Japan is not a bad place to be a young filmmaker. There are a number of festivals here that feature the work of up-and-coming directors, including the pioneering Pia Film Festival, which has been discovering and nurturing directorial talents since 1977.
Additionally, many festivals abroad are also constantly on the hunt for the next hot first- or second-time director. In other words: first Pia, then the world. Dozens of Japanese filmmakers have followed this path (or something like it) for decades, including Aya Igashi.
The 24-year-old director is still a standout among her peers, however. In 2016, her short film “Tokeru” won a Special Jury’s Award at the 2016 Pia festival. Then, in 2017, it was selected for the Cinefondation section at the Cannes Film Festival, making Igashi the youngest Japanese filmmaker to be so honored. The following year, when she was 22, her first theatrical feature, “A Crimson Star,” was released in Japan.
Her second feature, “No Call No Life,” opened March 5 in theaters across the country. Based on Yukako Kabei’s novel of the same name, the film has the outlines of a typical teen romance: Seventeen-year-old Umi Sakura (Mio Yuki) is attracted to an older classmate, Mahiro Harukawa (Yuki Inoue), with dyed hair and a sullen indifference to authority — the prototype high school rebel. (When asked by the school to list a future career, he scribbles “FBI.”)
Igashi’s film has elements that come from outside the seishun eiga (youth film) genre manual, though. Umi and her crush (she learns his first name, but never uses it) both have dark memories of childhood abuse. Also, Umi finds a mysterious message on her cellphone from a boy calling Santa Claus with a disturbing Christmas request. The message, she learns, comes from the distant past, and it becomes another link between Umi and Mahiro. Together, the pair enter their own private world in an attempt to escape the adults in their lives and, eventually, the police.
Produced by the Horipro talent agency, “No Call No Life” was developed from a proposal by a young staffer and Igashi was tapped to direct it, the first time she had ever worked from material she didn’t write herself.
In a masked and socially distanced interview at Horipro’s Tokyo headquarters, Igashi admits that she worried whether she could make the project her own.
“I’d been doing what I wanted, just making my own original films,” she says. “But when I read the novel I understood the feelings of those two kids. Relying on that understanding, I thought about how I should make the film. I wanted to bring it closer to the kind of films I’d done on my own.”
The story about lovers on the run has many antecedents from both Hollywood and Japan. Even though she has seen those types of films, however, Igashi says she “wasn’t conscious of them in making ‘No Call No Life.’ That is, I was not making a concrete homage to something I’d seen.”
She did, however, update the story of the novel, which was first published in 2006.
“The times are different and people’s sensibilities are different now, so I had to think of how to change the base I had (in the novel) and express it visually,” she says. “Also, I had to show in images what the novel says in words about the characters’ feelings and their inner thoughts.”
One solution she had was to use rain and fireworks to poetically express what Umi and Mahiro are feeling, but not always saying. Igashi says she also added “a lot of color” to the film.
“Japanese movies look so white, but I like images with vivid colors,” she says, using walls as an example. “In Japan they’re so white, but abroad they’re blue and green.”
The director says she discussed this and other ways to “strengthen the power of the images” with art director Shuji Yamashita, cinematographer Shin Hayasaka and costume designer Akiko Fujiyama.
I note that blue seems key to the film’s color scheme, beginning with night scenes that look as they were filmed with a deep blue filter.
“Right, there’s a lot of blue. The ocean is a big theme in the film,” Igashi says (the main character’s name, Umi, means “sea” in Japanese). “So I thought blue lighting was better for evoking the feeling that (the characters) were wrapped in the embrace of the ocean.
“In fact, maybe I overdid it with the blue,” she adds with a laugh.
Contributing to the film’s feeling of unfolding in a space beyond a mundane reality are the scenes of Umi communicating with figures from the past via her phone. These scenes are taken more or less directly from the novel, but Igashi says she “tried to be a little careful with them, thinking of how I wanted the audience to view them.”
“If you properly portray the characters’ feelings, you can convey them to the audience even if there’s a bit of fantasy,” she says. “After all, films are fiction, aren’t they?”
While Igashi’s career as a filmmaker has been thriving, she notes that in the Japanese industry women are still mostly working in the indie sector. “But women are directing some really big films abroad,” she says. “For example, a lot of women directors are making films for A24, a studio I really like. I think the opportunities are increasing, more so than in the past. That’s because the women who came before me struggled hard to make films. They started a movement that still continues.”
At the same time, she doesn’t want to be defined solely as a film director. “I like moving images,” she says. “I want to do films but I also want to do TV dramas and music videos. Ways of making content change with the times, don’t they? I’m not against that. I go with the flow. I want to be flexible.”
“No Call No Life” is now showing at select theaters nationwide. For more information, visit nocallnolife.jp (Japanese only).
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