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Interview: Takeshi Kushida on Identity and Innovation in ‘My Mother’s Eyes’

Writer/director Takeshi Kushida returns with mastery to the sci-fi horror genre with his sophomore feature My Mother’s Eyes, which made its international premiere at FrightFest to an audience captivated by its originality and eerily serene blend of body and mind horror. 

My Mother’s Eyes follows mother and daughter cellists Hitomi (Akane Ono) and Eri (Mone Shitara) who both suffer lifechanging injuries in a car crash – Hitomi is left blind and Eri almost entirely paralyzed. In an attempt to give her daughter a life outside of a hospital room, Hitomi is fitted with experimental VR contact lenses that let Eri see the world through her mother’s eyes. What unravels is a psychedelic and psychosexual stare into the mirror of identity and familial trauma, with expert direction and style from Kushida, who continues to prove himself to be one of the most exciting and innovative new names in Japanese horror.

How was it having My Mother’s Eyes internationally premiere at last year’s FrightFest?

It was incredible. I haven’t back been to the UK for 18 years. I knew that FrightFest would be exciting, but I didn’t expect how many people go to London from all over the UK, just to sit in the theater all day [laughs] 

Let’s go back right to the start of My Mother’s Eyes. It’s such a unique idea, but a story that feels ominously familiar due to society’s ongoing advances in medical technology. Where did the idea for the film come from?

About five years ago I saw an article from a scientist who has been developing contact lenses with a built in camera. I thought it was really interesting because it means everything you see is recorded on a mobile device, so if you share those images to another person, they can see the world through your eyes. It can lead to a lot confusion about identity. These contact lenses were supposed to be released and on sale this year, so I thought it would be good to screen the film at the same time, but the production has been delayed.

Will you dare to use the lenses once they’re available?

Maybe someone else should do it before me [laughs]

A theme that runs through both My Mother’s Eyes and Woman of the Photographs is seeing, and being seen. Both of these states can be liberating but also terrifying. Is this a theme that interests – or even worries – you?

I think nowadays it’s natural to be conscious about seeing and being seen, because of social media. We put a lot of our selves online – my actual self, and the self that I want to show and the self that people see. Sometimes I feel confused about which one is my true self. For example, about 15 years ago I worked in the advertisement industry. There was a Japanese singer having a photo shoot. After the shoot, the singer sat next to the retoucher and started directing him on what to do. At that time, I didn’t know what retouching was, but I was surprised at how they made her eyes bigger, erased her wrinkles. The singer looked very happy with the result. But it’s not real!

Do you think this is a phenomenon that’s more of a deeper issue in Japan than it might be in other countries?

Absolutely. In Japan, we like to be average, to fit in. In elementary school, we are told to make a lot of friends, and understand what other people are thinking. It’s the same thing that social media companies are asking us to do – make friends and doing what others expect of you. Maybe it’s related to our education system in Japan. But Japanese magazines for young girls are always telling them the same thing: diet, but eat sweets. Diet, sweets and fashion! It’s a contradiction. 

At FrightFest, you mentioned that you grew up watching movies from the J-horror era; Ring, Ju-On, etc. To what extent did those films shape you as a filmmaker?

Ring came out when I was 16 years old, so it was a perfect fit for my generation. Ring changed everything in Japanese horror. After Ring, a lot of films dealt with y?rei [a type of vengeful spirit in Japanese folklore] – a dead woman, regretting something and attacking people who live in the modern era. That kind of film is continuously made in Japan. As a new filmmaker, I wanted to go a different way. I cannot go the same way as Takashi Shimizu and Hideo Nakata. That’s why filmmakers in Japan are going in a different direction right now, like Keishi Kondo and New Religion.

It’s interesting you mention New Religion, as there’s a clear new wave of Japanese horror – your films and Kondo’s included – that take these traditional Japanese themes of technological horror and have adapted them for the modern age. Do those technophobic themes reflect your own fears?

