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INTERVIEW | Film Director Takeshi Fukunaga on Innovative Ways of Portraying Japan and its Many Nuances

Takeshi Fukunaga discusses Japanese culture beyond predictable tropes and rediscovering his home country after studying film in the United States.



Takeshi Fukunaga's film, Yama Onna (© YAMAONNA FILM COMMITTEE)

Hokkaido-born, Tokyo-based and United-States-educated, the rising star writer and director Takeshi Fukunaga is already gaining attention in the international film media circuit. 

Moving away from the contemporary settings of his previous work, Fukunaga's newest film, Yama Onna (or Mountain Woman) turns its gaze to the power dynamics of a famine-stricken village in the 18th-century Tohoku region. 

Delicate yet acute, Yama Onna unfolds as a dark tale of marginalization and intolerance in a time of profound desperation, seen as reflected in the destiny of Rin (Anna Yamada), a 17-year-old girl. With a brother that seems to suffer from a disability and a violent father (Masatoshi Nagase) dishonored by his ancestors' past, Rin and her family are kept outside of society and charged with taking care of the dead. 

Shunned away by the village for a crime she didn't commit, Rin finds solace deep in the mountains, where legend and reality seem to overlap. Only when things turn even more dire do the other villagers look for her, hoping she could appease the gods to end the famine. 

Yama Onna is currently playing in theatres in Japan.

We sat down with director Fukunaga at the Karlovy Vary International Film Festival to discuss the role that nature and folklore play in the film, as well as his approach to a nuanced female protagonist. 

Film director Takeshi Fukunaga speaks about his new film, Yama Onna. (© The Karlovy Vary International Film Festival.)

1. What attracted you to a historical subject that has a touch of mythology and folklore?

When I made my previous movie, Ainu Mosir (2020), I learned a great deal through reading folktales and legends, especially through songs that told stories. The Ainu culture isn't a written culture, so stories were passed down through oral communication. 

That sparked my interest in reading even more folktales, so as to get a sense of how the Japanese used to live. Yama Onna is inspired by a collection of stories, The Legends of Tono, which gave me deep insight into society in regional areas, what beliefs the people used to have, as well as what kind of relationship they used to have with nature. How they held a sentiment of awe towards nature, and how they found gods in nature. 

I think these are things that these days Japanese people are losing, but are aspects that are still connected to the core of Japan. I have lived in the United States for many years and moved back to Japan only four years ago, therefore I wanted to relearn myself those things and explore those themes in order to learn more about Japanese people.

2. With your previous film, the regional aspect of it was very important, pushing back against the image of Japan being a very homogenous nation. How did you incorporate regional specificities in Yama Onna?

The language used in the film is a dialect that is very specific to the region of Tono in Iwate Prefecture. Learning the dialect was one of the things that I asked the actors to prepare thoroughly. For me, this was one of the ways to close the gap between the modern-day and the period setting. I'm curious about these regional parts of Japan because, just like everywhere else in the world, cultural identity is very homogenized in the cities. Whereas in the local, regional areas, you can still find things that are very particular not only to the region but to Japanese culture as a whole. 

Takeshi Fukunaga's film, Yama Onna (© YAMAONNA FILM COMMITTEE.)

3. Even if it is a traditional setting, you don't opt for traditional music. How did you approach sound in the film? 

Sound design was very important in creating the particular world in the film, and then in creating this sense of awe towards nature, a feeling which was integral to the film. Trying to depict something that you don't necessarily see, or that you can't express in words, and finding a way to describe it in a movie is something that is essentially very cinematic, I believe. 

There are many things in the world that we cannot fully understand, but, to me, there's a kind of energy, or power that exists. And to try to express that through a movie is something that I'm very passionate about. 

Sung Rok Choi is the sound designer for the film. He is a Korean professional based in Los Angeles. Even if he's not Japanese, we are both Asian, so I think that allowed him to understand a certain nuance that I was trying to create. 

