The Japanese film industry is one of the most antiquated in the world. Well, that seems to be the general opinion among media pundits here. Those working in film are slaves, enduring terrifically long working hours; budgets are minuscule; old-fashioned apprenticeships still reign; and women rarely get to go behind the megaphone.
“I’d rather forget that I’m a woman altogether,” says director Satoko Yokohama, whose second feature film “The Actor” (“Haiyu Kameoka Takuji”) opens on Jan. 30. “But then, being a woman and doing women’s stuff has never interested me.”
This would have been more convincing if Yokohama wasn’t a petite, pretty 38-year-old with a ready smile. Closer inspection, however, reveals she’s not a conventional Japanese female. She appeared at the interview in Shibuya dressed like a biker chick (“actually, I bicycled over,” she says), carrying a ratty backpack. She’s a smoker and had no trouble locating the smoking area, joining the salarymen who were puffing away.
“I grew up with male siblings so maybe that accounts for why I’m not comfortable with typical women’s situations — dressing up for dates, marriage and stuff like that,” she says.
Yokohama is aware her situation is not only unique but privileged.
“When I go to film festivals abroad and meet women filmmakers, I’m always astonished by their dedication to feminist issues and women’s rights,” she says. “Like this woman director whose documentary was about elderly women in a little village in Kenya, who had taken up arms to protect themselves against rape. People like her are awe-inspiring, but they’re also devastating. When I face their work, I know I could never match the depth and scope of what they’re doing. I think of my own ignorance and happy-go-lucky existence and I feel humbled. I’ve never had to confront women’s problems personally or professionally. I’ve had the freedom to make my own choices, and I know that’s very rare.”
That freedom has led to an interest in the little moments of everyday life. Yokohama says she has always been fascinated by the moment a man looks at a woman and falls in love.
In “The Actor,” Kameoka — the titular protagonist (played by Ken Yasuda) — is a bit actor who’s always on the sidelines, never taking center stage. With no ambitions or career plans, he drifts from job to job before falling for Azumi (Kumiko Aso), who works behind the counter of her father’s little izakaya (tavern).
“Azumi is beautiful, a little depressed and she obviously has sex appeal,” says Yokohama. “But, for me, Kameoka is secretly sexy. He has that blase attitude, the breeziness of a man who doesn’t make plans. He doesn’t care if he dies tomorrow and that translates to a manliness and a sexiness we don’t see in the movies anymore.”
Yokohama based Kameoka’s character partly on famously manly French actor Jean-Paul Belmondo, particularly his performance in “Breathless” (1960).
Yokohama hails from Aomori Prefecture and until college had never been out of her hometown.
“I had this vague notion of getting out to Tokyo,” she says, “but I ended up at the Yokohama City University, where they had a Human Sciences Department. What in the world was human science? I wanted to find out, so I took the exams and got in.”
During the four years she was there, Yokohama became something of a film buff. When she wasn’t studying or working part-time to pay the bills, she was watching old movies and reading old books about those films.
“Again, I got another vague notion that films were interesting. Back in Aomori, I was watching Hollywood DVDs with my brothers such as ‘Sleepless in Seattle.’ But after coming here (to Tokyo), I met people who taught me to watch certain movies. ‘A Clockwork Orange’ and films by Leos Carax were life-changers for me.”
After graduation Yokohama couldn’t get a job in the media, so she settled for the life of an “OL” (a colloquial Japanese abbreviation of “office lady”).
“I hated every minute of it,” she says. “I was keeping a journal back then, and all I wrote about was how I wanted to die. Over and over. I just couldn’t take the long commute and being stuck in an office. I quit in a year and enrolled in Eiga Bigakko (The Film School of Tokyo). I was 23 and an absolute nobody but I had to try this out. I knew that I may never make it, but I at least wanted to get to the front entrance of my dream, so to speak.”
“The Actor” can be described as Yokohama’s little salute to the Japanese film industry.
“The industry has let me be who I wanted,” she says. “Of course there are a lot of problems and the system is plagued by small budgets and rigid schedules. There’s no wiggle room to do anything but, on the other hand, I could make something like this movie and get away with it. I mean, this sort of story would never be given the green light in Hollywood.
Actually, that could be the greatest strength of the Japanese film industry: I can make a film about a nobody and nothing happens to him. Where else but here?”