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  • International Competition


Kyoshi Sugita

Kyoshi Sugita
A young woman takes possession of an apartment and on the doorstep, greets the former tenant who’s chosen not to leave a forwarding address. This woman thus enters the film and haunts it all the way through as we follow her endlessly, present in each sequence and magnificently played by Chika Araki with astounding subtlety, mobility and precision. Yet we find out very little about her character: Kyoshi Sugita is obviously more interested in poetry than novels. Inspired by a tanka written by a famous Japanese poet, Higashi Naoko, here – rare indeed – we have a film that abandons the lazy, tired concept of plot to progress by successive epiphanies. What’s the basis of this ability to construct, in a continuous stream, scenes that are each a distinct explosion? There’s no recipe – it’s the organisation of surprises, each different, that allows for the alternation of deliberately heterogeneous moments: teatimes, lunches, daydreaming, sleep, wandering round town (in fact, a lot of people are seeking their way), from an energetic floor-painting sequence to a vaudeville piece with a character hiding in the wardrobe. But the frame undoubtedly plays a role, and one character often conceals another, as though one of the rules here were the possibility of superimposing, not to mention the striking significance of windows, doors and thresholds. And the sound, too, set into the image and present right from the start, is the focus of meticulous care, a way of splitting the image, of making it quiver, with other people passing through.
A pure, cinematographic poem, but one whose dry, unadorned poetry continually niches in different places in the film, this is a grand moment of emotion, this is cinema, uncompromising and  reinvented!

(Jean-Pierre Rehm)

Interview with Kyoshi Sugita

The Japanese title of your film is Mr Haruhara’s Song, but the international title is Mr Haruhara’s Recorder. Why this difference between the two titles?

I made this film based on a Tanka by the famous Japanese poet Higashi Naoko : Gazing Upon / the Address Unknown stamp / The recorder / Played by Mr Haruhara. This tanka is one of the many hundreds collected in Ms. Higashi’s first collection, Mr Haruhara’s Recorder. I did have the option of naming the film Mr Haruhara’s Recorder even in Japanese, but there was the possibility that it would be misunderstood as an adaptation of the whole collection ; I therefore thought of giving it a new separate title, Mr Haruhara’s Song. Both work as the film’s title. When I was working on the subtitled version of the film, I had the idea of using this title that I hadn’t used in Japan.

Your previous films, A song I remember and A song of the light, also have songs in their titles. Do they form a cycle? What relation does the song form hold with your cinema?
It goes back to when I named my first feature film Hitotsu no uta. I then gave it the english title A song I remember, but if you translate the original title literally, A song is closer. As I was writing the script without yet having a title for it, it came to me that perhaps I would go on singing the same song from that point onwards. This song isn’t something that was born inside of me, but something that was there long before I was part of this world. I envision it as if I had managed by chance to capture one of the countless songs that have been floating through this world, as if riding on the wind, and that one cannot hear unless one listens very closely. I think that perhaps my role, as someone who has occasionally grasped that there are such songs in this world, is to give them a shape that can reach other people’s ears. Every time I make a film, I give it a title individually, but it’s as if each was a chapter title. Maybe I put « song » in the title because it feels like I’m producing a « song » every time. The one thing I can say is that both songs and films are an important key to understanding this world that we were born into and inhabit.

The main character in your film appears in almost every scene, and the actress therefore has a very important role. Did she take part in creating the character with you? How did you work together during the shoot?
I first decided to shoot this film in the lobby after the first screening in Tokyo of my previous film, Song of the light. A woman wearing a big mask smiled and greeted me with only her eyes, that I could barely see. I stared at her fixedly for a short while. Then I realized that she was someone who lived with an actress who’d played in a theatre production that I had taken part in for the image section. It was Chika.
I was surprised, as I knew that she was right in the middle of a significant operation and medical treatment on her jaw. She was supposed to undergo her biggest surgery just about then. She wanted to see Song of the light so badly, that she had specifically slipped out of the hospital just as she was about to go into surgery. Seeing her eyes over her mask like that, I spontaneously said « If you get through all this treatment in good health, let’s make a film together as a celebration. » I have no idea myself as to why I said that. Half a year later, remembering this promise, I got in touch with her and we met at a tearoom. On the train back home, one of Higashi Naoko’s tanka suddenly popped back in my head. The tanka that became this film. It was nothing more than an intuition, but Chika’s existence had made me remember Higashi’s tanka.
As soon as I got back home, I sent Ms Higashi an email. She answered immediately, and the preparation got under way. My films tend to have such chance starting points. That’s why everything I did after that had Chika at its center. My way of making films is probably different from the general method. I think most people start their different preparations after having originally completed the script, but in my case, I write the script at the end, after having settled the casting, the location scouting, and the shooting schedule. If Chika is at the heart of the film, then those people should probably be her coactors, and this location will probably be good… that’s how I proceed. Because I only finally start thinking about the film’s contents when I’ve negotiated through all of that, I write a script aimed at my actors and locations. My scripts are filled with secrets, but none of the actors, starting with Chika, asked me anything about the lines. As I have everyone look for the answers within themselves and show them to me on set, my role was to decide to a certain extent on the characters’ movements during each scene, to prepare everyone’s props and food (there were no assistant directors, producers, set designers, or drivers on this film. I did everything. That’s possible when you’re ready to work with very few people), to keep on schedule, to sit next to the camera and check the acting, lighting, wind, to pay attention to the sounds heard on set, and to identify moments when the script doesn’t work and fix it as quickly as possible. As it was basically Chika’s first time acting in a film, it seems she thoroughly enjoyed every day of it. Later, she often slept on set. As I saw that she would fall asleep in some corner of the set as soon as I took my eyes of her, I thought, isn’t she relaxed ? I even started filming the scene with her like that once. She woke up at some point, sensed in an instant that the camera was rolling, and went on with her performance.

