Japan Cuts 2013 Interview: Toda Yukihiro Discusses THERE IS LIGHT

Earlier this month, our NYC correspondent Diva Velez sat down with Toda Yukihiro to talk about his first feature film There Is Light, which had its North American premiere at Japan Cuts. No doubt a standout title amongst an already stellar program, Toda's film focuses on the subject of sex workers who service the physically handicapped. A subject with no small answers, Diva's discussion with Mr. Toda about a world we rarely get a glimpse into is most certainly in-depth and not surprisingly very fascinating as Toda's stance is very humane and considerate to all parties involved. Please be wary of spoilers on the films ending, which I have marked. [ed. Ben Umstead]   


Twitch: How did the creation of THERE IS LIGHT begin? I understand it's your first feature.
 
Toda Yukihiro: I work for NHK, which is the Japanese equivalent of public broadcasting. I'm a director and producer there and we make documentaries.  There was a plan to do a story about people with disabilities and sex workers. I did a presentation, but my idea was turned down, so I was not going to be able to do a documentary about it.  So then I changed my thinking and I decided that I would like to make a fictional movie about sex workers and the disabled. I would write the script on my own and raise the money on my own and it would be an independent film. It was going to be a challenge, but that was the reason that I ended up making this film.
 
At what point during your research for the documentary idea did you decide you had a driving passion to make a film about such an unusual subject?
 
When I was preparing the idea to do the documentary, I went to see this person that lives in Osaka and he actually runs an escort agency, employing sex workers who specialise only in working with the disabled. I had gone and seen him several times and he was a very, very attractive person.  He actually works in the daytime; he's actually a caregiver for people with disabilities and at night he runs the escort service for the disabled.  So basically, he is working 24 hours a day.  Through his experience working with disabled people during the day, he became friends with them and sometimes some of the people have terminal diseases - all of a sudden, they'd just pass away. Through the friendships that he nurtured with these people, he realised that some of these people would never have particular contact with women or a sexual contact with women. He reflected on it deeply and he decided to start this escort agency, but of course it was criticised at the same time. He was such an incredible, attractive person that I was drawn to him and decided I had to do my story about him.
 
In your course of research did you talk to the sex workers or clients or the clients' families? The difference in the families' reception of the prostitute, Saori, is fascinating: Client Mizutani's family disapproves, while the mother of client Kenji nurtures their relationship.
 
Yes, actually, in the course of the story, I spoke many times to the person who runs the escort agency in Osaka and also to the sex workers that work at this agency.  I also spoke with the disabled themselves; some suffering from terminal illnesses and paraplegics, and also  Hokingu Aoyama, who is actually in the film. The more you discuss this matter with them, the more you find out that it's a very heavy subject. I understood that I wouldn't be able to portray all of that in the film.  I also wanted to have some light-hearted elements in the film so the audience members who come to see it won't go home very heavy-hearted.  So I did a lot of research and through that research I realised that the sexuality of the disabled is a very deep-rooted and difficult issue.
 
Is there any sort of legal differentiation for sex workers for the disabled in Japan?  Are they exempt from prosecution?
 
No, not at all. There's no special exemption.  For example, actual prostitution itself is illegal in Japan, so sex workers would usually not have sexual intercourse, but would provide different kinds of sexual services. There are so many that are engaged in this in Japan. Koizumi Maya, the actress who plays Saori, actually went to a prestigious girls' high school, but she told me that there were so many of her peers that had some sort of part-time job outside the school engaging in this kind of sex work. There is a large population of girls or women involved in this, and they're not call girls. It falls under a term called "fūzoku," in Japanese, and you have to know there's the existence of this very weird sex culture that is only unique to Japan.  When it comes to these types of unique agencies - and of course when we say "escort," there is no sexual intercourse - there is only one specializing in the disabled and there is no subsidy from the government.  In terms of running a business it's very tough; it's not an established part of the sex industry. So when you see it in the film it's portrayed differently, when they talk about what big business it can be, but that is where the fictional part comes in.
 
For your non-disabled cast, did you have them do any sort of research into the daily lives of the disabled?
 
Yes, indeed. Actually, for example, Mizutani's character has muscular dystrophy: So myself and Kan Yuki, who plays Mizutani, and the cameraman went to a patient who actually has the disease. Not as progressive as it is in the film, but still has it.  We spent a day with this person and videotaped his movement and made sure that the actor would learn what the body movement was going to be like. For the actual shooting, we had another patient who suffers from MD and after each shot we would make sure the movement was correct and was consistent with what it's like to have the actual disease.

