Japan's Ayumi Sakamoto on Her Debut Feature 'Forma,' Challenges Faced by Female Directors (Q&A)

Ayumi Sakamoto - H 2014
Ayumi Sakamoto

Ayumi Sakamoto - H 2014

Speaking with THR ahead of "Forma"'s competition screening at the Hong Kong fest, the director talks Kurosawa comparisons, failing to get into film school and how Iran's Abbas Kiarostami inspired her career.

TOKYO – Japanese director Ayumi Sakamoto's debut feature FORMA, an atmospheric psycho-drama, has already picked up awards at the festivals in Tokyo and Berlin, and it was selected for the Young Cinema Competition at this year’s Hong Kong International Film Festival. It screened at the Hong Kong event on Tuesday and gets a second showing Thursday. The native of Kyushu, the southernmost of Japan's four main islands, honed her filmmaking skills in the Tokyo, making music videos and documentaries, as well as working as an assistant director and lighting technician on features by cult favorite Shinya Tsukamoto, before tackling FORMA. Sakamoto sat down with The Hollywood Reporter in Tokyo to discuss the Abbas Kiarostami film that inspired her career, failing to get into film school, and why it won’t take six years to complete her second feature.

What inspired you to become a director?

I loved movies when I was in high school, though all I did then was play sports the whole time, morning until night. But where I lived in the countryside in Kyushu there wasn't even a video rental store. I used to read the reviews of Nagaharu Yodogawa [legendary Japanese critic], and his list of Top 100 films. I would picture in my head what the films were like and write notes about them. There were films that I had imagined so vividly that years later I thought I'd actually seen them.  I thought at the time that if you wanted to be a director, you have to go to Nihon University's College of Art [Japan's top film school], but I failed the entrance exam. It was in the days before the Internet was easily accessible, and I didn't have any information about other schools or options such as workshops. Nobody in my school had wanted to be a director before. I was wondering what I was going to do next when on [public broadcaster] NHK I caught the Iranian film The Key, by Abbas Kiarostami. It was mostly set in one room, with little dialogue, and just this young guy looking for a key. I'd only seen big mainstream productions like Hollywood blockbusters, and had no idea films like that existed. But I thought that if there are films like this, then I really want to make films. So I moved up to Tokyo and found work at a studio making promo videos and commercials, which led to me working as an assistant to Shinya Tsukamoto.

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FORMA was six years in the making, why was it such a long process?

I spent four years on the script while I was working as an assistant at the studio, writing and rewriting with Ryo Nishihara, and becoming better able to express what I wanted to say. In the end, FORMA was prepared and shot in about a month, though it took nearly two years to finish post-production while I carried on working, and I also got ill for a while too.

There's no music in the film, why did you decide not to include any?

Of course there are times when music is vital for a film, but dramatic music can also end up dictating the mood of a scene: This is a happy moment, or this is sad, this person is good or bad. I didn't want to use music to do that, I want people to think about it themselves.

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There aren't many characters in the film that you can sympathize with, which is unusual. Why is that? 

I tried to create complete characters that had their own intentions, not just people who thought like me. I wanted them to behave according to themselves rather than expressing my feelings. And even though they had their own intentions, I didn't want those to be portrayed clearly all the time.

In FORMA there are scenes presented from different character's perspectives. In Japanese film terms, this brings to mind Akira Kurosawa's Rashomon -- did people comment on that?

Yeah, lots of people have said that, though I really didn't think of it when I was writing or making FORMA. Though I love Rashomon, and I've read the Ryunosuke Akutagawa books that it's based on. All I can say is thanks for comparing it to a great film like that. 

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There are very few female Japanese directors. The Directors Guild of Japan says there are only about 20 out of their 550 members. Why do you think there are so few? 

Wow, I actually thought there were more Japanese female directors, maybe I just notice them more because they are women.  One reason is there is still a strong tendency among Japanese women to stop working once they have children. And, as well as discrimination, in some ways, Japanese women also go along with gender roles, like not speaking loudly or expressing themselves.

Have you faced much discrimination in your career?

I can't say there's never been any, but I've never really felt much. I don't think the FORMA team thought of me as a woman (laughs), maybe because I'm sporty and I carried equipment around when we were shooting. 

Have you decided what your next film will be?

Yes, I'm working on the story now, but it's a really sensitive topic. Like FORMA, it's to do with the truth and sins that can't be gotten away from; but it's even more delicate, and I'm trying to work out now how to tackle it. I want to go into it more deeply this time. I have the first draft done, but it's got a long way to go. But I won't take six years to make this one, I'm going to try and finish it quicker than that (laughs.)

A version of this article appeared in THR's Hong Kong Filmart Day 2 Daily.


Twitter: @GavinJBlair