2023.10.25 [Event Reports]
Love Blooms in a Gateway Between Worlds


©2023 TIFF

During the well-attended Q&A session following the world premiere of Who Were We? in the Competition section of the 36th Tokyo International Film Festival on October 25, director Tomina Tetsuya and producer Hatanaka Mina fielded questions that focused primarily on the film’s A-list cast, as well as its magnificent setting, gorgeous cinematography and a soundtrack that sounds, as the moderator put it, “like the whispering of the spirits.”
Set in and around a long-abandoned gold mine on Sado Island, located off the northwest coast of Japan’s main island, the evocative film explores themes of memory, death and rebirth, as characters with colorful names go about their jobs at the mine: guiding, guarding, cleaning, tending to new arrivals. The cast features some of Japan’s most recognizable faces: Matsuda Ryuhei (Before We Vanish) and Komatsu Nana (Moonlight Shadow) as the leads; Tanaka Min (Perfect Days), Otake Shinobu and Ishibashi Shizuka in smaller but pertinent roles.
The film had participated in the 2022 Tokyo Gap-Financing Market at TIFFCOM, and the director explained said that when he was shooting his first feature, Blue Wind Blows (2018), which played in the Berlin Generation section, he had been struck by a peculiar mountain arising steeply out of the landscape. The mountain had been literally split in two by Japan’s gold and silver mining industries, and it inspired Tomina to begin thinking of it as a gateway between our world and the next.
Following its closure in 1989, the mine had become a museum, and it provides the perfect backdrop for the lushly green, haunting atmosphere of Who Were We?
In the film, a woman (Komatsu) awakens with no memory of her past. She meets an older woman (Otake) who is a janitor, for whom she starts working, and the director (Tanaka), then gradually comes across others. Each of the characters takes a color as their name, and has no memory of their past. When the woman finds herself strangely drawn to a man (Matsuda) and he feels the same way, they begin asking questions that don’t seem to have answers.
Although Sado is known today mostly for its verdant nature and as the home of taiko drumming group Kodo, it has a dark past.
As Tomina told the TIFF audience, “I was very attracted to the area of the mines, and when I visited, I found that there were vagrants’ graves. I researched them and discovered that these people had been unregistered (suggesting they were immigrants or the very poor) and had been brought over to perform hard labor. Because it was so harsh, many of them died.”
Hatanaka added that the couple had also been attracted to Sado partially because it lies halfway in between her hometown (in Kagoshima) and his (in Hokkaido).
Color plays such a large role in the film, both metaphorically and physically. Tomina was asked whether they held special meaning to him. “Yes,” he said, “especially when it comes to finding names for characters. My last film used the color ‘blue’ in the title. In Japanese, we often use colors in names, so I tend to use them because it’s so difficult for me to name characters. Also, I think it gives them a personal touch.”
Asked about how he directed his big-name actors, Tomina admitted, “I don’t give much instruction to the actors. As you can see, it’s not a psychodrama, but because of the area, we decided to cast actors who have the type of body movements that would blend in with the scenery of the place.”
Did he suggest certain gestures to Tanaka Min, for example? “No, not at all,” said Tomina. Tanaka is renowned for his “unnamable” interpretive dances, and viewers are treated to one of them in Where Are We?
The casting of known actors was something that came about when the couple discussed how to attract a wide audience despite the film’s modest budget. “I’m not sure how many of you understood the story,” said Tomina. “It’s quite surreal and not very realistic, so we felt we needed to have actors who could be convincing. Rather than unknown actors, the presence of ‘names’ was important if we wanted as many people as possible to see the film.”
Added Hatanaka, “The story is like a dream, it plays with your imagination. We were making a very small movie, and we feel very fortunate that these wonderful actors agreed to appear in the film. They really enhanced it.”
Q&A Session: Competition
Who Were We?
Guest Speakers: Tomina Tetsuya (Director), Hatanaka Mina (Producer)

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