Interviews with Japanese directors tend to be straightforward PR exercises. The subjects may be friendly, but they are also disinclined to deviate from their script, especially if they are on their umpteenth media interview of the day.
Ryuichi Hiroki is different, though, and that’s not just because I’ve known him for years. After getting his start in pinku eiga (erotic movies) in the 1980s, Hiroki directed a steady stream of hit commercial films and acclaimed indie dramas in a pattern that could be described as “one for them, one for me.” He has none of the pontificating self-importance of typical industry kyoshō (masters), though. Instead his answers tend to be pithy, delivered with a twist of dry humor.
When we meet at the Gaienmae office of distributor Gaga to talk about his post-Fukushima drama “Side Job.,” he starts the interview with a question of his own: “Have you seen the film?” This isn’t always a given with the local media, but I surprise him with my answer: Not only did I see the film, I also read Hiroki’s own novel on which the Masato Kato-penned screenplay is based. With that out of the way, we can begin.
“Side Job.” isn’t the first time Hiroki, a Fukushima native, has addressed the Great East Japan Earthquake in his work. He touched on it in 2011, the year the disaster occurred, in his film “River.”
“My feelings then were pretty raw,” he recalls. “Since it has been five years I’m … what, calmer? Cooler?”
Even so, “Side Job.” is very much a passion project for Hiroki, who tossed aside the usual commercial rules in pursuit of honesty and authenticity. Published in 2015, the original novel was a first for the filmmaker, evidence of the thought and effort that went into the film — though Kato’s script is quite different from it.
“It’s my own original story, so I thought it would be better to have a third party involved,” Hiroki explains. “That’s why I didn’t write the script. I’m usually adapting the original material of others, and sometimes the authors aren’t happy with what I do. I thought if I didn’t like something then I could just say so … but I didn’t,” he pauses … and laughs. “It would have been like fighting with myself!”
The story is still far more Hiroki’s than Kato’s, however, and that includes the long Japanese title “Kanojo no Jinsei wa Machigaijanai” (literally, “Her Life Is Not a Mistake”). The title is used for a play in the film that is based on the 1970 cult classic “The Honeymoon Killers.”
“I love that film,” Hiroki says. “It’s my favorite.”
The “her” in the title, however, seems also to refer to Miyuki Kanazawa (Kumi Takiuchi), a disaster survivor who lives with her father in temporary housing and works at City Hall. On weekends, she travels to Tokyo to work a side job as a deriheru (delivery health) call girl.
Unlike the many famous actresses who have graced Hiroki’s films and were cast through their agencies, the relatively unknown Takiuchi won the role at an audition.
“One reason I went that route is the nudity,” Hiroki says. “There are deriheru scenes and not many actresses will do that kind of thing. Also, I felt it would be better to have someone who came without any preconceptions attached to her.”
Takiuchi completely inhabits the role, right down to her perpetual look of exhaustion with life in general.
“That’s because I gave her a hard time during the shoot,” Hiroki jokes. “She got thinner and thinner, but she did an excellent job in the film. That expression of hers is good, right?”
Hiroki switches roles to play the part of the interviewer again by asking me what I thought of the film. My answer contains a bit of a spoiler, so jump ahead two paragraphs if you don’t want to read it.
I found Ken Mitsuishi’s portayal of Miyuki’s father, a farmer whose fields all lie in the disaster’s no-go zone, unexpectedly sympathetic.
“He seems pretty hopeless, playing pachinko all day and drinking all night,” I reply. “Then one day he tells his friend in the parlor ‘I’m outta here’ and leaves abruptly. I felt that he was going to change — and the movie brightens.”
“I see,” Hiroki says with a sense of satisfaction. “But there’s no explanation. Kengo (Kora) was also good, right?,” he asks.
“Yes he was,” I answer.
“He has the line ‘You’re not the only one I’m protecting,'” Hiroki adds. “That’s something hard to say, but he says it to (Takiuchi). I thought that was good.”
I realize I am having a two-way discussion about the film, which doesn’t happen in too many director interviews.
When he was writing the novel, Hiroki says he made regular trips to the Fukushima disaster area and realized that “It had changed totally.”
“My own feelings also changed,” he recalls, adding that when he first saw the devastation he could only stand there staring at it, stunned. “Now it’s just sad,” he says in English.
“It looks as though people will never be able to go back to some of those places. What’s done is done.”
It was these varied and complex emotions that motivated Hiroki to make a “Fukushima film unlike all the others.”
“There are too many films that are simply sad, or just tell people to ganbarō,” he says, referring to the word Japanese use to encourage each other to overcome hardship. “I felt that enough was enough. Films like that tend to be over the top, and I wanted to make one that was a little quieter and slower.”
But Miyuki’s choice of side job, I tell Hiroki, might puzzle foreign viewers, especially. She has none of the usual reasons for prostituting herself.
“They’ve spent a huge amount of money cleaning polluted land,” he says. “She turns her own body into money and for her that money has great value, even though she may be making only ¥20,000 or ¥10,000 each time. By turning her body into money she gains a sense of reality that she had been lacking. She affirms her own existence in the moment.”
Another reality, of which she is quite aware, is that she has to move on, but to what?
“I didn’t want to show her having found some deeper meaning,” Hiroki says. “That would just be fictitious. It’s enough for her to simply feel that she is still here.”
“Side Job.” is now playing in cinemas nationwide.