Interview with Slowly Director Momoko Fukuda and Producer Jumpei Inoue [OAFF 2019]

Momoko Fukuda hails from Ibaraki City, Osaka Prefecture. After studying at the Japan Institute of the Moving Image, her graduation work Goodbye Mother (2014) was selected by a number of Japanese festivals including the Yubari International Fantastic Film Festival. In 2015, she took part in the New Directions in Japanese Cinema (NDJC): Young Filmmaker Development Project run by the Japanese government’s Agency of Cultural Affairs. It is designed to foster a new generation of directors who can bring new life to the Japanese film industry and Fukuda seems truly unique in her tastes. The resulting film, Dad’s Marriage (2016), was screened at international festivals such as Camera Japan in Holland where it stood out for its unique pacing and a story that challenges the norm of what people consider to constitute a family. She is turning it into a feature film, Oishii Kazoku, due for release in 2019. Her most recent works have been shorts, one a part of the omnibus film 21st Century Girl (2019) which appeared at last year’s Tokyo International Film Festival, and the other is the a rather offbeat Slowly which appeared at the 2019 Osaka Asian Film Festival.

Slowly is a slice out of the lives of two old friends. After their high school reunion, they drive back to some unspecified point, their conversation awkwardly hovering around questions about their past and future and the changes to their hometown. Their journey is stopped by a tennis umpire’s chair, which lies on the road. The two suddenly find themselves helping a third person carry the chair away and we watch as they lug the thing through a beautiful series of pastoral scenes and mundane small town shots while still talking about their lives. The film seems aimless and has a laidback rhythm because not much happens. But through conversation and behaviour, we can read a lot and it is interesting to wonder over the images and actors.

It reminded me of my 1990s childhood when a variety of European films from Rohmer or Aki Kaurismaki and stageplays by Beckett were on terrestrial television in the UK rather than squirreled away on some satellite channel. I ended up watching the film a few times and felt quite moved by the experience, sensing a certain longing, acknowledging the nostalgia for my past and some gaps in my present as I identified with the characters.

There were two screenings at OAFF and I caught the film’s first screening where the audience seemed to appreciate the experience. I was due to interview Fukuda and her producer Jumpei Inoue after the second screening. When I arrived at the cinema, I was told that one person had reacted negatively to the film at this second screening but, despite this, Fukuda and Inoue, along with two of their team, sat down with me. Undaunted and thoughtful, they kindly spent over 30 minutes talking about the making of the film and their inspirations.

Help with translation was provided by Keiko Matsushita while translation of the transcription of the interview was overseen by Takako Pocklington.

Jason Maher: This is a very existential film. Where did you come up with the idea?

Jumpei Inoue: When I attended a scriptwriting workshop run by Sato Toshiki, a porn film director, I needed to write something. I decided to write something heavy in content, then I thought it might be visually good if I let a mature man and woman travel through pretty towns

In terms of characters, do they represent different themes such as irrationality and nostalgia?

Jumpei Inoue: I have not given them a special theme. But they made the “difference in the amount of information” they have and “the time they did not meet”.

Why did you cast those particular actors? Do they have something special?

Momoko Fukuda: The main actor already appeared in a film I shot.

A film with Itsuji Itao…

Momoko Fukuda: Yes, Dad’s Wedding. He was in the film as a member of the family and his acting was brilliant – he was an actor who was able to fill between the lines and I liked his face as well. I wanted him to play a different role in my film then I asked him to do this role.

What is the theme of the film?

Momoko Fukuda: A man and a woman, who had shared something in the past are reunited. A man who has spent his life in his hometown. A woman who had left her hometown but for some reason has returned. After their reunion, they end up carrying an umpire’s chair. While they were carrying the umpire’s chair, they started to contemplate about the town they grew up in or her deteriorating life then they try to restart their lives with positive thoughts

Do you have any concerns over how an audience might react to such a simple film?

Momoko Fukuda: No, I don’t. During the Q&A earlier today, one of the viewers said, “This is not a film. It is not interesting at all. You have violated films.” I had anticipated that I would receive that kind of comment. However, when I watch or make a film, I believe that an audience will pick up something from the film, whatever it is. Audience members would watch the film whilst empathizing with the characters’ emotions or thoughts even if nothing happened in the film. I didn’t have any concerns because I trust the audience.

So the film is only finished when an audience watches it and reacts.

Momoko Fukuda: Yes, that’s right. I could say there is a theme but also no theme. This film depicted a specific part or moment of their lives. We don’t know what the moment would bring to them or the rest of their lives but life is like that, isn’t it?

It was really interesting to interpret it. What makes it work is the camera movement and shot selection. I felt like the camera movement and the shots were perfect.

Momoko Fukuda: Oh, wonderful! He’s the cameraman! (Fukuda points to a man sat behind myself and Keiko, and everyone turns as he looks up surprised)

Fantastic job! Great job! Was there a storyboarding process?

