s small camcorder left in the corner of a storeroom strewn with cardboard boxes. It stays there for the duration of the scene.

The ensuing action has a spontaneous, documentary feel that Sakamoto admits was partly the result of serendipity. “I was planning to shoot (this scene) again and again, but we ended up using the first take,” she says. “Everyone was really focused on their own character and kept to their own rhythm. I didn’t have any rehearsals and made the actors stay in separate rooms. Then I let them go at each other for the camera. If it was no good, it was no good — it couldn’t be helped.”

Given hardly any lines (“There were some at the start of the scene, that’s all,” Sakamoto explains), the actors had to improvise reams of dialogue. “But I wrote page after page of background material for them,” she quickly adds.

After its premiere in 2013 at the Tokyo International Film Festival, where it won the award for best picture in the Japanese Cinema Splash section, “Forma” played at film festivals around the world, often with Sakamoto in attendance.

“A lot of people said (‘Forma’) reminded them of (Akira Kurosawa’s) ‘Rashomon’ and they asked me if I was influenced by it,” she says with a smile. “I love ‘Rashomon,’ but I wasn’t thinking much about it (when I made the film). They are fundamentally alike in saying that people have many different ways of viewing the world. I tried to show that people are basically the same in that sense, that there’s always been this kind of universality. So I was really happy and grateful to hear my film compared with ‘Rashomon.’ ”

Sakamoto is now scripting her next film, which she says will tackle “a really big theme, something that human beings everywhere have always wrestled with — what is real and true in the here and now. It’s not easy to write about. I think I have to work on making myself a more knowledgeable and better person. Otherwise, I can’t write about that sort of thing.”