Interview with Kohei Takayama [OAFF 2018]

Kohei Takayama was born in Chiba prefecture in 1987. After graduating from Waseda University, he began making indie films such as Ni naru (2015) and Kudaranai kudaranai kono sekai (2016). He was at the Osaka Asian Film Festival 2018 to present the world premiere of his latest work, The Path Leading to Love (2018). The story is a downbeat tale of a talented manga artist wasting his skills thanks to alcohol. The main protagonist, Shosuke (Ippei Tanaka) lacks the ability to overcome his alcoholism even though it has ruined relationships with his family, his ex-girlfriend Sawako (Mika Dehara) and threatens his relationship with his current girlfriend Yasuko (Yumi Mukai). The story refuses to look away from the negative aspects of alcoholism and asks the audience to follow a man on his self-destructive path. What makes it such gripping viewing are the powerful performances from the cast.

Takayama kindly gave an interview on the penultimate day of the festival at the press centre. Acting as interpreter was Kayoko Nakanishi who was invaluable in helping the conversation flow smoothly by always offering nuanced interpretation of what turned into a philosophical conversation based on the intelligent and thoughtful work of Takayama.

Jason Maher: Thanks for making the film and appearing at the festival. It’s a really interesting film and I respect it a lot. Could you give me a little of your background, please.

Kohei Takayama: I started to be interested in films while I was a university student. After graduation I started making short films. I think it was kind of late but it came at a time when I was wondering what I was going to do with my life. I was influenced by my parents who love art and paintings and music so when I thought about making films I thought, “this is it, this is what I’m going to do with my life”. I was actually planning on making a short film when I started writing the script for The Path Leading to Love. When I was doing pre-production I had the feeling that maybe it could be longer than I originally planned. Then, while shooting, because I tend to use long sequences in one shot, I thought maybe it could be longer. Then, when I was editing, I finally realised it could be a feature film.

Where did the story come from?

While I was planning this film I read a novel by Yukio Mishima. There is a line about free will and I started thinking about the concept of free will. How you can say something like, “this is my free will”. A person can say, “I want to do this”, and it’s natural that we think that this is the person exercising their free will, something originally from their mind, but it’s not actually free will, it’s all influenced by circumstances and environment. A person cannot control their will. For example, for me to make films may seem like an act of free will but actually my circumstances and environment influenced me to do it and so I wanted to make a story about a protagonist who cannot choose his will or control his actions. It’s like your relatives, you cannot choose them or your dream, even though it’s your dream to be a film director, it’s not you controlling your dream, it just came to you because of your circumstances and influences so I wanted to make a film where the main character is trying to find his way with his will but, actually, he cannot take control.

So a person’s will is just a reflection of the environment and the people around them?

A person’s will is the point where the environment converges.

Is Shosuke’s character based on someone you know?

There are several people, actually. One is a friend from my junior high school days and there are people like friends and relatives who cannot stop drinking. They keep regretting drinking so much but they can’t stop. They drink heavily at night and then in the morning they regret they cannot stop but even though they have these problems I actually like these people. Even though they have these problems, there is some happiness, which I kept thinking about and the story came out.

Do the female characters represent some aspect of your feelings towards those friends and family with that problem?

Maybe, it could be.

In terms of casting the characters, what did you look for in the person who would portray Shosuke?

Ippei Tanaka auditioned and I liked his body, his physicality.

Very distinct, very tall and rangy. Did he have to act out a particular scene for the audition?

I only provided a script for the character Tanaka-san auditioned for but it’s based one year earlier in the character’s life before the start of the story in the film because I needed to see how he would portray the lead character. I don’t want actors to do the same scenario from the film because the audition is held at a meeting room which is completely different from the shooting locations so I need to see the actor as the character and I also need to have different content to see their possibilities because I don’t want to bring what they felt from the audition to the shooting location.

What did you look for in Yasuko and Sawako’s actresses during the audition?

The way I did their audition was like a workshop so the three actors auditioning for those characters all worked together. I was careful to watch the distance between the actresses and Tanaka-san’s character because Shosuke is very isolated and not an open-minded person so the actresses needed to be careful when being close to Shosuke. Some actresses might just go and be physically close to him. That’s not what I wanted so I was careful to look at the distance between the actors.

