Daisuke Miyazaki discusses his Japanese techno-thriller Videophobia, which premiered at the Festival du nouveau cinema in Montreal.
Building on a legacy of cinematic masks, the most iconic image in Daisuke Miyazaki’s Videophobia is of its young Korean-Japanese protagonist smoking by a window wearing a sheet-mask. It ripples slightly over her skin, but its dampness clings to the curves of her face, erasing her identity. Is this a way to improve her skin, to give it that dewy glow? Or, is she running from who she really is?
Videophobia is a techno-thriller about a young Korean-Japanese woman, Yu (Sumire Ashina), who becomes haunted by a video. Treated as a second-class citizen, she works to survive but barely seems to live. She meets a young man and goes back to his apartment where they have sex. Sitting across the room, she notices a camera sitting on a shelf, but pays it no notice. The sex is cold and mechanical, but as they hold hands, a real connection is born.
She soon finds a video of this encounter online. Although even she had to watch the video several times to recognize herself, the violation ruptures her already tenuous bond with her face and the world around her. She returns to the young man’s apartment, trying to find the source of the tape. From this point on in Videophobia, her grasp on reality fractures as she becomes increasingly paranoid.
Set in Osaka, Japan, Videophobia explores more than just our tense relationship with technology but also the taboos of Japanese society. Miyazaki sheds light on tense race relations between Japanese-Koreans and Japanese people, a conflict that is largely unknown outside of the country; Miyazaki likes to use his films to provoke a reaction. Yu works menial jobs and struggles to integrate into society. Though born in Japan, Yu has little connection to her Korean ancestry but disconnected from her life in Japan; she exists in a kind of limbo.
The system of gaining citizenship in Japan is a long and arduous process. If you do not have Japanese parents, you are required to uphold a strict set of immigration requirements that includes being “financially independent.” For most working class families, the specific demands for finances are unattainable. Furthermore, it requires renouncing citizenship to other countries. Due to the longstanding political and cultural tensions between Korean and Japan, many Koreans see this as an insult. Tensions remain high among the nations, and within Japan, this often equates to further marginalization and even demonization of Korean-Japanese residents.
Videophobia recently had its world premiere at the Festival du nouveau cinema in Montreal, and Miyazaki sat down to discuss the film with Seventh Row.
Seventh Row: What inspired you to write the script for Videophobia?
Daisuke Miyazaki: I really liked the film The Fly by David Cronenberg. It’s about what happens if someone you know changes on the outside. In the movie, the boyfriend changed into a fly, right? And the girlfriend doesn’t know what to do but keeps on loving him. I thought, What happens if someone outside totally changes? What remains? I also like the film The Square by Ruben Östlund. It was a challenging, modern art kind of a movie. And I really enjoyed how it provokes opinions. I wanted to do something like that.
7R: Can you explain why you decided to shoot Videophobia in Osaka?
Daisuke Miyazaki: I lived in a city called Yamato, which is close to Tokyo, and the landscape is very boring. It’s like the U.S. or a suburb of Russia or anywhere in the world. Everywhere the suburb is becoming the same: there are big malls, 7/11s, McDonald’s, and there’s nothing else. We go to [those places] and just live our very sad and melancholic lives.
But Osaka is a very old town, and the old area is still alive. There are lots of taboos in Osaka still, which Tokyo people don’t want to talk about. One thing is Koreatown. Osaka has the largest Koreatown in Japan. All the Korean people moved there from Korea during World War Two and after the war [, as well]. It’s hardly in the media because our relation[ship] with Korea has not been good for a long time. They’re treated like the lower class of the society. In Osaka, there is another problem with that class. For example, butcher and flower jobs, the kind of jobs related to death and life, are treated as the lowest class of society. It’s not known much outside of Japan, but that kind of discrimination is still going on.
In Osaka, if you are from this class, sometimes, you can’t enter a school or even get married. In the movie, there is a meat factory that is almost impossible to film in Japan because it’s directly connected to those taboos of society. People try to avoid them.
