Interviews with people you know well can turn awkward if you try to be the probing questioner instead of the coffee-shop companion. No such worries with 61-year-old Ryuichi Hiroki, the former pink film (i.e., soft pornography) director who made his commercial and critical breakthrough with the erotically charged youth drama “800 Two Lap Runners” in 1994.
Though we have met elsewhere many times and once spent a week traveling around central Brazil together, Hiroki quickly slipped into interviewee mode when we met to talk about “Sayonara Kabukicho” (“Kabukicho Love Hotel”), his ensemble drama set in a love hotel in Shinjuku’s biggest entertainment district. But when I asked him why the film has been such a hit on the festival circuit — playing to enthusiastic crowds at Busan, Toronto and Tokyo Filmex — he smilingly turned the tables on me. “What do you think?” he asked.
Good question, since I had recommended the film to the upcoming Udine Far East Film Festival.
“The theme is interesting,” I opined. “There are places like love hotels in other parts of the world, but they are still distinctively Japanese.”
“I’ve heard that foreigners come from abroad to stay at love hotels,” Hiroki said with a laugh. My probing interview was already turning into a coffee shop chat. Here’s how it played out:
The script was an original by Haruhiko Arai, who you worked with on “Vibrator” (2003) and “Yawarakai Seikatsu” (“It’s Only Talk”) (2005). He seems to have a different approach from some of your other scriptwriters.
True, he has something special.
What would that be?
I haven’t thought about it. [Laughs.] His people are weak. He thinks he’s weak himself, so that’s what he focuses on. But in reality, he’s not weak at all.
The hero, Shota Sometani’s hotel manager, certainly fits the “weak” description.
Yes, he does. He’s close to Arai in that way.
But Sometani is trying to hide it.
I guess Arai does too. [Laughs.]
By contrast, the “delivery health” girl (i.e., call girl) played by Korean actress Lee Eun-woo brightens up the film. But Lee also had toughest role, I thought.
True, but she did a good job. She was very expressive.
When she came to Japan, she didn’t speak any Japanese. Did you have any problems making her understand what you wanted?
No, not at all. We had an interpreter. Also, she really knew a lot about films, so I didn’t have to say a lot to make her understand. So it was easy for me.
But she really agonized over the nude scenes. She didn’t say OK to those right away. If a Korean actress goes to Japan and plays a role with nudity, what are they going to say when she goes back to Korea? So she worried about that, but it had nothing to do with the movie itself. It would be the same if a Japanese actress were to go to Korea and do nude scenes. But when we were in Busan (for the International Film Festival), everyone told her she’d done a great job, so it worked out well, I think.
In Japan, the biggest name in the cast is, of course, Atsuko Maeda (formerly of the pop group AKB48). Did you cast her?
I told her I wanted to work with her, yes. I was really taken with Maeda. Since she’s been in films by Nobuhiro Yamashita [“Moratorium no Tamako” (“Tamako in Moratorium”)] and Kiyoshi Kurosawa [“Seventh Code”], she’s become really interesting as an actress.
You got a great crying scene out of Maeda. And that’s your trademark — all of your actresses let loose with the tears.
That’s no good. I’ve got to make a [Hiroki speaks in English] no-crying movie.
Did you talk with her about that scene?
Yes, I did, and I tried various other things, too — to get her to cry, that is. But she would cry when she ate a kimchi hamburger. That’s what did it.
Looking at her AKB48 videos you can see she had been preparing to be an actress.
She’s not exactly a beauty. On the other hand, she’s great as an actress. If she’d been really beautiful, she might have stayed an idol. But she doesn’t have an idol’s face — it’s more suited to movies.
I was also impressed by the humor in the film. It’s not that you’d never had laughs in your films before, but this one is full of them.
That was the intention. We should have titled it “My Sister is an AV Actress.” [Laughs.]
Was this film relatively easy for you, given your experience as a pink film director?
I use that experience when I shoot on a tight schedule — two weeks in this case. Pink films took three or four days to make. We always used to shoot them in one room of a love hotel since they had sex scenes. The movies themselves were different, but we shot them in one room.
The scenes showing how the hotel is run feel realistic. Did you research how they manage these places?
I already knew a bit about love hotels, from my private life and so on. I’d also shot films there, so I didn’t do any research. But I went to the places where the staff stays — the staff room, the place where they eat their meals and so on — for the first time. They were dirty and full of stuff.
I also liked Tomorowo Taguchi as the “delivery health” club manager. He played him as a nice, kind-hearted guy — not what you’d expect. That job has a kind of dark image.
The manager was a cheerful guy. I thought (Taguchi) was trying to recruit part-time workers for the “delivery health” business. [Laughs.]
The director of the Udine festival told me she left the theater feeling more energetic. I felt that way myself.
That’s good. So there are at least two of you.
Your next film will be more of an art film, but will you also continue to make the types of commercial films that draw fans?
Right, back and forth. Everyone says they like the art films more. [Hiroki speaks in English] Why? In my own mind it’s all entertainment.