SXSW Flixclusive Interview: Junya Sakino (Sake-Bomb)


[From March 9th – 17th, Flixist will be providing coverage from South by Southwest 2013 in Austin, TX.  Prepare yourselves for reviews, interviews, features, photos, videos, and all types of shenanigans!]

While I felt that Sake-Bomb, as a film, was a bit lacking, I was still very fascinated by the themes explored by director Junya Sakino and writer Jeff Mizushima. The culture clash between the Japanese-American Sebastian and his Japanese cousin Naoto and the similarities they shared was just so interesting to me. This idea of perceived American stereotypes of Asian-Americans compared to the realities of a native Asian was, in my eyes, too large for Sake-Bomb‘s scope.

However, my sit-down interview with Sakino and stars Eugene Kim and Gaku Hamada gave me much appreciated insight behind the film, as well as their own personal thoughts of the treatment towards Asians/Asian-Americans. While we still discussed such issues within the scope of the film, our conversation sometimes broadened away towards general culture discussion, which I was very fond of.

What was the inspiration behind the film? Why did you want to tell this story?

Junya Sakino: I am from Japan, and I have lived in the States for 13 years. When I came over here, I had no knowledge of Asian-Americans. I wanted to make a film. I came here for film school. In California, there are a lot of Asian-Americans, so I befriended a lot of them. I wanted to tell a personal story about myself and my friends around me, and I thought, “Why not make a buddy comedy about these two [people], one from Japan, one from the US?” That’s the beginning. How we came to this story was the fact that I was shocked to see a sake-bomb. They don’t exist in Japan; it’s American.

I never saw one myself, either, until this film.

JS: When I saw a sake-bomb at a sushi restaurant, I was blown away. “What the hell is this thing? That’s freaking ridiculous.” Then I thought about it, “Oh, that’s actually a pretty good idea for a perfect title. It’s a great idea for two cultural differences mixing altogether.” We made a story out of [that]. The story started from the title.

This is a bit of an aside, but your [Eugene Kim] character, Sebastian: Do you know if he was first-generation Asian-American?

Eugene Kim: That’s a tricky question, because I think… His father is an immigrant coming here, so that would make [Sebastian] second-generation. [He] was born and raised in the United States, but my father immigrated to the States, so that would make [him] second-generation. I think in some cultures, [he’s] first-generation, but it would be second-generation.

How about yourself personally?

EK: I am the same.

Do you feel that Sebastian’s story mimicked what you saw when you were growing up?

EK: My family system is the antithesis of what Sebastian went through. My mother and father are some of the most loving people. I was sheltered from any kind of harm or anything. They were very amazing, amazing parents. I have a wonderful sister who’s fantastic. They’re all so selfless and supportive. Sebastian didn’t have such a supportive life. He lost his mother at a very, very young age, and his father… He had a traumatic childhood growing up, which is why he had so much fear and self-loathing and anger and why he was so cynical about the world and why he couldn’t trust people and couldn’t love himself. It’s pretty extreme in Sebastian’s case, but I hope people can identify with the idea with not loving yourself and that human journey of finding out how to love yourself.

For Sebastian, it’s more of an extreme case, and it took his cousin flying out from Japan to make him realize how to love himself. [It also took] that character Joslyn to put his own shit in front of his face and say, “This is what it’s like to treat people like they’re just objects.” That’s what he did, he labeled everyone, and whether he thought he was defending his own race, he was ashamed. He was racist against them, and it took somebody so loving and caring like Naoto to come to the States to make him realize that love he was missing for so long. I like to think when Sebastian was driving on that freeway that he’s starting to realize how to love himself. He kind of knows, and it’s kind of unsaid, but I hope the audience can see that.

I asked about your history because my Mom’s Filipino. She’s from the Philippines and moved here, so I’m first-generation in our family, and I don’t really see that [racism]. I classify myself as Filipino, but you can’t really tell, so I don’t really have that sort of racial stigma [against] me. I wanted to see if you had to pull anything from your history.

EK: We did homework to justify it. For me, in my own imagination, Takinori [Sebastian’s father]… I imagined him getting beat up during the race riots in LA, so somebody kicking him and calling him a Jap and showing Sebastian at a very young age that he’s different, and that somebody that’s supposed to be your hero [got] beaten up for being Asian… There’s this thing that happens to Sebastian [that causes him to be] ashamed. He knows that he’s different, and he feels that he has to defend it, but at the same time, he’s ashamed of it. There’s a lot of depth in Sebastian’s pain and his anger.

Another big theme that the film follows are the stereotypes that follow Asian-Americans. But not just that, [Sakino] went to how there are stereotypes of Americans and their treatment, or in some case fascination, of Japanese culture. Can you expand on that?

JS: There were a lot of things I wanted to do, but obviously using Asian-Americans… Sebastian labeled Asian-American stereotypes, like you’d say jokes about [them], and they’d go, “Ahahaha. Funny funny.” But sometimes, it’s not really funny for Asian-Americans, or at least people get offended by that, right? So I’m like, “Okay, that’s kind of interesting, because sometimes that’s true.” Because they’re so sensitive about that, some people really don’t want to take that seriously, but some people do take it seriously. I wanted to play with that joke. In Sebastian’s case, it was a kind of extreme version. That was something I wanted to do.

EK: I love Junya’s and [writer] Jeff [Mizushima]’s vision of the yin and the yang of Naoto and Sebastian. Naoto is just content, you can feel his love, but you can feel Sebastian’s rage. To have the comparing and the contrasting of these two characters, I think is kind of a brilliant thing ot have, especially when people our age or our generation are trying to assimilate into the culture of being American. Regardless of if you’re Asian, it’s not just an Asian film. It’s something that I hope a lot of different cultures can understand of wanting to be accepting, or regardless of whether we want to be treated equally, at the same time, we make ourselves different; we force ourselves to be different because we label ourselves.

