21st Udine Far East Film Festival: In Conversation with Shunji Muguruma, director of ‘JK Rock’
Japanese director Shunji Muguruma may be on the brink of turning 50, but his work is all about the youth. He started out as a Japanese TV drama director, then switched to cinema where he both wrote and directed most of his projects. While making his 2016 production Little Performer: The Pulse of Winds, he saw the potential in a trio of young actresses and he re-cast them in his newest film, JK Rock, which was screened at this year’s Udine Far East Film Festival.
JK Rock is like a vitamin pill – the combination of youth and rock spirit invigorated the movie-goers in Udine and the film was received with a massive applause. We were still riding that energy high when we sat down with Shunji Muguruma to talk about the making of the film, about how the fictional band from the movie became a real one and about the vitality and risks of using a purple Lamborghini in the film.
Photo © Udine Far East Film Festival
Where did the inspiration for the story come from?
What I wanted to do was to create a story with both youngsters and rock. This is because a long time ago, I was the director of a drama called Ace which was originally a comic book (manga); the leading actress was Aya Ueto and she portrayed this story of a girl who wanted to become a tennis player. The character wasn’t good at it to begin with, but she found a coach who was very harsh towards her and it became a battle between them as well as a love story between these two. So, I wanted to recreate this story in a movie, because this comic book is rather old – it’s from the 70’s – and I wanted to recreate this story using rock music in the 21st century.
The girls who star in this film were also in another film of yours, called Little Performer: The Pulse of Winds; what was it about this trio that made you want to work with them again in this film?
Yes, the movie you referred to is my previous production and at that time, those girls were in the first year of junior high school, so they were little children. But, this time around, they had become teenagers, so they were no longer children. I thought that especially the leading actress, Chihiro Hayama, was really good in action; she was to play a drummer, but at the same time she needed to be very active in the film, and I was so certain that she would be very good at it – and in fact, that was the case. Even though there wasn’t a lot of time for them to train before we began shooting, everything worked out very well. These three girls all have a unique personalities and they expressed those personalities through their characters from the movie; I can say that everything turned out very well.
Many Japanese films are based on mangas, but this film was based on an original script. Even so, it had the same feeling as a manga; it was very colourful and comedic. Why did you want to give the film this kind of look, and who was your target audience?
Absolutely, my target audience was teenagers, so this film had to be entertaining for them and be fun to watch. This is because lately, over the past few years, in Japan there’s been a very stagnant situation for both those being taught and those teaching, and there has also been a problem with bullying, so I wondered if there was anything I could do to help. I thought that when you teach someone, you must be severe and strict, and at the same time, you can be strict if you have respect and love for the people you are teaching; so that’s what I wanted to convey in the script. In terms of it being colourful, I thought of Ohayo by Yasujiro Ozu and that was extremely colourful, so I wanted to make a film like that as well. In terms of it being an original story, films like School of Rock and Whiplash were references for me as well.
Photos © Udine Far East Film Festival
What made you decide on rock music, and not pop music? Also, the music score was great – who wrote it?
I really enjoyed the rock music of the 60s’, the 70’s, and the 80’s. At the time, I was a teenager, and I loved it. Rock music was something to get excited about. But then, after we got into the 21st century, rock became something too sophisticated; it lost the spiritual idea of ‘let’s go, let’s break something’. I wanted the new generation of youngsters to take that back for us; rock is about going against the wall and destroying it. It must be about power and energy – and that was the kind of feeling I had in mind when I decided to create this movie. As for the music, it was a gentleman called Mr. Gara; he’s a member of one of the bands who auditioned in one of the scenes of the movie. He’s the one who wrote the soundtrack, and he was also on the set with me, so he could see how we were working and he created music for us.
Speaking of music, Drop Doll is a real band now and have debuted in Japan. How do you feel about helping them to create this band and seeing them to do well?
Well of course I hope from the bottom of my heart that they all become stars; but when it comes to Chihiro Hayama, I think that she will become an actress, or a singer as well rather than just an instrument player. They all have multiple talents, so I really want them to become great stars.
There is a powerful line in the film where Sakura asks, “What is rock?” and she’s told “It’s you, right now”. Since you work with young actors, do you get this kind of rock and roll energy in your work?
Yes, I too receive energy by working with young actors. I also teach cinema at a university, so I have a lot of opportunity to be in touch with the younger generation. I have to say, compared to when I was little, Japanese girls are very powerful nowadays. In the film, Sakura used the word ‘Ore’ to say ‘I’; in Japanese, we have several ways to say ‘I’ and ‘Ore’ is a very masculine way of referring to oneself, that’s the sort of manly power of the words she’s using. Perhaps in this movie, it’s the other way around; you would think that a male character would save a female character but, in this case, you have a girl using 21st century rock to save a boy – I think that this is the interesting thing about the film.
Rock is typically seen as a male genre of music, and movies that have male characters as rock stars usually do better, so it was interesting that you used a male character to bring the female characters to the forefront. How intentional was this on your part?
Absolutely yes, it was intentional from the very beginning. As I said, my original idea was to recreate the same pattern Ace had, where you have a girl who’s useless and then meets this coach who is very strict towards her, but at the same time has love for her, and in the end, she gets to Wimbledon. So, in this case, I wanted to use these strong male characters to help the girls get to the forefront of the story.
Photo © Udine Far East Film Festival
One fun part of the film was the use of the purple Lamborghini, why did you choose this type of car and what was it like to film in Tokyo with it?
In the screenplay, from the very beginning, there was this idea of using a sports car, and I myself wanted it to be one with an open roof. At some point, the executive producer, Mr Kakuyama, said that we must choose either a Ferrari or a Lamborghini and I was trying to avoid that discussion because we didn’t have the budget. He was very nice about it because he told me not to worry and got me some pictures of cars, as I really wanted to oversee every colour in the movie; I was the one who chose the purple super car.
In terms of driving it around Tokyo, there was this issue that we would need the equipment to put the car on top of a tow-truck and then drive it all around Tokyo, but we couldn’t find any company who would do this for us, because no one had experience of doing that sort of thing with a sports car. They thought that if it broke, then they would have to take responsibility for it; actually, that is why we decided that the actor had to really drive the car around Tokyo. It was one of the conditions in our contract that the actor had to be able to drive a Lamborghini!
You usually write the scripts on your own films, but in this case, you worked with a script-writer. Was that challenging for you?
I have to say that in terms of this screenplay, I had the possibility to express myself from the very beginning; I was involved in all of the meetings from the very beginning. We knew that the target audience for the movie was young women, so the decision was to have a female writer, but I got to say what I wanted to take place from the beginning. Having someone else write the script removed all the stress for me, and it meant the process was fun. When I write myself, I sometimes I go berserk: sometimes I get too far into my own head; but this time, the project was something to have fun with, it was an entertaining film. This time, there was no sense of danger and no battling with myself; it was just about having fun while making the movie.
We would like to thank Shunji Muguruma for answering our questions and Udine FEFF press team for arranging the interview.
Interviewed by: Sanja Struna, Roxy Simons and Adriana Rosati (Asian Movie Pulse)
Feature photo © Sanja Struna for View of the Arts
Transcribed by Roxy Simons
Edited by Sanja Struna