Interview with For Rei Director Yukari Sakamoto [OAFF 2020]

Yukari Sakamoto is an indie director who started making films while she was studying Philosophy at Sophia University. Her film Obake was part of MOOSIC LAB2014 and won the Best Actress and Musician awards. After that, she studied editing at the Tokyo University of the Arts, Graduate School of Film and Cinema where she majored in film and directed music videos. Since then, she has been the assistant producer on the the major feature Eating Women (2018) and directed part of the omnibus movie 21st Century Girl (2019).

Sakamoto’s latest work For Rei derives some of its details from the director’s background to create a deeply personal picture of a modern young woman navigating complicated feelings. The titular protagonist (An Ogawa) goes to philosophy class and lives with a kind boyfriend, but the trauma of her parent’s divorce has caused an ambivalence towards the people she should be closest to, and herself. This is a feeling that gnaws away at her over the course of the film which is shot in a subjective style to analyze this young woman’s attempts to understand herself.

Sakamoto sat down at the Osaka Asian Film Festival to talk about the making of the film, how she translated her background onto the screen and some of the design choices she made. The interview was conducted with the help of interpreter Keiko Matsushita and transcribed with the help of translator Takako Pocklington.

Thank you for agreeing to do the interview. I thought the film is visually interesting and beautiful. My first question is about yourself. Why did you want to become a filmmaker?

That is difficult to answer. I have liked films since I was at high school. I liked Takeshi Kitano. There was nobody else that watched such artistic films in my class. At that time, I might have found a niche for myself in films. So, I had hoped to make films in the future. However, I studied philosophy at university and got off track with filmmaking. But I thought my potential has been widened by having studied philosophy.

You mentioned Takeshi Kitano. Is he an influence?

Yes, his visuals. Visual, cut or color. I like some of the coldness that exude from the visuals in his films

Why did you want to make this story in particular?

This is based on my own story. I didn’t have any intention to make a film from my own experience at the time when it happened. However, as time went by, I was becoming increasingly eager to shoot this experience.

So you used your own experiences of studying philosophy as background for the character.

Yes, I used philosophy as a trigger to help Rei explore herself. I had been feeling claustrophobic in the academic world, so I wanted to shoot a scene that showed Rei when she couldn’t fit in with her class.

The philosophy mentioned at the very start of the film was about perspectives

That was my thesis

Oh, it’s based on your graduation thesis!? It is very complicated. How do you want the audience to react to the philosophy at the start?

I wanted philosophy to serve as the trigger for Rei’s journey. However, in the end, Rei realises that there is no answer to who she is in the philosophy class. What do philosophy and other studies give people? I wanted the audience to think about that. 

Quite interesting. I had to rewind the film to write down some dialogue to think about it. In terms of writing the script, did you create backstories of the characters?

The actress [An Ogawa] is really good. She likes improvising as well. There was a script at first, but I gradually modified it and also inserted some new ideas whilst shooting and finally the main character was completed. She became a completely different character from what I had first created.

You wrote the dialogue but the dialogue changed during improvisation.

I had never done that kind of thing before, so I really enjoyed it.

Were there lots of rehearsals to get to that point?

I made much of the first take, so I did rehearse some scenes but not whole scenes.

Could you talk about casting of the actors?

As the main character is important, I chose an actress I really liked. I auditioned others and tried to cherish their own characteristics, so I did write for the actors for some parts in the film.

In terms of An Ogawa, why did you select her?

She has got something very different from what I have (in terms of characteristics). I tend to reflect myself on the protagonist and try to find someone similar to me. However, this time, I wanted to bring someone who is different from me into the story. For example, she (Ogawa) is very cheerful, but I am gloomy. I wanted to have someone who has different characteristics to act this role.

It’s a bit like the philosophy at the start of the film- different perspectives are used to create the final character. Why did you select Amon Hirai as the boyfriend and Seiji Kinoshita as the father?

I selected them by audition, but couldn’t make decisions until the last minute before shooting. In hindsight, I liked their faces including Ogawa-san. I maybe like their visual appearance.

There is interesting chemistry between father and daughter and you said there was lots of improvisation on the set. Did you allowed two to work with each other to create the scene?

No, I didn’t allow much. I wanted them not to get too close. I wanted to create the real tension between a father and a daughter who have lived apart. But even if I didn’t ask them for this, the actors themselves were aware of it. I think they always kept a good distance.

