Our next guest for Talks with directors is Kenji Yamauchi, director of Being Mitsuko (2011), her father my lover (2015) and, of course, At the Terrace (2016). We’re grateful that Kenji Yamauchi took the time to sit down with us to discuss various aspects of his work. He talks about how he got interested in cinema, his inspirations, the differences between theater and cinema and his future project.
Psycho-Cinema: My first question is a question I ask to every director. Can you explain how you became a director?
Kenji Yamauchi: At college (Waseda university) I was studying literature and theater. Then, I was only watching movies. [After studying] I got a job at a CM production company (Dentsu Prox) and, before long, I became an independent CM director. Normally, one evolves from a CM director to a movie director, but I mainly began to do theater – production and direction. It is only at the very end that I became a movie director. I have no so-called assistant director’s experience.
Even now, I’m still doing the three [i.e. Movie director, stage-director, and CM-director]. Though, as of now, I’m not doing CM’s that much anymore.
P-C: At The Terrace was based on your award-winning play, Trois Grotesque. What made you decide to translate precisely this play to the silver screen?
K.Y.: Although there are surprisingly many movies of theatrical performances – stage plays -these have, in truth, not a lot of success. Because in theater and cinema the way of capturing “time” is different. With narratives, one manipulates time. For a movie, the story is the most important element, but for theater, the importance of the story comes only second or third. Usually, in order to make a theatrical play into a movie, it is necessary to reorganize the time of the play into cinematic time. It is very difficult, and it doesn’t go smoothly that easy.
Trois Gero was a stage play of one scene didn’t manipulate time at all. It is thus more an ‘event that shows what happened as such’ than a story that lasts 90 minutes. This was the most important reason to turn Trois Gero into a movie.
In other words, in the same way as a 4th curtain play, I thought that, instead of increasing the number of scenes, raising the tempo, adding excitement, and erasing the merit of the original play – compared to making a movie that is not good as a movie – it would be better to make the movie without manipulating time.
P-C: What was the reasoning behind the change of the French Title Trois Grotesque into At The Terrace?
K.Y.: I do not know how it is in Western countries, but in Japan, the more one likes movies, the more movie enthusiasts there are, the less one goes to the theater. More than not watching it, they dislike theater. They dislike theatrical movie very much. In other words, either when the actor simply talks or the scenes are long, I think.
As At The Terrace is not only [meant] to be watched by guests who frequently watch plays – because I also want such movie enthusiasts to watch it, I wanted to say the following before they watch the movie: “This movie is a movie that shows theater as it is! The terrace is the only scene that will appear! What is that? Is it unacceptable? But if you watch it, it will be interesting!”
This is the reason. Of course, there are other reasons why I wanted to make the title more descriptive.
P-C: We already touched upon the differences between theater and cinema, but what do theater and cinema have in common?
K.Y.: I think that all things, except the differences I introduced before, are in common. It is possible that a wonderful movie is just talking. In fiction [movies], the actor has to learn his lines and act as well.
But documentary movies are totally different. If one looks from the perspective of the documentary, no matter how real Micheal Haneke makes his movies, [his narratives] will always fall within the same frame as Shakespeare.
P-C: Which persons influenced you as a stage-director and as a movie-director?
K.Y.: There are a lot. Luis Bunuel, Ingmar Bergman, Woody Allen, R. Altman, the Coen Brothers…. and of course Anton Chekov.
P-C: At The Terrace still has some stage-like qualities. The cinematography approaches the terrace like a stage, as you briefly mentioned before, and some acting still feels stage-like. Was this stage-like approach a conscious choice?
K.Y.: Yes, it was. The script as well as the actors, the production, and the costumes are the same. I have not changed anything.
P-C: Where and when did the idea for Trois Grotesque and At The Terrace come into existence? Are there any personal elements for the narrative?
K.Y.: I always write the script after I decided on the cast. Trois Gero was not different. Because I cast Kami Hiraiwa, the thought of wanting to include the whiteness of her skincolour as an essential element was a inspirational catalyst.
As for my experiences, again, when I was a CM director, there were clients, vertical relationships among various companies and I could watch (the contrast between) the facade (Tatemae) of company employees and their real intentions (Honne).
P-C: For me, the narrative expressed how women, as to be able to experience themselves as attractive, still cling to the male desire and their opinion. How do see this element in the structure of Japanese society ?
K.Y.: It is often said that Japan is a country with a very long history, but in reality, its history as a modern state and as a liberal country is only 70 years old. Since it absorbed and developed rapidly in those seventy years, various parts have not properly grown. Between the boss and his subordinates, men and women, husband and wives… I think those relationships are still conservative and immature.
But the struggle between tatemae and honne, that kind of old-fashioned Japanese culture, is interesting as theme for plays as well as for movies.
P-C: As your narrative can be read as a critique on relationships and the way women can be treated by men. But what are your thoughts on manly behavior towards women in Japanese society?
K.Y.: I already touched upon that partially. Especially the rich class in At the Terrace has a conservative part. For example, it is typical for the managing director to praise Haruko’s arms excessively and then ask “I wonder if this is a kind of sexual harassment?”. Even if he knows it, his real intention is conservative.
But because there are such comical people, Japan is strange and interesting. For me, rather than a criticism, this movie is a sneering satire.
P-C: One final question, Can you already reveal some of your future theater and cinema projects?
K.Y.: I’m writing my next movie now. It is about an OL – OL means Office Lady in Japanese, which also implies discrimination – that works for a company that could be everywhere, financially provides for her boyfriend [who lives of her money], breaks up with him and loses her money.
The people company want to help her, as she is in financial trouble, but she refuses. The opinions are divided among the people of the company. There is a faction saying that you should help and there is a faction that says that you do not need to help. Eventually, she decides to accept the money of a company person. As a way to express her thanks, she thinks what she, herself, can do. It is such kind of story.