Miami’s Lucas Leyva & Jillian Mayers on Why They Made an Absurdist, Existential Short in Japanese

If you’re well-versed in Japanese culture the title of Lucas Leyva and Jillian Mayer’s latest short, Kaiju Bunraku, will clue you into what you’re about to watch. “Kaiju” literally means “strange beast” but it’s also a well-known Japanese film genre about monsters attacking major cities. Most of us know the most famous kaiju of them all: Godzilla. “Bunraku,” on the other hand, is a specific kind of Japanese puppetry that includes music and chanting. Leyva and Mayer have brought the two genres together to create an absurdist tale of a husband and wife whose days are framed by regular monster attacks. Oh, and they’re played by puppets, obviously.

The Miami-based duo’s latest, which is narrated in Japanese, is of a piece with their past work, which includes Life and Freaky Times of Uncle Luke (2012) and #PostModem (2013). In each of these shorts you can see a whimsical sense of humor taken to the extreme, using everything from animation to art installations to expose the banality of contemporary life. Watching Kaiju Bunraku you’re swept up by the touching story of this couple, even as the ridiculousness of their plight (and of the lo-fi vibe of the short, which takes its stage origins seriously) makes nervous laughter a necessary part of the film’s enjoyment.

Leyva, who comes from a Cuban-American family, and Mayer, whose art has been featured at MoMA and BAM among others, are also the minds behind Miami’s eclectic BORSCHT film festival, which is soon celebrating its tenth edition. Ahead of the of the Sundance film festival, the two filmmakers hopped on the phone with Remezcla. They filled us in on the theatrical origins of this fatalistic short film, how they hope to change the moviegoing experience with BORSCHT Diez, and why they’re gonna bring up a speedboat over and over while visiting Park City.

On The Reason For Mixing These Japanese Genres

Lucas: It originally started as a play I wrote for a 24 hour theater festival. And I think when you’re working that fast your subconscious does really funny things. The thing I was interested in was this idea of fatalism and things being beyond your control. Both the kaiju genre and bunraku echo that in a really nice way. These puppets live their lives according to the kaiju genre, where no matter how important human beings are there’s a giant force out there that’s going to destroy it (or not), and it won’t even matter (or not). I thought that was a cool metaphor for this idea of our lack of agency or power in our lives despite our best efforts.

Jillian: Well, the idea was to have this short film to function as a sort of a prologue for a bigger project but we wanted to present it as is, and we’re just happy that others will get to see it. And we have this joke it’s always easier, when people ask us why we’re working on a monster movie, that it’s easier to battle the outside monsters than the inside ones.

We tracked down the only professionally trained Japanese bunraku puppet master.

On Sticking True To Bunraku Traditions

Lucas: It’s actually not anything like what we presented in the 24 hour theater festival. Like, the puppets were played by humans and there was an actual—in the traditional form of bunraku theater there is one man called the Tayū, who is sort of singing all of the voices of the different characters while playing the different instruments, and we had someone like that. We ended up removing that from the film. We did sort of stick to some of the rules of it being in the world of a play, but also added a little bit of magic.

Jillian: Because we were also working with some professional bunraku people, we had to adhere to traditional bunraku theater practices that were unexpected to us until we started pursuing working with them more intensely.

Lucas: Yeah we tracked down the only professionally trained Japanese bunraku puppet master. His name is Martin Holman and he runs the Japanese Studies program in the University of Missouri. We brought him and his puppetry which is the only active one here in the United States. We collaborated with him to make sure that, you know, even though we were putting our spin on it, we were making sure we were following the rules of traditional bunraku theater.

On The Perils Of Directing A Film In Japanese

Lucas: It was a really interesting process. The first edit we did I sort of did it to music and times it in a way that felt right. Then our composer Brian McOmber found actual Japanese musicians, who are based out of Tokyo, and a guy who’s a Tayū out there. Then they watched the film together and scored it and we put it back and re-timed the film again for it to work better with the Japanese translation. There’s a couple of levels of translation even, because the kind of Japanese that they speak in bunraku theater isn’t contemporary Japanese. The way they explained it to me was, like it’s the equivalent of Elizabethan English—you know, Shakespeare to us. And it’s a specific kind of translation. So we had a collaborator translate it into Japanese and then the Tayū had to translate that Japanese into this ancient Japanese. There were a lot of layers of interpretations which was pretty fun.

