An ordinary love, an ever-changing city, and a protagonist who doesn’t grow up; Rikiya Imaizumi’s Over the Town

Rikiya Imaizumi is known for his mastery of romantic films such as Just Only Love and his. He recently even tried his hand at directing a coming-of-age film centered on boys with In Those Days. His latest film, Over the Town, had a postponed release date because of coronavirus. The film is about a man who gets dumped, Ao Arakawa (Ryuya Wakaba), living his everyday life in Shimokitazawa, which is undergoing immense changes due to redevelopment plans. Here, we examine the director’s work with these keywords in mind: romantic films, Shimokitazawa, actors, and Imaizumi’s perception of love.

Creating ordinary, commonplace love stories 

–You’ve directed many romantic films over the years. Do you go into the filmmaking process thinking, “I want to explore this facet of love”?

Rikiya Imaizumi: I only think about how it’s pointless to make the same film every time. With Over the Town, shooting in Shimokitazawa was a must; I wanted to contrast the ever-changing city against unchanging feelings. The following is what I wanted to shoot: the protagonist gets cheated on and dumped by his lover. He then meets different women in Shimokitazawa before getting over her. Instead of hunting down the person his ex had an affair with, he takes each day as it comes, unable to shake off his feelings for her.

–The film highlights the inherent comedy that love has.

Imaizumi: Humor has always been there in my screenwriting. I feel like I’ve heightened the romance and humor in this film. Before we cast Ryuya Wakaba as Ao, the protagonist, I was considering getting rid of most of the dialogue, like the taciturn protagonists in Aki Kaurismäki’s films. I wanted to make an off-beat comedy about a passive, incompetent protagonist who’s terrible at love and surrounded by oddballs. That’s why I added more funny scenes which emphasized the bewildered, awkward feeling the protagonist felt when he came across odd couples or the police. Until this film, I used to get rid of scenes that were too on the nose or scenes that were like comedy sketches, even if I had written them in my screenplay. This time around, Hiroyuki Ōhashi-san co-write the script, and he discerned which parts were good. I kept the scenes that made him go, “This part is funny. It’s good.”

–Is there anything you keep in mind whenever you make romantic films?

Imaizumi: I think it’s alright for other films to be like this, but I don’t want to make unrealistic romantic films about a conventionally beautiful couple. Instead, I want to create ordinary romantic films that could make the viewer feel like the story could happen to them. When I write dialogues, I try to use words we use in daily conversations, like the one we’re having right now, not words we don’t use every day. It has a better effect than contrived speech patterns.

–There are many people with ambiguous relationships in Over the Town. It makes you think, “Are they together? Or are they just attracted to each other? Are they friends or acquaintances?”

Imaizumi: From before, I was interested in the idea of people who aren’t couples, only talking about their former partners. I wanted to try my hand at illustrating ambiguous relationships or acts like, “Is there a romantic connection there or not?”

–You’re talking about the scene where the characters stay up all night and chat in Iha Jojo’s (Seina Nakata) room. The characters don’t seem romantically interested in one another, but they still enjoy the time because anything is possible, objectively speaking.

Imaizumi: Machiko Takahashi, played by Minori Hagiwara, is a filmmaking student, and she asks Ao to be in her film. His friends tell him she likes him, and Ao believes them. It’s not like he doesn’t have ulterior motives towards women, but he can’t seem to develop relationships with them. I had the concept of different women passing the baton to one another in my mind when I was writing the script. The underlying issue is he’s still hung up on his ex.

–The film opens with Ao’s then-partner dumping him. The conversation they have in his room had your signature as a filmmaker.

Imaizumi: When Ao can’t accept their breakup, Yuki Kawase(Moeka Hoshi) tells him, “You can keep telling people we’re still together. I’ll act like we’ve broken up, though.” When I was writing that line, I thought, “What in the world is she saying?” (laughs). I was pleased when I wrote it. But it’s quite a heavy breakup scene, so the audience’s reactions in screenings and private viewings have been different so far. People finally started laughing at this scene where a strange couple interacts at the vintage store Ao works at.

An unchanging protagonist in the ever-changing city of Shimokitazawa

–What kind of place is Shimokitazawa for you?

Imaizumi: I’m from Fukushima prefecture, and I went to university in Nagoya. After that, I lived in Osaka and whatnot, so Shimokitazawa was a place I dreamed of before I came to Tokyo. I had also wanted to go to Tollywood, which is a movie theater there. When I lived in Sasazuka, I would watch live shows here and there, but I never found my favorite hang-out spot. I currently live far away from the city, but I’m more immersed in Shimokitazawa now that I stay over at friends’ places whenever I have to work there. I can finally say I have a deep relationship with Shimokitazawa after I began frequenting bars like Suiren and izakayas like Nishinba, which are in the film.

–How do you feel about the redevelopment plans there?

Imaizumi: I don’t think the city was better in the past. But as someone who’s known the place for a long time, I can’t help but feel like the renovated south exit is ugly. Perhaps young people who hang out in Shimokitazawa in the present will feel nostalgic for how it looks today once it looks different in the future. The characters talk about this in the film, but I think it’s okay for everyone to have a different era they feel nostalgic for. It’s also nice how the varying stages of Shimokitazawa are depicted in manga comics, books, films, and other mediums. In this sense, Over the Town has a bit of a meta-structure. There are numerous excellent works on Shimokitazawa, such as Zawa-zawa Shimo-Kitazawa and Kiriko Nananan’s manga comics, which are mentioned in the film, so I felt the pressure to make something good.

–It’s a cultural mecca.

