Synopsis : A poignant story of love, loss, self-sacrifice and discovery, Daishi Matsunaga’s heralded new film is inspired by the seminal semi-autobiographical novel by Makoto Takayama. The first Japanese production with both an LGBTQ+ inclusive director and an intimacy choreographer, Egoist features two of Japan’s biggest movie stars in very compromising positions. Suffused with delicacy and naturalism, the film completely sidesteps melodrama in its beautifully humanist depiction of gay and maternal relationships. Ryohei Suzuki (HK: Hentai Kamen, Last of the Wolves) nearly sparkles with elegance, taste and personal charm as the protagonist, Kosuke. A wealthy magazine editor with a close circle of artistic, bon vivant friends, Kosuke is surprised when he falls for his new personal trainer, Ryuta (Hio Miyazawa). A financially strapped high-school dropout, Ryuta juggles a number of jobs to support his doting single mother. And then the unthinkable happens.
Interview with Actor Ryohei Suzuki and Director Daishi Matsunaga
Q: In the film, there are so many scenes that are expressed through facial expressions rather than dialogue, such as the sudden kissing scenes on the pedestrian bridge or in Kosuke’s room. On the contrary, the scene where Ryuta says good-bye, the direction was good in that we can’t see the facial expressions of Kosuke who received a good-bye. The audience can guess what they’re feeling. How did you consciously direct the parts where the scenes are with dialogue or without dialogue?
Matsunaga: Before we were shooting a new film, I shared with the crew the film style of “The Son” by the Dardenne brothers. It was basically used as a reference. Since I was originally coming from the documentary field, the actors in that space are established firmly as their roles, working together with each other. I told cinematographer Naoya Ikeda, who I worked with this time, “Please shoot the place that speaks most eloquently about it.”
So we don’t return to the cuts. Each time, it is almost a single scene, a single take. Of course, I direct what I want to see in the scene, but basically I leave it up to Ikeda to make it happen. For example, the parting scene at the entrance is in a really small space in Kosuke’s apartment, so basically the camera cannot come and go. In the sequence of events, while we were shooting Ryuta (played by Miyazawa Hio), there’s not a single cut of the face of Kosuke (played by Suzuki Ryohei), who was told that that was the break-up scene. I didn’t want it.
But after filming, when the camera followed up with Kosuke, the look on his face said it all. So this time, the actors were not allowed to think about where they were or what scene they were being filmed in, and I selected actors that, when the camera was rolling 100% of the time, they were able to play their roles whether they were on camera or not. For example, in the dining table scene, we shot a lot of hands, but Ikeda wanted to shoot the hands of the participants and their faces while they were eating, even though he also shot their faces in this space. Basically, the cameraman, when holding the camera as in making a documentary, says what he wants to shoot and makes his choice each time. All the takes are different.
Q: The theme of this film is one that’s not so common in Japan. Why did the director want to make this film and, as for Suzuki, why did you accepted the offer to act in it?
Matsunaga: When I was given the original story by the producer, Ms. Akashi, she asked if I would like to make a movie out of it so I read it. It is LGBTQ+ themed, but more than that, when Taeko (played by Ms. Agawa) is told by Kosuke, “I don’t know what love is,” Taeko says, “It’s okay if you don’t understand it. If we, who receive it, think it’s love, isn’t that good enough?” When I read that line in the latter half of the film, I knew that I wanted to make this into a film. That’s the main reason why I accepted the offer.
Q: Mr. Suzuki, this role was also a challenge for you as an actor. Didn’t you have to make a lot more decisions than your previous roles?
Suzuki: I didn’t think it was a “challenge” at all. However, in terms of representation, I thought about whether it should be done by an actor who’s not gay. I then searched for who should play the role. I wondered if there were any Japanese actors who were openly gay, and there were zero — at least three years ago. I thought that, just like they’ve done in Hollywood, we can start with heterosexual actors playing homosexual roles, make such works as appropriately as possible, and move society and the film industry forward to the next stage.
As long as I accept this role, I must take 100% responsibility in doing so, and I do so with thorough preparation. I can’t disappoint the gay community in any way, and I should make sure that when they see the film, they know that it’s not a story that someone heterosexual thought up, but a film that was made properly, When they see the film, they’ll be able to relate to it as their own story. After consulting with director Matsunaga about this, Ren Miyata, the Inclusive Director of LGBTQ+, came on board. I then also heard that Seigo, an intimacy choreographer who superviseslove scenes, was going to be on the set.
