Confidence and collaboration; essential ingredients in the making of Riceballs

An interview with Shingo Usami, writer, director and star of Riceballs

20 October 2016

The start of Discovery Film Festival 2016 is only a couple of days away! Our popular short film packages are back and one of this year's Shorts for Middle Ones is Riceballs, a story of finding your own identity with the help of lunch time snacks.

We were curious to find out what what goes into making a film like this and where the inspiration for the story came from. Here we interview Riceballs writer, director and star Shingo Usami to find out how he managed to do it all and get his tips, tricks and advice for making short films.

Q. Tell us a bit about yourself and your film, Riceballs.

I was born and raised in Osaka, Japan. After having lived in the US for 3 years, I moved to Australia in 1996 and started working as an actor around 2001. I’ve been working extensively in film, TV, theatre, radio and voiceover. You can find me appearing (quite briefly!) in films like Unbroken, directed by Angelina Jolie, and Emperor alongside Tommy Lee Jones.

As I’ve lived outside Japan for more than half of my life, I am accustomed to and comfortable with the life in Western society, but I still find some strong 'Japanese-ness' in myself. It is always wonderful to have a clear awareness of and pride in where you came from. It’s about neither sticking to the past nor rejecting the new experiences. While constantly adapting myself to new situations, knowing who I am has always given me the strong ground to stand on.

"Be nice to your friends. You can NEVER make a film by yourself"

In this film, Riceballs, the little boy Josh feels ambiguous about his Japanese heritage growing up in Australia. At the beginning he finds the rice balls that his father makes for him embarrassing to show his friends. I’m sure many people have had similar experiences more or less, especially among the children growing up in cross-cultural families. Without doubt, it’s extremely hard for everyone to overcome the difficulties associated with forming their own identity. I just wanted to create a story representing the love and resilience of characters whose cultural identity helps them overcome the hardship.

Q. How did you get into filmmaking?

I have worked as an actor for more than 15 years in film productions with both big and small budgets. I LOVE film shoots! I love the collaboration by the skilled/trained individuals who contribute their expertise in an attempt to create something great. It’s such an inspiring and wonderful learning environment most of the time.

Having said that, it’s also the reality that you don’t get to work on a film set as often as you want. The situations for Asian actors like myself are especially harder in Australia with not many opportunities to be cast without stereotypes. I always wish to play interesting characters other than my usual 'mean Japanese soldier' roles, but I figured out that it wouldn’t happen unless I started creating them for myself! So I wrote a script, applied for funding, and grabbed the chance to make this film.

Q. Which films or filmmakers have inspired you? 

There are many but the old Japanese films are especially my favourite. I referred to Yasujiro Ozu when I made my film as I love the simplicity and subtlety in his films.

Q. What advice would you have for any young people who want to try making their own short films? 

I’m still a novice in film making, so I’m not sure if I’m qualified to give them proper advice. Only advice I could give them, as well as myself, is just believe in your own progress. No matter how challenging and daunting it may look, and no matter how your inner monkeys try to dismantle your confidence, take a deep breath and keep walking at your own pace. As long as you put your heart into your project, you’re going forward no matter how slow the progress might seem. After all, that’s your own story that nobody else could ever possibly bring to the world.

Oh, one more thing. Be nice to your friends. You can NEVER make a film by yourself and you’d be surprised how many people you end up counting on before, during and after a film production. Trust me. Be nice. 

Q. What's your next project going to be?

Good question. I don’t know yet! I’ve got some ideas for some short films so I’ll need to start writing very soon. I guess I’ll choose either writing, directing or acting in my next project. Doing everything at the same time was a little bit too ambitious. Ha ha.

If you're aged 8+ come along and get creative at our Rice Buddies Workshop on Sat 29 October, 10:30. Inspired by Shingo's short, make your own inedible version using some unusual Japanese materials. Book your place now.  

Catch Shingo's film Riceballs as part of our Shorts for Middle Ones at #DiscoveryFilmFest on Sun 23 October, Sat 29 October and Sun 6 November.