Interview with Akiyoshi Koba [OAFF 2019]

Akiyoshi Koba is a graduate of Taisho University’s Japanese Language and Literature course. He now works as a part-time lecturer at Nagaoka Zokei University and indie filmmaker. His oeuvre is a series of titles that my be low on budget but are big in heart and invention. Koba strives to find what is special in small-town locations, collaborates with actors who feel like they are drawn from everyday life but have some unique feature, and uses set dressing and costuming that exudes a DIY aesthetic. Works like Slippers and Summer Moon (2015), Psychics Z (2016), and Tsumugi’s Radio (2017) typically mix comedy and sci-fi as well as drama. They have a charming simplicity and a love for their characters.

His latest title, Nunchaku and Soul (2019) is a continuation of this lo-fi storytelling and it is his best work to date. It features a mismatched pair of middle-aged guys, a nerd named Numata (Masahiro Kuroki) and a soul man named Soma (Atsushi Takahashi), who are determined to change their lives for the better by entering a dance competition. The differences in character and their reasons for entering are mined for low-key drama and lots of belly laughs. It also features a funky soundtrack. Nunchaku and Soul was recently screened at the Osaka Asian Film Festival 2019 in the Indie Forum section. Despite its humble origins, it proved to be a hit with most of the audience who were treated to post-screening nunchaku demonstrations by lead actor Masahiro Kuroki and dancing given by director and cast.

After the screening and nunchaku action, director Akiyoshi Koba sat down for an interview. This interview was mostly conducted in English but additional help was given in translation and transcription with the help of interpreters Keiko Matsushita and Takako Pocklington.

Jason Maher: Thank you very much for doing the interview and making the film. I’ve seen three of your previous films, Tsumugi’s Radio, Slippers and Summer Moon and Psychics Z and I’m very interested in your style. It’s like a celebration of normal people in normal towns. Could you describe your filmmaking style?

Akiyoshi Koba: I want to focus on people who are uncool, those who are a bit nerdy or tend to be made fun of but they do have interesting characteristics and charms. I wanted to make a film which cheers for such people and depicts the uniqueness of humans.

How did you come up with the idea for this film?

I wanted to make a music film and I like soul music and dance. I cannot dance but I really like soul dancing like on “Soul Train”. I think it’s very cool. But someday, I want to make a soul music film. Nunchaku are something I also love. The generation before mine was inspired by Bruce Lee. I think Bruce Lee is cool. I had been thinking of ideas and stories for ages, but I couldn’t get any ideas — it was always a blank. But suddenly I got an idea – Nunchaku and Soul! I had a eureka moment.

How did you come up with the character of Numata?

Numata is like me. Very shy. When I was young, I would get extremely nervous in front of people. Now I’m okay. Numata is myself. I cannot use nunchaku but I think many people used to get into using nunchaku. Many people, while growing up, may find that experiences or skills like these are useless – skills such as nunchaku, riding a unicycle or video games, whatever. But I think it depends upon each person to make these experiences useful or useless and picking up some kind of skills in childhood might become useful when the person grows up. It happened to me as well. I think everyone has this aspect. Everyone, like the main character has the same feeling.

Atsushi Takahashi, the second lead in the film, is in the band Suga Pimps. Are you a fan of the group?

When I told my producer about my idea, he introduced me to the music of the Suga Pimps and I thought their music and dance were very cool. I watched them and I thought, “I want them to appear in the film”.

They were perfect for the soul part. For the nunchaku part, you got Masahiro Kuroki. Why did you cast him?

I looked for an actor who could use nunchaku but there weren’t any. Some people can use nunchaku but don’t fit the image of the character. I used Facebook and asked people, “Do you know anyone who can play this character?” So a director I am familiar with suggested, “Kuroki in Kyoto.” I travelled from Tokyo to Kyoto by night bus and I talked with Kuroki and decided to cast him.

That’s dedication. What would you say the charm points of the two lead actors are?

Kuroki-san is very humble. He gave me an impression of earnestness. When I saw him in a coffee shop, after we talked the role over and got outside, he said, “I will show you nunchaku” and he did it in front of a bank. I got nice feeling at that time. Takahashi-san, I also talked to. He had never acted before but when I asked him if he would like to do it, he said yes. As he hadn’t had acting experience, I asked him to read the script. He was very good. He is from an older generation, so he can use nunchaku as well as dance. He has actually done things I think are cool.

How long was the training with the nunchaku and dancing?

It was a very short time. Almost 10 days for the entire shoot and we had short rehearsals. I don’t remember much about it. Kuroki-san was training very hard.

The Interpreter: Did you give a nunchaku to people and ask them to practice on their own?

The dancing team and action team were practising individually as a group. Kuroki-san’s dance was hard but he only had a short time, so he practised intensively. As for the final dance, Takahashi-san (the dance instructor) instructed them and we created choreography – I cannot dance but I researched dance steps, inserted simple steps into the sequences and then discussed it with Takahashi-san. I was sure that the Soul dance could be very simple but look cool. So, even though there was a short practice time, it went okay. But I wanted more time and another cameraman. That final scene was shot with one cameraman and it was very difficult.

What would you say the theme of the film is?

What is important for life is to take one step forward. Just attempting the first step opens the future. Numata hesitated over whether to go to dance school but he did it and that’s the important thing.

It’s a very enjoyable and inspirational film and the soundtrack is a lot of fun as well. Could you explain a little more about the making of the music?

We had a very minimal budget so we could not license any music. I wanted to use something like James Brown. I worked with a musician who is a conductor and composer who focuses on classical music. But he said, “I can make anything”, and I said, “Can you make soul music,” and he said, “Okay!” but, when I heard it, my reaction was like, “No!” He cannot use guitars or anything so we had to remain in constant communication and we managed to make the music. There were many times when I said, “More soul! More soul! (more soulful)”. I found soul music in YouTube videos and sent them to him for reference.

Is there a director’s cut of this film with the music of James Brown?

Uummm… I would use something like Earth Wind & Fire. I like The Blues Brothers and so on.

Could you describe some of the influences for this film?

I like The Blues Brothers but I cannot make something that because I don’t have the budget to make a film that crazy. I like The Full Monty a little bit. It’s a dance film. Do you know Soul Men? Not a popular film but it stars Samuel L. Jackson and it is a kind of soul music video and I got some inspiration from it.

Could you describe your favourite directors?

Of course, Akira Kurosawa, and there is one who really affected me, Robert Altman, director of The Player. Aki Kurasmaki. I like fantasies and I really like Brazil, Monty Python by Terry Gilliam. Wes Anderson. George A. Romero and Sergio Leone. I like westerns, too. Macaroni (spaghetti) westerns. There are lots and lots …Edgar Wright.

My final question is, if you had a big budget, what sort of film would you make?

I want to make science fiction or a fantasy western. There are lots of things I want to make if I have enough money. I want to make more action movies or dance movies. I would remake Nunchaku and Soul with a bigger budget. If I could only choose one, I would say I want to make something like Mad Max! and… Star Wars.

[LAUGHTER], Sounds awesome. Thank you for making Nunchaku and Soul. The audience loved it as well.

Nunchaku and Soul was shown on March 9 and 12 at the Osaka Asian Film Festival.