Momoko Fukuda: Nothing was written down. We’ve always been working together, so we understand well about our visual preferences. I think it is important for a film to shoot an actor’s presence, their stance or demeanour, and what you see in their background rather than shooting their faces. These elements will enrich their performance. My films tend to have this kind of composition.

Was there a particular method to filming the actors together to increase certain emotions? So, for example, Yoko is usually on the tennis umpire’s chair and the two men are underneath. She is at the top and very prominent like a low-angle shot looking at her. Was there a method for each character?

Momoko Fukuda: I like expressing character’s situation or relationship through using their positional relation.

Could you explain more about the use of European aspect ratio? Is it because of your fondness for long shots?

Momoko Fukuda: Yes, I shot the film with European vista. I intentionally made it like a European film, consciously did it in European style. I do like the nicely flowing camerawork in European films.

As a producer, you have to arrange locations and transportation. What was the most difficult thing about the shoot?

Jumpei Inoue: Nothing much. I also work on commercial films. When I was working on Vigilante, a film by Yu Irie. I worked as one of the production team and I did location hunting in Fukaya, Saitama for two months. So whilst working on Irie’s film, I did location hunting for this film as well.

Momoko Fukuda: We had a good environment in terms of nature. It was in April and there was the full bloom of rapeseed flowers at the beginning of the film – I didn’t expect it in the film. I was eager to shoot that scenery, which I could only capture at that time and at that place, even though I hadn’t had it planned in advance.

So many happy coincidences. The tennis rally sequence, was that difficult to shoot? How many takes were required?

Momoko Fukuda: It took ten times. It was very windy. We had three days for the shooting. The weather had been nice but it was only on the day we shot the tennis scene, the last day of shooting, when it was very windy. It worked well, as if it was reflecting their emotions, like Typhoon Club.

Also, the music at the beginning and end…

Momoko Fukuda: The music is a bit weird, a bit retro… The perspective of the film has changed after the music has been inserted. I think the music added some depth to the film.

The music clears up the atmosphere at the very end.

Momoko Fukuda: Exactly! You’ve got a discerning eye to appreciate films.

In terms of reception from film festivals, Osaka was the first one to accept. Is it easy to get a film like this into other festivals?

Jumpei Inoue: It’s not easy.

Momoko Fukuda: There was some time after the film was completed. I don’t know why but I suddenly decided to submit it for Osaka Asian Film Festival and the film was accepted. Do you think we could be accepted if we submit to foreign film festivals? Which festival would you recommend us to try?

Raindance. They often screen short films and they range from conventional narratives to very abstract and they can be quite experimental, so I think there’s a big possibility. Also, there’s Nippon Connection in Germany.

Keiko Matsushita: I used to live in Spain and they have Huesca short film festival there.

Momoko Fukuda: What aspect of the film will foreign audiences enjoy?

The unique story and the way that people can bring their own interpretations to it. Speaking of the atmosphere, as a European I took an existential reading into it. Beckett’s Waiting For Godot came to mind, the image of these three people in the country who are doing something simple but we interpret more from it.

Momoko Fukuda: It seems like audience could naturally read into the film, does it? What do you think about the opinion of one of the viewers at the previous Q&A, who said that this is not a film?

Film is big. You can have many different subjects and approaches. Some people like conventional narratives and that’s okay, but there’s an audience for your film, a more open-minded audience. I grew up watching European works with a wide range of philosophical content in the 70’s and 80’s, especially Nouvelle Vague, so for people who have grown up watching such films…

Momoko Fukuda: Oh, I see. It might depend on what sort of film environment people are cultivated in. It was good to receive that kind of criticism anyway. It was interesting. There are not many people who voice their opinions openly nowadays, so I have found that receiving severe criticism is a good opportunity to refocus on my own ideas…that’s why I hit back at his criticism. My current theme for my own life is something like this. I wish I would be able not to reject anyone whose opinion is completely opposite to mine or is beyond my understanding. It’s a theme of life. I want someone who opposes my idea to gain something from me accepting him or her. By the way, my next film is based on this idea, with Itsuji Itao again, called Oishii Kazoku.

What sort of film directors do you like?

Momoko Fukuda: Sorry, not a European director but my favourite director is Somai Shinji. I really love Typhoon Club. In terms of European directors, ummm, there are some favourite works rather than directors. I like Sean Baker’s film Tangerine. The Son of Saul, a story set during the Holocaust, something else… 4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days. I tend to like films which could win a prize at the Cannes film festival. I like films which depict a day or a moment of someone’s life that would tell us about reality of their life or political problem of the country which they belong to.

Thank you for making the film.

Slowly was shown on March 10 and 11 at the Osaka Asian Film Festival.