Ryota Nakano’s films join a long lineage of Japanese cinema preoccupied with depicting and interrogating the family unit — from Yasujiro Ozu to Hirokazu Kore-eda. And yet, when you watch Nakano’s films, his portrayal of family dynamics always feels fresh, diverse and modern.


In his breakout film Her Love Boils Bathwater (2016), family extends beyond blood as a terminally ill single mother (Rie Miyazawa) gathers her teenage daughter (Hana Sugisaki), estranged husband (Joe Odagiri), his young daughter (Aoi Ito) with the woman he left her for to reopen her family bathhouse before she passes away. There are also families that are separated by circumstance, such as in Capturing Dad (2006) and A Long Goodbye (2019). Then there are families of all shapes and sizes, lovingly depicted in The Asadas! (2020). Nakano’s films reveal the challenges and struggles, but also the fulfilment, that comes with caring for the people you call family. In addition to addressing what creates a family, Nakano also regularly features the sadly inevitable aspects of life, namely death and illness, with refreshing acceptance.

still from Her Love Boils Bathwater (2016, Ryota Nakano)

Her Love Boils Bathwater (2016)

Fittingly, three of Ryota Nakano’s feature films will be spotlighted as part of Japan Society’s latest programme Family Portrait: Japanese Family in Flux, which examines the shifting dynamics of the Japanese household in contemporary cinema. Ahead of this showcase in New York, we spoke to director Nakano, assisted by translator Kaori Tomita, on what he loves about the filmmaking process and how he creates such complex portraits of families. 


The below interview has been edited for clarity. 


I read that you didn’t initially grow up thinking about becoming a filmmaker. You studied music first, before studying filmmaking. Can you talk about how you came to become interested in filmmaking and why you enjoy it?


Originally, I wasn’t what you would call a huge fan of cinema. I would watch maybe two, three films a year—famous ones, like Indiana Jones or E.T. or Rocky. The university I went to wasn’t a film school. When I look back at it, since I was in junior high or in high school, I enjoyed participating in theatre and plays in school festivals. I think I liked entertaining people while expressing myself so I enjoyed being in a band at university for four years because I got to do just that. 


Before graduating from university, I started thinking about what I would like to do. It occurred to me that cinema was perhaps the epitome [of self-expression], the highest form of how I could entertain people and express myself, because cinema contains music and visuals, and it can cross borders. So after graduating from university I joined a film school. 


I had never thought about making a film before joining film school. It was there where I first wrote a script, made it into a film, and I was so excited. I thought it was so much fun, and there were people who enjoyed what I made. There was so much excitement about the first film I made, and that [excitement] is still the motivation for me to keep making films. 


I grew up in a single parent household. My mother raised me, and I don’t know my father much. My films are an expression of who I am, and when people who watch my films enjoy it, or are moved by it, it is very exciting and overwhelming for me. So that’s why my films are about families. Maybe when I was younger I was more self-centred, and I only wanted to express who I was, thinking that as long as I understood it, that would be okay. But now, [my worldview] has expanded, and I still want to express myself, but I also want to communicate with audiences worldwide. 


What I find so exciting about your work is that you write and direct all your work in a time where so many films are adaptations of books, manga, or sequels. How do you get ideas for your stories? 


Basically, the questions I have inside of me: things I am curious about, things I want to know about. I would pursue [those], and this would give me ideas or images to make a story out of. So that’s the first step. But of course, I am also very aware of what’s happening in the world, and I’m always hoping to align my own thoughts with the current state of the world and [express those ideas] through my film. 


As you have mentioned, you didn’t watch many films growing up. Can you talk about what influences your work? Are you influenced by any filmmakers and films? 


I can’t really think of any particular film that influenced me. But as I said earlier, when I watched E.T. or Indiana Jones, I remember that every single time I watched those films, I felt good coming out of the cinema. So I think I wanted to make films that make you feel good when you watch it. In my films, the recurring motifs can be quite challenging, such as hardship and death, but I never want to make a film that makes you feel depressed after you watch it. So maybe that’s the influence from my moviegoing experience when I was growing up. I wasn’t a cinephile, and so maybe this feel-good experience from watching movies is what has stayed with me. 

