Interview with the Director and Stars of Bad Poetry Tokyo [OAFF 2018]

Bad Poetry Tokyo is the debut feature from Anshul Chauhan, an animator turned indie film director. Born in India in 1986, Anshul’s main job is working as an animator in Japan. His career stretches back to 2006 with work in both TV and film and it has progressed to include some recently released major titles such as Final Fantasy XV: Kingsglaive and Gantz: O. Life as a live-action director began with short films which is how he met his lead actors for Bad Poetry Tokyo. With his actors lined up and having gained some experience, he finally made the leap into features with this dark drama built around an acting tour de force from a trio of talented actors, Shuna Iijima and her co-stars, Orson Mochizuki and Takashi Kawaguchi

Shuna is a highly trained for stage and screen in both London and Japan and her talents include Shakespearean acting, physical theatre and more. Orson was born in Japan but raised in Texas, America, and trained in method acting at the United Performers Studio Academy and Fighting & Weapons Choreography at Worsal Action/Stunt Productions. Takashi Kawaguchi was born in Miyagi and went to Osaka University where he studied literature before he entered the New National Theater and trained for three years. All three have gone on to star separately in indie films and Bad Poetry Tokyo is actually their latest collaboration together. It tells the story of a hostess named Jun (Iijima) who retreats from Tokyo back to her rural hometown after a betrayal leaves her dreams shattered. She finds herself pursued by two men deeply in love with her, Taka (Mochizuki), her lover in Tokyo, and Yuki (Kawaguchi), an old flame but she is also dogged by a dark past. It’s a gripping example of stunning acting as the film engages in twists and turns and features visceral mental and physical violence to create a strong human drama.

Bad Poetry Tokyo received its world premiere at the Brussels Independent Film Festival 2018 where it took The Best Narrative Feature award before going on to receive it’s Japanese premiere at the Osaka Asian Film Festival (OAFF). Shuna Iijima’s performance was so powerful, the organisers of OAFF created the Best Actress Award for her efforts.

It was a sunny morning on the penultimate day of the OAFF when Anshul, Orson, and Takashi kindly took time to sit down and talk at length about the making of the film and how the actors got into their roles.

Jason Maher: Thank you for taking the time to do this interview and thank you for making the film. Could you explain a little about the background of Bad Poetry Tokyo.

Anshul Chauhan: In June 2016, I made a short film called Soap with Orson, then I cast Takashi in What’s Left of Us, an experimental film, and then I met Shuna so it is like I was preparing for the feature film by meeting all the actors one by one while making small films. I put all three together in another short, Kawaguchi 4256 and then I thought, “Okay, I’m ready for the feature film.” I wanted to make a story of a person going back to his or her roots and trying to reconnect with their family and friends so I quit my job last year and I threw myself into it, everything, all my savings. We ended up shooting the film in 13 days. We went to Saku, my wife’s home-town in Nagano and filmed in the streets of Tokyo and in an Airbnb property we booked. Jun’s home in the country is actually a house in Gifu but when Jun steps out of the house, the location is Nagano. The major sequence where Taka confronts Shuna after she gets hurt, we did in my own bathroom. After the shoot I edited the film in one and a half months.

So when you’re location hunting, is selection based on spontaneous feelings? Is it all about the atmosphere a place gives you which allows you to imagine scenes?

Anshul Chauhan: Yeah, It’s 100% spontaneous. I make films based on the locations and actors. I have a subject first and then I will meet actors and I will keep them in my head while I think of the locations at the same time. I never do camera planning. We just go and film. I keep locations in my head. I saw the countryside around Saku in 2012. I remember my wife’s father was working there and I began daydreaming, “some day I will film here”. When we started shooting it was so fast, we did one, two takes with every scene.

So what was your first reaction to the script when you saw it, Orson?

