Kosai Sekine: Trouble in Tokyo

November 25, 2018
One of Japan’s most exciting new directors was in Melbourne recently to promote his latest film, Love At Least, which deals with mental illness with an Asian touch.

The film is based on the beloved novel Ikiteru Dake de, Ai by Yukiko Motoya, which tells the story of a troubled couple living in Tokyo who, like many young people growing up in today’s fast-moving world, are experiencing a real disconnect with everyone around them.

Yasuko suffers from manic depression and hypersomnia, which means she is mostly bed-ridden during the day and while not working, rarely looks after the housework let alone herself. Her everyday struggle takes its toll on her relationship with boyfriend Tsunaki, who is also dealing with a growing disappointment in his job and life in general. Everything is made even more chaotic with the arrival of an ex-girlfriend, who has plans of her own to tear them apart.

“I first was introduced [to the book] three years ago; the producer and I were given a copy. It gives you a good description of what happens inside a person’s head in modern society. I thought that if I could do it properly, this kind of story would become an eternal theme. That’s what got me excited,” said the film’s director, Kosai Sekine.

The book is written entirely in the first-person from the perspective of Yasuko, who here is portrayed with chaotic magnetism by newcomer Shuri. Sekine explained that finding the right actress for the role would essentially make or break his film.

“[Shuri] is a very unusual kind of person. After she read the book, she was almost convinced it was a depiction of her. All the failures, the hypersomnia… she could actually see these things in her own life. So, when it came to filming, she just brought the two together, and you definitely see an overlap.”

The biggest difference with the film is that it also takes the time to explore her boyfriend Tsunaki’s perspective, who is deliberately portrayed with little emotion by Masaki Suda. Sekine explained how Suda became involved with the project.

“He is quite a well-known actor in Japan. What’s interesting is that in most of his movies he is quite emotional and fiery, but if you see the real him without the acting, he is very ordinary and down-to-earth, which is what you see here.”

For his first mainstream feature, Sekene is tackling a very delicate subject – mental health. Living in Tokyo, this was important for the director to capture truthfully, because it’s something that’s becoming far too common in big cities.

“There are signs and posters around Tokyo that raise awareness for mental health, but they are also kind of mocking it. It’s a big problem in Tokyo but also in places like London, and when we screened there, I remember the same sort of questions bouncing back to us. People, no matter where they are, are experiencing the same feeling and they all have that connection with each other.”

The film depicts the growing frustration and loneliness that comes with depression, but also the added stress it can have on relationships. Most interestingly, Sekine spends time exploring the public stigma attached to mental health issues, and we see this in the various interactions his characters have with other people in their lives.

“The main character Yasuko, who is manic depressive, everyone has a tendency to treat her different. That’s why in the beginning you almost don’t like her, but towards the end you can understand why she’s like that. Through this experience I hope the audience can find out the essence of bipolar and manic depression, because no matter who you are it’s something that can exist in your heart,” he continued.

“Excuse the double negative, but I feel there’s not one character who is not normal in this movie. Even the ones being good and trying to be good for society, they are usually the ones being most cruel.”

Thankfully such a fragile subject is in the hands of an attentive filmmaker. The camera stays with characters for much longer than usual, giving us time to observe their inner thought process with every scene.

“Yes – I’m often told that patience and perseverance should be my middle names. In terms of inspiration, there’s really no movie I can attribute it to, but I suppose I mainly wanted to ensure there was an Asian touch, which you can mostly see in the lighting.”

Love at Least screened at the 2018 Japanese Film Festival.

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