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Shota Mori

森翔太
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Shota Mori is a Japanese film-maker based in Tokyo who directs and stars in his distinctive personal films, best described as idiosyncratic YouTube shorts, as well as directing TV ads and music videos for clients from pop musicians to local governments. More recently, he’s brought his skills to movie sets.

Mori is not just a typical YouTuber: only a few years ago he was a frustrated actor stuck in a mundane office job, and the journey to where he is now has been long and difficult. From juggling badly paid part-time jobs, to dabbling in theatre before discovering YouTube and uploading his first videos, Mori almost seems to have lived several lives. After years of perseverance, luck came around for him and in 2013 he was nominated for the prestigious Entertainment awards of the seventeenth Japan Media Arts Festival.

In this interview, Mori shares his experiences and describes the philosophy behind his film-making practice. While it wouldn’t be too surprising if Mori’s career were to evolve in yet another direction in the future, his work so far is the perfect illustration of alternatives to the status quo in film-making, and his highly unusual videos set a challenge to the aesthetics which dominate in Japan and overseas.

Website - Youtube

First of all, can you tell us about yourself?

I’m Shota Mori. I was born in 1983 and I’m thirty-four. I’ve been making films since 2012, when I released Shikomi iPhone, 1 a video I directed and featured in. For the last few years, I have been living in Tokyo on a shoestring while making web and TV adverts 2 as well as music videos and promo videos for idols. 3 Love and courage are my only friends.

Early Passion for Acting

What was your childhood like? Were you into films?

I lived in Tottori 4when I was young. It was so rural and cut off from everything that our first cinema only opened when I was about fourteen years old. Shocking, right? We did have a video rental shop 5 though, so I often popped by on my way back from school. My mum really liked films so I remember watching videos she rented. Thinking back, I feel like she might have had a strong influence on me.

Do you think this environment sparked your interest in becoming a film-maker?

Not at all! I loved films, of course, but I didn’t even have a camera so I never really thought about filming anything. The equipment was expensive, I didn’t know how to use it and I didn’t even have friends to film with, but, during high school, I started to realise that to feature in films and plays I could become an actor, and from then on that’s what I aspired to do.

When I left high school, I ended up going to an art school 6 thinking I could learn to act there, and when I arrived, I was quite surprised to get actual guidance and teaching from professors who were specialised in acting. I studied traditional Japanese theatre so I learnt a lot about things like Noh and Kyōgen. 7

Did you try to become an actor after university?

I did want to, but I was pretty clueless so I ended up becoming a salaryman 8 in Shizuoka. 9 My job consisted of selling cardboard boxes to factories. It really wasn’t fun but I had no choice. I felt like there was so much pressure on me back then to have a job, as if I would be worthless without one. 10 But, one year in, I ended up losing my voice due to stress and suddenly realised I couldn’t sustain this for ten, twenty years, so I quit.

I come from the countryside, so I’d always had this vague admiration for Tokyo. Now I had to choose between going back home or moving to the city. I thought “now or never” and moved to Tokyo at twenty-three. 11 I worked a few part-time jobs until, one day, an old senpai 12 from university got in touch with me and introduced me someone from a theatre production firm, who I then got a job with. 13 After I’d been working there for some time, it reminded me how much I liked acting and my motivation to become an actor peaked, so I decided to join an acting troupe called Akuma no shirushi (‘Sign of the Devil’ in English) 14 when I was twenty-six. And that’s how my second life as an actor began.

From Actor to YouTuber to Film-maker

How did you go from being an actor to uploading videos on YouTube?

It sounds like I’m showing off, but I had a pretty good reputation as an actor. It’s obviously thanks to the troupe I was part of, but after a year there I was featured in a book as one of the new ‘Actors to Watch’. In reality, though, I was an extremely unpolished actor. I found it really hard to follow scripts that I hadn’t written myself. I basically realised after a while that I had almost no respect for things made by other people.

This feeling only grew stronger, and I started really wanting to make something of my own, so I decided to buy a camera. I actually wasn’t particularly interested in making videos but I wanted to show my acting ability, and that’s why I started to use YouTube. The first video I made, Shikomi iPhone, is clearly a video I’d made on the actual gadget 15 but instead of appearing overly positive and friendly, I wanted to come off as kind of disturbing, almost like I was so internally pressured I had no control over what I was doing. I thought that would make the viewer more sympathetic towards me. Yes, I’m evil like that.

I started really wanting to make something of my own, so I decided to buy a camera. I actually wasn’t particularly interested in making videos but I wanted to show my acting ability, and that’s why I started to use YouTube.

How did people react to your YouTube videos? Did it change your life in any way?

Six months after I uploaded Shikomi iPhone, 500-1000 people had watched it. I was quite happy with that but, one day, about a year later, the view count went up to 1 million. It was all thanks to an article from Gizmodo. 16

I was really happy about all the views, but part of me also felt weird seeing just how much power the media has in deciding the value of a piece of work. It’s so strange, isn’t it? Having said that, I am very thankful and I was very touched at the time. In the theatre, it’s common to have an audience of around two to three hundred. It wasn’t rare for me to perform for only ten people. I’m not at all trying to diminish theatre as an art form, but I was just so surprised at how YouTube could deliver such a different outcome.