How did the actors regard your script

They seemed to partly understand me and the script but also not understand. No one in the film had the same experience as I had, so they probably weren’t fully convinced (of their acting) and also they seemed to be a bit tense with me.

Maybe the tension aided the atmosphere in a positive sense. There was really good acting. But one of things stood out for me was visual sign design. Did you storyboard for the film?

I made a storyboard, but didn’t always follow it.

The camerawork, I thought it was subjective to Rei’s experiences. For example, Rei talks to her boyfriend but her vision is elsewhere just as the audio indicates she’s not listening to him. You shot only her mouth or feet in some scenes. Why did you use that kind of subjective cut?

One of the reasons is because I wanted the audience to have her perspective since this is Rei’s story. Perhaps some people have experienced their lover’s face being blurred while thinking about something else or daydreaming like Rei does. I poured these sensations into the beginning of the film and wanted the audience to find out about Rei who is a bit unique. I wanted the audience to gradually feel Rei’s emotions with their own bodies as a physical sensation. 

It’s very strong which is easy to identify with the visuals. When Rei walks to her father in restaurant, the music that plays is Erik Satie. Are you a fan of his music? Why did you select that piece?

I like it. The instruction for the performance of the piece is, “slowly and solemnly”. I thought that this instruction suits this film.

Very melancholic. And then the music abruptly stops when she is talking to her father. What did you want to convey with that break in sound when the music stops?

The cut would pull you back to reality. Maybe sensuous. There is a part which I think about and a part I don’t think of at all.

Very interesting. There’s a lot to engage with which makes the film really worth watching. And Rei act put lipstick on. What did you want to signal with that?

That action is significant. Rei’s appearance is usually sloppy like how she wears hoodies. She dresses sloppily. But she dressed up for the first time when she was going to meet her father and she was a bit excited. It might sound strange but she has got a sort of admiration for him in romantic way. She wanted him to regard her as a mature woman.

Like creating a character.

The scene was supposed to be a bit more romantic but it ended up like that. It should be depicted as romantic relationship between father and daughter.

The editing becomes erratic towards the end of the film. How did you design the scenes?

I strongly wanted to insert the cut after I finished shooting the film. My original image was like…Rei walking in a forest and I inserted the sound of her “breathing” for the first cut and it lasted till the end. I was fully convinced of using this idea at the editing stage.

(To the interpreter) And I believe you had questions about clothes?

Interpreter: Yes, the costumes. Rei wore red when she went to see her dad and also went home. She wore bright yellow when she ran towards the station. And in the last scene, when her boyfriend came to see her, she wore blue. I’d like to ask if there is any intention with those colors?

Oh I’m delighted (that you noticed it). This is a story about a girl becoming an adult. I thought that red suits her and blue means she has become mature. However, I wanted to treasure her naiveness, so yellow indicates her immaturity.

What do you hope to convey in this film?

That’s a bit difficult to answer. It’s vast.

What sort of film do you want to make next?

I have been writing stories based on my own life, but in my previous works, the protagonist has always gone in a different direction from where I intended to, in positive ways though. So, I’d like to make a film about someone who is completely different from me.

Okay, now I can answer the previous question. It has been hard for me to talk about the topic of a broken family because for my generation- unlike previous generations – parents’ divorcing has become common, so talking about parents’ divorcing is kind of cliché. I thought I should write about a family in a different form. I have never felt comfortable with films or dramas depicting ordinary families. I also hope this film will deliver a different image of a girl from other films in the past.

If I have a final question… I am interested in what Rei’s boyfriend’s place in the story is.  

How did his character look to you?

He was supportive, I think he was very honest as well. Rei asked him “why you are with me”. His answer was very honest. Maybe he wasn’t totally in tune with her. He didn’t understand his girlfriend and try to soften his answer for her security

Exactly! Maybe that is from the actor’s own characteristics. The actor has a little weakness in his demeanor. He looks like a softy. He doesn’t have a typical male demeanor. Well, once again I’d like to talk about gaze. I managed to add another perception by inserting his presence in the film. How you would see Rei, how the audience would see Rei from his perception. You might look at Rei through his perception. He was basically present for the sake of Rei, but from the middle part of the film, he also started to change. His weakness has gradually turned to strength, which is what I was hoping to convey.

For Rei was shown at the Osaka Asian Film Festival on March 10.