JAPAN CUTS 2023: ‘Under the Turquoise Sky’ film Director KENTARO and lead actor Yuya Yagira spoke to The Natural Aristocrat® about the movie’s cinematography, Western inspiration, and the Mongolian landscape.
This KENTARO and Yuya Yagira interview contains spoilers for movie, ‘Under the Turquoise Sky’. The film screened in NYC’s Japan Society on August 4 and August 5 as part of the 2023 Japan Cuts Film Festival.
THE NATURAL ARISTOCRAT (NIR REGEV): ‘Under the Turquoise Sky’ really focused on the countryside and the tranquility that comes with it. A city boy reconnecting with nature essentially. Was this film a statement on how city dwellers gradually lose connection with others and their own humanity?
That maybe humans should return to the countryside and leave behind the cities that isolate them?
KENTARO: I mean, I think cities are amazing places for cultural arrangements… But it’s also a place where you can be dehumanized very quickly because you have so many elements, so much information, so many choices, and so much pressure from your peers and from other people.
The societal pressures are a lot stronger when you’re in a city. So yeah, I think you can lose yourself or be very distant from who you’re supposed to be. ‘Cause it’s about the identity.
It’s about finding your destiny. And I think being in the city is not the easiest or best place for that.
THE NATURAL ARISTOCRAT: Was Takeshi’s (Yûya Yagira) scene with the wolf supposed to be a hallucination? It appeared that way with the quick cuts.
KENTARO: That’s a great observation because it wasn’t the intention. I showed it like he really had the experience with the wolf.
But you think afterwards, ‘Did he really bump into the wolf? Was it really red like that?’ The explosion is when Takeshi really starts changing. It makes you go back and ask that question.
THE NATURAL ARISTOCRAT: What was it like for you to lie there on the ground Yuya? You kind of had one eye open.
YUYA YAGIRA: The scene with the wolf had a really thin rope. I was nervous and I asked KENTARO again and again, ‘Is it really safe to film with this wolf with this thin rope?’ And he assured me that it’s safe.
So I continued with the filming, but that’s what’s most impactful about what I remember about that scene.
KENTARO: It was real wolf! No CGI! That was real explosion too. It was so analogically sharp. That was a real explosion with pyrotechnics and everything.
It creates a reality that makes him act real. He was really lying down in front of a burning motorcycle after an explosion. Lying down in front of a whole fire.
THE NATURAL ARISTOCRAT: Did your insurance premiums go through the roof?
KENTARO: (laughs) No, but it creates such a reality that you cannot ignore as an actor. I think that’s a great luxury today. When you’re in a studio, you’ve gotta imagine with a green screen.
You gotta imagine a wolf there, instead of going on an airplane to be able to really see it and to have the camera capture that for real. It’s a luxury, I think for actors.
THE NATURAL ARISTOCRAT: Were you afraid for your life Yuya?
YUYA YAGIRA: Yes, I was afraid for my life! (laughs) I was scared, but I was also surprised that in Mongolia you can do an explosion. I didn’t know that it was permitted to do in Mongolia.
Nowadays, lots of CGI is used. Just like KENTARO said, to be able to do the real thing made the scene come out really great. I was happy with that result.
THE NATURAL ARISTOCRAT: Do you pretty much get only one shot at a take because doing more explosions would be expensive?
KENTARO: Yes, that’s why we got the number one pyrotechnic guy in Mongolia. It was scary man. I was really afraid, I was completely afraid for him.
But after it exploded like that, he just continued and did the scene to the end. And suddenly that night, everybody in the Mongolian crew gave Yuya respect. His respect level went up like 300 times! (laughs)
THE NATURAL ARISTOCRAT: I thought you structured ‘Under the Turquoise Sky’ a lot like a Western in a lot of ways. Especially the car chase scene where the police throw a lasso around trying to capture Amra (Amarsaikhan Baljinnyam) by the neck. What was it like to shoot the scene?
KENTARO: That’s a tool that Mongolians used to catch horses actually. I thought it was really funny to catch the horse thief with that, you know? And of course it’s a completely ridiculous scene, the police would never use that.
But I thought it was very comical because it puts the film back into a style from ’20s where everything’s fast forward. Keystone Cops. And I wanted to do that scene like that.
It’s completely surprising and a kind of reminder of the magical world of Mongolia that Takeshi experiences.
I put all these Western elements into it, even the shots on the faces, a little bit like Sergio Leone’s style. Of course, all these references were put in on purpose.
THE NATURAL ARISTOCRAT: Was the earlier car scene where Amra and two strangers are cutting each other off on the road shot in one take?
KENTARO: It wasn’t in one shot. But I’m happy that you say that it kind of looked like that. There’s a lot of angles there.
