For the European debut of his first movie “Ice Cream Fever” at the Japannual Film Festival, we interviewed director Tetsuya Chihara and producer Kazuyuki Kitaki (“Under the Turquoise Sky”, 2021) to discuss topics such as handbags, large corporate cinema, and promoting female empowerment.
To begin, could you clarify the purpose of the introductory opening titles? The words “This is not a film” appear on the screen. What is the significance of this statement?
I have a background in graphic design and I currently work at a company called “Lemon Life.” Our motto, which we have adopted as a mindset, is “This is not design.” We use this mentality to push beyond established norms and create something innovative. It is like an ongoing pursuit of perfection, always striving for the next level. I drew inspiration from a Belgian fashion brand called “Delvaux,” who have been incorporating the phrase “This is not a Delvaux Bag” on their bags for over 140 years. This idea was in my mind when I filmed my project as well.
There is also the ice cup with the title „Lemon Life“, which is the company that you founded pretty much exactly 12 years ago. As the CEO of this company, how would you describe your profession? Are you a director, designer, or photographer? What was the motivation to start this project and how did the experience that you had from „Lemon Life“ helped you with this project?
From a young age, my dream was to be a director. However, I ultimately pursued a career in design. As I progressed in my professional journey, I discovered that the line between these two fields is fluid. The distinctions between graphic design and directing are not as significant as I initially thought. As a movie director, I found that my role was an extension of my previous work as an art director. My 12 years at Lemon Life and background in graphic design gave me a unique perspective on filmmaking, highlighting the significance of style in movies.
Additionally, my videographer, Jun Imajo, hails from the world of fashion and the majority of my team on location were from Lemon Life. This created a sense of familiarity rather than being in a completely new setting.
Prior to filming the feature movie, you also created a short film titled “Ice SCREAM Fever”. Can you tell us more about it?
At the beginning of the project, my cameraman and I were uncertain about how to initiate the entire process. We agreed to film a brief movie initially in order to become familiar with the workflow.
I have watched numerous films, and my preferred directors are Stanley Kubrick and Wes Anderson. Initially, I aspired to create something similar, but during the early stages of production, I recognized that it was unfeasible. Instead, I concentrated on developing my unique approach and avoiding imitation. I extensively experimented with shaky camera shots, autofocus, and blurred effects to replicate the organic visual perception of the human eye. Through this process, I discovered that these techniques can effectively convey the emotional state of my characters.
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The movie places a significant emphasis on decoration. Is there a particular item that stands out to you in the film?
Without a doubt, the ice cream.
I enjoyed the use of earrings to convey the relationship between Yu and Miwa in your story. Was this also present in the original short story?
The subject of Kawakami’s brief tale is solely centered around the ice cream parlor. The inspiration for the earrings originated from myself.
How has Mieko Kawakami’s work influenced you? How significantly did you deviate from the original story?
15 years ago, I designed a book for her and we have since become close friends. We often discuss movies and give each other suggestions. Eventually, I felt comfortable enough to pitch my idea of turning one of her short stories into a film. She immediately agreed.
In regards to the screenplay, my main collaborator was Masashi Shimizu. However, prior to writing the final script, I engaged in extensive brainstorming sessions with Mieko Kawakami. She suggested changing the original male-female dynamic in her short story to an all-female cast for my film. Her idea was to explore a same-sex love story instead of a heterosexual one.
Mieko Kawakami has a negative view towards men and critiques the treatment of women in Japan. For instance, in the subway, there are warnings for women to watch out for harassment from men. However, this is not an effective form of communication. The signs should instead target men and instruct them not to target women.
It is evident that we continue to exist in a society dominated by men. In numerous settings, particularly in employment, women are evaluated based on male criteria and must conform to unspoken societal expectations. As a result, Kawakami envisions a world where women can freely live their lives without being constrained by such standards and can establish their own unique identities.
Is this movie also focused on promoting female empowerment?
Yes. Gender equality in Japan is always tied to numbers and never really meant by heart. Companies are forced to fulfill a certain quota, not because they truly support the idea behind it. There is a missing consciousness in society. Those are things that I learned in the conversations with Kawakami.
She was inspired by a Yumi Matsutoya song that highlights the female perspective after a break-up. The song portrays a woman who realizes her independence and no longer relies on her ex-partner. I included a similar sequence at the end of my film.
Did you have specific actresses in mind for the characters when you wrote the script?
With the exception of Matsumoto Marika, I had already chosen all of the cast members. I was uncertain about her role and how to portray her character. However, I had previously collaborated with Serena Motola on “Tokyo Design Story” in 2020.
For what duration did you film the movie?
In total, three weeks were allotted. As it was a self-funded project, we did not have any additional time. Otherwise, we would have depleted our funds.
Was securing funds for the project challenging?
The most challenging aspect was already completed. Large-scale commercial projects are geared towards generating income. They are required to have a straightforward script and well-known actors. My goal was to connect with individuals who are receptive to my message and persuade them to support my concepts financially.
Was this the motive for selecting Utaha as one of the characters?
When I first found Utaha, she was relatively unknown. I selected her for the part due to her distinctive appearance and to balance out the more reserved characters. Since then, her music career has taken off and she now performs in the largest concert venues in Japan. While we were working together, Utaha released the song “Edison” which became a huge success. As her fame grew, I also added more lines for her character in the script.
