Firefly Dreams

Director’s Statement
"A few years after coming to Japan I was asked to give some advice to a pretty but extremely rebellious high schoolgirl, who was giving her parents hell. I had a lot of sympathy for the girl, because she reminded me in many ways of my own teenage troubles. I forgot about her for a long time but years later I started to write a screenplay about a rebellious schoolgirl and I realised that this central character was modelled on her.

That screenplay eventually became Firefly Dreams. I think that it is through the experience of trying to imaginatively enter the life of someone else that we come to understand ourselves. We see ourselves mirrored in other people and we come to see our shared predicaments. In the film Naomi gradually becomes curious about Mrs. Koide and her past. I wanted to catch the awakening of this curiosity, the awakening of Naomi’s capacity for empathy, which I think lies at the heart of all good films and all good fiction. I was interested in the idea that Mrs. Koide and Naomi were mirrors for each other, in the same way that I had found a mirror of myself in a rebellious Japanese schoolgirl. While we were location hunting for the film we discovered an old globe and a dusty mirror in the junk-filled attic of an abandoned farmhouse.

When I saw the mirror and the globe I felt as if I had stumbled onto a key image for the film. The globe represents the greater world, the desire to escape and lead a larger, more exciting life. Both Naomi and Koide know this desire, and of course that is what brought me to Japan in the first place. The mirror represents self- knowledge, and that is what Naomi finds in Mrs. Koide, and what Mrs. Koide rediscovers through Naomi.

Another major element in the film is the setting itself, and the contrast between city and country. Travelling from the urban sprawl of Nagoya to the rural area where we shot is like travelling back in time. From the most modern place in the world it is possible to go back in time three of four hundred years in the space of a two hour drive. I wanted to catch this amazing contrast on film, a contrast that mirrors the gulf in experience between Naomi’s age group and the pre-war generation of Mrs. Koide. And again I found a mirror for myself. Even though I now live on the other side of the globe I found numerous similarities between my home in Wales and the Japanese countryside.

While we were filming, the sounds, sights and smells took me back to my own childhood. I felt that I had come a long way but that I was in some strange way back where I had begun.

One defining summer in the life of teenage rebel Naomi. Sent away from the city when her parents split up, she meets an old lady with a surprising secret in her past that brings them closer together."

Production Information
Director/Writer/Editor John Williams
Producers Kazuaki Kaneda, Martin B. Z. Rycroft, Yoshinobu Hayano

Cinematographer John Williams
Musical director Paul Rowe
Lighting director Fumio Sugiyama
Sound engineer Akihiko Suzuki
Chief assistant director Masaki Takada

A 100 METER FILMS production.
Japan 2000
119 mins / 35mm / 1:1.85 / Colour / Dolby SR
Original version: Japanese

Cast: Production Notes
Most Japanese films are conceived, funded and pro- duced in Tokyo. Firefly Dreams is unusual as it was made completely independently and was mostly financed and produced in Nagoya. Casting began in October 1998. Auditions were held in Nagoya, Tokyo and Osaka to find three talented newcomers to play the roles of Naomi, Masaru and Yumi. Audi tions were also held at the location to find local peo ple to play supporting roles. Yoshie Minami, who is Tomoko Ayako Sato well known in Japan for her stage, television and film work agreed to play the role of Mrs. Koide. The film was shot over six weeks in Horaciho, a Teru Dai Sakurai rural region rich in history, folklore and natural beauty, located in Aichi Prefecture, in central Japan. The area is famous for its Hana Matsuri in winter time, an ancient Dance of Devils to ward off evil spirits. The small town of Ikeba in which the scenes around Koide’s house were shot has a thousand year history, dating back to when the village was founded by scattered and defeated warriors from the Miura clan. Yuya Onsen, where the hotel scenes were shot is a popular and scenic hot spring town on the banks of the river Kansa, whose crystal clear waters are surrounded by gently wooded slopes, and craggy volcanic hills.

John Williams was born in St. Albans, England in 1962 but spent most of his childhood in Wales. He began making films at the age of 14 on a second hand 16mm Bolex, which he bought after seeing Werner Herzog&rsquo's AGUIRRE; WRATH OF GOD. He studied French and German literature at Trinity College, Cambridge, where he continued to make films and was active in student theatre. From 1986 to 1988 he worked as a French teacher in a comprehensive school in North London and began writing feature length screenplays. In 1988, he moved to Japan, where he has lived and worked ever since. During this time, he has travelled widely in Asia and Africa, and has written, directed and produced eight short films, including a video documentary shot in Sri Lanka and a drama-documentary about refugees in Japan. In 1995 he established the production group 100 Meter Films.

