Kakera – A Piece of Our Lives is an effervescent debut from first-time Japanese film director Momoko Ando. An exploration of sexuality and youth, the film follows the intense relationship between two girls as they partly fumble – and partly hurtle – towards adulthood. Meeting Ando in a Soho coffee bar during the Raindance Film Festival proved a similarly madcap and engaging experience for Electric Sheep‘s Eleanor McKeown. Punctuated by cigarette breaks with her mother and Ando’s views on the sex drive of the elderly (apparently it’s better news for the fairer sex…), the discussion of Kakera was long and lively, and the director gave a passionate explanation of the film’s ideas and aesthetics.
Eleanor McKeown: One of the best things about Kakera is how you capture the intensity of the relationship between the two young girls – how did you prepare the actresses for that?
Momoko Ando: The interesting thing is that the girls who play Haru (Hikari Mitsushima) and Riko (Eriko Nakamura) are completely opposite characters in real life! Riko, for example, is really slow and really sweet. I wanted to do that kind of casting because I think girls have both sides inside themselves, both really shy and outgoing. I thought if I could bring out the actresses’ deep characters, it would probably be stronger than using how they already are in real life. I tried to ignore Hikari completely and make her really depressed and lost throughout the whole process. She got really angry and shouted at me, but that’s exactly what I was waiting for. Haru is supposed to be someone who doesn’t know what to do in her life.
EMK: Halfway through the film the character of Haru starts to gain confidence…
MA: That last shot of Hikari looking through the window at the birds during the blackout, that’s what she’s really like! I told her, you’ve already got that energy, but in the future, you will probably have to play characters like Haru, so you can’t let all your energy out all of the time, or people will think you can only do that kind of acting.
EMK: The film comes from a comic book by Erica Sakurazawa. How much of the book did you change to make it into a film?
MA: It’s a really simple story. I changed probably 80% of it. The characters had really nice dialogue and things they wanted to say in the comic book so I picked that up. I struggled quite a lot to make it more interesting because the comic book doesn’t really explain what the characters are like or their background at all. Riko isn’t a prosthetic artist, for instance. There are just two girls, a middle-aged woman and the boyfriend. So the characters are there but you don’t understand what they are.
EMK: How did the author feel about her book being made into a film?
MA: Well, the comic book is quite old. She wrote it 10 years ago, and it’s not very long, so she was quite open about it being made into a film. We got on very well, I explained to her how I felt about the comic and she felt very comfortable, I think.
EMK: The film is very intense but there’s also a certain amount of distance when dealing with the central relationship. How close did you feel to the material and characters?
MA: I was drawing on painful stuff from my past when I was writing the script and directing the film. I was definitely engaged with the whole thing, but at the same time I didn’t want to make it too deeply connected because life’s sometimes not like that. At that age, you’re probably not connected that much with life and reality because you’re too young to understand people and how deeply they feel things. I wanted to create that weird, surreal mood of youth.
EMK: The film has a really strong visual identity, especially for a debut feature. How did you plan the aesthetic?
MA: The look was really important to me. As it was my first feature film and I was only 26, I thought it would be more interesting if I worked with a cameraman who was older, probably like my dad’s age [Ando is the daughter of actor and director Eiji Okuda] – someone who makes films in a proper, old-fashioned Japanese style. If I’d worked with a young cinematographer who feels exactly the same as me, that would be more common. I decided to work with this cinematographer who’s worked on many 70s and 80s low-budget movies. He’d never worked with young film directors, especially not female filmmakers… We both thought that would be a cool plan. That’s probably why the film looks quite traditional.
EMK: You studied at the Slade College of Art in London before moving into filmmaking full-time – how do you think that influenced your visual sense?
MA: It’s something that’s quite difficult to explain, like describing a smell! You’d have to say it’s like a rose but if you don’t know what a rose is, it’s quite difficult to know what the smell is! I never really felt connected to Japanese culture. I always felt like I stood out, not always in a good way. It’s probably the same in any country but I felt more confident when I came to England, I just felt so comfortable… Also, I liked punk music.
EMK: How did you work on the soundtrack?
MA: Well, I was a crazy, huge fan of the Smashing Pumpkins when I was living in London and I happened to meet James Iha. It just worked out perfectly because what I wanted for the film was something similar to what I used to listen to when I was a teenager and James wrote the music! I knew he would write really beautiful music. It’s never depressing, always really touching and beautiful. James worked with the drumbeats first. We decided what sort of tempo we wanted for the movie and that’s why it feels like it’s all connected, always with the same beat.
EMK: How did you write the script? Did you write it as a linear story? Did you work on the dialogue first or visuals?
MA: It was definitely much more visual. I’m writing the script for my next project at the moment [which follows a female home-help drawn into becoming a prostitute for elderly gentlemen] and it’s completely original. You might think I’m weird, but I remember my dreams when I wake up and I just write all those things down. I always have bits of weird stuff in my notebook. Then I start to read it back because I kind of forget what I’ve written. And I think, ‘Oh, this is quite interesting stuff I’m writing!’ Then I decide on the concept for the next movie, what I really want to do in the film, and I start picking stuff, adding, omitting… like in cooking!
EMK: Do you think of Kakera as a woman’s film? How consciously did you decide that you wanted to treat gender? Did you have something specific to say?
MA: Yes, of course! I always dreamt of becoming a filmmaker who was quite masculine and was able to make movies like the Coen brothers – very manly – but I just found that impossible because I’m a woman and the way I think is female. Once I’d decided to make a very female film, I had so much to say. I was so conscious of gender. I had one positive message – it really doesn’t matter if you’re male or female, it’s more important how you live your life as a human being. In Japan especially, I think young girls and boys aren’t really conscious of who they are or what they are like… I was just so frustrated looking at these people: I believe you should think about how you should live your life as a good person. It’s not about being a good woman or good man.
EMK: What are your plans for the future?
MA: I’m going to be promoting Kakera because it’s going to be opening in Japan in Spring 2010. I’m halfway through my next script so when I finish it I’ll start looking for funding. Kakera is only my first film and I think that if you can’t keep making films you’re not really a director. I hope I can carry on making films. That would be amazing!
Interview by Eleanor McKeown