Hirose Nanako was born 1987 in Kanagawa, Japan. After graduating from Musashino Art University, Hirose joined the Kore-eda Hirokazu’s production company BUN-BUKU in 2011. She worked in Kore-eda’s TV drama Going Home (2012), long features Like Father, Like Son (2013), Our Little Sister (2015), After The Storm (2016), and Miwa Nishikawa’s The Long Excuse (2016). His Lost Name marks her feature film debut.

On the occasion of His Lost Name screening at the 25th Vesoul International Film Festival of Asian Cinemas, we speak with her about Koreeda, Yuya Yagira, Kaoru Kobayashi, her film, hypocrisy, patriarchy, Japanese cinema and many other topics. (the interview was conducted in two sessions, one headed by Bastian Meiresonne and one by Panos Kotzathanasis. Emiko Ueyama translated while Pieter Jan Van Haecke provided additional questions.

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You were an assistant to Hirokazu Koreeda for 7 years before you shot your first movie. What did that entail?

I was not an assistant director neither an assistant technician but Koreeda is one of the sole directors in Japan who employ someone to help him think the project through, from the preproduction, to the script writing, to the shooting and the postproduction. I worked in four projects with him, “Like Father, Like Son”, “Our Little Sister”, “Going My Home” and “After the Storm”. Koreeda began his career working in TV documentaries, and in TV work, there is a very strict hierarchy regarding the crews working, but he prefers to be surrounded by youngsters, in order to hear the opinion of “fresh blood”, people who can go against him, in order to make him think things better. Furthermore, there are a lot of women also in his crew because he is very sensitive to the female opinion. I was not the technical assistant, quite the opposite actually, since, in fact, the woman who was the actual assistant director dealing with technical aspects was the one who fought against me because she was jealous, she did not like me giving input to Koreeda, and the fact that I was so close to him, which again, he is the only director in Japan to work like that.

How did Koreeda choose you to work with him?

I graduated from Musashino Art University after 4 years of studies, and for six months I didn’t do anything, and that is when a friend of mine told me that Koreeda was looking for a new assistant. To be honest, I was not a fan of his previous works, so I did not really run to get to the job, I just called once and got an interview with him, and he just offered me the job.

What kind of work did you have to do for him?

The first thing was to write everything on the computer, because he only does handwriting, and then I printed it, he would change some things and I had to retype on the computer again. In every step, we discussed every idea he heard and tried to evolve and to change the script.

What happened when you did not agree with him?

Ohhhh, I always waited for the moment when there were a lot of people around us. When I said I disagree, the atmosphere suddenly became strange, because everybody were holding their breath, thinking, “What will he think?”. But I gave new ideas and he reacted in a strange way but he listened to me and talked them through. Sometimes we fought, but he was always listening to me and thinking about what I said, so he actually respected the input I gave. The most fights, however, I had with the technical assistant director, as I mentioned before.

What was the main thing you learned working from Koreeda?

Koreeda treats his movies like human beings, something that evolves the whole time, something very organic, something that might evolve during the preproduction, during the script writing and even during the shooting. Even during postproduction, if it is possible, he changes the sequences. This was something I became really aware of and I also used during my own movie. At every step of the procedure, you can change something that you even felt was fixed already. Even though I will never shoot the same movie as Koreeda, I will adopt this way also.

Hirokazu Koreeda is considered the biggest name in Japanese film industry at the moment. However, I feel that his style has influenced local films to a point that there are too many that look very similar. What do you think?

I will not deny that I was heavily influenced from Koreeda’s style, but I am searching for ways to make my films different. I think I have been too close to Koreeda, so I cannot see his influence on Japanese cinema so clearly. And I would never try to make a film similar to Koreeda’s in order to earn money.

How much of Nanako is in Koreeda movies?

Ohhhh, the whole thing is Koreeda, he always had the final word and the final cut and sometimes he did not agree with her ideas and put his own ideas or had new ideas by her input. The thing I really love, though, is when I see the final cut in the big screen and saw some of my input, but once again, it is a Koreeda movie, not my movie.

What kind of movies did you like, since you did not like Koreeda’s movies in particular?

I really do not like Japanese movies; my favorite directors are Lee Chang-dong, Jia Zhangke, and the Dardenne Brothers. The films that I want to do are ones that express things without having to explain them by words. What I try to find is the beauty of human relationships, but also to show that they might not be so beautiful due to prejudice, when you look behind appearances.

How do you express this concept in “His Lost Name”?

 A strange thing happened to me. When I graduated, I did not do anything for six months, but that was my own choice. At the graduation ceremony, which is really important in Japan, the Earthquake happened (she refers to the Fukushima incident) and also crashed the graduation moment. This, and the weeks that followed the earthquake and the consequences led me to not wanting to do any work, I was in a really strange “in-between” place. After the events, there was some kind of solidarity sentiment going on in Japan but I really felt that it was fake and I really did not like the whole situation around everything that happened. So I started questioning society, I did not believe in anything anymore and I thought the whole thing was a hypocritical process and I am really against all this pretending of being good. People, as both characters in the movie, had a hole inside them, which they face by escaping reality. Kizuna, which means connection, is a key meaning for me and the movie, since it is what everyone felt during the Earthquake. But this Kizuna after the earthquake, made me very uncomfortable, because everyone was acting like they wanted to help each other and be kind with each other, but human beings are not like that, they are weak and egoist, and I also wanted to show that with my film, not to portray a beautiful story.

Do you like travelling?

Oh yes, I travelled a lot when I was a student actually. I travelled for six weeks around SE Asia, the Silk Road. It was a time I wanted to be independent and to take a time out and think.

Did you see this hypocrisy in other countries as well, as you were travelling?

