Director Kiki Sugino makes Japanese folklore chillingly modern, News
Director Kiki Sugino makes Japanese folklore chillingly modern, News

Director Kiki Sugino makes Japanese folklore chillingly modern

Director Kiki Sugino puts a modern spin to this adaptation of the ancient Japanese folklore and ghost story Yuki-onna. Told with a non-linear storyline, Snow Woman is a slow, hypnotic film that plays out like a feverish dream sequence. Ahead of its screening at Japanese Film Festival Australia we spoke with Sugino about the film and asked for her insights to the Japanese industry.


Your third film Snow Woman is an adaptation of writer Lafcadio Hearn’s story Yuki-onna about a mysterious woman in white, whose icy breath brings death. It was previously filmed by director Masaki Kobayashi as one episode of his 1965 ghost film omnibus Kwaidan, which won the Special Jury Prize in Cannes and was nominated for a foreign language Oscar. Can you tell us what attracted you to each work and how did they influence your film?

I reread Lafcadio Hearn’s Snow Woman about four years ago. Despite the story consisting only of a few pages, I was surprised by how much of it had been condensed, as well as the variety of ways in which it could be interpreted. While there were ten children in the original, details regarding their personalities and gender breakdown weren’t explained at all. However, the very thing I thought warranted the most attention was the existence of the child with mixed parentage (half Snow Woman, half human), and the intermingling of these different species.

I love all of Masaki Kobayashi’s films, and in particular, his Kwaidan film series was an extremely high-budget masterpiece. Toru Takemitsu’s music as well as the production and set design are also stunning. Rather than take the film in the same direction, I wanted to highlight the existence of the Snow Woman, taking a modernised perspective and minimal approach to the filmmaking.

The film speaks a lot to the human condition through its harmonious and ambiguous themes. In a way, it challenges the audience to consider how western societies tend to draw a clear line between life and death and humans and nature. What is it that you want audiences to take away from this tale?

Nowadays, we tend to think in terms of dichotomies, such as life and death, humans and nature, or good or bad. However, it’s my view that we as people live in a state of ambiguity that cannot be demarcated in this way. Human beings themselves also lead an ambiguous existence that can’t be defined. For example, people who think they are in the majority don’t know when they might become the minority. We are constantly changing depending on our circumstances or environment. Anyone can become the minority with a change of perspective. I incorporated this idea in the making of Snow Woman, but I hope the audience will feel free to form their own opinions.

The film had its World Premiere at Tokyo Film Festival, and it’s now screening at the Japanese Film Festival here in Sydney which you will be attending. How important is it for you to screen at these festivals?

It’s very important. You discover something new each time the movie is screened, because reactions differ from country to country. Also, interacting with various people both within and outside of Japan through film allows you to come into contact with the unknown. Film itself and audiences too are enriched through this process. Film is great in that it can transcend time and space.

Are you looking forward to meeting the film community in Sydney?

Yes, very much so! It will be my first time in Australia, and I’m keen to ask those in the industry here about how they approach filmmaking. Also, it would be great if it leads to collaborative projects, should the opportunity present itself.

As in your previous films you also play the lead in Snow Woman. How do you balance the two roles?

I haven’t really thought much about it, but I feel that objectivity is required. In terms of filmmaking and expression, given both the actor and director are heading towards the same goal, I don’t really separate the two roles.   

What was the biggest challenge for you in reinterpreting a classic work?

I suppose that there will be many people who think of a scary story when they hear the word kaidan (“Ghost Story”). For me, when I read the Lafcadio Hearn original, I felt it was a love story. In making the film, I wanted to express how I felt about the story without getting caught up with the word kaidan.

Your films convey a cohesive display of conventional techniques, imagery, and motifs that include references to prominent Japanese directors. Who has been your biggest influence?

I have been strongly influenced by Japanese directors Kenji Mizoguchi and Yasuzo Masumura. I have been deeply inspired by their portrayal of female characters.

Can you tell us how you got into directing and why you chose to pursue it as a career?

Japanese actors lead a passive existence. No matter how famous you become, it is rare to encounter films you want to appear in. I personally wanted to make the movies I wanted to act in, and nine years ago I started working as a producer. While encountering many film directors in my time producing, I noticed there were various emotions and questions brewing inside of me, and I started wanting to express my own worldview and ideas.

What barriers, if any, have you faced in an industry that is dominated by men?

Just after debuting as a female actor, I was told by a man in this industry that it was best that female actors appear foolish so that they would be liked. I was shocked. This sums up the problem with Japan’s entertainment industry. It’s wrong to force female characters to appear weaker or more easily controlled that the actor themselves; that is not a mature society. I think the most important thing is that we recognise the folly of our ways and continue to learn—as actors, as creators, and as people.


Do you have any advice for aspiring female directors?

Firstly, make a film. If you have strong conviction, you can make any kind of film. Then, it’s important to never give up, not be discouraged and to grow your circle. We should work together.

Can you share with us your thoughts on the current trends in the Japanese film industry?

Japan’s film industry is polarised. You either have major blockbuster movies or ultra-low budget films; it’s becoming difficult to put out medium-sized productions. In Japan, subsidies are only provided to major companies for productions that promise to be box office hits. Given this, I think we should offer more support to younger filmmakers or challenging productions that show potential. I believe that is how culture is cultivated.

Also, the over-centralisation of Tokyo and increase in cinema complexes is continuing, and I fear for future of the wonderful boutique theatres in regional areas. In addition, Japanese audiences don’t really watch films in theatres. I think education itself needs to fundamentally change in order to increase the public’s awareness towards film and culture.


Snow Woman (雪女) + Special Guest Q&A – November 24, 20.30pm-22.45pm, Sydney, Events Cinema George Street:

Synopsis - Stranded deep in the woods, Minokichi witnesses his aging mentor’s life taken away by a ghostly snow woman. Years later, he meets the beautiful Yuki, a woman who bears an uncanny resemblance to the spirit. The coincidence is not lost on Minokichi but he is drawn to her mesmerizing beauty. Told with a non-linear storyline, Kiki Sugino puts a spin on an ancient Japanese folklore to create an alternate reality where antiquity and modernity co-exist.

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