Shinji Aoyama was in an up mood when The Japan Times met him at the office of his distributor, Style Jam. His new film, “Sad Vacation,” opened the Horizons section at the Venice Film Festival last week, and though, when we met, he confessed himself nervous at the prospect of facing a foreign audience, he was also excited. “I just hope they understand it,” he said.
Aoyama himself is easy enough to understand, though he speaks in rapid-fire bursts, punctuated by the occasional loud laugh and bright, ear-to-ear smile.
You were thinking of making a followup to “Helpless,” your first feature film, 10 years ago — the film that eventually became “Sad Vacation.” What if you had made the film then?
I couldn’t have done it. I had to wait 10 years to make this film. I needed that much time to write the story, so that the hero of “Helpless” could develop in a way I could accept. In other words, I had to construct the right story for him.
There’s something vulnerable about him, isn’t there? On the other hand the women in the film tend to be stronger. Especially the mother played by Eri Ishida — she is so strong she’s scary. Is she your symbol for Japanese women as a whole, or is she a special case?
Because of the structure of Japanese society, women have to look strong like that. If they don’t become strong, they find themselves under the thumbs of the men. That’s been the case for a long time. The strength of Japanese women, though, is based on a lot of tears. In other words, behind that strength is an equal amount of sadness.
The music is distinctive, especially the jew’s-harp music that accompanies Asano’s character.
The instrument itself is very old — you can find it in many places: South America, Scotland and Africa, as well as Asia. Why is that? Because people have often migrated from place to place — and when they migrated they took the instrument with them.
It expresses a theme of the film, which is the movement of people. This sort of movement has been going on since the beginning of the human race — and the music of the jew’s-harp, an ancient instrument, is meant to reflect that. Then people began to stay in one place and accumulate possessions, which they had to protect.
But the trucking company people don’t have that, do they?
No they have nothing. That’s why they are always going from place to place. They are going back to the roots of humanity.
When Kenji’s mother left him he was quite young — about 5 — but he still has this anger toward her. You would think he would have forgotten . . .
No, he remembers the feeling of abandonment quite well — it was a big incident in his life. It was a huge trauma for him. At the same time, more than 10 years have passed since she left and he’s used to living without her. But what he can’t stand is her demand for his love.
When Kenji moves back with her, he gets a certain guarantee of security, while giving up a certain degree of freedom. It’s like the relationship between Japan and America. (laughs)
There’s also a connection between (“Sad Vacation”) and “Eureka,” especially in Kozue, the character played by Aoi Miyazaki.
She’s like Kenji in that she’s trying to make it on her own. They both want to live as they please — so they opt to be alone. The difference is that Kenji is trying to hide from his past, where Kozue is searching for it.
The most normal character is the hostess played by Yuka Itaya. She wants to have a normal life with Kenji, but he rejects it.
He’s afraid of it. He’s afraid of having that sort of life because he thinks he might end up like his parents. He takes care of the Chinese boy, but he doesn’t regard the boy as his child. He thinks of him as a version of himself as a child — abandoned by his parents.
You’ve chosen Kita Kyushu as the location for all three films (“Sad Vacation,” “Eureka,” “Helpless”). It’s also where you yourself are from. What sets it apart from the rest of Kyushu or the rest of Japan for that matter?
At the beginning of the 20th century, Kita Kyushu became a center for steel-making. The population quickly grew. Just before the start of the war, it was up to 1 million. But then the steel industry left Japan and by the 1980s all the steel mills had closed. Now, in the present century, Kita Kyushu has become a tourist spot. In other words, it’s a place where you can see the history of industrial development in Japan.
But when I go Fukuoka, I’m always impressed by how clean it looks.
But the image of Kita Kyushu I carry in my head is the way it used to be — dirty. (laughs). For me the clean new Fukuoka is a kind of makeup — it’s not real.
There aren’t many directors like you making serious films. It seems that more and more young directors, especially the ones working for big TV networks, are just trying to make entertainment.
But for me this is entertainment (laughs). The kind of films the TV networks make are not what I consider entertaining (laughs).