THE 8th OKINAWA INTERNATIONAL MOVIE FESTIVAL: EXCLUSIVE INTERVIEW WITH YOKO NARAHASHI
EXCLUSIVE INTERVIEW WITH YOKO NARAHASHI
Behind big Hollywood blockbusters with asian elements, mostly Japanese, like ‘Babel’, ‘Memoirs of a Geisha’, ‘The Last Samurai’, ’47 Ronin’, ‘The Wolverine’, ‘Emperor’ to ‘Unbroken’, not many people knew Yoko Narahashi as the casting director. Considered as ‘Japan’s gatekeeper to Hollywood’, Narahashi started her career as Steven Spielberg’s assistant in the 1987’s Oscar nominee ‘Empire of the Sun’.
Since then, Narahashi played her role as a casting director and bringing many famous Asian or Japanese actors to Hollywood movies. Among them are such big names like Ken Watanabe, Rinko Kikuchi, Zhang Ziyi and many more.
As a director, Narahashi had directed three movies; ‘The Winds of God’ (1995), ‘Waiting for the Sun‘ (2008) and the latest one, also screened at the 8th Okinawa International Movie Festival (OIMF), titled ‘Hold My Hand’ (Teo tsunaide Kaerouyo’) (2016), based on a theatrical play by the late writer/actor Masayuki Imai. Attending this year’s OIMF as one of the special guests, the interview was held in ANA Harbour View Hotel, Naha City, Okinawa.
Q: Beside directing a movie you’re also a famous casting director in many Hollywood blockbusters. Though crucially important, it’s often considered an underappreciated job in movie departments. What makes you choose this line of career long before you direct a movie for yourself?
A: It’s just happened after I’m working as an assistant on Steven Spielberg’s ‘Empire of the Sun’ from 1987. But actually I always wanted to direct film, and my first one is a long time ago, which I made but I’ve never really shown to anybody, then I made a bigger one, a professional one; ‘The Winds of God’, then I made another one for the internet, and ‘Hold My Hand’ is my third one. So, I always want to direct a film, but you know, you had to find a story that’s so amazing for me to direct. ‘Hold My Hand’, I think is the one I really wanted to do because my actor and my scriptwriter who passed away before the movie was shot, called me about less than half a year before he died, if I could direct his script with him as the lead. He also wrote my first movie, and same like that, I’ve seen the stage version of the movie, I loved it and I said yes. Later I know that he had cancer and I’ve never thought this could happen to such a strong – energetic, aggresive person, and it made me wanted to finish the movie even more.
Q: Did you ever shoot any sequence with him?
A: Actually no, he just been on the set once in March, when I shot, if you’ve seen the movie, the cherry blossom parts. It’s one the important parts of the movie, but he was there watching and showed the child actor how to act the scene. He’s already sick and getting skinny that time. So we never talked about the rest of it. I couldn’t say that to him and he never told me he give up, too. He was a very dear person to me. We’ve been working together like a family, so this has the special meaning to the movie, and the process is really coming together and I felt he’s always with us during the filming. I had to asked actors I know and he knows, too, at least some of them. Jay is also like a brother to him, and although I never asked him, somehow I knew he would be happy and we’re like making this movie for him. There are many miracles, beyond coincidence. I just think it’s a lovely event in the way because it shows up that you can come together for the sake of somebody good. Anyway, we’ll be releasing this movie on May 28, and that’s exactly one year from the day he died.
Q: Out of many blockbusters you worked as a casting director, which one interest you the most?
A: I think it’s obviously The Last Samurai. I’ve spent two years, fully, in doing that movie. All of us, including the director, producer and even the distributors, they didn’t know how it will be received. But they were very, very respectful , trying to make everything as true as possible, and of course, I also participated as an associate producer for the movie. I learned a lot, I fully devoted myself during that time and I cherished that.
Q: You know that most Asian parts in Hollywood movie just set so the movie could be sell well in the Asian market. Did you ever convince your producer to give them a bigger part for Asian actors in the movie?
A; In a very good way after The Last Samurai, there were more movies, like Memoirs of a Geisha. So I knew that the time was coming for more Asian actors to play in a Hollywood movie instead just being an added-selling factor for Asian markets. But it’s true, American movie is not selling that well in their own markets. So now they interested more in actors abroad like Japanese or Chinese. I wouldn’t say it’s wrong because it’s the way the market is developing. I think Indonesia, too, in the near future, because now I’m also working in a Malaysian partner on a film fund, and we are definitely thinking of using their actors.
Q: Beside Japanese and a few Chinese, are there any other Asian actors you ever cast in the movie you worked as a casting director?
A: I tried for some more Chinese, and I have a project now where I’m hoping to cast some other Asian actors like Malaysian or Indonesian. But that’s further. It’s a TV series but it’s a great project because it’s gonna be all Asian actors.
Q: Okay, let’s go back to ‘Hold My Hand’. What really draws you into making this movie?
A: I loved the script, but it’s mostly for Masayuki, it really is.
Q: Was there other choices before you choose to direct ‘Hold My Hand’?
A: Yes. I was supposed to do my own. It’s called ‘Essence’ – about a mother and a daughter, before Masayuki came and asked me to direct this. I don’t think I want to sacrifice my own movie, of course, but I really think Masayuki’s script is that good and going to be great as a movie, so I found it as an amazing reason.
Q: Is there any particular type of learning disabilities you wanted to portray in ‘Hold My Hand’?
A: Nothing particular, but I think there’s a purity in this movie and the main role. That’s something I loved to depict. I also wrote a song titled ‘Beautiful Name’. I loved the idea that every child is beautiful, every child is different, and that so many people had a lack of confidence, but we should love the diversity in everyone. My father was a diplomat, too, and I’ve been working with themes of disability like in ‘Babel’ and also my first movie, ‘The Winds of God’, so I think we should appreciate the diversity.
Q: You’ve been working on many blockbusters. Did it ever occured to you to do a bigger movies like action or war?
A: No, let’s leave it to Hollywood. They’re good at it. It’s their thing. Millions of dollars, months of shooting schedule. I’d rather make a small independent film that Hollywood can’t make. I like to move towards with actors, working to get the best acting possible, even though the process is a very, very short time.
Q: Beside the acting and the emotional story, I found ‘Hold My Hand’ having another powerful elements in beautiful cinematography and music scoring. Could you tell me about the process?
A: I’m glad you noticed them. I took a long time with ‘Face to Fake’ to decide what kind of music I really wanted to be in this movie. I refused some of them, too. The last song, ‘My Way’ is also the song Masayuki and I really wanted in this movie. We couldn’t use the Gypsy Kings’ version of the song and we’re kind of remaking them into our own Japanese version with same twists. About the cinematography, he (Yuji Imai) was an assistant camera in my first film. He was young, 30 something then, and he has helped me a lot since then.
Q: Is Sumire and Nanami your first choice for the role? I found them both were very stunning to put together in this movie.
A: I think so. Nanami has the light, the right presence just like I needed, and Sumire was funny, and yet she has the beauty kind of grace, and a bit of a mystery in her.
Q: Okay, the last question. Is there any message about the bullying part that you want to convey in this movie?
A: Let’s hope there is. I was almost going to make a film about a family who sort of dying because of the bullying. There are many social points in here, but certainly bullying, you know, I’m very much into justice, so if that ever happened, I’d do something about it. And one more thing, I’m now doing something, named after another actor who died that I was going to help, which is the theme of my next film of kids who are abused. I’m gonna work to make people aware that these kinds of kids really need help and supports because they don’t have good parents.