Cinematographer Yutaka Yamazaki explains why he and his long-term collaborator, director Hirokazu Koreeda prefer to make realistic films that stand out for their lack of drama
Japanese cinematographer Yutaka Yamazaki was having a busy day. The 76-year-old started early in the morning, talking about his life-long experience with Thai film lovers at House RCA then went straight into an interview with the press. Later, he attended the opening ceremony of the Little Big Films Project, which kicks off with his latest film, “After The Storm”.
Directed by Hirokazu Koreeda, with whom Yamazaki has collaborated for more than two decades, “After The Storm” tells the story of Ryota (Hiroshi Abe), a successful writer who won a literary award 15 years earlier but who has written nothing since. He works as a private detective for a living and pays alimony for his son Shingo (Taiyo Yoshizawa) who lives with his ex-wife Kyoko (Yoko Maki). Circumstances mean that all three are his mother Yoshiko's apartment when a typhoon hits. Forced to stay together all night, the family finally gets round to talking and finding ways to move on with their lives.
Koreeda became known to the Thai public through his critically acclaimed film “Nobody Knows”, which was selected for main competition at Cannes International Film Festival in 2004 and was his first film to be released here. Despite enjoying only a limited release, it was a hit and led to the screening in Thailand of his other films, among then “Air Doll”, “Like Father, Like Son” and “Our Little Sisters”, as well as “After The Storm” which was selected for this year’s Un Certain Regard category in Cannes.
Like Yamazaki, Koreeda started his career in documentaries and made his debut feature “Maborosi” in 1995. He asked Yamazaki to be his cinematographer for his second film, 1998’s“After Life”, and the two have partnered on most of his films ever since including “Distance,” “Nobody Knows,” “Hana,” “Still Walking,” “I Wish” and, of course, “After The Storm.”
The realistic influence has moved with them from documentaries to features, meaning that their works have little drama but are rather pensive and evenly paced, observing ordinary lives, ordinary families and real-life problems.
Yamazaki says that what Koreeda hates the most is coming up with a dramatic scene that makes the audience cry.
Watching a Koreeda film is like peering into the real lives of ordinary people and finding an emotional connection as their situation and problems are so very much like our own. The scenery too is familiar – houses and apartments that are compact and narrow. Many of the scenes are shot in real locations while others are set up in the studio. But unlike other cinematographers, Yamakazi doesn’t move around with the camera to get a better angle. “I always keeps the camera in the same position just as if were shooting in the real location,” he says.
The cameraman adds that he prefers to focus on the subjects and the story rather than finding stunning visual angles. And the pictures he captures tell the story profoundly yet powerfully.
He doesn't pay attention to style or techniques, and when asked about his favourite lens, smiles gently and replies that the type of lens isn’t important, it is just a tool for capturing the subject.
He hates using a wide lens for narrow places. It helps cover the whole area but it somehow makes the image look distorted.
Yamazaki has also collaborated with other acclaimed filmmakers including Naomi Kawase, on “Shara” and “Still the Water” and often works on documentaries, both as cameraman and director. He is also credited as one of the two cinematographers for Alex Gibney’s documentary “Steve Jobs: The Man in the Machine”.
“I fell in love with movies when I was in Grade 7. I wanted to be a film critic at first but later understood that it would have to involve photography,” he says.
“I was in high school following a science programme so I was not good at writing scripts or acting. I decided to enrol for photography classes.“
Yamazaki started work in the 1960s as an assistant photographer before moving to television documentaries.
“As a photographer, you learn to not only record what can be seen but also to reflect the emotion and feeling that lie beneath,” he says.
There is a saying that a cameraman is like a painter, painting picture with light. Yamazaki, however, feels that the fundamental role of the cameraman is to copy or borrow the picture that already exists and then record it into film or digital medium.
“It is not like a real painter who creates a picture from the empty canvass. Our job isn't like that,” he says.
He seems amused when asked to comment on the ever-hot issue of film versus digital. “I have experienced everything from super 16mm to 35mm to today’s digital format and they are all just tools for the cameraman to use to capture the image. A good cameraman can shoot a good movie even with an iPhone,” he says.
And while here, as in other parts of the world, filmmakers are increasingly shooting in digital format and film is becoming obsolete, this isn’t happening in Japan.
“Many Japanese filmmakers still use film in their work including Koreeda on ‘After the Storm’,” he says.
ON THE SCREEN
The Little Big Films project kicks off formally on Thursday with the screening of “After the Storm” at House RCA, Lido, Paragon Cineplex, SF World Cinema and Esplanade Ratchada.