Ryusuke Hamaguchi personally did not know any love novel other than “Netemo sametemo,” from which his new film “ASAKO I & II” originates and which was so truly compelling in describing how falling in love is a mystic force akin to magic or a curse. Once he finished reading the novel, he personally suggested the idea of producing a film based on it. Evidently, when it luckily became a reality, he wanted to be as close as possible to the style of the original author, Tomoka Shibasaki, making it possible for the coexistence of the minute describing everyday life and the sudden unfolding of absurd events.
The character of Baku/Ryohei can be thought as symbolising elements of the unexpected versus the routine, and Hamaguchi managed to embody this principle thanks to the acting performance of Masahiro Higashide, who has this dual nature of the outward appearance, which embodies handsomeness and mystery, while the inward qualities embody gentleness and honesty.
Daily News Egypt sat down for an interview with Hamaguchi to discuss his new film and the philosophy behind it. The transcript for which is below, lightly edited for clarity:
This film depicts a time span of almost 10 years, and writing it nowadays made it natural to include events like the earthquake disaster. I actually think that it was essential for this film, which describes the mixing up of the everyday and the extraordinary. Today, the routine we are living in is simply the post-disaster “every day.” The disaster shed light on that basic truth: “today is a completely different day than yesterday.” Taken earnestly, this would have normally made us incapable of feeling this sense of “everyday.” Nevertheless, the society, as a whole in Japan, stubbornly insisted on the fictional reality that the “routine” was going on as usual, and that “yesterday was more or less like today, and tomorrow might as well be like today.” That is surely because nobody in Japan would endure a world without an “every day.” To begin with, we cannot clearly separate the “ordinary” from the “extraordinary.” People wonder if they can live their life as though they do not even know what will happen tomorrow. The lovers in “ASAKO I & II” live exactly this very question.
Asako’s behaviour at the end of the film will considerably shock the audience. Most of them may share the anger of Ryohei or Maya (Asako’s friend). As a reader, I was also shocked when I read the novel. But that was rather because I was asked, “would you be capable of living like her?”
Asako is a very consistent and sensible person. This is because when she is confronted with what is important for her “in the moment,” she can always reach a judgment without reflecting and then act accordingly. She is capable of respecting her own feelings without a doubt, even if it means suffering the criticism of society. It might look violent, but I think that is the very foundation on which to build any long-lasting relationship with someone. Without this “respect for your own feelings,” you cannot keep a relationship with any kind of person. Asako understands this without any reasoning.
Erika Karata, who plays character Asako, has been praised by critics. How did you see her fit?
Erika Karata, who plays Asako, is also a very bright person, with whom explanations are superfluous. If two people mutually “respect their own feelings,” their being together does not simply bring joy, it bears at the same time the violence that can destroy them both. The fact that the original book, “Netemo sametemo,” deals straight on with this complexity of love and relationships, makes it a wonderful love novel, and this is the reason why I intensely desired to adapt it as a film. Through their falling in love and loving, the lovers in this story take a decisive step towards this harsh life after the boundaries between the everyday and the unusual have collapsed, where “you don’t know what the next second is made of.” Is that something absurd that is only possible because it is a fiction? When I keep looking at Higashide and Karata throughout the film, I feel like it is not just a matter of fiction. When I see their expressions during the ending sequence, I think “ASAKO I & II” became a wonderful love movie. I am deeply grateful for discovering a wonderful novel and meeting a wonderful cast.
Film is an adaptation of a novel. Can you tell us about this experience?
I like deeply the novel by Tomoka Shibasaki, which has two main points of interest to me: the weirdness of a woman who falls in love with two men with the exact same face, and the attentive description of everyday life. The long process of project development made me wonder if the film adaptation was even possible. This is when I met Masahiro Higashide (Baku/Ryohei) and Erika Karata (Asako), and I felt like this novel was finally ready to be adapted. I really feel this coming together of novel and cast is a tremendous sign of fortune.
What is different between movie and original novel?
I basically followed the plotline of the novel. The closing part had a big impact on me, and I read the book thinking that it was very movie-like. The novel is written in first person, hence I changed a lot of its parts, where it was difficult to express that cinematographically, in order to facilitate the understanding for the audience. But I feel like I kept to the book; I relied on the fun of the original, while writing the script, and even during the shooting.
For my previous feature film, called “Happy Hour,” I went through the process of script reading a scene before shooting it (as Jean Renoir’s script reading method). For “ASAKO I & II,” it is basically the same. The two main protagonists were fully committed to the script reading before the shooting, and I feel like we were simply taking the nuances off. We read the script without nuances, and then we started filming. Once we were filming, I just let them act. I have this basic will of deciding everything on site, but I believe that is not the way actors prepare.
The fresher the take the better, and if there are more and more takes accumulating, there is less and less surprise. Overall, this script reading is like a good luck charm.
How did you choose lighting, with hints of shadows, and designing an image with some tones of disquietude?
I basically leave it all in the hands of the director of photography, Yasuyuki Sasaki. There are three members of the team in total for the camera and the lighting, and I believe Sasaki thinks about how to do things with little lighting. I do not dislike the fact that there are some shadows. I think that is because there is something disquieting in this story. It is a love story, but it contains from the start a certain amount of anxiety, and I try my best to keep it real and present.
Higashide plays both Baku and Ryohei; what is different between each role?
The characters are derived directly from the novel. Baku is a free spirit, while Ryohei is more conventional; I do not know if there is such thing as an ordinary Japanese man, but he is more of that type. Asako is attracted by Baku, but she is also attracted to Ryohei because he has the exact same face. When I wrote down the characters, I thought about differentiating the language.
Higashide is Higashide, no matter what. I think that if the words you use are different, you use your body in a different way; hence to put it simply, Ryohei speaks Kansai-ben (the dialect of the Kansai region), while Baku speaks Hyojun-go (the official “standard” language). But as a Kansai-ben speaker, Ryohei is a cheerful, open-minded type, while Baku keeps things to himself. I hope that this use of language naturally divides Higashide’s acting.
What made you choose Higashide for this role?
He has an easily understandable two-sidedness. I first saw him in “The Kirishima Thing,” and then in “Kiseiju,” Kiyoshi Kurosawa’s film “Creepy,” and also on TV. When I saw him on the screen, I had the impression that he had this two-sidedness and that you could grasp it very clearly, so I had the immediate intuition that it would be great if he could play those two difficult roles.
Compared to Higashide, Karata is less experienced in acting. Did you change something in your direction?
I do not think I did. I think the script reading with Higashide was a big thing. They learned to trust each other through the process, and it created a synergy. We did the script reading and the rehearsal with this confidence, so I did not feel like I was working differently.