Leo Ashizawa plays the lead role in our feature film, “All That Remains”. Here’s an in-depth and very interesting interview with the man himself.
Can you tell us a little bit about your background?
I was born in Japan. I had four dreams when I was a kid. In my town, when we graduate from primary school, every single student writes down what they want to be when they become an adult. I wrote ‘I want to be an actor’, so that was my first dream.
The other three dreams came later; they were to be an archaeologist, a palaeontologist, and a marine zoologist, simply because I loved history, dinosaurs, and whales and dolphins.
When it was time to choose which university to go to, I re-thought what I wanted to do and because I believed at that time acting is not something to study at university and drama school wasn’t that popular in Japan, I decided to study archaeology. While I studied at the university I joined a fringe theatre company and that was probably the start of my actor’s journey. My very first improvisation was a Yukuza character, and I was doing it horribly bad.
When I finished my dissertation (which was on Stonehenge) at University, I had to think really hard about my career so I consulted with my father who used to be an actor. He said ‘If you become an actor, you could be an archaeologist in a film like Indiana Jones’, with a big smile so it might have been half serious and half joke but, that was it. I decided to seek a career in acting.
I’d done quite a few fringe theatre productions and short films etc while I was in Japan, although I’ve never been to acting school, senior actors taught me about acting, and I read many books on the theories about acting as well – this self-study helped me a lot.
I moved to the UK in 2006. Since then, I’ve done mainly stage work such as a series of Greek tragedies in fringe theatre companies and a few short films. All That Remains is my first feature film and the first lead role.
What drew you to the role of Takashi Nagai?
I knew nothing about Takashi Nagai before I came across this production. Also, my knowledge about the atomic bomb of Nagasaki was poor but I learned many things about the Hiroshima atomic bomb at school and I went to Hiroshima to study too.
When I read this film synopsis and also about the character, I was very surprised and felt ashamed that I did know nothing about him. So, before the audition, I did a bit of research – the more I researched about him, the deeper I was moved and impressed about his life.
If you look at his life, it’s terrible. He couldn’t achieve anything he wanted, anything at all. However he lived his life the best possible way that he could do. Why could he do that?
This is also what drove me to do this role. I wanted to experience his life and to know what it is. And overall, it was an amazing experience.
How did you prepare for the role and what sort of research did you do?
The most important guideline is always the script, but he was a real person and I knew he wrote lots of books so I asked my family in Japan to send his books over to me.
I don’t want to talk about acting in general really; if there are 100 actors then there must be 100 ways to do it. Reading the script is almost enough but sometimes reading his books gave me confidence and let me discoverer bits and pieces that my poor imagination couldn’t do. So, it was very helpful. I did have a bit of a weird experience of feeling that I was reading a book I wrote myself at one point!
Also, Ian and Dom (the directors) helped me a lot. They obviously had more information about him too. It was as though I was working with pieces of clay, using all this information to build up the personality as well as develop it.
What has been the most challenging aspect of the role for you?
The most challenging aspect of the role is the fact that he was a real person who lived not too long ago. There are still people alive who knew him in person. My role for this film as an actor is to be someone who tells the story of Takashi Nagai – not just renting his name, his experiences, his life, his feelings and so many things that I can not sum up here.
I’ve experienced many things through my own life and those experiences have stayed in me even though I may not always realise it, and although they are comparatively ordinary if you look at his life, there is always something special that can be used to help form a connection, something that can be shared. Doing Takashi Nagai was a journey for me, gathering all those similar experiences or some fragments that can help me relate to him then build up and develop the character of Takashi Nagai.
Another challenging aspect was to understand his belief in Catholicism. I wouldn’t call myself religious but this was a very an important aspect of Takashi Nagai. He was born a Shinto-believer, as was the rest of his family, but he fell in love with materialism then became Catholic, and a very devoted one. People call him the “Saint of Urakami” nowadays. This journey is extra-ordinary. When I approached his belief. I tried to think how it’s like to be living as such a religious person, and I was stuck. Then, I realised my approach wasn’t quite right. I took another way to approach it and contemplated what he did and what he said to the people and the world. The more I followed that path, the more everything made sense to me, and naturally enabled for me to understand what it is.
It is very difficult to explain about it verbally. Hopefully, you can see it in the film.
