Today’s viewers may have grown desensitized to screen violence and CGI spectacle, but there’s still something bracing about seeing an actor go beyond the call of duty for a role.
Ryuichi Hiroki’s “Ride or Die,” which will be released worldwide on Netflix this month, is likely to get people talking in a way that few of the streaming giant’s Japanese originals have managed so far. The film is a torrid, emotionally bruising tale of sexuality, class, domestic abuse and murder, featuring a pair of extraordinarily committed performances by its stars, Kiko Mizuhara and Honami Sato.
It’s also one of the most sexually explicit movies to come out of Japan in recent memory, at least beyond the realms of the adult entertainment industry.
“I don’t know what kind of genre you’d categorize it under,” says Mizuhara, speaking alongside Sato via Zoom. “It felt like something I hadn’t seen before.”
An elevator pitch for the film — which is adapted from Ching Nakamura’s harrowing manga series, “Gunjo” (“Ultramarine”) — might describe it as “Thelma and Louise” meets “Blue is the Warmest Color.” But that’s only part of the story.
Mizuhara plays Rei, an openly gay woman from a privileged background who ends up murdering the abusive husband of her high school crush, Nanae (Sato). Ditching her older girlfriend, Rei goes on the run with Nanae, though neither woman seems sure where they want to go — or whether they’ll end up killing each other before they get there.
“As an actor, it’s not often you come across a film that allows you to put all of yourself out there, and go on such an emotional rollercoaster ride,” Mizuhara says.
“Ride or Die” promises to be a breakout movie for its two stars, both of whom have previously been better known for other vocations.
Mizuhara is one of Japan’s most instantly recognizable models, and though she has been appearing in movies since Tran Anh Hung’s “Norwegian Wood” in 2010, it’s only recently that she’s had much opportunity to stretch herself (see also Yukiko Sode’s “Aristocrats,” released in February).
Music fans may know Sato as Hona Ikoka, the stage name she uses while drumming with prog-pop band Gesu no Kiwami Otome., but she’s been coming into her own as an actor, too. She was a standout in last year’s “The Cornered Mouse Dreams of Cheese,” another film with a complicated view of same-sex romance.
Unlike her co-star, Sato was already a fan of Nakamura’s original manga, first published in 2007 when the author was just 22 years old.
“I had my concerns about how they were going to adapt it, but I was so eager to take part, there wasn’t even the slightest question of me saying no,” she says.
Nami Kikkawa’s screenplay takes numerous liberties with the source material, while staying true to its spirit (and occasionally overripe dialogue). While the original story is set in Tokyo, the film opens things up by turning it into a road movie, shifting much of the action away from the capital to nearby Kanagawa and Shizuoka prefectures.
“There’s a refreshing side to the film: this kind of feeling of release, which comes through more when you’re watching it than it did while we were shooting,” Mizuhara says. “But the performances are captured exactly the way they were. What you see on screen is just how it felt at the time, and there’s an exquisite balance between those two sides.”
While the film also features memorable supporting turns by Yoko Maki and Anne Suzuki, the focus remains squarely on Mizuhara and Sato’s characters throughout. Some of the scenes are so intimate, you’d swear it was just the actresses and a camera in the room.
“Ride or Die” was shot last summer, when movie crews in Japan were still adjusting to the realities of working during a pandemic. Though it doesn’t make any reference to COVID-19, the film has a feverish quality that feels very lockdown-appropriate.
“For the really intimate scenes where it was just the two of us, I think the director probably made a conscious effort to use a very small crew,” Mizuhara says. “That may have been partly due to the coronavirus, but also (out of respect for) our feelings and our performances, to give us a sense of privacy.”
A lot of attention is likely to focus on how graphic the film is, including Rei’s mid-coitus slaying of Nanae’s husband, and a pivotal lovemaking sequence that’s filmed in a continuous shot lasting more than eight minutes.
It’s hard to overstate how unusual such scenes are in contemporary Japanese cinema. In the film’s press materials, Hiroki says that one of the reasons Nakamura’s manga hadn’t been adapted sooner was because it was so hard to find experienced actresses who are willing to do nude scenes.
Following the example of overseas TV dramas such as “Normal People” and “Bridgerton,” the production hired an intimacy coordinator, in what Netflix says was a first for a Japanese movie. Mizuhara explains that the coordinator interviewed cast members to determine what they were comfortable doing, then ensured that their boundaries were respected during the shoot.
“These were really important scenes for me, and if something had felt uncomfortable, I think it would have been reflected in the final film,” she says. “It’s like having a trainer when you do action scenes. Having someone to coach you for these kinds of scenes gives you a lot of peace of mind as an actor.”
Sato agrees, though she adds that she didn’t feel such a strong need for the additional support herself.
“Personally speaking, I didn’t have any problem with the fact that there were intimate scenes involved,” she says. “The first time I spoke with the intimacy coordinator, the conversation was over in about five minutes.”
Both actresses clearly took an immersive approach to their roles. Hiroki insisted on shooting the film in sequence, allowing them to get deeper into their characters as they progressed. Sato went so far as deliberately cutting off contact with her friends and family during the shoot.
Even when they describe the experience now, the pair move so fluidly between discussing themselves and their characters, it isn’t always clear which they’re referring to.
“By the end, we were like: ‘You’re the only one, I don’t want to be with anyone else,’” Mizuhara recalls. “We naturally started to feel that way, and didn’t want to be apart. I hadn’t expected that at all.”
While “Ride or Die” will inevitably be tagged as an LGBTQ movie, the pair both downplay that particular aspect.
“It’s not really about LGBTQ issues or domestic violence, though they may be part of the film,” Sato says. “The focus is really on the feelings of these two characters: how they grow as people, and how their feelings change … the forms that love can take.”
As for what it was like to see the finished film, and go through that emotional rollercoaster all over again, Mizuhara can’t resist a laugh.
“I felt like I was going to die when I watched it,” she says.
“Ride or Die” (“Kanojo”) streams on Netflix from April 15.
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