Maho Ukai (Naomi). The majority of people who see the film assume that Maho is the real thing – a genuine 17 year old teenage rebel – but when she came to the first screening nobody, not even the director recognised her. In reality 21 year old Maho hated the peroxide blonde hair she had to dye for the part and her personality couldn’t be further from the directionless Naomi. She has been training as an actress since the age of 18, first in Nagoya University of the Arts and then with a talent agency in Tokyo. She was selected from over a thousand professionals and amateurs who auditioned for the role.

Yoshie Minami (Mrs. Koide). Yoshie Minami is instantly recognizeable to millions of Japanese TV viewers as the character actress who specializes in loveable grandmother roles. However, only diehard fans would know her name and many would be surprised to learn about her long stage career which began in 1934 as one of the ”male” roles in the prestigious all woman ‘Takarazuka Review’. She left the Takarazuka in the late thirties but returned to work as a serious actress after the war. As a stage actress she has at one time or another won most of Japan’s major theatre awards and she is still working at the age of 85. During the Fifties and Sixties she was also in demand for film work and appeared as the teacher in Kurosawa’s ”IKIRU” and in numerous other supporting roles. There are many parallels between Yoshie Minami herself and, Mrs. Koide who she plays and during the filming, dialogue was rewritten to incorporate Minami-san’s own experience.



No Author, DVD Fever.com, Posted: March 6th, 2009

An amazingly assured first film from British-born, Welsh-raised longtime expat in Japan John Williams, Firefly Dreams (Ichiban Utsukushii Natsu) is a beautifully-realised coming-of-age tale in modern Japan. John has created a minor masterpiece working in Japanese with Japanese actors and crew. Release date 20th April 2009.

When her mother runs off with a new boyfriend, her father sends sullen rebellious teenage city girl Naomi to help out at an aunt’s hotel in the country amidst stunning mountain scenery. Delegated to keep an eye on elderly relative Mrs. Koide, whose memory is failing, Naomi is drawn into a generation-leaping relationship and driven to explore, via old photos, the fragile old lady’s hidden past as young wife, war widow and even filmstar, finding a parallel between the actress’s dumping by her director-lover and her own brief affair with a local delivery boy. Returning to the city after her father’s suicide and Mrs. Koide’s death, Naomi seeks out a video of Mrs. Koide’s movie Valley of the Fireflies and comes to an understanding of life and aging and achieves a degree of self-esteem and self-sufficiency she lacked before.

With totally engrossing performances by it’s two leads – Yoshie Minami, with roles in films by Kurosawa and other Japanese masters to her credit, as Mrs Koide and 21-year-old Maho Ukai in her first film role spot on as Naomi – Firefly Dreams is filmed beautifully by Yoshinobu Hayano and delicately edited by John Williams himself who also wrote the succinct script. Paul Rowe’s guitar score is haunting and effective. Dialogue is in Japanese with English subtitles. Firefly Dreams has won awards in several international film festivals including Best Feature at Hawaii, Best Film at Manila, Audience Award at San Jose and Netpac Special Mention at Karlovy Vary.

Eddie Cockrell, Firefly Dreams Ichiban Utsukushii Natsu (Japan), Variety, Published: July 12, 2001.

A deceptively simple, familiar story told exceedingly well, "Firefly Dreams" is a quietly confident and cumulatively affecting first feature from Japan-based writer-director John Williams. Pic takes the tried-and-true tale of a rebellious teenager falling under the spell of a mysterious elder and reinvigorates it via a fine, firm directorial eye and a pair of astutely crafted perfs. As one of those special titles that will have strong human appeal and emotional resonance wherever it plays, niche business should be brisk, with ancillary prospects excellent as well.

Seventeen-year-old Naomi (Maho Ukai) is profoundly affected by the strained relations between her moody father (Atsushi Ono) and constantly defensive mother (Chie Miyajima). Insolent and sullen, she sasses everybody older than she, skips school and tags along with a class chum who's posing for a pornographer. (One of pic’s successful strategies is to set up key events but then leave the actual encounter to the viewer’s imagination.)

