To mark the international premiere of The Name of the Whale, we had the delight and privilege of conversing with director Fumito Fujikawa, as well as actors Masana Hirabuki and Yuki Kimura. This interview would not have been possible without the help of Rick Hart, VIFF volunteer and Japanese-to-English translator.
BL: In one line, how would you describe this film to those who have yet to watch it?
FF: This film follows the story of a young boy digging for fossils in the village of Miyoshi, as well as the histories and culture of the villagers themselves.
BL: I’m curious to know how you managed to procure a massive, 50-foot whale balloon.
FF: Kite balloons are very popular in Japan! Some of my colleagues made this one expressly for the set and shipped it down from Tokyo.
BL: What was your inspiration for the title?
FF: In the film, the boys visit a museum and find a plaque which says, “The name of the whale is Yamaoka. It is named after the student who discovered it in 1981.” So, Yuta is actually based on a historical character. The title of the film in Japanese is Isanatori, isana—an ancient word for ‘whale’—and tori—which means ‘to dig for’. You may have noticed that Yuta is quite disconnected from the adults in this story, especially his mother. So, rather than inheriting an identity from adult influences, Yuta has to look for his own, and this is mirrored by his paleontological searches.
BL: What were you hoping to achieve by fusing fiction and documentary in this film?
FF: As a director, it is very hard to separate fiction and documentary. Much of this film consists of my own childhood memories interlaced with my experiences in Miyoshi. While I was conceiving the story of Yuta during those two years, I would take short videos of the inhabitants of the town. Through this, I was able to weave the residents and festivals of Miyoshi into the project. It all happened very organically.
BL: Although the setting is in Miyoshi, Hiroshima surfaces multiple times—is there a particular message concerning these two places that you hope to bring to your audience?
FF: Miyoshi is located very near to Hiroshima. Many still live with the effects of nuclear radiation to this day. In fact, the grandfather whom I interviewed about his wartime experiences has since passed away, so I am grateful his story has been preserved in film. Yuta [the actor]’s own grandfather also passed on due to radiation sickness during our month-long filming session. The atomic bomb is still very much a reality for the Japanese people today.
MH: Also contrasting the elderly folk and this older rural village are the three young people. A major question that the film raises is, “What is their future going to be, since life is always changing?”
BL: From an actor’s perspective, what makes a great film?
YK: Rather than movies that are overwhelmingly impressive emotionally or visually, I find that films which prompt you to ask questions are often the most satisfying. Also, working with a top-down, scripted structure is actually quite confining. One of the pleasures of filming The Name of Whale was that much of it was filmed in collaboration with the residents, as well as the actors. Fumito would describe the scene and the boys would improvise.
BL: Do you have any ideas for your next project?
FF: Currently, I’m traveling a lot to promote this film. For my next film, I plan on doing something similar but in a different city—immersing myself in the stories of people somewhere outside of Japan.
BL: What has been your favourite part of Vancouver?
FF, MH, YK: Poutine!