Orson Mochizuki: I’m familiar with the type of scripts Anshul writes after working with him already. I knew he was going to write something even darker than his two previous shorts that I did with him and after reading it, I was like, “OK, this is going to be pretty tough.” [laughter] but when actors read a script, it’s completely different from what directors envision and so, in my mind I saw my character Taka as a more expressive person, a more angry type of person but then talking with Anshul, he discussed how Yuki is the more expressive type of guy and he wanted my character to be more withdrawn. It was a lot of fun. I’d already worked with Takashi and Shuna before so we kind of knew each other.

Could you tell me what the atmosphere was like on set?

Orson Mochizuki: Anshul loves improvisation. Of course he gives us a script, but usually on the shooting day he will say, “okay, just forget about the script, you already know the story,” and then he just points the camera and he shoots. In particular with Bad Poetry, there were a lot of tough days, well, most of it was pretty tough emotionally. I cried a lot. After we shot, I’d go to the side and start crying. The reason is that my character is not very expressive compared to all of the other characters. He just kind of stands there and looks at the others. He has a dullness in his eyes and a kind of ghostly type of atmosphere to him. I remember Anshul telling me not to be too emotional or expressive during my scenes which is quite difficult because Jun is so expressive. I wanted to say some stuff but I think that after watching the film I understand, like, “Okay, Taka is this kind of this eerie type of character who doesn’t really, truly understand his position”.

Could being withdrawn be like a defense?

Orson Mochizuki: Playing him, I felt he does really care about Jun but he doesn’t know how to express that because of the type of atmosphere he works in. I think, if you compare his character with Takashi’s character, Yuki, it elevates Yuki more. They are different faces on the same coin. Taka’s this quiet guy and when you get to Yuki, he’s more of a speaker and he’s more expressive so when you see Yuki it’s a more refreshing type of feeling like, “Oh thank God, we have some happiness in the film.”

Anshul Chauhan: Taka has this weird Tokyoite personality that I see every day like in salarymen and that’s in the Tokyo scenes which helps make things feel different from the countryside where people are more expressive. That was one of the ways to have the film feel like it’s in two parts, to feel completely different.

We’ve talked about how Taka is very withdrawn from everybody and how Yuki is the complete opposite. How did you approach the character, Takashi?

Takashi Kawaguchi: Before shooting, Anshul told me I didn’t need to prepare anything, just be myself. I didn’t prepare much and just focussed on the moment to moment of shooting a scene with the other actors and trying to figure out the circumstances and just putting myself in the situation. My scenes are almost always with Shuna and we had worked together before so we knew each other very well and I knew the director very well but I didn’t know I was able to do this type of acting. He directed me and he pulled out another layer from me and I really enjoyed it.

The main character’s journey is really absorbing because we empathise with her struggle and she has gone back home to where audiences would expect she would be safe but her dark past is brought up and it creates a murky situation.

Anshul Chauhan: You mentioned dark past but we never show anything, it’s all in the dialogue. We didn’t show her sexual stuff with customers at the club or her family history, or her mother and father. Nothing is shown because I wanted to focus on the mental violence. People can hear it and they can imagine it. That was one of the aims, to keep filling the head of the audience so they can keep imagining it.

What’s it like working with Shuna Iijima, Takashi?

Takashi Kawaguchi: I watched her in the film, Ken and Kazu so I already knew she is a great actress and when we worked together in Kawaguchi, I was really impressed. I like her acting and I like her personally and I love everything about her so I was really excited about working with her again because she is always really focused on the character.

Anshul Chauhan: Which I don’t like. I don’t like actors going too much into method acting. Just be in the moment, just react to the person there and the story will take you inside it. Don’t put too much effort in, like go crazy for one month, cut yourself, like many actors do. That kind of thing is important when you are doing a completely extreme role like, for example, playing a blind person. While directing the actors, I just keep feeding them information. It doesn’t have to be about the story, it can be talking about some music I want them to listen to or so many things but never about the story, the story comes much later. For me, direction starts much earlier. It’s meeting the actors, talking to them, drinking with them and slowly putting things in their heads. It can be asking them questions, teasing them, that kind of stuff, just getting into their lives while they get into my life so once we understand each other, it is easy to bring something out. Also, because I am an animator I notice body language more in live-action and whenever an actor doesn’t feel true, I’ll notice. When they are fake or not feeling the scene, I kind of get it, especially with the three of them. I can’t exactly articulate what goes through acting and direction, it’s kind of a bond that the energy creates, kind of a magical thing happens spontaneously. When everyone is honest and true to themselves, it comes out somehow and the scene happens.

