Emotional Locations: A Meeting with Ryuichi Hiroki

By Maggie Lee

m-ryuhi-hiroki-3.jpgM, 2006

Little known internationally outside of the film festival circuit, the films of Ryuichi Hiroki are steeped in a vital sense of place and rigorously real portraits of women on the edge

“He handled me as if he was handling a peach,” reveals the heroine (Terajima Shinobu) of Vibrator (2003) after a night of intimacy with a truck driver (Nao Omori). The same could be said for the characteristic sensitivity and gentleness with which Ryuichi Hiroki handles his female subjects, in a versatile career, which includes ten years in the Pink and ‘Roman Porno’ industry.

Many attribute his skill at coaxing uninhibited (emotional or otherwise) performances from both veteran and first time actors to his background in erotic cinema, but he seems to think otherwise. “It is true that the films I make now sometimes overlap with the genres of Pink and Roman Porno,” he says. “In those genres, the female characters are often idealized, and seen through a masculine perspective. After my Pink period, I tried to create more realistic and down-to-earth female characters.”

It is no coincidence that his most memorable portrayals are of thirty something women caught between sexual liberty and social instability. Having fallen off the track, or opted out of the conventional Japanese Office Lady/Housewife existence, they are reluctantly single, financially insecure, emotionally fragile and prone to compulsive behavior. Prickly durians with mushy insides, they long to be handled like a peach. Sadly, any tenderness or sexual comfort that comes their way tends to be transient, though it leads inevitably to some kind of inner awakening.

last-words-ryuchi-hiroki-2.jpgLast Words, 2006

The quirky waitress in Tokyo Gomi Onna (Tokyo Trash Baby) (2000) conjures up a DIY love life within her anonymous apartment by making collective items out of the rubbish cast away by her neighbour – a rock musician on whom she has a crush. However, when she finally gets to spend the night with him, there is revelation followed by disappointment. Yet, the ending is quietly upbeat as she unloads her emotional baggage by throwing away his junk at the garbage dump.

In Vibrator, probably Hiroki’s best known film outside Japan, the heroine is a freelance writer given to drinking and bulimic fits, whose self-obsession and endless chatter with herself is only interrupted when she allows herself to be picked up, and taken across country by an equally marginalized truck driver. A road movie in which the camera paradoxically lingers on snug interiors, closing in on the furtive spaces of sexual encounters (like the driver’s seat, or a motel bathtub), and the inner chambers of the heroine’s mind, it ends in a full circle, as she gets off where she got on, but now more at home with herself.

Yawarakai Seikatsu (It’s Only Talk) (2005), which won awards in many festivals, takes an even more up-close examination of a woman’s hang-ups and debilitating neurosis. While the heroines of Tokyo Trash Baby and Vibrator at least hold down a job, Yuko, lives off insurance compensation for her parents’ deaths, and suffers from clinical depression. While she provides occasional (im)moral support to three misfits she’s met on the internet, when her depression hits, it is like a hurricane that demolishes her grip on reality. The arrival of her Kyushu bumpkin cousin (Toyokawa Etsushi) provides some relief, but this interlude, like the romantic encounters in Hiroki’s other films, is not the be-all and end-all, but rather a catalyst for her own shaky attempt to pull herself out of her disorders.

At no point does the director lose his sympathy for the characters, even if the camera takes in all the discomfort and self-indulgence of their soul-baring with immaculately composed close-ups. There is loving attention to every detail of the heroine’s domestic surroundings, from her goldfish to her retro curtains and sheets, and the amber-hued lighting that embraces her in a warm glow.

last-words-ryuchi-hiroki.jpgLast Words, 2006

So what attracts Hiroki to such subjects? “It’s a combination of my own misconception of how women think and a more impersonal observation of their behavior. Often, it is the way I portray male characters that critically determines how the female characters come across on screen. If I can’t even create male characters that the female characters can respond naturally to, how can I make them convincing as real women? I often listen to my actresses and female friends on what kind of guys are likeable, and their views on masculinity,” he explains.

Vibrator and It’s Only Talk have become his most celebrated works largely because of the casting of acclaimed stage actress Terajima Shinobu. A magnetic force who commands attention in every scene, her performance gives emotional depth and dramatic intensity to the characters’ plight.

