Hollywood stars often do double duty as producers — Tom Cruise has a producer’s credit for all the “Mission Impossible” films going back to the first in 1996 — but it’s not so common for a 27-year-old Japanese actress to produce a film in which she also stars. That’s unless you’re talking about Urara Matsubayashi, who played a teenage victim of social media in Takaomi Ogata’s 2017 drama “The Hungry Lion” and is now the producer and star of “Kamata Prelude,” an omnibus by four directors that will open in cinemas on Sept. 25.
Informed by Matsubayashi’s own experiences, “Kamata Prelude” is a film of the #MeToo era, making sexual harassment a central theme while exploring the dreams, anxieties and ambitions of its protagonist, Machiko (Matsubayashi). In the final segment, directed by Hirobumi Watanabe, Machiko is present only in the mind of 10-year-old Riko, an aspiring actress who innocently looks up to her but knows nothing of her struggles.
The film, Matsubayashi says in an interview at the Gotanda office of acting school Enbu Seminar, emerged from discussions she had with Kosuke Ono, CEO of independent production company Wa Entertainment, which backed “Kamata Prelude.”
“The story comes from what I experienced, of course,” she tells The Japan Times. “I wanted to express what has happened to me within a close radius. One thing was sexual harassment.”
During an audition scene in Ryutaro Nakagawa’s first segment, a male director blatantly hits on Machiko in front of his staff. In the third segment, directed by Yuka Yasukawa, another male director forces Machiko to play a sexually charged scene over and over, to the point of discomfort. “The film shows the sorts of things that really happen every day, all the time,” Matsubayashi says.
To make the film happen, Matsubayashi knew she would have to step forward as a producer.
“I’m just a no-name actress so I thought it would be pointless to simply wait,” she explains. “I had to be proactive and plan the film myself.”
Recruiting four up-and-coming directors — Ryutaro Nakagawa, Mayu Akiyama, Yuka Yasukawa and Hirobumi Watanabe, Matsubayashi told them her stories and gave them a free hand in directing their individual segments.
“The first director I contacted was Mr. Watanabe. I wanted to work with him from the beginning,” Matsubayashi says of the director, who is sitting next to her for the interview.
In his segment, Watanabe plays a director (also named Watanabe) who comically voices doubts about the worth of the omnibus genre, while admitting that he has never made a short film. “The Watanabe I play in my films is a character,” he says. “What he says is not 100 percent what I really think.”
So he’s not actually critical of omnibus films? “I’m doing a kind of parody,” Watanabe explains, a little flustered. “I’m not really criticizing this film. I just thought I could make an interesting comedy by using a film director who could say that sort of thing with a straight face.”
“Mr. Watanabe’s segment depicts what might be called the starting point of films,” Matsubayashi adds. “I think it’s philosophical and deep. At the end, little Riko talks about her cousin Machiko and her own future. She also plays a word association game with her friends like the ones I used to enjoy as a kid. It reminded me of my own beginnings. I really love this segment — and I laughed so hard the first time I saw it,” she says, smiling.
The character Machiko, who is from Watanabe’s hometown of Otawara, Tochigi Prefecture, and lives in Kamata in Tokyo’s Ota Ward, is also quite different from Matsubayashi.
“I was born and raised in Tokyo,” she says. “But when Watanabe proposed making Machiko from Otawara, I was all for it. Everybody comes to Tokyo, right? But why? For a long time, I’ve questioned why everything has to be centered in Tokyo, so I wanted Watanabe to criticize that in his film.”
In addition to recruiting Watanabe and other young directors, Matsubayashi cast the film with talented female actors, including Kotone Furukawa as the mysterious, unearthly girlfriend of Machiko’s brother in the first segment, Sairi Ito as Machiko’s straight-talking friend in the second, and Kumi Takiuchi as an actress who blows up at the aforementioned abusive director in the third. As the film’s star, didn’t Matsubayashi worry about this formidable competition?
“I was really dissatisfied with my own performance, compared to them,” she says quickly. “But I completely enjoyed being able to work with them. They inspired me during the shoot.”
Matsubayashi recalls her work in the second segment, directed by Mayu Akiyama, about the uneasy reunion of Machiko, whose career trajectory has been anything but upward, with four college friends.
“She’s an actress but she doesn’t shine, she doesn’t stand out,” Matsubayashi says. “She’s angry about that, but can’t express it. That’s one of the themes of the film.”
Then one of the friends, the bubbly Mari, announces her engagement to a co-worker — and adds that she will transfer out of his department so as not to harm his career. Another friend, the budding business tycoon Hana (Ito), bluntly asks why Mari’s career should have to take second place to her fiance’s.
“The range of choices that (Japanese women) have is still really narrow,” Matsubayashi says. “That’s what I think as a woman. This (segment) says that one person doesn’t always have to play one role. Instead, it’s important to have diversity, so that one person can play many roles.”
She calls the third segment, directed by Yuka Yasukawa, “the most extreme.” Machiko and another actress, Kurokawa (Takiuchi), are asked to improvise a scene of sexual harassment in an audition, with Machiko taking the part of an actress and Kurokawa, a male producer who tries to seduce her. But as the director demands take after take and change after change, the scene itself becomes a form of sexual harassment — until Kurokawa announces that she has had enough.
“Ms. Takiuchi is an actress I’ve admired for a long time,” Matsubayashi says. “The director, Ms. Yasukawa, said that she wanted us to work together. She wanted a strong actress to play a strong woman. So Ms. Takiuchi was chosen as someone who could offer a good contrast to Machiko.”
Having made this very personal film, does Matsubayashi plan to continue as a producer? “I definitely want to be involved on the production side, but I also want to keep being an actress,” she says. “I want to produce films that have some meaning, socially or otherwise. I don’t like films that just want to play on your emotions to the end. Instead, I have to offer something that makes a statement about the world we’re living in.”
“Kamata Prelude” opens in select theaters in Tokyo from Sept. 25, Kyoto and Osaka from Oct. 16, and Nagoya and Kobe from Oct. 17. For more information, visit www.kamataprelude.com (Japanese only).