That scene really happened in real life originally when I was with Amra in the countryside. It was similar to that. It didn’t go that far of course, but I thought it was quite emotional and wanted to do an exaggerating version of it for the scene.
I thought it would be very funny. Two people, something happens and it becomes a whole ego thing and they start yelling at each other and insulting each other for something that’s almost nothing. You know?
And if you look at it closely, you see that these young kids are from the city and the truck has a country license plate. So it’s kind of like that contrast between what’s happening in the big city.
You’ve got these young kids that are emotionally very volatile and they’re listening to hip hop music. Then this very typical countryside truck, which you see everywhere in Mongolia.
So this contrast between city and country, this generational thing, the way the big cities are changing now that you have that element inside Mongolia too. I thought that was amusing.
THE NATURAL ARISTOCRAT: Is that a common story archetype in Japan: the spoiled child and the grandfather (‘Saburo’ played by Akaji Maro) working at a large firm that’s kind of disappointed in his grandson?
KENTARO: It exists. Is it common? I don’t know if I can say it’s common. It does exist but I think it also exists in other countries, you know?
The grandson or the son that’s just lost.
He’s got money in the family so he doesn’t have to worry about anything and just living this hedonistic lifestyle because he can.
THE NATURAL ARISTOCRAT: I thought you made Takeshi’s personality kind of likable actually when he is with all the women.
KENTARO: That’s part of it! Yeah, he is. I mean, he is a person that you can’t hate, you know? ‘Cause Takeshi’s not a bad person.
Takeshi’s just a person that’s not thinking about things like contributions to society.
He’s somebody’s just consuming because he can. Takeshi doesn’t ask any questions about the significance of that in his life. I think it’s quite a common thing.
But it’s an extreme situation because he’s going out every night. There are people like that in Japan that go out every weekend and just get drunk and enjoy their life. It’s fine.
YUYA YAGIRA: This is a road trip movie about Takeshi’s spiritual and mental growth and that happens in Mongolia. But you have to start somewhere where the character of Takeshi is relatable.
So yes. He’s affluent and he had everything. Takeshi hasn’t really thought about life, and that’s where he needed to start. Because that’s the truly relatable character for everybody who’s watching the film.
KENTARO: I wanted the character to be somebody that exists in other countries and and cultures. In Japan, it’s not common. It’s not like everybody is like that. But it definitely exists.
I know people personally like that. You definitely see people like that here and in France and in Germany. You see this certain type of person that’s likable but doesn’t think about anything.
Major Spoiler Ahead:
THE NATURAL ARISTOCRAT: I thought you gave the film a Hollywood-like ending compared to most Japanese cinema which often ends bleakly. Saburo, the grandfather gets to speak to his long lost daughter (actress Sarantuya Sambuu) before passing.
I could easily have imagined Saburo passing right before she calls, even the Tora-san films that are supposed to be comedies have dark endings. You still sent the audience home happy, even if Takeshi didn’t stay in Mongolia.
KENTARO: Interesting. I didn’t really think about that kind of thing. I wanted to make it so the film starts and finishes the same without really going to a happy ending.
I don’t think it’s necessarily a happy end because he goes back and takes over the business… Is it a happy ending? I didn’t want to judge that.
But the fact that he accepts his destiny and takes over is not really what you might expect if somebody changed so much like Takeshi. He might have stayed in Mongolia.
But I didn’t want him to do something that was so stereotypical. I think that we’ve seen that movie a hundred times.
I don’t feel it’s a happy or a sad ending. It’s more about destiny.
THE NATURAL ARISTOCRAT: So you feel people have a predetermined fate? They have a predetermined destiny no matter what that can’t be changed or altered?
KENTARO: Yeah, I think destiny is something not to be ignored. At least for me it’s kind of a very present theme.
THE NATURAL ARISTOCRAT: I want to mention, I felt that introduction scene where Amra steals the horse captured the audience’s attention immediately.
Stealing a horse is not something you really see in films anymore. Usually they always go for the car and Grand Theft Auto.
KENTARO: Yeah, right! I thought just doing that in Japan was such a surrealistic way to start the film. Gives it an immediate dynamism that carries his story later on, it just comes from nowhere.
But yeah, it was an unusual thing to shoot and that’s what made it very challenging. Riding on a horse, having police cars chase after it… In fact, in Japan riding on a horse is legal. It’s still seen as a transportation vehicle today in certain areas.
THE NATURAL ARISTOCRAT: Do you know how to ride a horse?
KENTARO: Yes, I know how to ride a horse! Yuya does too as you see in the film. Yuya has this capacity to absorb throughout a shoot.
