Emerging Japanese Directors Talk Unlikely Inspiration for Their Taboo-Shattering Films

“There really isn’t anything dealing with this subject of sexuality of elders” in their home country, Bunji Sotoyama says after TheWrap’s Japanese screening series

Steve Pond and Kazuyoshi Kumakiri
Steve Pond and Kazuyoshi Kumakiri

A middle-aged woman forced to return home after 20 years following the death of her father. A service that provides elderly call girls to socialize with lonely Japanese seniors. A grimly hilarious look at the pressures faced by Japanese women, itself a rebuttal to the post-COVID social issue films that dare not flash a smile. These three films, “Yoko,” “Tea Friends” and “Ripples” are universal in their messaging while challenging taboos about Japanese culture and society.  

TheWrap hosted a three-night film festival spotlighting emerging voices in Japanese cinema. “Yoko” director Kazuyoshi Kumakiri made an in-person appearance for the post-screening Q&A while “Tea Friends” director Bunji Sotoyama and “Ripples” filmmaker Naoko Ogigami participated via Zoom. All three shared, with the assistance of translator David Neptune, poignant insights and personal stories.

‘Tea Friends’ trailer

Inspirations for art 

The conversations around all three films began with inquiries as to what made the filmmakers want to tell these specific stories.  

Kumakiri noted (via translator) that “What happened to Yoko [in ‘Yoko’], I really felt that could happen to me.” The picture concerns a woman who has given up on her dreams and has lived isolated from her family for 20 years. She must travel home for the first time following the death of her father, but an already bittersweet journey soon becomes an adventure.  

“I grew up in the countryside of Japan. When I was in high school, I wanted to start making films. When I told this to my father, who was a plumber, he replied ‘Water is something that people need, but films are not,” Kumakiri said.

Naoko Ogigami’s picture, “Ripples,” concerns a woman who finds herself pressured by society to care for her male family members even though they have not treated her accordingly. Ogigami offered a response that was both factual and an encapsulation of the film’s broader themes. “Japan’s ranking in the Global Gender Gap index [which ranks gender parity of a given nation on economic participation and opportunity, educational attachment, health and survival and political empowerment] is 116 out of 146 countries.”

She further noted “The pressure to be a good wife and good mother still exists in Japan.”

Sotoyama’s “Tea Friends,” about a group of young entrepreneurs who go into business and recruit elderly women to service Japanese men, was loosely based on a true story. Or, to hear the filmmaker explain it, it was inspired by an actual newspaper ad published 14 years ago in Tokyo. When asked about what films he might have taken as inspiration for “Tea Friends,” Sotoyama stated, “In Japan, there really isn’t anything dealing with this subject of sexuality of elders. There wasn’t really anything to reference.”

‘Yoko’ trailer

An artists’ reunion 

Kumakiri focused on the towering star turn from Rinko Kikuchi in “Yoko.” Kikuchi has found success in projects like “Pacific Rim” (as fan favorite Mako Miri), “The Brothers Bloom” and Michael Mann’s HBO Max series “Toyko Vice.” Kumakiri actually cast her in one of his first movies, “Hole in the Sky” in 2001, when she was an up-and-comer.

“She was only 19 at the time and didn’t have a lot of experience. I wanted to continue working with her in my future films, but she ended up being in a film called ‘Babel’ five years later and became an international actress. I was very jealous,” he joked. “We hadn’t spoken very much for 15 years until the first day of shooting. It was shocking how smoothly everything went and how right it felt. It felt good to be working with her in that way.” 

‘Ripples’ trailer, highlighting one of three films at TheWrap’s

A challenge to tradition and conventions 

In ways subtle and explicit, the pictures do what art can often do best, which is challenge societal norms, question convention and call out outdated (or never-timely) traditions that mostly exist to prop up one demographic at the expense of others.

Ogigami was asked to what extent her lead character aligned with the Hollywood pressures to make female protagonists more likable. She responded that “one of my American friends told me that she could not relate to the main character because no woman in Western culture would allow their husband into their house after 10 years of disappearing.” 

Sotoyama noted “I didn’t want to make a film that was just for the elderly. There are films that are geared toward seniors in Japan. But this film, I want it to be for a wider audience. I found it might be more interesting to have young people running this organization.” 

The statement speaks to a broader point both in regard to the film and the overall conversation. Later, when discussing the film’s ironic closing shots, he notes “It’s kind of this idea of not putting people in a box and trying to define them.”

He also spoke about what’s expected in Japanese family units. He stated “In Japan I find that family relationships are generally thin. I wanted to look at how your chosen family can be stronger than your real family. But I don’t know if that’s necessarily ‘good,’ or maybe it’s just more convenient. I also think that chosen families can also fall apart easier as well.” 

He also discussed the core takeaway of the picture, noting that sexuality within Japan’s elderly population is a total taboo. “Most young people in Japan have no idea that there’s all this loneliness epidemic essentially happening.” Speaking more generally of the world at large, he argued that “In any country, all people are lonely. It’s not just your fault, it’s a communal issue.” 

The screening series was produced in association with the Agency for Cultural Affairs (Government of Japan) to support Japanese films overseas.


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