For me, Osaka is the shadow of Tokyo. It has a lot of taboos that the Japanese government and society try to hide. I’m trying to reveal them with this movie. It’s very strange. For example, Korean-Japanese people have Korean passports, but the current generation, most of them do not speak Korean at all. They only speak Japanese; they eat Japanese food; they go to a Japanese school; and they have Japanese names. But they are treated as Koreans and discriminated against because they have a Korean passport. It’s very difficult for them to get a Japanese passport.
There’s a political conflict between our countries, and my question was, What’s the difference if she has a Korean passport, if they speak the same language and live in the same city? As the discriminated class, they are working with meat or selling flowers — things everyone needs but people discriminate against them. I think it’s an awkward and pre-modern system. I wanted to reveal that in using Osaka.
Most of the [foreign] directors who [have] shot in Osaka, like Ridley Scott or John Woo, they only film the bright, shiny, flashy, and colourful side of Osaka. There’s lots of neon and oriental images, but I lived in Osaka for a while, and I know the real Osaka, which is more like the images in my film; black and white and the water. The sea, the canals, the rivers are my images, but foreigners prefer the shiny images. In Videophobia, I tried to show a more interesting version of Osaka rather than the typical way.
7R: How did you shoot in butcher shops if you say it’s so difficult?
Daisuke Miyazaki: [My film] Yamato was screening in Osaka for about a month, and I went there for promotion. During the day, I had nothing to do. I went to my director friend, who knows about my work, and he said, “Why don’t you make a short film using amateur actors I’m teaching?” So I said, “Okay let’s do it.” That was the beginning. But making short films is very tiresome for me because the stress of making a short and a feature is the same.
[Videophobia] was shot in 10 days, but in Japan, short films are shot in two or three days, and feature films are sometimes shot in four or five days. So every time I make a short film, I think that maybe I should make a feature instead because you can distribute a feature in theatres. So I told the director that we can make a feature. It was very quick. We collected the money in two weeks, and then I wrote the script in a week.
I walked around Osaka, and I was preparing that someday, I’d shoot there. The teacher-friend, who became the film’s producer, talked to the factories in Koreatown and explained to them what we wanted to do. They understood, so we were able to film in those prohibited places.
The ending of the film is really funny because the rapper who is singing the song is a Korean-Japanese living in that area. We wanted to have him sing in the club scene, but it was difficult to contact him. Afterwards, when he knew a bit about the film, he said, “I want to make a song for the movie,” so he made a song. He’s very popular in Tokyo right now and no one cares that he’s Korean-Japanese because he’s cool.
I think it should be like that, but usually, in Japan, that doesn’t happen. It’s a very old and conservative society. One of the reasons [I make films] is to destroy the conservative system of Japanese society. Not in a rough or obvious way, but I want to provoke people with my film in Japan.
7R: You reference the club sequence, and I need to know about the DJ you hired. He has a toilet paper roll dispenser strapped to his face that he spins as he’s spinning tunes. He looks like an off-brand Daft Punk character, an anonymous toilet-paper man. Where did you find him?
Daisuke Miyazaki: It’s very funny because that’s actually a tiny restaurant, not even a club or a bar. It’s run by my friend, and I met him first when I shot a music video of an Italian rapper. He was a strange guy, very nice but very quiet. I asked him if we could use his restaurant as a club. He said OK, but we couldn’t pay him good money, so I asked him if he would star in the movie as a DJ or something. He said OK and seemed very happy to be in the movie. I told him, “Is there something weird you can do?” He said, “Yes I have something interesting I’ll bring to you.” He brought that toilet paper thing. I asked him, “Did you make this? Why?” He said, “I don’t know. One day I suddenly made this.” It was really funny so I said please do it. He seemed like a strange DJ, a famous one, but he was the owner of the place.
