NY Asian 2014 Interview: Fumi Nikaido Asks WHY DON'T YOU PLAY IN HELL?

With a CV of films directed by some of Japan's most famous and innovative directors, at the tender age of 19, actress Fumi Nikaido is the very definition of the rising star. The New York Asian Film Festival honored her work in films like Himizu, Lesson of the Evil, Ringing in Their Ears, Why Don't You Play in Hell?, Au Revoir l'Eté and My Man. We spoke about being fearless and the softer side of Sono Sion.


The Lady Miz Diva:  I've spoken with several male actors who have worked with Director Sono Sion before, but you are the first female.  Can you please tell us what that experience was like?

Fumi Nikaido:
  He's very kind and he has a lot of love.  At the same time, his films are very hard films to make, so he gets the reputation that he's very hard or rough, but for me, he's extremely sensitive and I believe he's a humanist, as well.

When you first worked with him on the film HIMIZU, you are quite a bit younger.  Now you're a grown up working with him on WHY DON'T YOU PLAY IN HELL? I'd like to know how much freedom in either or both films Director Sono allowed you to interpret your role?

FN:
  For Why Don't You Play in Hell?, I would say it was extremely free.  He left a lot of the decisions up to me.  And he even said it was extremely stressful for him this time, because he didn't restrict his actors so much and he allowed them to do what they wanted.  But in terms of fashion, we actually went to buy those clothes together; myself and Director Sono.  I purchased the makeup and the nails, as well, so in that sense, we made that character together.  After a rough idea of the exterior, the costumes were decided, he said, "Well, I did all I could do, so now it's up to you."  But on location, as you know, Michiko is quite an egotistical character, so I just pursued that.  I focused on her character, and at the same time I felt as if I could do anything with this powerful character.

That said, did you then feel like you had more invested in Michiko than you did as Keiko in HIMIZU?

FN:
  Not particularly.  I would say that for every project, it's the job of the actor to make sure that the character truly exists in that story world.  So, as much as possible, I need to do that to make sure that they really exist on a corporeal level.  For this role, there were a lot of external things that I could create in terms of style and whatnot, but also my approach to acting is that when I'm on location, I really try to feel what I feel on set at that particular moment and let that guide me.  And for Himizu, the only difference was that I had to gain a little more weight because I was playing a middle school student and there is more physical density around those teenage years, so that was the only difference.

WHY DON'T YOU PLAY IN HELL? has so much action, I was a bit worried about you, but you were amazing.  Can you talk about the stunt work and fight choreography?  Did you like the physicality of the role?

FN:
  In terms of sword fighting, I had an instructor, Karasawa-san {Isao}, and he's a good friend of mine, but he's a rather carefree character: He would always be pretty late to our practices, so I was really worried about what would happen.  But on set, there were a lot of people that I could look up to and a lot of people that really instructed me, such as {actors} Kunimura-san {Jun} and Tsutsumi-san {Shinichi} with lots of experience.  They ended up teaching me, but I really had to learn on set on my own in terms of the sword fighting.  And that particular scene where I slide through the bloodbath, I would just say that I tried it and I could do it, and I think I was feeding off the atmosphere of the set and also this all-powerful character.  I think I was feeding off of her energy, so I could do it even without practice.

I would like your interpretation of the film.  Was it all in the dream of the director?  Do you think they lived at the end?

FN: 
I think in a sense, that that last scene with the standing ovation and everybody has bandages on, so I think it's the director's gag that they were all alive.  But I didn't really think about it in particular on the set, but I do know that the director wrote the screenplay over 20 years ago, so he was finally able to realise it.  So I think he had very particular needs and wants in terms of how the film would look.  And I think every single character had a real life reference, as well, for instance, his past girlfriend; it turned out to be she was a yakuza's daughter, and then he also reflected part of himself, as well.  So, in that sense, I think he was able to make the film that he wanted to.

Do you feel like Michiko is a risky role for you?  You've mostly played very nice girls, or girls that do not kiss boys with glass in their mouths.  Were you at all worried about how people might see you after playing such an edgy character? 

FN:
  Not at all, actually.  When I approach a character, I never worry about risks.  What I find very interesting is that when you look at it on screen, it seems that the actors play a very particular main role, but that's not necessarily true: I mean, I'm just part of an assembly of cast, and behind the cast, there's the director, there's the lighting department, and the costume department, and so on; and all those departments constitute the entire film.  So we're all just pieces of the puzzle, and I'm one of such pieces, as well.  So when I'm involved in a particularly interesting film, I feel very fortunate, and day to day, I don't really worry about risks or potential consequences of taking on a particular role, and I don't get hung up on my particular image.  And yesterday, we were screening Au Revoir l'Eté and My Man and Why Don't You Play in Hell?, and these are three of my favorite films that I've worked on, and these are characters that are very dear to me, so I hope that my fans would perceive how different I am in each role.

And I also have to mention that I was shooting Au Revoir l'Eté and Why Don't You Play in Hell? at the same time.

What was it like to switch between those two very different roles?

FN: 
Actually, I also have to mention that in addition to those two films, I was also shooting a period drama for NHK in which I played a Heian-period princess.  So, those three characters are extremely different, but the effect of that is that they draw out different sides of me.  The harder the role, the easier it becomes for me to play the softer Sakuko character in Au Revoir l'Eté, in which everything was very internal and she's a normal girl-next-door type.  But the girl-next-door type at the same time, pulled out this strong, evil spirited woman, as well. And at the same time, I was also playing this princess from the Heian period, which was almost an imaginary character - I mean, of course it takes place in a real historical time, but at the same time, she was very dreamy.  All this simultaneous shooting I would say is extremely interesting in that sense for an actor.

Last year at the festival, fans was excited to see Director Miike Takashi's LESSON OF THE EVIL. People sort of look at both Miike-san and Sono-san as sort of crazy, wild artistic men.  Having been directed by both, are there notable differences, or similarities in their approaches?

FN: 
I think it's hard and I think you shouldn't compare those directors - it's difficult.  But I find it very interesting that they are known as crazy directors, because if you see my film tonight, My Man, and Director Kumakiri {Kazuyoshi}, I think he'll be very much in the taste of New Yorkers, because he is probably a very crazy director, as well, in that sense.  As I said, I shouldn't compare, but all those three directors, Miike, Sono and Kumakiri; they don't stop at being crazy; they have a lot of pride as filmmakers and they have a very professional stance, and I think those things all contribute their position as filmmakers and their ability to make interesting films.

Would you like to give some closing words to our readers?

FN: 
For tonight, we're showing My Man, and I think it might be an exaggeration to say it's a culmination of my work so far, but it was the last film that I shot in my teens, so in that sense, it was a work that I really tested myself and prepared myself to the extreme, and it was a film in which I had a very strong connection with the director, Kumakiri.  So, I'm very happy that we're screening the film tonight in New York and I hope a lot more people in New York get to see it.  I hope there's a chance for this film to somehow premiere in New York and be distributed here.


This interview is cross-posted on my own site, The Diva Review. Please enjoy additional content, including exclusive photos from the festival there.
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