Like many altruistic young dreamers, Noemie Nakai grew up wanting to make a difference in the world. Naturally, she thought that meant working at the United Nations.
As she got closer to her goal, however, someone at the organization suggested she was wasting her time. Possibly disheartened, Nakai recalls watching the 2005 film “The Constant Gardener,” Fernando Meirelles’ diplomat-themed thriller that won one of its stars, Rachel Weisz, an Academy Award. It was then that Nakai realized she could still make a difference in the world, but it would be through filmmaking.
Since then, the 29-year-old French-Japanese director has cut her teeth on a range of short films that have earned her descriptors such as “up-and-coming” and “one to watch.” That’s because, whether through acting or directing, Nakai has appeared to challenge herself by working outside of her comfort zone.
Her most recent work, a documentary about “crying therapist” Hidefumi Yoshida titled “Tears Teacher,” explores the benefits of ruikatsu, an activity in which people consciously shed tears to detoxify their minds. It explores a theme that’s common in much of Nakai’s work, which is finding strength in vulnerability.
“I was working on a fictional feature about rental families in Japan when I came across Yoshida,” Nakai tells The Japan Times. “I thought about writing a part in the film for him because I found his work extraordinary, but then realized it was too weird to work as a piece of fiction. Instead, I decided to make something purely about him. It’s fun and wacky, but in Japan where many people feel they can’t be vulnerable, I believe he’s spreading an important message about mental health.”
The 10-minute film recently premiered at North America’s influential Hot Docs festival, which moved online this year due to the COVID-19 pandemic. “Tears Teacher” was also acquired by the New York Times for its Op-Docs series, and will be streamed worldwide for a month in July.
Nakai’s other release in 2020 is “Touch,” a five-minute silent short shot on 16mm film and set in the Lake District of northwest England. It’s a visual poem about a woman with a chair who’s struggling to come to terms with the loss of her girlfriend.
“I had the idea for ‘Touch’ while going through a breakup,” says Nakai. “It’s about learning to let go, but it could be interpreted in different ways. There’s a preconception in filmmaking, especially among young directors, that you have to make something that’s easy to understand, leaving the audience fulfilled. With this, I wanted to do the opposite, exploring a weirder path.”
“Touch” is the kind of film Nakai might have been too afraid to make before spending some time living in Britain. Since moving to London in 2018 (she currently splits her time between England and Japan), Nakai says she has become more comfortable with trying new things.
“The biggest thing I’ve learned from being in England is to take risks,” she says. “I know that sounds obvious, and I thought I did that already, but, in reality, I didn’t properly know what it meant until moving there.
“Living in Japan, I was overly careful and worried about how people perceived me. Being creative in that kind of environment is hard. It’s the same with acting, you are always conscious about trying to please the director and that can be inhibiting.”
Nakai got her break in acting after landing a recurring role as Christine Robbins in the romcom soap opera “Mischievous Kiss: Love in Tokyo.” It proved a big hit throughout Asia. Even today, she still gets messages from overseas fans of the show.
“It’s based on a popular manga, and at the time I felt a bit overwhelmed,” says Nakai. “Growing up, I never envisaged working in the entertainment industry. I took part in theater groups, but nothing serious. … I auditioned for my first role (in the TBS drama ‘Shuden Bye Bye’) while at law school and got it. Gaku Hamada (Nakai’s former costar) told me I should pursue acting as a career. That was encouraging to hear, so I decided to follow his advice.”
Nakai’s appearance in “Mischievous Kiss” marked the beginning of a string of roles, including those in the action franchise “High&Low,” Naomi Kawase’s “Radiance” and the Hulu Japan series “Death Note: New Generation.” One of Nakai’s most prominent roles to date came in the TBS drama “Never Let Me Go,” which is based on Kazuo Ishiguro’s novel of the same name.
It was a year after “Never Let Me Go” that Nakai released her first short as a director. Again, it was a career shift that she hadn’t expected.
“I didn’t set out to be a director,” Nakai says. “It just happened on a whim. I was at a film festival with (actress) Carmen (Kobayashi) and the quality (of the films) wasn’t particularly high, so we decided to make something that we could be cast in. We came up with something over a lunch.”
Together, the pair co-produced “The Last Dream,” a short set in a future where most people have lost the ability to dream. A company looks to capitalize on this void by recycling the cherished fantasies of the few still capable of dreaming. The movie was picked up by New York-based distributor Film Movement and included on the release of Hirokazu Kore-eda’s family drama “After the Storm.”
“For (‘The Last Dream’) to be shown on a Kore-eda DVD was a big moment for us,” Nakai recalls. “To be honest, though, when I was told that, I thought they were speaking to the wrong person.”
Nakai continues to be surprised by her successes, even after taking home the main prize at last year’s Asian Project Market (APM) as part of the Busan Film Festival. “The Host” and “Snowpiercer,” early films by Academy Award winner Bong Joon Ho, were projects officially introduced by APM.
“I definitely wasn’t expecting that award,” says Nakai. “In fact, I was so confident of not winning, just before the ceremony I was at the beach having fun. … I (had) just arrived in the room when my name was called. I think you can see in the pictures I’m sweating and in shock as I receive it.”
Since the ceremony, Nakai has been developing a script about an elderly mother trying to reconnect with her son. She also shadowed Michael Mann (“The Last of the Mohicans”) for the upcoming TV series “Tokyo Vice” until the coronavirus outbreak put a halt to proceedings.
“It’s been mind-blowing watching the way he works, but I don’t want to try and emulate him or any other director,” says Nakai. “My goal is to continue acting and creating films that I want to make. I want to give communities who aren’t heard more of a voice and for people to understand that vulnerability is not a weakness. There’s much to be learned from listening and opening up.”
For more information, visit www.noemienakai.com.