I understand that Bean Cake was inspired by the Japanese folktale, The Red Bridal, first introduced to the West by Lafcadio Hearn in 1894. What was it about that folktale that captured your interest in the first place?
I always identify with stories about outsiders. But there were two moments in this story that captured my interest right away. The moment that Taro says "bean cake" instead of "the Emperor" was sublime. This act of childish naïve sincerity becomes an effortless and outrageous act of rebellion. When I read this part I just thought that Taro's answer was such a beautiful way to mock the ridiculousness of any time a group tries to impose an extreme obedience to a nation or religion or way of thinking. I also thought that the young girl's final line, "Do you love bean cakes more than me?" was so perfectly cute and smart. She teases and flirts with Taro and mocks the teacher's ideology in one breath.
Why did you choose to set your own adaptation in the Japan of the 1930s, rather than some other period?
At first I wanted to set my film in the exact same period and rural location of the original tale. I was for some time stuck on a literal adaptation of the setting and the story. My intention was to shoot in Japan or failing to build a set of a rural Japanese school (circa 1850s) on a sound stage in LA. When I realized that either of these two choices was going to be prohibitively expensive for a student film, I had my first realization about the need to compromise or adapt according to your resources as long as the heart of the story you are trying to tell is not compromised. I realized that as long as the story took place before WWII that it really didn't matter when. And then the only location I could find in LA that looked anything remotely like a Japanese school was a large elementary school in Pasadena that had been built in the second decade of the Twentieth Century. I changed the story setting to a private school in Tokyo just before the war. Basically this moved the story as far into the future as possible without going past WWII. I also thought about the new character's backstory and imagined that his father was an officer in the Army and had been stationed recently in Manchuria, which explained some of his melancholy attitude. It was pointed out to me later that ten years after the time of the film, Taro would most likely be fighting in the war himself. This added a level of complexity I hadn't planned for.
Among the changes you made in your adaptation of the folktale, is your strengthening of Taro, making him a bit tougher. While in the folktale, at least in Lafcadio Hearn's telling of the story, Taro cries when first interrogated by the teacher, which makes the other children laugh even more, and then cries again when O-Yoshi tries to comfort him, your Taro never sheds a tear. What were your thoughts concerning these changes in his degree of self-control?
This was the key change that my co-script writer, Chris Zeller, introduced. I identified with the weak version of Taro in the original story. I could imagine myself feeling terribly ashamed at making such a huge mistake and not being able to handle the ridicule. I knew that there was something wrong with my literal adaptation (the first few drafts). Everyone I gave them to noted that there was no real conflict or climax or resolution. Taro just cries and Mihara makes him feel better. Chris tends to write very intense stories with outer or overt conflict between characters and I was nervous about having him take a stab at a rewrite. I emphasized to him that I was going for a much quieter style of film than the ones he was used to making. I like to think of my style as less melodramatic than his. Anyway, I asked if he wanted to read the original story. He said no, that that would influence him too much. He took my old script and came up with Taro's reluctance to change his answer and the teacher's ultimatum. These changes were so crucial that I finally felt confident about actually shooting the script. In fact, Chris wanted to make Taro even more overtly defiant. I pulled him back and explained to the actor that the main reason he doesn't answer at first is because he is embarrassed and scared of saying the wrong thing. Later he refuses to change his answer because he is mad at the teacher for embarrassing him and not for political reasons.
The cushion and tops O-Yoshi brings to Taro are also your own inventions. Can you tell me why you added them to the story?
We took out the scene where Taro cries and O-Yoshi consoles him so we are left without a reason for Taro to fall for O-Yoshi. I hate love stories where we are supposed to assume that the male protagonist falls for the girl simply because she is pretty and for no other reason. I wanted scenes that concretely showed O-Yoshi's kindness towards him and showed them playing together, becoming friends. In the original story Lafcadio Hearn is able to simply write something like "and they played together and had such a wonderful time." I had to come up with something specific that expressed this. I called my Japanese tutor from high school and asked her to brainstorm some different kinds of games that kids in 1930s Japan might play. Somehow the tops felt like the quietest game that could be played with just two kids and that was still somewhat visually interesting.
