Interview with Kahori Higashi, Director of Melting Sounds [OAFF 2022]

Deceptively simple but quite profound, Melting Sounds is a moving and quietly funny first feature film from freelance designer-turned-director Kahori Higashi. In her work, she ruminates on the issue of mortality in a unique way: a patchwork family record sounds of everyday life in a small town to create a “sound grave.” This consists of a mismatched group of a young woman named Koto (xiangyu) an old man named Take (Keiichi Suzuki) and two others (Amon Hirai and Umeno Uno) recording everyday life on cassette tapes and burying them in the ground. The charm of the film is seeing how the characters gel together into a family, while it gains tremendous emotional resonance from discovering the reason why they perform such an odd task.

Part of the most recent MOOSIC LAB competition, Melting Sounds was featured in the Osaka Asian Film Festival 2022 and Nippon Connection 2022. The cast is led by musicians xiangyu and Keiichi Suzuki, the former a rising electropop star who has collaborated with Wednesday Camponella, while the latter is co-founder of the rock band Moonriders and a soundtrack artist whose works include video games Mother (1989) and EarthBound (1994), and the scores for The Blind Swordsman: Zatoichi (2003), Tokyo Godfathers (2003), Uzumaki (2000), and Takeshi Kitano’s Outrage trilogy (2010/12/17). Considering that this is Higashi’s first feature film after making just a handful of shorts, it’s quite an achievement. She tackles a sensitive subject with a unique concept, a well-thought-out setting and use of nostalgia, not to mention an ability to channel subtly comedic performances from her cast. 

In this interview, director Higashi goes into her background, the making of the film, where her ideas came from, and the nostalgic items and sounds that mean so much to her. This interview was conducted with the help of Takako Pocklington’s translations.

What inspired you to become a filmmaker? 

After working as a graphic designer for a company for seven years, I could imagine my future. Although I was content with my life at the time, I thought I might regret it some day. I have always liked films since I was in junior high school. I rented many DVDs and watched them almost every day. I do still love films. I thought there was nothing but films that I could let myself by absorbed into and I wouldn’t want to die without even trying to do something I love. Then, I started going to a filmmaking college at the age of 27.

This is your first feature film after making The Saturday Laundry and Sanako Yuwakashi, 29 Years Old. Can you talk about what it was like to work on a bigger project?

Making a short film is like committing to celluloid the interesting scenes of daily life. In contrast, making a feature film seemed like putting short films together. I found it challenging but also pleasurable to structure the story for a feature film. You might be able to prepare a short film by yourself to some extent, but for a feature film, there is only so much that you can do by yourself. I used to be shy and was not good at doing things with other people, but my behaviour has changed and I have started trying to connect with others proactively. My former self would be surprised when seeing my current self.

In terms of themes in Melting Sounds, mortality is a major one. This fits with other projects released under the MOOSIC LAB label such as The Sleeping Insect, Soul Music, and Dong Teng Town. Despite sharing similar themes, each of these films is unique as is yours. The idea of a “sound tomb” and how it is used in the film was ingenious. Can you explain where the idea came from and how you developed the story?

I wondered if we could connect with deceased people in the ground. It all started from this question. One night, I had a strange dream, which contained images of my soul existing without its body. In the dream, I felt only sound and the sound was me. I then thought that the sounds people could not hear when they were alive could permeate the ground and that people would be able to feel them instead of hearing them. That was how I got the idea of the “sound tomb”.  

Due to the subtext of mortality, viewers might wonder where Covid-19 is in the film. Did the pandemic affect the film’s production in any way? 

This story takes place in a world one year before the Covid-19 pandemic. The shooting was postponed due to Covid. Consequently, I changed the dialogue and also added lines to it. The world within the script changed as well. There is Koto’s line in the last half of the film, “If this were a two-hour film, where would we be now?” I strongly felt that the future is unpredictable while living in the current situation. I expressed this uncertainty through the line. Who could predict that the world would dramatically change like this just within a year? This uncertainty seems similar to human life. Nobody can tell where the halfway point or the final scene of our lives is.

The film is seemingly simple and easy to understand but it has depth that sneaks up on a viewer. There is one mysterious part and that is the presence of Old Man Yappo. Can you explain who he is and the importance of his presence in this film?

