10 questions to the actors of the short film Mosaic Street

Yuki Matsuzaki has an old but relevant thing to say about the oft-repeated idea that Japan is one of the most homogeneous nations on the planet: “Hogwash.” A Hollywood actor for over 20 years, Matsuzaki has appeared in Letters from Iwo Jima, Pirates of the Caribbean: Fountain of Youth, The Pink Panther 2 and many other productions. Sadly, her experiences also include times when she was told her waist or hair didn’t look “authentic” Japanese.

After more than two decades of this, the actor has concluded that the world has too narrow a definition of what it means to be Japanese. So he decided to fix this problem the only way he knew how: through film. The result was the crime drama short of 2022 Mosaic Street. Written by Matsuzaki and directed by Shiho Fukada, it celebrates the diversity of modern Japan by featuring openly transgender actress Kota Ishijima, openly lesbian actress Ami Ide and Afro-Japanese actress Ema Grace in the lead roles.

We recently spoke to the cast of Mosaic Street to find out more about the film and the current state of Japanese entertainment.

1. Where did the idea for Mosaic Street come from?

Matsuzaki: I had been aware of the lack of diversity in the Japanese entertainment industry for quite some time and always wondered what I could do to change that. When I saw Kota’s documentary the Butterflyit made me wonder why a talented actress like her didn’t have a fair chance in the industry.

So, I casually asked her if she would be interested in creating a demo tape to show it to the world. She has accepted. Then it occurred to me that I might as well represent the least represented minorities in Japanese industries: transgender women, lesbians, and mixed-race Japanese. So I asked Ami and Ema if they would be interested in joining the project. They agreed. That’s how it started.

2. What attracted you to the film?

Ishijima: I grew up in Japan, England, America and India while attending 17 schools. I suffered prejudice when I was outside of Japan. However, when I was back in Japan, I was also treated as a “foreigner” because of my behavior. I struggled with my sexuality since childhood. I was alone for a long time and I was impressed by [Yuki’s] passion for the representation of minorities in Japan. He really understands the sensitivity and the difficulty of being a transgender actress. Yuki’s typhoon-like ability for action is second to none, but as you can see, he’s created an extremely sensitive film.

Kota Ishijima as Takanori Tokudome

3. What do you hope Mosaic Street will accomplish?

Matsuzaki: I really hope Mosaic Street can change the way people in the Japanese entertainment industry think about how minorities should be portrayed in movies and TV shows. They need to know that it’s okay to cast them for “normal” Japanese roles. They don’t have to find a “reason” to include them. Just choose them for the roles they have. If this happens, then there will be more opportunities for minority actors in Japan and they can become role models for minorities in Japan.

Idea: I always wanted to be the change I wanted to see in the world. I hoped Mosaic Street would give younger generations the idea that we can do whatever we want, even if you’re not “normal” in Japan.

4. Is there a reason why the characters in the movie alternate between fluent Japanese and English?

Matsuzaki: The reason the cast speaks both English and Japanese is because I wanted to prove to the world, and to the Japanese industry, that Japan is capable of creating compelling English-language content. If we start creating more content like this, I’m sure Japan will be able to compete in the global market.

Ema Grace as Wakaba Mitarai

5. Do you think that Japan itself is also responsible for this “one size fits all” image it has in the world?

Grace: I think this reflection comes from what they teach in schools in Japan. I feel like there’s always been a pressure for all the students to be the same. Japanese schools deny the concept of diversity and force students to look and think alike. I wonder how many parents in Japan teach their children about diversity. It is very rare that Japanese children are exposed to dolls or princesses or dark skinned characters like me. Most people have only seen the same skin tone and hairstyle since they were young. So, I suspect that this childhood environment is also to blame for this misunderstanding of Japan as homogeneous.

6. What has been the response to the film so far?

Ishijima: Ever since Mosaic Street came out on YouTube, the response from people has been amazing. Some viewers didn’t know we were transgender actresses and were fascinated by our existence. I really hope that one day soon, I will be able to expand our activities in various media as an “actress”.

7. Would you agree that transgender celebrities here are often pressured into outlandish TV personas and almost never include trans men, which ironically leads to less diversity?

Ishijima: I am okay. When I came back to Japan in 2008, we were called “New Hafu” [“New Half”]. But this term no longer exists. I am troubled by this situation. The Japanese entertainment world is quite backward and doesn’t take risks. This is one of the reasons Yuki stood up. I was lucky.

Ami Ide as Mayumi Ando

8. Japan also has plenty of movies and shows about gay people, but very few mainstream stories about lesbians. Why do you think that is?

Idea: I don’t know why we don’t see a lot of lesbian shows. We don’t even see openly gay women in Japan. Maybe it’s because the film industry in general is male-dominated. Most lesbian actresses are in the closet. I’m sure the industry tells them they can’t do it if they’re openly gay. I remember one lesbian movie I saw and it was all directed by the male gaze, so I was very disappointed. They need to start hiring more lesbian or female directors.

9. Mosaic Street is set in the near future where being “Japanese” is no longer defined by a person’s skin color, sexual orientation, or gender identity. How to make this world a reality?

Grace: Mixed-race Japanese like me are normally treated as foreigners. We are not even allowed to audition for “Japanese” roles. Even for the background actors, we don’t see mixed-race Japanese. I would like to continue playing “normal” Japanese characters, not because I want to, but because I have to, to change, little by little, the current lack of diversity in the Japanese industry. Because we don’t appear on screen, Japanese viewers don’t even realize that what they see on screen actually lacks diversity. But in our daily life, we exist and we see many ethnicities in Japanese classrooms. Unless they notice the discrepancy between what they present in the media and what we see in reality, they will not invite us to any audition.

10. What are your hopes and dreams for the future?

Grace: I want Japan to accept its diversity and start creating movies and TV shows that can compete internationally. I want to be part of this movement to realize this dream. I want to appear in such diverse projects and I also want to perform.

Ishijima: Just like in the world of Mosaic Street, I hope that one day soon, even terms like “LGBTQ” will no longer exist and we will be one.

Idea: I had never seen people like me on TV in Japan because they had never played roles. I want kids to see me in an art form (through music or in movies) and think it could be them.

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