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Interview: Hamaguchi Rysuke on Music and Movement in Evil Does Not Exist and Gift

Hamaguchi discusses the evolution of his approach to dialogue and camera movement.

Evil Does Not Exist
Photo: Sideshow and Janus Films

“I’m back,” Hamaguchi Rysuke exuberantly proclaimed—in English no less—when introducing his latest film, Evil Does Not Exist, to a rapturous response from a New York Film Festival crowd in 2023. His punchy opening line was more overtly declarative than the work he was there to present. After his two-release breakout year in 2021 culminated in an Oscar victory for Drive My Car, Hamaguchi might have taken the familiar path of following up such a win with a big directorial proclamation. Instead, his latest feature belies the nature of its title and proves to be more of a question than a statement.

Some of this may be due to the genesis of Evil Does Not Exist, which doesn’t lie entirely with Hamaguchi himself. Ishibashi Eiko, his composer on Drive My Car, approached the director to create footage to accompany her live performances. Inspiration struck, and Hamaguchi’s remit expanded to deliver two films from this point of origin. Evil Does Not Exist marks the more traditional narrative feature for theatrical distribution, while Gift uses a slimmed-down version of the same footage as the visual counterpoint to a live-scored performance by Ishibashi.

The performance piece, which runs over 20 minutes shorter than Evil Does Not Exist, offers a fascinating skeleton key for the mysteries of the narrative feature. Certain sonic and visual elements that feel instrumental to the experience of Evil Does Not Exist don’t appear at all within Gift. Hamaguchi distills the essence of the already sparse story to an even more elemental level in the latter work, which operates like a silent film free of spoken dialogue.

As a Tokyo-based entertainment company encroaches on the small rural hamlet of Mizubiki with a plan for the establishment of a glamping site in their midst, a fragile balance with nature becomes even more fraught. Taciturn widower Takumi (Hitoshi Omika) and his young daughter Hana (Ryo Nishikawa) become the tip of the spear in the village’s interactions with the two former actors, Takahashi (Ryuji Kosaka) and Mayuzumi (Ayaka Shibutani), who swoop in trying to sell the development. The placidity of their conversations in Evil Does Not Exist disguises the combustibility of their interaction until the film’s ambiguous, evocative finale.

I spoke with Hamaguchi on the opening day of Evil Does Not Exist, and following the conclusion of Ishibashi’s performances of Gift at Film at Lincoln Center. Our conversation covered the points of divergence between the two works he crafted from the same footage, the evolution of his approach to dialogue and camera movement, and whether he views the film as being angry.

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What’s the experience like of sitting in the audience for Gift? Does it alter your understanding of the director’s role when you experience someone mediating the relationship between the film and the audience?

It actually feels outside of myself. I very much feel like just part of the audience. Regarding Gift particularly, Yamazaki Azusa did a lot of the editing. Even though, of course, I directed the film, a lot of Yamazaki’s ideas are in the edit as well. But each time that I encounter the film in this way, it’s really like watching for the first time, and it’s a very strange feeling in a way because I do see it differently each time. I think that’s really a lot to do with Ishibashi’s music. And so, even though it’s something that I did direct, I just feel like an audience member. In fact, to the point where I’m thinking, “Can I take a photograph?” But I know I’m not supposed to! [laughs]

How did you watch it last night? Is it a matter of bringing the experience of whatever’s going on in your life and projecting it onto the film?

Just the fact that a film that I directed a screening of Film at Lincoln Center is an honor, and Evil Does Not Exist did screen at the New York Film Festival. But to be able to also see Ishibashi perform live in the space made me very happy, and I’m very honored that this is happening as well. Gift has been performed three times at Lincoln Center, and I saw her perform for two nights. Last night was my fourth time watching her perform Gift. I thought that, in the fourth time last night, I felt that closeness between the image and the music even more. I also felt that she’s very much refined the way she builds tension through her performance. When I was watching that scene where Takumi is carrying his daughter on his back, I had the sensation as if I was watching that shot for the first time. I was very moved by it. It really felt like a gift to me. Because I should, for all intents and purposes, know this shot very well. But there was a feeling like I was seeing this all for the first time, and it was very much a treasured experience.

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Maybe it’s a chicken-and-egg situation between the two works, but how did you determine major points of visual or auditory divergence?

There are, of course, many differences between Evil Does Not Exist and Gift. But in terms of thinking about the point of divergence for these two, to be precise, up until finishing the shoot we went in to create Evil Does Not Exist, and we knew that footage would also turn into Gift. So it was really around the edit: I edited Evil Does Not Exist, and then, as I said, Yamazaki primarily edited Gift. But what we did before we went into the edit was to watch all the footage and rushes together. We watched it with the sound off, and I also didn’t give Yamazaki the script of the film. She had no idea what she was really watching, and we watched 10 hours of footage together. I was asking her an almost impossible feat, in a way.

But she felt that she needed something to work with, so what I asked her to do was to start by editing visual categorizations—[to] edit according to water, trees, up and down movements, hands. [Meanwhile], I went ahead and started editing according to the story. It was around the time that we looked at the rushes that things started to diverge. And so she was really editing visually, while [my] editing [was] story-driven. But once I saw what she came back with in Gift, just editing visually in that way, I realized that it’s really hard to keep the concentration maintained for too long. So that’s when I shared the plot of Evil Does Not Exist with her, and then that’s when she started adding in elements of the story almost as an extension to the edit that she had already created. In that way, I think the edit is really where the two start to diverge.

