Thursday, July 1, 2010

Director Yu Irie Interview

Director Yu Irie has two films represented at this year's New York Asian Film Festival: 8000 Miles and 8000 Miles 2: Girl Rappers. In Japan, as in the US, rap music has become an outlet for young people facing an uncertain future. These films are not simply about hip-hop culture in Japan. They are more to do with the blank generation and suburban ennui. Irie, coming from the same background as his characters, understands well the frustrations of these lovable losers in suburbia and portray them with warmth and care. I had an opportunity to talk to him about independent films and hip-hop in Japan.

There are quite a few films at New York Asian Film Festival this year labeled as "indie" film by "indie" filmmakers. Do these labels apply to you in Japan?

Yes, absolutely. There are two criteria I fit in. First, in Japan, anything that's not a major production, it's considered independent. On top of that, when a film is entirely funded by the director himself and made with bunch of friends like mine, it's an indie indeed. So definitely yes.

How influential is hip-hop culture in Japan? Did it influence you growing up?

Hip-hop arrived in the late 80s and really took roots in the early 90's in Japan. I was a teenager then, and there were many great Japanese rap artists who had huge influence on me.

You did two films now about hip-hop groups, first and second one separated by gender (Boys and Girls). Was it a conscious decision?

Yes, that was something I was very conscious of. I knew they would obviously rap about different things.

I noticed the differences how the boys and girls approached hip-hop. The boys seemed more interested in the idea of being a hip-hop artist whereas girls were more enthusiastic about actual music.

Oh, sure. Me being a male, like the characters, I had motivations about being famous, being rich, how girls will like me and all that while making the first 8000 Miles. (Laughs) The second one, with the women with where they are (age-wise), they can really focus on the joy of music. That was something I was interested in showing.

How did you go about selecting actors for the both first and second one? Probably because of the first one's success, you must've gotten more money and more resources for the second. I noticed some known actors in Girl Rappers.

In reality the budget didn't change that much making Girl Rappers. I didn't have much interest in the first place to get well known actors. Even the second one, my focus was on using unknown actors. It just so happened that there were some actors who saw the first one and really loved it and approached me, so they really wanted to be part of the second film. Some of the known actors happened to be right for the parts.

Wow, that's great.

Sure I want people coming out to see the film in theaters but without any famous actor in the film, it would be understandably difficult. But these are people who are out in the countryside trying to be rappers, so the important thing to me was getting believable looking people as those characters. I don't think I could have achieved that with known faces.

Did you know Shingo, Ryusuke and Hakushu beforehand? And is DJ TKD really a musician?

Yes, we all went to same school and we were classmates later on. Yes he is a musician but he can't live off being a musician so he has a business on the side.

In the US, hip-hop comes out of specific conditions- poverty, racism and violence. What issues drive Japanese youth to get involved in hip-hop?

Japan in the 90's, that's when hip-hop became big, mimicking American artists and they were trying to figure out how to make it their own. It's different though. Like the first 8000 Miles film, they started to rap about where they are from. The lyrics were still mellow compared to poverty and things like that. 8000 Miles came out just before the Lehman Brothers scandal and global recession, which have been affecting Japan as well. I think there will soon be edgier, harsher lyrics to reflect that.

What are your expectations on audience reception for your films both here and Japan?

It's really hard to imagine how it will be received but it's not really about hip-hop culture but more about youth trying to achieve their dreams and so whatever hip-hop represents to the characters, they can replace it themselves with whatever their dreams are so they can relate to characters that way.

The other thing is female Japanese rappers haven't achieved any success in Japan. Hopefully it will change when they see Girl Rappers.

My French friend was very adamant about French language being most suited for rap, do you think about Japanese that way?

(Laughs) I think English is more suited for rap to be honest. English has harder sounding words than French or Japanese.

I think many Shogung fans will disagree with you.


So what's next for you?

I think I'll continue the series with a film about DJs.

Yu Irie talks about hip-hop at Twitch