Making Movies in Japanese

A bite-size version of my big dream came true as of a week ago Sunday – I shot a film with a (tiny) all-Japanese cast & crew!

The cast consisted of a guy and girl, and the crew was me plus 2 camera guys.  With an editor having just come on board, that makes us an even 6 – 3 girls & 3 boys.  Take that, grade 2 teacher who said I didn’t play well with others!

The short is about a high school girl associating with an older salaryman in exchange for a designer handbag.  The medium is dance (Argentine Tango) and the message is sex as currency – that it always has been, always will be.  My objective with this movie was to superimpose a modern situation with an age-old one, connected by a common thread that is a constant.

My suspicion that the phenomenon of “enjo-kōsai” (aka “compensated dating”) is a problem in other parts of the world was confirmed by a Polish friend who told me that in her country, girls would dodge anti-prostitution laws by waiting in front of department store windows displaying designer handbags that represent their “price”.  Sad.  But I’m happy that my social commentary on a Japanese  issue might have a further reach than I first thought.  (Thanks, Agata!)

Now for a brief history of TANGO *** Feel free to skip to the next paragraph if this is uninteresting to you *** (thank you, Internets, for the back-up!):  It emerged from a primordial soup of ethnic dance forms brought by the rush of immigrants to Artentina in the early 20th century.  Tango was most likely first encountered and written about by the middle & upper class in the brothels of Buenos Aires (where both the immigrant and Argentine men would go) around the ’40s.  After this, it took off and spread to European salons until it was forced underground in its home country in the mid ’50s for political reasons (it was considered deviant by the new right-wing Argentine regime).  Fast forward to the ’80s when the aforementioned military government fell: Tango had a revival with the “Nuevo” movement, which sprouted many branches of different “styles” and has been popular all over the world ever since.

So, anyway, I had wanted to make a film I could shoot for no money and few resources, and this concept, which had hit me like lightning a couple of months ago, turned out to be just what I needed.

I contacted the producer’s assistant from the set of “Tenshi no Koi” – that cell-phone-novel-cum-blockbuster with Nozomi Sasaki (out now!!!) – which, coincidentally also features “enjo-kōsai” – and asked her to help me produce, but she’d just started a new job and couldn’t lend her skills, so I said, dude – at LEAST give me the name of a cinematographer!  And she said, ok, get in touch with this guy.  He’s a good friend.  Originally a lighting technician.  You can call him Kidz.  WHAAAT!?!?!?  Um, thanks!?!?!!? (This is the same dude who DP-d the Koganecho shoot from my last post.)

So I dropped Kidz a line, and he agreed to meet me a week or so later and we talked about my idea.  But that conversation was actually kind of short.  We ended up talking more about our favourite films, directors and directors of photography and had a lot of fun just shooting the shizz – and as rash as it might’ve been – because we got along so great – I “hired” him on the spot, with the provision that I could see some Koganecho footage (which I did – courtesy of the editor of that project – who is now working with me!!  I LOVE these small-world connections – they’re the BEST.)

Next, I approached my dancers – Mocky, (aka Teruyuki) and Kyoko.  Kyoko is a tango instructor here in Tokyo, and Mocky is… you’ll never guess… a salaryman!!!  He is a very good person; not sketchy at all – who also happens to be a great dancer.  So I stuck them together in my head, and they looked perfect.  Although Mocky confessed that it’s stressful dancing with Kyoko because the pressure’s ON.  When I told Kyoko her partner would be Mocky, she said something that is the Japanese equivalent to”goody!” and when I told him, he nearly jumped out of his skin.  Cute, huh?

So, since Kidz would be leaving for a short stint in LA to take an entrance exam for AFI, we decided our only options for shoot dates, if we were to pull it off before the end of the year, were November 14/15 or 21/22.  We went with the first weekend, should anything go wrong.  Once we’d settled on a date, he got his pal Saru, a professional camera assistant, to join us with a second camera so we could shoot more efficiently.  In terms of equipment, we used two Canon 7D SLRs because our other option, the ginormous RED (used on the Koganecho shoot), would’ve been, um, a touch conspicuous and a smidge cumbersome considering our potential quick-getaway needs.

Speaking of quick-getaway, I was planning on shooting at Shibuya station on the Fukutoshin Subway line, early, early in the morning.  After calling the station office, I found out that they give filming permission to no one under any circumstances – even for vast sums of money, apparently – because they don’t want to inconvenience subway patrons.  I thought our disruption of said patrons would be negligible since we would be at the far end of the platform where there’s never anybody, and it would be at an ungodly hour… but… while I was wrong, my intuition was right.  Tell you later.