I really wanted to have a good time and I did not care about others. I did not have many friends in university and I did not have many friends during travelling. Even thinking about your question in retrospective, I do not think I can answer.

In my movie, I wanted to show was the struggle between the patriarch and the son. For me, it really symbolizes the current Japanese society, where someone is always crushing others.

Is this struggle between generations you think or between individuals?

Definitely between generations, since there is huge gap between generations. What I really dislike in Japan is that young people do not dare to speak up about their opinions, because of the patriarchy. This is a very hypocritical aspect of society, since young people actually have many things to say, and this is something I want to fight against and that is what I am showing through my movie.

Why did you choose to have a carpenter as the protagonist?

That was very specific, because in carpentry, this patriarchy I mentioned applies fully, there is always a boss, and a family sense, the boss is like the father of his employees. In that fashion, it symbolizes Japanese society.

So Koreeda asked you to talk and he was listening to you but he could be your father. So is he teaching you that you should be against this patriarchy, because he is listening to you, to your ideas, which is not the Japanese way at all.

No, because he did not like at all the portrayal of the elderly in my film, he said I was not treating the character well at all, and that I should rewrite the whole character from the beginning. I found it very interesting that he was just focusing on this character and not the character of the young man. This shows that even Koreeda is still a patriarch, even if he is listening to the young people.

One of the most central themes in the film is lying, particularly to oneself. Why do you feel this is important to people?

Lying in itself is not the main theme, but the reason behind lying is. Because both main characters lack proper communication skills, they use lying to try and connect with each other.

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How did you manage to cast Yuya Yagira for the film and how was your cooperation with him?

Having Yuya Yagira in my debut film meant a lot, and I considered it a big responsibility, so I had to think about it a lot, for example, if it would be easier not to hire him at all. But as the script processing progressed, I found that I was inspired much from Mr Yagira, and in the end, the character had a lot in common with his actual life, since he became a star when he won in Cannes as a 14-year-old, but then had some struggles in finding parts. Maybe he is internationally recognizable, but for many years he could not find roles, he was struggling. Therefore, there is a special connection between him and the character in the movie and now I feel he was the best choice.

How was the shooting of the film like?

The shooting went really well, but I think that this may have something to do with the fact I am a woman. It is not harder for women in the industry, it is actually easier because everyone was caring about me. The crew and the actors were more lenient towards me because I am a woman.

How was your collaboration with Kobayashi, because his characters is actually being crushed in the film. Why did you choose to cast him?

He said that for my first feature, I was choosing a very difficult topic, and that he did not agree at all with the portrayal of the character, but he is an actor and I will play him and I respect your opinion about elders.

I was a fan of his before and I have seen a lot of his movies, and he was the first choice for the part from the beginning. Particularly, I liked his parts in some of the movies based on Kuniko Mukoda’s works (Like Asura, Hotaru No Yado) and I really wanted him for the part. I hired him first and then Yuya Yagira

I found that Tara Jane O’Neil’s music is somewhat unusual for Japanese films, but also very beautiful and fitting. Can you give us some more details about it?

The story of the film is straightforward and the scenery is not special, so I was looking for something that will make the film “richer”. So I was wondering what kind of music I should have and the producer recommended Tara and I went in one of her live shows, and that was it. I hired her. Her music is the one that “soothes” people, even when they have a lot problems, and that is what I loved about her.  

 Hiroshi Takano shot the town in very bleak fashion, filled with fog and grey colors, in a fashion that seems to mirror the character’s psychology. How did you cooperate with him to achieve this result?

Hiroshi Takano has been shooting documentaries for a long time, and this was, actually, his first feature film. But I was trying to make the film look like a documentary, and that is why I had a really good collaboration with him. I also wanted the camera to function like in horror films, dark and maybe a little icky, and that is why the images look like that.

And can you give us some details about the framing of the characters in the film?

First, I asked them to act without rehearsing, and Mr Takano was shooting them like that, and then we decided how to proceed about shooting them in the film.

What is your opinion about the Japanese film industry at the moment?

At the moment, there are a lot of young people shooting their first films and I am afraid that big companies are using them and I am not sure how many will continue shooting films, and this includes me of course. Also, the difference between mainstream and independent productions is becoming bigger and bigger, because the latter have to share a pie that becomes smaller and smaller as time passes. That makes me wonder about the future, since there a lot of directors that manage to shoot their first feature, but no one knows what will happen after that. I hope they will manage to continue…

“His Lost Name” has been released in Japan since January. How did it go in terms of tickets?

Not so good, but the critics loved it and a lot of people loved it also, they were crying and shaking her hand after the movie ended. The fact that a lot of individuals approached me and gave me positive comments about my film really gave me courage.

Are you working on something new at the moment?

I am editing a documentary that I have been shooting for three years and it will be released in the fall. It is about my father, who was a book designer. I lost him ten years ago and that is why I am shooting the film. It is not about his private life, but about his work.    

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My name is Panos Kotzathanasis and I am Greek. Being a fan of Asian cinema and especially of Chinese kung fu and Japanese samurai movies since I was a little kid, I cultivated that love during my adolescence, to extend to the whole of SE Asia. Starting from my own blog in Greek, I then moved on to write for some of the major publications in Greece, and in a number of websites dealing with (Asian) cinema, such as Taste of Cinema, Hancinema, EasternKicks, Chinese Policy Institute, and of course, Asian Movie Pulse. in which I still continue to contribute. In the beginning of 2017, I launched my own website, Asian Film Vault, which I merged in 2018 with Asian Movie Pulse, creating the most complete website about the Asian movie industry, as it deals with almost every country from East and South Asia, and definitely all genres. You can follow me on Facebook and Twitter.