Interview with Hirobumi Watanabe – Film Director

Translated by Weini Liao

What was the trigger for becoming a director?

It was from the influence of my father, I’ve been a big fan of movies and the Beatles since I was a child. I watched so many movies when I was a student that my teacher even reprimanded me for watching too many films.

When I studied Japanese literature in university, I travelled to a revival house everyday (a movie theatre called Shin-bun-geiza/ new literary arts in Ikebukuro, Tokyo).

I saw lots of great movies there. From then on, I made up my mind to be more than just a member of the audience, but to become involved in making movies. After graduating from university, I studied at the Japan Institute of Moving Images which was established by Japanese movie master, director Shohei Imamura.

My teacher in the institute was director Daisuke Tengan, the oldest son of director Shohei Imamura. I’ve learned a lot of movie skills Tengan-san, such as script writing as well as methods and preparation of acting.

My graduation work, “A Light Pig of August”- a movie about a young man who works in a pig farm, is the first movie I ever directed. This movie won the grand prize at Fuji Film Lovers Festival. After A Light Pig of August, I have made another movie, 2 dramas and my first feature film, And the Mud Ship Sails Away.


Where did your company’s name ‘Foolish Piggies’ come from?

I didn’t name the company myself, this actually came from Tengan-san. He said “You’re fat, stupid and as you were born in Otawara, please use this name”. This is how the name, Foolish Piggies, came from. (laughs)

At the moment there is a big buzz about And the Mud Ship Sails Away, but as you have mentioned this isn’t your first movie. Can you tell us about your first movies?

When I was a student, I made a 40 minute short film “A Light Pig of August” which as I said before was about a young man who works in a pig farm. Another one that I made was a short film “Sanbashi” about Yokohama in an omnibus film, “Story of 3 harbours.” This is a film that was made by three directors chosen from the Beijing Film Academy, Korea Film Academy and Japan Institute of Moving Images. Each director filmed a harbour city in their own country, then these were combined into one film.

Returning back to the subject of your latest film. You have taken the unusual approach of putting it in black and white, was there any particular reason for this? It gives the film a very interesting angle!

After talking to a Korean cameraman, Woohyun Bang, I decided to film in black and white. Bang is my close friend from our schooldays and he is the cameraman whom I always work with. One reason we decided to do this in black and white is because of the world view and atmosphere of this movie. Another reason is if we filmed in colour, I felt that all of the characters, scenes and objects would have become too distracting. Also, I like black and white movies myself. Besides, the way I want to do it in colour would exceed the budget.

Can you tell us about the shooting of the film? Was everything shot in Otawara?

Yes, it is all filmed in Otawara, Tochigi (Prefecture). We also filmed at the Ueno Zoo in Tokyo. As for the scenes showing a demonstration, we actually filmed the campaign against a nuclear power station in front of the National Diet Building.

Was the casting difficult? It seems that there was a combination of your own family as well as up and coming actors like Kiyohiko Shibukawa.

I decided on Kiyohiko Shibukawa as the hero of this movie while I was writing scenarios. This is Shibukawa-san’s first movie, but he has a lot of experience in theatre and I think he is a fantastic actor, however I also chose him for the main role because I like him as a person.
Takashi’s grandma, played by Misao Hirayama, is actually my grandmother. She is 98 years old and still very spry and is even willing to participate in the next movie. Other parts, including Ayasa Takahashi, were played by local performers.

They had never starred in any movies but all worked very hard for their roles. I don’t believe only actors/ actresses who are active in Tokyo are the better choice, many local actors/ actresses are great performers. Therefore, this movie breaks the rule that if you’re making a movie in Tokyo, then the production system should be based in Tokyo. This movie is still in its first run. I want to make an interesting movie regardless of the location or title.


It really seems like you are breaking the mould of how a movie should be made. I guess that this meant that it was challenging to do. What do you think was the most difficult aspect of making this film?

The most challenging thing was having only 4 people on the production team. We had no idea if we could make a movie with only 4 people at first. None of our staff members have assistants. I had to do a lot of things besides the work of being the director, such as watching the performance of everyone, sometimes being the boom operator, or even holding the clapperboard. I also had to manage the scriptwriting, wardrobe, background and decoration.

When there is no assistant to help the cameraman, he has to do everything himself. The music director has to do both producing and recording. The editor also does more than his own work such as recording. It was not easy, but with help from local friends and families who didn’t even know much about production, I was able to complete this movie. They worked hard every day and enjoyed participating a lot. I wouldn’t be able to make this movie without their help. What counts the most is the enjoyment and excitement we had together.

When you were doing the scriptwriting where did you get your ideas from?

The story of And the Mud Ship Sails Away was mostly based on my personal life, the life I live with my grandma. However, this is a movie, so to make it more like fiction, I added some creation and imagination on top of my life story. I’m useless, but not as useless as Takashi (laughs). Only his character, thoughts and attitude toward life reflects mine to some extent. The biggest difference between us is that I have movies, whereas he doesn’t. I might have become Takashi if I didn’t have movies in my life.

I have to ask, as you have said that the script is mostly based on your personal life, was the alien part pure fiction? Or, have you seen aliens??

I think I have (laughs).

Otawara is famous for its clear star filled skies. One autumn night, just as the shooting time of this movie was about to begin, I just finishing amending the script and suddenly saw something move awkwardly when I looked up at sky.

