Interview with Satoko Yokohama, Director of Ito [OAFF 2021]

While getting a World Premiere in the Competition section of Osaka Asian Film Festival 2021 indicates the quality of Satoko Yokohama’s latest film Ito, herwork also ended up taking two high-profile accolades at the event as judges awarded it the Grand Prix (Best Picture Award) and viewers selected it for the Audience Award. These wins are richly deserved as Ito is a heartfelt comedy-drama with a charming central performance from rising actress Ren Komai.

In the film, Komai plays Ito Soma, a high school girl who lives with her father (Etsushi Toyokawa) and maternal grandmother (Yoko Nishikawa) in a small town just outside Hirosaki city, Aomori. Ito embodies various aspects of the local culture, from having a thick Tsugaru accent to an innate skill in playing the Tsugaru shamisen, an ability inherited from her late mother. Alas, Ito refuses to practice and stays silent due to her embarrassment over her country roots and also her melancholy over never having known her mother. What puts the girl on the path of self-acceptance and self-expression is an unlikely job at a maid café where she meets a coterie of kind people who offer encouragement and get her to embrace her cultural and family heritage on her own terms.

The film is based on a novel by Osamu Koshigaya and while its Japanese title “Itomichi” was shortened to “Ito” for the international version, the story still delivers many of the charms of Aomori. It is the latest project from Satoko Yokohama, a graduate of the Film School of Tokyo who independently produced her first feature German + Rain (2007) which won the Directors Guild of Japan Newcomer Award. Next came Bare Essence of Life (2009) and The Actor (2015) which have both been screened at international festivals. Both she and Komai hail from Aomori Prefecture, the setting of the film, and audiences will be able to detect how their knowledge has brought out rich details and atmosphere.

Yokohama kindly took part in an interview where she talked about adapting the novel, working with Ren Komai to get a moving portrayal of the main character plus an impressive shamisen performance, what it means to be a filmmaker from Aomori and returning there to shoot a film. 

This interview was conducted through the translation skills of Takako Pocklington and the film/festival staff who set everything up.

Thank you for making the film. I felt like it taught me a lot about Aomori and the spirit of Ito really made it come alive in a unique way and the final sequences made me shed tears. This is your first solo feature film as a director in nearly five years. Could you explain the reason why you chose this film for your return to the cinema?

I have never made a film about youth. I wouldn’t write a coming-of-age story about a young girl even if I have the chance to write an original script in the future. I found the original novel very inspiring. The story contains many elements, such as a young girl, youth, Shamisen and maid café, which were out of my territory.

Filmmakers generally have several projects in their hands. A producer I work with had made great efforts to initiate this project. He proposed the planning with details, from financing to shooting the film (mainly the means for getting financial backing). His proposal was much more concrete than other projects.

I believe that the original novelist, Osamu Koshigaya, is from Tokyo. How did you find his interpretation of Aomori culture?

Koshigaya-san illustrated Aomori as a place that has a certain rustic charm you wouldn’t find in capital cities but also a place that has lost some of its vigour, a feeling that you might find in a provincial city. As a person from Aomori, I could empathise with his portrayal of the place. I could tell that he wrote the novel by closely observing Aomori. The story portrays both the positive and negative side of present-day Aomori. It includes the traditional art of Tsugaru Shamisen and Mt Iwaki, which is loved by the residents. It made me feel as if I was looking at Aomori through a window.

Could you explain a little about adapting the novel? What did you use or change to highlight the culture of Aomori?

There are many motifs in the original story, but it is hard to depict all of them. I looked through and filtered the episodes whilst considering how I could illustrate the flow of the main character’s feelings and their journey. I thought what I needed to do was to focus on the main character, who was making a great effort to interact with people around her in her own way. Therefore, I inserted the episode of the Aomori Air Raid as “the world she didn’t know”. It was a historical event that wasn’t in the original story.

How long was the shooting period and what was it like returning to Aomori to shoot? Was it easy to work there?

