At the Osaka Asian Film Festival, Filled with Steam (2017) was one of the films screened at the Housen section, a place reserved for films that received support from the Housen Cultural Foundation. This organisation aims to further film study and production in graduate schools across Japan with the aim of “preserving and helping grow film culture in Japan” through funding shorts and features. This is the second year that OAFF ran a dedicated Housen section and this year there were three films, Girl Returned (2017), Protest (2016), and Filled with Steam.
Filled with Steam is a bittersweet 30-minute dramedy that details a relationship full of secrets as a woman named Midoriko (Ayako Mizuno) and her husband Daisuke (Takehito Sato) drift apart. Midoriko is visiting a pregnancy classroom run by a flamboyant teacher named Miho (Kaori Takeshita) unbeknownst to Daisuke but a series of twists forces the couple to confront the substance of their marriage. Directed by Rina Tanaka, the film displays a talented director working with great people and interesting material to make a thought-provoking human drama. It was warmly received by its audience at its world premiere at the National Museum of Art, Osaka, but questions remained for this correspondent about the use of comedy and the late-stage intervention of a baby. Fortunately. the cast and crew of the film provided answers in a group interview.
This interview was conducted after the screening with the help of Kayoko Nakanishi, a member of OAFF’s International Press team, who acted as an interpreter and got involved in the lively interview with some questions and comments due to her own enjoyment of the film. Taking part in the interview from the film’s cast and staff were the director, Rina Tanaka, a graduate with a Masters from the Tokyo University of the Arts, Film & New Media, Directing course, the actors Takehito Sato and Kaori Takeshita, the film’s writer Ryota Kato and the editor, Fixy Lee.
Jason Maher: First off, I’d like to thank you for making this film. I’ve seen it three times and it has given me a lot to think about. The first thing I want to ask about is the title. When I think of steam, I think of energy but the characters in the film seem to lack vitality and energy and so it makes me think of another aspect of steam, the fact that it’s not solid. There’s nothing solid there like the central relationship. Why did you pick that title?
Rina Tanaka: My way of thinking isn’t straight. It’s a little bit twisted. When I thought about the main theme of the izakaya the characters meet at, they exchange their feelings and they are so into it that it is like there is steam coming out of them. My question is, if it’s okay to just end there, to not leave the story in a happy way but with the steam filling the place so we can’t see things. Not leaving the story in a happy way but with a question. It is like whiteout when you can’t see things.
I should have asked that question last. [Laughter] What was the writing process like?
Ryota Kato: Tanaka-san loved the first draft. She didn’t make big changes. Only two or three revisions and they were minor changes. We discussed the last part of the story and made a change but basically she liked what I wrote.
In terms of the acting, what was the first reaction when you read the script Sato-san and Takeshita-san?
Takehito Sato: Interesting, but… [Laughter] it might take time to remember…
Rina Tanaka: The shoot happened last year in February so it’s about a year ago. [Laughter]
Takehito Sato: When I first read the script I thought that the tone of the story was very serious but after I watched the film I found out it has more humour and comic parts so I was surprised by the gap between the script and the film
Kaori Takeshita: I thought it was a very serious drama so I took the role very seriously but when I saw a preview of the film, I found out that during my scenes funny music was playing so I thought it was only for my sequence but at the end of watching the film at the cinema today I found out that it’s a very comic film and it’s important to have the reaction of the audience, too. It’s totally different to see it on a laptop and in a cinema with an audience.
What would you say the themes of the film are?
Ryota Kato: The style of the comedy is actually only the surface of the film. The main theme is, if I can sum it up in one word, horror. The relationship between husband and wife is horror.
It’s horror? [Laughter]
Ryota Kato: That’s what Tanaka-san and I discussed from the very first part of the production.
Tanaka-san, what was your approach to combining comedy and the very serious theme of horror.
Rina Tanaka: Actually, this was my first time making a comedy because my previous films have all been serious in style. From the beginning, Kato-san suggested that I try a new directing style to make this film so I was ready to make a comic film but it’s also my nature to make serious films so that’s why, even if we say it’s going to be a comedy, I added my original taste to the film like in the ending.
That ending sequence is really emotionally moving because of its scope, how did you plan that sequence and was it your intention to end it in that style?
Rina Tanaka: That’s from the scriptwriting process. We discussed about how to show the background of the couple, the husband and the wife. It is very delicate showing scenes from their past and adjusting it to the storytelling so I thought maybe it would be nice to have a totally different tone, a very serious scene and then a very comical scene. I changed the tone based on the time of the scene in the life of the couple during the scriptwriting process.
How did you relate to your characters then. It seems like you took it very seriously but certainly, the opening scene for your character is comic. Were you totally unaware of the comedy aspect of the film?
Takehito Sato: Hmm…
It was filmed a year ago, it’s a very long time. [Laughter]
Takehito Sato: Actually, I didn’t think about it seriously but I believe I was affected by the other cast members and also the previous scenes filmed. [Laughter]
Rina Tanaka: A good point about Sato-san is that he is always in his role. He’s not watching the whole movie. He is always himself. He only does what he believes he should do on set and it looks like he’s playing differently but he fits in.
What would you describe your character’s most charming point to be?
Takehito Sato: Hmmm. I think the most charming point of the character is that he always thinks about the people around him and he always wants to make things better for those who surround him. He is always aiming to make things better.
