Seven Years of Devotion to Leonie: Interview with film director Hisako Matsui (Keiko Miyamatsu Saunders)

“A challenging spirit can make a dream come true”

The original article in Japanese

Film director Hisako Matsui at a reception after the Film Festival

Thirteen Japanese films will be shown at the Toronto Japanese Film Festival starting June 7th for two weeks. All films are premiering in North America for the first time and many are masterpieces which have received awards from film festivals in Japan. The scheduled screenings include historical and contemporary dramas, comedies, animes, and documentaries.

 

Out of the thirteen films, Leonie has been attracting a lot of attention as the only movie featuring a non-Japanese actress directed by a Japanese woman. Leonie is the story of Leonie Gilmore, an American who was the mother of Isamu Noguchi (1904-1988), the internationally acclaimed sculptor. (His father is the Japanese poet Yonejiro Noguchi.)

Isamu Noguchi’s sculptures, paintings, and even furniture are exhibited worldwide. There are even documentaries, movies, and biographies of him. Through these, we know that as a child, Isamu spent ten years in Japan with his mother. While the spiritual influence Isamu’s mother, Leonie, had over her son marked as a starting point for his artistic career, her role and her life story have remained silent, until this film, by director Hisako Matsui.

The story of Leonie, a tough and proud mother, is brought to screen for the first time ever. Director Hisako Matsui will make a special appearance at the screening of her film at the Toronto Japanese Film Festival. This visit was made possible thanks to Hiroko Barall’s enormous effort and through the support of James Heron, the director of the Japanese Canadian Cultural Centre.

Despite Matsui’s busy schedule, I had an opportunity to interview her.

– How did you come to know Leonie Gilmour?

I conduct events across Japan where I screen my films and give a talk. (Note: her first film Yukie has been screened more than 750 times; her second film Oriume has been shown over 1800 times.) During one such event, it was spring of 2003, I went to Takamatsu, Shikoku, where I visited, along with some local women, the Isamu Noguchi Garden Museum in the town of Mure. This is where Isamu spent his last days and engaged in his creative activities.

In the garden that Isamu designed himself, a number of sculptural pieces were systematically aligned, as if trying to tell a message. The curator told us that when Isamu was alive, he had said; “this garden is a gift for the Japanese people who were kind to my mother.” The word “mother” left a lingering impression on me. After I had toured the museum, I bought a book called Isamu Noguchi: Shukumei no ekkyousha. (English translation: The Life of Isamu Noguchi: Journey Without Borders.) I learned about Leonie for the first time through this book. When I discovered that this famous artist, whose name would remain in the history of art, was strongly influenced by his mother, I was overcome with a strong desire to make her story known to the world.

– What happened between that discovery and the time you started making the film?

For a film to be commercially successful, there are certain conditions that are required, such as the original book must be a best-seller and a famous director and/or actors must be involved.  But my film had none of these, so people told me I was insane. To make a film, many things, such as screenwriting, fund-raising, and casting, must progress simultaneously. There were twists and turns for Leonie as well, and the screenplay ended up being revised fourteen times. For the funding, I was blessed to meet a person who invested as much as 1.2 billion yen* without any personal benefit. I had met this person through an introduction by a woman who had come to one of my lectures.

(*As of June 4, 2012, it is roughly $15 million.)

It also took time casting the protagonist. We only had three months before the start of shooting when we finally choose Emily Mortimer.  However, we understood each other from the beginning, and I do feel as though she was born to play the role of Leonie.

All and all, it took six full years before I could start shooting the film.

– Did you have any hardship while shooting the film?

Compared to the preparatory period, shooting was much easier, and even the hardships were not hardships.  I brought to the set my “unshaken devotion” that I had gained during the preparation time. When the director moves forward without hesitation, the people around him/her will follow, and filming goes smoothly. I believe the positive relationship I had with Emily acted as the axis for the crew as well.

– Any fun memories?

To have worked with internationally acclaimed filmmakers. The film’s music is by Jan Kaczmarek, a Polish musician who received an Academy Award for composing. The protagonist, Emily Mortimer, is from Britain. The director of photography, Tetsuo Nagata, is a Japanese living in Paris who worked for the French film La Môme. I was also able to work with many American crewmembers and brilliant Japanese actors and staff members…  It makes me happy that I could make friends from all around the world. About 470 people in total were involved. Because I shot the film in Japan and in the United States, it feels as if I shot two different films. This is a true luxury for an unknown film director like myself. I have been through many trials and errors over the years, but I truly felt that dreams do come true if you keep yearning for it.

– I heard that the Empress visited the premier of Leonie in Japan.

Yes, the Empress had viewed my previous two films on video and I had heard that she  expressed the words; “it must be hard for a woman to direct a film.” Those words have always been a source of encouragement for me. At the Japanese premier of Leonie, she said to me many times “I’m impressed that you persisted for seven long years.” I was deeply touched by the Empress’s compassion and felt as though she really understood everything. I took these words as a prime reward towards my long-time supporters and for all the people who had made films with me. (In Japan, there is a group of Ms. Matsui’s supporters called ‘My Leonie’.)

– Please tell us about your ideas for upcoming projects.

It’s too early to think about the next work, but I would like to make another film that can be enjoyed by people all over the world, without borders. A contract was just recently signed with a distributor in the United States, and Leonie will now be screened in regular movie theatres across North America. This version will be 32 minutes shorter than the TJFF version, which has subtitles in both Japanese and English. I’m currently busy preparing to promote this shorter version.

– Please tell us how you feel about the screening of Leonie at the TJFF.

I think I can offer people who meet me inspiration; that with a challenging spirit, they too can achieve their dreams. When there was a screening of Oriume in Toronto several years ago, people welcomed me wholeheartedly.  I also really felt the strength of Japanese expatriates in Toronto. I’m looking forward to meeting many people, both Canadian and Japanese, at the screening.

Hisako Matsui profile: A film director. Born in Tokyo in 1946. Graduated with a theatre degree from the Faculty of Literature at Waseda University. After working as a magazine writer, she established an agency for actors and took on a managerial role. Later, she opened her own production company where she produced TV programs including dramas and documentaries. Her first film work as director is Yukie. Her next film Oriume, dealt with elderly care, and mobilized an audience of one million within the first two years. Leonie‘s screening started nationwide in Japan in November 2010. Her publications include Turning Point — Oriume and Matsui Hisako no Ikiru Chikara (Matsui Hisako: Zest for Living ).

( Translation by KAN Communications.)

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