Mayu Nakamura’s film Among Four of Us may only last 20 minutes but it makes a deep impact. A conversation piece involving three friends reuniting during the COVID-19 pandemic, it focuses on their fractious interpersonal history from college drama club and a mercurial fourth figure who had a major impact on them. As they catch up, wistful memories mix together with regrets and admissions of betrayal to end on an overwhelming note of melancholy. It is a mature and delicate work that, thanks to Nakamura’s writing and a trio of tight performances, is suffused with meaning. Made during the COVID-19 pandemic, it cleverly weaves the atmosphere and restrictions of the time into the narrative to create a sympathetic and very dramatic film. Nakamura’s background shows why.
A filmmaker who earned an MFA from the Graduate Film Program at New York University, Nakamura has made documentaries and features for both film and TV. Her debut feature, The Summer of Stickleback (2006), premiered in competition at the Busan International Film Festival while her documentary Lonely Swallows–Living as the Children of Migrant Workers (2012) won the Grand Prix in Documentary Features at the Brazilian Film Festival. One long-term project she is working on is the documentary Alone in Fukushima which tracks a man who remained behind in a small town to look after cattle located in a nuclear no-man’s land.
Nakamura kindly took the time out of her busy schedule to take part in an interview where she explained the origins of the story, her influences, and how she and a small cast and crew filmed it. This interview was originally connected to the screening of the film as part of the Osaka Asian Film Festival 2021, where it won the Japan Cuts Award Special Mention. Its posting coincides with its streaming availability as part of JAPAN CUTS. My thanks go out to the filmmaker and the organizers who made this conversation happen.
What inspired you to write the story and did you always intend it to be a short?
When the first lockdown happened in Japan, in Tokyo, I think from April to May, it was a real lockdown, there were no stores open except supermarkets, so everybody was kind of stuck at home. Like everybody else in the world, I felt frustrated. I wanted to do something and saw that Shinichiro Ueda and Isao Yukisada were doing films about Zoom drinking parties. I thought about doing something similar, like friends getting together through a Zoom drinking session, but I found the nature of this format quite limiting. I watched Yukisada’s film, I think he made several, and some of them were quite long and it was hard to focus. I was trying to cast for other films, at the time, and was meeting with actors and thought, since jobs are being cancelled [due to COVID], maybe I could get these actors together and do something real quick. I wrote the story and gave the script to them and we discussed about doing it like a Zoom drinking party. But then Fusako Urabe, who plays the bitter woman, suggested that we do something different. So I came up with the idea of doing it in the park. We would shoot it in a way that it looks like they are in the same park, when they are actually in different parks. So, I had the main idea and then I developed it with the actors and we had a cold reading over Zoom but it was hard for the actors to interact, so we actually had a rehearsal in Yoyogi-park,
The story itself originated from the idea of how, in those lockdown times, we had time to contact old friends that we hadn’t seen for many years. The original idea was, what happened to that person who was the brightest or the most beautiful in school and how did their life turn out. In my mind, it was dedicated to one friend I had in junior high school in Japan. She became an art director and was very successful in her 20s and 30s. But I didn’t see her after we graduated and then I heard from a mutual friend that she had committed suicide at the age of 36. Her death left a mark on me. I wasn’t sure why she died because she was very successful but I heard that she was suffering from depression. So I wanted to write a story about a person who was the most successful and beautiful, turning out to be something else after many years. I also wanted to write short stories in the vein of my favourite writer, Raymond Carver.
Oh, Short Cuts.
Yeah, the film Short Cuts is based on his stories. Carver was a short story writer and I always admired his works. I was in NYU Grad Film and I was trained to make a lot of shorts. I always aspired to make films like his work. I started reading his short stories when I was a teenager. His stories are mostly about adult relationships, like people in their 40s and 50s who had gone through divorce or separation. For a teenager, it was hard to relate, but I wanted to make a film that was sort of like a Raymond Carver short story.
Actually, writing short film scripts are difficult because you need to tell a story in a limited time, and need to have something happen at the end, like a catalyst or a small event that changes people’s lives slightly. Raymond Carver’s stories do this very well. I’m in my 40s now, so I felt I’m matured enough to make adult stories like in Carver’s stories. Something that I couldn’t do in my 20s [laughter].