I only had a couple hours on one day to rehearse with Kyoko and Mocky because of their hectic schedules, but I felt lucky that at least we got to use one of the tango studio’s rooms for practice, and that the owner was able to step in to help out a bit with the dancers’ blocking.  I’d brought the high school uniform borrowed from my co-worker’s sister, and the briefcase loaned to us by one of her students, and made it a full dress rehearsal.  And boy, did they ever look FANTASTIC together.  Working on their acting during rehearsal (both are non-actors) was one of the greatest challenges of my life.  In a good way.  I was using my Japanese to direct performances – holy crap – it’s hard!  I said maybe 10 things to get one clear idea across, but Kyoko and Mocky (who speak no English) were very patient with me and asked when they had questions, thank goodness.

So, shoot date came, and we all congregated at the milonga (tango dance evening) at the studio.  Kidz, Saru and I got there after a lengthy dinner planning out where exactly to put the camera based on my storyboards (our diagram looked like a sports strategy or a bank robbery schematic – but guerilla shooting always feels like some sort of heist, no?), and Mocky after sleeping for most of the day.  Only poor Kyoko (and I!) were on her (our) feet since the morning (we were both working).

After rehearsing (with both cameras) one final time before loading into Mocky’s car to head to Shibuya, I passed around some vitamin/energy drinks and the actors got into costume.  Then, we descended into the bowels of Shibuya station and onto the Fukutoshin platform.  We set to work right away but a few minutes after we got one wide master and some coverage from the sides of the opening action,  a mob of geeky station attendants and security types started closing in on us from the other end of the platform, so we “nonchalantly” hopped on board a train and sat for a minute or two, contemplating our next course of action.  Kidz looked at me, I looked at Kidz, and we said to each other: “Sancha” (aka Sangenjaya – the station close to my work, and also our back-up location.)

We booted it out of the train and up the escalators to transfer to the Den-en-Toshi line.  Security guys were EVERYWHERE.  It was as though they’d radioed all the Shibuya train station staff (Fukutoshin, JR, Den-en-toshi, Hanzomon, Ginza, Keio-Inokashira) and put all of them on their guard.  WHOA.  But we didn’t care, we were getting the hell out of there.  It’s amazing how non-threatening these people are when you’re not planning on doing anything “bad” around them anymore.

It was close to 5:30am by the time we got to the Sangenjaya open-air atrium.  It was still dark, but we wouldn’t have much time before the sun came up.  I was buzzing off excess amounts of caffeine and adrenaline, but I was losing Kyoko, so I jacked her up on energy drinks (she could’ve been a commercial for “Oronamin”) and we kept rolling.   For the master shot of the dance portion of the film, I had Kyoko and Mocky tango for 6 minutes non-stop.  By the end, they were dying – Mocky, because he was dancing with Kyoko, and Kyoko, because the new loafers I’d bought were killing her feet – but they were stoic about it.  And danced beautifully.

By the time we got to the actual drama and the close-ups, it was daybreak, and we were battling curious/annoyed bystanders – I was playing PA, trying to re-direct pedestrian traffic.  Nobody said anything, apart from a few dirty looks, although a station security person started lurking (we’re very good at dodging them now) so we had to scatter a couple times – just as we were finishing up.

We shot the whole thing in 3 hours, and I got everything I wanted – except for the location – which was a real bummer considering how perfect it looked…  but no use crying over lost locations – the show must go on, right.  We went back to Shibuya at 8am, bedraggled, but smiling, and kind of high off the shooting rush.  Everyone was able to sleep in the next day except Kyoko – poor thing – who had to get up to teach a class at 3pm.  I felt bad for her… and was really grateful that she’d even agreed in the first place – thank you Kyoko!

Mocky and the camera guys were real troopers too.  Kidz and Saru never lost their cool, no matter how many times I jumped up and down playing First AD.

Two days later, Kidz came by with the footage to load it onto my LaCie.  We watched some of it, and I was really happy with the results.  I haven’t had the chance to pore over it all yet, but what I saw, I liked – there is definitely lots to work with.

My next step was to secure an editor, and thankfully, Azusa, the Koganecho editor, seems really interested in my project – it being a no-dialogue (haha – my favourite) dance film about a hot topic.  She said she’d immediately started thinking about how to put it together when I sent her the proposal.  I’ll be meeting with her in the coming weeks before I go back to Canada for Christmas – we’ve tentatively planned to finish it up in January once I get back.

