Yosuke Takeuchi is an award-winning independent filmmaker based in Japan. Born in 1978, he graduated from Shibaura Institute of Technology in 2000 and, in 2002, went to France to learn painting. In 2003, his work won the Jury’s Special Award at the exhibition of the Academie de Port-Royal before he took to travelling to various places in Europe and Africa. In 2004, Takeuchi returned to Japan and started his career as a filmmaker, debuting with Segutsu which was nominated for the Short Shorts Film Festival in Tokyo in 2008. His short film Katsuko (2010) won the Associate Grand Prix at the Mito Short Film Festival and his screenplay for People’s Vanity won an award at a contest for new writers in 2012.
His time in Paris proved to be very influential since it was there that he first encountered the works of Vincent van Gogh and was inspired by them. That inspiration went into The Sower, his first feature film which transplanted aspects of the tragic artist into characters seen on the screen and tackled issues surrounding mental illness. Made in 2016, this drama has been screened at Nippon Connection 2017 as well as the 57th Thessaloniki Film Festival where it won Takeuchi the Best Director award as well as netting the Best Actress award for its young lead Suzuno Takenaka. It received its Japan Premiere at the 2018 Osaka Asian Film Festival, which is where this interview took place.
This interview was conducted with the help of the interpreter Mana Kukimoto, a volunteer at the festival whose help proved important for the development of the conversation that took place.
Jason Maher: What I want to do, first of all, is thank you again for making the film. It is one of my favourites from the festival and every time I watch it, I cry in the same places.
Yosuke Takeuchi: It’s your second or third time seeing this movie?
Fourth time. It was a real pleasure getting to understand the characters and enjoy the visual style that you have once again. I’m curious about your background, specifically your time spent as an art student in France.
Since I was a little child I have liked painting and I wanted to be a painter. After graduating from university, I went to France and studied painting for one year and it was there that I saw genuine van Gogh paintings for the first time. I was very impressed. I then read a book which was a collection of letters he wrote to his brother Theo and his friends and I went to the place van Gogh lived as a painter and where he died and I thought about his life.
What inspired you to make the film?
To place van Gogh’s life in modern Japanese society. How he would act if he lived in this time period. He was not accepted by others and he was not treated like a normal man. His paintings were only accepted after he died. I wondered what would have happened if van Gogh did not have painting. How would he live without painting or having a way of expressing himself?
How did your background as an artist help create the film?
To see something is very important. Both film and painting are very similar. When you paint something, you observe the object very carefully to express something. It’s the same thing to see an object and write, to look at a human and accept it and express something. It is a cycle that is very important that is used in different mediums.
You use lots of long takes and close-ups on objects and on people’s faces, do you feel that cinema has a special power to examine a person’s power or spirit?
This is a very interesting point of the movie because we carefully looked at the changes of people’s faces in the third act and film can pick up these changes in expression. But in this way, the audience may be able recognise the creator’s thinking and intention and that can be difficult to mask so it has to be natural.
That’s a very interesting point about the faces. Yoko’s face becomes like a scary mask but sound also plays an important part in the film. Mitsuo and Chie become very quiet and withdrawn and nobody pays any attention to them and their feelings. What was your intention with the sound design?
I didn’t want to use music very much so I could use the sound of nature and background noises. For example, the sound and music of the festival is kind of irritating so the audience can feel like the actors because Yoko may think the festival sound is irritating and the audience can feel like her.
In terms of working with the actress for Chie (Suzuno Takenaka) and the actor for Mitsuo (Kentaro Kishi), did you give them any specific directions for their roles?
You know that the actor for Mitsuo is also the DoP and I talked a lot with him from the beginning when I was writing the script. I let him read the entire book of letters van Gogh wrote and got him to write a diary like van Gogh. Kishi was very thin during the movie. I asked him to lose 30 kg but actually he lost 20. It changed him a lot from the way he walked to his psychology.
I provided enough time for Suzuno and my niece (Itsuki) to get along as real sisters and Suzuno came to feel like they were really close. However, I didn’t tell her that Itsuki will die by an accident in the story so it was very shocking for her. I think that for her to have such time with my niece before we started making film helped her to understand and make Chie’s feelings her own.
So that does have a pulled from real life quality to it. One of the things that I was interested in was the actress for Itsuki. She’s your niece?
Did you always intend to cast her in the role?
Yes because I wanted her to be in the movie. People don’t have much of a chance to communicate and be with the children with down syndrome so I wanted to show her. She has a very good smile, a big smile, so I wanted to show that smile.
It’s a beautiful smile.
It feels like the film is a conversation about mental health issues. Was that also an intention?
I think that there are some people who treat those who have the mental issues and have experienced being in mental hospitals like the mother of Yoko and so I deliberately wrote those kinds of conversations because I know there are some people who do think like that.
We get a shot of like a factory, a workshop where people are using silk and with scenes like these the film humanises people who may be treated as outsiders so it was powerful in that way. Do you think every film should carry a message with it to show the audience a different aspect of living?
How much work went into pre-planning the film?
In terms of making the script, three years. During those three years I added so many things to the script and it became too long and so I had to cut things out but I couldn’t do that so I filmed everything. It was around six hours.
Six hours? [Laughter]
I tried to make a three hour movie. My limit is three hours or two hours but it was difficult. I left the script for some time and then read it again and cut and cut. Finally, it came to two hours.
How long was the shooting period?
And what was the atmosphere like on set?
It was good. Not so many people. My parents provided good meals. It was very relaxing. Just kidding. The girl who acted as Chie didn’t know what would happen because she didn’t know the whole script and so it felt like she was not good in the final part of the shooting period because there was too much pressure. After we finished we saw she was very good.
That final scene is very powerful because throughout the movie she is so silent, and then we see she is able to move on. What was your intention with that scene?
It was very important to show how Chie was saved. I thought that if people are in a serious situation and have a hard time, if they stopped and just looked around and had a change of pace, it would help people, it will save them from a hard situation so that was what I showed in the last scene.
Do you think that’s the power of art. It’s able to change the way a person thinks and make people better?
I was saved by art.
What does Van Gogh’s art mean to you?
I was very impressed by the way he used colours. Van Gogh was very interested in how colours could affect people’s emotions and did much research about them. I also felt his life was very interesting and very meaningful in terms of life as an artist so I hoped that I could succeed to do what he tried to do through art.
Live life with passion for art, regardless of everything. That’s a beautiful note to end on. This film was really great and I hope lots of people get the chance to watch it. Are you working on another narrative feature right now?
I have several ideas and also several scripts. I’m always thinking about things and I will make my next movie like this, small money and small movie.
Thank you very much.
The Sower was shown at the Osaka Asian Film Festival on March 11 and 16.