In her four-decade acting career Kaori Momoi has always been a free-spirited stand-out, indifferent to convention. But beneath her easygoing attitude and signature drawling delivery (which used to make me wonder what she had been ingesting before the cameras started rolling) was a thorough professionalism and boundless curiosity.

Unlike most other leading actresses of her generation — she was born in Tokyo in 1951 — Momoi braved the Hollywood jungle, winning roles in such major productions as “Memoirs of a Geisha” (2005) and “The Yellow Handkerchief” (2008), a remake of the 1977 Yoji Yamada road-movie classic that launched her to stardom. She also segued successfully into directing, with her 2006 debut feature “Faces of a Fig Tree” (“Ichijiku no Kao”) screening at Pusan, Berlin and other festivals around the world.

Now Momoi is back with her second film as a director: “Hee” (“Hi”), which means “fire” in Japanese. Shot mostly in Momoi’s home in Los Angeles, with Momoi starring as a mentally disturbed sex worker who is suspected of murder, the film had a difficult gestation, as shown in a “making of” film that screened at the Kyoto International Film and Art Festival last October.

Based on Fuminori Nakamura’s short story, the film had a low budget by Hollywood (or even Japanese) standards and Momoi struggled with everything from the release (in Kyoto she had yet to find a Japanese distributor) to her co-lead, Yugo Saso. In the “making” film Momoi relentlessly criticizes Saso’s performance as the psychiatrist who treats her, telling him he is not connecting with her.

“You have to be in the moment,” she reminds him — an acting lesson Momoi herself has mastered, as indicated by a long list of awards that includes two Japanese Academy Best Actress prizes.

Last February, after “Hee” had screened at the Berlin Film Festival (its subsequent stops on the festival circuit include Hong Kong, Okinawa and, in September, Vladivostok), she spoke with The Japan Times about the film and her own illustrious career.

You had a tough time making “Hee.”

True, but making an indie film is not just tough for the director. For example, actors work for no fee and the crew is hired for low pay. When I appeared in (Doris Dorrie’s) “Fukushima Mon Amour” (2016), everyone worked as a volunteer. Even the people in temporary housing (in Fukushima) appeared for nothing. They didn’t even get one omanju (steamed bun).

Actually I can’t say the director has it tough — the director is the one who wants to make the film to begin with.

But this time you were more than just the director.

I did all the styling, the art direction, the editing. We didn’t have the money and I didn’t want to ask someone else to do it. You’re just imposing on people, since you can’t pay them much or you’re asking them to volunteer. That’s the hardest thing about indie films. So I wanted to make a good film that wins awards. That way I can make everyone who took part feel a little better about doing it.

When I saw the “making of” film I realized how serious you were. It was like a life-or-death struggle.

Of course it is. That’s why actors have to beat their directors. As an actress I have to beat my director’s imagination. So I experiment with my lines. In any case, I don’t try to memorize them, I don’t sound them out. I make it a condition that I’m going to say those lines just once, like you do in real life. I’m living the life of the woman (I’m portraying). When I’m acting, the cameraman and the director of photography have only one chance to watch that.

So there were not retakes on “Hee”?

No, none. I think it’s cheating to do that if you’re both the actor and director. It’s not fair. If I can do it only one time I’m going to concentrate. I can lead her life and try to do what she does. One day a fly came into the scene and I caught it like so (demonstrates). Anyway I use everything during the takes.

You gave Saso quite an acting lesson.

He’s playing the psychiatrist and this woman has been telling her whole life to him. But when I saw the footage we shot that day, I realized he had not been listening — and that changed the story. Why is it important for him to listen? It’s a last chance for her. She has to go away because she killed somebody. She really wants to connect, to trust someone and this is her last chance.

It’s like being a soldier. You know you’re going to die, but you keep advancing forward. If I’m going to die tomorrow and there’s only one person in front of me, I want that person to try hard to understand me so that at the end we can trust each other. I feel that in today’s world it’s important to have that kind of hope. Nowadays people don’t try to understand and believe in each other.

If he’s not connecting with your character, the film would have been like a bout of one-man sumo.

Right, one-man sumo. But she can’t choose whether the other person is someone she can talk to and trust. All she can do is tell her entire life story to the person in front of her. The theme is connections between people. To live, we have to connect with others, like it or not. But are we truly making that effort? Everybody shuts their doors. Everyone has become like a lonely rabbit in its own cage.

Then there is the connection between the film and the audience.

A film is something people see and understand based on their life experiences. If a movie makes five people feel the same way it’s strange. Everyone is different and everyone has different experiences, so the way they feel about things is different too. If 100 people buy your film on television and all 100 feel the same way about it, it’s not a good film.

What’s the big difference between Hollywood and Japanese films for you?

It’s the difference between major and indie films. In Japan, I couldn’t appear in indie films — if I did they became major. But abroad I can appear in indie films because I’m a foreigner.

Asian women are kind of rare, right? (laughs) So there are still some people who will hire me. There aren’t any other Japanese actresses my age abroad, so I get cast. I feel no need to appear in major productions. Those are the kind of films 100 people all like the same way. I like films where five people see it and afterward go to a bar and talk about it.

What is it like working somewhere you are less well-known?

I’m nobody and that’s really interesting. How do they see me? For me as an actor, that’s fun. Nobody knows how Kaori Momoi will perform, do they? I can try something different and become something new. I’m always a newcomer.

Nobody knows my age. I may even be able to play a man. If I don’t strip they’re not going to know (laughs).

You don’t do much television.

I don’t do it. I came along at the end of the film era. The era of seeing movies in a theater is just about over. Everyone is seeing them on the internet or on DVD. But for me a movie is something to see in a dark theater.

I want to be in a movie that everyone watches with concentration, a movie that you won’t understand if you get up to go to the bathroom. That’s the kind of movie I want to make. But mine is the last generation to feel that way.

“Hee” is showing in select cinemas in Japan from Aug. 20. For more details, visit hee-movie.com

In line with COVID-19 guidelines, the government is strongly requesting that residents and visitors exercise caution if they choose to visit bars, restaurants, music venues and other public spaces.

In a time of both misinformation and too much information, quality journalism is more crucial than ever.
By subscribing, you can help us get the story right.