Imaizumi: I was intimidated to shoot there. I usually make films where characters talk to one another in their rooms, so when I got asked to film in Shimokitazawa, I felt anxious and conflicted like, “What? I’ve never really filmed a city before.” Instead of covering all the locations, I decided to shoot spots I knew; that’s how I organized it in my mind. The music in the film is influenced by Shimokitazawa. We filmed the part where Ao goes to a show at Three, which I’ve been to many times. Mahito-san (Mahi To The People of Gezan), who I love, performs in that scene. As a result, I made a film I like, and I felt relieved after reading some people comparing Over the Town to Zawa-zawa Shimo-Kitazawa.

–I feel like Ao doesn’t belong anywhere and isn’t good at socializing, as can be seen in his love life and how he acts when he accepts the offer to be in a student film. [He may be a wallflower], but Ao’s existence is for sure. He reminds me of myself in Shimokitazawa. Since my student days, I would sometimes go to vintage stores or watch live shows, but I couldn’t find my go-to spot. And I stopped going there, eventually. I’m a nameless face in a crowd and an outsider; Shimokitazawa will do just fine without me. In the film, I felt the weight of people who exist but don’t contribute to a city or town. I watched it as someone who didn’t play a role in Shimokitazawa, but I didn’t feel alienated from the film.

Imaizumi: I understand how you feel because I don’t belong anywhere either. My film, Just Only Love isn’t about the main character growing up. It’s about a protagonist somehow ending up where he ends up with nothing going his way. When people who can’t adapt to a place or don’t have a great love life come across stories where the protagonist doesn’t grow up, they feel seen and heard. The viewer can become the protagonist. This was my intention since I started making films. I deliberately made Ao into a character that usually wouldn’t get attention, someone who doesn’t stand out. He doesn’t want to become an actor or a musician or anything — he works at a vintage clothing store and reads books. Typically, he would be the type of character that’s around the main character, not the main character themselves. I plan on creating more films with such protagonists.

Having a connection with the actors and actresses

–The four women that interact with Ao are all unique, likable, and are shot nicely. How do you choose your actresses?

Imaizumi: I go along with what I like (laughs). This applies to actors too, but it’s especially true with actresses. I don’t think I could make an actress I don’t like, even if they’re incredibly famous, look appealing. I think a different director should shoot said actress in a better light. It’s not like I can capture everyone in a charismatic way.

–Do you have a framework on how to shoot them nicely?

Imaizumi: To not over-produce them. If I chose someone with magnetism, then it’s better for them to act however they want to. That’ll allow them to be naturally charismatic. I first give them creative control to perform how they want to. This goes to the actors as well, but if someone stands out in my films, that’s because I try to take in the actor’s thoughts or what they want to do.

–So, you like actresses and actors who have independence, not those who trace every word on the script?

Imaizumi: Yes. I mean, I don’t say much when I direct (laughs). But actors who are like, “Me! Me!” rubs me the wrong way the most (laughs). What’s important isn’t to push yourself to the forefront. The important thing is to bring ideas about your performance in the film. Onset, we go over each scene, decide on the camera blocking with the cinematographer, have a test shoot, and shoot the scenes. When we’re going over the scenes, I usually don’t say anything. It’s like, “Let’s give it a shot” and “Action!” For example, if we’re doing a scene with two people, I want them to decide where to sit and so on. Good actors are proactive. They say things like “Can I stand here?” or “Okay, I’ll sit then.” If their ideas match mine, then I go along with it. But it’s more satisfying if their ideas are even better than mine. I don’t want to prevent a fun idea from being born by giving directions first.

–And the cinematographer could handle your way of doing things.

Imaizumi: Yes. Iwanaga-san filmed most of my films, and he filmed Over the Town too. His camera isn’t too close to the actors. I wouldn’t go as far as to say it’s like a bird’s eye view, but I can watch one shot that he’s taken comfortably. I know nothing about camera lenses and whatnot, but I think his sensibilities match mine.

–Starting with Wakaba-san, you’re beginning to work with the same actors more.

Imaizumi: It makes me feel secure. I’d rather work with the same people than not know how things will go with people I don’t know. I might be influenced by directors I love, such as John Cassavetes, who used the same actors a lot.

What is love?

–Lastly, do you think romance is beautiful or otherwise?

Imaizumi: I’ve never really thought it was beautiful. It’s extremely hard. I was never a ladies’ man, and my relationships never went well. Aside from my wife, I’ve never been with anyone for a year. I barely have any fun memories with past girlfriends (laughs). I feel more emotionally stable when I’m alone, but I would feel lonely, want a girlfriend, and experience unrequited love. But once I got a girlfriend, I would become emotionally unstable and break up with that person because I wanted to be alone again; it was a cycle. It would’ve been great if I felt passionate about someone, but once I started dating them, I would look at the situation dispassionately like, “This is interesting.” I know I was awful. One more horrible thing is I’ve never been dumped. I’ve dumped every single person I’ve been with. Romance is painful, but it’s not like I hate it. I want to make films about it because I hold moments of romance close to my heart.

Rikiya Imaizumi
born in 1981 in Fukushima prefecture. He made his full-length feature film debut in 2010 with Tamano Eiga. He was awarded Best Director for the film I Catch a Terrible Cat at the Transylvania International Film Festival in 2013. Sad Day was released the following year, which received acclaim. He’s also directed Our Blue Moment (2018), Just Only Love (2019), Little Nights, Little Love (2019), mellow (2020), his (2020), and In Those Days (2021).

Photography Kazuhei Kimura
Translation Lena Grace Suda

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Takako Sunaga

Takako Sunaga is a writer who does interviews and reviews, mainly in the entertainment genre, including movies, dramas, and comedies. She also reviews films for the film magazine Kinema Junpo. Aside from work, she likes food, alcohol, travel, and dogs. Twitter: @sunagatakako