Interview with Kasho Iizuka, Director of Angry Son [OAFF 2022]

Starting with his 2011 Pia Film Festival Special Jury Prize-winning autobiographical feature debut, Our Future, Kasho Iizuka has focused on the lives of people who don’t fit neatly into Japanese society. 

Iizuka’s latest feature Angry Son is his second 2022 release following his transgender relationship drama The World for the Two of Us. It tackles immigration and mixed-race experiences through the prism of a single-parent family where the titular angry son is gay Filipino-Japanese high-schooler Jungo (Kazuki Horike) who lives unhappily with his vivacious Filipina mother Reina (singer and actress GOW) in a city located in Gunma Prefecture. A search for his father forces them to face the prejudice they have experienced and reconnect in a touching, funny, and fiery drama.

Cultural faux pas, prejudice, and healing happen after a lot of patience and empathy help characters get to understand each other. Iizuka skilfully and sympathetically deals with heavy topics through diverse characters harmonising with different racial and sexual identities. Such was the impact of the film that it won the Most Promising Talent Award at the 2022 Osaka Asian Film Festival and it has been selected for Nippon connection and this attention is richly deserved as the film is so well made and full of substance as it presents a hopeful picture of a Japan that is becoming more diverse.

Where did the story come from? What drives director Kasho Iizuka? He took part in an interview where he explained lots of things that informed Angry Son. The interview was translated by Takako Pocklington. 

Can you talk about how you came up with the idea of the film?

I had a friend who lived near my house whose mother is a Filipina. I went to his house after school a few times. Whenever I started getting ready to leave his place for supper, he got upset because he had to stay at home alone at night as his mother worked at a Philippine pub. After growing up, I found out why he looked alone. The idea for the film came from his presence in my memory.

The principal theme of the story inspired by my childhood friend is the love between mother and child. The mother is a Filipina who came to Japan for work. Her son is a Japanese, Filipino on his birth certificate, born and raised in Japan. It is the tale of a mother and child, who have different values in life who come to terms with each other. The social context that many migrant workers from the Philippines rushed to Japan in the 90s lays behind the story. Lots of Filipinas worked at pubs and married Japanese then had children. I have mixed-raced friends as well. Some of my Filipino-Japanese friends told me that cultural differences within a family causes misunderstandings. I realized that even a family that is biologically related don’t necessarily share a similar sense of values. Today, Japan is becoming a society that recognizes diversity. In the future, Japanese society will be even more diverse with regard to cultures, races, and sexualities. Due to this, I decided to make a story in which “people with differences” come together.

What sort of research did you do to find out more about the mixed-race experience and the lives of Filipinos in Japan?

I interviewed quite a few Japanese-Filipinos and also Filipinas who came to Japan for work. I went to their workplaces as well. While interviewing, I noticed that they have experiences or problems in common. I was genuinely drawn to Filipina’s strength, cheerfulness, and positive attitudes while meeting them. While interacting with them, I also noticed differences in the sense of values between Filipinos and Japanese and I incorporated them into the film.

I met Kosho Nakajima, the author of “The Sociology of Philippine Pub Women”, after I finished writing most of the script. He told me about his experience of meeting a Filipina while researching Philippine pubs, falling in love with her and getting married. His wife also advised me about some lines in the script.

The film works because Kazuki Horike and GOW match each others intensities. How did you discover the lead actors and what acting qualities drew you to them?

I had a chance to work with Horike on the set of a film several years ago. I have been following his activities since then. He values realism in his acting and in that respect, I felt in tune with him as I have learned acting techniques derived from method acting, which is realism based. With him, I was convinced that he would be able to portray the character Jungo perfectly.

While we had difficulties in finding a Filipina for the role of the mother, one of my acquaintances introduced GOW to me. She is a singer and a celebrity. However, after listening to her singing, I was convinced that she could capture the character Reina so I asked her to play the role. She also works at the embassy of the Philippines and is interested in the issues in the country. Therefore, she deeply empathized with the theme of the film.

As for the acting of Horike and GOW together, I meticulously checked on their emotional flow. We explored what aspects their film characters are not happy with with regards to each other, what they expect from each other, and why there is a conflict between them. The bigger that the conflict between them is, the more dynamic their actions will be. We discussed this a lot. Their internal strength hugely contributed to the film. They are both very powerful actors. You’ll probably find that easily.  

