Interview with Sisterhood Director Takashi Nishihara and Star Manami Usamaru [OAFF 2019]

With inequality on the rise worldwide and identity politics a hot topic issue, filmmakers everywhere have their work cut out trying to keep up with the changes in their respective societies and there is a desire on the part of this writer to see films that tackle these issues from Japanese creatives. More social realist dramas and politics, to be blunt, especially in an era where the rise of individualism and poverty unbalances traditional notions of collectivism. Takashi Nishihara is a name that has cropped up quite often in this regard. Born in 1983 in Toyama, he is a graduate from the Department of Arts and Film at Waseda University in Tokyo. His filmography flits between documentary and drama but he usually focusses on those who find themselves made outsiders by the status quo of society and does so with a social realist bent.

His 2016 documentary About My Liberty chronicled a wave of mass protests held primarily by students who were worried about against Prime Minister Shinzo Abe’s conservative government’s controversial state security bills that would give legal consent to the military participating in overseas conflicts for the first time since the Second World War. His dramas Blue Ray (2011) and Starting Over (2014) explored wider issues through the travails of outsider characters on the bottom rung of society, people yearning for love while being forced to care for others but finding their desire just out of reach due to economic and social circumstances. With his latest film Sisterhood, he mixes fact and fiction in a film that shows some of the voices asking for change to mainstream of Japanese society.

The film features two projects interwoven together: a series of interviews and documentary footage with a semi-fictional story of a Tokyo-based documentary film director going about this in a work about the emergence of feminism. Nishihara’s “docufiction” captures the lives of young women living in Tokyo in various circumstances. Real life actors, musicians, and models including Nina Endo, Mika Akizuki, BOMI and Manami Usamaru play fictional variations of themselves and each gives their perspective on contemporary society as they talk about issues such as gender politics in long-take sequences full of naturalism for a realistic snapshot of modern youth shot in monochrome. As with Genta Matsugami’s Demolition Girl, it positions women front and center, making them powerful characters, and captures some of the social realist spirit I am interested in.

Nishihara’s works have been featured at Osaka Asian Film Festival (OAFF) twice with Blue Ray, which was screened at OAFF 2013, and Starting Over, which was at OAFF 2015. He attended OAFF 2019 with lead actress, nude model Manami Usamaru, and sat down to talk with me after a screening of their film to give background on the making of it. The interview was done with the help of Keiko Matsushita and later translated and transcribed by Takako Pocklington.

Jason: Thank you very much for making the film. It was very interesting. It feels very relevant for today’s conversations about identity, especially gender relations. I believe it is based on a documentary you started four years ago. What was that documentary originally about?

Takashi Nishihara: Four years ago, I started shooting Manami Usamaru. I found her photos on Instagram. In one photo, she was holding a flower and was naked. I thought it was very beautiful so I contacted her and met her in a cafe. We had a conversation and we started this project. First of all, I wanted to capture women’s lives in Tokyo. Women who may have trouble in life or who are struggling with identity so I wanted to shoot a portrait or photograph in film. And BOMI, the singer, I was introduced to by my friend. When I watched her live performance, she looked stunningly lively and I wanted to make a documentary about women who engage themselves in expressing something. That was my initial idea.

So you were inspired by her. Her footage in the film, the atmosphere, feels very different from the rest of the film. Did you want to keep what you originally shot and put it into your new film? Could you explain more about why that is?

Takashi Nishihara: I have been shooting documentary films. I made About My Liberty, a film about SEALDs (Students Emergency Action for Liberal Democracy-s) -a student activist group – and their demonstrations. Japan is one of the greatest developed countries in the world, but capitalism in Japan has so progressed that it has created circumstances which makes us feel as if we are in a deadlock. I wanted to capture the lives of women who are living under these circumstances.

So how capitalism makes all of us a product in some way. That was sort of like the root, you wanted to explore or depict in the film?

Takashi Nishihara: Japanese society is male dominated, that may be true in all modern societies though. I have a vague idea that women living in this kind of society might be feeling it is tough to live in Japan, so I wanted to make a documentary about women who live in the urban city of Tokyo.

What do you think audience reactions have been so far? Have people been willing to talk about capitalism or different, alternative economic systems?

Takashi Nishihara: That was sort of my aim for making this film. As a film, it had started from there (evoking audiences to talk/think about capitalism) but it turned out to be a film which has focused on individual’s happiness.

The feedback from audiences is something like the film has given them a chance to rethink their own happiness or to re-acknowledge awkwardness about the current male dominated society. It seems that the film has made lots of audience members think about their own happiness.

