We meet the director of Waterboys, Swing Girls and Robo-G to discuss his latest film Wood Job!…
Shinobu Yaguchi is a Japanese director specialising in gentle feel-good comedy, usually involving societal outsiders that bond and grow via some unusual activity. 2001’s Waterboys told the story of a group of schoolboys who started a synchronised swimming team. The film spawned a popular TV spin-off as well as a couple of TV movies. The 2004 Swing Girls took a group of failing female maths students and turned them into a Big Band. Hits not only at home in Japan, but also across Asia, his films have both garnered financial success, but taken home a number of awards. Personally, I have been a big fan for a long time, so when the chance to interview him came up, I pushed right to the front of the queue. Aided by some input from fellow easternKicker Husna (who reviewed Wood Job!), I beat snow, delayed trains and a failure of the Central Line to meet the man himself.
I met Mr Yaguchi at the Holborn HQ of the Japan Foundation Touring Film Programme, who are this year showing his latest film, Wood Job!, about a young man who is introduced to the world of forestry. An unassuming gentleman, he was generous with his time to talk about not only this film, but also his career in a wider context, and a little about the international nature of comedy in film. He speaks no English, so I was indebted to the lovely Junko who helped translate in both directions. Not only that he was kind enough to make me very happy by signing my much-cherished Hong Kong DVDs of his movies.
Thank you very much for seeing me today, I will just start by saying I am a big fan of your work – your films Waterboys and Swing Girls were very important films to me when I was getting into Asian Cinema, so I will try not to be too much of a gushing fanboy!
We will start with your new film, Wood Job! if that is ok. What got you involved in the project, what attracted you to it initially?
I was introduced by somebody to the novel, I had just finished making a film based on my own original story, but after reading that story? I decided that was it and that I wanted to make a film of it.
So you chose it rather than it chose you?
Actually, it was my Producer that encouraged me to make it. Of course I was asked, but I am always looking for sources that would make a film, but I have never come across such a good source before – as soon as I read Wood Job!, I knew this was a story I wanted to film.
In terms of casting, was that your choice?
I had a discussion with the Producer, but basically the final say was with me.
It is a little bit different to your normal sort of film. Usually you are dealing with a group of outsiders that bond together over an unusual activity or hobby. In this film it is very much focussed on a single person thrown into an alien environment. Did this present a particular challenge, did you do anything different?
I didn’t face any particular difficulties. In fact before I started filming, I went to the village in which the movie takes place and spend 9 months there doing research. So I used that experience and included it in my film.
There is a lot of outside filming, not just beautiful vistas, this seemed different to what you have done before. Again, what challenges did this present to you?
It was actually difficult. The most difficult thing was camera angles. What I wanted was not to be looking up at those people engaged in the forestry, but I wanted to be up at their eye levels. This was the main technical difficulty.
The film clearly pauses occasionally to talk about environmental and rural issues. Is this an important subject you wanted to raise in the film, the importance that the rural world has on the urban?
Yes, it was important. The house in which I live in is made out of wood. Japanese are connected to forestry, to the wood that can take over 100 years to grow.
Do every day Japanese people understand this though?
I don’t think Japanese people are aware actually. I quite often had comments from the audience who tell me they had never thought about the connection between themselves and the forestry activities in the countryside.
Was it difficult to balance the story with the informational aspect?
I never had an intention to emphasise the message as a ‘message’, what I wanted to do is use this as a spice, or a hidden ingredient. On the surface, the film is approachable, but this is something I added to the film to give some depth. It an important ingredient, something for the audience to digest.
How close to the source novel did you stay?
In fact there are only two common parts, which is the young guy becoming involved in forestry, and the village festival. Other than that, it was all my original story.
Was the original author involved at all?
No, the original author was not involved in adapting the script at all.
Waterboys and Swing Girls were based to a degree on true stories, although fictionalised for cinematic purposes. With Wood Job! being a much more solid source, did you feel free to go your own way?
I didn’t feel any constraint in making an adaptation. I went to the village, as I said, just like the original author did. And afterwards, I found myself able to write very freely. I felt no pressure from the original material at all. OF course before I actually started to make the film, I was worried about the reaction of Shion Miura (The author of the novel). In Japan, you usually find that the author of any original work, be it a Novel, Manga or whatever actually has a great deal of power and the final say. However, Shion Miura read the script, and said that it was really amusing and interesting, and basically told me to go ahead and film it. I didn’t have to change a thing, she was very generous. However, whilst the author didn’t complain, the Japanese Audience who had read the story, did complain to me that the details were not the same!
It’s the classic adaptation problem isn’t it? Do you go your own way and potential upset the hardcore fans, or do you do something more slavish which might restrict you as an artist putting your own twist on it.
Although the Producer was the one who asked me to adapt the novel, if Shion Miura said she didn’t like my story, I would not have accepted the project. I needed her personal approval, although it was not necessary to actually proceed with the project.
This is a bit of a tangent, but I think this is related. Waterboys was adapted into a TV show and some spin-off TV Movies. Were you involved in them? Do you feel they are a separate entity, or are they related to your work?
I wasn’t involved in any of the other adaptations. If you like, we can consider Waterboys as my child. The spin-offs are more like my grandchildren, and I don’t feel I should be involved in saying anything about them. I guess I am ambivalent. However, if an adaptation of my work turned out to be an improvement? I would be proud and shocked.
