On a bright Thursday morning, BEATS sat down with a freshly jet-lagged Hikaru Toda who is in London to promote her film, Of Love and Law, a feature documentary about Japan’s first law firm run by openly gay couple Fumi and Kazu. The cases presented in the film are as compelling as its heart warming protagonists. The film is a tender celebration of society’s misfits, of love and of family. BEATS wanted to dig a little deeper into the person behind the film and what follows is a playful interview session with the film’s director.
BEATS: I’m going to start with the easy ones. Describe yourself in three words.
Hikaru Toda: Oh my God. Three words? Spontaneous … what’s the word? Stubborn and direct.
BEATS: Are you more of a hunter or a gatherer and why?
Hikaru Toda: Both. I hunt and gather. I studied anthropology, so I would say I’m a bit of both.
BEATS: You are a new addition to the crayon box. What colour would you be and why?
Hikaru Toda: There’s a Japanese shade called Gunjo-iro That’s always been my favorite color. And it’s a bit like greenish-blue.
BEATS: We finish the interview, you step outside the office, and you find a lottery ticket that ends up winning 10 million pounds. What would you do?
Hikaru Toda: I won’t tell anybody about it. That’s for sure.
BEATS: You didn’t include secretive in your three descriptors.
Hikaru Toda: I didn’t, no. But I’ll put it to good causes. I’ll probably share it with family or put it to good cause of my choice, but I won’t tell anyone about it.
BEATS: If you could be any tree in the world, what tree would you be?
Hikaru Toda: Oh, that’s a nice … Oh, I love trees, but I’m really rubbish at names of trees.
BEATS: My son loves trees as well. We’ve become a bit of an expert.
Hikaru Toda: I bet he knows a lot more than I do. A big tree. Oh, Gajumaro. It’s a tree that you find in tropical places. I’ve recently been to Okinawa. I don’t know the word is in English. It’s a tree that looks like many trees in one and it’s got branches that looks like roots hanging off it. So it’s a real mixture. Like, you don’t know where the branch is stopping the roots start.Yeah. It’s a beautiful tree.
I was a bit rubbish actually. I guess a bit lost, yeah. A bit lost and outgoing, but still like lost in the inside. Like any high school kid I guess. I was in Holland.
BEATS: Okay. So what was the turning point for you? Like from being a bit lost to kind of finding yourself? What was that?
Hikaru Toda: I think uni was good. I studied a lot of different things. I did psychology, anthropology, sociology. That was all in a way of like trying to figure out what I was seeing in the world. Then I kind of settled with anthropology, going into visual anthropology and then ending up doing what I’m doing now. So it was kind of like a gradual process of trying to figure out where I fit in, and who I am, and all of that.
BEATS: So would you say you’re like an anthropologist first and a filmmaker second?
Hikaru Toda: I wouldn’t say I’m an anthropologist in a theoretical sense, but I’m am an anthropologist in a practical sense in that like a lot of what I do is based on field work, really finding out about people through their environment, and interacting with them. So that comes from my kind of ethnographic background. But I never intended to become an anthropologist in an academic sense. So if you asked me about theories and anthropologists … I’ve read them, but then I’ve forgotten about them. So, yeah, I think I’m very much embedded in the practice, which is why I went into documentary film.
I like appealing to a wider audience, trying to make it engaging, and that objective versus subjective crap really that I find is very outdated. You know, everything is subjective, so why not use that interpretive creative liberty to make something interesting. But with anthropological integrity, which I think is important if you’re doing something like a film where you are a foreign body into someone else’s real lived experience. So I think that kind of background of questioning it and looking at the moral aspects of it and the ethics was very useful. But I’ve definitely departed from the constraints of academia and use film as a way of like asking questions to normal people and not only academics.
BEATS: Have you turned that kind of social sciences like onto yourself? I’m asking this, I suppose, because I’m here because of BEATS and we work operate in this space for British East Asians working in TV, theatre, and film. We are trying to stimulate a conversation about British East Asian identity and representation. So in terms of your own identity, how would you describe that?
