Film

The delicate notes of 'Someone's Xylophone'

by Mark Schilling

Special To The Japan Times

Japanese directors now routinely do dozens of media interviews to publicize their new films, especially if they are on the indie end of the spectrum. The stars of said films also sit down with the press, if not as commonly, but though I have been writing about local film folk since 1991, an interview with a director (Yoichi Higashi) and an actress (Takako Tokiwa) together was a first. Here to talk about their new film “Someone’s Xylophone” (“Dareka no Mokkin”), neither are newcomers in need of a helping hand.

Born in 1934, Higashi has been directing feature films since 1969, ranging from hard-hitting social dramas (“The River with No Bridge/Hashi no Nai Kawa”1992) to dream-like explorations of childhood memories (“Village of Dreams”/”E no Naka no Boku no Mura,” 1996). Meanwhile, Tokiwa has successfully transitioned from her 1990s fame as television’s “queen of trendy drama” to a career as an in-demand film actress, starring in both indie experiments (“Cut,” 2011) and big-budget spectacles (“20th Century Boys”/”Nijuseiki Shonen” trilogy).

But as the two talked about their first film together, in which Tokiwa plays an ordinary housewife who falls for and obsessively stalks a handsome hair stylist (Sosuke Ikematsu), their unusual united front began to make more sense. A big name in both Japan and Asia, Tokiwa was glad to lend her star wattage to a director she obviously respects. Meanwhile, Higashi was clearly happy to have Tokiwa by his side since she was not only eloquent about the film’s talking points but quick with apt anecdotes. In other words, theirs was a mutual admiration society, not a marriage of PR convenience.

It’s rare for me to interview a director and actor together.

Higashi: It’s all right if you just interview her. No one wants to see me. I’m just here to support her — she’s the one who should be the center of the conversation.

Takako, why this project and Yoichi Higashi?

Tokiwa: I love his films and was really happy to get an offer from him.

Higashi: It hard for her to answer this kind of question if I’m here. (Laughs)

The heroine, Sayoko, is something of a mystery. Did you have any trouble understanding her motivations when you read the script?

Tokiwa: I didn’t, no. You don’t need a special reason for liking someone. Also, the definition of who is and who is not a stalker is vague. Some may view her actions as stalking, but you can also see them as an expression of pure love. The choice of where to draw that line is up the individual.

Higashi: I’d like to add something to what she just said. The film is about a person leading an ordinary life who enters a strange world, There’s no clear borderline with one side normal and the other abnormal — both can exist in the same person. When she read the scenario she really understood that.

You’ve often dealt with the theme of “borderlines” in your films.

Higashi: That’s true — it’s something I’ve given some thought to. I’m not trying to sound difficult, but there is a history of philosophers and psychiatrists studying that kind of thing. What I’ve learned from them is that we can’t divide insane people and normal people into two groups. In Japan, we do tend to divide them, but I’m strongly against that. I don’t like seeing people judged that way. It frightens me. In the film I didn’t want to clearly state what she really is.

Tokiwa: I also feel that way. I often go to see court cases and I’ve noticed that sort of thing. For example, you may think a person who has committed a crime would say crazy things, but that’s not the case at all. He talks plainly about what he did. I nearly always find myself wondering if that person really did something so bad.

Higashi: (Handing over a sheet of paper) I’ve written something about that here. Please read it for reference later. It basically says that at a certain point in the film, Sayoko’s spirit becomes like a chrysalis.

Tokiwa: It’s for the program sold in the theaters.

Higashi: I don’t know exactly why, but her heart becomes like a chrysalis, a pupa. From the outside the pupa of a butterfly seems to be still, but inside big changes are taking place. Then one day the butterfly emerges. Sayoko is grappling with that kind of major change. She’s being reborn in a different form.

This is the first time, Takako, that you worked with Sosuke Ikematsu. I’ve seen him in a lot of films, but his character in this one is quite different.

Tokiwa: One thing Ikematsu has been doing right all along is to take long pauses between lines. It’s because he’s being honest about his feelings, I think. He waits until he wants to say his next line. So the pauses become really long.

Higashi: When you think he’s finally going to speak, he doesn’t say anything. Takako was surprised at that and so was I. I told him just once to make the pauses a little shorter.

The most important element in a film is rhythm. Not a simple rhythm, but the interior rhythm between two actors. But if you ask me what sorts of things create a good rhythm, I don’t know. I just feel it instinctively.

Sometimes you do it bang, bang, bang and sometimes it’s good to leave a little pause between lines. A director has to pay attention to that. My job is to watch the action and give some advice.

You inject surreal elements, such as the scene of Sayoko sleeping when two pairs of hands reach into the frame to touch her. You seem to be saying there’s no difference between the real world and the dream world.

Higashi: Human beings basically cannot live deeply and happily without some kind of illusion. That is, we can’t always distinguish between dreams and reality. I don’t want to list the reasons; it’s also something I feel instincively.

Tokiwa: I went to see noh for the first time yesterday. It really reminded me of the world beyond. That may because it’s based on Japanese classic stories. Noh and the way Mr. Higashi makes films are really close.

Higashi: But noh is superior.

Tokiwa: No, your films are! (Laughs)

Higashi: She’s extremely perceptive and extremely intelligent. I didn’t have to consult with her about a single scene or single cut when I was shooting the movie.

Tokiwa: I can really trust him. He would always tell me when I was getting off the track. The moment I brought in the pedestrian world of TV drama he would tell me, “That’s not it.”

There are a lot of films about women of a certain age making a last try for love. Is that also true of Sayoko?

Tokiwa: I don’t know. Her story may be one that is (in English) “to be continued.”

Higashi: Right, you don’t know if it’s her last love. Women don’t think about their “last love,” not at all. For them, it’s a (in English) “never-ending story.”