Japanese director Keisuke Yoshida was born in 1975 in Saitama in the Saitama Prefecture. While he was still studying at Tokyo Visual Arts he started making his own independent films. Ever since his debut feature “Raw Summer” (2005) he has directed a total of nine films, with his new film “I Love Irene” being released this fall. He has also written the screenplays for the majority of his movies.
First of all, thanks for agreeing to have this interview about a very interesting film, “Thicker Than Water”, which combines comedy and drama. It touches upon the subject of sibling rivalry and sibling competition. What was your inspiration for the project?
I have an older sister myself, but my experience might have been similar to an only child, though. This story is not necessarily a personal story of mine but I did want to create a dramatic piece that includes the ideas of jealousy and envy and to explore those ideas, and then by incorporating these ideas of sibling rivalry and blood relationship, I thought I could create a deeper piece through it.
Your film has this interesting balance between the comedic and the dramatic parts. However, this is not apparent to the characters that what they are doing is actually very comedic. How do you create this balance as a director and also as a writer?
“Thicker than Water” is actually my eighth feature film and all of them have this balance between comedy and drama, they the have the same sensibilities. And when I am writing, I am not necessarily trying to make people laugh. Of course, there are funny bits. What I am really interested in is portraying characters that can be funny when seen from an outside perspective and that is the sort of laughter I am interested in. And by being interested in that, my comedy doesn’t necessarily fail because I am not trying to make anyone laugh. And if someone does not find anything funny, I can always say “Well, I am not trying to make you laugh.”
It seems like what you were doing was similar to what Billy Wilder did for the characters in his films. From an outsider’s perspective it looks funny, but when you look at it more deeply, it is quite tragic and dramatic. Speaking of which, in his films the actors and actresses contributed a lot to them. What did your actors and actresses contribute to this balance we were talking about?
Regarding the male actors [Masataka Kubota and Hirofumi Arai], they are both very popular, incredibly busy and intelligent actors, and basically two of the best actors working today. So basically I let them do whatever they needed to do.
The two women [Keiko Enoue and Miwako Kakei], however, were very inexperienced in acting, especially Keiko since it was her first time acting in a film. So I didn’t necessarily talk to them about film theory or acting, but we talked about regular things. I told them personal anecdotes, I told funny stories and got to see how they reacted. And by doing that, I was able to find clues on how to direct them and shorten the distance between us.
It seems you were relying or allowed a lot of improvisations. Do you rehearse scenes, do your stick to the script or improvisation? How does the actual filming take place?
Generally speaking, we stuck to the script, I barely changed the dialogue. Regarding the women and what I said earlier, I had them rehearse more. The men, as I said, are experienced actors and they knew what they were doing. In order to make the women more comfortable, I said: “You know what? Don’ worry about it. Just do what you can and the others will also help you out if necessary.”
How did you assemble this impressive cast? Especially Keiko Enoue is very impressive playing the character of Yuria.
Regarding this film, especially Keiko Enoue, it is quite hard to find actresses in Japan who have her physical appearance. So instead of actresses I started looking for comedians, with whom I often work in general, and Enoue is highly skilled as a comedian. She does a lot of improvisations and skit work, so while she does not work in film, she does, however, incorporate a lot of acting in her comedic work to begin with. I know that if I flipped the switch on how she was working, I knew I would be working with her pretty well. Also, her voice and looks are very specific. So if she hadn’t been able to play this role, I would have been in a lot of trouble. In fact, while writing the script for this film, I already had her in mind.
We talked about sibling rivalry and sibling competition at the very beginning. However, the films seems to be also about other forms of rivalry, for example between companies or individuals in general. Since you are a director working in a very competitive, how much competition would you say is healthy?
The film is modeled after a real person. There was a scriptwriter I often worked with, but he always wanted to be a director, but never actually became one. But he had a big mouth, and though he never actually wrote or directed anything, he would call himself a genius and I would be quite irritated by that. I have always been creating work to make him feel less special as he called himself, to put him in his place.
But this man actually died two years ago and I at this point where why I shoot my film and who to show it to, because I always wanted to do it for this particular reason. So I am at a loss for a goal to some extent, but I feel that the ideas of jealousy, anger or rivalry are necessary for the creative process to some degree.
Your film also seems to be about gender stereotypes. One character tells the other “men have to take chances in life” in order to succeed or the character of Yuria suffering from not being considered a woman the same way her sister is. What do you think of this reading?
As I explained earlier, the emotions I wanted to show in this film are feelings like jealousy and envy and I wanted to prevent these readings. However, I think men and women show emotions in different ways in society, and especially in the Japanese society men and women have these specific ideas of how to express their emotions.
What is your next project? What have you planned for the future?
I have actually already finished one film, which is coming out this year. It is based on my favorite manga which is “Itoshi no Ellie” [Ellie My Love] and it focuses on an international marriage between a Japanese man and a Filipino woman, but the man wants to buy the marriage. But it is also complicated by the fact that the mother of the wife is a harsh woman and very judgmental. The film was shot in both Japan and the Philippines and it has a lot of international appeal.
“Thicker Than Water” is a film about happiness and what gets in the way of being happy. For you as a director, what is your idea of happiness?
To me, happiness is not a continuous presence, and it is more of a feeling when I look back at something, or look back in time. I don’t necessarily judge happiness in the moment, but I think this idea presents itself in “Thicker Than Water”. This is something I keep thinking about, and sometimes when I am in the moment, in the present, I think there is something better out there. This is something I find upon reflecting on the past, and it has to do a lot with my work.