Here’s hoping it comes out a success.  Wish me luck!


You can watch the film here:

It premiered at the 2010 Sapporo International Short Film Festival & Market and toured a few countries with the traveling tango film festival, Cinefilia Tanguera.

Hope you enjoy it!



Here’s a link to an interview with a girl who has done enjo-kōsai:

And, in case you’re interested, here is a primer on some J-Law concerning prostitution:

Japan’s Law No. 118, the 1956 Anti-Prostitution Law (Baishu-bōshi-hō 売春防止法 enacted May 24, 1956 in-force April 1, 1958) only prohibits actual sexual intercourse (or sex controlled by organized crime). The law also defines “sex” as male female intercourse, which means that homosexual prostitution is not strictly illegal. This also means that the infamous “Deri-Heru” or “Delivery Health” services which regularly place not so discrete advertisements in home mailboxes, as well as Soaplands, Health Massage, etc. are all legal. Why? Because they only advertise other sexual services, which are not “genital to genital connection”. Moving on from this, places that specialize in S&M, or other creative activities like molesting girls in mock schools and office environments (such as the “Sexual Harassment Corporation”) are likewise legal. These types of activities are regulated by the Businesses Affecting Public Morals Regulation Law of 1948 (Fūzoku eigyō torishimari hō (風俗営業取締法), amended in 1985 and 1999.

Tokyo’s “Youth Protection Law” prohibits adults from having sex only with youths who are under 17 years old. So many enjo-kōsai (paid dating) clients, typically having sex with high school students 17 and above, cannot be charged with statutory rape. Since the national age of consent is 13 outside Tokyo, sex with children as young as 13 may be legal, unless there are local laws prohibiting it. Likewise, the “payment” in enjo-kōsai is usually very indirect. The man simply claims that giving expensive presents to the young girl he is “dating” is not a payment for the sex they are coincidentally having. Thus, this activity does not fall under the 1999 national law banning sex with anyone under 18 in exchange for money.

Finally, according to an article in the Mainichi Daily News, the Anti-Prostitution Law only makes prostitution a crime for the woman selling sex. The male buyer is immune from prosecution.                                                                                                                                                   –


3 responses to “Making Movies in Japanese

  1. Carla J. Silver

    Hi Ivy,
    Mrs. Silver, your old teacher from St. Clement’s. I happened to mention your name to another student today. We are doing a musical at school and this girl can sing and dance, but doesn’t have that quality that makes you want to watch her – stage presence. I remembered watching your grade 11 dance and how I couldn’t take my eyes off you, even though there were many other girls on stage with you. You had/have that magical quality and we are trying to define it in order to ‘teach’ it to the cast members. Only one of the cast members has ‘it’ naturally.
    I also see you are teaching English and have something to do with film, albeit in Japan. If you are back in Canada, get in touch. I have two daughters now; the elder is a cellist at U of T. The younger wants to get into film – her talents are acting, drawing and piano – she’s working on her grade 10 conservatory. Anyway, it would be great to hear from you.
    Carla (Silver)

    • Hi Mrs. Silver! I actually replied to your message back when I got it, but it somehow got deleted when I tried to send it…

      I’m living in Japan now, and am still dancing while pursuing a career in film/tv. I currently work as a producer at NHK World. I try to visit Toronto once a year, but I’m not sure when I can go back next… Hopefully in July for a friend’s wedding!

      Hope you’re doing well!

  2. Hello Ivy Oldford from … Kent, England.
    I have just watched The Handbag – felt it absolutely delightful. Everything very mysterious, including the setting at the station. There seems to be some ever so oblique reference to Wilde’s Importance of Being E(a)rnest – a suitor of a young woman is rejected by her mother, on grounds of ill-suitability, when it transpires that he is a foundling, found in a handbag … at a railway station. In your piece, something precious is stored in the matrix of the dance (and handbag, perhaps ?) – the secret of human connection, the pea that is felt, so-to-speak, even through the many layers of compensation dating.

    I was interested to read your history of the tango. The key thing about the 1950s was that in those days the men still practiced on their own (the real practica) before feeling it right to let themselves loose on critical females in the milongas. It was these associations of men in private that were felt to be threatening by the military juntas. And this key tradition has never been resurrected after the fall of Galtieri in 1982. And, whisper it quietly, there would be more satisfied followers if the leaders took up serious group practice among themselves – as a priority.

    Adios – andie.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )


Connecting to %s