Between life and death

Keishi Kondo on eternity, the loss of boundaries, and New Religion

by Jennie Kermode

New Religion
New Religion Photo: Courtesy of FrightFest

One of the more unusual films screening at this year's Frightfest, Keishi Kondo's New Religion tells the story of a bereaved woman's fateful encounter with a sinister man. Kaho Seto plays Miyabi, a sex worker whose life collapses when her small daughter, Aoi, falls to her death from the balcony of their apartment. Whilst she tries to begin her life again after her subsequent divorce, with a new boyfriend and a determined effort to find happiness, she can't let go of the feeling that Aoi is still in the apartment, just out of sight. When new client Oka (Satoshi Oka) asks to take a photograph of her spine, it's the beginning of a process which could change everything - but not necessarily for the better.

Ahead of the film's screening, Keishi agreed to answer some questions about it.

Jennie Kermode: How does it feel to have New Religion screening at Frightfest?

Keishi Kondo: Honestly, I am a bit nervous like every director would behave when they show their film for the first time. At the same time, I am really excited!

JK: How did the idea for the film develop?

KK: The most important thing for the film was Oka. Because I found that he is a really talented actor, I could come up with an idea that a mysterious man takes photos of people and makes murders. Without Oka, this film couldn’t have existed.

In addition to that, just before start of shooting and even during the shooting, I revised the screenplay many times since I loved to get feedback from actors or locations. Everything around me was inspiring me.

JK: How did you cast the main roles?

KK: Oka is one of my co-workers and I easily invited him to join. Finding Miyabi was a difficult one. I met many women but couldn’t find her. When I was about to give up, I found Kaho Seto, who was acting in some music videos. I immediately realised Miyabi is her.

JK: I love the way that the death of Aoi is approached with silence rather than screaming or frantic action. Was this because you wanted to explore the disorientation and hopelessness associated with death?

KK: Yes, that was one of the reasons. Another reason was the fact that when people witness the sudden death of loved ones, they can't believe that was real. I think they can do nothing there. I think she would have gone mad later, after that scene in the film.

JK: When Aoi disappears from the balcony, you keep the camera inside the room so that viewers can’t tell if she has fallen or if she’s hidden in a place they can’t see. Was this designed to help viewers relate to Miyabi’s feeling that it’s impossible for Aoi to be completely gone, and her continual return to the balcony as if she will find her there?

KK: You watched carefully the film. I'm really glad.

I felt Miyabi couldn't realise if her daughter really died or not. She thought Aoi would show up at any time just like her death was a dream. I wanted audiences to feel the same way as Miyabi did.

JK: Did you choose to have photographs taken beside the sea just because it is a popular place to go and relax, or because it is at the edge of the world and a difficult place to understand?

KK: Many people used the sea as a spiritual world in films or literature. I feel that way too. We, all the humans, came from the sea and I guess that fact would remind us of that that place was similar to Death itself. The lapping of the waves is like a place between life and death or like dream and awareness or like you and me.

JK: Were you influenced by the idea some peoples have about photography, that it can steal people’s souls? Is Miyabi becoming ill because the photographs take away parts of her, giving them the permanence she wishes for, but a permanence which can only exist in death?

KK: The idea of a camera taking a human soul is very classic, but I still think the idea is true.

My way of thinking about the idea to write a screenplay was to go back from the present day to the past. Like smartphone to analogue camera.

The framework of the story was modern technology. To me, I feel that people today sell their time to someone else through social networking sites, smart phones, etc., or have their desires implanted by something. The problem lies in the fact that there is no clear ruler, that there is no one who is in control. In the days of John Carpenter's They Live, it seemed to be very clear who the enemy was. But today, I honestly don't know who the enemy is and what the problem is. The moment I recognise that this is the enemy, I feel that the truth is far away. The existence of something contradictory, vague but certainly present.

But if I just drew a smartphone, it would become an explainable story, so I applied the motif more according to the senses. As a result of that, the analogue camera and the physical body become important ideas.

Death gives us many things. Love is the most important of them. Without an end, we would not know love. Eternity is created because there is an end. This contradiction is really gravitating for me. In New Religion, something which looks like a moth takes that all away from people. That is what I find very scary.

Death does not provide permanence.

I believe that the thing that can create true permanence is the repetition of death, life and the birth of children. That creates permanence. Death cannot be separated from the rest.

JK: Does making films about dreams make you wonder where the boundaries between stories and reality lie?

KK: Yes, It does.

But what I am more interested in is like the danger of telling stories or the social implications and dangers when that boundary disappears. When I think about this issue, I arrive at themes like Nazism and the genocide of dictatorships. However, I admit that I am not a purely social director, and I never encountered a political story that overlapped with my themes, so New Religion was completed in this form.

I wanted it to be in the form of a horror or sci-fi film, which I love, but at the same time I wanted it to be an arthouse kind of film. Maybe, like the theme of New Religion, I am drawn to things in between, things that are hard to define.

JK: What will your next project be?

KK: I have been writing many scripts now.

One is a sequel for New Religion, which will be a vampire movie you have never seen before. I want to create a hell of reincarnation and express love that vampires who live in the hell have.

Another is an LGBTQ+ horror film inspired by Hokusai Katsushika, a Japanese painter in the Edo era. Google the words 'Tako to ama'. You will find that the film will be a very erotic but sad love story.

New Religion screens at Frightfest on Monday afternoon, 29 August.

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