Image still from A Long Goodbye (2019, Ryota Nakano)

A Long Goodbye (2019)


That’s actually one of the very unique aspects of your films. The feeling of lightness that it evokes. Your stories have heavy subject matter, and many of them are about illness, death and loss, but they are also really light-hearted and funny. How do you find this balance when so many filmmakers struggle to find the balance between humour and tragedy?


I actually think comedy and tragedy are not opposites, but sitting right next to each other. When there’s a tragedy, people are trying very hard [to make sense of] those situations. When you witness people trying so hard to live, when they are really devoting themselves so hard to do something, it can become so exaggerated or absurd that it becomes funny. So I think humour is not about making people laugh, it is about how people end up laughing. I don’t deliberately try to make people laugh. I think real humour is not manipulative, it is natural and spontaneous. [I think] the bigger the tragedy, the bigger the comedy can be. 


Your casts are always so strong. Even though some of them may be very famous actors, when they are acting together as a family, it feels very natural. How do you get your actors to create such natural, ‘family-like’ chemistry? 


I prepare a lot before starting to shoot a film. Because the actors have to portray a family, I want them to feel like a family, rather than just look like a family. Even though this is acting, and these are actors, they are also human beings, and so I think communication is very important. The more you know about other people, the more you come to care about them. That’s what I have to establish before we start the shoot, and if it is [prepared] well, the chemistry can be conveyed through the camera and onto the big screen. 


For example, in the case of Her Love Boils Bathwater, I would have Rie Miyazawa, who plays the main character Futaba, and the actresses who play the two children [Hana Sugisaki and Aoi Ito] email each other everyday. I had them do this for about half a month. I would ask them to write the emails to Rie, as if she was their mother. So they would address her as “okaachan” (mum) in these emails and tell her about their day and feelings, and Rie would reply as their mother. They were corresponding everyday, so they would really feel like a family before the shoot began. I try to do something like this before each shoot.  


Hana Sugisaki in Her Love Boils Bathwater (2016, Ryota Nakano)

Hana Sugisaki in Her Love Boils Bathwater (2016)

That’s so interesting! Actually that brings me to my next question about Her Love Boils Bathwater, where I read that you wrote the part of Azumi for Hana Sugisaki. I was so impressed by Hana Sugisaki as Azumi. As she was a young actress at the time of filming, how did you come to write the part for her? And have you written any other parts for a specific actor?


When I write my scripts, I usually have a vague idea of the type of person I want for the character. But when it came to Azumi, it was the first time ever for me that I was 100% thinking of Hana Sugisaki while writing the character. I had never worked with her before, but I had seen her in commercials and in television dramas, and I always thought she was on a different level, in a league of her own. So when I offered her the role of Azumi, I thought to myself, “what if she says no?” and I was worried because I had only thought of her for this part. But luckily she said yes, and she did a great job. But even after that, I have never had a situation like this with Hana Sugisaki where I only saw one actor in a role.  


Image still from The Asadas! (2020, Ryota Nakano)

The Asadas! (2020)


The Asadas! is based on the photographer Masashi Asada’s life and work. How much of the film is real? I think some audiences will not realise that the film is based on a real person and his family because the film is so quirky and humorous.


[Laughs] Well maybe 75% of the film is real. Because I’m making a film that is two hours long, a quarter of that is where I take cinematic liberties and creative licence to make it more cinematic. But that’s only 25%. So almost all of it is based in real-life. Out of all the characters in the film, the only fictional character is the girl at the end of the film, who asks Asada-san to take a picture of her. The rest are all real. 


What are the kinds of stories you want to tell in the future? Will you keep making stories about families? And are you working on anything right now?


It’s not that I always want to make films about families, but families are what I’ve been thinking about the most, and it has been that way for a long time, so it’s more natural for me to express stories around this theme. But now I’m in a different situation. I’ve gotten married and I have a kid, so now I have a point of view as a parent, which I haven’t made a film about yet. It’s very interesting to have a child, and to be a parent. So these interesting feelings and thoughts, that may be something I would like to express in a film. My mother raised me, and as she’s getting older, I know I have to take care of her and eventually see her off in the future. And when it comes to that, the feelings I have may be very strong, so I may want to express that [in a film] as well. All in all, when I talk about it, it still comes back to families, but I think my sensibilities around the theme will be updated.


Ryota Nakano will be present for the presentation of his films Her Love Boils Bathwater and The Asadas! for Japan Society’s program. Learn more about the program on the Japan Society website.