“It’s a spacecraft!!” I shouted out loudly. I dragged the cameraman who was asleep, and a bit drunk, outside, and pointed it out to him.

“It’s true, the star is moving. Disappeared! Ah wait, it’s still there!! It’s a spacecraft!!”

This is a true story (laughs).

I’m very interested in things we don’t know much about yet, such as UMA, aliens, monsters, and especially ghosts. I am a big fan of old literature, movies and paintings. I feel like I am having conversations with authors who no longer exist while I enjoy their works, which means I talk to ghosts every day.

Akira Kurosawa, Charlie Chaplin, Soseki Natsume, Fyodor Dostoyevsky, Tove Jansson, John Lennon, Beethoven, Miles Davis, Rembrandt and Vincent van Gogh…Most artists I admire are ghosts. Therefore, I’m not afraid of ghosts. It is an extreme pleasure to appreciate their works. By the way, I’m not afraid of ghosts, but aliens, big foot and Nessie are really scary (laughs).

Returning to the film again, Kiyohiko Shibukawa seems to say that ‘there is nothing around here’ a lot. Is it true about that area?

Not exactly. It’s true that the culture and materials of rural areas outside of Tokyo aren’t as rich. But really it’s Takashi’s excuse to say “There is nothing.” For him, he can’t do anything because he chooses to believe there is nothing in the countryside where he lives, by which I mean he is the kind of person who tries not to do anything from the beginning. This type of person wouldn’t change their way of thinking even if they go to Tokyo, London, New York or Paris.

For Takashi, life is miserable and tough, only bad things happened, thus he tries to escape from life and from human society. However, escape from life has the meaning to die, but Takashi has no courage to die. This is why Takashi denies what others say and keeps to his line “there’s nothing.”


That is quite a message to impart. It must be quite hard to represent this kind of person in a movie. As a director, do you have any particular kind of methodology for your work?

I simply believe that one should work hard, study hard, eat a lot, and sleep a lot, and have a normal lifestyle like any regular human being should. From the perspective of a Japanese filmmaker like myself there are many people with rather disastrous lives.

This kind of life gets glorified, and people start a process of forced self-justification. I have noticed that too many people think obsessively about something from their painful past.
I don’t like that kind of thinking, but although I really want to experience it, I didn’t think it is possible to make a good movie if one is getting a low salary and working from 5am to 2-3 am the next day.

Our movie wasn’t a commercial movie, it was an independent one, so with this freedom we started making a movie while keeping in mind that we wanted to make what we want to make and what we thought was really interesting.

Although there is criticism of the way we made our movie, I think however you make a film, it is still a film.

I didn’t want to lose my freedom due to thoughts of profit, I think this handicaps movies which are made by professionals, so without ideas such as profit or value we could make the film we wanted to make and I think that I want to be an amateur who can freely make the film that he wants to make.

This is essential, as although there are things an amateur can’t do like a pro would, there are things that a pro absolutely can’t do like an amateur can. In other words, I don’t focus on a style, nor technical aspects or techniques.

This time in this black and white movie there are many scenes which have long shots from a fixed position like the first scene cut, more that I even recognized myself, but I think this was the shape the movie had to take.

If there is anything that I am particularly focused on, I would say it is that my movies are always comedic. This movie has the meaning that humans are tragic, but movies are completely comedic.

I also believe in, and really respect, the phrase ‘Life is a tragedy when seen in close-up, but a comedy in long-shot’ that was said by Charlie Chaplin.

In October your movie was shown to a British audience for the first time. How do you think they reacted to it?

I was under a lot of pressure when the movie screened in the UK. I am really influenced by music by The Beatles and also the British sense of humour has had great influence on me, pretty much the same as it had on this movie. Furthermore, I am a big fan of English writers such as Charles Dickens and George Orwell, and comedians like Charlie Chaplin, Monty Python, Sacha Baron Cohen, Simon Pegg and Nick Frost. English society has the best sense of humour in the world.

In general I feel not sure how British people reacted to my movie, but I’ll be over the moon if they enjoyed it. If they didn’t, then it means that I need to make another movie and show the British people something better next time round.


How did it feel to have your movie chosen to be included in the Third Window Films’ produced DVD ‘New Directors from Japan’?

I was really chuffed by the potential to have more people watch our movie. And the Mud Ship Sails Away has its own strong characters, people either love it or hate it. We were able to present it without a distributor in Japan which is quite exceptional.

I have to thank Adam Torel from Third Window Films for his bravery in publishing this DVD with both my film and other films. Adam and I are the same age and I think he is a very interesting guy. I would like to work with him again if there’s a chance.


What will be your next movie?

I have several scripts at hand and there are several movies I want to make. Next, I would like to try comedy.

Finally, presents Japanese culture and crafts to the world, is there a particular craft or aspect of Japanese culture that you like?

I talk to ghosts a lot as I said previously (laughs). I also like new things and have been affected greatly by classical Japanese culture. Movies, literature, music, art, architecture and comic stories – these are all aspects of Japanese culture which I love and in particular I am referring to classics.

Speaking of Japanese works, I like Japanese literature by Junichiro Tanizaki, Yasunari Kawabata and Kyoka Izumi, and the paintings of Hokusai and Hiroshige. Also, I think that sculptures and buildings like temples in Kyoto are fabulous. Another important Japanese culture is food. I can’t live without Japanese ramen, sushi, soba (buckwheat), udon and natto (fermented soybeans). In other words, the aspects of Japanese culture which I love are all related to classics and human life.