Mika Ninagawa was once a successful and much-awarded photographer who made the occasional music video or movie. There was a five-year gap between her 2007 debut feature, the period drama “Sakuran,” and her 2012 showbiz drama “Helter Skelter.” Next was a seven-year hiatus until her 2019 horror-fantasy “Diner.”
But Ninagawa quickly followed up “Diner” with the 2019 Osamu Dazai biopic “No Longer Human,” and has since finished her first Netflix series, the nine-part “Followers,” which will drop on Feb. 27. She is an “occasional” director no longer.
The daughter of Yukio Ninagawa, a famed theater director, Mika Ninagawa grew up in the Japanese entertainment world and adopted its colorful, extroverted side to her own aesthetic, which takes more cues from the hade (“gaudy”) maximalism of kabuki than the shibui (“restrained”) minimalism of noh.
This aesthetic is front and center in “Followers” (stylized as “FOLLOWERS”), which focuses on the personal and career trajectories of two women in present-day Tokyo. One is Limi Nara (Miki Nakatani), a high-flying fashion photographer in her late 30s who is, in essence, a Ninagawa stand-in. The other is Natsume Hyakuta (Elaiza Ikeda), a struggling young actress from the countryside.
Their lives intersect when Limi spots Natsume at a photo shoot. Liking Natsume’s rebellious attitude, Limi posts a candid photograph of her on Instagram. From a no-name who delivers for Uber Eats to make ends meet, Natsume suddenly becomes a hot, trending property.
Limi monitors her progress from afar while getting on with her life which, after a tragedy, centers on finding a father for her first baby. She is aided in this quest not only by her easygoing gay manager (Nobuaki Kaneko), but also by Eriko (Mari Natsuki), an acid-tongued, high-powered businesswoman, and Akane (Yuka Itaya), the hard-pressed manager of a temperamental pop star. This trio serves as Limi’s emotional release valve. Think “Sex and the City” comes to Tokyo.
Natsume also has a close friend in Sunny (Misaki Koshi, professionally known as KOM_I), a fiery lesbian artist, as well as Hiraku (Shuhei Uesugi), a showbiz-savvy YouTuber who was once a child star. But when Natsume and Hiraku become a couple, Sunny explodes with jealousy. And for Natsume, more troubles lie in store. Followers, she soon learns, can be fickle.
The series draws on Ninagawa’s own experiences in the fashion and art world and features cameos by model Yu Yamada, actor Nao Omori, musician Miyavi and other famous folks under their own names. In its unabashed theatricality, from its dramatic plot turns to its eye-popping set designs, “Followers” resembles Ninagawa’s signature flower photographs, bursting from the frame with lushness and color.
“I never could have made this series with a terrestrial TV network” Ninagawa says during an interview at Tokyo’s Ritz Carlton hotel. “If I were to do a TV drama I’d have to round off the edges. That would be personally difficult, so I’d never thought of making one. But Netflix is OK with an edgy story, so I thought I could do something challenging.”
Ninagawa co-wrote the original script, contributing much of the dialogue for the female characters. Limi, she emphasizes, is not the only character who overlaps with her creator.
“I scattered bits of myself here and there,” Ninagawa says. “For example, the relationship between the mother and the teenage son (in the series) is very close to my own situation. And Natsume is like me in my younger days. All in all, it’s my story.”
So there’s no influence from a show like “Sex and the City”?
“I wouldn’t say that,” Ninagawa says. “I thought it would be nice to have a drama that can be watched by people who’ve seen ‘Sex and the City.’ But I’ve never seen it myself.”
That HBO hit, however, ended before the rise of social media, which plays a big role in “Followers.”
“I use a lot of social media myself,” says Ninagawa. “I’ve even cast someone after seeing something interesting on social media, so it is a kind of door to the world. But everything is numbers, isn’t it? Your number of followers and your number of retweets become a measure of your value. So social media has positive and negative sides. I wanted to make its impact on the real world a theme of my work.”
With Netflix, the reach of that work now extends far beyond Japan. Ninagawa says she thought of the worldwide audience in planning the series.
“But when I spoke with people at Netflix they told me not to worry so much about overseas viewers,” she says. “They said I should emphasize Tokyo in the story since Tokyo was what audiences abroad wanted to see. I got their point, so I decided to trust myself and make a story about Tokyo that was quite personal.”
Tokyo is very much the star of “Followers,” from such familiar tourist haunts as Shibuya’s Center-gai and Harajuku’s Kawaii Monster Cafe to a conveyor-belt sweets shop that Natsume and her pals patronize and a club VIP room where she parties after a busy day at the Tokyo Girls Collection fashion event.
“There’s a Tokyo that a lot of people from abroad photograph, but I thought I had to accurately communicate the image of Tokyo that people who live here have,” Ninagawa says.
She says she also wanted to realistically populate her characters’ professional world. Thus the cameos by celebrities, all personal friends, under their real names.
“That was my idea,” she says. “Since the story is close to my own work and set in the area where I live, I thought it would be more interesting to make it as close to reality as possible. I wanted people watching not to know how much is fiction and how much is non-fiction.”
And they can puzzle that out while watching elaborate confections, which could have come from the hands of a Michelin-starred patissier, trundle on a conveyor belt around a blazing pink room. It may not be Kansas, but it’s actually Tokyo — and all Ninagawa.
“Followers” will be streamed exclusively through Netflix from Feb. 27. For more information about Mika Ninagawa, visit www.mikaninagawa.com.