Kiki Sugino is a young, multitalented film actress and producer. With her Korean-Japanese background, and being involved with different projects from Japan to Korea to Malaysia, she has been dubbed the muse of Asian cinema. After having seen her most recent film Odayaka I couldn’t agree more. Her strong screen presence and beautiful looks make her a delight to watch, and on top of that she successfully produces film after film. I spoke with her about her new movie, dealing with the topic of the 3/11 disaster in cinema, and her career.
First off all, could you say something about what Odayaka is about, and how it came to be made?
Kiki: It’s about the consequences of the 3/11 earthquake, tsunami and nuclear disaster. The setting is an apartment complex in Tokyo in which two women live next to each other. The film focuses on their fear of radiation, and shows the friction that this causes between people in society. In June the director, Nobuteru Uchida, offered me this film. I only received a 1-page summary of what it was about. The content appealed to me because after the disaster a lot of directors went to the Tôhoku area to shoot documentaries, but Tokyo was not given any attention. Tokyo is, of course, a place where all kinds of people with different professions and nationalities gather. Everyone has a different background and therefore react differently to something like this. That’s why a lot of people are a bit tentative in responding, waiting to see how others act. Since Tokyo was at a critical distance concerning the radiation, in which it was very unsure whether or not it was safe, it really felt like a film that should be made about these tensions.
I must say I thought both your and the other lead actress; Yûki Shinohara’s performances were amazing, and especially yours was very intense. Was it difficult playing this specific role?
Kiki: Well first of all, I’m not married and I don’t have children, thus I kind of saw myself as not really having a maternal instinct yet. So playing a concerned mother was a challenge. To prepare I did a few interviews with mothers with young children, and of course I was also dealing with children on the set, so in doing so my maternal instincts did kind of awaken. People often ask me if this emotional role was difficult. But in a way, playing this role gave me a chance to let out a lot of emotions I had been dealing with personally since the disaster, so it was actually a very liberating experience.
Makiko Watanabe was also playing a very intense role, as she always does, what was it like working with her?
Kiki: Makiko Watanabe plays both in big budget films and independent films like this one, and I respect her a lot. In the case of this film we eventually had a script of about 100 pages, but the director has a somewhat unique approach on the set which almost makes it seem like it’s his goal to forget about the script altogether. So there was a lot of improvisation, as long as we used the keywords and main points from the script, it didn’t really matter what else we added into it. And this is exactly one of Makiko’s strong suits, being able to give a lot right there within the moment, and I have a learned much from her in this regard.
I really liked seeing Susumu Terajima’s cameo in the film, how did this happen? Is he a personal friend or did he audition?
Kiki: Susumu Terajima was impressed with Uchida’s previous film ‘Love Addiction’ and told him that he wanted to work together someday. Based on that we actually offered him a big part in Odayaka but due to scheduling conflicts we had to settle with this smaller role.
Could you say something about producing this film? Were there problems in getting the project off the ground due to the controversial topic?
Kiki: Indeed it was hard gathering the funds for this project, usually you just approach the specialized media conglomerates but in this case they didn’t really want to deal with a film touching upon these subjects. The attitude about topics like radioactivity is something like “Can’t we just forget about it, why do you have to bring these negative things back up”. So eventually I had to resort to different sources of finance and even individuals, because I really did want to make this movie. We were actually prepared to get some extreme reactions to this film, but eventually it wasn’t so bad. A lot of people could empathize with characters in the film and we received surprisingly positive feedback.
Do you think it is important that the topic is dealt with in fiction in different ways? For example Sion Sono takes a more darkly comedic approach, do you think this is okay?
Kiki: Yes variety is important I think, the realistic approach of Odayaka is of course not the only way for this topic to be dealt with. Sono uses it perhaps more as a metaphor, and there are other filmmakers dealing with it in different ways. However, since the disaster it does seem like there is a trend of Japanese film makers thinking that they HAVE to incorporate it in some way, and even some foreign directors seem to think of it as such. In my opinion it shouldn’t be looked at in that way necessarily.
If I may ask, were the director Uchida or yourself personally affected by the disaster, and did this influence the decision to make this film?
Kiki: Neither of us was hurt physically or lost our houses or anything, but mentally I think the entire Japanese society has been struck. At the time of the disaster I was at a film festival in Osaka, afterwards I had to go to Korea, and after that immediately to Hong Kong. So I was away from Japan for several weeks and got a lot of the news through foreign media. It soon became clear that there was a pretty big gap between the way the news was being presented in and outside of Japan. It led me to be very concerned. Furthermore, I grew up in Hiroshima and my grandmother is actually a survivor of the atomic bomb, having suffered from radiation, so this played a part. Having this background made the feeling of needing to do something stronger and was probably part of my personal motivation to make this film.
In the movie, the two women feel completely alone, since the rest of society is being so ‘odayaka’, acting as if there is nothing going on. They become discriminated against for supposedly being neurotic despite their best intentions, and only wanting to protect children, does this type of discrimination really occur in Japan a lot?
Kiki: Well first of all I don’t think this is specifically Japanese, people who carry deviating ideas and values from the majority are discriminated against everywhere. But yeah discrimination does occur, for example people using different kanji-characters do imply that people who fear radiation areneurotic. In this film as well as my previous ‘Hospitalité’ I do try to get rid of this thinking in boxes and hopefully aim towards a world without discrimination.
Could you name some of your favorite films and directors?
Kiki: I really enjoy the films of Yasuzô Masamura, he made a lot of films in the 50s and 60s, some featuring actress Ayako Wakao. The female characters that he describes are very interesting, strong and noble. I also love the work of Luis Buñuel, his ‘Exterminating Angel’ is my favorite film, I truly love it. Thinking about current directors one of my favorites is the Spanish José Luis Guerín.
Lastly, which do you enjoy more? Producing or acting? And do you perhaps have aspirations to direct a film some day as well?
Kiki: I debuted seven years ago as an actress. Afterwards I started producing because I want to act in the films that I really really love. I don’t necessarily prefer one over the other because I think acting and producing are quite similar. There are a lot of people who see them as completely different but it’s very natural to me as an artist to be fully involved. I just love everything about films, I love acting, and I love making movies. Actually I am preparing to direct a film, I am writing the script now, so I hope to shoot it this summer. But of course we need money so I’m not fully sure when I can start.