Interview with Kontora Director Anshul Chauhan [OAFF 2020]

My final interview at this year’s Osaka Asian Film Festival (OAFF) was with director Anshul Chauhan. We had first met at OAFF 2018 when he participated an interview following the Japanese premiere of his debut feature Bad Poetry Tokyo. This year, he was back with his sophomore feature Kontora, which came to Osaka after having won the Grand Prix for the best film and the award for Best Music (for composer Yuma Koda) at the Tallinn Black Nights Film Festival a few months earlier.

Kontora was one of the stand-outs of OAFF 2020. Majestically shot in black and white, it’s bursting with feelings of discontent felt by the main character, high school girl Sora (Wan Marui). Drifting away from her distant father (Taichi Yamada) and living in a dull town, she finds hope in her recently deceased grandfather’s wartime diary after her beloved relative passes away as she finds clues to some “treasure” buried in a forest. Just as a treasure hunt starts, a mysterious vagrant (Hidemasa Mase) appears in town. Mute and walking backwards, he is a strange sight but his presence forces a change in the relationship between daughter and father. A strange family drama unfolds with a tone halfway between elegiac and angry with a sheen of mystery and history linked to the “treasure” and family dynamics that rope in a greedy uncle (Takuzo Shimizu) and a cousin named Haru (Seira Kojima).

Chauhan and his wife, the film’s producer Mina Moteki, sat down to talk about the film and explain more about its creation, the work put in by the actors and his wider film career. This interview has been edited for length.

Jason Maher: I could feel intense rage and frustration behind this gracefully shot film. Can you tell me why you made this story?

Anshul Chauhan: I made this film out of anger and frustration. I was working on another script because a producer had liked Bad Poetry Tokyo and he said I could make anything, so I took six or seven months to write something that was going to be about abuse and bullying at the Yokosuka military academy near Tokyo. However, after the producer read that script, he got scared and fled because he felt it was anti-government so I was super frustrated because I had everything ready to go. The thought of making a film around military scenes didn’t leave my head so I wrote Kontora. Other plots in the story came into place once I started writing and finding locations and actors.

One of the plots is based on a real story from my own family. My grandfather buried things and after he died people found out. I was hesitant to make this film in Japan because I am from India, but when I found out similar stories from here, I decided to do it.

Another major plot in the story came when I found real letter from student soldiers. They became the basis for the grandfather’s diary. Those letters that they left behind before flying as kamikaze were horrible and painful to read, so I collected those letters and put them into the diary. Of course, I didn’t have the budget to shoot scenes of World War II so I just used illustrations [in the diary]. When people look at it, they can imagine those things. That was also a reason to keep the film in black and white, to dedicate it to that time.

So the visuals are a callback to the past?

Yeah, the black and white look is kind of a thank you note to the older generation who fought in the war, and also at the same time, I wanted to challenge cinema by purposefully making a film that was a representation of my frustration going against the system, as represented by the backwards walking man in the film. Also, new Japanese directors generally make films about high school girls and turn them into a rom-com or a love story or killing zombies with girls running around and shouting. I purposefully wanted to use a high school girl character and do the opposite, send her back to the past to learn about history so that modern kids can get some idea about it.

I liked that Sora had that type of close relationship with her grandfather and also that her portrayal is very rough. Would you say her behavior is closer to the reality of teenagers in Japan than mainstream films?

If you actually watch in the film I never showed Sora and her grandfather together, whatever we see is through her memories or dialogues. High school kids in general want to revolt. Their connection with their parents disappears because they think they are mature enough to do whatever they want. Personally I think that teenagers are rebellious and also confused about their future. Everybody is looking for a purpose and Sora found her purpose in the diary. She believed her grandfather’s diary, she knew that there was something out there so she went alone into the woods. At least she found something in that sleepy town where nothing happens.

How did you get Wan Marui to bring that performance?

My relationship with actors is the most important thing for me. We start doing work at my home where I talk with them. Like, Hidemasa Mase was drawing the diary while he was coming to my house, and I was telling him, “Okay, now do this page and make art on this page”, and he wrote it down then he would go home and do it and he would come back to my place and in that way we built up the diary and our relation as a director and actor. Literally, the day before we started shooting, we finished the diary.

I met Wan first in 2017 after I finished shooting Bad Poetry Tokyo. It was Wan’s first time in Tokyo. I felt she has a special face and someday I would love to cast her, but she was new. In 2018 when I was casting for another film, I invited her for an audition. I didn’t like it. I even told her honestly. But somehow, when I was planning Kontora, I felt she was the one. So I started meeting her and developing my story and her character. She has a very strong face and Japanese film directors should cast her for good character roles.

On the first day of shooting, she was not doing good and I got really worried. So I started to provoke her by saying some mean things like, “This is the Japanese film industry and you never know if you will ever get another lead role”. It was on purpose, of course, and I felt bad inside. So she started to react to my comments and slowly started to improve. I told her, “I am with you all the way, so don’t worry. You just give me all you have, treat all your shots as your last shot”. The second day, in a scene where she was digging in the forest, that was the day she completely changed. I was really shouting at her too much because time was running out. I was hiding behind a tree while she was digging and I was constantly shouting at her like it was the army, and in the middle of the shot, she looked at me with so much anger. After that, she was like, “fuck it!” and she was capable of bringing anything to her performance.

This was important because you need to break that barrier for that transformation. I work a lot with improvisation and manipulating the situations around the actors. But bringing an actor to a comfort zone for improvisation to work needs time, it does not come from reading the script or understanding the character, it comes from building trust, then, giving actors something unexpected and abrupt is what creates realistic performances sometimes. It was Wan’s first time acting and she was hesitating to show her full emotions, but after this incident, shooting went super smooth. Later I apologized to her for shouting and saying other mean things, but she understood it was for the film. 

