Tuesday, July 22, 2008

INTERVIEWS: Matsumoto Takuya (director), Takahashi Kanimaru (actor) and Ito Asuka (actress)

‘Strange Couples’ (Director: Matsumoto Takuya)
2008 / Japan / 52 mins
Screened: Sunday July 20, 11:25 – Spiral Hall

The scene in the lobby after the screening of ‘Strange Couples’ looked a bit like a photo-shoot for a rock band, as Matsumoto-san and his bare-chested warriors of weird posed down with guitars and punky grins. Half-intellectual, half rock’n’roll punk, with thick black-rimmed glasses and hair standing up to the sky, he looked not unlike the off-spring of some queer liaison between Elvis Costello and Woody Allen -- and if you don’t find that sexy, you aren’t using enough imagination! He was f***ing adorable (but is, apparently, not gay)!

I had a chance to talk to Matsumoto-san, who spoke pretty decent English, and with the help of one of our stalwart volunteer, Nishimura-san (who counts translation to and from Japanese into English among his many services to the festival), conducted the following short interview.

Guy: I really enjoyed the film. It’s nice to see some Japanese stuff in contrast to all the American and European films screening at the festival. So where did the story for ‘Strange Couples’ come from?

Matsumoto-san: Thank you. I came to the festival two years ago to see a friend’s film, and I really liked the atmosphere and the audience. So I thought, ‘Hey, I should make a film for this festival.’ I thought it would be an ideal venue for my films.

Guy: This isn’t your first film, is it?

Matsumoto-san: No, I’ve made maybe 20 or 30 films now, both short and long.

Guy: Where does the money come from to make your films?

Matsumoto-san: I basically pay for it myself. It’s very low budget. The actors don’t get paid, other than for their transportation costs.

Guy: Do all of your films have gay themes?

Matsumoto-san: No, some do, some don’t. Most of them are a bit dark -- human dramas.

Guy: How long are your longer films?

Matsumoto-san: The longest are about 100 minutes.

Guy: Wow, that’s feature length. So where are your films usually shown?

Matsumoto-san: Well, my short films have shown at festivals like this one. But in Japan they don’t tend to want to show longer films at festivals, so we have to organize independent screenings at community centers, schools, and special events.

Guy: Really? It’s hard to imagine why. You mean they prefer to show programs of short films?

Matsumoto-san: Yes, there is an audience for shorts at festivals. And for bigger budget features. But not for the kind of features I make. I’ve made about 10 feature-length films, but I can’t get them screened at festivals. My films have never played at commercial cinemas, but they’ve screened at the Tama Film Center, near Hachioji, in West Tokyo.

Guy: Well, I’d like to get out and see some more of your work.

Matsumoto-san: That’s great. But it will be difficult for you, because we aren’t able to present them with English subtitles. That’s one of the great things about showing at a festival like this, is they have the resources to show the film with subtitles.

[Please visit http://matsumoto-movie.hp.infoseek.co.jp/ for information on upcoming screenings.]

Matsumoto-san presented me with handbills for some of his other films, all of which look like pretty major productions. One of the more intriguing was ‘Otokotachi no Baka’ (‘The Men’s Stupid Song’, loosely translated -- he uses the kanji for horse ‘ba’ and for song ‘ka’, but ‘baka’ also means idiotic, silly or crazy). It’s a series of 3 ‘documentaries’ (in the same sense that something like ‘Jackass’ is a documentary!) of him and his friends/partners-in-crime going across the country having various misadventures. The name of the film is a play on ‘Otokotachi no Banka’ [‘The Men’s Elegy’], the Japanese title of the John Woo film ‘Better Luck Tomorrow’.

A man of somewhat manic energy, he was off on another adventure before long, and I was eager to chat with his star, Takahashi Kanimaru.


INTERVIEW: Takahashi Kanimaru

Dressed in a smart grey suit and sticking to the no-shirt policy, Takahashi-san is a fine-looking man with one of those hypnotically symmetrical faces onto which you could project any mood, any emotion. Indeed, the film depends on just this quality, with its many close-ups of Takahashi-san’s blankly affecting visage. He’s also a bit of a flirt, with a mischievous sense of humour. With very little prodding from Rachel D’Amour, he showed his nipples off to the audience during the Q&A, ensuring everyone’s amusement and pleasure! With Nishimura-san’s translation assistance, I managed to capture this interview.

Guy: So how did you get involved in this project?

Takahashi-san: Well, firstly, Takahashi Kanimaru is my stage name. It was given to me by Takahashi Tete, who does a lot of theatre work and also worked on ‘Strange Couples’. I am a stage actor, and Matsumoto-san saw one of my shows and decided he wanted me for this project.

Guy: Have you appeared in any films before?

Takahashi-san: Yes, I have appeared in several films by Obayashi-san, a well-known Japanese director [a recent film of his would be translated into English as ‘Time-leaping Girl’]. I also had a small role in ‘Lost in Translation.’

Guy: Really? Where can we see you in this film?

Takahashi-san: You know the scene where Bill Murray is filming a commercial for Suntory Whiskey?

