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Japanese Director Urara Matsubayashi on Speaking Up About Sexual Assault, Gender Gap: ‘#MeToo Is Not Restricted to One Country, but the Entire World’

While it is far from easy to broach topics relating to sexual assault in a still-conservative Japan, actor-turned-director Urara Matsubayashi felt it was vital to channel the pain and frustrations of her own experience as a survivor into her craft. Such a process led to “Blue Imagine,” Matsubayashi’s directorial debut about a young actor who finds refuge in a safe house in the wake of a violent assault.

The safe house, in this case, is the titular Blue Imagine, a group that meets at a local restaurant to support each other as they go through the traumatizing aftermath of sexual violence. “The starting point was my own experience,” Matsubayashi tells Variety ahead of the film’s world premiere at the International Film Festival Rotterdam. “But I also wanted to portray camaraderie between women, and show how #MeToo is not restricted to one country, but the entire world.”

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The director says she felt it was important to “shine a light” on the still very real issue of predatory behavior within the Japanese entertainment industry. “Female victims are in a very weak position, and I wanted women in the film to help each other and stay together throughout.” Matsubayashi highlights it was vital to have characters who validated each other’s reactions to trauma, particularly when there is still such a high stigma about speaking up and denouncing cases of sexual violence.

Blue Imagine
“Blue Imagine”

Matsubayashi said she closely followed the positive reactions to Shiori Ito’s “Black Box Diaries,” a documentary investigating the filmmaker’s sexual assault and her landmark case attempting to prosecute a high-profile offender with close ties to the Japanese government, which has just had its premiere at the Sundance Film Festival.

“It is very rare in Japanese culture, especially in the entertainment and media industry, to speak up about sexual assault,” said the director of Ito’s film. “When I started making [‘Blue Imagine’], the camaraderie between women was not there. I was in the industry myself and these things were still happening, whether you were famous or not.”

“Personally, it was very difficult,” says the director when asked if she experienced any trepidation in the making of the film. “I had a lot of flashbacks to my own experiences and suffered from PTSD. But I replaced my victimized self with the characters and, while it was painful, the film might lead to hope not only for me but for others who might have experienced the same.”

“It was very difficult for my family, to have me be looked at as a victim,” she continued, “but industry-wise, it wasn’t as difficult as we live in different times than decades ago, and the movement to talk about such issues is very steady.”

Blue Imagine
“Blue Imagine”

“Blue Imagine” isn’t Matsubayashi’s first — or second — film involving issues of sexual violence. The actor starred in Takaomi Ogata’s “The Hungry Lion” and starred in and produced the anthology drama “Kamata Prelude,” two films that touch on issues of sexual abuse. Now, after being at the helm of her own story, the director feels she can move onto pastures new and explore new genres and themes.

“I felt like I’ve made a big creative step, so maybe, just maybe I can move forward to a comedy next time and experiment a little,” she said. “Between the triangle of being an actor, producer and director, I hope I can find new things to work on.”

There are still few female directors working in Japan in comparison to their male counterparts, with recent studies showing that, in the two decades between 2000 and 2021, only 3% of Japanese films were helmed by a female director and, in 2022, only 11% of Japanese films released were directed by women. Matsubayashi believes the statistics are not only a gender bias-related issue but also symptomatic of a wider generational trend.

“There are not many aspiring young female filmmakers in Japan, and there are a lot of reasons for that, but the younger generations seem less interested in filmmaking,” she said. “Japan is a country for anime and broadcasting these days. Film as a medium isn’t as popular with young people, so it isn’t just about gender but about the working circumstances for the entire industry.”

She continued by adding that, while acclaimed Japanese filmmakers such as Ryusuke Hamaguchi and Hirokazu Kore-eda have managed to break out internationally, going on to earn Academy Award nominations and doing well at the global box office, independent filmmakers still struggle in the country.

“Hamaguchi and Kore-eda work with different budgets, they can secure funding. But in terms of the funding of independent films, there is a big difference,” she said. “Casting, particularly in Japan, tends to happen based on status and I find it important that the younger actors also get their chance at the spotlight.”

“The independent filmmaking industry is a little like #MeToo in that there is a lot of in-fighting on social media between ourselves,” added Matsubayashi. “We need to have a shared responsibility, and we are not quite there yet.”

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