It frightens me a lot. Maybe one reason is because Japanese people are proud of our technology skills and our development in technology in the 80s and 90s. But as photo editing becomes more and more common…if you look at your photos in 5 years’ time or 10 years’ time, you won’t be able to tell anymore what the true memory is. That’s what’s scary about technology nowadays.

Japanese horror is very different from “Western” horror in more ways than one; did you notice any difference in reactions between Japanese audiences and those in the US or UK? 

Both audiences were shocked in different ways. A lot of Western horror films deal with someone else entering the body – like Get Out or Possessor – and in those films it’s always a battle, trying to stop the other from entering and getting overwhelmed. That’s Western style. Japanese style is like My Mother’s Eyes – someone comes into my head and starts controlling me, but I’m relieved [laughs] I don’t have to think about what I should do, I’m just being told what to do. That’s a different type of scariness for Japanese people, that we would just accept it as a way of fitting into society.

My Mother’s Eyes features a really strong cast and performances, particularly from Ono Akane, Shitara Mone and Kousuke Hoshi. Are these actors particularly well-known in Japan? Or did you want to work with newcomers?

Ono and Mone aren’t too well known, this was their first film appearance. But maybe you’ve seen Kosuke Hoshi before. He plays a lot of y?rei roles, hiding his face. That’s why he’s so good at moving his body like a ghost or zombie in the scene where he’s tripping. I prefer working with newcomers. This is only my second feature film, so I’m still a new director myself. I want us to make something new together.

I had a little chuckle upon noticing the company’s name was Miike. That was of course an intentional Easter egg, right?

Of course. In my films, a lot of characters don’t have names. I don’t want to trouble the audience with remembering too many names. But Miike is somebody who’s name you should remember, so I thought the name Miike would be easy for audiences to remember.

My Mother’s Eyes is truly a spectacle to behold, but particularly striking due to the sometimes uncomfortable, even overwhelming, intense sound design. Was that always a conscious choice from the offset or did it come into play during post production?

From the beginning, we decided we wouldn’t hire a [mic guy]. One reason is that we shot the film in 8 days, so there was no time to stop and wait for an airplane or ambulance going by. Another reason is that I like to add sound afterwards, because by doing that I can totally change the meaning of a scene. Even if there’s a guy who seems to have a small role, if I enhance his footsteps, the audience will concentrate on him entirely. I don’t want to confuse my audience; I want to guide them to look where they should be looking, and sound helps with that. Plus, when I was a teenager, I spent a lot of time in video rental shops. I rented a lot of action films with Jackie Chan or other martial artists. The films were subtitled in Japanese, but they were speaking English, because maybe they were distributed through a Western company. I liked how the kung-fu films are dubbed – the noises can often make a serious sequence comical, and I enjoy that.

What can we expect from you next? 

I am preparing for my next film so that will probably take a couple of years to make. I’m not a guy who wants to keep splashing more and more blood – I’m polite! For me, I prefer a quiet, slow but terrifying image. My next film may have less blood but may be more strange. 

So you’re planning on sticking in the horror genre? I personally hope so!

I don’t think of myself as a horror director. To be honest with you, I’m manipulative [laughs] because it’s easier to sell my films if I say they are horror. Here’s an example: this is the Japanese poster for Woman of the Photographs [Takeshi shows the poster, which features a serene image of the two leads dancing in front of a crystal clear blue sky] – it looks like a romance film. And when I made it, I thought it was a romantic film. But the international distribution company said romantic Japanese films don’t sell – so they changed the poster to this [Woman of the Photographs’ US poster is much more sinister – dripping red blood and an ominous tagline]. So even if I end up making another romantic film, maybe I’ll say it’s a horror film! [laughs]

My Mother’s Eyes is still awaiting UK distribution but we will share news as soon as we get it.

Amber T is a Leeds-based writer, reviewer, programmer podcaster and UK correspondent for FANGORIA, with bylines at ARROW, Ghouls Magazine, Filmhounds and Grimoire of Horror, as well as essays published in releases by 88 Films and Second Sight. Amber is an East Asian genre expert, with particular focus on Japanese and Korean horror cinema.


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