Actually, Moriyama Masayuki, who plays Kenji, who is paralysed from the waist down; we provided him with a wheelchair, so he would be able to familiarise himself with what it was like to be in a wheelchair.  We asked him to actually live in the wheelchair until the day of the shoot and he became very good with it.  But he discovered that just to go to the convenience store could take an hour because it's very inconvenient to do shopping, because if there's just one step in front of the store, he cannot use his wheelchair.  Or to just trying to pick something up off a shelf; he realised it was very hard.  He learned it to an extent that he became so good at manoeuvring around with the wheelchair that at one point where they go out together with him in the wheelchair, I asked him if he would look a little more awkward.  He was very passionate about the role and both he and Kan Yuki are both relative newcomers, so they really absorbed themselves into the roles.
 
For the more intimate scenes, how did you put your relative newcomer cast and Ms. Koizumi at ease?
 
One of the things that I actually told them in the beginning was, "Don't overact. Just act as a human being and just be a person." Of course the newcomers studied acting a lot, so I told them, "Don't act too much. Just be natural as if you're just living your daily life," and even if they said one of the lines wrongly there were times I actually used what they said on the scene. I didn't go back and tell them they had to be very loyal to the script. So I encouraged them to be natural. Of course, when it comes to sex scenes, I thought it was natural that they would be quite nervous, but at the same time, I thought it was okay for them to be nervous. 

So I didn't ever try to make them very comfortable, because it would be natural that in the setting of a sex worker visiting a client for the first time and taking off their clothes and how it's going to unfold, that they would also be nervous, so I just kept things as they were.  I tried not to tell them what to do too much to preserve the naturalness throughout the film, but of course even though it's a very low budget film, there are about 10 staff members looking at what is happening and watching what is being filmed and I think as professionals, they really did their best. However, the Kenji character, he is only 21 and this was the first time he did a bed scene, so he was actually naturally sexually aroused, so that his body kept on reacting in many scenes so that we had to do a lot of retakes. At one point we actually had to put gaffers tape to keep it down because his character's not to supposed have any reactions down there.
 
Poor guy, how embarrassing.
 
Oh, don't feel sorry for him. [Laughs]
 
I wonder how you envisioned Saori, the main character? Sometimes things just happen around her and she goes with the flow and then every so often she'll participate, like choosing to work with the disabled clients and then choosing to visit the man who tried to kill her in jail.  Is she meant to be an active participant in her own life, or does she serve more as a viewer along with the audience to show the clients through her eyes?
 
In terms of Saori, I envisioned her as someone who is going to enter into the world of the disabled so that she'll be the eyes of the audience.  She is like Alice in Wonderland going into the labyrinth from the perspective of the audience.  She is the one going into a world that is an uncharted territory and she is the storyteller in this.  But at the same time, in terms of "Who is Saori? Why does she become a sex worker? Why does she allow the stalker to spend so much money on her?" There are all these enigmatic questions.  The one thing I like to say about her is that there is a very depressed side in this. 

The actual Japanese title [Kurayami kara Te wo Nobase] translates as "Reach your hand from darkness into the light," so I think what Saori is looking for was hope; she was looking for light. From the very depressed dark side, she was looking for hope.  So she actually embodies that kind of thinking; trying to reach for light from darkness. I think that is her role.  I didn't actually explain that explicitly in the film. As for me, what cinema is all about is something that is made not only with the filmmakers, but you actually co-create with the audience. The filmmakers provide the visual image and the recipient is the audience and it becomes cinema with that transaction. So using Saori as the storyteller, as the vehicle to unfold this narrative, I actually wanted to draw people to have more imagination, so I think that each audience can see Saori in a different way.

[BEGIN SPOILERS]
 
Could you please clarify the ending a bit, whether Kenji was actually hiring Saori after they seem to have become true friends?
 
So, there is the scene where they go to the sea and Kenji wants to commit suicide and was saved by Saori, and then they create this bond and Kenji goes back to work and then he actually asks for her service - asks for her to come back.  So they remain in this relationship as a customer and the one who provides a service.  So maybe it's not a so-called happy ending, but I wasn't trying to make a film with a so-called happy ending.  People have said maybe it should have been a story where they fall in love and become a couple, or Saori quits her escort work and becomes an office lady, or something miraculous happens to Kenji where he's able to walk around again; but I thought those would be very superficial endings.