It took a bit less than three weeks. It was the fourth time for me to shoot in Aomori including short films. I can’t thank the local people enough who helped me every time I shoot there. Whenever I go back, I realised how genuinely kind they are. My parents always come to see me and bring some snacks for us. It is nice to see them, but I feel a bit embarrassed. Whilst I feel at home, I also find it hard to concentrate on working.

Ren Komai, the film’s lead character Ito, is from Aomori Prefecture. That must have been a good reason to cast her. What else made you select her?

Komai-san is quite different from the character in the original story, both in personality and appearance. However, some of her traits such as patience, a hard-working attitude and her determination are similar to the main character in the original story. As an actor, she has a lot of potential to grow. She didn’t overthink her acting, she managed to evolve her performance through her genuineness and honesty. That appealed to me.

Ito speaks with a Tsugaru dialect. As a foreigner, I found the subtitles conveyed that it is a dialect that is sometimes incomprehensible. How would you describe it and how do Japanese people find to it?

The development of a civilization often leads to cultural standardization, eliminating heterogeneity. However, a wide range of dialects used in Japan contain traces of our history and should be preserved. Standard Japanese sounds rather peculiar compared to Tsugaru dialect for me, a person who was born in Aomori. I am not particularly interested in how other Japanese perceive the Tsugaru dialect.

How did Ren Komai pick up the dialect and accent? Did she have to learn it or was she familiar with it?

She is from Tsugaru and a native Tsugaru speaker, so there was no problem on the matter.

The film features a four-minute shamisen performance at the end. Did Ren Komai perform that in one take or was it done in multiple takes?

We shot the performance scene with one camera from several angles, so it was not one take. Despite this, she made hardly any mistakes and she played shamisen as if she merged with the instrument. Her concentration on the performance was brilliant. I was concerned that she would lose impetus if I kept repeating it, so I tried to shoot the scene with as few takes as possible. I also paid careful attention to try and not make any technical failures.

Etsushi Toyokawa has a gentle energy in this role. Even when he is angry, you feel that it will be alright. And his character is almost as quirky as his daughter. Why did you cast him?

I liked the laid-back vibe of Toyokawa-san. Even though he is getting older, he seems to remain free and unbound. I thought he would be great for the role of a father who keeps a comfortable distance (neither too close nor too distant) with his daughter. The father in the original story spoke with a Tsugaru dialect. However, after Toyokawa-san got the role, I changed the background to the father being from Tokyo and unable to use the dialect. I thought it would be another charm of the film to illustrate the uniqueness of the father and daughter whose birthplaces and dialect are different.

I believe that Yoko Nishikawa, the actress who plays Ito’s grandmother, is a prominent shamisen musician. Could you explain more about casting her?

I couldn’t think of anyone else but Nishikawa-san for the role, since she plays shamisen expertly, speaks Tsugaru dialect and also possesses a personality similar to the character in the film. Although this was almost her first acting role, she showed a deep understanding of the script and gave me lots of meaningful advice. I was fascinated by her fertile humanity. She also surprised me with her spontaneous ad-libs.

Could you explain the importance of the shamisen in Tsugaru?

I was not so familiar with Tsugaru shamisen, so this film was my first time learning about it. I don’t know why but I feel relieved whenever I listen to the sound. I suppose it might be because that the sound of Tsugaru Shamisen is subconsciously imprinted in the bodies those who were born and live in Aomori. I think we should preserve it as well as the Tsugaru dialect. I anticipate that it might disappear if we don’t make efforts to protect it.

You also have Shohei Uno appearing in your film. I have seen him in three of your works so far. Why do you cast him?

He is a highly-experienced actor who has appeared in hundreds of films but, despite this, he always acts as if he is a newcomer shooting a film the first time. His performances are always much more inspirational than I expect. I enjoy that kind of miracle moment he creates when he shows something beyond our expectation.

Why was the Japanese title Itomichi shortened to Ito for the international title?

Succinct impact

What does Aomori mean to you?

Flesh and blood

Ito was shown at the Osaka Asian Film Festival on March 10 and 14, and will be released in cinemas across Japan on June 25.