Erica 38: An Actual Crazy Rich Asian

May 5, 2019
After three decades spent in New York, Japanese actor/photographer/filmmaker Yuichi Hibi made a triumphant return to his homeland last month where his drama, Erica 38, was featured in the Special Invitation category at the 11th Okinawa International Movie Festival.

Featuring legendary Japanese actress Kirin Kiki, celebrated for her many roles including last year’s Shoplifters, Erica 38 also serves as her final film performance following her death last year, aged 75.

Inspired by a real-life story, Erica 38 was even co-produced by Kiki, starring Miyoko Asada in the eponymous role of Erica, a 60-year-old woman who charmed millions of yen out of gullible businessmen, financing an extravagant lifestyle and splurging on a twenty-something lover in Thailand. “This woman actually exists – she was over 60 years old and pretended to be 38,” explains Hibi.

“She’s still in prison today I believe. She used her charm to pull this off and has no regrets even though she was caught in the end. This happened three years ago, but then I took that story to create my own character, so it’s a little different.”

Initially unaware of the original scandal, Ms Kiki contacted Hibi out of the blue in 2017, filling him in on the story and asking him to write and direct a film loosely based around the events. Furthermore, she promised to help finance Erica 38 on the condition he cast her actress friend, Miyoko Asada, in the title role.

“Kirin Kiki is the most famous actress in Asia. We were friends for quite some time and had a couple of projects together. But she was fascinated by the story of this woman and wanted me to make a film about it. She told me that Miyoko was like a daughter to her, but she didn’t have enough big film credits to be considered for a title role,” recalls Hibi, 55.

Kiki would produce much of the film which was shot in just two weeks, including location shoots in Japan and Thailand.

“Kirin never saw the final cut although she was happy with the scenes she saw,” says Hibi who deliberately didn’t give her a huge role, shooting many of her scenes in shadow. “She’s so famous, she’s like Marlon Brando in Apocalypse Now. She doesn’t need many words to convey her presence.”

A self-confessed “typecast-Asian”, Hibi set out upon an acting career in 1985 with a small role in action movie, Ran, directed by legendary Japanese filmmaker Akira Kurosawa.

Two years later, he would be invited by producer David Puttnam to join a U.S.-Japan exchange programme where he studied filmmaking with Killing Fields director Roland Joffe.

“I first visited America when I was 18 and two years later, I moved to New York where I stayed with Elia Kazan,” he says of the legendary director of On the Waterfront, A Streetcar Named Desire and East of Eden.

Having first met Kazan at the Tokyo Film Festival, he was inspired to write to the director. “I was crazy enough to tell him I wanted to work with him even though my English was very poor.

“He was kind enough to write back saying to contact him if I was ever in New York,” recalls Hibi who would stay as a guest at Kazan’s house for three months while he established himself at the famed Actor’s Studio, studying there for seven years.

But, still, he was disappointed to still find himself at the Asian stereotype end of the casting pool, 20 years ago featuring as a “generic gang member” in crime drama Payback starring Mel Gibson.

“I don’t have good memories of Payback – nothing to do with the director [Brian Helgeland] or Mel who were both great. But I wanted to have a serious career and was constantly disappointed by stereotype casting; images that Western people have about Asian people,” says Hibi when he chats with FilmInk in Okinawa.

Ask him if last year’s Crazy Rich Asians was a game-changer, he laughs. “Are you kidding me?! That movie was shit! That movie should have been made in the ‘80s. To me that’s how dated it was. It has nothing to do with the quality of the filmmaking – it’s more about the essence of the ideas behind it, which are so old.

“I understand it from an entertainment point of view with the family and the kids, but I still feel like it was made in the ‘80s. We don’t have anything new?”

He says he’s not alone in his thoughts about Crazy Rich Asians. “A lot of Asian people think the same way. I’m glad that it has exposure, but I much prefer Ridley Scott’s Black Rain from 1989. Ridley is a different kind of director with a forward-thinking universal view.”

Erica 38, he hopes, offers an alternative take on the Asian experience.

“Audiences of all nationalities can relate to the story,” says Hibi, who admits that he wouldn’t turn down a Hollywood offer to remake it for Western audiences. “Imagine Meryl Streep playing this role? That would be fantastic.”

Growing up, he was inspired by ‘70s and ‘80s American cinema, watching Robert de Niro and Gene Hackman. Using his savings from working in Japan, he was able to pursue his American dream, establishing himself as a photographer and filmmaker.

His documentary based on the life of Ken Takakura, entitled Ken San, premiered at Cannes in 2016 featuring interviews with filmmakers including Martin Scorsese, Paul Schrader, John Woo and Yoji Yamada. The following year he would write and direct noir drama, An Ornament of Faith in the US, starring a predominantly Latino cast and set in New Jersey.

“I look Japanese because I am Japanese – but I know more about America than Japan.”

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