After Shikomi iPhone, people started getting in touch to ask me to make videos for them. I have to admit I was really surprised. People were telling me “The iPhone gadget you made is shit but your video editing is pretty good” *laughs*. From then on, I had more and more opportunities to work as a film-maker and so I gradually had less and less time to act. I was over the place, and it made it hard to really focus on the theatre.

Mori’s Film-making Influences

In both your personal and commercial work, is there a certain approach you always take?

This is out of the blue, but have you ever seen The Wind Rises? 17 It’s a great film. The main character is a fighter aircraft designer during World War II. Even though he basically builds war machines, he thinks beyond how effective the fighter plane can be, or how much it contributes to the war effort. What matters to him most is simply designing beautiful planes. When I was watching the movie, I basically thought “isn’t this the essence of everything?” In our world, we tend to categorise everything as either ‘good’ or bad’ and so we try to make sure that most of our actions are ‘good’. However, in my opinion, when things are too clearly well‐intentioned, it doesn’t really resonate with people. It’s like at school, when no one really wants to listen to the headmaster.

In other words, that’s why I often think that I want my audience to laugh at me, to think “you’re so dumb” and chuckle a bit at my work despite the fact that I’m serious about it. I actually watched Akira Kurosawa’s High and Low 18 the other day. There’s literally not a single funny scene but I but I ended up laughing so hard at points. It’s not a comedy film at all but, to my mind, it was even funnier than an entertainment show. It’s probably because the characters and the story are so dead serious, like being at a funeral where it’s so dead serious that it’s kind of funny. It’s this “can I laugh about this?” kind of feeling. It really was such a rich film.

Your film-making ideas are pretty unconventional. How do you come up with them?

For commercial work, I’m never working alone. As we get further and further into the process, it’s not unusual for my original idea to get completely reshaped. And the more people that are involved in the process, the more likely my initial idea is to get ‘filtered’ through their ideas and input. In the end, it always depends on the content of the work and on the people I’m working with.

Something I only recently realised is that I’m really bad at making things from scratch *laughs*. I’m probably much better when I am asked to work within pre-defined parameters. What I mean is, it makes my life so much easier when people tell me “I’d love it if you could make something like this. I’ll leave it to you for the details.” Even my personal work is often based on self-documentation – the original script is basically my daily life so it’s easy for me to embellish on that. 19

Having said that, I don’t think it’s such a good idea for me to continue like that, working within these limitations. I feel like I should probably know more about different trends in film-making. There’s a lot to reflect on… I always dream: “maybe I won’t have to think about all of this anymore if I get married.”

As someone who has worked both in front of and behind the camera, what do you look for in an actor?

Ever since I started acting, I’ve always liked naturalism. I really like it when the lines between the actor’s own life and their on-screen or stage persona are blurred. I like actors that make you think “I can’t tell whether they’re acting!” and that’s why, when I make films, I always try to blend performance with reality.

For example, in the video above, which is inspired by fake news, the high school girls who are practising kenpō have a really naturalistic style, practically perfect in my opinion. They are normal high school students so they are far from being actual actors, even though in a way, they are because they’re acting like ‘normal high school students’.

I think you could say that it was easier for them to be so natural because they are ‘amateur’ actors. With professionals, it depends on the people, but I don’t think we would have got the same result. Long story short, I think that what I look for in an actor is, aside from their experience, an ability to respond completely to the environment that they are put in. Sorry if this sounds pretentious!

Future

What are your plans for the future?

Until recently, I kept saying “I want to work on stuff that’s not online!” However, a short while ago I was given the opportunity to work on both a TV ad and a film so I got to experiment with working on different length features and styles of content. It was extremely stimulating but I also realised how little experience I have. Looking ahead, it’s a bit of an impulsive plan but this year I’m thinking of taking classes in 3D computer graphics, because it seems like even with only a little skill you can make such fun stuff.