JS: That’s why I think having these two extreme characters together and putting them into one…

EK: The sake and the beer.

JS: I call that “Asian West meets Asian East.” They have common [traits], but they’re separate. That was the whole concept behind this film.

Before I even watched the film, I was thinking how the title Sake-Bomb worked, and when you explained it as the metaphor, I was like, “Wow! That’s amazing! That’s a really good metaphor.”

Well, for Naoto’s character… well, I guess for you two also: How do you think his life would be following his visit to LA [after] finding out the truth about the girl he loves and having that pain? How do you think that would affect his character, his personality?

Gaku Hamada [through a narrator]: It’s kind of like a Japanese way of thinking. Whether or not you answer things, he thinks [Naoto] went back to Japan to make sake and not think about her.

JS: The Japanese way of thinking is that they don’t conclude things. They don’t make that final judgment. They don’t make that clear. He just accepts the fact and moves on.

EK: Like Takinori [said], he wishes he had tried to see Hilary. He only made the effort.

JS: That’s kind of the Japanese way of thinking from the actor living in Japan for a long time, he thinks the way the film ends [is the difference] from the American [endings].

EK: We’re a little bit more romantic. We’re a little bit more lingering, kind of dwell. [For the] Japanese, it’s like, “Okay. Moving on.”

Do you feel that [Sebastian] would have moved on, too?

EK: I absolutely think so. I think he is moving on. Whereas he felt he had to fight for Tomiko, only because he was so dependent on her, I feel like having all of these things happen, having this adventure with Naoto, he’s adapted that Japanese way of thinking, of moving forward, [and] learning how to love himself. “I’ve got to work on me now.”

JS: The smile at the end with Naoto, I think that really tells a lot about the film in the end. Like I said, I had a different ending, but I feel the way the movie should end after I did it was of [Naoto] smiling. He started his journey, and now he concluded his own. And Sebastian looking over at the empty seat, this emptiness is still there, but these two young guys experienced something new. That was somewhat hopeful, that was somewhat ambiguous, but that was my intention.

Another big part of the film was Sebastian’s reliance on the vlogs, how that was his way of expressing himself. Do you feel that there could have been a way to express that?

JS: You know mean if Sebastian could have done that differently?

Yeah. Do you think there could have been a different outlet?

JS: That was one of the things… not so many people actually know, well some people do, but not many, but the fact that Asian-Americans have been a big hit on YouTube.

EK: It’s kind of a current, relevant thing happening now.

JS: If you search YouTube celebrities, there are a lot of Asian-Americans, and that’s because they found their own media. Once they have a following, it’s easier to express themselves on YouTube. And they have channels, right? Sebastian is the kind of guy who wants to get all this attention, he wants to get recognized just by the way he acts. He thinks that’s a cool way to attract people, but he’s just doing it wrong. He makes his own vlog in hopes he’ll get more subscribers, but it was ironic that he got all of these extra views because it was Naoto [who shot the popular video]. The reason why I picked the vlog was because I wanted to make a relevant case of there [being] so many Asian YouTube stuff and Sebastian wanting to be one of them.

EK: And there’s that stereotype of Asians being quiet and meek and submissive. We want to be heard, and I think that’s something Sebastian is desperately looking for, is to be heard and for people to care. That moment, that climax of Sebastian’s arc is when he apologizes to Naoto, and Naoto has this unconditional love for him regardless of what an ass Sebastian has been to him. He’s like, “We’re still family. I care about you.” Sebastian’s like, “Nobody wants to hear from me. Why would they?” That’s really what he feels: “Why would anybody want to hear what I have to say?” Even though he has all these video logs, he has this delusional thing that people want to hear him, he doesn’t believe that. You really, in that scene, find the core of Sebastian.

That was the turn.

EK: That was the turn of his character, and that’s when [Naoto] was like, “You want a hug?” And it’s this American thing, and Sebastian still has a chip on his shoulder and is like, “No, I don’t want a fucking hug,” but he kind of does. He already had this emotional hug. That’s kind of the turn of it, of Sebastian’s core. It’s a beautiful, subtle way that Junya and Jeff wrote in the script, and it was one of my favorite parts when I read the script. I really fell in love with Sebastian because he’s this guy that’s kind of unlikable, but hopefully people can see the heart of who Sebastian is through that moment.

Do you have any films coming up next?

JS: I have three projects. I have one documentary called Finding Okinoshima, which is the island that was erased during World War II where they were making chemical weapons in Japan. We’re researching on that and hoping to make a documentary about it. I have one project with Jeff called Transience. That’s actually something we wrote even before Sake-Bomb. It’s about four women with Buddhism. There’s another one called Orizuru, my adaptation of a short film I shot a couple of years ago. Like origami, but it means “paper planes.” It’s about World War II. I’m from Hiroshima, so I have sort of a story to tell about what happened [there]. That’s an epic story, so I don’t know when it’ll happen, but we’ve been writing the script.

Do you feel if you do follow another feature film kind of in a lighter tone like Sake-Bomb, do you feel like you’ve said what you wanted to say on the subject of Asian-American culture, or do you feel like you can expand in a serious, more dramatic tone?

JS: I’m actually more of a drama guy. I chose this comedy, but there’s a lot of drama in it, too. If I find any project that appeals to me, I would expand to any… I mean, it doesn’t have to be Asian-American, it can be anything. These are some things that are personal, but I’m always looking for a good project, something that would really mean something. Hopefully, I’ll get to make more of those… you know, something that means something to the world.