I often have weird dreams. I keep them in a diary. While writing the script for the film, interesting people started showing up in my dreams. Old Man Yappo was one of them, a small fairy-like old man who made a profound remark whilst staring at me. “One disappears and the other follows. Little Yappo of a little village” It seemed like he was telling me about life and death. I thought it was a kind of a revelation and I then inserted it in the film.

The film has lots of props that would create a sense of nostalgia. What is your favourite nostalgic item?

A cassette tape recorder. I was fascinated by it when I found it in my father’s room during my primary school days. I found it amazing that I could record my voice and play it back instantly! I really liked it and asked my father to let me have it. I would record songs with friends and then listen to them secretly by putting a futon over my head. I used to be rather shy and kept a low profile in class at the time. However, the “I” which existed in the sounds sounded cheerful and jolly. I felt as if she were alive. 

This appears to be xiangyu’s first acting role. She has an exuberant presence that keeps the film lighthearted even if it goes to dark places. What was it like working with her and implementing her music in the film?

Initially, I planned to ask xiangyu as a musician to participate in the film just for the music. However, soon after meeting her, I knew I wanted her to play a role as well. She is a person who can disappear into a character, not just act it and I got the impression that she remained “Koto-chan” even off-set during filming. There is a scene with close-up of Koto’s face. It looked like she was trying not to cry and she had an exquisite expression on her face. When I approached her after stopping the take, she said whilst shedding tears, “I thought Koto is the kind of girl who holds back tears, so I didn’t cry.” I did not want the tone of this film to be unnecessarily heavy even in the sad scenes. I was amazed that xiangyu had naturally read my intention. I think her intuition is also implemented in her music. Her lyrics have a pleasant ring to them, and hit home for me even if they aren’t that direct, as they help me picture images that are moving and realistic. I really admire her talent and respect her. Her song “Life” truly captures the vibe of “Melting Sounds.” I like the song very much.

This is the first time that I have heard of Keiichi Suzuki. I have been told he is a musician. Can you explain why you cast him?

The producer suggested casting Keiichi Suzuki for the role of Take. I thought the image of Take and Suzuki-san matched perfectly. I really wanted to ask him to play the role and yet I thought it might be impossible for him to appear as the main cast in my film so I asked him with little hesitation like, “There is no harm in trying. Why don’t I just give it a go?”vI sent the script to him. I found it out later but one of his songs has the line “I put my voice on a cassette tape recorder and bury it in the ground”. I hadn’t known about it at all until contacting him. It was purely coincidental. Suzuki-san was also surprised by this coincidence and it was thanks to this twist of fate that he kindly accepted my request. There were also a series of coincidences apart from this, which amazed me afterwards. Because it was Suzuki-san who was playing Take, we could put ourselves in a warm and exceptional atmosphere. He finished shooting a day before the rest of the main cast. We sent him off crying despite knowing that we would be able to see him again soon. You can imagine how significant his presence was for us during filming.

Umeno Uno has worked with you in the aforementioned short films. She has strikingly unique looks and a deadpan sense of humour, so I enjoyed watching her on screen. What is it about her acting that you like?

Uno-san is my best friend. Her personality is similar to mine, so I feel very comfortable with her. Her role of Hiroko is not the main character but she is crucial in the film. I tried to perceive her objectively since we are often together. As we are so close, I struggled to give my honest opinion to her because I was worried I would sound false, but I have again realised Uno-san is a great actress. No matter what she plays, humorous or serious, she manages to exude her nature with a gentle demeanour. Her charm is the changes in her facial expressions. She is good at making people chuckle. I personally like her eating posture, which is so charming. You don’t see it in this film, but she looks exceptionally charming when slurping cup noodles. I will make her eat it in my future films. She is indispensable to my films.  

If you had to have four sounds you wanted to put into a sound grave, what would they be?

The singing voice of my ninety-one-year-old grandma. Sounds of my family having a pleasant and relaxed time together in the living room. Sounds of making breakfast as I like breakfast very much. I don’t have a child yet, but I will probably bury the sound of my baby’s first cry when they are born.

Melting Sounds was shown on March 14 and 17 at the Osaka Asian Film Festival.