IFFR 2009: Interview with "Looking for Cherry Blossoms" director JO ODAGIRI and two of its stars

This week is a special one in Japan, as this is the time that the whole nation revels in the annual short-lived beauty of the blossoming cherry trees. So while everyone is enchanted by these "Sakura" let's return to one of the movies at this year's IFFR which caused the most discussions amongst those who had seen it: Jo Odagiri's debut film "Looking For Cherry Blossoms".

When Peter van der Lugt (GhibliWorld & Twitch) and I got to interview Jo Odagiri during the International Film Festival Rotterdam I was expecting to get some sense of deja-vu, for I had been talking with Yang Ik-June a day earlier and the situation seemed remarkably similar.
Here we had someone known as an actor, who had created his first long movie and had it premiere internationally at the Rotterdam festival.

Yet it's hard to think of the two interviews being any more different, just as the movies seem to be from different planets. Yang Ik-June's "Breathless" is an almost deadly serious drama about domestic violence, while Jo Odagiri's "Looking For Cherry Blossoms" is an absurd and artsy comedy.
The baffling atmosphere of the movie somehow drifted over into the interview, where Peter and I not only got to ask questions but were being grilled in return about what exactly we liked and didn't like about the movie.

That grilling was done by the director and two major cast members, and to give you a better picture: this happened in the middle of a Japanese restaurant and the three gentlemen (Jo Odagiri, Sabu Kawahara and Hiroshi Yamada) were all dressed in black and wearing hats. Oh, and a few times a Japanese camera crew appeared and started filming bits of the interview. The scene was almost straight out of "A Clockwork Orange" but thankfully nobody got hurt.

More (madness) after the break!

As Peter and I presented ourselves at the festival's press desk and met Judith, our translator, we suddenly got the message that we needed to leave the building, walk across the square and into a Japanese restaurant.
Once there to our surprise the three of us were met not only by Jo Odagiri but also by Sabu Kawahara, Hiroshi Yamada, a camera crew and people from Style Jam, the company which distributes "Looking For Cherry Blossoms".

Remembering my dislike for the movie itself, for a moment I thought "It's a trap!", but of course nothing could be further from the truth.
In fact, there are definitely worse ways to interview a known moviestar than doing it in a place where people keep serving you green tea, and put food (and beer) in front of you inbetween questions!

Warning of sorts: there are some statements ahead that might be considered as being spoilers, although I think it's impossible to predict this film regardless of how much advance knowledge you have.

PvdL: As a starter I'd like to ask the following question: here we are in Rotterdam, the Netherlands, and of all places we still end up in a Japanese restaurant. What gives?

Jo Odagiri: (laughs)
I don't know, I'm afraid sometimes I just can't stay empty. (we all laugh).

PvdL: We have both seen your film and are curious about it. On the one hand I really kind-of liked it but on the other hand, seeing it as a Westerner I wondered what to make of it. I think this film is maybe hard to understand for non-Japanese viewers. Which audience did you aim for while making the film?

Jo Odagiri:
I never thought about any audience that was supposed to see this movie, I just wanted to create something I myself liked. I'm always glad though when people approach me and say "this part I liked", or "this and this bit I enjoyed". That makes me happy.

PvdL: There are a couple of parts that in my opinion really stick out, particularly the scene in which they both roll out of the car and suddenly all of these artistic animated effects happen. What did you have in mind with that scene, what made you include it?


When I wrote the script I quickly realized this scene couldn't be realistic, that it even was impossible to be done in any "real"-looking way. Therefore I imagined it as an animated sequence. Also it marks a point in the film where the story suddenly takes a different direction. The emotions, situations and the goals of the characters change from this moment onward, and I thought animating this part would be the most effective way to show that.

Sabu Kawahara (muttering to Jo, after a few moments of silence):
I'm not sure they understood anything about the film. (we all laugh)

Sabu Kawahara (to us) :
Did you find the animated part to be irritating?

PvdL: No! No, in fact I liked it because it was different. And I think the scene would not have been as convincing if you had tried to do it realistically, especially with a low budget. Animated I think it worked.

AV: Until that sequence I didn't know if I was supposed to take the film at face value or if it was absurd. But from that moment on I thankfully knew that it was all totally absurd.
(we all laugh)

Sabu Kawahara:
But didn't you notice at the very start, with the crooked-walking dog that it was supposed to be a comedy?