Hikaru Toda: I do believe about like self representation and in people. So I did a lot of what I was interested in, anthropology at the end. I’ve arrived at ultra ethnography, so I really looked at where I came from, the idea of home and belongingness and all of that. So in terms of my own identity, it’s always a departure point. I always ask myself, even if I’m making a story about someone else, I always look at where I can belong in their stories. Like what kind of juxtapositions we have in our reality. So I think in terms of Of Love & Law, I really did sympathize, or I saw some similarities in our experience as minorities, even though completely different cultural contexts, and sexual identities.
I deal with different types of minority issues in Japan coming from … and that was very much explored through my own questionings of what being a minority meant for me growing up in Europe as an Asian woman. And yeah, so that really is very important for me to have that as a departure point and always kind of looking where I can belong in their stories.
BEATS: So can I ask you, when you’ve gone back to live in Japan after such a long time away from it, how do you feel?
Hikaru Toda: Like an outsider.
BEATS: In the film Burning, which stars Steven Yeun, he talks about himself going to Korea to feel like not the other, to be normalized. Is that how you feel in Osaka now?
Hikaru Toda: I think I embrace it and I think everybody should, because it’s kind of an illusion to have this like common identity. Identity is so multifaceted and it’s not just one thing. And I think what’s dangerous about having one identity that we should all aspire to in a country like Japan where conformity and is so kind of embedded in the culture identity, it can turn against a lot of people if you don’t fit in. Which is why I think representation is important to say, “Yeah, we’re an outsider first and foremost, and that’s okay.”
I think that’s important to also claim your outsiderness and say, “Yeah, we’re all a bit outsider and we have something to share. We have some commonalities, but we also have things that we disagree with that we’re different from each other, and that’s okay.” I’m definitely an outsider in Japan, but I embrace it in a way. Yeah, as just part of who I am.
BEATS: What made you decide to go back?
Hikaru Toda: I don’t feel like I returned because I spent so much of my youth growing up abroad. So it was more of like a temporary moving somewhere to make a film thing, and then I just ended up staying. My producer was like, “How long are you going for?” I’m like, “Six months or a year.” And then it turned into four years now. But my family’s there and parents getting older, and all of these things also play a part in me staying, for sure. But yeah. Down the line, I might go somewhere else.
BEATS: Yeah. What was the hardest moment you had in making Of Love & Law?
Hikaru Toda: Oh God, there were so many. And there’s so many in different stages of production including distribution. I think distribution was very difficult in dealing with people’s expectations, I guess, and my own responsibility within it because it was very new. We had a theatrical release in Japan last September and we’re still playing in theaters across your Japan. And I think it’s one thing to distribute abroad and it’s another thing to distribute in your own back garden, so to speak. So people are really nervous, you know, all my characters felt exposed, they felt more vulnerable.
In a different way too, during production when we’re filming, because it was done in such a small, intimate way with just me and my camera man most of the time. And then distribution comes along, different people come get involved, it becomes more of a product then this intimate experience that we’ve shared. And so that was an interesting challenge that I found that we don’t really speak about, I guess. How to deal when you’re dealing with documentaries. How you deal with that, responsibilities and expectations that you have as a filmmaker.
BEATS: If you weren’t a filmmaker, what would you be?
Hikaru Toda: God, I don’t know. I’d like to think maybe I would be into doing something completely different like chemistry. Something based where there’s a definite answer, reaction to formulas and things. But yeah, something like that.Or, I would like to be like a color expert. Someone who like studies and researches about color, and then people would just come to me across different fields to ask about colors that affects different moods, or colored patterns in their offices. Yeah, I’d be a color expert.
BEATS: Tell us five things about your producer.
Hikaru Toda: She is called Elhum Shakerifar. She’s British-Iranian, she’s brilliant. Super-busy. A Super Juggler, I would say. I’ve never seen anyone who can multitask the way she does. Super-juggling multitasker. Is that four or is that five words?
BEATS: What are you doing next?
Hikaru Toda: I’m working on several different projects. One, I cannot talk about yet … contractual obligations. And I’m developing a kind of narrative/nonfiction script based on my own experience with my mother and that mother/daughter relationship.
BEATS: That’s perfect, because my next question is if there was a movie produced about your life, who would play you?
