A Return To Always: An Interview with Yamazaki Takashi

Born in 1964 in Nagano Prefecture, Yamazaki Takashi started making visual effects while a sophomore in college. He worked in a variety of media in the 1990s, from TV commercials to games, and became a leading visual effects supervisor at the Shirogumi effects house. In 2000 he directed his first feature, the kiddy sci-fi adventure Juvenile. His follow-up, 2002’s Returner, was another sci-fi thriller, but pitched at an older audience. Suzuki Anne played a girl from the future come to save the world from an alien invasion.
But he’s best known as the director of the two Always films. These nostalgic dramas are set in late 1950s Tokyo and based on an iconic manga by Saigan Ryohei. Released in 2005 and 2007, they grossed a collective $73 million, while launching a boom for the pop culture of the film’s 1950s and 1960s era. That was a time when Japan was emerging from the chaos of the early postwar era and beginning the long boom that would make it the world’s second largest economy.

When Always became a hit, were you already thinking about a sequel?

No, I wasn’t. I was forced into it. A lot of people wanted to see what happened after the end of the first film. Also, I liked the characters and wanted to get back together with them. That was the biggest factor behind my decision make a sequel.

Always 2 has a different focus - the struggle of Chagawa (a failed-writer-cum-candy shop-proprietor) to win a major literary prize. It’s not the sort of story you’d see in a Hollywood blockbuster.

At the start of the first film Chagawa was living like a child, without responsibilities. He had to - and in fact wanted to - take on responsibilities so he could live with Hiromi and become an adult. A lot of Japanese people today want to live without responsibility, so there’s a message for them: to protect what you consider important you have to grow up. At that time, the Japanese people had been recovering from defeat in the war. They had to grow up if they wanted to take part in the wider world. That was also the case with Chagawa. As to whether Japan actually did grow up, that’s another story.

Chagawa gets a lot of help from those around him. These days, that sense of unity is harder to find.

That’s the ideal, where everybody in the community functions like a family and helps each other out. I envy people who had that sense of unity back then, assuming they did. But we still have that kind of thing today. The fans that supported the first film gave me a warm feeling. Also, through the Internet, people in Japan are creating online neighbourhoods.

You were born after the period in Always 2 - was it like making a samurai period drama for you?

What was different from [samurai period dramas] is that a lot of people from that period are still around. I felt a sense of responsibility toward them. I didn’t want to let them down. It was hard to live up to their expectations.

Was the second film easier to make than the first, because you had already laid the groundwork?

The film’s world was already there. I had already been there, in other words, so it was in my head. In that sense it was easy, but the story was supposed to be concluded with the first film, so we had to make up what happened after. That was not so easy. So the two films were equally tough to make. Also, the artistic team didn’t want to replicate everything we had done before - they’re creative - so it was tough convincing them to do the second film.

Hollywood movies employ SFX effects differently than you do in the Always films. More than reconstructing the past, filmmakers there create fictional worlds. But Japanese audience seems to prefer your approach. They’d rather travel back to the past than to some imaginary place.

In that sense the Japanese are serious. They react better to the real world rather than an imaginary one.

I’m impressed with the amount of real-world detail you managed to cram in.

The Japanese like things like miniature gardens and models. A small thing that’s compact and precisely made. That kind of craft is well employed in this film. I personally really like the world of miniatures and models. I especially like model trains and wanted to incorporate that feeling into the film. It’s a 1/1-scale model. Not that it’s completely realistic, but it’s a world that feels like a model.

The Always films are based on a manga. What was the influence of the manga on the film?

I valued the mood of the original manga, but I didn’t want to put the manga directly onto the screen. Instead, I interpreted the original work through a filter - the filter being me. Even so, without the original, nothing would have existed. We definitely drew on the power of the original. But we also needed to translate it into another medium - film.

Manga is the source for many Japanese films today.

Manga in Japan has a kind of literary status. I think there is a lot of expression and depth in it. It is very layered and depicts the human psyche better than the novel, in some ways. It’s a mature medium, so it’s understandable people would want to make film adaptations from manga. Manga is probably the most developed, evolved media in Japan. Older filmmakers make fun of manga adaptations, but manga has evolved so much more than they realise. The level is so much higher than in the old days. There are a lot of amazing manga out there. Hollywood is also starting to take notice of manga and make movies out of them. Japanese are lucky because they can directly read manga on a weekly basis, and we need to make full use of this fortunate situation. People who make fun of movies adapted from manga are out-dated in their thinking.

In the second film, you bring back most of the characters from the first film.

Personally, I wanted to make the sequel for the people who watched the first film and liked it. I wanted to show them what happened to each character. Of course the main one is Chagawa, but each character gets a story, like the movie Love Actually. I enjoyed that film and wanted to make this one similar in style.

One of the new characters is the girl Mika, who represents a more contemporary point of view.

She’s closer to modern people, being the daughter of a rich family. She was surrounded by electronic appliances and living in a more advanced way - then she’s thrown into the world of common people in the late 1950s. I wanted to show how somebody like that would change in that kind of environment.

So you’re not just targeting the Baby Boomer generation.

When we made the first film we were focused on the boomer generation. But then we found that young people were watching the film as well, so we tried to incorporate more stories for younger audiences in the second film.

The first film was also popular with the Udine audience.

I was told the film reflected Italian feelings. I thought it was a very domestic film that only Japanese people would like, so I was very happy with its reception at Udine. I realized later that the mentality (of Italian people) is close to ours, but at the time I thought that nobody but Japanese would understand.

Has making these films changed your approach as a filmmaker?

Yes, it’s changed me a little. It made me appreciate actors’ performances more. More than expressing myself, I want to focus on and value what I can receive from the actors and staff and put all that into the movie.

I’ve seen both films twice - and I got more of out them the second time around.

A lot of people told me that the second time was better, even my parents said that. As a director I don’t know if that’s a good or bad thing, but if a movie stands up to repeated viewings, that’s good. There’s so much information that the first viewing becomes just a processing of all the information. Once you understand all that, and have it clear in your head, you can watch the film again and understand more deeply the emotions of the characters.

Especially the children - we see the period through their eyes.

I’m a kid myself. Also Returner and Juvenile were kids’movies.

Japanese movies are doing well now at the box office, but often it’s the publicity and advertising campaign that gets people into the theaters.

Japanese movies are doing well now, and I think you need to try hardest when you’re on a roll. Audiences today come no matter what the quality is. Even if a movie is no good, if it has a push behind it, people will come. But when people are let down by bad movies, they wouldn’t come again. I think that’s a waste. If you show people good movies, they’ll want to come again, and you’ll have a better relationship between filmmakers and audiences. Making bad movies, knowing that people will still come, will lose you your audience in the end. The Japanese film industry has historically repeated this pattern again and again. What we need most now is trust, especially because we’re doing so well now.

How do you view the use of CG? It’s obviously a major factor in the Always films, but you don’t seem to use CG just to use CG.

It used to be that CG in itself could lure audiences. It was like the period when talkies came in or when movies switched to color - the technology was a selling point. CG has been like that until recently. But just as sound and color become common technologies in filmmaking over time, CG no longer takes centre stage. It’s taken for granted. I think this is proof that the technology has matured. CG is not a main character in the Always films, but rather a central ingredient. Today it’s hard to think of a modern commercial film being silent or black and white. In the same way, it’s becoming hard to imagine a film without CG.

Mark Schilling