Swamped by laughter

by Mark Schilling

I’d met Satoshi Miki several times before interviewing him for “Instant Numa.” Our senses of humor mesh well enough that the recording of the interview often sounds like a sitcom laugh track.

One big theme of the film seems to be “like parents, like daughter.” (laughs)

I was thinking of something else, actually — that kids often want to be the opposite of their parents. A boy with an alcoholic father will often become a teetotaler. But in a lot of films you see that the kid who disapproves of his parents gradually comes to understand them — and realize that he’s a lot like them. My film follows that pattern.

Haname’s mother and father are people who never quite became adults — there’s something childish about them.

Right, that’s what they are. But I feel that to always take things seriously is really childish. It’s more adult to understand that things are going to happen in life you have no control over.

Kids are serious, aren’t they?

They’re the most serious when they’re about 17 or 18. They’re convinced that you have to have a goal in life. Then they get to be in their 30s and 40s and realize that maybe you can get along without goals. (laughs) There are no animals that have goals. Do dogs have goals? And are people and dogs so different? (laughs)

A lot of strange things can happen on the way to your goal — that’s certainly the case with the heroine.

She has to accept the illogical. She can’t deny it. That’s also true in real life — you run into things that don’t make sense, but you just have to accept them.

Like the kappa (sprite) in the garden that the mother believes in but the heroine doesn’t.

There’s no reason why she should. It’s illogical to believe in kappa, right? But there it is. (laughs)

Kids can believe in that sort of thing. They have great imaginations.

Yes, they can, but when they get older, they stop believing. They get caught up in the logic of the adult world. That reaches a peak when they’re in their 20s. But as they get older — in their 30s and 40s like me, they start to change again. They start to think that maybe kappa can exist. (laughs)

Where did you get the idea for the instant swamp?

That was the kernel of the film. When I was a kid in Yokohama, during the Vietnam War, the U.S. military had a base near where I lived — there were no houses around it, just woods and a swamp. Then the base was closed and bulldozers came to fill in the swamp. I imagined carrying the swamp away somewhere and filling it up with water again.

There were all kinds of things in that swamp — big carp and so on. I was fascinated by it. So I didn’t like it when they came to (fill it in). I thought it was dangerous — that something scary would come out of it.

Generally, on the set, you’re not making it up as you go along — you follow the script pretty closely?

That’s right — no improvisation. I think making a comedy with improvisation is incredibly hard. The cast has to have comic technique and the director — comic talent, but for me it’s more efficient to rehearse everything before we go before the cameras.

Your style is drier that you find in most Japanese comedy films, such as those by Kankuro Kudo.

He likes to keep the tension high. We’re different in that way.

I know that you’re a fan of British humor — Monty Python.

And Peter Sellers — he had that dry style as well.

He stayed that way right to the end — “Being There” (1979).

That was a great film.

But it wasn’t a pure comedy — it had a serious side as well.

You’ve got to have that, a mix of comic and serious. The best comedies all have that.