I understand that you are an admirer of Ozu. Are there specific shots in Bean Cake that you see as particularly influenced by Ozu's cinematography?
Definitely the first shot and the final scene. I toyed with the idea of having the characters look straight at the camera. There is that famous Ozu scene where four characters are sitting around a table and the bottle is always facing the same way from every perspective. I thought of Ozu's lack of camera movement and simple, center-punched compositions as a good way to take the hand of the director out of the camera work so that people could just concentrate on the story and the performances.
You directed your actors in Japanese. How does it happen that you speak Japanese?
I've been fascinated with Japanese culture since I was in 5th grade of
elementary school. I started reading American comic books and a writer/artist named Frank Miller who was fascinated with Japan was using ninjas in all the comic books that he took over. So American superheroes like Wolverine and Daredevil were all of a sudden fighting ninjas. I thought it was the greatest. My parents took me into New York City to the Asia Society to practice calligraphy and do research on a report I was doing on ninjitsu in 6th grade. After having Japanese food and seeing movies by Kurosawa and Itami's "Tampopo" I decided I wanted to visit Japan. But I vowed I would study the language before I went. I studied with a tutor in high school and then throughout college. My junior year of college I studied in Kyoto.
There are special challenges in directing child actors. Did you use any particular strategies in working with Riuichi Miyakawa and Sayaka Hatano?
First of all, I can't say this enough. These two kids are just so smart that the usual challenges that you hear about didn't come up. With Sayaka the only problem I had was that she didn't speak any English. My Japanese isn't perfect but once I got the basic idea of the scene and the emotion I wanted her to convey, she just got it. One or two takes. Ryuichi was a slightly different case. He has an incredible memory. I actually gave him very mechanical directions, like look at the teacher for two seconds and then look down for three seconds. I had to previsualize the timing exactly. Because he would do exactly what I said. But I could also tell him things like look surprised. Not that surprised. And he could dial these emotions up and down in discernible degrees. He just has such an expressive face. But he never really went over the top. Except once. The scene where his mom comes back to school and he calls out her name in sort of a whiny voice. I had to take a wild line that we recorded afterwards and slip it in because every on-camera take was so whiny. Other than that, however, he was always beautifully understated. Neither of them had acted before. I think that's the main reason their performances feel natural.
Were there special challenges involved with casting and with creating a Japanese set in Los Angeles and Pasadena?
I couldn't take an ad out in the trades, which is standard procedure, and find bilingual child actors. Adults were no problem. But my producers and I ended up driving all over Southern California to every Japanese language school in existence. I also went to the large Japanese communities in downtown LA and Orange County during their O-Bon festivals and passed out fliers. The response was very thin. We hit the jackpot at two schools south of LA where the students are the children of Japanese executives that are in the US temporarily and are learning completely in Japanese as if they were still in Japan. The second and third generation Japanese Americans were either not good enough at Japanese or not good enough as actors. I originally was looking for a Grandfather for the mother role (as it is in the original story) but I simply couldn't find anyone. The location was a big stumbling block until a fellow USC student recommended the school that we eventually used in Pasadena. Except for the Northwest however, I think California is the only place in America I could have made this student film. I got a lot of support from the local Japanese community in Little Tokyo, where we found some of the props, textbooks, and the temple which let us use their Tea Room for Taro's living room in the first and last scenes.
You edited as well as directed Bean Cake (not to mention co-writing, co-producing and sound editing the film). Sometimes editors want to trim away shots kill the darlings that directors feel are essential. Did you make special efforts to see your film through new eyes when you worked in the editing room?