Were there many instances where you improvised during the production?
My screenwriter, Masashi Shimizu, is extremely imaginative and adaptable. It was not uncommon for him to come up with fresh concepts the night before filming a scene, and the entire crew would embrace them the following day. The atmosphere on set was relaxed and there was no rigid schedule, making the entire process enjoyable.
I have come across information about an event that you hosted for this movie. The film was screened at a public bath. How significant is the choice of venue for a screening? In today’s society, people often prefer to watch movies at home or on their phones. How crucial are cinemas and do you personally enjoy going to the cinema?
The concept of cinema as a means of fostering community is highly significant to me. The main issue with watching a movie at home is the likelihood of getting easily distracted and not fully focusing. However, in a cinema setting, one is compelled to engage with the film using all senses.
During the production of my TV series “Tokyo Design Story” (2020), I considered the viewing experience to be in a home setting. As such, I made adjustments to the colors and storytelling to fit the atmosphere of a living room. I incorporated more dialogue and explanations, as well as utilized various camera techniques to maintain the audience’s interest. This approach differs from that of a movie shown in a cinema, where I have the flexibility to include longer periods of silence.
I believe that the dim lighting in a cinema is crucial. I aspire for my efforts to enhance the cinematic culture.
There are numerous independent movie theaters in Japan. Do they face challenges in staying afloat? There has been recent reports of TOHO Cinemas using unfair tactics to push smaller distributors out of the market in favor of their own films.
The decline of movie culture can be attributed to large corporations and their focus on profit, epitomized by the concept of Cineplex. This has greatly impacted the independent film scene as the majority of Japanese audiences prioritize the blockbuster experience and are not open to exploring smaller venues and their offerings.
I was born and raised in Kyoto. During my teenage years, I spent a lot of time at a cinema called Minami Kaikan, which showed three different movies each day. Sadly, after 55 years, the cinema was forced to close. I was fortunate to watch “Ice Cream Fever” as one of its final screenings.
What methods can you use to challenge the dominant studio system?
The primary focus should be on educating individuals about the significance of culture. Movies are often viewed solely as a source of amusement, but it is important to highlight the cultural traditions associated with them. Additionally, there seems to be a lack of curiosity about the rest of the world in Japan. Unlike South Korea, which relies on foreign profits, Japan’s film industry is sustained by domestic sales due to its large population. This creates a self-sufficient system that is ultimately unsustainable.
This is why it is necessary to examine the education system and prioritize the youth in order to enact change.
Kazuyuki Kitaki: The idea of community movie theaters that welcome school groups already exists. These screenings are not run by major distributors, but rather by smaller organizations showcasing their own independent films.
I am in communication with the mayor of Shibuya to make arrangements for organizing screenings in the area. My goal is to have children visit the cinema and museum at least once a month to gain a deeper understanding of culture. I envision it being treated as a regular subject in school.
“Drive My Car” was the recipient of the Oscar award last year. Did you experience any shifts as a filmmaker or producer? Have Japanese films received more recognition and focus since then?
Tetsuya Chihara believes that winning the Oscar did not result in significant changes. While the film may have gained more attention due to the media coverage, it did not alter the everyday habits of the average Japanese consumer who prefers light entertainment. The success of “Drive My Car” at the Oscars was positive for an independent production, but it had little impact on the mainstream audience and the industry as a whole.
Kazuyuki Kitaki: The success of „Drive My Car“ had a big influence on me. I know the production company behind this movie, Bitter’s End, and I was so happy for them to outwit the other big companies.
During my recent visit to Taiwan, I received numerous praises for Japanese films. Several individuals expressed their belief that Japan’s film industry is exclusive and hesitant to share its cultural assets with other countries. This perception stems from the strict policies imposed on actors by their agencies. It saddens me that we create barriers instead of promoting cultural exchange.
The dominance of Netflix and the fixation on the US among many Asians is impeding efforts to promote Japanese films. Meanwhile, major Japanese streaming platforms like “TVer” are restricting foreign users, despite the potential for a large international audience. This is disappointing because opening up these services could greatly increase viewership in the Asian market, potentially surpassing Netflix.
What projects do you have planned for the future?
Tetsuya Chihara is currently working on a script and has discovered his own unique style through his film “Ice Cream Fever”. The encouraging feedback he has received has motivated him to continue down this path. He plans to create two or three more films in this style and hopes to film them in Shibuya. He is seeking financial support from the district as there are few films that showcase Shibuya in the same way that he does.
Additionally, referencing the literature of Kawakami?
I recently encountered her and shared my script with her. This could potentially lead to a collaboration.
Kazuyuki Kitaki: I am fortunate to have persevered in this challenging industry for over a decade with my independent production company, Magnetize Inc. Recently, I finally experienced a breakthrough with revenue from ticket sales alone. I am currently collaborating with this director on a new project focused on the persecution of Christians in Nagasaki. We are currently scouting locations.
Could you please tell me your preferred type of ice cream?
Tetsuya Chihara: Choco Mint.
Kazuyuki Kitaki’s alias is Crazy Marble.
Tetsuya Chihara: We especially cooperated with a cafe chain called “Sarutahiko Coffee” to produce exclusive ice cream flavors for our movie. When we released our movie, they started selling these new flavors in all of their facilities. The ice cream shop in the movie is also a remodeled shop of this chain based in Ebisu.
I greatly appreciate it!