All the characters in your film seem to be struggling with past trauma, which may be individual or collective. Yet these trauma are never explained. Why did you choose to leave them unexplained thus?
When you depict characters in a film, you can’t depict everything that has ever happened to them, but you can depict a few selected seconds or minutes. So in those few seconds, the reasons for which that character acts a certain way are captured. If at some point someone calls that character from behind, and if that character doesn’t turn back to look, there has to be a reason for that. They might be lost so deeply in some train of thought that they can’t react, or they might just not be paying attention because they’re tired. Or maybe they can tell who it is just from the voice, and they don’t want to see them because they had a fight the previous day. Whatever the reason, it has to show on that person’s back. A person’s past always shows on their present appearance somehow. That’s why the more you fill the inside of a frame with things to describe, the more extraordinarily widely you can let your thoughts run on what happens outside the frame. I think that’s a good enough reason. There’s also another reason. In real life, I don’t feel the desire to recklessly inquire into people’s past, so I might have felt a feeling close to that one even towards a character who appears in a film. What is equally important is that, even granting that you did know about events in someone’s past, there’s no reason this lets you understand that person easily. However
much you know about a person’s past, that person still remains an enigma. Everyone remains a riddle to the end of their life.

Other characters regularly take pictures of the main character throughout the film. Why did you want to stress this pattern?
Who takes pictures? Firstly, people who are alive; and as to why do they take them, I have the feeling that
it’s because they want to leave something behind. Surely the flipside of this desire to leave something behind is the desire not to die. I think we take pictures precisely because in some corner of our mind lies death. I think that the reason that the people close to Sachi, the main character, each take pictures of her in a different place, is because they wish for her to be present. There also comes a moment when Sachi, who had until then simply let herself be taken pictures of, takes a picture of someone else. At this moment, Sachi exists as a living being. The act of taking a picture is an important motif to hint at the changes in Sachi’s interiority. Among the pictures I’ve taken recently, there’s one of Mizuho Osu and Ryo Anraku, who play the two characters who’ve just come back from a funeral. I took my camera and went to where they live, and took a picture to celebrate. That day, the two went to the town hall to register their wedding. I took the picture just before they went there. Last spring, when I started writing the script, I learnt of a contemporary dancer who had just died. She was a common friend of theirs. I got worried and called them late at night, and the three of us spoke for a long time on the phone. I learnt that news of the death had only reached them after the funeral ceremony had already taken place, only for the family. They hadn’t been able to take part in the ceremony. The next day, I called them back and asked them to appear in the film that I was about to make. I thought it would let there be a day when they would wear mourning clothes and assemble to think about her. In that scene, a Chinese ideogram plays an important role; I took it from the title of a film that Ryo directed, in which Mizuho and that friend both act. The day they went to get married was a year to the day after the news of that friend’s death reached them. I would like that picture to accompany this interview. It is a very good picture, so please have a look.

Interview by Nathan Letoré

  • GNCR Award  
  • International Competition

Technical sheet

Japan / 2021 / 120'

Original Version : Japanese.
Subtitles : English.
Script : Kyoshi Sugita.
Photoraphy : Yukiko Iioka.
Editing : Keiko Okawa.
Music : Skank.
Sound : Yongchang Hwang.
Casting : Chika Araki, Minako Niibe, Takenori Kaneko, Saho Ito.
Production : Jun Higeno (Iha Films).
Filmography : Listen to Light, 2017. A Song I Remember, 2011.