Actress and director Kaori Momoi talks about the pleasures and challenges of going it alone.

One of Japan’s most highly respected actresses, Kaori Momoi is best known for her roles in “Memoirs of a Geisha” and “Sukiyaki Western Django.” A controversial celebrity who has on occasion been very critical of the Japanese movie industry, she doesn’t have a manager and therefore has no problem speaking her own mind.

It also means she is able to pick and choose the projects she wants to do. Her latest release is the film “Hee,” (Fire) which is due out in cinemas across the country this weekend. Based on Fuminori Nakamura’s Akutagawa Prize-winning short novel of the same name, it tells the story of an aging prostitute named Azusa who divulges dark and disturbing secrets from her past to psychiatrist Dr. Sanada (Yugo Saso). It is like a one-woman monologue during which the protagonist provides details of her obsession with fire, her violent history, and her spiral into the sex industry to a doctor who just sits there and listens. Momoi, who is both the star and director of the film, gives a spellbinding performance as the lead character, captivating the audience from the beginning. The 64 year old recently sat down with Weekender in Okinawa to tell us more about it.

Firstly why this particular story? I’ve been a fan of the novel by Fuminori Nakamura for a long time. It is a series of soliloquies by an unbalanced woman whose revelations become more and more distressing as the plot unfolds. I thought it was a really brave topic and I love his way of writing. I wanted the challenge of turning it into a movie. Nobody else was going to do it so I felt it had to be me.

Did Nakamura feel the same? That it had to be me? I didn’t ask him so I don’t know. I’m pretty sure he’d say the same thing, though. After all Kaori Momoi is the best [laughs]. I know he loved the film, but to be honest I’m not surprised by that.


Momoi, taking a starring and directing turn in “Hee”

Most of the scenes from “Hee” are filmed in your own LA home. How did that come about? Basically because I didn’t have any money [laughs]. I did search for other locations, but they were either too expensive or inconvenient. Having it at my place just made sense and it meant I could roll out of bed and be at work [smiles]. Everything you see from the sheets to the food in the fridge is all mine.

What did the neighbors make of it all? They were really kind and cooperative. I’ve got people like Brad Pitt’s lawyer and a cinematographer for Steven Spielberg living nearby and they would tiptoe in to their places so they wouldn’t disturb filming. I’m really lucky to have such a benevolent group on my doorstep.

This is your second feature film as a director. What was it like mixing the production side of things with acting? Not hard at all really. I also did the art direction, styling and editing. It’s like a singer/songwriter: you are in complete control. Being the director I didn’t have to explain my reasons for walking or speaking in a particular fashion. It was great not having to convince anyone why I was doing something. There’s a lot more freedom and it saves both time and money.

So, no difficulties at all? Well whenever I am acting my goal is to go beyond the director’s creation. Of course it’s tough to do that when you are the director yourself. I tried to overcome this by experimenting with my lines. I was determined not to go about things in the traditional way where you make a script and then memorize everything. I didn’t want things as fixed as that. When I got on set I switched lines around and made sure I did it in one take. The person behind the camera only gets one chance. Within that anything is possible. The scene where I start singing, for example, came as a real shock to everyone including myself. The words are alive and natural. For that period of time I wasn’t an actress, I was Azusa.

Looking ahead do you want to focus more on directing in the future? My goal is to do both acting and directing. Look at filmmakers like Shinya Tsukamoto and Takeshi Kitano; they play in their own movies and I think makes it much better. That’s what I want to do.