AV: Yes, funny, but not yet absurd.

Sabu Kawahara:
If it were a regular drama the dog would have been walking in a straight line.

PvdL: But at the start you might think this is a serious story with some subtle jokes, it could still go every way. But after they get back into the cab things get weird.

AV: Really insane, even.


Sabu Kawahara:
Thank you! (we all laugh)

Jo Odagiri:
I did mean to make the audience think "What kind of film IS this? Are they trying to make me laugh, what is happening?". That was done on purpose.

PvdL: You tried to confuse the audience?

Jo Odagiri:
Yes.

AV: The biggest question I have is: you're a famous actor with loads of experience in the movie and entertainment industry. This is your first film, and it has this odd length of about 60 minutes. Either it's a very short full feature or a VERY LONG short movie.
That must make it difficult to market. How did you intend to distribute this film? Was it meant to be shown in cinemas, or is it direct-to-DVD, or is it to be shown at festivals only?


Jo Odagiri:
I had made five movies already, all of them shorts, and I didn't make these with the intention of showing them to people. For "Looking For Cherry Blossoms" I originally intended exactly the same thing: to make it a short again. But as I was busy with the script it got longer and longer, until I reached sixty minutes. At that point I thought "Ah what the hell, let's make it as a longer movie".
Again, this was never meant for distribution but just to indulge myself.
Distributing films like these is also really very difficult. (laughs)

PvdL: But... if you made this film without distribution in mind, just for yourself, how do you get your budget?

AV: Because this must be a very expensive hobby if you do all the financing yourself!

Jo Odagiri:
Yes, well... it's not like I really have anything else to spend my money on, so for me it's important it goes into my movies.
By the way, did you think it was too short?

PvdL: I didn't think it was very short, but it definitely wasn't long either. Like Ard said it hovers somewhere between a short and a full feature. But I remember thinking that the last scene took up quite some time, compared to the rest of the movie.

Jo Odagiri:
The nude scene.

Sabu Kawahara:
Did you think the nude scene was too long?

PvdL: Well... I am curious what you meant with that scene (speaking to Jo), and I'd like to ask all three of you what you thought while shooting it.


Hiroshi Yamada
Ehm...

Sabu Kawahara:
Well, the nudity was already described fully in the script so we were prepared for it. We all thought it wasn't anything special, we didn't create a fuzz about it.
Remember that this film does not have a regular story, instead it's... it's..
it's Odagiri-Art! (we all laugh)

Jo Odagiri:
Stories always have some sort of... of logical development. Which is exactly what I didn't want for "Looking For Cherry Blossoms".
I tried to avoid any sort of logical development in my movie, so the moment they all go nude it's like they totally let themselves be turned loose, like they are breaking their own taboos.

AV: Well, seeing as how you financed this by yourself and had no distribution in mind at all, I ehm... wow, that sort of renders most of my questions moot.
Usually when people bring their film to a festival for the first time, especially when it's an actor-turned-director doing it, you see that he really wants to tell the audience something. He really has an issue he is emotional about, that he wanted to make a movie about.
Yet with "Looking For Cherry Blossoms" I remember sitting in the cinema and thinking: "What is this about? What on earth is he trying to tell me with this?".
So my question is, is there some sort of emotional heart in the film whatsoever? I think during the screening I attended most people in the audience were confused because they couldn't find it.


Jo Odagiri:
Hmm... (has a long think)
No, there's no such underlying theme in "Blossoms". Because I'm an actor in my regular life I wanted to get away as far as possible from the typical "actors-film" with my movie.
You have actors like Tommy Lee Jones who really have something on their mind that they want to tell everyone and they make a movie about it, but personally I don't understand such a craving. Maybe these people are in films and constantly think "...but I want to say this-and-this!" so they make their own film about it, but frankly that doesn't interest me at all.

Sabu Kawahara:
Of course the actors in the movie must understand what's being meant by it, so when the script doesn't make that clear it gets difficult.
But take Fellini, he used to make movies that had no structure in their stories either!

AV: Yes, but from Fellini I could understand that. He was already a famous director who had successfully made several movies which did have a regular narrative. Then he wanted to do something new, something different.
With Jo Odagiri making his first movie after a career as actor, I was... well, now that I know he made this film basically just for fun I understand it a bit better, but when I saw it I was very surprised at how "loose" it all seemed.