You can see how Yuya’s horsemanship has evolved over course of the film. Towards the end he’s so naturally on a horse, it’s quite impressive.
You know, it’s almost like he in parallel, follows the path of Takeshi in some ways.
THE NATURAL ARISTOCRAT: You co-wrote ‘Under the Turquoise Sky’ with co-lead actor Amarsaikhan Baljinnyam [Amra]. What was that experience like?
KENTARO: Well, he wanted to do this spectacular story. We started with a World War II prisoner, having a child with a local MGO woman, and that man getting old would then look for the child.
The child would send his son or his grandson, I made it his grandson because it worked better. But I think it brings authenticity to the story because this part of history actually happened. You had Japanese field POWs in Mongolia and the occurrence of a soldier having a child with a local woman was rare.
Yeah, I know mean it wasn’t like in the Vietnam war or something like that. It’s rare ’cause most if not all went back.
There were soldiers about 50 after World War II that stayed. They were ordered to go back, but they didn’t go back. They stayed and they had families with the local women.
THE NATURAL ARISTOCRAT: So was it a really rare thing to have a separate family like? I mean I know it happened quite a bit in World War II with Americans stationed in Okinawa.
KENTARO: Sure, I think it’s something that can happen. I mean, there’s no judgment in this. It’s just something that happens.
Like the pregnant nomadic woman (actress Tsetsegee Byamba), it’s never explained how she got pregnant and with whom she got pregnant.
I think that’s part of the interesting thing about when you travel, nothing is explained. When you meet somebody, you don’t know that person’s history. You meet the person, maybe you separate from the person, you have nothing.
You don’t know what’s gonna happen after. But I think that’s the charm of traveling, like seeing a road movie for example. You don’t have to know about things like that.
THE NATURAL ARISTOCRAT: Speaking of which, that whole childbirth scene where Takeshi sheds a single tear… Where did you come up with that Yuya?
YUYA YAGIRA: I just followed the director’s direction and kind of went along with the flow. That’s how it ended up that way.
THE NATURAL ARISTOCRAT: Did did you grow up watching a lot of Westerns growing up KENTARO? I noticed you mentioned Director Sergio Leone earlier?
KENTARO: No, I didn’t grow up watching too many of them, but I’ve seen some great Westerns!
The classics of course, John Ford, Sergio Leone… But I think Mongolia, the whole visual of Mongolia, works really well with the whole Western genre. So I did want to put some of that ref reference in the film
THE NATURAL ARISTOCRAT: My last question, I wanted to end on a fun note! All the open nature confident peeing scenes gave a lot of personality to the character of Amra. Standing, chest out, proudly…
While the audience understands Takeshi is nervous by his ‘shy stream’ in comparison.
Later on, both pee with confidence in nature, with ample spacing of course. Was it mostly a way to get a laugh from the audience?
YUYA YAGIRA: (laughs)
KENTARO: (laughs) No, I didn’t think about the laughs. I thought it was interesting when you go to the countryside, you have no toilets. So I asked somebody, ‘Where would you go to the bathroom?’
And he just turns around and goes, ‘This is the bathroom, you know?’ You’re out there in the middle of nowhere and you go, okay, the bathroom.
When I went location scouting, a trip with Amarsaikhan to the countryside, I saw him stop to go pee and he always chooses these really beautiful places to pee. (laughs)
I said, ‘Look at that! What kind of luxury is that?’ You know, he’s peeing in front of such a beautiful landscape. Alone.
It’s completely private ’cause nobody’s there. I just exaggerated that in the film. Amra had this ‘He’s very proud of this country’ this kind of thing going with it.
That’s what was the comical part of it. And I wanted that to reflect the evolution of the character.
I don’t know if anybody’s shot peeing scenes that aesthetically before. (laughs) It’s a really silly thing to do. But it was fun!
THE NATURAL ARISTOCRAT: Thank you both!
KENTARO and YUYA YAGIRA: Thank you!
More Japan Society NYC Interviews and Reviews:
Be sure to read:
– Mayu Nakamura Interview: ‘She is me, I am her’ @ Japan Society
– Naoko Ogigami Interview: Riverside Mukolitta @ Japan Society
– ‘Love Letter’ Movie Review – Japan Society NYC Film
– ‘Sailor Suit and Machine Gun’ Film Review – Japan Society NYC
– ‘April Story’ Review – Japan Society NYC Film Screening
– ‘Fireworks Should We See It from the Side or the Bottom?’ Review – Japan Society NYC screening
– Reiko Yamada Interview: ‘Sound Installation on Silent Movies’ @ Japan Society NY
Looking for more contemporary Japanese cinema reviews and New York City interviews? Visit the Japanese Films and NYC Local News section for the latest on-site reports on film programs and New York premieres!