Following decades in television and film, including stints as a producer, screenwriter and documentary filmmaker, Yoshiyuki Kishi made his feature directorial debut in 2016, aged 52, with Double Life, attracting some international festival attention.
He returned the following year with the ambitious Wilderness, based on the only novel by Shuji Terayama. Released in two parts a few weeks apart in Japan, with a combined running time of more than five hours, Wilderness portrayed two very different social outcasts on their journey to becoming professional boxers, against the backdrop of a socially disintegrating Japan. It landed Masaki Suda best actor at the Japan Academy Awards, and Korea’s Yang Ik-june best supporting actor at the Asian Film Awards.
Kishi’s latest, (Ab)normal Desire, is almost certainly his most challenging and complex work to date. Selected in competition at this year’s Tokyo International Film Festival and starring Yui Aragaki, Goro Inagaki, Kanta Sato, Hayato Isomura, and Ayaka Higashino, it is not always an easy watch.
Based on a 2021 novel of the same name by Ryo Asai, the film looks at the impact that a fetish for spouting water has on the lives of two former classmates. Along the way, it delivers nuanced takes on the tolerance of difference, empty diversity gestures and social isolation. Titillation is notable for its absence. An unexpected turn in the denouement brings the sympathetically portrayed fetish into contact with undeniably abnormal desires, muddying the moral waters.
During the Tokyo Film Festival, The Hollywood Reporter sat down with Kishi and asked him about how he approached tackling such a difficult theme and being a late bloomer in regard to feature films.
Quite a number of Ryo Asai’s books, going back to The Kirishima Thing, have been made into films — why do you think that is?
I think it is because film is a medium that expresses the present, and while there are many Japanese films based on source material, the very contemporary themes he portrays capture the imagination of filmmakers… not just directors but also producers. The novel made a big impact on me. It made me realize that the issue of sexual diversity, which I thought I had a handle on, I didn’t understand at all. There are people who need to be understood, and those who need to understand. I was confronted by the fact that I am simply on the need-to-understand side.
The story is very much an exploration of the characters’ internal worlds. What were some of the challenges in depicting that on screen?
It was portraying the sexual excitement around water, the pleasure, those feelings. I’m on the majority side [not having a water fetish], so that was difficult to express in the film. In the source material, it’s not explicitly expressed — the sexual excitement — so I had to work out how to show that. I really struggled, and discussed it at length with the cast. I did a lot of research and found blogs by people who had water fetishes and wrote about it in great detail. There are different kinds as well, like someone who was aroused by water spurting out of a faucet, another aroused by wet clothes. I borrowed from that. I’ve been doing documentaries for a long time, so I like to refer to things that are real.
I wanted to use reality as a reference in expressing ideas, but in this case, I felt that using such real things was limiting in places. So instead of narrowing the image of what I was portraying, I decided to broaden it.
The water fetish feels like a clear metaphor for sexual and social minorities. Is that how you see it and what did you want to say about that through the film?
Yes, that’s what it is. But I had to take it in a direction that would be easy to visualize. The characters in the film are alienated by water, by their attraction to water. So, I wanted the water to be in a sense moisture, the source of life — but I wanted to leave the impression that it left them high and dry. Or rather, water is something that does not make the characters happy.
To convey the message that they need to be understood, I think it was important for the cast to be able to express themselves to make that situation understandable. Otherwise, there was a danger of it getting lost.
Your debut as a feature director was at 52, which is on the late side. How has your long experience in television and film, working on documentaries, variety shows, dramas etc. informed your work?
I would like to believe that I’ve been able to put my experience to work (Laughs). For all my productions, I shoot entire scenes without cutting and then do that over and over. I edit myself, so that works fine. Documentaries are about creating a record, right? When you’re interviewing someone and shooting it so they look their best, they’re happy. I always film with that notion in mind, though some are puzzled by it. There is something I want to capture that only exists at that moment. We overcome various hurdles, and at a certain time on a certain day, there is a moment with all the staff and crew together working toward the images we are creating. In that sense it is like a documentary — you don’t know what is going to happen, but you start shooting. There is a moment when the performance goes beyond what you expected, when it is not planned. I think experience allows me to do that.
Did you always aim to be a director?
No, not at all. I used to make films when I was a film student, but one of my contemporaries told me the chances of becoming a director are like that of winning the lottery. I entered the film industry when it was in steep decline when people couldn’t make a living, so I didn’t think I could make it in that kind of world. Even if I could become a crew member, I didn’t think I’d ever have the chance to direct a film. Because of that I feel that being given the opportunity to shoot films is incredible.
Interview edited for length and clarity.