Shoji Hiroshi’s feature length directorial debut “Ken and Kazu” is a fast-paced, emotive tale with hidden depth.

Based on the young filmmaker’s 2011 short of the same name, it was rejected by two festivals before finally being given the platform it deserved at last year’s Tokyo International Film Festival. It won the Best Picture Award in the Japanese Cinema Splash section and has since traveled to festivals in Shanghai, Edinburgh, Taiwan, Bucheon, and New York.

The story centers around the eponymous partners in crime – Ken and Kazu, a pair of disenchanted childhood friends with different ideas about where their lives should be heading. They have been using an auto repair shop to smuggle methamphetamine, but Ken wants to go straight after his girlfriend Saki gets pregnant. Kazu, however, manages to drag him further into the murky underworld after making his own drug deals without permission from a yakuza boss. There is nothing glamorous about their lifestyles. They’re just two men desperate for money – Ken needs it for his new life, while Kazu wants to raise funds so he can put his Alzheimer’s stricken mother in a care home.

While it’s not the most original of plots, it uses a three-act structure (setup, confrontation and resolution) that is compelling enough to keep the viewer hooked throughout. Shinsuke Kato (Ken) and Katsuya Maiguma (Kazu) give impassioned performances as the lead characters, while Shuna Iijima (Ken’s girlfriend Saki) also leaves an indelible mark, despite not having a huge role. The 30-year-old actress – who has worked as a model and translator – shared her thoughts on the film in a recent conversation with Weekender.

“I feel that a lot of Japanese movies I watch nowadays are OK, but not satisfying,” she says. “It’s like when you take a bath: the temperature is good, you’re comfortable, everything is nice, but after a while you get a bit bored.

“‘Ken and Kazu’ is nothing like that. You can’t relax while watching and I mean that in a good way. You are emotionally involved and never really know what is going to happen. Obviously it was shot on a small budget so it doesn’t have the dramatic scenes of a Hollywood film, but this makes it more realistic. It feels like it could be happening in your neighborhood. Some people may find it too extreme; however, I think that’s better than a movie that is just OK.”


Actress Shuna Iijima

Speaking in fluent English, Iijima comes across as a girl who loves being part of the film industry. Brought up in Indonesia, she would spend hours as a youngster with her father and brother watching movies on HBO. At 19 she moved to England where she had intended to take an interpreting course, but then had a change of heart and switched her focus to drama and physical theater. “Ken and Kazu” was the first feature length film she auditioned for after returning to Japan – the country of her birth – in 2013.

“I found the casting call online,” she tells us. “The site had a link to the short which was around twenty minutes long and just so intense. After watching that I really wanted to be a part of it, but as I’d been out of Japan for so long I wasn’t really sure what the auditions would be like here. I was really nervous going into it. Fortunately Shoji (Hirohi) must have liked what I did.”

Once she was given the role of Saki, Iijima knew it was crucial to quickly build a rapport with co-star and on-screen boyfriend Shinsuke Kato.

“We went out for coffee and discussed our relationship,” she says. “We improvised over how we met, the morning after we first had sex, how things developed, and things like that. We are quite a volatile couple who argue a lot and slap each other so as actors it was essential to have complete trust in one another. It was a pleasure to work with him.

“Shoji was also great. He’ll take the time to listen to what you have to say and is very open to new ideas. Having said that he will tell you directly when he doesn’t agree and once he decides on something he never changes his mind. Throughout filming you knew exactly who was in charge. Considering this was his first full length movie, I thought that was very impressive.”

“Ken and Kazu” opened at cinemas across the country on July 30.