Interview with Shingo Usami, Writer/Actor/Director of RICEBALLS
CineVue got the inside scoop on RICEBALLS chatting with Shingo Usami, who wore the writer, actor, and director hats. In the poignant film, a recently widowed Kenji does his best to remind his young son of their cultural heritage, making clumsily-crafted Japanese riceballs for him to take for lunch. As time passes, the riceballs strengthen their bond, reminding us that while it’s difficult to live between two cultures, our roots can bring us courage in times of sadness.
AAIFF ’16 featured this short in the program ROOTS: REMOVALS AND RETURNS on July 23, 2016.
The Australian premiere of RICEBALLS will be held at the Canberra Short Film Festival on 16 September. RICEBALLS will also be shown in the DC Shorts Film Festival in Washington, DC from 8 to 18 September. For more information, visit www.shingousami.com.
Jackie Lam: You have an extensive background in stage performances. Do you prefer acting on stage or on film?
Shingo Usami: Film acting is sort of…more concentration. You have to put everything into the moment…You have to be aware of the camera…I love both.
JL: What’s your dream role?
SU: Anything [realistic]. In Australia, it’s quite limited for Asian actors—[similar to the US, but even more so]. I’ve played a lot of mean Japanese soldiers and, of course, I can play bad, and it’s historical fact, but it’s not just that. Japanese men aren’t just soldiers and businessmen. That’s why I made this film. My dream character wouldn’t have to be Asian.
JL: What differences do you pick up on between Australian and American media?
SU: Australian media can be pretentious and showy like American media. But it’s more down-to-earth and matter-of-fact. There’s a saying called “tall poppy syndrome,” where people don’t want to stand out in a crowd. It’s good and bad—similar to Japanese sentiment.
JL: Do you identify more with the Japanese or Australian side of your identity?
SU: I’m still Japanese, I think. I’ve been away for twenty-three years. In a sense, I don’t think I fit into stereotypical Japanese society. Not that I’m uncomfortable in Australia, but the more I’m overseas, the more I realize my Japanese-ness. I should treasure that…No matter where you are, you take where you grew up with you. I shouldn’t hide or change being Japanese. It’s not about me losing my Japanese-ness—it’s about me gaining…skills to do more, to expand my capacity. Me being Japanese gives me a base to stand on.
JL: When we chatted before, you mentioned chauvinism. Do you consider yourself a feminist?
SU: Yeah, I mean, I grew up with lots of women—my mom had four sisters and I have two sisters. I don’t think I’m a traditional Japanese man.
JL: You said in the ROOTS: REMOVALS AND RETURNS Q&A that you don’t have kids. How did you draw on your own experiences to play a father?
SU: I’ve known Tatsuo [the actor who plays Josh in RICEBALLS] since he was born. He’s the son of a friend of mine…I used my imagination and what I’ve seen on TV and played myself basically.
JL: Could you talk more about working with Tatsuo, who plays your son?
SU: He’s never acted before. I sort of wrote the script with him in mind. I asked him if he wanted to be in the film. No auditions or anything. I wasn’t sure if he’d be OK in front of a camera, surrounded by a bunch of people. He was just amazing…He didn’t freak out; he wasn’t shy or self-conscious. He was himself, which is what I told him to do. Especially since I couldn’t direct him while acting with him.
JL: What was it like directing yourself?
SU: So hard. If I had the budget, I could watch my mistakes, but I had to rely on my director of photography Ella Gibbins and my assistant driector Christine Luby. Unless something really went, wrong, I kept going. The last thing I wanted to make was a “me me me” film…I don’t think I’d do both roles again.
JL: Do you prefer acting or directing?
SU: I’m still an actor. Maybe I’d write my own script…or not. Or I’d direct and make a cameo appearance.
JL: What was your inspiration for RICEBALLS?
SU: I was doing a Japanese language workshop for kids called Bento Workshop. We were using a gas company commercial where the mom was trying to communicate with her son who barely speaks Japanese, while she made a beautiful bento box. [I thought, what if it was a father?] What would he make instead of a bento box? Maybe riceballs, which are like sandwiches to Americans. They could represent the love and the bond. Japanese kids growing up in a tough foreign culture. The story came kind of easily.
JL: Did you bring riceballs to school as a child?
SU: We ate lunches provided by the school–we didn’t bring bento boxes. But on field trips, yeah, riceballs. To me, it’s special food.
JL: Has your family seen your film?
SU: I showed it to my parents when I went back to Japan and they really loved it.
JL: What’s next for you?
SU: Some people asked if I will make this film into a feature. I might start writing scripts for short films. Watching all the documentaries at AAIFF is really inspirational. My door’s open. I’d like to focus on acting as well. We’ll see how it goes. I’m bad at planning–I’m a big procrastinor. I’m still sending RICEBALLS to festivals. It’s going to DC, Milwaukee.