What do Sawako and Yasuko find attractive in him? There’s a line in the film from Yasuko, “what I see in you is deeper than your words and expressions, a river flows in you and I can’t stop watching it”. It’s an extreme feeling when Shosuke has such problems.

I think, and maybe this is my philosophy, but it’s not the point to like a person based on their goodness or success. I tend to like very small things about a person, what they say and what they do. I believe that these two female characters see Shosuke as an attractive person even though on the surface he’s not a good guy. Maybe he’s an alcoholic but these two characters, they have found Shosuke’s essence. I didn’t want to show the details of these characters because that isn’t my style. I don’t want to explain precisely the characters because in real life people do not like someone because of a specific reason, small things are important in finding someone attractive.

So it becomes more instinctive?

I believe that, for example, artificial intelligence and human beings, the way they perceive is opposite. Human beings capture the whole face first but the AI looks at specific features, like these are two holes so they are the eyes and so this must be the face. The AI has a process to recognise things through each part and then see the whole picture but human beings, we capture things by the whole picture first and then see the details so it’s totally opposite. So when you like someone you don’t think of the details first. I like this person because of this, because of this, because of this, it’s not like that, you just like that person as a whole and then you find the details. So when I say the whole picture of that person, there might be something that is not obvious but it is there in the background. You don’t see everything when you look.

The atmosphere around the person? The colour of energy?

Yes. That’s the point. This is not written in the script but what I want to show is the charm and the greatness that I found in the actors I have.

What would you say is Tanaka-san’s greatest asset?

So, Tanaka-san has two different characteristics. He’s sensitive and careful. While shooting, I was talking to the DP on the set and even though I wasn’t talking to Tanakan-san, he listened to what I said, took it and used it in his acting. He tried so hard. Every time I shot him, I was curious and excited to see what Tanakan-san would do next because I couldn’t imagine it. He’s sensitive but also, at the same time, expressive, daring, bold.

When it comes to working with actors, do you want them to follow a strict set of directions or do you allow them freedom to interpret their roles while shooting?

Before a shoot, the actors and I discuss scenes a lot and I make sure everybody knows what I want to show with the scene and then I let them act with their own ideas. I shoot with wide frames so that I can capture the movement of the actors.

Do you worry about the audience’s reactions to the story because it felt like there were no positive aspects to Shosuke seen on screen so it’s harder to the audience to sympathise.

I do worry about it, yes, very much. At the same time, I know this is my way of thinking and feeling and it might not be accepted by the audience so this might be a point to work on in the future. I also realise it depends upon how each person reacts and feels. So that’s the point of the film because people with problems like the main character are not accepted by society and that’s very sad. I hope that in the future, society accepts these people even though they have problems. I believe that these people should be accepted so that is why I wanted to make this film with this theme. I don’t want to run away from this theme because I think it’s important and so that is why the happiness of the characters should be accepted by society.

I’m very interested in the idea that will is not something generated from within, it’s a reflection of the environment. Do you think it’s actually possible to change your will and change the world around you?

I believe that small choices are important. Even though you say my will is influenced by my environment, you can choose what environment will influence you. You can make small changes that influence you and that’s how we can improve our lives. It’s simultaneous and interactive because it isn’t just you being influenced, you are influencing so you can change the environment and world.

In terms of shot selection, camera movement, placement and blocking and lighting, did you do a lot of pre-planning?

Yes, I did preparation. I created a storyboard for each scene but during shooting, when we came up with a new idea, we tried it.

I was really impressed by the way you used lighting to convey the inner worlds of characters. There’s one particular shot where Shosuke has a bad hangover and the corner of the apartment he is in is pitch-black and in another scene there’s a lateral camera movement where the partitions of the apartment were placed to keep Shosuke and Yasuko separate on screen.

We rented the apartment we shot in so I had to be very careful in choosing which apartment we would use, what type of room, the layout and architecture that would allow the actors to move around.

Last question, does love exist?

In one word, only the path leading to love. I want to emphasise that I don’t want to depict the despair of the lack of love. Love is not a form you can touch, it’s incomplete so you need to be careful to think about love. You must keep thinking about love otherwise you might lose it.

So it’s like a constant choice as well as an instinctive feeling?

I agree.

Thank you very much. This talk was very interesting. It helped me understand the characters and the themes of the film a lot more.

The Path Leading to Love was shown at the Osaka Asian Film Festival on March 10 and 15.