He balks at the suggestion that she is his muse. In Japan, ‘muse’ has too strong a connotation. However, he does compare their collaboration with that between Yasujiro Ozu and his actress, Setsuko Hara. “We weren’t on good terms during the shoot of Vibrator. I think Terajima didn’t like me at all. She didn’t even turn up at the screening of the first print. But after the film was released, she received a lot of praise for delivering a performance that was different from all her previous works, so I guess when the result is good all is forgiven.”

By the time they made It’s Only Talk, “we have become good friends and comrades,” says Hiroki. Is that why he wanted to go beyond Vibrator’s emotional instability to the psychological deep end in It’s Only Talk? “From the director’s standpoint, she has many drawers I can pull. She is always well prepared to go as far as a director wants her to.” Would he like to work with her again? “Definitely, though it’s very tiring! Like Satoko in M, she lets me direct her, but actually leads me,” he says laughing.

m-ryuhi-hiroki.jpgM, 2006

Hiroki continues to explore the intriguing and paradoxical power equilibrium that his female subject holds over men in M, a recent work that was first unveiled October 2006 in the ‘Japanese Eyes’ section of Tokyo International Film Festival. Again, it is the female protagonist that captures one’s attention. Like the heroine of Bunuel’s Belle De Jour, Satoko is a middle-class housewife with a son in primary school, and a husband she has scant sexual interest in. One day, she responds to a recruitment ad and begins moonlighting as a prostitute. Gradually, she finds herself unable (or unwilling) to extricate herself from her relationship with her pimp and the dark world of sadomasochistic impulses. Minoru, a newspaper delivery boy, is obsessed with Satoko and tries to ‘rescue’ her from her plight, but contact with her reawakens the turmoil from his traumatic childhood experiences.

Unlike Vibrator or It’s Only Talk, which employ stream of consciousness style voiceovers to keep the viewer connected with every whimsical thought or subtle emotion of the female subject, we never get inside the head of any of the characters in M. Even when there are (deliberately) disjointed flashbacks or references to their violent pasts, they don’t really offer any clue to their motives or their obsessions.

“I want the audience to sort of understand where they come from, so I provide backgrounds, or ‘pseudo-pasts’ to the characters. However, I deliberately give them an anonymous, homogenous quality, because these things could happen to anyone,” says Hiroko. The actress who plays Satoko (Miwon) projects an image that is both homely and erotic. Even when gripped by fear, or forced to humiliate herself, her porcelain face remains opaque and impenetrable.

“Again, this is related to my belief that everyone has a past and an untold story,” Hiroki explains, “Even someone who looks as ordinary as Satoko. The actress was 26 when she played the role. She is a catwalk model. I chose her because she projected something that’s not typical of a housewife.” As for her relationship with Minoru, the young man who wants to ‘save’ her, the pimp and husband, “she has power over all of them. That’s why I depicted a certain attachment between her and the pimp, to make the power balance between them ambivalent.”

m-ryuhi-hiroki-2.jpgM, 2006

What does the title M mean in the context of this work? “I want to leave it up to the audience to decide, though many would interpret it to stand for Masochist, because that’s what most Japanese men are,” he chuckled, “but then, the Master or dominant is always asking the Masochist what she or he wants, so this is also the ambiguity reflected in the film. Of course, M can stand for other things – like Mother.”

This conversation naturally follows onto another film he made this year: Bakushi (Master of Bondage) (2006), which will be screened with M at Rotterdam International Film Festival 2007. A documentary about Japan's active, and unimaginably diverse, S&M bondage subculture, which has a sophisticated history dating back to the Edo period (and possibly before), it centres on three men who are professional bondage performers. “I learned that each of them has his own philosophy on bondage. I asked them all the same question: what got you into doing this as a vocation, and they all gave different answers. By asking this question, I also ask myself, how did I get into, and why am I making films?”

So there are parallels between these two professions? “Exactly.” He elaborates, “Fundamentally, all of them concurred that the ‘master’ who does the tying up has to find out what the Masochist wants and obey his or her wishes – so the power relationship is paradoxical. Over years they learn that no matter how fancy they make the knots, it’s only a variation on a theme, and not the essence of their performance, because true mastery is not the art of bondage but in understanding the subject’s needs. It’s the same thing for filmmaking. For my first three films, I only cared about how to develop my style and technique, but after that, and especially recently, I realised its about how to draw out the actors, or letting the actors draw me out. As a director, I am in charge, but the process is reciprocal and interactive.”

