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Sakura Ando on ‘Monster’ and reuniting with Hirokazu Kore-eda

March 13th, 2024

Ever since her breakout role in Sion Sono’s 2008 dramedy Love Exposure, which nabbed her a Best Supporting Actress award at the 31st Yokohama Film Festival, Sakura Ando has grown to become one of Japan’s most coveted character actresses. From leading roles in award-winning arthouse films such as 0.55 mm and Shoplifters, to starring in high-profile television series like Penance and Manpuku – her diverse body of work has earned critical acclaim at every turn. But even compared to her prior success, 2023 proved to be a massive year for the lauded thespian.

Not only did she garner universal praise for her outstanding turn as Saori, a distraught single mother dealing with her young son’s emotional breakdown, in Monster – she also appeared in four other notable films, including box office behemoth Godzilla Minus One, which just won an Oscar. That’s not even counting her remarkable performance in Nippon TV’s wonderful fantasy dramedy about reincarnation, Rebooting. We sat down with Ando to learn more about her reunion with auteur Hirokazu Kore-eda, and her thoughts on the success of her recent projects.

Still from ‘Monster’. Credit: Picturehouse

What did you think of Monster when you first received the script?

When I read the script, I was reading it from the lens of my character Saori… so for the first part, I was feeling so much anger and frustration towards the teachers. But of course, as I read on, my feelings changed as the story changed perspectives. However, in order to play my role well, I had to let go of the knowledge that Saori didn’t know. I had to hang on to that anger and the frustration because that’s what Saori would be feeling with the information she had.

What was your process for inhibiting the role of Saori?

For me, when I’m surrounded by the sets, the costumes and the environment, I find it easy to immerse myself in the reality of the story. That immersion helps me believe in the character that we’re creating. For example, the costume informs how I walk. I also take onboard all of my collaborators’ ideas and try to infuse them naturally in the scenes. I think I’m particularly sensitive to picking up all of that, and then I just give myself over to it.

How did you and child actor Soya Kurokawa prepare to portray the mother-son relationship?

Well, I have a daughter who is a bit younger than Soya so one would assume I would be able to channel a bit of the emotion from my own life into this dynamic. But the parent-child relationship here was extremely different, so I was careful not to bring too much of my own experiences into this film. I had many conversations with the director in order to properly understand Saori and her son’s particular dynamic.

I was also very sensitive to touch in the film – in terms of how much touch there should be between a mother and son, how often I should touch him, and how he would react to touch. A lot of work went into the nuances of that body language to express the levels of comfort and discomfort between the characters. I worked extensively with Soya and the director on this.

Were there any scenes in Monster that proved to be especially challenging?

The scene in the headteacher’s room when Saori first confronts them! The rehearsals were hilarious because the teachers’ behaviour was so bizarre! We were just crying with laughter… I couldn’t say my lines at points because I was laughing so much. Trying to balance the absurdity of the situation with the pain and rage Saori was feeling was a bit tough.

This was also the first thing we shot on my first day of filming, so I was thrust immediately into a pivotal and meaningful scene. Having to do this on my first day made me very nervous, but also very excited. I had many conversations with Kore-eda about the scene the day before, trying to map the character and what she would do in this situation.

What were the main differences between shooting Shoplifters and Monster?

For Shoplifters, the script changed from day to day depending on the performances. An actor’s choices in the moment could change the direction of the film, so Kore-eda would rewrite on the fly. However, there was very little discussion with the director because the creative choices within the performances themselves were the communication between us.

With Monster, the film was obviously beholden to the unique structure of the screenplay. And this was my second time working with Kore-eda as well, so our relationship has grown. There was a lot more trust. We had much more discussions this time around about how to perform the screenplay… and a lot more takes as well.

Kore-eda and Ando at the 76th annual Cannes film festival, photo by Marc Piasecki/FilmMagic via Getty Images
Kore-eda (left) and Ando (right) at the 76th annual Cannes film festival. Credit: Marc Piasecki/FilmMagic via Getty Images

As you mentioned, this is the second Hirokazu Kore-eda film you’ve been involved with. What draws you to his projects?

I’m attracted to the environments he’s able to create, both on screen and on set. I always want to be a part of his films because of how natural and human his environments feel.

2023 was a huge year for you. Looking back, what are your thoughts on your success last year?

2023 was the year everything I was working on from 2021 to 2022 got released. It’s not common for so many of my projects to be coming out at once. Typically they come out one at a time, so last year was definitely unusual. Honestly, I was working so much from 2021 to 2022 that I just wanted to take a break from filming. However, I was involved a lot in the promotion of all those projects, which took me all over the world. What I loved the most was seeing how the films and TV shows I worked on cross cultural barriers, and reach all these different people.

You recently appeared in a very different monster movie, Godzilla Minus One. Were you already a fan of Godzilla prior to this?

Godzilla is something we take for granted in Japan (laughs). We all know and love Godzilla so it was an honour to be in a Godzilla movie considering its history. More than Godzilla, I am a fan of the director Takashi Yamazaki, who I’ve admired since I first met him at a film festival. He’s a big part of why I wanted to be in this film.

Godzilla Minus One became the most successful Japanese Godzilla film of all time, and even nabbed the franchise’s first nomination at the Oscars. Why do you think the movie has become such a worldwide hit?

A lot of people have said to me that they didn’t expect this movie to make them cry. While most Godzilla movies are focused on the kaiju fighting, there’s a great balance of human emotion here. I think it’s the surprising emotional resonance of the movie that’s won over so many people.

Finally, you were also in a fantastic show called Rebooting last year…

That was so much fun! Nowadays when I go overseas, a lot of people approach me because of that show. It’s probably the main reason why I said earlier that 2023 was the year I felt most connected to overseas audiences. I’m overjoyed to have been the lead in such an interesting series.

Monster is out in UK and Irish cinemas on March 15th. For more information, go to https://monsteruk.film/

This content was originally sourced and posted at NME »
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