Probably not. I edited together basically what I had storyboarded. For the most part I was lucky and most things just fit into place the way I had imagined it. In some scenes however I think I definitely tried to use every angle that I had shot at first and gradually realized that simpler is better. I would sit at the Avid and watch the cuts with a friend and decide whether or not the shot was going on too long. You get a new perspective when you're forcing someone else to watch your student film with you. You can really feel the length with an audience, no matter how small. Viewing it now, I think I let a few shots in the very first scene go on too long. But, I think you can get away with that more at the start of the film.
Were you inspired by any short films in particular?
I can't say that Ohagi was directly inspired by any short films in particular, but one of the best short films I've ever seen is also about kids in school. It's a love story fable packed with comedy called, Mad Boy I'll Blow Your Blues Away, Be Mine. It was directed by a USC student named Adam Collis. It is so funny and touching and entertaining in a very short period of time. It has much more energy and fun than my film.
Do you feel that storytelling in the short fiction film is essentially the same as storytelling in the feature film? Or does the short tell a story in ways that are not found in the feature?
I can't say I know how to tell a feature length story but I would guess that in many ways they are similar. If you are attempting a straight narrative, a character needs to face a challenge or a conflict and you need to get the audience to care about his goal or predicament. In both cases, unlike a novel, you need to express to the audience in shorthand things about your character, his situation and background. In a feature script, as I understand it, you get about 15 minutes or pages to establish the status quo and the characters. In a short that's what you usually get for the entire movie. But in a feature there are usually more characters. In both cases you should be trying to trim the fat, cutting most scenes that don't have anything to do with pushing the story forward. Now that's a standard Hollywood goal-oriented model. There are other types of storytelling. I think in a short film you have more license to experiment. But a boring short film can feel longer, much longer, than a solid feature.
Do you feel there are fundamental differences between Eastern and Western storytelling, or that the principles of storytelling are essentially the same, regardless of the particular culture?
I don't think I'm qualified to give a very informed answer to this question. I think that all cultures share similar principles in story- telling as evidenced by some common myths which are present in all cultures. In Japan, for instance, there is a myth regarding the first gods of Japan, Izanagi and Izanami, that has many similarities to the Greek myth about Orpheus in the underworld. I think the difference in storytelling is no longer as pronounced as it once may have been because everyone is consuming Hollywood movies and books like Harry Potter that have been translated into many languages. I do find that third-world cinema has more examples of non-Hollywood story structure with ambiguous or unresolved endings and sometimes less of a emphasis on finding one main character's point of view.
Do you have any advice to give to student filmmakers about to make their own first short fiction films?
1) Take chances and don't try to please your professor or your friends, or any audience beside yourself. Make sure you like it. Make sure you believe in the message you're trying to communicate.
2) Make sure the camera style fits the content. Don't do crazy camera moves just for the sake of showing off your talent as a director. I guarantee someone has done the shot before and with better equipment. That said, if you have an interesting way to create a shot that is designed to communicate a specific feeling or idea, go for it.
3) Be aware of your resources. Don't go overboard worrying about production values. Concentrate more on communicating your story clearly.
4) For a very first project just make sure you get your point across. Films are a form of communication.
5) The two most important ingredients in a film are the script and the actors, and in that order. Camera work, sound, production design is important but secondary.
6) Don't neglect sound on the set. Good production sound saves you many hours in post production and adds to the audience's illusion of reality.
7) Don't be scared. Fear, self-censorship makes many people quit or never even try. I almost didn't do this project for that reason and I would have severely regretted that. I can say all this with the benefit of hindsight.
Is there anything else you would care to add about the making of Bean Cake, or about storytelling?
I think reaction shots (shots of the people listening to the conversation instead of the participants) are very important. They are the first things that get cut from a student shot list when you're running out of time on a set. I used a ton of them in the classroom scenes to elongate certain moments and tell the audience how I wanted them to feel about each moment of Taro's predicament. Reaction shots are very helpful.
4 October 2001
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