Guy: Of course…

Takahashi-san: Well, there’s a documentary film crew following his character around, and I am the director of that film crew.

Guy: How did you enjoy working on this film?

Takahashi-san: Ah, it was really nice. Sophia Coppola spoke with me while the other actors were changing their costumes.

Guy: Did she speak any Japanese? What was she like?

Takahashi-san: No, she doesn’t speak Japanese. But she was very kind. She responded really well to me.

Guy: So can I ask you, are you gay?

Takahashi-san: No! Actually, I am married.

Guy: Any children?

Takahashi-san: Not yet!

Guy: So how was it acting in this gay love story? You guys are really all over each other throughout the movie. It’s very fun and sexy.

Takahashi-san: I had worked with the actor who plays Jackson [a nickname based on the sound the character makes when he sneezes!], my boyfriend in the film, so that made it easier. It’s not hard to show that intimacy on screen. But I would do things to help us get into the mood, like holding hands before shooting.

Guy: Getting older seems to be an issue in the film. The character you play is turning 21 and seems to be anxious about his age. Were you able to relate to that anxiety?

Takahashi-san: Well, I am 31 -- 10 years older than the character I was playing. So it took some time for me to get back into the headspace of someone that age. But I didn’t really focus on my own past, like, trying to remember what it was to be 21, but on the relationship between him and Jackson, and what it feels like to be in love for the first time when you are young.

Because he’s so cute, and because he gave such a persuasive performance as a “full-time homo” we’ll forgive him his being straight! Actually, he was a total gentleman and was the last of the three actors to put his shirt back on after the screening, which shows just how sensitive he is to the needs and desires of those attending the festival! We wish him well!



Ito Asuka is a gorgeous and gracious embodiment of the Japanese adjective ‘genki’, which we really ought to coin into English usage, since it captures a unique mix of liveliness, good health, youthfulness and up-beat spirits without any implication of being manic or hyperactive!

Guy: How did you get your role in ‘Strange Couples’?

Asuka-chan: I was in Matsumoto-san’s last film, a documentary [‘Otokotachi no Baka’].

Guy: But you’re not a guy! [‘Otoko’ means male person.]

Asuka-chan: I know. But I’m a guy in spirit!

Guy: So how did you get involved in that film?

Asuka-chan: I was playing in a rock band -- I play keyboards -- and the drummer had worked with the director on one of his previous films. I was invited to do the film only one week before they started filming.

Guy: Are you trained as an actor, or are you primarily a musician?

Asuka-chan: Actually, acting is my main passion. Music is a side project.

Guy: As a foreigner, the image we have of Japan from the outside is of a very homogeneous society where there is a lot of pressure for people to conform and be the same. Your character is really weird -- she confesses that she is [romantically] in love with her brother! But the idea behind this film is that ‘it isn’t weird to be weird’. What do you think of that idea?

Asuka-chan: As for my role, I can accept that a sister might idealize her brother and allow that to become something like romantic love. As for being different, the title is ‘Strange Couples’, so I knew it would be a bit weird, that it would be about strange things. So I just acted in keeping with that.

I have lots of gay and lesbian friends, and I didn’t think there was any discrimination against them. I didn’t see that they had any particular difficulty being who they are. But then one day we got into a cab together in Kanagawa, and the cab driver said he couldn’t take lesbians in his cab. That really shocked me.

Guy: In the movie, your character reacts very badly when she finds out her brother is gay. Did you ever have this kind of experience? How did you feel when you met your first gay person, or made your first gay friend?

Asuka-chan: Yeah, of course I was surprised. I didn’t know what to think. But a few minutes later, I just thought, ‘Well, I have a new kind of friend.’ At first, it was like counselling a friend about their love affairs.

Guy: Why was that?

Asuka-chan: Because this person was telling me about the problems with their relationship, but I didn’t know that it was with a person of the same sex.

Guy: Ah, that’s funny! You can do that in Japanese, because you don’t usually make clear whether you are speaking about a man or woman [gendered pronouns are rarely used in Japanese, and nouns are not gendered]. In English, you couldn’t talk about someone in such a gender-neutral way for very long. It would be very awkward, and it would arouse suspicion.

[Nishimura-san mentioned the use of ‘partner’ in English when people are talking about a same-sex boyfriend or girlfriend, but that word has now been ‘queered’ by queer people using it this way, such that when straight people say ‘partner’, it sounds like they mean a same-sex lover!]

Asuka-chan: Yeah, so I only found out later. But we were already friends, so it wasn’t really a problem, just a surprise.

Guy: How do you see your career as an actress developing?

Asuka-chan: Well, I belong to a small acting agency, so they give me assignments -- usually for commercials or internal corporate videos and that sort of thing. So I will keep doing that work. But I also want to keep doing indies like ‘Strange Couples’.

Guy: Are you making a living from your acting at present, or do you have to do something else as well?

Asuka-chan: Yeah, I have a part-time job. Many of us do. In the end, though, I would like to be an oba-chan actress [a ‘granny’ actress who achieves a ripe old age and is still working]!

We certainly hope she achieves her goal. She’ll make one mighty cute granny (oba-chan)!

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