As I said, I found zero actors who had publicly come out when I did my research three years ago. I think the reality is that coming out is still a very risky situation for actors. Coming out is not everything of course, but we should create an environment where it’s not too risky, psychologically or career-wise, to come out publicly our sexuality. We should make an effort to change both society and the industry with that end in mind.
Q: What you just said is related to the theme of the film, which is that we shouldn’t judge things from what we see from the outside or from what others see — we should question things properly. This was the message that I got from it. We should avoid judging what we see or what is as it is? What kind of attitude should we have in our lives, and how can this be applied to the media?
Matsunaga: It was very difficult to answer, but I think one small trigger or small hope is that when I was allowed to use the title “Egoist,” from an outside perspective, Kosuke was giving love to someone. But from his personal background, he was also doing things for himself. So, we’re also being questioned very much about our social nature and so on. Because of this position, we are not supposed to do these things. Naturally, we have to think about others, respect them, and think about society, but when we’re told to do so strongly, we are forced to do something for the sake of society. However, I believe that what’s most important is the feelings of each individual.
I believe that society exists only when there is an individual, so although people tend to look at it from the outside and say how it is, it is better if there is one’s true feelings and one’s true intention. If I can build a small world, I think I will be able to endure what people say about me better than if I hadn’t built a small world. If you have something to believe in, believe in yourself first, and then believe in the people you want to believe in. If this small world becomes one world, and if it keeps expanding, I think it will be alright. In that sense, in the movie “Egoist,” Taeko says what I said earlier, “Even if you don’t understand love, as long as we believe in your love, that’s all that matters.” I think that’s a great strength of Taeko. If we can do that, perhaps society will change. But a film is a statement of ideals.
Q: People often judge you from the outside. For example, since actors are in the business of acting, they are a bit like public figures, and the world looks at them with a public image, but that’s different from who they really are. So, how can we create a world where people don’t see them that way?
Suzuki: I’m not that big of a person. I tend to judge people from the outside too, because that’s often the only information I have. That’s inevitable. I don’t think there is anything to deny that. If people don’t evaluate you based on your appearance, or if it is not a criterion for judgment, then fashion becomes uninteresting, and changing one’s appearance to express oneself is part of human culture.
However, it is also important to keep in mind that what we see on the outside and what they carry on the inside are always different. It would be easier for many people to live in Japan if we, as a society, shifted our assumptions, or rather our belief that you and other people are different. That this is normal, and that being different is the norm, that’s the new common sense — which is that it’s common knowledge that there are many different people, and I think it would be better if that became the new common sense.
Q: Congratulations on winning the Rising Star Award at the New York Asian Film Festival. Tell us about how you feel about it.
Suzuki: I am very happy to receive this great award. I feel that the presence of Asian films has been increasing in recent years. I am very honored to receive this award, which seems to recognize that I am also one of the powers behind it. I recently saw “Past Lives,” a film made by A24, which was written and directed by a Korean-American director, Celine Song, and it had some great Asian actors in it. It was a very beautifully shot film, and at the same time I am glad that many Hollywood films are now starting to be made within the Asian community in the US. And of course, the film was set in New York City. I was also excited to see so many beautiful views of the city I love so much that were cut out.
Q: If you had the chance in America, would you want to go in that direction?
Suzuki: I have always wanted to work with people from different cultural
backgrounds than my own. I’m always open to any opportunities.
Q: Regarding sexual minorities and LGBTQ＋, Japan still has prejudice, discrimination, and other elements typical of a closed island country. Coming to the New York Asian Film Festival this time, New York and the United States themselves are becoming increasingly diverse, so what did you feel when you interacted with people involved in the festival and people who walked the streets?
Matsunaga: To be honest, it was difficult for me to think in such a short time, but since the year after the 9/11 terrorist attacks, I’ve come to New York often. It was during a documentary shoot, I made a lot of gay friends at that time. Japan was completely different from New York as it was 10 years ago, so I’m interested in how it’s changed now. Obviously, it’s difficult to know how it’s changed in a few days, and when the film “Egoist” is screened after this interview — the New York audience sees it — how will they see our movie? I wonder if it will be one of my actual experiences. So I’m really looking forward to it.
Suzuki: First of all, how will the movie “Egoist” be received by the people in New York? I think that people in New York will naturally accept the clear parts of this movie and the fact that they are gay. However, there are differences between the Japanese and American society. I am interested in how American audience will feel about my character, who spent his childhood hiding his gay identity in rural Japan and then found a place in Tokyo where he can be his true self. Also he doesn’t have the option of getting married to his partner in Japan. How would the audience feel about the lifestyle of one gay couple living in Tokyo and their values in life?
