Not long before she died last year, veteran Japanese actress Kirin Kiki asked her friend Yuichi Hibi to tell the story of a Japanese con woman Setsuko Yamabe who escaped to Thailand. The film premiered last week in Okinawa
It’s April in the far south of Japan and for residents of and visitors to Okinawa, that means a feast of films and special events at the Okinawa International Movie Festival. The festival, which is organised by Japanese entertainment conglomerate Yoshimoto Kogyo, has just turned 11 and this year was held from April 18 to 21 on the theme “Laugh and Peace”.
The festival screened many films from Japan and Asia. For Thailand, Yoshimoto Entertainment cooperated with the Ministry of Culture and Tourism Authority of Thailand to bring the 2018 hit comedy “Bikeman” to entertain the crowds. Actor Pachara “Peach” Chirathivat and director Prueksa Amaruji were on the island to present the film and walk the red carpet. Also posing prettily on the red carpet for a second year was Thai idol group Sweat 16.
One of the most interesting titles this year was “Erica 38” by director Yuichi Hibi. The film, which had its world premiere at Okinawa, marked Kiki Kirin’s debut as a producer and was also the last film in which she starred.
The veteran actress who died last September had worked in the Japanese film industry since the 1960s and appeared in more than 100 films and television series. Almost exactly a year ago, Kirin went to the Cannes Film Festival to attend the world premiere of Hirokazu Koreeda’s “Shoplifters”, which became the Palme d’Or winner and was one of the last films in her illustrious acting career.
“I had a couple of projects with her,” says Hibi, who was a long time friend of Kirin. “I wrote a script about 12 years ago. I wanted her to be in that film and she wanted to do it. That is how we met. It was a Hollywood film on which I worked with one of Woody Allen’s producers. He created five different stories that take place in one cafe in New York. We never made this film, but Kirin and I became friends, and I kept in contact with her.”
Hibi, a fine art photographer based in New York, has seen many of his photos published around the world and exhibited in museums and galleries, but had never directed a feature film before “Erica 38”. In 2016, Hibi helmed the documentary “Ken San” for which he interviewed many people including Michael Douglas about the late Japanese actor Takakura Ken.
Satoko Watabe (Miyoko Asada), a woman in her 60s who calls herself Erica, comes to Thailand where she tells her young Thai lover Porsche that she is 38. He is also unaware that the police are after her.
“In May 2017, Kirin contacted me and asked me ‘Do you know this woman? She is a 60 year old who pretends to be in her late thirties.’ I told her I had heard about her and she told me she wanted to make a film about this woman,” says Hibi of the feature, which was inspired by a true story that made the headlines in Japan and Thailand two years ago.
In 2017, Japanese woman Setsuko Yamabe was arrested in Thailand’s Ubon Ratchatani province of Thailand on a warrant issued by police in Kumamoto on charges of investment fraud. Over the years, Yamabe defrauded dozens of people, and one of her victims who was left penniless committed suicide. Yamabe swindled more than 700 million Yen (Bt200 million) and escaped to Thailand. Here, she met a Thai man who later became her lover. Then a sprightly 62 year old, she told him she was 38.
Kirin was interested in making the film about the woman, and felt actress Miyoko Asada, who acted with her in Naomi Kawase’s “Sweat Bean (An)” would be perfect as the main character.
"Erica 38" is the first and the last film produced by Kirin Kiki, and also the last film for her as an actress. Kirin (left) plays the mother of Erica, a con woman who tricked dozens of people into fake investments.
“I asked her if she wanted to play that woman but she said no. She had an actress friend who was like a daughter to her. She told me she was a great actress but hadn’t found a good role and thought this film was just right for her. She also told me she wanted me to direct the film,” Hibi says.
Asked why Kirin chose him to direct the film, the photographer shrugs. “I have no idea. I still ask myself that question, but we talked a lot and she saw something in me. She just thought I could make an interesting film out of this subject.”
Kirin Kiki on the set of her last film "Erica 38", directed by fine art photographer Yuichi Hibi
“She took care of the financing and finally she got Yoshimoto on board.” Kirin knew Kazuyoshi Okuyama, a veteran film producer involved with Yoshimoto Kogyo and founder of the production company KatsuDo. Okuyama became the executive producer of “Erica 38”. Work started on the film in February 2018, with Kirin in the role of the protagonist’s mother.
“Erica 38” tells the story of Satoko Watabe (Miyoko Asada), a woman in her sixties who calls herself Erica. Erica organises business support meetings to defraud people, especially older men. Erica comes to Thailand and meets Porsche (Woraphop Klaisang), a young Thai man who becomes her lover. Porsche believes that Erica is 38 years old, and is also unaware that the police are after her.
“The story is not about Yamabe though it is inspired by her. I decided to take pieces of all the elements. It is interesting that a woman of 60 pretends to be so much younger,” Hibi says.
“I did a lot of research in making the story from scratch. I contacted people who work for magazines to see if they have any contact with professional cons, but it is not easy as these people are always in hiding. However, I got to know how they talk, how they approach an individual, and the kind of places they go to. I personally went to many meetings, pretending to be a possible victim.”
The total production was shot over 13 days.
“We shot in Thailand for just two days. I wish I could have had more time, but I don’t really understand the geography of Thailand, and Thailand today is very different from how I imagined it. That made it difficult for me to create a fancy tropical moment when Erica goes to a resort in Thailand to meet a younger man,” he says.
Pachara "Peach" Chirathivat, centre, attended the screening of "Bikeman" last Sunday at the Okinawa International Movie Festival. Director Prueksa Amaruji can be seen second right.
“My friend has a production company so he helped me. “The guy I chose to play Porsche is the only one who could act, but he turned out well. He was a natural. I liked the way he spoke but he didn’t want to show his body or do the kiss scene. I told him he must do it.”
The film was finished last October, but unfortunately, Kirin died a month earlier and was therefore unable to see the final cut. “I hope that if she had watched it, she would have liked it,” says Hibi.
Following its Okinawa premiere, “Erica 38” is set to open in Japan this June. There are no plans as yet to release the film in Thailand.