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Robert Bodrog

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Between the Comic and the Tragic: An Interview With Director Kenji Yamauchi

In his feature film debut “Being Mitsuko” which had its world premiere on October 13 at the Warsaw Film Festival, Japanese director Kenji Yamauchi walks a fine genre line between the comic and the tragic. And it works. Imbued with a strong dose of black humor and absurdist elements, Yamauchi has crafted an intricate narrative that revolves around the lives of Mitsuko and Emi Shinozaki, two 20-something sisters living in their family house in suburban Tokyo. 

But there is hardly anything “normal” about the two, who are both experiencing a tumultuous period in their lives, exacerbated by the fact that their absent father will soon be selling the house, due to some failed business ventures, forcing the sisters to move out. The girls' mother committed suicide during their childhood, which understandably is still a sore spot in father-daughter relations for Mitsuko, who is studying photography and has recently taken up a job at a hostess bar. Meanwhile, Emi is involved in a relationship with her boss at work, who is married, but whose wife is aware of the affair. Could things get any more complicated? Oh yes.

Overall, Yamauchi succeeds in creating a world where a comic situation can have tragic undertones, and even the most tragic situation can be a source of humor. Having worked for a long time as a theatre director, his experience with actors shows. The cast all deliver solid and credible performances, and the end result is a refreshingly original film.

I spoke to Mr. Yamauchi after the premiere to discuss his film. My questions and his answers were translated by his interpreter Alicja Kaczorek.
Kenji Yamauchi, Warsaw Film Festival, 2011 

Robert Bodrog: Is this your first time in Poland? Why did you decide to debut your film at the Warsaw Film Festival?

Kenji Yamauchi: Yes, I'm in Poland for the first time. And it's because the festival invited me to come.

RB: After you graduated from Waseda University, you began your career as a director of TV commercials for the Dentsu Film company. How did you get your start? Did you study film making at university?

KY: I studied theatre at Waseda University. Actually, it was after I got the job in the commercial industry that I started to learn about movie making.

RB: At university, were there any playwrights in particular that you were fond of?

KY: Harold Pinter. Edward Albee.

RB: Theatre of the absurd?

KY: Yes.

RB: Directing TV commercials is more complicated than most people think. Because you have to tell a story in a very short amount of time. Coming from that background, does it influence your style as a feature film director, in terms of pacing, structure or storytelling in general?

KY: You're right about the commercial influence, but what I wanted to stress, is that after the earthquake [in March 2011] I think that it had an impact on me. And I'm kind of focusing on people's relations, which are going into this surrealism, that are becoming more and more-- not really realistic.

RB: Could you call it hyper-realism?

KY: Maybe.

RB: Did you also write the screenplay?

KY: Yes.

RB: Was this your first time writing a feature length screenplay?

KY: I've written plays for the theatre, so this was my eleventh script, you could say.

RB: Are there any Japanese film directors whose work you really admire, or influenced you? 

KY: Yamashita Nobuhiro.

RB: Any foreign directors?

KY: Ingmar Bergman. Woody Allen. Robert Altman.

RB: Are there any Polish films or directors that you admire?

KY: Wajda. Polanski. Kieślowski. The three colors trilogy.

RB: In terms of genre, do you think of your film as a comedy, a black comedy, a tragedy, or somewhere in between? 

KY: Yes. Between... I like classic Chekhov plays. You could say they are tragedies, but they have elements of comedy in them. And what I was aiming for is a movie that could be either tragedy or comedy. So I was aiming to achieve this effect.

RB: I think many viewers will say the ending is ambiguous. Was that your intention?

KY: Yes, it was on purpose.

RB: Well, thank you for taking time to talk to me, and thank you for choosing Warsaw for the world premiere. Good luck with the film.
KY: Thank you.

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