7R: Videophobia also contains these relatively long sequences within acting classes inspired by your friend from Osaka who works as an acting teacher. Can you talk about that within the movie?
Daisuke Miyazaki: Putting off and taking off the mask is a very important theme in the movie. The workshops were a way to interact with an audience. Being in an audience is safe; you just go and sit down for two hours. People can kill each other, or do anything on the screen, and I wanted to challenge that. I tried to make the audience wonder if they were watching a scene or is the scene watching them?
I really like looking at Fresco pictures in church, and the drawings are very strange. The perspective, sometimes, is the opposite of what it should be. Sometimes, I feel like the drawing is looking at me, and I’m not the one looking in the drawing. I wanted to do that in my movie.
7R: One of the other parts about the acting scene is that the teacher said, “remember what it feels like as a kid,” as it connects with our relationship to touching each other. So much of the film seems to be focused on this discomfort with the physical touch.
Daisuke Miyazaki: I’ve been thinking, what are we and why do we have to live with each other? I’m getting older, and I still don’t have an answer. Recently, I was thinking that when you touch people, like shake hands, you feel you are connected to someone else, and it feels good. I cannot compare that [feeling] with anything else.
I started to think that touching or being touched is very important to being a human being. I read this German book that the ethical level of each human being is decided by how many people you touch when you’re a kid. So, if you’re not touched by your parents, then things like levels of violence change. I think that’s quite true. I myself wasn’t touched a lot when I was a kid, so I feel shocked, surprised, and uncomfortable if someone touches me like shaking hands. I think, “Oh I am alive,” when I shake hands. I wanted to do that in the movie. This movie is like, we don’t know who we are and we don’t know who anyone is. Losing yourself is the opposite feeling of being touched.
I don’t have a strong philosophical background, but my instincts tell me that touching or feeling can cure nihilism against this very unstable world. I feel like I can believe in something when I’m with someone. Yes, talking is good, but talking is not the same as thinking. You have to translate into words your thoughts and then tell someone, and then they listen and translate it into something they know and understand. Touching is very direct.
7R: Is it cultural, as well?
Daisuke Miyazaki: In Japan, we hardly touch each other. Even shaking hands is kind of weird for us. We just bow, and that’s it. So when I come to a Western country, or like a Latin country where people even kiss each other, when I first experienced that, it felt very weird. We hardly touch each other in Japan; we keep our distance most of the time. But there’s a strange group called Free Hug something, young kids who stand in front of stations saying they’ll give you a free hug and make you comfortable. Yes, hugging, kissing, and touching is not in the society at all. I think East Asia has that, China and Korea. It took a lot of time to adapt to shaking hands and hugging people, and that might be connected to the movie, too.
7R: There is also a betrayal in this touch though. Her having sex becomes the catalyst for her nightmare.
Daisuke Miyazaki: For her, having sex is not so important, but touching his hand after is the most important part. I directed like that because, in Asia, people don’t touch each other, but sex industries and businesses are very big. People have sex very mechanically like they’re robots: no emotion, there’s nothing there. I kinda hate that culture. It makes you feel very bad. I recently started this activity to try to hug people and shake hands, but they kinda get scared when I do.
7R: There’s also a scene later in Videophobia when she reports what happens to her. The investigator says something like, “On any porn site, there are 500 million hours of pornography, which amounts to the cosmic weight of all human desire.” Where does that idea come from?
Daisuke Miyazaki: There’s a French modern philosophy called spectacular realism. It means that the world is here coincidentally, and it could break up at any moment, so you can’t believe in anything. It’s related to this post-truth kind of world. That scene is interesting because she knows that no one gives a shit. Do you know deep-fakes? If you use deep-fakes, you can make anyone do anything. So, only whoever himself or herself can ever truly know, it was him or her [in the video].
