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Wednesday, March 30, 2005

Rewriting a lost youth

Naoko Ogigami showed little sign of having spent most of her 20s in Los Angeles -- no English, for one thing ("I never learned to speak it very well"), no laid-back Angeleno attitude, for another.

News photo
Naoko Ogigami

A Chiba Prefecture native, she left for the United States in 1994 and studied at the University of Southern California Film School. Since returning to Japan in 2001, she has directed two features: "Barber Yoshino" and "Koi wa Go Shichi Go! (Love Is Five, Seven, Five!)."

In person, Ogigami had the sharp, appraising glance of a professional filmmaker who misses little, even when making polite small talk with a journalist.

How much of your own youth is in "Koi wa Go Shichi Go!"?

I didn't have a very interesting adolescence, really, so the film was my chance to [have the characters] do some of the things I wanted to do as a teenager, but couldn't. I went to a very strict high school and had a hard time while I was there. So in that sense, the film is my own wish fulfillment

Haiku is quite popular in America, from elementary school on up -- but I've never heard of an American haiku tournament like the one in the film.

There's no movement in haiku -- the contestants just stand and recite. The biggest challenge of the film for me was to somehow make that interesting. I beat my brains out. (Laughs.)

The characters don't move, so the camera had to. I also tried to add movement through the editing, by cutting quickly from one character to another.

You studied film at USC and lived in the States for six years. Did that experience make you more interested in filming traditional Japanese themes?

Yes, it did. I was there a long time, so I started becoming nostalgic for Japanese country towns and all that. But I also thought that, because I had been in America so long, I could be more objective about adding traditional Japanese culture [to my films].

A lot of Japanese movies about young people today stress the negative -- the lack of values, the amorality and so on. You don't ignore the negative, but there's a positive energy flowing in your films as well.

I like to take the negative points of people -- the frailties and weaknesses -- and try to make something interesting out of them. Like the character of Mako -- She thinks she's fat and ugly, but she's also got this cute, charming quality. That's why you can laugh at her. Otherwise, it would be too cruel.

The character of Haruko is also a mix in that way. She's strong-minded, but has a softer side as well.

I wanted her to be cool, but from a woman's point of view, not a man's. When male directors try to make cool female characters, they often end up over-idealizing them. I'm a woman, so I had a different perspective that way. I tried to make her more in line with what women consider cool.

She's also been Americanized -- that creates problems for her. Did any of that come from you own experience of living for a long time in the States and then coming back to Japan?

Yes, it did. When I came back I felt a culture gap, definitely.

But you also didn't feel like staying in the States and trying to start career there?

Not really. For one thing, it's more enjoyable writing scripts in Japanese. I can have more fun expressing myself. Also, I wanted to make films in Japan. All Hollywood is interested in is remakes of Japanese films -- and that's not interesting to me. And even if I were able to become a director in Hollywood, I wouldn't have the confidence to make interesting films, films that I could call my own. In Hollywood they have a system -- the producer decides the final cut. I didn't think I could work that way. It's not easy in Japan, but at least I can express myself the way I want. The budgets aren't big, but I can enjoy myself while making interesting films. That's enough.

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