Hikaru Toda: It would be a Japanese. So I’ve been thinking about this. There’s a really brilliant Japanese actress, I like her. Her name is Sakura Ando. She would probably play me. I’ll ask her to play me. And Kiki Kirin would’ve played my mother ’cause they actually quite look the same … not the same, there’s some similarities. But she passed away last year, so that will never happen.
BEATS: Okay. What’s the most interesting thing we would learn about you but not from your resume?
Hikaru Toda: Oh my God. I don’t know. I think people often react surprised when I tell them that I’m actually shy because I had come out across quite … what’s the word? That I’m outgoing. So I’m shy.
BEATS: Are movies important?
Hikaru Toda: Yes and no. I would say movies can’t solve any problems. I think there are things that has to be done beyond a movie format when we’re talking about real issues, which often documentaries deal with. So movies is definitely a catalyst, it’s not the end goal. I would say in that sense of discussions, and social interactions, and real engagements are important, what you do with the movies are important. But movies are also definitely important in a way that it really connects people, I think. I think it could be a place where you encounter different experiences that you would have never known or experienced yourself. So I think it’s a very good tool for being a place of encounter and discovery for people.
BEATS: If you could travel back in time, what are the five things you would tell your teenager self?
Hikaru Toda: Don’t pluck your eyebrows that much, because big eyebrows are actually good. And now I miss it because it doesn’t grow back. Not worry too much. I was a worrier, I would say. Yeah, do not worry too much. And travel more. Like I wish I did the whole Eurorail thing, and I didn’t bother because I just thought like, “Oh, time is endless and there’s always more time.”
And of course, you turned 26, you learn that everything like train charges go up a lot when you are above 25. So yeah, go on Eurorail, do all that. That’s three, two more. Teenager self. What was I doing when I was a teenager? I also have a very bad memory. Take your Spanish lessons more seriously, because I wish now I spoke Spanish. What else? What else did I do? One more, one more, one more, one more. Okay. I feel like I was in Holland back then. I studied quite a lot … Like study less and hang out more. Yeah, I would say that. I didn’t study that much, but I think I should have studied less and hung out more.
BEATS: What makes you happiest?
Hikaru Toda: Good Food and good company with good booze. I’m very easy to please.
BEATS: Yeah. So how did you and your producer meet?
Hikaru Toda: We met at Goldsmith in 2005 when we when we studied MA Visual Anthropology under Steve Nugent, who passed away last year. And he was brilliant. Yeah.
BEATS: Why should anyone see Of Love & Law?
Hikaru Toda: It’s funny, it’s uplifting, it’s new, there’s a lot of different social issues in there that for people who are inclined that way. I think there’s a bit of everything. It’s got humor, it’s got serious issues there, it’s edited really well, I think. I think the way the story’s told is also quite good if people can look at it that way, because it’s got a lot and in it. It’s got so many different characters and so many different storylines, but it’s told us one story, and that was quite a triumphant thing for me because that was also a biggest challenge.
And the editor, Takeshi Hata, who also edited Kazuo Hara’s last one and is editing his new one. He’s a brilliant editor, and that’s for any cinephiles out there. That’s one thing to look out for is the editing of the film. Yeah. And it just shows Japan in a different way, different light, different realities.
BEATS: How did you discover your protagonists, Fumi and Kazu?
Hikaru Toda: I discovered them when I first went to Osaka for another project I was working on. And yeah, I just met them. I was literally on the street hanging out fliers with my assistants in January, super cold, like looking for characters. And one thing led to another, you meet one person, it just goes like that. Osaka is a weird place.
I’ve encountered so many different people on the streets of Osaka. And I think it’s one of the biggest reasons why I’m still there is because Osaka seems to be a place of encounter for me. So yeah, I met them through an acquaintance that I met through another, like a person who I met on the street.
BEATS: What’s the hardest part of being a director?
Hikaru Toda: I think people management skills is. I’m not very good at it. It’s very hard, I guess. I mean, there’s so many things that you have to do as a director. It’s not just one thing. You manage your team if you’re lucky enough to have a team, and you manage the expectations, and you manage the people. You don’t manage, but you have to be a person first, and then you also have the director hat.