“I think being in Miami we have an increased sense of finality than our friends who live in mountains or other territory. My coastal friends intrinsically understand what this means.”

On The Short Film’s Nihilism

Lucas: Jillian and myself are constantly making things. And, this isn’t unique to us – it’s always the question of why we do things that we do, and you constantly find yourself trained to go to existential places from that question. You know, we can ascribe whatever meaning to our actions, really. But ultimately in the grander context of things what’s the value of it? I think the magic trick that we attempted to pull off in this short is [to] get the audience to fully buy into the lives of these puppets– even though you’re seeing these forces very clearly, visually in every shot, that they’re being controlled, and [get them to] feel that same sort of loss. I think it’s a good metaphor, at least for me, that all of our achievements, everything we try to express and change in the world—at some point it is ultimately meaningless in the end.

Jillian: I mean, of course, yes we all know that we will all pass away and we will die, you’ll be forgotten. But then even the civilization, the grander existential world that we are constantly presented. Also I think the fact that we’re in Miami and we’re constantly confronted with our state’s thinking, we have an increased sense of finality than our friends who live in mountains or other territory. My coastal friends intrinsically understand what this means.

On Wanting To Get Audiences To See The World Through Their Eyes

Lucas: For me, using vehicles like the puppets it already gets you in that mode of like, ‘wow it’s so weird that they’re here and I’m watching this.’ It’s basically how Jillian and I view the world by default. Which is why it’s so hard for us to make a real drama where things like emotions and family issues matter – because ultimately we have this microscopic view of the absurdity of our existence. It’s very hard for us. So using puppets is a way to get the audience in that same mindset.

Jillian: I agree with that.

No one wants the existential terror of looking at themselves!

Lucas: I mean, I just realized, looking back, we always find a way to get people on that level, whether it’s with Uncle Luke doing it as a musical, or with #Postmodem

Jillian: It’s a vessel. Even when you anthropomorphize an animal or a creature as your main character, it’s just a way to get people to look at themselves without the threat of them having to look at themselves.

Lucas: No one wants the existential terror of looking at themselves!

Jillian: You know, sometimes we’ll show something and someone will be like “Oh. That’s… interesting.” It’s like, well, I’m glad you were not able to experience that.

On Their Miami Film Festival, BORSCHT

Lucas: Yeah, it’s going to be February 22-26 in Miami. It’s going to be our biggest festival yet. It’s not a traditional festival in that most festivals accept submissions and then they play them in theaters. We commission almost all the projects that are screened in order to promote Miami voices and Miami filmmakers, outside of the traditional filmmaking structures. And then we reinvent the events every year. I think this year, across four days, we’ll only be screening in one traditional theater. Most of it is about reinventing screenings and for people to experience Miami. It’s very much a Miami festival. You know, sometimes our screenings have over 2,000 people there. And we’re competing with South Beach and the predominant culture of Miami, so we make sure that everything we do is sort of an event. We really highlight what still matters about film screenings when you can watch pretty much anything you want on your phone or online. It’s the communal aspect of being in a place with other people and go through the motions together. So this year we’re going all in on reinventing spaces and we’re really excited about the work we’re screening.

On What They’re Looking Forward To Doing At Sundance

Lucas: They usually give a lot of free stuff out there. We’re really into that.

Jillian: We’re super jazzed about that.

Lucas: There’s usually a lot of nice corporate sponsors.

Jillian: I love the AirBnB house.

Lucas: There’s a really sweet statue of a bear we like to take a picture of.

Jillian: We’re kind of lame!

Lucas: But we do have this project coming up. We’re getting financiers here to buy a speedboat. And we’ll make a bunch of movies on the speedboat. We’re gonna get a bunch of our friends together—we’ll be talking about the speedboat a lot. I look forward to that, talking about a boat. It’s just gonna be this big speedboat. It goes fast.

Jillian: We’re gonna use every opportunity at the Q&A sessions to just pitch the speedboat.

Lucas: We mostly just want to talk about the speedboat.

Kaiju Bunraku screens as part of the 2017 Sundance Film Festival