Interview with Hiroshi Gokan, Director of Gotō-san [OAFF 2021]

The Osaka Asian Film Festival has a number of sidebars and one of the more exciting is dedicated to works supported by the Housen Cultural Foundation, a funding body that provides support to students at the graduate school level. It is here that you will find challenging, deeply personal, or experimental works from a new generation of voices. This year’s titles were all particularly involving and unique. One film that really spoke to me was Gotō-san from writer/director Hiroshi Gokan which struck at the heart of the uncertainty of our age.

Gotō-san is the story of a young man who has chosen to pursue an unconventional life. The titular character, Gotō (Hirofumi Suzuki), lives and works in a 24-hour internet café in Tokyo. He seems to have hit the jackpot when it comes to leading a laidback lifestyle and he even gets into a romance with a fellow resident, a young woman named Riko (Tomomi Fukikoshi). Beneath this quirky narrative, Gokan subtly shows trouble brewing with glimpses of a deteriorating jobs market and the Covid-19 pandemic rearing their head until they eventually turf Gotō out into the harsh reality of life. It’s a breathtakingly bleak series of unfortunate events that radically alters the narrative and causes our lead character’s lifestyle to unravel. Gokan has made an astute assessment of the fragility of society that works because it uses an offbeat set-up to take in many socio-economic details without belaboring its points.

So, who is the director? Hiroshi Gokan earned a Master’s in directing at the Graduate School of Film and New Media, Tokyo University of the Arts. Teto (2010), his first feature and graduation project, starred Sakura Ando, while his 2012 short Aohige was a co-production between Tokyo University of the Arts and Korean Academy of Film Arts. He has worked on making-of videos for directors such as Kiyoshi Kurosawa, Masayuki Suo and Shinobu Yaguchi

Hiroshi Gokan generously participated in an email interview where he discussed why he cast lead actors Hirofumi Suzuki and Tomomi Fukikoshi, how he created the space of the internet café, his stance on weaving real-life into his stories and the impact of Covid-19 on the production.

This interview was conducted with the invaluable help of Takako Pocklington who translated between English and Japanese.

Thank you for making the film and for taking part in the interview.

Thank you to you for watching the film and for your fantastic review as well.

Where did the idea for Gotō-san come from?

It started from a project plan competition held in the production course of the Department of Film Production at Tokyo University of The Arts. A Taiwanese student producer, the planning producer of this film, proposed an idea based on a true story. One of her friends worked in an internet café whilst living there. I thought it would be interesting if I brought out the peculiarity of a claustrophobic space of an internet café, then I started writing the script. 

The film has two tones, one a quirky romance while the other is more of a horror movie.

I think that it probably results from the character of Goto, whose personality is elusive. He is an ordinary person whose lifestyle is a bit unusual. I didn’t want to depict him as an easy-to-understand character or as a person who bares his heart. Therefore, he exists without exerting a strong presence, as if he buries himself in the space [of the internet cafe]. Just the presence of Goto in the dark internet café creates a horror-like atmosphere since we never know what he is truly thinking. His romance is also not realistic. He seems like a child playing a pretentious romantic game even though the scenes showed plenty of sexual images. He just doesn’t express himself, even for a romance. I think that is why there is a quirky tone to the romance in the film.

I found the main character to be emblematic of the younger generation. Few career prospects but also a desire to pursue an alternative lifestyle. What did you want to convey with the character?

Quite frankly, there is nothing I want to convey with this character. Goto’s characteristic is just as you said. I made this film with the intention of affirming his way of life. I feel uncomfortable with the social trend that you should live positively and set yourself goals to achieve. Goto’s lifestyle is opposite to that, and I feel more attached to a person like Goto.

Hirofumi Suzuki gives a good performance. It was important for keeping a consistent tone of the film. Why did you cast Hirofumi Suzuki in the lead role?

I decided to cast him because of his sitting posture when I saw him at the audition. In this film, there is a lot of sitting and acting. I considered that the sitting posture would be crucial for the role because he needed to be sedentary for many scenes in the film. I think the way Suzuki-san played the role, sitting relaxed in the booth of the Internet café, expresses at a glance that Goto is a person who makes that place his home. He is an actor who can perform with a wide range of gradations and so he responded well when I asked him to pare back his performance, like “Do not do this or that”. For example, he picked up my casual remarks such as, “Maybe Goto-san is the kind of person who cannot make eye contact whilst talking to someone.” He acted excellently through subtle nuance.