But I think it’s very important if you’re making a documentary that your interactions are embedded in real human connections and not just as a subject dealing with a director. So I think that’s hard to kind of see the line sometimes. Like, “Where do I become a director? How do I interact with them as a person?” I mean I’m always interacting with them as a person, but it’s always like having different hats on at the same time.
BEATS: Documentary does have this kind of added pressure. There is a real duty of care to your subjects, which clearly if you’re working in fiction, it is typically a lesser burden. There’s many kind of moral issues, isn’t there?
Hikaru Toda: Yeah. So that’s definitely moral and ethics of filmmaking. It’s constant. You never stop questioning it. There’s never an answer because I think there’s always a stance that you have to take based on the context and the timing of things. And things always happen. Like you make a film and you’re not done with it. You deal with people’s lives, part of their lives that you’ve encapsulated in film, but their lives go on and your relationships go along with them.
And you’re always the one who have to answer to any questions that anybody might have. You’re always the last person who the responsibility sits with. It’s this never-ending process, I guess, of human responsibility and interactions. That’s the hardest part about being a director of documentary films.
BEATS: What angers you the most?
Hikaru Toda: What angers me the most? God, so many things. I’m often very angry, I get like angry drunk. Different things, but I’ve noticed since moving back to Japan how much I’ve taken from men, especially white men, and how it was so normalized. To be expected one thing, and you don’t even think that you are acting in an expected way because it was so encultured through your upbringing, I guess, as a Asian minority woman living in like a white male-dominant society. And moving back to Japan where feminism is definitely in its infant stage, if there is any.
It’s very an infant in Japan, and there’s a lot of like casual sexism that is still very accepted. And also not so very casual sexism that are very accepted. And it’s very shocking how much people just take it. And it angers me that there’s very little contributions personally that I’m making to that situation when I do witness something like that being done to younger women. And it’s a very hard cultural barrier to speak out and to alienate yourself and not reach the people anyway, because you’re just speaking out and not reaching to the people that you’re preaching to. You know what I mean? So it angers me, the situation. Yeah, sexism everywhere, really. And how still normal it is.
BEATS: Is that an area of work that you’re going to be working in more with your filmmaking?
Hikaru Toda: So, this is why I see limits to film in that I don’t think films are good as an expo day. I don’t think it actually does anything. I think it’s something that I would like to work in my every day more, not through the medium of film per se. Because, I think, often when you make a film that is very strong … like I know the BBC made a film with Shiori Ito, who was raped by a very prominent Japanese journalist. And she now is living in you in the UK as a result of going public with it, and all the backlash she got from it, the victim-bashing and all of that. So she can no longer live in Japan. She’s in the UK now. She made a documentary for the BBC about her experience.
I think although it’s very good, it did very little in Japan which is the place where it matters the most, in a way. So it’s like, yes, there’s one thing you can do with a film, but I think we have to recognize the limits of it, and what we can then do in our own small part as someone who is aware of the things that are being portrayed in films like that and where you stand with it. It’s very much a decision that we make on a personal level, an individual level, and the every day level. So yeah, I’m trying to do that with that more. Less with film.
BEATS: I agree. How we do things is as important as the what we do.
Hikaru Toda: And films just take too long to make. That’s the reality of things, you know? And we can’t just … and this is another thing, a challenge of a director. I’m not a type of director that can work on like five different projects at the same time. I only work on one film for like three years, four years if we count the theatrical release and all that. And you can’t take that long on one subject just getting the message out there. You’ve kind of got to think of the most proficient, efficient way that makes sense to you if you want to make real change.
BEATS: The final question is what does family mean to you?
Hikaru Toda: Family means a lot to me. Family is a cause of a lot of happiness and distress, I feel. I don’t have a family of my own. I really would like to at some point in my life if the filmmaking can take less time for my life. But I’m very close to my family. Not in a traditional like we’re a very close-knit family unit. We’ve had troubles, we’ve had issues. But I think it’s universal factor. I think it’s like a universal story that we can always go back to, you know? Stories about families can reach so many different people in so many different ways, which is why I like to explore it through my own kind of perspective, yeah. It’s a very difficult question actually. What does family to me? Yeah. It’s a place of belonging.
BEATS is hosting a special screening of Of Love and Law on 1 March at the Rio Cinema.