How did you find working with her?

Orson Mochizuki: She just took it to another level. She has this, kind of… I don’t know, it’s kind of hard to say. She’s quite intimidating, in a sense. She’s not your typical traditional Japanese actress. She studied in London and I think when you go outside of your own country and experience other things, you kind of become more of a layered person. She has an innocence to her but at the same time there’s this darkness from the back so you can’t really tell if she’s hiding something so I loved working with her because when you work with actors and actresses who are really good, it pushes you a lot more and so every time she came out hard I had to bring it as well but my character is a withdrawn person so I had to bring it in a different way.

Anshul Chauhan: In real life, they all are different from their characters. I gave them characters opposite to their personalities because I wanted them to experience their parts and change themselves.

Orson Mochizuki: On set, once Anshul gave his okay about a take, I was okay with it because I have worked with him three times, I know what he wants and if he says, “okay, that’s a good take,” I’m like, “okay, it’s good, let’s move on to the next scene”. He also never let us watch our playbacks…

So you couldn’t modify your performance during the scene?

Orson Mochizuki: Exactly. After he said a scene was good, we’d ask, “can we look at it?” and he’d say, “no,” [laughter]. He doesn’t want us influenced by our performance

Anshul Chauhan: The reason I did that was I didn’t want them to become so happy with the result. One time we did a take and my DP, it was his first day, and he was like, “Oh my God, come look Shuna,” and I went out for a smoke and when I came back, Shuna and others were watching and they were happy and I got so pissed off [laughter] like, “why did you show them?” I wanted them to feel shitty throughout the film [laughter] like, don’t be happy, this film is not about happiness.

What would you say the theme of the film is for you?

Takashi Kawaguchi: A girl struggling in her life as she tries to find her own way… Life.

Orson Mochizuki: Dark love. There’s so many layers in love, especially in Japan where everybody goes towards that innocent and pure type of thing but love can make anyone, especially a man, desperate and dangerous and so I think that’s the theme of what Bad Poetry Tokyo is. It’s kind of a simple love story but it’s completely overly layered in darkness.

As a director, are you really hands-on, testing things out to help actors perfect performances?

Anshul Chauhan: Two, three days before the shoot, I bought Takashi a 1000 yen haircut. He had big hair and he looked very cute so I had him cut his hair and grow a beard [laughter].

Takashi Kawaguchi: That was really helpful for me to get into the role.

Anshul Chauhan: And then we got the clothes from real farmers. I asked my wife’s father and made them a bit dirty and said, “these are yours now,” and I had a sweat glistening spray I used on Takashi [gestures using the spray] and said, “you’re a farmer now”. We did not have a budget for a make-up guy so I learned make-up from YouTube and applied it myself. Being in make-up was my best moment for talking to the actors, like telling them, “you have to kill this actor”, and then going to the victim and saying, “this is it, this is your last day on Earth”. I was laughing inside because I was enjoying it. [laughter]

There are so many layers to Shuna Iijima’s performance, as Orson said earlier, and I admired her character. If I had to think of one word for the theme, it would be survival. Whatever it takes, she’ll do it. You see her story and how she refuses to back down and she’s like, “I’m going to think of another way to get myself out of here.” I was desperate for her to survive. Do you think she will?

Takashi Kawaguchi: I think so.

Orson Mochizuki: Yeah, for sure, she’s already done a lot of things to get to that point. There’s no other thing for her to do except survive so I think, yeah, she’ll survive, for sure.

Anshul Chauhan: For me, this film is about people who are not able to make good decisions in life, confusion, and a struggle with personal indecisiveness. Uncertainty.

Bad Poetry Tokyo was shown at the Osaka Asian Film Festival on March 13 and 17.