Kiki Sugino is one of a growing cohort of women filmmakers in Japan. But the difference between Sugino and other successful sempai (seniors, as they are known) is that while most have only worked behind the camera, she began her career in front of it.
While a student of economics at Keio University, a prestigious private college in Tokyo, Sugino decided to study in South Korea. It was an unusual choice for most Japanese college students, but a natural one for Sugino, an ethnic Korean herself.
In 2005, she made her acting debut in one segment of the three-part anthology One Shining Day directed by Kim Sung-ho and she was soon appearing in films around Asia. In 2011, the Tokyo International Film Festival presented a section of her films with the title The Muse of Asian Indie Cinema.
By this time Sugino was already branching out into producing, including Koji Fukada’s 2011 black comedy Hospitalite, winner of the Best Picture Award in the festival’s Japanese Eyes section.
In 2014 she directed in her first feature, Kyoto Elegy, playing (in a fat suit) a blustery overweight woman who lords it over her wimpy boyfriend.
This week, Sugino returns to action, both behind and in front of the camera, with Snow Woman – out in cinemas across Japan on March 4 after making its world premiere at the Tokyo festival last year.
Sugino stars – and surprises once again – as the title heroine in a film that is radically different in both story and execution.
Based on a story by Lafcadio Hearn published in his 1904 collection Kwaidan: Stories and Studies of Strange Things, the tale of Snow Woman begins much like the original version: Two woodsmen – one young and one old and injured – take refuge from a snowstorm in a mountain hut.
During the night the younger man awakes to see a strange, pale-faced woman (Sugino) hovering over his companion – and quietly snuffing out his life. Turning to the scared-stiff survivor, she says: “I will spare you, but if you tell anyone, I’ll take your life.”
This may sound like a set-up for horror, but the film takes another direction entirely: The surviving woodsman, Minokichi (Munetaka Aoki), later meets a mysterious stranger, Yuki (Sugino again), who resembles the Snow Woman – and he makes her his wife.
Unfolding in an alternative reality that melds early postwar Japan and a contemporary (or near-future) society, the story explores a range of themes, from social discrimination to the mystical ties between generations, as Yuki’s teenage daughter (Mayu Yamaguchi) takes on the deadly powers, if not the enigmatic personality, of her mother.
When I look at America now, I see people who are trying to define others … It’s dangerous to try to define people as this group or that
“I didn’t want to make a horror film,” Sugino said in a recent interview at the Tokyo headquarters of King Records, one of the film’s producers. “When I read the original story, I didn’t have the impression it was horror exactly. Of course, there is that element [in the film], but I wanted to talk more deeply about the relationship between humanity and nature, about the Snow Woman as a symbol of the spiritual, that is, as a representative of what we can’t see with the naked eye.”
Sugino also stresses the contemporary relevance of the story, which she co-scripted. “I wrote Minokichi as a typical modern-day person,” she says. “He thinks of the Snow Woman as a sort of unreal presence. That is, he can’t define her.
“When I look at America now, I see people who are trying to define others,” she continues, “but you can go in a dangerous direction with that. It’s dangerous to try to define people as this group or that.”
As someone who has crossed cultures in her entire career, Sugino believes that “people are all connected.” “Human beings are not something you can put into separate boxes,” she adds.
At the same time, Sugino sees parallels between Snow Woman and other Asian depictions of the supernatural: “In Thailand, Apichatpong Weerasethakul is making films with animism as a theme. I may be depicting a world close to his. Modern people overlook the spiritual, the invisible, the unseen things that are so important.”
Sugino says she understood that importance herself as she played the Snow Woman. “I felt that those unseen things are inside me, not somewhere out there. The incomprehensible, the mysterious, the enigmatic all exist within me. I wanted to depict them as something familiar. What you might call the unseen is not something scary – it’s something close to us.”