When her mother apparently leaves home, Naomi’s father sends the reluctant yet defiant teen to work at a hotel in the mountains owned by his sister’s family. With no visible improvement in her behavior, Naomi finally is sent to watch her aging relative, Mrs. Koide (veteran Yoshie Minami), at her nearby home. The old woman is prevented by advancing Alzheimer’s disease from either remembering or wishing to talk about a life hinted to be full of both success and tragedy. But Naomi and Mrs. Koide slowly form a bond. Their friendship catalyzes Naomi’s acceptance of the rural family and environment, as well as her place in it.

Brit-born, Welsh-raised Helmer Williams moved to Japan in 1988, and based the long-in-gestation story on his experience of being approached to give advice to a troubled Japanese youth. Film feels authentically steeped in the culture of the small village in which it was made.

Perfs are compassionate across the board. As Naomi, 21-year-old novice Ukai moves effortlessly from complete hostility to a kind of healthy adolescent self-esteem via the mercurial mood swings expected of a child that age. Minami (the teacher in Akira Kurosawa’s 1952 classic "Ikiru") is a popular character actress specializing in warm grandmotherly types, and she uses the stillness of fragility to communicate a profound dignity and peace.

Tech credits are tops, with Yoshinobu Hayano’s crisp lensing displaying Aichi prefecture, in central Japan, in all its verdant summertime glory. Paul Rowe’s sprightly guitar-based score is a major plus. 

Eithne Farry, Electric Sheep Magazine, Posted: April 1, 2009.

Naomi, played with surly grace by Maho Ukai is a sulky city kid with dyed, pale orange Lion King hair and a sullen pout that’s projected in the direction of her exasperated parents. The opening moments of Welshman John Williams’s film are a giggling homage to teen girl life in Nagoya: Naomi paints her nails instead of paying attention to algebra, she bunks off school, stays out late and teeters around town on clunky-heeled shoes. She spends her nights out drinking beer at house parties and clubs and her days accompanying her best friend to dubious photo-shoots as a way of making extra money. It’s the classic case of nice girl going off the rails, as her mother and father’s relationship falters and fails. Mum is having an affair whilst Naomi’s bewildered dad sits on the sofa, drinking too much, and dismissing his daughter’s taste in music with the expected ‘the bands these days aren’t up to much’.

When her mum finally deserts the family home, her dad decides to send Naomi to her aunt to the country for the summer until things get on a more even keel in their small cramped flat in the concrete wilderness of Nagoya. Self-centred Naomi is more than reluctant. There’s the chores of the dilapidated hot-springs hotel that her aunt runs to contend with, the annoyingly pestering presence of Yumi (Etsuko Kimata), who has learning difficulties, and the added indignity of having to look in on Mrs Koide (Yoshie Minami), an elderly women who’s growing increasingly confused and forgetful.

But it’s here, in the slow-paced countryside, accompanied by the melancholy drift of musical director Paul Rowe’s soundtrack and a chorus of insects, that Naomi begins to change. She gradually becomes intrigued by Mrs Koide’s past – the elegant elderly lady’s fragmentary conversation hints at an illicit love affair in her youth and a film role – and starts to relish the time she spends with her. She makes friends with Yumi, but in a pleasing bit of nasty realism, is still capable of reverting to pure mean girl – when Naomi’s holiday romance with the motorcycle delivery guy doesn’t work out, it’s Yumi who bears the brunt of her disgruntledness.

Williams is determined to avoid the sentimentality so beloved of happy-ever-after Hollywood. He rejoices in leaving matters ambiguous, unsolved, unresolved. Watching Firefly Dreams is like looking at series of framed pictures – glimpses from doorways, a view from a window, a shot from a corner of a beautiful lit room, suggest the story or imply the past without explicitly explaining what exactly has gone on. The film seems made up of beguiling moments – Yumi and Naomi building a 3D jigsaw of the Eiffel Tower, Mrs Koide asleep on her chair, Naomi dreaming at her feet, the two cousins splashing in a riverside pool.

The beautifully filmed countryside adds to the sense of dreamy enchantment, a perennial reminder of the importance of nature in a world being transformed by speedy consumerism and careless consumption. The shady pine forests of Horaicho, the river, the lonesome roads that Naomi cycles along with a particular joy are a glorious part of this subtle and understated coming of age tale. Firefly Dreams is just lovely, an unmissable meditation on memory and loss and growing up.