What interests me more is that I think this film depicts Japanese values. For example, giving financial assistance to someone in need is seen as more hypocritical and immoral in Japan. And instead of saying “Thank you,” they say, “I’m sorry.” Also, speaking of the LGBTQ＋ community in the US, I was in L.A the other day and it was (gay) Pride Month. This was especially the case in West Hollywood. It’s really exciting, and wherever you go, you see rainbow flags and rainbow things, and when you go to a theme park, there’s a rainbow section in the goods shop. However, on the other hand, I am only looking at LA and New York this time, but I think that America is not just that.
I really love Oklahoma, where I was an exchange student 25 years ago. I love my friends there, and my host family, but not a single person was open about being LGBTQ＋. It may have changed now, but it may not change even now, and I think that’s another aspect of diversity. It’s true that various places and opinions differ, I’m curious about what people will think if it’s released in a conservative area.
Q: I heard that you two have known each other since you were newcomers to this industry, but aren’t you deeply moved by the fact that “Egoist” was selected at the New York Asian Film Festival and came to New York together?
Matsunaga: It’s actually way before we were newcomers to this industry.
Suzuki: We’ve been friends since we were working at the same part-time job place. So, it’s nothing but emotional…
Matsunaga: I’m really happy.
Suzuki: I didn’t have much time to think about such things on the set.
Matsunaga: The day before we shot, I looked back. When we were working part-time, I talked about wanting to become a director someday, and he [Suzuki] said someday wanting to be an actor. In the first scene on the first day of filming, when I was making arrangements and watching everyone prepare, Ryohei suddenly came up to me and said, “Do you remember that day? We did it, huh?” I’m happy that Ryohei said that, but I thought that he would often say such sentimental things even though there’s a lot of things to tackle that day.
Suzuki: For one thing, I feel sorry [for Matsunaga]. I think I’m a very tiresome actor. For example, when the script came up, I honestly called [Matsunaga] and said, “Mr. Daishi, I can’t do this. I don’t think this script will work.” We talked about [LGBTQ＋] things like that, and it was the same with representations. [The script] was too simple, and the essence, the important parts, and the warmth that were written in the novel were completely lost. Only what happened was written. When I contacted [Matsunaga] that I couldn’t do this, he said, “No, I understand. But I can only write this way. I want to come to the rehearsal and create a lively scene during the rehearsal,” I thought I didn’t really understand.
Matsunaga: He said, I really didn’t understand.
Suzuki: I understand that, but in the end, I said that the script is the most important thing. When I came to the rehearsal, he said to me that, “I want to do the scene before the scene written in this script.” In the script, the scene begins with Ryuta, his mother and Kosuke having dinner together, but he wanted to do the scene before that where the three meet at the door. However, when the improvisation began, his mother sent Ryuta shopping. Kosuke and his mother, not knowing much about each other, end up sitting around the dinner table together.
There, the mother asks Kosuke various questions, but (Matsunaga) only told those questions in advance to Ms. Agawa, who plays the mother. i
Matsunaga: We said we would do this scene in rehearsal, but they [Ryohei and Hio] aren’t aware that we’re going to do this to improve. Then Taeko, played by Ms. Agawa, said, “I don’t have any miso. Could you buy it?” Ryuta, played by Hio, is going to shop, so he disappeared, and the scene that wasn’t in the script at all. Ryohei was left alone with Agawa. Well, what was amazing about Ryohei is that he always continued to be Kosuke. Of course, the camera was on during the rehearsal, and when I was looking at the face of Kosuke on the monitor, I thought that I would definitely shoot this in a real take.
Q: Did you improvise the scene of receiving and not receiving money as well?
Matsunaga: For that, I gave each of them a piece of paper and told Ryohei to give the money to Taeko, and told Ms. Agawa not to take it as Taeko. Then Ms. Agawa said, “Director, if I don’t accept it, the shooting won’t be over.” “It’s okay. Ryohei Suzuki is amazing, so please accept it honestly. If you don’t, it’s a pretty forced scene.” In a novel, one can read at the reader’s pace, but in a movie, you control the time, so if you follow the script, the audience won’t follow. That part will be the heart of the movie “Egoist.” so Ryohei said to Ms Agawa that “if you can’t accept it, you don’t have to.” In the end, Ryohei [Suzuki] managed to do it, and, I thought, that I was able to pull it off because of these two.
Here’s the trailer of the film.