Kiki Sugino: 'I'm always looking for myself'

by Mark Schilling

Special To The Japan Times

Kiki Sugino has a one-of-a-kind resume in the domestic movie business. Many are the young “multi-talents” who act, sing and model, but most are recruited, molded and marketed by an agency. From the start, this 31-year-old actor, director and producer took a more independent route toward multi-dom.

Born in Hiroshima in 1984 to a family of Korean descent, Sugino entered Keio University and went to South Korea in her third year as an exchange student. There, she landed a starring role in the 2005 film “One Shining Day,” the beginning of an acting career that took her around Asia — she worked on so many Asian productions that in 2011 the Tokyo International Film Festival included a section titled “Sugino Kiki: Muse of the Asian Indie Cinema.”

Sugino became a producer with Koji Fukada’s 2010 comedy “Hospitalite” (“Kantai”), in which she played the level-headed wife of a print shop owner who falls for the ruses of a con man. “Hospitalite” won the best film prize in the Tokyo International Film Festival’s Japanese Eyes section and was screened at nearly 100 film festivals.

In 2014, Sugino made her directorial feature debut with “Kyoto Elegy” (“Manga Niku to Boku”), an offbeat drama about three women who become entangled with a wishy-washy law student (Takahiro Miura). Sugino (in a fat suit) played the strangest of the three: a pushy, obese slob who has a vitality her paramour lacks. Screened at festivals in Asia and Europe, including the Tokyo International Film Festival, “Kyoto Elegy” will open nationwide on Feb. 13.

Showered with festival invitations and honors, Sugino had a life to be envied. Then, in January of this year, it nearly ended. Sugino was hit by a taxi after attending an International Film Festival Rotterdam screening of “Chigasaki Story” (“San-paku Yokka Goji no Kane”), an ensemble drama she produced and starred in. Her legs and hip were broken in five places and she lay in a state she later described as “nine parts dead and one part alive.”

Told by a doctor she might not walk for a year, she underwent six operations but, when I interviewed her for The Japan Times in September, had made a recovery deserving of the over-used adjective “miraculous.” Walking determinedly with a cane, she greeted me at the Foreign Correspondents’ Club of Japan and answered my questions with her usual animation and directness.

How did the accident impact your outlook on life and work?

It made me realize that movies are all I have. They’re a major focus in my life. I felt how miraculous it is to be alive. As long as I’m alive, I want to see and express worlds I’ve never seen before.

I suppose you mean more than just working abroad.

I’d like to work with people from many countries but, more than that, I’m talking about the worldview of my movies. I’d like to make movies that don’t follow tradition, such as mixing traditional drama and science fiction.

Sounds expensive.

(Laughs.) Science fiction doesn’t have to be expensive. You don’t need 3-D and CGI. All you need are props and a good story that appeals to the imagination of the viewers.

You wear the hats of director, producer and actor, sometimes together in the same film. How do you blend them — or keep them separate?

Many actors think of the role they’re playing as separate from the film’s overall message or worldview. I can’t do that. The art of acting isn’t about becoming somebody you aren’t. It’s a process of finding new dimensions inside yourself. (In English:) I’m always looking for myself. (Laughs.) It’s impossible for me to separate the role from myself.

Some directors who act in their own films choose flattering roles. But you seem to enjoy playing the bad girl.

I like all my roles. Humans are multifaceted, and so there are a billion ways I can potentially express myself and a billion words I can use to describe myself. I can be mean or sad or friendly. A human being can embody all these qualities. I don’t have a particular emotion or personality I want to express.

“Chigasaki Story” was inspired by filmmakers such as Yasujiro Ozu and Woody Allen — but you didn’t try to imitate them.

Chigasaki-kan (the inn where the film is set) is where Ozu wrote his scripts but I had no desire to make a movie in his style. I wanted to respect him without imitating him. I’m a fan of Woody Allen, so the story reflects his ensemble style of storytelling.

He has a cynical view of humanity, doesn’t he?

Yes, it’s like he’s given up on humanity and come to accept it for what it is. He’s my favorite director. His observations are insightful and he has a bit of a mean streak.

What’s next for you as a director?

My next film, “Yuki Onna” (“Snow Woman”), which is based on the story by Lafcadio Hearn, will be shot in Onomichi, near Hiroshima. I will be acting and directing. We were planning to shoot it in March but my accident delayed it. I hope we can start by next March.

Has the script changed at all since your accident?

Very much so. The script has gone through a lot of rewrites. Before the accident I was feeling fired up about filming in Hiroshima. I planned to include elements such as the atomic bomb, radiation poisoning and the war. However, after the accident I felt no need to force those themes into the movie. The accident made me contemplate my own body and soul. From your own fate to the emotional lives of others, the world is full of mysteries, isn’t it? I want to depict characters coming face to face with life’s mysteries. That was lacking in earlier drafts of the script.

It’s not going to be autobiographical?

No, though I will star in it. I want to play Yuki Onna. She is an enigma just like I am. I don’t think I’ll ever figure myself out. In a sense, I’ll always be playing an enigma.