How did you find working with so much green screen, when most of the sets are added later?
At least once a day, I was making a joke with Ian and Dom that they could “add it later” or “change it later!” Acting on green screen was very difficult the first time though. It’s more difficult than you think. Usually, when we do screen acting on set or location, what we see will be in the scenes of the end product. With stage acting, you may not have many props or set-pieces but because the scenes are played out in a linear fashion, in real time, you connect to the emotional journey. But with filming green screen, the scenes are not usually shot in the order they are written and you often have no props are set-pieces to help you.
However, Ian and Dom were able to show me images (storyboards and pre-visual artwork) for many of the scenes and they explained in great detail what we have to see in the scenes. For example, there is a scene where I’m watching something through the windows of an office in the university. Obviously, we did not have either office, windows or anything at all, but I discussed with Ian and Dom as well as my co-actors about what the outside of university looks like, how many mountains tops we could see, what’s the weather like etc. and we made up stories about what was happening outside.
In terms of preparation before filming, most of the work I’ve done has been stage work, so using my imagination to see something that is not there wasn’t that difficult for me, I had to use “stage-acting brain” to do screen acting if that makes sense. And overall, it was a great experience. When I saw some of the scenes, it was like, “Wow! Did we really film everything in a studio in Birmingham?” Yes, we did! Ian and Dom’s skill for CGI is just outrageously great!
Has playing this role changed you in anyway, and if so, how?
The era that this film portrays was a very difficult time for all people regardless of country, they made huge efforts to stay alive, and see tomorrow. No luxury, no entertainment, no nothing, just survive day to day and live life to the most. When I read the script, I felt acutely that today we’re not the same human beings; we live this modern, lazy life style. It’s such a waste. We’re so lucky that most of us have almost everything we need. Of course, there are still countries that suffer greatly, but I’m talking about most of the advanced countries.
Learning about Takashi Nagai and portraying him in the film changed the way I look at my own life. We all have something to contribute to the world. Some of us may not understand the meaning of our lives, but when others look at us, they may find meaning, which is a beautiful thing. We all die anyway at some point, however, the fact you existed won’t end. People remember you if you live your life to the full. It doesn’t matter how much of a big impact you bring to the world. It does matter if you live honestly and modestly with a love of people and realize what your role is for this world.
People are so used to believing that we can control everything the way we wish and so many things are taken for granted. But again those things can be taken away, and you may lose everything and be literally left with nothing apart from yourself. What would you do then? That is something I never seriously and deeply asked to myself before. But now, I think I have an answer, which I won’t tell you here (smile) but if I hadn’t been given this serendipity, I would have never been able to find it.
Do you feel this story is relevant for today, and if so how?
Next year will be the 70th anniversary of the end of World War II. All those people who experienced the world war will soon be gone. Human beings always tend to repeat the same mistakes, unless someone keeps saying aloud that we mustn’t.
People used to pass down knowledge and information important to the next generations by word of mouth, and at some point books took over this role, now we have many more platforms to use. Film is one of the most influential of these platforms. I believe this film that Ian and Dom beautifully wrote and directed could make a real difference.
The way Takashi Nagai lived should encourage people to they look at their own lives and remind them of two very fundamental things, which are so easily forgotten – help each other and live your life to the full. Japan is the only country that the atomic bomb was dropped on and the only country to have recovered from that devastation. The only reason why we could do it was because people helped one another. We can destroy things easily but it takes ages to create, and regret always comes after – man can die in a day but it takes 9 months to be born.
We’re facing very difficult times, every society in every country is about to reach saturated state. And we don’t know what to do. I really hope this story can give something to the audience.
Finally, what other projects have you been working on?
I’ve recently finished the English film called ‘Breaking the Bank’ directed by Vadim Jean, starring Kelsey Grammer and Tamsin Greig. It was a great experience, although my part was small. At least there was no green screen involved in my scenes!
At the moment, I’m writing a new script for a solo performance. It’s a story about a “Hikikomori” called Ken. Hikikomori is the Japanese equivalent of NEET (Not in Education, Employment, Training). It’s a social problem in many countries. I won’t say too much yet, but it’s basically saying that there isn’t a natural born bad person!
Check out Leo’s personal website here.