[END SPOILERS] 

A main point of the film is that anyone in life can encounter difficulties - big or small - that they will just happen to you, but no matter what the challenges you encounter, that you will live on, you will survive that, and you will overcome those difficulties. Through Kenji and Saori, I wanted to speak about hope, so there is just a little bit of light at the end of the tunnel that you will see, and you will just keep on moving and then survive and live on.  The film's ending is not about finding a solution, it is about conquering those difficulties that you encounter through your daily life and somehow you find a way to survive and live on. That's why I didn't want to change the framework of their relationship in terms of Kenji being the disabled person and Saori being the sex worker.
 
Do you think that this will change the way disabled people are viewed in Japan?
 
The film itself is a very low budget independent film, so it can only reach out to a certain number of people, so I'm not sure how this is going to influence the landscape in relation to those issues in Japan.  But people who have actually seen the film have said to me, "Never in my life had it occurred to me to think about the sexualities of the disabled."  Or that they found out about these kinds of issues for the first time.  Or, "I've never known about sex workers - especially with the disabled - and I actually looked down at them, but they're actually cool." I got feedback like that. I didn't make the film with any particular bias to support what they do or the rights of the disabled or the rights of the sex workers. 

I went into this film with a very neutral stance, but I'd like to comment that the way the disabled are treated in Japan is really not good, and that needs to be pointed out. It's very, very hard to live in Japan as a disabled person, because even if you were to come up with new policies, I think there is no sense of inclusion in terms of trying to include the voice of the disabled. 
I think it's a very unfriendly environment. Even when it comes to the issue of sexuality, it's a very closed subject where no one really talks about it. So hopefully when this film is shown on television or on DVD, we will be able reach out to a larger number of people. It would be really great if the disabled would be able to live as they want without feeling like they are the ostracised people in the society, and people would be really able to empathise with the disabled. I really see this more as a catalyst that might be able to make some positive change down the road.
 
What is next for Toda Yukihiro?
 
In terms of the next film, I actually received a Grand Prix prize at the Yubari International Fantastic Film Festival.  They actually provide you with about $20,000 to make a film, but if you don't make a film by February next year, by the time of the next film festival, you lose the funding; so I will have to come up with the final project by then.  I'm really thinking very hard right now and trying to come up with an idea. One idea is to do a story about a woman who actually encountered a sex crime. There was this woman who wrote a book about what happened to her when she was raped at age 24, and she wrote a book using her own name, which is very rare in Japan because normally you would try to be anonymous. So the book is about what happened to her life and how it has destroyed her relationships with her lover and also her parents. Basically, it has destroyed her personality and life. Even after she got married; her husband would try to hold hands with her and then she would feel nauseous about it because she can't deal with anything that's related to sexual contact. So basically she had to give up her happiness and joy as a woman. At the same time she was not able to get any support from her parents because her parents insisted, "Why did you have to write a book about the rape incident with your actual name on it?" because in Japan, if you are a victim of a sex crime, they would not reveal your actual name. So that really destroyed her relationship with her parents, as well. 

That was a story I wanted to turn into a film because there were comments I received after There is Light; some were very positive comments about understanding the sexual desire of the disabled, especially including the sexual desire primarily of men in light of the film. But if you place yourself on the opposite side of the scale, there are people whose lives are completely destroyed because of that sexual drive, so I wanted to make a film about that from a very opposite perspective. My tendency is that when certain things are looked at from one perspective, I try to see it from the other perspective.

About my films; basically, I raised my own money so that no one is going to disturb me with the creative process, so I would like to always challenge taboo subjects that no one is interested in doing in cinema. What's happening in Japanese cinema today is that there is definitely more weight on entertainment. I think there's two types of film: One is where you go and see a film and you're sort of in a dreamlike state and it's nice and it makes you feel good. And then there's the other types of film which actually makes you open up your eyes and face issues and certain types of reality. So even if I become the last person in Japanese cinema to makes these types of film that are going to open up your eyes and then make you face a certain type of issues; I'd like to be that type of person.

I'd like to say that yes, of course, Hentai Kamen and Thermae Romae [also playing at Japan Cuts] are great films, but I would like to make a point that that's not all of our cinema.  I was particularly influenced by New Wave cinema in the United States, so I hope I'll be able to make a film that would live up to what I've received from these masters.

This interview was cross-published at Diva's website The Diva Review.
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