Interview with Yuko Watanabe, Director of Boy Sprouted [OAFF 2022/Short Shorts Film Festival and Asia 2022]

Boy Sprouted depicts the battle of wills unfolds between a boy (Seitaro Hara) who dislikes tomatoes and his mother (Kanako Higashi) who is determined to make him eat them. Director Yuko Watanabe takes this everyday scenario and channels the boy’s aversion into a fairy tale nightmare aesthetic that is visually arresting and makes the film’s tone hover on the border between horror and bathos. The story itself comes from a Japanese AI named “Furukoto”, a bot that uses a neural network to create a story long enough to make a 30-minute short.

The film had its world premiere at Osaka Asian Film Festival (OAFF) 2022 and can currently be streamed online globally as part of Short Shorts Film Festival and Asia.

Watanabe took part in an interview where she went in details aboit her background as well as the development of the film, explained her experience of working with an AI and a child cast, and her influences in creating such a distinctive work. This interview conducted done thanks to the dedicated work of OAFF staff, the film’s producer Ryohei Tsutsui, and translator Takako Pocklington.

What inspired you to become a filmmaker?

I was born and raised in Ehime prefecture, and I have always liked films. During my teenage years, cinemas declined, but rental video shops started appearing on the scene instead. Thanks to rental videos, I managed to watch all of Keanu Reeves’ films and, in addition, I learnt that there are two different types of films; Hollywood films (commercial films) and arthouse films (independent films). Around that time, I started to think about becoming a film director. I made videos at the high school broadcasting club, but I realized there was a gap between the foreign films I was interested in and the films I could make. I kept making films in the video production course at an art university, but I was still frustrated with the gap between my ideals and my capabilities. Then, I came across Kiyoshi Kurosawa’s works such as Licence to LiveCure and Pulse. “Why didn’t I realize there were such interesting films in contemporary Japanese cinema!?” Those films blew away my frustration and had an impact on me. In the year I graduated from university, Tokyo University of the Arts established the Graduate School of Film and New Media, in which director Kurosawa gives lectures. I was lucky enough to enter the film production course and studied filmmaking.

How did you come to work on this project?

(Producer Ryohei Tsutsui answers) My friend, who has been involved in the project at the AI development company, offered me an opportunity to make a film using the script written by the AI. I then asked director Watanabe, who had attended the graduate school at the same time as I and also made films with. Although it was just after her baby was born, she said she wanted to do it then we started to work on the project.

The idea of an artificial intelligence making a story is interesting. David Bowie had come up with a software called a Verbasizer which would give him randomized lyrics from sentences he input into the computer itself. Furukoto sounds like the next level – more independent. What did you think about that AI making a script?

I found it very interesting. When I read the script at the prototype stage, I was rather impressed that the story was coherent and not a failure. I think David Bowie using that software to make lyrics calls back to Andre Breton and Surrealism, which attempted to create the unknown by eliminating rational thoughts.

With regards to “Furukoto”, the story that it made was coherent, although it had some arbitrary parts. I perceived the presence of the unconscious in it. I thought that “Furukoto” could assist us in bringing out a new type of art or artistic expression. However, this was just a superficial understanding, so the actual work with “Furukoto” was rather hard. I was initially hesitant to create a film through such an unusual process. However, at the meeting for developing dialogue, we [producer Ryohei Tsutsui and scriptwriter Hiroki Tawada, one of the “Furukoto” developers] thought we should consider “Furukoto” as one of our staff. When the film crew joined us, we assured them that the AI will assist us in creating better works.

How long was production and what was the most satisfying achievement?

It took four days for the shooting, three months for the preparation. As for the location, the AI did not generate anything for the background (set, locations). It was extremely difficult for us to create the background without destroying the core foundation (the mood) of the story that the AI made. Under these circumstances, the producer and the film crew prepared the locations, such as the boy’s house, tomato farm, and school. I was really pleased with those locations.    

The film has very precise visual design which led to wonderful shots due to the framing. I felt like it shifted the film into horror territory as you purposefully held shots on the tomatoes for longer than necessary to create a feeling of discomfort. What sort of inspiration and ideas went into the film’s visuals?