Hamaguchi Rysuke
Hamaguchi Rysuke. Sideshow and Janus Films

When he was scared of silent film dying, Charlie Chaplin observed: “Dialogue always slows action because action must wait on words.” Did the experience of making a film with at least some inclination that it would be present without talking change how you think about directing dialogue scenes?

I would say the direction itself remained quite unchanged in a way. However, it’s really at the scriptwriting stage [when it changed], because I knew that this would eventually be something that might not use dialogue so much. I did naturally end up thinking about this fact while I was writing. But, to me, words themselves are a form of directing in the sense that the words that the actors actually say become experience for them. It also helps them understand the role better.

So I knew that by having that dialogue, it would still give more power to the images themselves and to what we see of the actors. For me, the dialogue in some sense was more of a directing move rather than perhaps moving the plot along. Then, I also needed some other axes to work with, so that becomes the action or the movement that we see. Movement can include the movement of the smoke, of fog, of water, all of these things as well, but also actions of people. So, the actions of people became quite central to the story, and that’s how I ended up structuring the story as well. But in terms of the directing itself, I felt that I was directing as much as I could, as best as I could, as I usually do.

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On the note of movement, when we last spoke, you described your camera as having an “emotional movement” dictated by how the characters would naturally block a scene. Did that still hold true in Evil Does Not Exist when you were liberating your camera a bit more?

Basically speaking, I don’t often tell my actors in detail how they should move. I don’t really like to do that because when you do so, there becomes a lack of clarity, in a way, to the movement. You could somewhat see that perhaps they’re moving in that way because they’re being told to move that way. What I tend to give them is a goal or aim. I want them to put this log over there and then to smoke a cigarette, something like that. I told them these things, but I didn’t go into detail about how they should be moving. I would like to leave room for the actors to make those decisions themselves. What I do with the camera is to try to put it in a place where I know I can capture their movements and what they do. If I know they’re going to keep walking, for example, then I’ll be ready to move the camera and track their movements together.

But this film perhaps is somewhat different from the others [in terms of how I’ve worked]. In my other films, I very much prioritized capturing the people. But with this particular film, I was thinking about the effect that humans have on their environment and vice versa, and the effects that they have on each other. So, in that sense, I think it was a little different.

I’m struck by the village elder’s story of pheasant feathers becoming the strings of a harpsichord. Is that a metaphor for how you view the relationship between nature and art?

In making this film, it was really important to consider visual motifs and how to capture them. Regarding this point about the pheasant feather, that anecdote actually came from doing a lot of research and was something that I, in fact, heard myself. I wasn’t necessarily thinking about metaphors or symbols in that way, but you don’t even really have to think too much to really get to the point that perhaps that’s just the way life is, in a way. The fact is, we tend to want to think of nature and culture as different things while human activity is different and separate. But, in fact, they’re extensions of each other and are very much connected. I think that’s also true and can be said about urban and non-urban life as well. They’re not easily or very clearly defined.

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Does that then make the town hall self-reflexive of anxieties you had as someone from Tokyo coming into a small town and promising to draw attention to it that the people who live there might not want?

The town hall incident itself was something that also actually happened in real life. It was around the time that I had started to really gather and collect quite a lot of natural motifs that I felt that I could use in the story, and I was really thinking about how I can incorporate these into the story. That was when I came across this glamping presentation and also how sloppy of a plan it was. As is true in the film as well, it wasn’t that the residents were extremely against the idea. It was more that the plan was so sloppy and bad that the more that they tried to explain the plan, the plan sort of self-destructed and folded onto itself. And when I heard about this, I felt that it was quite interesting. But why I found this interesting, I think, is related to the fact that these kinds of scenarios occur often in our everyday lives. The construction of the glamping thing, in reality, did actually stop. But I do feel that, oftentimes in our daily lives, we come across plans that aren’t well thought through [in terms of] the effects that [they] can have. They’re sloppily made, and yet, in our lives, we still push them through or forward, which results in bad situations. I think that happens quite often. Ultimately, I was led to find this situation interesting and use this as material because I thought it was a reflection of that.

Ishibashi Eiko said that she thinks the film is an “angry” one for you. Is that an accurate characterization?

Maybe so! I think that could be true. Perhaps I’m angry at something. But rather than anger, I’m really thinking about how for a long time I’ve sort of just lived my life in a way and that the world is in a very terrible place right now. Even thinking about how Japan is today, I do feel that the future is bleak. There might have been decades in the past when Japan had a sense of stability, but I don’t think there’s any way to keep the stability up where those things have crumbled. And, of course, as a citizen, I also feel responsible for the situation that we’re in right now. Why did we let this happen for so long? To keep going for so long? And I do feel like we’re in a place where the resolution isn’t something that can be done very quickly. So maybe it’s anger, but maybe it’s also something about that I don’t know where to put these feelings.

Translation by Aiko Masubuchi

Marshall Shaffer

Marshall Shaffer is a New York-based film journalist. His interviews, reviews, and other commentary on film also appear regularly in Slashfilm, Decider, and Little White Lies.

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