So you just powered through and all that frustration bubbled up on screen?

We did many long takes. We didn’t have much time to make a proper scene and we also didn’t have two cameras to record, so most of the scenes were designed to be shot in one long take. The longest scenes are the ones at the table where the three of them [Sora, her father, and the vagrant] are sitting there, talking. In the script, it is a four page scene but while shooting it became a 13 or 14 minute long scene. I cut it down to eight minutes, and then we had a similar length of scene towards the end when Sora confronts Hidemasa. It does not look like it because of lots of movement but that was a single take and probably the most difficult one to shoot for Max.

At the end when Hidemasa is drinking, you can see the camera is beginning to shake because it was such a long shot. The RED camera and the shoulder rig was heavy on his shoulder and it was a handheld shot. Max was whispering to me, “Cut the scene! The camera is shaking!” I was on the monitors and I could see that Mase starting to cry and camera is shaking and its kind of matching. So we shot a few more minutes and ended up capturing a great scene. Max did a great job capturing the whole scene with handheld camera.

Why did you cast Taichi Yamada as the father?

Because he was ready to give me his house for the shoot (laughter). That’s the simple answer. That’s how he got the role in the film and came on board as one of the producers also. (laughter).

His acting is really good because he seems emotionally helpless himself.

Or he was actually tired from driving the crew car for us, haha! He’s actually a stage actor and stage actors have loud body-language because they have to convey their emotions to a big audience, so he’s a very loud actor and so I knew his range and it was easy to work between his lows and highs.

His character’s relationship with Sora was very awkward but, actually, when she disappeared while out digging in the forest you can see how much he worries about her. You see the change in his body language and emotions going towards anger.

You shot in some beautiful locations with fixed camera angles but there are a lot of handheld shots. How much was spontaneous?

I never storyboard the scene. I first go to the area with the cinematographer and just drive around finding locations. We shoot some samples to see how it looks, do some tests with aspect ratios and colours etc and then I make some changes in the script based on the finalized locations, and then we just go there and start shooting. Actually the location in the film is the hometown of Taichi Yamada, Seki city. So I went with him in his car to check out the mountain, river, his own house which has a carpenter’s shop. It was all free to use so I decided I would write a film around these four locations.

While writing, I have pictures on my wall of the locations and actors, so I write basically around the locations I have access to and actors who I kind of already cast before the script is done. This happens because I don’t have the liberty of budget to pick my locations and actors, so it is better to first know what I have in hand so that I can make my film around it. I actually shoot very very fast and I hate it sometimes but we usually don’t have enough time. In an ideal world I want to shoot two scenes a day. But for Kontora it was five or six scenes a day.

How would you describe your position in the Japanese film industry?

Honestly I don’t think I have any position, I am just a Gaijin (foreigner) indie film director and producer. But after making two films and bagging some good awards, people do recognise me.

The indie film industry is very weird here. Everyone is doing their own thing. They make films and then release them by themselves in mini theatres and in few weeks the film dies. Few of them make it to Netflix or Amazon or DVDs. I am not sure when you can say that you are the part of the industry, but, in any case, this does not bother me at all, I am happy with recognition at festivals that I am representing Japan, which is something not under the control of the industry. I doubt I will start taking some of the big offers I get from some producers to direct some cliche stories backed by acting agencies to promote their stars.

Do you see the Japanese film industry changing?

No. I don’t think it will ever. The kind of cinema coming out of Japan is not what it should be. Despite some exceptions, young directors are not challenging themselves enough to dig into some good and realistic stories and there isn’t much support.

From my personal experience there are two big factors which need to change. Film distribution systems for indie films and the power of acting agencies over actors.

I really hate agencies and how they treat actors. Even while shooting Kontora, agencies used to call their actors and ask them all the details from the day’s shoot or asking me if they are even little bit free between the shoot so the agency can book another gig for them. I don’t want anyone to disturb my actors while shooting but agencies just want to suck their blood all the time. And the worst is the distribution system, which I recently experienced. To be blunt, films are not bought here and distribution companies won’t buy your film. They charge the producers money to release the film plus they aim keep their safe cut from it. It’s all win and no lose for them. If a film fails at the box office, the theatre and distributor won’t lose money. only the producer and filmmakers. But the good news is, some people who are ready to change this and are forming a new group as a company. I am part of it. It will be launching soon, releasing films in a proper manner that will benefit filmmakers.

Do you have any more ideas for films?

Yes, I am working on few scripts. I have already pitched one of the scripts in a major co-producing lab. It’s a story about street thieves and johatsu culture[1], people who have disappeared from society and are living without their official names. It’s a big social issue here, and the film will need a big budget. One of my plans for the setting is to make it entirely as a contained genre film in and around a car.

My other script is a bit of dark comedy dealing with foreigners living in Tokyo drinking Chu-hi and talking trash the whole day. I will really make it some day. It’s like Coffee and Cigarettes meets Slacker. I want to shoot it slowly, as I meet interesting gaijins and develop the film. Or it can be a web series. I am also looking into stories from India or outside Japan now. I do have some good offers from India to get proper production for a film but I don’t have a perfect story right now. The one I really want to make in India will take time because I need to learn a lot before even thinking about shooting my dream film.

Kontara was shown at the Osaka Asian Film Festival on March 12 and 13.

[1] Johatsu is a Japanese word that means “evaporated people”. This is applied to individuals who disappear from their communities, shedding their official identities and family/work ties to start life afresh somewhere new.