Interview with Masashi Komura, Director of POP! [OAFF 2021]
For the last few years, the Osaka Asian Film Festival has been screening MOOSIC LAB films. These works are the result of the pairing together of up-and-coming directors, actors, actresses, and musical performers into a unit to create a movie. The final products are almost always idiosyncratic in some way since they are the results of whoever has been grouped together. This year’s entry was POP!, a quirky drama featuring dry comedy and existential angst. It plays on the unique combination of director Masashi Komura, lead actress Rina Ono, and DJ/producer Aru-2.
Ono takes the lead role of Rin Kashiwakura, a 19-year-old who is on the cusp of turning 20, the official age of becoming an adult in Japan. With the approach of such a momentous occasion in her life, one would expect excitement but what she feels is confusion as she struggles to understand how she fits in with others and the world at large. An early dream of becoming an actress has become side-tracked and she works two part-time jobs, as a mascot on a struggling local TV charity program and at a remote mountainside car park. An encounter with a mad bomber leaving explosive packages around town gives her some impetus to move forward.
This description may seem full of random elements but they are deliberate and filmed in such a way that they form a collage of situations that provide entry points to Rin’s existential crisis. Overlaying everything is the downtempo music of Aru-2 whose lazy beats, hazy samples, and various audio imperfections are indicative of how Rin feels. The myriad of emotions I felt when watching her reminded me of what I felt in my own adolescence. In short, this truly unique film had successfully made me understand Rin’s existential crisis.
It seems I wasn’t the only one as the film won the Grand Prix and Best Actress award at the MOOSIC LAB awards. Masashi Komura kindly agreed to take part in an interview to explain how the project came together, his inspirations, his approach to manipulating time, and working with Aru-2 and gifting his sound to audiences.
This interview was conducted with the massive help of Takako Pocklington, who translated between English and Japanese to help bring director Komura’s answers to the page.
Congratulations on the success of POP! at the MOOSIC LAB awards. Where did the idea of POP! come from?
Rina Ono was already cast to play the lead role from the beginning of the pre-production stage. With her in place, I decided to portray a woman who is 19 years old because Ono-san was 19 at the time. Although I came up with the idea of the character, I found it hard to relate to a 19-year-old woman and couldn’t picture what they are like. So I asked the women around me about what they thought when they were 19. One of them gave me an interesting answer, saying that, “I thought it would be over when I reached 20.” It was an eye-opener that she had such a negative feeling about becoming 20, reaching the legal age of adulthood [in Japan]. This story started from her words.
POP! has a very unique atmosphere. It felt as if the story drifted and the tension was diffused with so many different locations and storylines but it really captures the feelings of angst. What did you bear in mind when you wrote the story?
I was inspired by A Serious Man by the Coen brothers. It is my favourite film. However, I had an ambiguous feeling for this film when I saw it the first time in the cinema. I had the impression that it was superb but unexplainable. The film lingered in my mind and I wanted to make POP! into a similar kind of film. I re-watched A Serious Man several times then I realized that the film fits perfectly into a three-act structure, even though it is a strange film. So, I wrote the story whilst bearing the three-act structure in mind. I am not sure if I managed to achieve it though.
Rina Ono is a rising actress. Why did you cast her and how did you prepare her for the role?
I co-starred with Ono-san in her debut drama. We worked together briefly there, but I felt some connection with her, so I asked her to appear in my feature film debut.
Ono-san has a rather unique charm, so I tried to create a character that could exude her charms. I was also concerned that it wouldn’t have brought out her charms fully if the character itself was too unique. Therefore, I deliberately depict Rin with a subdued bearing.
There is a big contrast between Rin’s work at the car park and her work on the charity programme. Why did you select those two as workplaces for the main character?
