What It’s Like to Work on a Japanese Movie Set
By Kelsey Leuzinger
On October 15, 2014
When you live in Japan, there are a myriad of memorable experiences to be had. You can visit ancient historical sights, climb mountains, shop in a fashion capital of the world, and sometimes, act as extras in a Japanese movie. That last option may be harder to come by, but when you get the chance like I did, you have to take it.
Last March, my husband and I were chosen to be background extras in the upcoming Japanese baseball film, Vancouver no Asahi (バンクーバー
の朝日). We will never forget our adventure, but wish we would have known what to expect beforehand. If you ever want to be part of a Japanese film, here is a rundown of what you should expect to deal with.
Expect unfavorable conditions
After we got the call that our applications had been chosen, the excitement began. However, it wasn’t the glamorous experience that you see on behind-the-scenes TV shows. We met the casting manager, along with a few dozen other foreigners, at Shinjuku station…at 11pm.
Little did we realize, we wouldn’t return to Shinjuku until 11pm the following day. We loaded up on the bus and headed to Tochigi, a rural town north of Tokyo. That morning, all 50 of us took a “nap” on the bus while waiting our 5:00am announcement to start hair and makeup. Needless to say, we had a very long day ahead of us.
Hair, Makeup, and Tiny Costumes
When we got inside the “dressing room” building (which was really just a warehouse set up with vanities and closets), we were given our roles and costumes. Because I was part of the “gaijin group,” I played the role of a middle-class Canadian, and got to dress in the coolest 1940’s costumes. They gave me a plastic bag for my normal clothes, which was left on a shelf in the ever-so-trusting Japanese manner, to be picked up at the end of the day. The only problem was that I was about a US size 6, and had a hard time fitting in some of the dress options that were given to me by the wardrobe specialists. If you aren’t as small as a typical Japanese person, expect to get some unhappy looks when getting dressed.
After I literally thought I was going to burst the buttons off my dress or rip the thick panty hose they gave me to wear, I was finally ready. During this time, remember that the other foreign cast members will most likely not be from the same country as you, so the common language spoken is Japanese. This became one of the neatest experiences of all; I needed to communicate with women from Poland, Germany, Spain, and Russia in Japanese. You don’t get that everyday while living in Yokosuka surrounded by 20,000 Americans.
After the costume is chosen, you then move on to get your hair and makeup done at one of the dozens of vanities set up with a hairstylist. It’s all up to them, and they’re in a hurry, so be warned if you have a sensitive head. There aren’t many comfortable experiences in this process, but it’s all about the end result, trust me.
We had to remind ourselves of how important this experience was multiple times, mostly because of the terrible weather. You see, this movie takes place in the dead heat of summer, but Toshigi in March is an icy cold place, especially at 5:00am. We were all wearing summertime dresses and shoes, and had to stick multiple hot pads to our bodies under our clothes to keep from shivering all day. I thought my toes would literally fall off, but thankfully I still have all 10.
It didn’t help matters that 100% of our roles were shot outside, so consider this detail about location if you’re still unsure of accepting the part in a film. Our hands had to be out of our pockets the whole time, and we were actually told to fan ourselves in the “heat” while the camera was on us. I definitely gained a whole new respect for actors and extras, and this whole experience will help you appreciate a film more than you ever have before.
Nihongo wo wakanai
Another trying, yet fun part of our filming day was the fact that the director and crew members were all Japanese, and we only had 2 assistants to convey the instructions in English. My husband’s Japanese and mine were very limited at the time, so we weren’t always the best at following instructions when the translator wasn’t around. If you don’t understand Japanese you’ll still be fine, but it does make the process smoother to know a good amount before you go. I actually picked up a lot of Japanese film phrases that I didn’t know before, and had a blast listening to their interactions on set.
Incredible people and experiences
No matter how small my clothes were, how little sleep we got, or how freezing cold we were, the experiences and people made it all worthwhile. Our translator was the best, always making sure that we knew what was going on when he saw our confused faces. And getting to watch the crew set up and film from a behind-the-scenes look is definitely a rare experience.
In addition, meeting people from around the world is never uninteresting. I made friends from Norway and Russia, and we really bonded over dealing with such unique conditions on the Japanese set. Also, significant others mean nothing to the casting supervisors, so my husband and I were separated the whole day on set. I actually had 2 different “husbands” in the film that I had to link arms with, it became a funny joke when I introduced them to my real one.
Also, its important to note that a Japanese film set is no different than any other place in the country when it comes to hospitality and respect. We were provided endless hot tea and coffee, and the most delicious onigiri and miso soup, among other things. We were cared for all day, even though every person was tired and cold and ready to leave as soon as possible. I was thankful we got to see a different side of Japan, yet still witness the same cultural traits.
Enjoying the finished product
When the day was finally over, the bus couldn’t have moved fast enough back to Shinjuku station, nor the train going back to Yokosuka. But it was a time that will never leave our memories. And now, the completed movie will be released in December, and I can’t wait to see the finished product of our hard work. Also, this specific film has a deep meaning for the Japanese people. It takes place in post-war Canada in a colony of Japanese immigrants. These immigrants only ask for equality and respect, and this plays out on the baseball field. In the story you see the underdog dealing with racial tension in a foreign land, and how they triumph despite the circumstances. I’m proud to say we were a small part of this film, and don’t regret that day of filming in the least.
If you are leaving Japan anytime soon, make sure to set up a payment agreement before stepping foot on set. We had to wait 4 months to get paid because of a misunderstanding about our foreign bank when we had to leave Japan. They’re good for their word, but you have to make the effort to verify the payment arrangement.