Interview with Riki Ohkanda, Director of Random Call [OAFF 2022]

Hailing from Chicago and now living in Tokyo, Hungarian-American filmmaker Riki Ohkanda works in the Japanese television and film industries where she has accrued credits on titles like Love and Peace (2016), Demekin (2017), and GI Joe: Snake Eyes (2021).

From contacts that she had made over the years, Ohkanda recruited friends, colleagues, and familiar establishments to make the indie production Random Call, a delightful dramedy about strengthening human connections. It’s told through the prism of a struggling actor, played by Tensho Shibuya, who gets reacquainted with people he has taken for granted by contacting every single phone number in his address book, then meeting each person who responds for a drink.

Made before the Covid-19 pandemic, Random Call may take on greater resonance after lockdowns and isolation, but its story of human bonds is a timeless one that will be universally understood. Ohkanda recently took time out to answer questions about her film, which recently played at the Osaka Asian Film Festival 2022.

Thanks for making the film. I have watched it multiple times and the ending brings me to tears each time! The characters are all loveable and the story’s themes of making genuine human connections really hit home. I have a few interview questions that I hope you will be able to answer.

Thank you very much!

Can you explain a little bit your background and why you chose to pursue a film career in Japan?

I have a casual background in theatre, so when I moved to Japan I took part-time work as a TV extra to pay for university at ICU in Mitaka. It was on these TV dorama and movie sets that I met various staff, and had more interest in what they were doing than what I was. When it was time for graduation, a Nihon Television director suggested I come work for him, and suddenly I was film staff. Once you’re in, it’s surprisingly hard to get out. I’ve been in the “enshutsu-bu” (directorial team) for 15 years now.

What about this story asked for it to be adapted for the screen?

This was originally a sort of writing prompt that I hoped to pitch as a dorama series at one point, and it needed to be put into a script. The vignette style worked well with the subject matter, too. I still hope that writers better than me will be able to use the concept with more complex visual/storyline integration in a longer form that will flatter it better. It feels like a seed that has been planted.

I read that you had just $700, three days, and four film crew. How much planning was involved and how smooth was the production?

The filming was extremely impromptu. A nomikai (drinking party) with my key staff brought up a long three-day weekend, and someone asked if anyone had a script lying around. One week later we had to shoot, so before then I simply called up casting agencies I’d built a relationship with, and ran around my hometown of Kichijoji asking coffee houses I frequented for their participation. The budget went entirely to pay for meals and parking.

There is a sequence involving footage shot in Hungary. Was that really from Hungary?

The sequence shot in Hungary was filmed by my twelve-year-old sister, who was (and still is) living in Hungary at the time. I drew her a shot list, and she filmed it all on her iPhone, sending me the results via Facebook. Her first film credit!

Tensho Shibuya was perfectly cast as the leading man. He has an enjoyably easy-going presence. Can you describe what qualities you saw in him and how you worked together on set?

Shibuya has a long background as a Shochiku theatre actor, and I’d seen him in jidaigeki (period theatre) as supporting cast quite a few times. He’s quite handsome, and many times I’ve seen how he stands out far more than the lead as a better actor with more stage presence, even in large Johnny’s Agency productions. I was thrilled when he turned in a bid for it. He was very easy to work with on set, took direction very well. His best scene was with his “manager” Shiratori. The actor for Shiratori had come in having memorized someone else’s lines, but we still had a very limited window to shoot. This contributed to a strange, slow speech pattern that was painful to listen to. Shibuya used this rhythm and mimicked it so that it became part of Shiratori’s character. He was great support to the actors around him.

You must have picked up a lot from working on multiple productions with different directors, can you describe your directing style and any influences?

My style – if it can be called such! – is based on Japanese TV dorama production method. Since we have to make one episode per week, we set up one or two cameras, take only wide, medium and closeup shots, and only one or two takes per cut. While I and other directors would love to be able to take one scene per day in a nice, slow pace, budgetary and time restrictions have us working for speed. I can say with confidence that it applies to most anyone working in television in Japan these days. If I’d had any budget at all, I’d probably have taken it over a longer period and added many more location-establishing shots and emotion-building cuts. Shibuya and the other actors might have found it easier to work with. The one thing I do on set which is different from TV production is that I don’t use a clapperboard. There are many countries that don’t, and this is nothing new, but it’s unusual for Japan. Instead of the set going CLAP! Action! CLAP! the way they normally do, I roll camera and just tell the actor, “whenever you’re ready.” I’ve heard from actors on this film and other productions that they’re both surprised and comforted by this, since the clapperboard makes them jittery on scenes when they need to shed a tear or move at a slow pace. Ako, who played Mie in this film, was especially happy with this method.

The cameo from Sion Sono was fun to see. One of your credits includes working on his film Love and Peace. How was he to work with on your film?

Sono-san was one of my friends who encouraged me to stop waiting around for ideal budgets and filming conditions, and just shoot the film. So when I called him three days after his telling me this (probably at another nomikai) and asked him to participate in the montage bit, he jumped on it. He even chose an easy location to shoot, and took us out to the pub afterwards. He, too, comes from V-cinema and low-budget film, so he’s very understanding and encouraging of his staff when they are trying to make their own productions. The whole industry is like that – it’s based off of friendships made and bartering for help on one another’s projects. There are also other directors in this film. Katashima Ikki, Sekino Masatoshi, Kondo Kazuyuki – all real film staff – played the staff at the audition table in the beginning of the film. Also, the bookstore owner Yuki was played by Uenishi Yudai, who directed Kanemasa, and a series of theatrical pieces. There was a lot of help from industry buddies on this film, in every way.

Do you make random calls and can you see the idea taking off?

The idea actually came to me way years ago, when I called up a producer friend out of the blue and asked for a coffee. He invited me to his production company and we spoke about industry stuff for a while, and then he asked me about my “pitch.” But I had no pitch – I just wanted a coffee chat with him. This surprised him a great deal, and he said the same thing I had the producer character “Saito” said in the film – now that he’s a big cheese, no one ever calls him for coffee anymore. They always want something from him. We have been close friends ever since, and I feel that moment restored a little bit of his faith in humanity. Since this film was shown, I’ve received a number of comments and messages from viewers who did take the idea to heart. Now that we’ve lost contact with so many people via the pandemic, they say, it seems to be a good time for them to re-examine their relationships and rejuvenate friendships they had for the sake of the friendship way back in the day. We lose contact with so many people through the gradual whittling down of our circle of friends in our struggle to achieve, and perhaps this is an opportunity to stop and reflect on that. At least I’d like to think so.

Random Call was shown as part of the Osaka Asian Film Festival 2022 on March 15 and 19.