Saturday, May 21, 2011

INTERVIEW: "Azemichi Road" director Fumie Nishikawa

Interviewed by Nicholas Vroman

Fumie Nishikawa’s "The Azemichi Road" has been making the rounds of North American children’s film festivals to generally good reviews. It opens in Japan this summer. The story is about a young hearing-impaired girl, Yuki (Haruka Ooba), living in a sort of interior isolation compounded by her largely absent working mother (Makiko Watanabe) in the village of Uonuma. She crosses paths with the Jumping Girls, a crew of young teens working on their pop/hip hop dance routine. Invited to join the group by Rena (Misaki Futenma), she faces a classic array of demons to slay - her own physical disabilities, peer pressures, jealousies, insecurity, mother-daughter issues. Of course, she manages to overcome them by the final scenes of the big dance competition.

The positivist message is a standard trope of kids’ films, but what makes "The Azemichi Road" stand out is not only the novel situation of a deaf dancer – she’s quite good in that youthful I-can-and-will-do-anything way – but Nishikawa’s feel for place and character. The townscape of Uonuma - from the emerald green rice fields to the crumbling concrete schools and non-descript public halls and domestic architecture - is deftly illustrated. The world of girls - their peeves and insults, their trust and friendships, their comradery - has a naturalism and connectedness that belie the occasional clichéd conventions that drive the plot. All in all, Yuki and the Jumping Girls rock – in a sort of juvenile and silly way.

I met with Fumie Nishikawa in an old fashioned kissaten in Shibuya. In the crowded room grabbed a corner of a large oak table with a gigantic flower arrangement in the middle. Sheltered behind a several large sprays of forsythia, in broken English and Japanese, we had an informal chat.

NV: You showed this film to the townspeople. What did they think?

FN: They didn't say much. They felt that the place where they live isn’t beautiful. I told them that they should be proud. When I was making this film I was looking for someplace like this. They see this place every day, so they don't find it beautiful. But I did. So after I showed the film to them I think they realized that this place is very beautiful.

NV: Is the town kind of dying?

FN: I don't think the town is dying. Uonuma is close to Tokyo. Only 2 hours. Compared to other parts of the country, it's good for families. But I saw many graves in the middle of rice fields. Older people are there and they like that place. For me it’s super-sabishii (lonely).

NV: In film, who are your influences? Who has inspired you?

FN:I have many. But I think, Tarkovsky… because when I see his films I feel that... how to say it.. that nature... that he shot the atmosphere... that maybe he took the time to do it. I feel that I want to be a film director like him. I want to make my audience think about how beautiful it is where we live.

NV: Azemichi Road. How did this project begin?

FN: I am interested in working with sound. Maybe you saw this film on DVD, so you probably didn't feel the vibration of the sound. But in a theatre you feel the vibration from the system. People who can’t and can hear - I want both of them in the same place to watch the same film. In the theatre the hearing impaired can feel the sound. That's what I intended. I knew the girls before I started making the film. They were trying very hard, learning to dance, so I wanted to make the film about dance. Then I tried to find something far from dance and thought about the hearing impaired. Dance and hearing impairment is good. I wanted to have two very different things. I wanted to bring them together. Yeah, that's the idea.

NV: Did you know about this landscape and area?

FN: No. But I wanted to have a rice field in the film. Because these are young girls… they are developing the same as rice… growing… living. A Japanese rice field in summer is a very particular landscape. And the azemichi (paths between rice fields) reminds me of my summer vacations in my childhood. It rings a bell to me.

NV: In the film, the character Yuki, she sees the Rip Girls. She gets excited. Can you tell me about the competition? Does this sort of thing happen in Japan in smaller towns?

FN: I think at that point it’s a fantasy. In Japan we have dance groups… too many dance groups. Before I made this film, I didn't know hip-hop culture and dance, but I found that in many Japanese country towns there are dance teams, so many. And sometimes they do competitions in the countryside, but there no big stars come. The Rip Girls are famous for Double Dutch. They've won many competitions around the world.

NV: Let's talk about the actors. Yuki. How did you find her?

FN: She's not deaf.

N - But she has big ears.

FN: Yes (laughing). And that's how we can easily see... how do you say… something in her eyes. When I first saw Haruka Ooba, I thought girls at this age generally look happy but Haruka always looked sad. I don't know why, but she looks like she's thinking of something all the time so that's why I liked her for the part.

NV: And so, how was it working with the girls?

FN: I wanted to have a lot of kids with the film. I did it wrong. I couldn't control so many kids. And these girls were... because girls in shishunki (puberty), sometimes they don't like teachers, they don't like parents...
NV: Or directors?

FN: Directors, yeah. So, it was difficult, but Yuki and Misaki, they felt nervous, so I think they worked well. It made work them very very hard.

NV: Azemichi Road has been compared to "Linda Linda Linda"?

FN: Many people have connected it with "Linda Linda Linda" and "Swing Girls". At first I thought my film was like those films, but I made a different kind of film. The theme of the film was not about winning or getting something. The theme is about different cultures coming together. I think American people like this kind of story. It's like a Hollywood-style theme... because in Japan we have more complicated stories. And this one is easy for children to understand.

NV: Were you thinking Hollywood-style when you were writing?
FN: I thought that I had to make a positive story.

NV: What's next?

FN: I'm writing all the time. I want to see the film "Le Quattro Volte". I have a story that has a similar title. It's called Kuadropeto. I don't know if it's a good title in English. What do you call people who walk with both their hands and feet. Human hand-walkers?

N – Quadruped.

FN: Ah yes, that's it. In Japan we call them yotsuashi. Maybe my next film will be about people who walk on hands and feet.

Read more by Nicholas Vroman at his blog

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