Nishikawa Miwa, the woman filmmaker who is a protégé of Japan’s celebrated “Shoplifters” director Kore-eda Hirokazu, may be about to step out from his shadow. Her social drama “Under the Open Sky” is set for premiere and a prominent position at the Toronto Intl. Film Festival this month.
The film takes as its starting point the release from jail of a middle-aged former gangster. He may or may not have been harshly treated by the court, but the deeper point is that he has been inside for so long that he is both hardened and friendless in the real world.
The body of the film chronicles his multiple, frustrating attempts to comprehend not just society, but what should be his position in it. Contemporary Japanese society doesn’t seem to want to know, nor to be particularly forgiving. Mostly, it sees stigma and shies away. “Everybody in Japan harbors an unspoken anxiety and suffocation from an unforgiving world,” Nishikawa explains.
The film is an adaptation of the novel “Inmate Files,” written by Saki Ryuzo that Nishikawa discovered while shooting her previous film “The Long Excuse.” She says attitudes have not changed much in the 30 years since the book was first published.
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As a screenwriter and novelist, Nishikawa favors the writing part of the filmmaking process. She says she doesn’t seek to impose a particular filming style, nor does she try to retell and create in the editing room. Her first task is to distill. “Maybe 70% of the film is taken from the novel, but I could not fit it all in to two hours anyway. So, the task was how to capture the essence.”
“I was interested by the story of a man released from prison. It is not a common one (in Japan). I was interested too in the way that this is not attempting to be high drama, just a man with no family, no job and no money, being put back into society,” says Nishikawa. “The writing is very patient, describing a suffocating society. And the man’s character is difficult too.”
Nishikawa says that “Open Sky” is a little outside her comfort zone, in that it is both her first adaptation of another writer’s work and her least personal. Unlike many of her previous films, “Open Sky” doesn’t focus on a liar or cheat. If anything her protagonist, played by a tightly wound Yakusho Koji, is bluntly and uncomfortably honest, but the film does pick up a familiar refrain in that her leading man is again disappointed with the world.
Nishikawa is non-committal about a woman director choosing to portray a male protagonist — “many male directors focus on a female character, and anyway it is the story that guides me” — but she becomes significantly more heated on the topic of women in the Japanese film industry.
“It has been 18 years since I started out. I was in my twenties, and now we see many more female directors of that age. We’ve lost the old school system of apprenticeship, so now there are opportunities in a competitive way, talent can be recognized. We (in the film industry) are even catching up with other Japanese industry sectors,” says Nishikawa. “But we still don’t have a good support system. I’ve concentrated mostly on filmmaking, but would really like to take some time out to change things. I want to co-operate.”
High-level co-operation appears to be the basis of Nishikawa’s ongoing relationship with Kore-eda, who she got to know as assistant on his 1998 film “After Life” and 2004’s “Distance.” Now they are part of the same Bunbuku production company.
“I’ve learned how Kore-eda crafts a screenplay. It is an obsessional, continual process of rewriting. It is not at all about pitching projects,” Nishikawa laughs. “Today we are fond of each other. We read each other’s screenplays. We are each other’s harshest critics, and loyal colleagues.”