Which is your favorite Raymond Caver short story?
I forgot the title, but it was a story about a woman who finds out that her husband kept fishing with his friends even after they found the girl’s dead body in the river.
And they continue fishing.
Yeah, and she’s really appalled by his behavior.
I think that was turned into an Australian film with Gabriel Byrne – Jindabyne.
I wanted to make a film like that, the story about somebody’s death having an impact on other people’s lives. Watching my film, one critic said that this absent woman’s presence is like COVID, the invisible pandemic affecting everyone. I didn’t think of that when I was making the film.
There are all sorts of interesting parallels with COVID-19 which is why this film stands out from other films.
You can actually do a zombie film where everyone gets infected and turns into a zombie but I think that is too obvious. COVID gave you the time and space to think about what it means to be alone and to be connected with others. So I wanted to make a film about loneliness and connection.
So everyone who has gone through the pandemic will be able to understand.
I did another feature film at the end of last year which was about the post-COVID world in Tokyo. I came up with the idea of doing a sequel to Among Four of Us and make more short films about COVID, and turning them into a feature film. I was inspired by Ryusuke Hamaguchi’s Wheel of Fantasy and Fortune.
Fusako Urabe was in it.
Yeah, I haven’t seen it, but I thought it sounds like a good idea, I can do that [laughter]. I could do three other shorts which probably won’t cost me too much to do.
Or Kamata Prelude, which was at last year’s Osaka Asian Film Festival.
Yeah, I was thinking of doing something like that. Since I haven’t got much money, I paid everybody very little. I only had them for half a day. We started at 5:00 pm and finished at 11:00 pm, so it was like six hours.
Can you elaborate on how you conducted filming?
Because this is a conversational piece, I thought it would be kind of boring if we shot it straight, so we came up with a way to make it look little more interesting. In the beginning, we only had a storyboard showing cutbacks from one person to another. My sound man suggested, “why don’t you do it like the beginning of Reservoir Dogs, where they have a round table conversation and shoot people from the back.” So I thought, maybe the first part of the conversations can be shot slightly from behind [the actors] so we see little bit of their faces. I also tried to shoot the scenes so that it looks like they are in the same space until, at the end, it is revealed that they are actually in different parks.
Did you have a small crew with you?
Yeah. Actually, it was shot in the same park. The park had three areas that looked different. I think there were ten of us altogether.
You said Yoyogi Park, so I imagine it was very busy…
Actually, it was not in the Yoyogi Park. Another tricky thing was obtaining a permit to shoot at night. Most major parks don’t allow it, so we had to go to Kunitachi, all the way in the west of Tokyo. So it was a big hassle to shoot it. At the time, one of the actors was in drama series and so she wasn’t allowed to take any public transportation during the shoots, so her manager had to drive her to the location.
I thought that this COVID situation was kind of limiting but it gave me the opportunity to shoot something quick and dirty [laughter]. People find it easier to shoot with fewer people in a short period of time, which is kind of the thing, we are used to do in the Japanese film industry because we have very little money.
It was like guerilla film-making.
Yeah, guerilla filmmaking kind of works in the time of COVID, because many big productions were cancelled, so I was able to find good crew and actors available.
Had you worked with any of them before?
I worked with Kota Kusano, who plays the guy, in other films. The DP, Tomohiko Tsuji, is more of a documentary DP, he worked on three of four of the late Koji Wakamatsu’s last films. I am from documentary background so I wanted to work with him. I was planning to shoot a feature with him so I asked him to do this film as a trial so we would know how to work together. He’s good because he’s a documentary DP, he can capture actor’s performances like a documentary.
So it’s capturing naturalistic acting.
Yeah, naturalistic. It’s hard to find a DP who is like that because most DPs, at least the ones that I know, are more concerned about the look, whether it looks nice or how it looks cool, whether the composition is great. He’s more concerned about what the actor is doing, the performance.
It’s a short film so every shot and word has to be precise and everything has to carry meaning. Did you use storyboards?
I had storyboards. We kind of plotted it and composed it in a way where it is a single shot, single shot, single shot, and then a wide. The way we shot it was kind of unusual because when we were shooting, we had one actor with two other actors standing by the side, off camera, so they are actually performing beside them to create the feeling of being together on location. It helped to have them right beside each other.
