Japanese Rapper’s Delight: Interview with Director Yu Irie

Based on his obsessive interest in the underground Japanese hip-hop scene, filmmaker Yu Irie wrote and directed a comedic rockumentary called 8,000 Miles (Saitama no Rappa). It’s about a group of lovable losers desperately trying to break into the Japanese music scene. The film became a sleeper hit in the Japanese independent theater circuit and won the Yubari Fanta 2009 Off-Theater Grand Prix award. He followed up his success with a sequel named 8,000 Miles 2: Girls Rapper (Saitama no rappa 2 – Joshi rappa Kizudarake no raimu).

James Leung: After successfully showing 8000 Miles, did you take a break or did you dive right into the sequel?

Yu Irie: I started working on it immediately. I immediately started writing screenplay for the sequel.

JL: The sequel had relatively higher production values. How was the financing different between the two films?

YI: The main difference is the first film took the Grand Prize at the Yabari International Fantastic Film Festival. As part of the prize, I received funding for the second film.

JL: Did the increased budget make it easier to produce?

YI: On the one hand, things became easier in terms of equipment and logistics. On the other hand, the production was done by committee, so I wasn’t in a position to control every aspect by myself.

JL: Did the production by committee impact the way you directed the film?

YI: My work as a director wasn’t really affected or changed. But since I also produce, my work as a producer had more levels of complexity in terms of organizing a larger number of people.

JL: In the first film, the focus was on male rappers dealing with the problems of being NEET (Not in Employment, Education or Training). However, the sequel deals with problems unique to women. How has the shift in gender changed the narrative?

YI: Umm… That’s a good question. To my knowledge, there are no other films about female rappers. So, I wanted to take it upon myself to make the first one. Because the gender of the characters shifted, the film became more ground in their daily life.

JL: Yamada Maho, who plays the leader singer of B-Hack, is an unusually choice for a leading lady. How did you meet Maho, and why did you cast her as the lead?

YI: It’s the same deal as the first film. I really wanted to focus on young unknown actors, who you can imagine really living in the countryside. If I worked with famous actors and placed them in a rural setting, it would have an artificial feel to film.

As far as female rappers go, there weren’t a lot of people I could model the characters after. So, we were having a lot of workshops and invited many actresses that I was interested in playing the lead role. They learned rhyme and practiced rapping. Miss Yamada was one of the few who displayed a unique character and originality.

JL: Did any of the actresses already know how to “rhyme”?

YI: None of them had any prior hip-hop experience.

JL: Location tends to plays a big role in your films. For the sequel, why did you decide to change locations from Saitama to Gunma?

YI: Japan has forty-seven prefectures, and each region has a lot of differences. Each place has unique aspects such as specialty produce or environment. I think people’s feeling and personalities are also different. So, I wanted to shift the region. Furthermore, I wanted to explore the differences inherent in the people from that area.

Both Saitama and Gunma are unusual prefectures because they do not have a coast. They have no shores and are completely landlocked. They are very similar, but Gunma is a more mountainous area with a lot more greenery. As a film location, it’s seemed very suitable for shooting.

Furthermore, Saitama is a place with a predominantly yellowish color. So working on a film that is mainly about women, I wanted to introduce more green into the work. I wanted to emphasis the feminine theme chromatically.

JL: Did you do a lot of location scouting?

YI: I did a lot of looking around by myself. I got a car and drove around. I also got some help from the film commission.

JL: What did the people of Gunma prefecture think about the film?

YI: The film hasn’t opened in Gunma yet. So, I’m looking forward to their reaction.

JL: The first film got a negative reaction from Saitama audiences. Do you expect a similar reaction?

YI: I think that there are a lot of films that want to embellish or idolize their locations. In a way, it’s very shallow. Those films are common place. I’m much more interested in examining the true lives of local people. I want to specifically focus on the real issues related to living in those areas. I think that type of honest exploration will reaffirm your love for a place. So, I look forward to reaction from Gunma locals.

JL: Are you a fan of Hip Hop music?

YI: Yes. I first got into hip hop through Japanese hip hop. After the becoming a fan of the local hip hop scene, I went backwards and explored American hip hop. I was really fascinated by its ability to encompass many facets and areas.

JL: Do you have any favorite American rappers?

YI: Beastie Boys.

JL: In the US, rappers always try to portray themselves as “thuggish” or “gangsta”. Your films seem to use this persona for comedic effect. Why did you adopt this approach?

YI: In regards to the gangsta attitude, it’s not the same as America where rappers can really use their impoverished backgrounds for their music. Japanese artists don’t have that as a background, so they use the gangsta image as a facade. I wanted to show that side of it.

I also wanted middle-aged men and women with no interest in hip hop to enjoy my films too. Through the work, I hope they will discover the music of hip hop. That’s something else I was interested in.

JL: What’s your opinion of the current state of Hip Hop in Japan?

YI: There are all kinds of hip hop. It’s not just gangsta rap. I would love to see the Japanese hip hop scene explore other areas.

JL: Pop music is very dominant in Japan, and it has started to incorporate bits of hip hop. Do you think it dilutes the rap music?

YI: I think its fine for hip hop to mix with pop music as long as it’s still good music. In music, it’s not fun to strictly categorize things. I think it’s great when people mix things and come up with new music.

JL: What are your future plans?

YI: I love science fiction films like Spielberg’s work. I would love to work on an epic space movie, but the current situation in Japan makes it difficult to fund big budget projects. Currently there are a lot of hurdles in Japan.

pics courtesy of the New York Asian Film Festival

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