Back to Wood Job!. I would like to talk about Shōta Sometani’s performance. Now I think to Western eyes it is a bit like “Marmite” – you are either going to love it or hate it. My colleague had a really hard time connecting with his character because he’s fairly uncommunicative and grunts and gurns a fair bit. For me I was less bothered by this. I am interested how this performance was both led by you as the director, and how it was viewed by the local audience.
I didn’t direct how to act to the actors. In fact I would like to stress that the acting was very normal. I understand in the UK that you get to see a lot of Violent Crime films from Japan. But that really doesn’t show normal Japanese behaviour. Japanese people do have different faces, but it’s all different human behaviours. What is important is what you are focussing on within the movie.
OK, I know what you are trying to say. I read his performance as he was actually a fairly uncommunicative guy, and it was noticeable that when he did open his mouth he often came across as a little awkward, if not a bit of a fool – I am thinking of his discussions with Naoki in the rain and after visiting the sales yard. Was this deliberate.
OH! I am very interested you perceived it like this! You might think he is not communicative or shy, but I actually did not see it that way. In fact, to me he was actually saying whatever he wanted to say in a confined place like the village, where there are certain rules of communication. It’s not that he is a slave to the village. You notice in the film he tried to escape three times. But none were successful. I think if he was really able to get away, he would have done.
Personally, as a fan of Asian Cinema, one of the things I want to get across is the sheer breadth of what is produced, to show there is more than Horror films, Gangster film, Samurai films and so on. The one I have most trouble getting people to understand is that of comedy. To use a non-Japanese example, you have someone like Hong Kong’s Stephen Chow, who has a fairly good following outside of his local region. But whilst his physical comedy easily crosses geographical and cultural borders, 90% of what he does is clever wordplay based on Cantonese, and is utterly untranslatable. And I find this also in Japanese comedies, especially with jokes that are rooted into the complexity or idiosyncrasies of language. Do you have any thoughts on this, as someone who broadly works in comedy?
Broadly, I believe people will laugh at the same sorts of things. Saying that, there is something in Wood Job! that I suspect is lost in translation, if translated at all. The main character is given a scarf/bandana…..
Ah yes, the one printed with “Isle of Yew”… oh wait, now you have said it out loud, I suddenly get it… “I Love You”!!!!
[Laughs all round]. It’s a rather complicated thing to describe, based on Japanese culture and society. The scarf was given originally by a Juvenile delinquent. And the kanji character used actually doesn’t actually exist. It has a phonetic similarity, but is customised to make it look “wilder”. So the Japanese audience would get much about the original character by seeing this style of writing.
Yes, this is exactly the sort of thing I am talking about. The giant earlobe cause by the snake-bite is much more obviously funny, a visual joke that doesn’t need cultural understanding. This however is working on levels the casual western audience simply isn’t going to understand.
So yes, the Japanese audience will see humour in the fact a delinquent has gone to the forest to work. And then later when it is used by Yuki and Naoki to wipe their faces, the “I Love You” has another connotation. And then at the end when she waves it to Yuki, it ceases to be a joke, it has a serious message.
Most of your work is rooted in the modern, urban world. However in Wood Job! certainly has a spiritual/mystic aspect with the Woodland Goddess, as well as the Fertility Festival. Is this something you felt comfortable with?
I didn’t have any discomfort with the spiritual/animism side. Actually when I started interviewing the real Forestry workers, I found they were very spiritual and religious. When they cut a tree, it wasn’t just a job. They would make offerings to Woodland Spirits. So I felt it natural to include this aspect in my film.
The romance in the film was quite underplayed. In itself that isn’t necessarily unusual in Asian Film. Here I can see that you didn’t want the romantic angle to take away from what Yuki was actually being inspired by (forestry), but there was an aspect of the age difference which wasn’t really explored. Was this deliberate on your part?
Basically I am not interested in exploring relationships between a man and a woman. That is not my thing. Naoki was set up to keep Yuki in the village. Therefore as you noticed, he still returned to Tokyo to his parents, but returned to the village without seeing them. The reason isn’t for Naoki, it is for Forestry.
I had a feeling there were parts of the story you didn’t concentrate on as much as you might normally. I am thinking the whole training month felt cut short, as well as the story with the Chief of the village. Was there originally more to the script?
Actually I did not want to explore the story of the Chief, or the long process of being part of the Festival. The reality is, unless he said yes, Yuki could not have joined in. Basically, the Japanese audience will recognise the actor who plays the chief, and know him as a very stubborn guy. So they simply would not have expected his character to say yes easily! But Yuki helping his grandson showed us that he could be bent, that he actually had a heart. This is a common theme in all my films – everybody has a good character and a bad character. A strong part and weak part. Nobody is perfect. So I wanted to add that message into Wood Job!.
More generally, as a filmmaker, do you have influences, or people who you particularly admire?
I don’t really have a favourite director; I try to see a wide variety of films without prejudice.
What next for you in terms of projects?
Sorry, it’s a secret. But I am working on it!
To end, it’s a bit of a cliché, and I have been guilty of it today. But your films have all been similar in tone and content. Yet stylistically you have an almost documentary style. Would other genres appeal to you? Say a horror film, a documentary, or a bio-pic?
My options are open. I would try another kind of style – you never know, I might actually make a horror next time! But I need to stick with realism though. For example? In Japan we cremate bodies, we don’t have a tradition of burying them in the ground. So therefore, I could not see myself making a Zombie film.
Thank you so much for your time today.