They have intense scenes together, how did you work with them for their roles on and off set?

We spent a great deal of time discussing the acting for this film. I had extra time to rewrite the script as the shooting was postponed from a previously planned time to a year later due to the COVID-19 pandemic. Thus, I found I had time to sit down with Horike and ask about his personality. Thinking about it now, I was lucky to have such exceptional interactions with him. It wouldn’t be possible if I worked in commercial films. I picked up the emotions he held in real life and put them into the script. We read the lines and discussed them. I carefully made Horike become Jungo whilst asking him about his personal story.

Jungo’s behavior towards his mother is constantly extreme. Did you worry about how the audience might react to him?

I didn’t worry at all. I suppose some of the audience might get upset by Jungo’s attitude, and some might be empathetic to him. The audience has the freedom to take away what they want from the film depending upon each person’s situation. For instance, people who feel isolated from the person they most want to be close to will empathize with Jungo while others who share a similar situation as his mother will get annoyed with his attitude. I think it is important to question why you felt that way. In this way, I consider films as a way of getting us to realize something and I believe that is something they should do. I am really excited about the film being released and receiving various reactions.

Did the actors work entirely from a script or was there ad-libbing?

Some scenes were true to the script, but some were ad-libbed. The scenes towards the end of the film, especially, were ad-libbed. It was fascinating to see how the fictional characters came alive. “What are they going to talk about now?” I was thrilled to shoot the moments that the actors performed that went beyond my imagination as a creator. That is why I let them ad-lib.

A characteristic of my filming is that I tend to use long takes. I just leave the camera on and let the actors start acting whenever they are ready. Until then, the crew wait and the camera must keep rolling.

What was the hardest scene to shoot?

The scene where Jungo and Reina reconcile. Since it was the most significant scene in the film, I did a retake on the final day of the shoot, although I had already shot it when we were halfway through the shoot. That scene should be the most emotional for the audience. Both actors were aware of that and totally up for it. I assume they had conscientiously prepared for the scene, and it must have been very hard for both of them. Horike and GOW showed us a brilliant performance.

The film is set in Gunma Prefecture, which is where you are from. Why set it there?

As the industrial belt runs through Gunma, there are many migrant workers from abroad. Where there is an industrial area, there is a nightlife district. This scenery integrated naturally, and I grew up in a town like that. It seemed reasonable to shoot the film where I grew up.

I moved back to Gunma from Tokyo for this film. I had always felt uneasy with the present state that Tokyo is the center of filmmaking activity. I had also been questioning why the cultural hub is concentrated in Tokyo. So, I wanted to experiment and do the whole process of filmmaking in Gunma. As a result, I could focus well on the project. The local people’s support poured power into the film.

You present an optimistic picture of people accepting different ways of living without shying away from the prejudice. As well as the experiences of immigrants/mixed-race people, you also address sexuality. Can you talk about the importance of making films with such subject matter?

In conclusion, I intentionally avoided presenting the main character being gay as the main theme. I started writing this script about seven to eight years ago. There were hardly any works depicting sexual minorities in Japan back then. It became sensational just bringing up the subject. Lots of films about the subject began being made once society began deepening its understanding of sexual minorities.

Based on that situation, I thought what we need for Japanese films is to make a film containing sexual minority characters who naturally exist in the story. Deliberately not focusing on their sexual orientation. I found it necessary to convey the message that the characters live their lives as a matter of course whoever they are. That is why I deliberately made this film without giving particular weight to having a gay protagonist. I wanted to take the lead for the next step in the Japanese film industry where the portrayal of sexual minorities is currently a big trend.

There is also a significant reason why I supplied a happy ending for a gay protagonist. I am aware of the importance of portraying the struggles of young sexual minorities in films but at the same time, I think a young generation of sexual minorities won’t be able to envision happiness for their future if we keep presenting films like that. This film can present a role model for someone, so I wanted a happy ending. Even if you are a sexual minority, you should have an ordinary life and seize happiness like others. I deeply believe that we need this kind of story in Japanese films today.

Angry Son was shown at the Osaka Asian Film Festival on March 12 and 17. It next plays at Nippon Connection.