Interview with Azusa Hieda, Director of Summer Wedding [OAFF 2022]

Azusa Hieda’a short film Summer Wedding received its World Premiere at the Osaka Asian Film Festival 2022 where it was one of the few films to directly use the Covid-19 pandemic in its narrative. Writer/director Hieda utilized social isolation during the pandemic to offer a space for a bride (Rika Kurosawa) and her groom (Daiki Nunami) to change their lives in unexpected ways. Strong set design and stirring performances which convey emotions undercutting what should have been a happy event, make it possible to read between the lines and experience contrasting emotions. Ultimately, it’s a ceremony that evokes sadness and loss.

A graduate of the Department of Broadcast Film Studies of Visual Arts Osaka, Hieda has previously directed the short Fuyu no Aka (2016). To explain more about her latest work, she participated in an email interview. This was done with translation by Takako Pocklington.

Thank you for making the film. It was an involving experience thanks to all of the details of the set and the deeply moving performance of Rika Kurosawa. It is rich with subtext and subtle in how it is used in the film. I wanted to know more about her character and the background of the film and hope you can explain more about your work. What inspired you to become a filmmaker?

I entered a college for visual arts with the intention of becoming a live cameraman. There was a film making class as a part of the course curriculum and there was an extra role for “director” which my classmates were too shy to do so my tutor encouraged me to take the role. From there, I started making films.

I was not so interested in films at the time as I watched only a few films a year and I had the perception that films are journalistic in nature. However, after taking the opportunity, I started watching films more and I learned that they are a means of self-expression by actually making them. As I used to express myself through music, I felt like my method of self-expression had just shifted from music to filmmaking and I allowed myself to become absorbed in filmmaking while putting my initial dream of becoming a live cameraman aside.

Can you talk about how the pandemic affected you as a filmmaker and where the idea for the film came from?

Not long before the Covid-19 pandemic, I was yearning for time to think properly about my future creative activities and my life. However, I was scared to stop everything to make time for contemplation while people around me kept moving forward with their lives. I was so overwhelmed with everything.

Once the pandemic hit, the whole world was forced to stop all activities, consequently, I was able to stop and relax for the first time in a while. The downtime allowed me to contemplate and face things and, at the end of the day, I found that the Covid-19 pandemic allowed me to have precious time for self-reflection.

Although I experienced various troubles due to Covid-19, such as being let go from the video production company due to the pandemic, I think that the downtime didn’t have a totally negative impact on our lives. Although Covid-19 has caused many serious incidents, from a long-term perspective I think that the time I experienced during the pandemic will have been valuable. That is why I made this film, because I wanted to give form to that experience.

One of the lines in the film is, “if it weren’t for Covid, we wouldn’t be here.” From the outside, two individuals being “isolated together” may sound romantic but the practicalities of real life make romance difficult to achieve, especially as one has demands pulling them away. I liked the way that you subverted all romantic notions with this film. 

Their relationship could hurt others around them, and I think it is wrong if their relationship hurts someone. I don’t have the intention to define their relationship as a new romantic notion by subverting the traditional view of love.However, I always try to think and portray things positively in my creations, even if they are generally perceived negatively. 

Their relationship is perceived negatively in society, and what the protagonist is doing is morally wrong. Still, I believe that audiences will sympathise with her, if even slightly, towards the end of the film. I think that we all experience some feelings beyond moral obligations and that these feelings are significant for living in modern society. Even if we are faced something negative, if we can perceive it with our hearts without any prejudice, our society would be a more comfortable place to live in.

There is a lot of subtext going on. The viewer is able to intuit a lot about the main female character through her surroundings which carries a heavy atmosphere due to the building and objects in it. Can you elaborate on how you discovered and then why you decided to use the building and the set dressing?

In terms of the choice of the building, I don’t have anything particular to mention. I chose the old-fashioned house, which was rented out as a rental space, based on conditions like location and budget.