As this film is a story with a child protagonist, I aimed to make it in a style like telling a story with pictures. Something like The Red Balloon or Where is the Friend’s House? The story that the AI generated was persistently repetitive. From that, I had an elusive feeling similar to a compulsion that I am prone to when looking after my toddler. And then, I decided to make it like a scary picture book rather than a horror film and shared my images with my film crew.

I am also extremely satisfied with the shots. This is thanks to the excellent collaboration brought about by cinematographer Yoshio Kitagawa responding to the location and work of art director Hinako Kasuga. The redness of the tomatoes and the luscious green scenery of August served as the guide for the color control. Oh, I need to mention that there were meticulous checks based on the storyboard by Sho Suzaki in the production team. These checks enabled us to focus on the shoot. I also enjoyed working with sound designer Naoki Jono. He created all sorts of sounds in the film. My favourite is the “tump-tump” sound of the boy pushing tomatoes towards the side of the plate when he is home alone.

The boy and the framing reminded of The Shining by Stanley Kubrick

I feel honored. The Shining is one of my favorite films. Stephen King is a writer who depicts insecurity in a family, which is the smallest unit in society. The Shining embodies the inviolable beauty and terror of a deserted hotel as well as the tension that emerges between the husband and wife. Boy Sprouted is also a story about a small world consisting of a mother and a child. I had The Shining in mind in portraying the insecurity between them.

There is an element of body horror where shoots sprout from the boy. Its presence is ambiguous. I wondered if the tomatoes were causing the boy to change or if the boy was grown from tomatoes, hence his resistance to eating them because it was like cannibalism to him! Can you expand on where the body horror came from?

One of the most significant points of this project was that the AI wrote the script without intent. The sentence “something sprouts out of the boy” was a sentence that the AI output. It was unclear why the AI did it. However, the human team found it the most meaningful point to start creating from, and it was my direction to start producing images of the shoots sprouting from the boy. Although I still don’t know what the sprouts represent, I can say the data that the AI stores comes from sentences written by humans. I thought it is a human activity to show interest in things generated outside of human consciousness. That is why I chose this direct expression rather than being metaphorical. I decided to portray how the boy deals with the absurdity of himself turning into a foreign body.

As a side note, this is just my opinion, as I would like the audience to perceive whatever they want, but I think the sprouts represent his independence from his mother. He was forced to eat tomatoes, then a chemical reaction occurred in his body then the sprouts came out of it. I had only thought that his dislike of tomatoes was the reason why he refused to eat them. Your theory about cannibalism made me realize that it might be the reason.

There’s the famous adage, “Never work with Children or Animals” and yet you have quite a young cast who are wonderful, especially Seitaro Hara. How did you get the child actors to perform?

Thank you. I usually proceed with a shoot using the script as a shared blueprint. However, I was deeply concerned that the human team would add a new meaning to the AI’s script as it was rather plain. Therefore, I decided not to use the script as a blueprint and gave the storyboard to my crew. I handed the cast a written version of our interpretation of the AI’s script and directed their performance.

I discovered the boy who played the main character in a stock photo while I was drawing the storyboard. I found out that he is the son of the photographer and contacted him and had a chance to meet the boy. I liked how he carried himself and I asked him to play the role and he accepted it. We tried not to make him nervous. We let him stand behind the camera and look at the monitor together with us for him to understand what we were doing. I could tell him what to do in a relaxed manner as his family was always in attendance during the shoot. He had never acted before but absorbed things quickly like a sponge. It was a pleasure to be there at the very moment to watch him learn to act.

What was his reaction to the finished film? Had you briefed everyone fully on your final vision before the shoot or did you get them to act out their roles from the script and let the final film be a surprise?

Seitaro Hara, who played the main character, looked slightly embarrassed when watching the completed film.

I did not show the storyboard to the cast, nor did I explain my final vision. I only explained the purpose of the scenes at each shot and let the actors play their characters. However, I showed the storyboard to Hara because I thought it would be better for him to understand how he appears on the screen. I think that helped him perform.

Boy Sprouted was shown at the Osaka Asian Film Festival on March 17. It will next be screened as part of the Short Shorts Film Festival & Asia 2022, which will be held from June 7 to June 20 in cinemas, and online from April 28 to June 30.