The same goes for the musician, Alex Zhang Hungtai, who is Taiwanese-Canadian, and because of his ethnic background, I think he also understood more closely this kind of relationship between humans and nature. His music is very modern, but there is something about it that feels very organic. That was the tone that I was looking for in terms of this movie. 

Stylistically, one thing that I was trying to avoid was making something too traditional, like jidaigeki [historical] film. It's a very Japanese setting, and there are costumes, but I wanted to make something new, something different from what's been done before. And one approach was to use this more modern music, to give the film a more contemporary feeling. 

Rin, played by Anna Yamada. (© YAMAONNA FILM COMMITTEE)

4. Yama Onna is also a tale about intolerance. How do you see this intolerance interacting with spiritual belief in the film? 

The setting is not one that I created on my own. These were beliefs that people had. The level of intolerance you see in the film is something that is very ingrained in Japanese society — what you would call peer pressure. That's something that still plays a big role in Japanese society even nowadays. 

We could see it during COVID when people that were infected were blamed and called irresponsible, even if it was something out of their control. Even the healthcare workers, who were working so hard for everyone, were discriminated against. People kept their distance or tried to avoid them out of fear. All those things, in a different way, are depicted in this movie. I wanted to create a reflection of Japanese society today. The script was written with my co-writer during the middle of the pandemic, so, inevitably, all those events affected the storyline. 

5. There is a great deal of nuance in the character of Rin and in her standing within society. How did you approach her place in the story?

Even if it's a period piece, I was trying to make connections to Japanese society now and to make the film relevant for today. One of the big issues we have is gender inequality, so we wanted to highlight that in the film. Making the female the protagonist of the film and her facing all those boundaries were conscious decisions in making a reference to that issue. 

When it comes to writing the character, I looked for a female co-writer specifically, because as a male, I knew that there would be things that, no matter how hard I tried, I wouldn't be able to see. My co-writer, Ikue Osada, had a big role in creating nuance to this female character. There are many lines in the film that I wouldn't have come up with by myself, and those came from her. 

While it's important to accurately portray female characters on screen, it's equally important to represent minorities and underrepresented groups in general. Rin's brother, Shokichi, was also an important character, so as to show the different layers [and levels of discrimination] of this small society in this small village. His presence was important to show or, hopefully, to update the representation of what, I would say, is not necessarily disability, but rather different identities. 

Film director Takeshi Fukunaga speaks about his new film, Yama Onna. (© The Karlovy Vary International Film Festival)

6. You have also directed an episode of a new Shogun series. What are the challenges in working with material that tackles a traditional or a historical subject?

First of all, it's very difficult to make it realistic and truthful to a particular period and world. It takes so much knowledge and so many resources — from people to materials — to really be able to recreate that world. As far as Shogun goes, they had a lot of resources, the budget was bigger than what my small films usually have. That makes it easier to overcome those challenges. 

Do you feel there's a certain legacy of the samurai film that it's hard to compete against? 

It's true that you can't avoid being compared to masterpieces from back in the day, [like those of Akira Kurosawa]. But, then, I guess, I also don't want to set it as a goal not to be like them. I would want my style to come organically. Once you set it as a goal — first of all, it's very difficult, the bar is set so high, and then people will tend to look at your work in comparison, by default. Even if I admire them, when it comes to my work, I wouldn't want to be conscious about those films.


Native to Hokkaido, but having studied filmmaking in the United States, writer-director Takeshi Fukunaga first stood out on the festival circuit with his debut feature, Out of My Hand (2015), which was shot in Liberia and New York and premiered in the Panorama section of the Berlin International Film Festival. With his second film, Ainu Mosir (2020), he returned to Hokkaido for a coming-of-age story about a young Ainu boy. 


While it may be a little too early to assign trademarks, Fukunaga's films tend to feature well-researched stories and individuals on the margins, sometimes bordering a quasi-documentarian style. The director has also recently directed episodes of TV Series Tokyo Vice's second season, as well as an episode of an upcoming remake of Shogun


Author: Dora Leu

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