Sabu Kawahara:
What I meant was that Fellini tried to destroy the usual expectations for film, he wanted to change things. In that context I compare Jo Odagiri to Fellini.

AV: OK, fair enough. We've mentioned the script already a couple of times and I was wondering which part of the film was actually in the script, and which part was improvised during the shooting. This movie was made on purpose without a regular structure, so my guess would be that this "anarchy" would lend itself for improvisation.
Yet you told us the script kept growing and growing. How much of the film was detailed in the script?


Jo Odagiri:
Nothing was improvised. Everything was already written down in the script, and shot as such.

AV: Really? Wow, that surprises me.


Sabu Kawahara:
It was actually difficult for us actors, because Jo would point to the script and say: "No, you must use exactly THESE words".

Jo Odagiri:
But even so, we all did our best to make it seem like those words flowed naturally, unrehearsed.

AV: You succeeded!

PvdL: Of course now we are curious how you marketed the film in Japan. Where was it shown and how was it received?

Jo Odagiri: (laughs)
I'm curious myself! The film hasn't been shown yet in Japan, in fact I don't know if it ever will be shown there.

AV: Ah, so we had a true World Premiere here?

Jo Odagiri:
Yes.

AV: Was that scary?

Jo Odagiri:
I was incredibly nervous.
Truly I cannot recall ever having been this anxious in all my time as an actor.

AV: Unfortunately I saw "Looking For Cherry Blossoms" during a press screening. It's a shame I couldn't be at the big public screening because I am very curious about how this would play before a large audience. How did people react?

Jo Odagiri:
I've been to quite some festivals as an actor, and what I always do is I take note of the people who walk out, which always happens to SOME extent. In the screening here at Rotterdam, about 10 percent of the people walked out.

AV: Ouch...that must have hurt.

Jo Odagiri:
Actually, I was very pleased with that! In fact I really got very relaxed, for I had expected around 50 percent of the people to leave, so when that didn't happen... (we all laugh)

AV: With "Looking For Cherry Blossoms" out of the gate now, what are you planning to do next? Do you want to start directing again? Your IMDB-page is suspiciously empty.

Jo Odagiri:
As an actor I will be busy soon, but as a director I only want to film my own scripts. So I will only start a new movie once I have written a new script.
But first I have to go back to making some money again! (laughs)

PvdL: Can you reveal a bit about the films you will shortly start acting in?

Jo Odagiri:
I will be working in a Chinese movie next, directed by Tian Zhuangzhuang (note: this is "The Warrior and the Wolf"). We will soon start the shoot, which will be 4, no... 5 months.

AV: In 5 months, or will the shoot be lasting 5 months?

Jo Odagiri:
No, it will really be 5 months long, it's a massive shoot.
Now 5 months in Rotterdam would be fine with me, but for this they're sending me somewhere deep into the heart of China, where the terrorists are! (we all laugh)

PvdL: Last question: is there a deeper meaning behind the title "Looking For Cherry Blossoms"? Because they are looking for that tree.

Jo Odagiri:
Yes, w...

Sabu Kawahara:
The movie is about all actors coming together, of their spirits coming together in this film!
It's really a very deep movie because it doesn't matter what we were looking for, cherry blossoms or something else, the important thing being that we were looking for it together, the three of us!
Also, cherry blossoms only last a week, so they almost immediately disappear again. Gone, they...

Jo Odagiri:
OK Sabu, now shut up and finish your food! (we all laugh)

PvdL: Sorry, I promised the previous question would be the last, but... I have to ask this. At the start of the nude scene, in a flash we see this mysterious figure with long hair, running naked through the image. You only glimpse him for a moment but you can't fail to notice him. Is it you?

Jo Odagiri: (laughs)
Well... many people think that.
In fact I might want to spread that rumor as it will make it easier for me to sell my movie! (we all laugh)

And so the interview-part of our meeting ended.
Jo Odagiri invited us to stay for lunch and we happily complied.

Last but not least, many, many thanks to translator Judith de Weert. With several people talking through one another at points (and sometimes even with their mouths full) she really didn't have the easiest of tasks here...

Around the Internet:
  • Peter Cornelissen

    nice interview!!

    touches on many points they also discussed in the q&a at the screening I attended. Sabu Kawahara is really a fun guy!

  • Illogic

    Awesome, love these interviews.

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