And also you had this specific look for the film and, at the festival, there was another film, Here and There.
Ah, the Filipino COVID romance. I saw it.
It’s the complete opposite to your film in its depiction of technology on screen. Obviously you wanted to have the big reveal that they are all separate at the end, but was there ever the temptation to utilize technology more?
Well first off, I had no money and time [laughter] to use the technology. But then I think that naturalistic setting kind of worked. We had smart phones right beside the actors, but we didn’t quite focus on them, so I wasn’t quite sure if people would get that they were actually speaking to each other through speakers on their phones. But the Filipino film is kind of interesting. It was a little bit like Telenovela, it had this feeling of a television teenage love story. It’s interesting to see how this pandemic is portrayed in different countries.
Among Four of Us made me feel like the older you are and the more you’ve experienced life, the more you can identify with the characters who are all so well written. I’m at the stage of my life where I’m wondering about old school mates and how they doing now.
For me, technology is just a tool, what interests me more is the interaction of characters. What I’ve paid particular attention to is how they’re revealing deep secrets, especially in editing. When somebody is talking and I don’t necessarily have them on camera, instead, I show other characters reacting to the other character’s revelation.
And COVID-19 creates that whole situation. Sometimes when you’re revealing secrets, you need that distance from other people to be able to unburden yourself.
I think if it were actually drinking session with three of them together in the same place, the secrets might not have come out so easily. But because they are not physically together, they are able to reveal deep secrets. For the script, I came up with the main idea of the revelations, but I worked out the details with the actors.
Nahana, the actress who plays the role of a housewife, came up with the idea of reaching her hand out to her ex-boyfriend. She thought that it would be interesting if she tries to reach out to someone who is not physically there, because she wants to rekindle college romance. But it’s poignant that she’s reaching out to the empty space.
Like in life there’s regret because the forward motion of time makes everything slip away.
When I was growing up, I was in love with Raymond Carver stories and John Cassavette’s films. Their stories are mostly about middle-aged people having breakdowns. In my twenties, I tried to write something similar, but I couldn’t.
I feel now I have matured enough to write those stories [laughter]. I’m old enough to understand the intricacies and difficulties of those relationships. It’s not so bad getting old, it gives you different perspectives to life.
How did you prepare the cast members for their roles?
I wrote the script with the actors in mind. The actual lines and details I work with the actors. For example, Fusako Urabe, she is actually someone I wanted to work with since I saw her in Bashing, a film from about 20 years ago. She was in her 20s then, but she was really brilliant. She’s also a stage actress and she had lots of interesting ideas, so I just feel like we kind of created the story together.
So you improvised on set?
Actually, we only had five or six hours to shoot so we didn’t have much time to improvise. Similar to what I do with feature films, we did lots of rehearsals to communicate beforehand what we were trying to do. So when we actually got on the set, it was more like tweaking than actually creating.
With Japanese filmmaking, we don’t really have time, so we have to build everything beforehand in rehearsals and with the actors. We had one cold reading and one rehearsal, but we exchanged lots of ideas via emails and Line group chats.
Shooting was difficult, because we were shooting during rainy season. We had to shoot between the rain. I didn’t think I could get the shot of the moon at the end, but miraculously it came out.
What’s the moon a reference to Natsume Soseki?
Oh Natsume Soseki… I didn’t think of that, but the moon was kind of an interesting idea. During the first lockdown, an experimental theatre director friend did this event involving moon-viewing via ZOOM with people watching the moon together from different locations. I thought it was interesting, how we’re in different locations but we’re watching the same thing together at the same time. I tried to incorporate that element into the film, like you’re separate but kind of together and watching the same thing. I thought it’s symbolic, and it’s like Sayoko, an elusive woman who brings everyone together.
My final question is what do you want audiences to take away from the film?
I think COVID made life difficult for many people, but I think it also gave us time to think about what is important in life, and what it means to be connected with people. Because you are cut off from all external factors of everyday life, you can focus on yourself and what’s important to you, so for me I tried to turn this situation into something positive.
Among Four of Us was shown at the Osaka Asian Film Festival on March 9 and 12. It is streaming in North America from August 20 to September 2 as part of JAPAN CUTS: Festival of New Japanese Film.