Miho is such a strong character, like, WOW, [Laughter] How did you approach her?
Kaori Takeshita: Actually, I have a role model that I based the character of Miho on. She’s a yoga teacher and she owns her own studio and she is always strong and she believes in herself and what she believes, so she’s the one I wanted to emulate to make the character.
She shines with confidence. Kato-san, did the characters remain the same as on the page or did the cast have the chance to change them?
Ryota Kato: It was a big surprise for me when I saw the film because the characters are actually what I wrote and I’m not trying to say good things in front of everyone but while writing, I questioned myself about if it’s good enough.
It all worked out fine.
Ryota Kato: It seems that way, yes.
There’s a really nice pace to the film so the comedy and the drama flow together. In terms of editing, Fixy, did you have any specific instructions or an emotional response to the material?
Fixy Lee: I had worked with Rina on her previous films so we know each other well. Basically, the first cut I made by myself by following the script and then I made changes. There are two scenes that I remember well. At the bus stop, Hikari (a classmate of Midoriko’s) points out Daisuke’s nametag. In the script, there is no scene after the tag is pointed out but I added their reactions after that moment. The sequence in the pregnancy classroom when the teacher is telling her students that pregnancy is not only an issue for the women but also the partner, there wasn’t a shot that showed Daisuke’s reaction but I took a shot from another part and put it there.
Nice call. [Laughter]
Rina Tanaka: She’s a professional. She works for TV programmes as an editor. She’s quick and she knows what she does. So we only took two or three days to finish the editing of this film.
Fixy Lee: I really love Tanaka-san’s work. I want to work with her even though I’m busy working on TV programmes. I always want to work with her.
Tanaka-san, how would you describe your style?
Rina Tanaka: What I try to do is not show everything directly. I always think about telling the audience different things. I want to use different ways to make them feel my main purpose. Even though this film has lines that are really straight, the characters are not shown doing things directly. I want to leave things in the background and not focus clearly on them but leave them ambiguous. That’s how I want to leave room for the audience to think about the story in their own way.
So, for example, characters do comical things to each other but the audience is looking at the reaction of horror and betrayal from the people around them and having a lingering camera that focusses on the surrounding characters even after the characters leave the scene.
Rina Tanaka: I enjoy that the audience has room to have their own reaction. I’m not really into being the character. There is always distance between the character and myself. Even if I think the characters are foolish, at the same time, I love their characters, too. I always want to see it from a distance but at the same time, I envy those people who are full of steam, so energetic.
How did you find shooting the baby scene? Was it difficult and upon watching it with an audience, how did you find their reactions?
Rina Tanaka: It was my first time to shoot with a baby and I thought it would be hard. The baby was a boy and he was with his own mother at the shooting location so he was fine. It wasn’t as difficult as I thought it would be. On the day of the shoot, it was really intense so everybody got really nervous and we failed to shoot a scene on time because of the schedule however, even though it was so intense and we were nervous, once the baby came in, everyone was like, “aawww”. Everybody felt happy. So that’s when I finally felt the power of the baby. That’s related to the theme of the pregnancy classroom. The people attending the pregnancy classroom want this magic power. That’s when I finally realised I felt those feelings for those characters.
So it doesn’t matter that nobody called the police over a lost baby? [Laughter]
Ryota Kato: It’s fantasy.
Rina Tanaka: That’s an element of the audience’s reaction that I worried about. I wasn’t sure how they would react.
Ryota Kato: The female audience member next to me was smiling. Her reaction was warm so I was relieved. But actually, that scene with the woman who tried to keep the baby, Tanaka-san was questioning that sequence at the scriptwriting stage because the characters were not treating the baby as a human being but as an object and they had stronger lines which I wrote but I changed it with the director.
Rina Tanaka: I’m curious about your reaction to the scene.
I was very invested in the drama between Midoriko and Daisuke and I felt that the scene went a little too far towards fantasy. Up until that point, everything occurring between the couple felt really real and really affected my emotions and the woman trying to take the baby away seemed very strange to me, out of place, but now that you’ve explained that the baby created a magical atmosphere on set and it’s meant to be fantasy, I understand a little better. Thanks for your time.
Kayoko Nakanishi: Sato-san has a question about the final scene.
Takehito Sato: You have watched this film three times so I expect you noticed. When I rode on the bicycle down the hill, I changed my top and called the make-up artist to change my hair and then rode back up with the second person.
Yes. You were wearing the same trousers.
Ryota Kato: Really? I didn’t know. I was there but didn’t notice. [Laughter]
Kayoko Nakanishi: So you realised it was done in one shot?
Rina Tanaka: Excellent CG! [Laughter]
Takehito Sato: I have another question. I didn’t know it would be filmed in one shot until on the day. I read the script and it seemed like there would be two scenes. Why did you (Tanaka-san) do this in one shot?
Rina Tanaka: The hill is like a time machine to show scenes from their past so I wanted to capture the whole scene in one shot.
That’s a really well done scene.
Kayoko Nakanishi: I was so moved by that scene.
Rina Tanaka: He changed everything with mic.
Thank you for that final question! Dynamite stuff! Thank you!
Filled with Steam received its world premiere at the Osaka Asian Film Festival on March 16.