That’s what’s going on in this world. That cosmic thing, I tend to think, OK, there’s a big tragedy happening to me, but compared with space or the galaxy, it is nothing. But at the same time, it is everything. What everyone feels in that moment, what they believe is real, is the only real thing in the world. All the history is destroyed and ethics theory, everything is collapsing. People are saying you should just live how you want, and I think that’s a very sad way of living. Personally, I think we need to go back to fundamental ethics like, “Please don’t kill people; don’t hurt children.” Maybe I’m brainwashed, but it’s very important, and those connections determine who we are. It’s kinda a comedic scene.
I also read this article about the total amount of time of pornography is like an unbelievably long time, and it’s increasing every year. It’s funny and sad at the same time. I wanted to show, in a scientific mathematical way, the amount of our desire, in a nihilistic, ironic way.
7R: It’s interesting that the person who says the phrase is a police investigator.
Daisuke Miyazaki: There’s this big problem in Japan [where people] try to ask the police for help.The police then try to ask questions, and they push so much that it becomes sexual harassment at some point. They recently started to reject incidents like [the one in the movie], anything like “digital raping”, because they are afraid of being accused of sexual harasement for investigating.
If someone is in trouble who wants help, why don’t you help? Is there a better, nicer way to help her? In Japan, the police are afraid to take these incidents. We should think of better ways to deal with them, but I haven’t got any good ideas. It’s all the same, police, politics, everything. Someone says “A” is racist, and rather than try to address things, they erase the fundamental question or the problem, and we all stop thinking, just moving onto the next subject.
I don’t really like the world we are living in. Why can’t we just be nice to each other and help? Communicate more and talk about things. What can we do about it? Watching the sick timeline of Twitter, I think, Maybe we should do something legally. It’s very sick, and people are very angry. It makes me very sad looking at social media.
7R: What projects are you working on after Videophobia?
Daisuke Miyazaki: I’m working on a short now, and it’s quite messed up. My editor, this morning, told me she can’t edit it. We do have a script; it’s my first short film that someone else wrote. He’s a famous writer, but I tried to decompose everything, remix everything. So the editor said she’s reading the script, but there’s no story in the footage I shot, and there is no connection between the actors. I wanted to do something that directly reflects the whole world. As I said, everything is now disconnected.
It’s interesting because I’m teaching kids filmmaking, and what we call montage in the old era doesn’t exist in those kids anymore. They film something at random, and I tried to make a story or a connection from what they shot, but I do not understand anything that they’re filming. They are trying to tell something, but I can’t understand what they’re trying to tell me.
[I use an example of images] of a dog, then an egg, then a dog, and ask what they think. They all say, “I don’t understand what it means. It’s just a dog and an egg.” When I was in school, we would say, “That means the dog is hungry,” or something like that. Those kinds of images and history have already collapsed, which is what I felt teaching the kids. I tried to do something with my film that maybe doesn’t make sense, and maybe I’ll be booed.
I have a feature film project that I probably will shoot this December. Half of it is shot in Japan, and half of it is shot in the Philippines. In Japan, a junior high kid chopped off another junior-high kid’s head trying to copy the ISIS. And the kid who chopped off the neck was half Filipino and half Japanese. Filipino people are treated like Korean people in Japanese society; they’re like taboo people. It was a really bad incident, and people reacted against reason. They would argue that we needed to kick Filipinos out of the country because they are dangerous and violent. It’s totally not true, of course, it’s just that kid that was violent.
So the story is about the family that is left after the incident. They moved back to the Philipines because all the media in Japan came after them. The Japanese family, there’s only a father, and he’s a journalist who came back from the Middle East. He needed to rest because he saw really horrible things, and when he gets home, his son gets killed. The first half is in Japan, and the latter half is in the Philippines. It’s like a long Greek myth kind of a story. For me, it’s quite challenging, and it’s very classical compared with my other films. I hope it becomes real.
We wrote a book about genre cinema!
If you liked this interview on Videophobia, you can read more about women-centric genre cinema in our book Beyond Empowertainment: Feminist horror and the struggle for female agency.