  1. You can watch the video below.
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  2. In 2013, Mori directed a web commercial for the Fukuoka and Saga prefectures in South-West Japan. The video, called Sefuri ILC High School, was made to promote the village of Sefuri’s candidature to house an International Linear Collider, a type of particle accelerator. You can watch it below with English subtitles.
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  3. Mori made a music video for the Japanese pop group Kuchiroro in 2013. It reflects his personal practice really well – watch it below.
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  4. Tottori is a prefecture located in the south of Japan. It is famous for the Tottori Sand Dunes, a beauty spot popular with domestic visitors. In Japanese, Tottori is made up of two characters – the first, 鳥, means ‘bird’ and the second, 取, means ’to get’. It’s said that the region got its name because early residents made their living by hunting ducks.
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  5. While the video rental economy has almost disappeared in the UK and US due to the arrival of online subscription services such as Netflix, in Japan it is quite the opposite. Tsutaya, Japan’s nationwide chain of video rental shops, still runs around 1400 stores in the country, and it is estimated that there are around 3000 video rental stores in Japan in total. On the flipside, Blockbuster, once the world’s most famous film rental company, had over 9000 stores worldwide in 2004, of which only 9 remain today.
  6. Mori attended the Shizuoka University of Art and Culture.
  7. Japanese traditional theatre is broadly categorised in three types – Noh, Kabuki and Bunraku. Noh, which means ‘skill’ or ‘talent’, is a form of musical drama that has been performed since the fourteenth century, making it the oldest theatrical art that is still regularly practised today, and is known for the use of iconic masks that represent the roles of each actor.
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    Kabuki originates from the seventeenth century and mixes dance and drama – the three characters which make up its name in Japanese mean ‘sing’, ‘dance’ and ‘skill’. Kabuki performers wear distinctive make-up and masks which, like in Noh theatre, are coloured according to the profile of the role – the heroes often wear red while the play’s antagonists wear blue, and monsters wear brown.
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    Lastly, Bunraku is a form of Japanese puppet theatre which emerged in the seventeenth century. A standard Bunraku play involves three kinds of performers: puppeteers, chanters and shamisen musicians. All three theatrical forms have been recognised by UNESCO as Oral and Intangible Heritage.
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  8. Salaryman is defined in the Japanese dictionary as “someone who makes a living out of a constant monthly salary.” It basically refers to employees who have a permanent role within a company. However, due to the specific social norms within Japanese society, the word today has additional layers of meaning, depending on context, though salarymen are very often associated with the image of men in business suits who are subject to overwork – which can result in situations like the one pictured below.
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  9. The Shizuoka prefecture is located in the middle of Japan and its coast looks out to the Pacific Ocean. Its economy is largely supported by tourism. The Izu peninsula and the city of Atami in Shizuoka are two all-year-round destinations that offer beaches for hot days as well as natural hot springs for winter.
  10. Mori’s attitude is not unusual. Japanese society puts considerable pressure on jobseekers, and in 2013, 149 people commited suicide due to the stresses of finding a job. Japan still practises what is known as ‘simultaneous recruiting of new graduates’, which means that companies customarily hire their intake all at once. To comply with this system, university students need to start their job-hunting process a year before they graduate, as employers do not consider applicants who don’t take the standard route. In other words, employers discriminate against applicants based on the time at which they apply – which would partially explain the extreme pressure that university students who are looking for jobs go through.
  11. Japan ranks amongst the most urbanised countries in the world. While in 1950, suburban Tokyo was home to around 7.5 million people, by 2010 this population had increased to 26 million, and for the past few years, more than 50,000 people have moved to Tokyo each year.
  12. In Japanese, senpai refers to someone who is older or more experienced, as opposed to a kōhai, or a younger person with less experience. The term is commonly used at school, at work or anywhere where there are teachers and students. The senpai / kōhai relationship is considered to be a mutually beneficial framework, allowing the senpai to develop a sense of responsibility and bestow their knowledge on the kōhai.
  13. The company Mori is referring to is Precog, based in Ebisu, Tokyo.
  14. Akuma no shirushi is a Japanese collective blending performance with drama, music, architecture and contemporary art. They were founded in 2008, and their name, meaning ‘Sign of the Devil’ in English, is taken from a Black Sabbath song, ‘Symptom of the Universe’. Akuma no shirushi performs theatre as well as performance art pieces such as the long-running ‘Carry-in Project’, where the group builds a huge, elaborate structure which is then carried to a chosen space. There have been twenty performances since 2008, and the project has travelled to South Korea, Hungary and the Netherlands. See below for excerpts from the ‘Carry-in Project’.
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  15. As you can see below, in Shikomi iPhone, Mori plays with a gadget that he’s made in order to be ready to take a call at any place, anytime. Both the video and the gadget are actually directly inspired by the following scene from the movie Taxi Driver, directed by Martin Scorsese in 1976:
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  16. Take a look at the article here.
  17. The Wind Rises is a Japanese film from 2013, directed by Hayao Miyazaki and animated by the famous Studio Ghibli. The movie is a fictionalised biopic of Jiro Horikoshi, the designer of the Zero fighter plane which was used during World War II.
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    The film sparked controversy in Japan for its overt pacifist messages aimed at the governing political party and Prime Minister, Shinzo Abe. Not only does the film visualise Jiro’s regret at having created a machine of war, but, shortly after the film’s release, Miyazaki himself published an essay criticising Shinzo Abe’s plan to reform the constitution in order to build a military. The film nonetheless received widespread critical acclaim, including a nomination for the Academy Award for Best Animated Feature. You can watch the trailer below.
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  18. High and Low is a film directed by Japanese director Akira Kurosawa, released in 1963. See the trailer below.
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  19. Mori’s style of self-documentation is best illustrated by his YouTube video Risako 2, from December 2013, which show’s Mori’s love story with Risako, a woman made from plastic bottles. Watch out for the excerpts of Mori’s diaries.
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This interview was posted on 25 March 2018 and was originally conducted in Japanese.

Interview (Us Blah) & Footnotes (Me Blah):
Tsukasa Tanimoto

Copy-editing (English):
Kate Reiners

Translation (English to Japanese):
Chocolat Heartnight

Photography:
Marina Kobayashi