I needed to compromise visual design as the budget was tight, so there are hardly any objects in the house. To make up for that, I set it up as “a soon-to-be-demolished house”. There was no choice for me but to write the script and create the protagonist’s background under limited circumstances. However, as a result, these restricted conditions enabled me to create a claustrophobic atmosphere in the film. So, it might have been a good circumstance for making this film.

When I selected the items, I tried to imagine what memories of the protagonist and her family dwelt in those objects while checking each piece of furniture in the house. The dresser she touched whilst talking to the fiancé about her mother came with the house. In the story, the dresser was used by her mother in the past, but I tried to render through it how the family had lived together in the house by showing the photo of her deceased father and capturing her on the phone speaking to him.

You will see the smoke from the mosquito coil in the scene of her fiancé leaving the house. In the sad scene, I wanted to bring out the sense of the presence of her father beside her. The smoke from the mosquito coil connects to the incense smoke from the Buddhist altar at which she prayed for her father.

One of the ways that the main character is able to get across that subtext is to phone her father. Was that inspired by the “phone of the wind”?

It was after having finished writing up the script that I found out about the “phone of wind”. I didn’t know of its existence before that. As I wasn’t convinced about the idea of her talking on an unconnected call, I was astonished when I found out about the actual “phone of wind” and that others who had lost loved ones would feel the urge to have a conversation with the deceased that way.

Was there any particular reason to use Pachelbel’s piece Canon in D Major beyond it being popular in weddings? Also, it felt as if the rendition in the end credits had mistakes. Was this deliberate or more to do with the speed it was played at?

As the first audience of the film, I chose the piece I felt most comfortable with. Pachelbel’s Canon is my favourite work in classical music, so I thought it would make the film more emotional if it were played. As for the rendition of Canon’s piece played in the end credits, I asked the pianist to perform poorly on purpose to convey the protagonist’s emotional turmoil and the uncertainty of the film itself.

The camera angles highlighted lines in the set – doorways, etc. Lines frequently bisect the screen and the two characters are separated by them. Can you talk about the visual design a little?

As the film is short, I needed to elaborate on illustrating the relationship between the main character and her fiancé and between her and her father by using a frame within a frame technique or emphasizing the lines while the narrative progressed. As for the directing style through the visual design, I referred to the visual style of Edward Yang or Yasujiro Ozu. As I perceive beauty and ugliness are two sides of the same coin, I consider it important for the visual design that I shoot something ugly without being afraid, such as the dirty drain in the last scene.

Rika Kurosawa’s performance is the heart and soul of proceedings. How did you find her, why was she chosen for the role, and what was it like working with her?

I had made a film with Kurosawa before. I felt sure that we had a good rapport at the time, so I thought she could portray the main character perfectly and so I wrote the script whilst thinking about her. We had already developed trust between us and consequently we were able to shoot in a relaxed manner while exchanging our ideas without worrying about each other.

How did you work through the various shifts in emotion in her character while on set?

We had a remote table-read but couldn’t rehearse earlier in person due to Covid-19. We rehearsed for a limited time on the day of shooting. Since the filming was almost spur-of-the-moment, I couldn’t direct the actors to the extent that we might have liked. Luckily, all actors were well prepared to play their characters, so I only made slight adjustments. I usually think that actors will develop their understanding of the characters much deeper than directors, so I had no concerns regarding depending on the actors to shape the characters. However, I had anticipated the possibility of not being able to direct the actors properly beforehand, so I prepared the detailed set dressing to aid in conveying the characters’ emotions.

I want to imagine a happy ending for her character. How do you think her life will change?

In Japanese, there is the idiom “Ashi-wo-arau” which literally translates as “wash off one’s feet”, to describe an action for cutting off one’s ties with something objectionable. The main character washed her feet in the shower in the final scene. It means that she was letting go of the indiscretion and has decided to move on. She might have a tough time for a while after this, but I think the decision she made on that day will prove to be right sometime in the future. Just like that the painful decisions made by people who suffered due to Covid-19, will be proven right someday.

Summer Wedding was shown at the Osaka Asian Film Festival on March 11 and 16.