Interview with Oudai Kojima, Director of JOINT [OAFF 2021]

While every country around the world has its organised crime gangs, few can rival the mystique and infamy of Japan’s Yakuza. Their style, codes, hierarchies, history, and full-body tattoos have long been the subject of books, video games, news articles, and films to the point that they have become part of global popular culture. In Japan, many directors have either worked in the genre or used choice elements of it. Consequently, unless a director has a strong story, style, or philosophy, films based on the nefarious activities of Japan’s criminal underworld have a have a feel of deadened familiarity. This familiarity was not what I felt when watching JOINT.

JOINT tells the story of a guy trying to get clear of the criminal underworld but getting caught up in a gang war. Its story admittedly has many plot points familiar from other films. However, the realistic way it is shot, the details in the narrative and the performances of its cast create an atmosphere that is quite unlike many other contemporary Japanese crime films so it crucially feels different. More importantly, the atmosphere is so strong it makes the film completely gripping. I felt that I had been taken into a different world, one truly reflective of how Japanese gangs operate today. It’s pretty remarkable considering that JOINT is the debut feature of director Oudai Kojima.

Born in Kobe in 1994, Oudai Kojima is a director, cinematographer, and editor who makes music videos, commercials, and, now, fiction films. He was raised in New York from the age of 3 to 13. After returning to Japan he studied architecture at the University of Tokyo. His entry into the film world began by studying under filmmaker Tomokazu Yamada for a year and a half before he began production on JOINT, his debut feature. I saw it when it played at the Osaka Asian Film Festival 2021.

Kojima kindly took part in an email interview where he answered questions about his background, the work put in to JOINT to create its realistic atmosphere, and how he got such convincing performances from his cast. My questions were translated into Japanese by Takako Pocklington while Kojima answered in both English and Japanese.

You lived in America for a considerable time. Do you feel that it gave you access to another perspective on Japanese films?

I definitely thought that Japanese films had a different style and flow of time than American films. So when I chose to make a feature film I had contemplated on which kind of aesthetic I wanted to have, or the balance of the two.

Your biography states that you studied architecture at university before turning to film. What inspired you to become a filmmaker?

After deciding not to pursue architecture as a career, I was lost on what to do with my life for several months. After seeing Birdman by Alejandro Inarritu and watching the behind the scenes documentaries, I thought maybe filmmaking was interesting and began researching what a director does. I realized that I had done the role of director already without knowing it for some music videos in the past with my college band club friends. That made me think that it could be a good job.

Why did you choose JOINT to be your debut work?

I definitely had an interest in the crime genre and was very intrigued in the structure of ensemble films. But with me just getting started in the filmmaking world, that wasn’t enough to make me start on a feature, with all the complications involved around it. Great directors say in order to become a film director, you just gotta make films, which is quite obvious but actually pretty hard to do. Many things including your motivation and huge amounts of energy have to click at the right time and the right place with the right people. I guess that JOINT had that particular vibe. Otherwise you never know how long it takes before you actually get started on features.

The script is dense with details. What research did you do?

We researched ongoing criminal activities and interviewed people who had knowledge about them, we watched documentaries and films about the criminal world in order to create an overall plot with reality and modernity, a sense of “now”. After creating an outline, most of the script and lines were written a day before the shoot or on the day, involving large amounts of ad-lib from the actors. I think that created another layer of reality. The scenes were frequently changed real time in order to make the story more intriguing and for the characters to shine.

In the film, Ishigami isn’t in any yakuza gang, he exists in a weird grey area between civilians and criminals. It’s an interesting choice to place him in this position. Why did you make this choice?

Japan has an interesting criminal world structure, and many people live in the grey area as “Hangure”. Many of them have to make a life choice of continuing the life of crime or becoming a “katagi”; people outside of the crime world. The Yakuza devote their lives to “Gokudo” but people like Ishigami are caught in the middle. I thought it would be an interesting point of view for the main character and also a new one in terms of gangster films, because most of them star a gangster as a protagonist. I think he has always been lost on how to live his life, which side he should be on, but not really decided fully, rather, going with the flow, or just pretending it was okay the way it was. Like I said, I relate to him because I didn’t really know how to live my life before I discovered filmmaking. Devoting your life to something is hard, but a crucial and “movielike” moment.

The lead actor is very charismatic and his presence helps inform his character. What did you see in Ikken Yamamoto and why did you cast him for the role?

I thought Yamamoto-san had a movie star like quality from the day I first met him in a short film audition. He had charisma like you say but also a unique energy and strong motivation I didn’t see in other actors. Even though he never had acted before, I thought he would be great as the lead actor.

On the other side is a vicious thug named Araki, played by Sogen Higuchi. He’s very physical in comparison to Takeshi and very terrifying. Where did you find the actor?

Sogen-san, who plays Araki, is actually a basketball player and friends with Yamamoto-san. We needed an anti-protagonist who could make people fear him just by looking at them to represent the excommunicated violent group. Sogen-san’s name came up and we met, but he was super nice, and a great person contrary to the character. He had never acted before so we did many rehearsals with him in order to create the character Araki.

What sort of preparations for the roles did the actors do?

Many of the actors in JOINT had never acted before including Yamamoto-san, so I needed to think of a different way to prepare. I asked them to act as their characters and I conducted interviews with them, asking all sorts of questions. I picked up traits on how they talked and moved that could be used for the character, gradually shaping the character from the actor as we went. After creating the characters, I did scene rehearsals including the time before and after the scripted scenes in ad-lib, in order to create a continuing sense of realism.

Watching the film, I was reminded of Steven Soderbergh’s Traffic due to the handheld camera and documentary feel. How did you settle on the visual aesthetic? Was there a lot of storyboarding involved?

Traffic was one of the movies I watched multiple times in preparing the film. The ensemble aspect was also a good reference. Visually, I wanted a visceral, rough feeling to the film, and an abrupt sense of silence after the Karaoke fight scene in the middle, so I chose to only use handheld until that scene. We usually used two cameras to photograph both sides of the interactions. There was no storyboarding.

The way the film is shot feels very spontaneous. How much planning did you do for location hunting and deciding how to frame scenes?

We had many days for location scouting but decided on a style of framing before hand, usually framing on the day of the shoot. We decided on the lenses and sense of distance between the actor and camera that made JOINT feel like it, and always referencing that feeling when we were lost.

The action feels very realistic and it fits in with the visual aesthetic. Can you talk about the action scenes a little?

Using non-professional actors was a challenge so we had to lay out the choreography in a way that felt real and impactful but also easy to do. We also had very little time to shoot it so it had to be economical in many ways. In the end it came out well so I feel quite relieved about it.

What are your favourite crime films?

Heat by Michael Mann. The Pusher series by Nicolas Winding Refn, especially the second one. Sonatine by Kitano Takeshi. A Prophet by Jacques Audiard

JOINT was shown at the Osaka Asian Film Festival on March 7.