His flexibility is certainly an important factor in his prolific output as an independent filmmaker unaffiliated to the big studios. In 2006, he has made three films, the latest of which is totally different in tone and genre from the others. Planned for domestic release in June, Last Words is a youth film about a 17-year-old girl who, after her mother’s death, revisits the seaside town where she spent her childhood, after leaving her father a note: “I am going to fall in love.” She stays with a childhood friend whom she fancies, but her romantic aspirations don’t go as smoothly as planned. Produced by BS-I, a TV channel, Last Words stars the immensely popular idol Maki Horikita.

last-words-ryuhi-hiroki-3.jpgLast Words, 2006

Condensed into a short time span in a few main locations, with only central characters who are shorn of all but the most perfunctory histories, the film is attractive for its very directness and simplicity – a fresh departure from the emotional baggage and psychological complexity of his other works.

“The casting of Maki Horikita was determined by the production, but she could only spare one week for the shooting. She expressed an interest in working on something about death. Initially, I planned to make a documentary, but it evolved into drama because no matter how you look at it, death is very dramatic. However, I still wanted to portray Horikita in a different light from her usual idol image – I tried to capture what it feels like to be 17, so the film starts out with the trappings of a love story, but takes a surprise turn. In the end, she was happy with the progress, and gave me an extension of three days for the shoot.”

Reinforcing the homespun quality of this simple tale is the slightly timeless small town setting. “We couldn’t go location hopping on such a tight shooting schedule, so I looked for somewhere close to Tokyo, by the sea, with a summer feel, but not too picturesque – so we settled on Chiba. Actually, I wish I could go to Okinawa, but no money. But once we started shooting the scene of the girl talking to the married woman (her crush’s love interest) on the bench, I felt I couldn’t have chosen any other place.”

Though Hiroki sometimes chooses locations out of expedience, his talent for digging out their own unique flavor and atmosphere makes them come alive as part of the film’s character. “Dramatically speaking, it might be more interesting to have a man walking in Meguro and then cut to him emerging from Shinjuku, but I often prefer to limit myself to a specific location so I can go deeply into the details of that area. This makes the film more authentic.” Nowhere is sense of place more vividly conveyed than It’s Only Talk, set in Kamata – the former address for Shochiku Studios. “I wanted to make a film about Kamata, so I chose to adapt a story set there. I did intensive location hunting for two weeks, going from place to place by car, then stopping to walk around, coming back at night again to check it,” he recalls.

Girlfriend, arguably his most charming film to date, was shot almost exclusively in Jiyugaoka, a fashionable hangout for the Tokyo smart set, with trendy cafes and boutiques. A disarmingly simple and sunny story of intimacy between two girls, it plays with multiple timelines.

ryuhi-hiroki.jpgRyuichi Hiroki, photo by Maggie Lee

“From the start, I wanted to adopt a non-linear narrative, but the script was written in chronological order, I just shot it with flashbacks and flash-forwards. I’ve wanted to make a film with photographer as subject. The time-line runs parallel to the mundane linear life outside of the photo session; because their time together is so special it has its own rhythm. As for the relationship between the girls, it doesn’t matter whether they are lesbian or straight. I wanted to capture those moments when two women are in touch with each other, and they can be physically intimate without being gay, or even sexual. This is what makes women’s friendships different from men.”

With a repertoire that reflects so much versatility that it’s hard to place or label him in the industry, does Hiroki have any strategies to navigate his career between erotic films personal, art-house films and more commercial works?

“There are big budgets and small projects – my attitude is to take whatever comes and try my best. As a professional I don’t want to limit myself to just what I want to make for myself. It’s a challenge to take on commissions. It helps to stretch my experience and potential. If I keep making Vibrator or It’s Only Talk I’d corner myself – I want to see other worlds and other things, and I need others to kick me into action. If given the liberty to do whatever I want, I might keep remaking Vibrator – and go mad. That way, I’ll only be able to make one film every three years, because I need to recoup from that intense experience, so I prefer to alternate my projects and do the things I like bit by bit.”

A Special Edition DVD of Vibrator with English subtitles is now available from Yesasia.com, and Kino will be releasing Tokyo Trash Baby in the US on DVD in early 2007. Other films referred to in this article, including It’s Only Talk are sadly not yet available with English subtitles.

Maggie Lee is a writer based in Japan, and co-editor with Ben Slater of the Japan pages of this issue of Vertigo.