The idea of the charity programme came from my own feeling of uneasiness when it comes to charity. I wanted Rin to wander around with that feeling of “uneasiness” in such a setting. There is a cheerful atmosphere in her charity programme, but something awkward when you look at it carefully. However, because of the word “charity,” nobody can poke into the strangeness. I wanted to create that kind of situation. There are several reasons why I chose the work at the car park. At first, Rin’s life should be unnoticeable to the public, which is why she works at the deserted car park. Secondly, cars are a significant motif in the film. I wanted to depict 19-year-old Rin’s existential state through her job at the car park. She parks cars and works at a stationary place while adults get in cars and are in motion. And the last is a prudential reason, which I had hardly seen a car park job in films and also I thought it seemed easier to shoot at there.
The charity costume has a very memorable look. Very cartoony and cute but it looks difficult to wear. Where did the design idea come from and what did you want to convey with it?
I wanted to make the costume striking so I used that dress and wig. I intended to convey the nuance that Rin was made to dress like that or that she was forced. However, the costume unexpectedly suited Ono-san when she put them on at the shoot. I was worried that I might fail to convey my intention because Ono-san looks so good in the costume. Therefore, I was relieved when I heard audience members saying that they could get the sense of her being forced to dress in that costume.
The Mad Bomber planting bombs around town was a bit of a wild concept. What did you want to convey with him?
As you said, I wanted to insert something eccentric, both for the film and for Rin. The bomber is the polar opposite of Rin, who wants to be an actress but unwillingly works for the charity programme. The appearance of the bomber, who does whatever he wants to, presents a stimulus to Rin.
You have acting experience and also co-wrote the screenplay for The Man Who Was Eaten. How did you find making a feature film?
In making this feature film, I have realised once again that film is a temporal art form. I realised it, especially at the post-production stage. You are forced to face the [moments of] time recorded on film in the cinema. The editing process enabled me to control it [time] directly and also to think about all sorts of things. I have now become conscious about the physical sensation of time while watching a film since I made POP!. Being aware of a physical sensation time is an important discovery for me to continue filmmaking in future.
What skills did you learn on previous projects that you used on POP!?
I would say that I learned a mentality rather than a skill. Completing a film means that you need to have strong commitment and determination. You will find this simple aim hard to achieve and feel discouraged under all the difficulties encountered during the making production process. A film director is supposed to be person who can keep him/herself going and make decisions. I learnt it from the directors whom I have worked with and those who have a strong mentality.
Aru-2 is a music producer/DJ who makes the soundtrack for the film. Had you heard of Aru-2 before making the film? How did you decide to work with Aru-2 and implement the music in the film?
The main reason for my decision to collaborate with Aru-2 is that I am a fan of Aru-2. I like Aru-2’s originality and his melancholic beats very much. I was moved by Aru-2’s performance when I saw him for the first time when I went to the Beat Live. Above all, there was an amazing atmosphere at the live venue. I wanted to bring that atmosphere into cinemas. With this film, I aimed to create a humorous vibe when the story is mismatched with the melancholic beat by Aru-2. Frankly speaking, I just wanted to create a weird perspective. In the final scene where Rin sets off to “a new world”, the sound of the Aru-2’s beat is affirming like, “you will be fine, whatever happens.” I think the scene managed to convey the message.
Can you talk about how Covid-19 has impacted your film?
It was under the Covid-19 state of emergency when I was finishing off the script prior to the shoot, so I was staring at the script at home all time. I think my mood might have been reflected in there because the situation of the future was uncertain. I assume that there aren’t any happy-go-lucky films that were made during the time.
MOOSIC LAB is a unique set-up in how it pairs filmmakers and musicians together. Can you talk about some of the benefits of working with MOOSIC LAB?
What makes me happy is that Aru-2 fans have chances to see POP!. MOOSIC LAB will show the film in cinemas. There are some bass sounds or beats that you would enjoy only in the environment of cinemas. I made this film also aiming for the audience to enjoy Aru-2’s beats. So please go and see the film in cinemas.
POP! was shown at the Osaka Asian Film Festival on March 6.