How did the fiction part of the film come about?

Takashi Nishihara: In 2017, the #MeToo movement happened in Hollywood, like the Weinstein case, and this was at a time when Donald Trump became president. Women became angry and went on demonstrations like the Women’s March in Washington DC which I watched on CNN or the internet. I wanted to cheer that movement and include it in my film so I decided to make a fiction part with the character of the director Ikeda and combine it with Manami’s documentary to make a mixed film.

Would you say the character of Yuto Ikeda is a representation of yourself, perhaps?

Takashi Nishihara: Yeah (laughter), maybe half and half. I assume some women will ask why a male director would make a film like this so I wanted to be honest with myself so that is why I created the character of Ikeda. He was very honest with me. Every director wants their real experience to inform their films so that’s why.

So, the criticisms Ikeda suffered at the start of film are some of criticisms that you might have to face. You were addressing it to audience. This is an interesting technique and I felt like, as a male, it’s telling me to listen more to the women around me. What would you hope men take away from this film?

Takashi Nishihara: Mr.Ikeda considers himself a feminist but he doesn’t understand his girlfriend, who was the closest person to him. It is a cliché. With this film, I wanted to capture women’s voices because Japanese society is built on male supremacy.

Very Interesting. Usamaru-san, how much input did you have into the filmmaking process?

Manami Usamaru: In fiction? Not much. The director asked me to be play the role as Usamaru Manami. I didn’t research about feminism or think about social problems for this role.

Just be yourself. Is this an honest interpretation of your own character on the screen?

Manami Usamaru: There’s not much difference between the “me” in the documentary and fiction parts.

Did you feel any reservations or caution about displaying your life on screen?

Manami Usamaru: In the interview scene at the university, I tried to be honest and express myself in the present. We tend to brace ourselves up for interviews, don’t we? I also tensed during the interview but wanted to speak with my true words and not to hide anything about myself.

Do you have any expectations of changes in gender relations in Japan any time soon?

Manami Usamaru: I dislike the words ‘feminism’ and ‘gender’. I want those words and things connected to them to disappear.

[To Nishihara] Mika Akizuki and Nina Endo, you have worked with before. You asked them to play variations on their characters. What preparation did you ask them to do?

Takashi Nishihara: Both Mika and Nina starred in my film, Starting Over, so I have a connection with them. Back in 2018, I decided to make the fiction part to this film and wrote a script. Their faces came up in my mind so I sent the script and told them about the film, a story of young women struggling to live in Tokyo. They didn’t have any idea about feminism and gender but they had some interest in my project so we worked together again.

Do you think something like feminism is going to become much more accessible/ interesting to people in Japan?

Takashi Nishihara: Because of things like sexual harassment? Last year, there was big news that a government bureaucrat sexually harassed a TV reporter so, I think that people are becoming aware of gender or feminism more than before, like the #MeToo movement or participating in demonstrations. For example, yesterday was International Women’s Day, so there was a women’s march in Tokyo. 200 people attended.

And in the past, that might not have happened?

Takashi Nishihara: Yes, in Japan, you seldom see demonstrations.

Usamaru-san, do you have any interesting stories about feminism?

Manami Usamaru: During the #MeToo movement, one model named Kaori who worked with the photographer Araki Nobuyoshi wrote negative comments about him and people also spoke ill of him. However, when reading her article, I couldn’t stand by Kaori-san because I guess there must have been a trust relationship between them and they had been working closely together in sharing their artistic will. Despite that, just because they were not getting on well with each other, she posted such a negative article about him. I couldn’t understand her action and it made me feel sad.

For you, encountering feminism was something connected to the #MeToo movement a few years ago?

Manami Usamaru: Yes.

What is your hope for the future?

Takashi Nishihara: This film combines documentary and fiction so my next project, I have already written a script, is about a female journalist in Japanese society. She has some trouble in the male dominated society but she wants to pursue real journalism and reporting to cover Japanese society.

Manami Usamaru: Lately I’m getting more acting jobs but I basically like taking photographs so I want to pursue photography.

One last question… why did you choose to shoot in monochrome?

Takashi Nishihara: This film started in 2015 so I spent four years on it. I wanted all scenes to be equal in look (to now and four years ago) so that time becomes meaningless. One viewer after a screening said to me, “Why black and white? Men are blue and women are red”. People tend to look at humans with colour. She also said that these colours become meaningless. What she said was a surprise for me

So, everything is equal. Not just time but people as well.

Takashi Nishihara: Yes

Sisterhood was shown on March 9 and 13 at the Osaka Asian Film Festival.