I felt that the character of Riko was particularly interesting. Many in society find it easy to be dismissive of sex workers and yet you show her to have more self-determination than the lead character. What did you want to say with her?

I just wanted to portray Riko as a person who is struggling to make ends meet. However, I wanted to stay away from the stereotypes and stories that society imposes on sex workers. I believe that there is more reality in the way I have portrayed her.

Why did you cast Tomomi Fukikoshi?

Although she looks fragile and delicate on the surface, I could see and feel an inner strength deep within her. She was marvellous at showing an everyday quality in her acting. The first scene we shot with her was where Riko picks up a phone in a booth in the internet café. She was whispering on the phone but was not quite considerate. At other times, she speaks coarsely to the internet cafe staff. You can instantly see Riko’s upbringing from Fukikoshi’s performance. I feel like I couldn’t fully capture the character even though I wrote it, but thanks to Fukikoshi-san, she brought Riko to life. 

How did you prepare everyone in the cast for their roles? Did you have detailed discussions about the whole of the story? Did you allow them freedom to improvise or did you ask them to stick to the script? 

We only had one day to rehearse before we started filming, so I told them about the whole of the story and gave them descriptions of their individual roles that were not written in the script. We decided on the fundamental tone of acting whilst discussing [these things]. I usually tell actors what to do about their movement or position on the set, but apart from that, I tend to leave actors to do their jobs. I even tell actors that there is no need to stick to the script. As for ad-libs, I try to be flexible. While not everything is okay, I accept performances that come out spontaneously if the actors capture real unrehearsed emotions.

The widow for the character of safety vest beardy is definitely real but was the sex scene at the end a nightmare/mental projection?

Oh, I’m sorry to confuse you. Yes, the widow does exist. She is real. The sex scene is something like a cross between reality and nightmare. It has turned out to be like that to depict the underlying anxieties which Goto never reveals.

How long did filming take?

It took about a week. We were shooting just before the spreading mood of “self-restraint” which was a response to the Covid-19 pandemic. You have probably noticed that the last scene was a follow-up shot during the Covid-19 state of emergency. It was done with a smallest amount of cast and crew necessary.

The internet cafe has a strong atmosphere. How did you find the location?

I’m giving away the secret now. The internet café was made from four different location sets, containing the inside of the café, the booths, the backyard and the outside laundry area. I feel extremely happy to have had the location of the internet café. One of our location scouts managed to find a soon-to-be-closed-down internet café and negotiated the renting fees. It would have gone well over our budget if we had used ordinary internet cafés.

We also managed to transfer booths from the café to a warehouse on the university premises and created the film set with booths. It enabled us to shoot inside a booth at several angles. The technical staff combined the scenes of those location sets with their excellent techniques and successfully created the unique atmosphere of the internet café.

Did Covid-19 impact filming? Did you have to change filming or the script to address the new situation?

Yes. It impacted at the post-production stage. I normally wouldn’t have rewritten the script. However, since the story line of Gotō-san is closely linked to real life, I thought I should rewrite it. The story would have been unrealistic if I had ignored the Covid-19 situation.

Covid-19 exposed just how precarious life is in modern capitalist economies where job security and workers’ rights are low. Could you talk about how you implemented real-life politics in your script?

In a film like this, when I have to illustrate a real-life political issue in the script, I do it through an individual’s problem. If there is a conflict between society and an individual, I believe that the film should depict it from an individual’s perspective. I am not fond of films that have political messages or ones that become a mouthpiece for directors, so I would rather avoid making them.

Was it difficult to get financial backing for something more political?

This film was a project produced by Tokyo University of The Arts. It wasn’t the kind of film that gets external financial backing. However, I appreciate that the Housen Cultural Foundation approved the project and supported it financially. This kind of financial support will be a strong incentive for filmmakers.

What do you want audiences to take away from the film?

I think it would be the best if audiences enjoy the film in whatever way they like, but I also hope that the audience will have a moment which gives them a feeling that the world of Gotō-san might be connected with their own life.

Gotō-san was shown at the Osaka Asian Film Festival on March 9.