Acting, art, and music. Non is active in multiple fields and shows off a different set of colors in each. Although she is described as an "actress" at times and an "artist" at others, there is no clear distinction between the two. It is as if they both make up one large creation entitled "Non." Intuitively one-of-a-kind, the extraordinary creator released her first theatrical feature-length film Ribbon on February 25, 2022. She says that one of the seeds of inspiration that led to the film was the University Labs Exhibition 2020: Degree Show Re-exhibited held at the Tokyo Midtown Design Hub. We asked her about her thoughts on the film in an interview, where she also talked very candidly about what she got out of the Degree Show Re-exhibited and how she feels as someone involved in art and entertainment that were deemed "non-essential" in the COVID-19 pandemic.
The striking reality that art university students were facing triggered the making of the film
The film Ribbon, which I wrote, directed, and starred in, started off with a single image in my head of a girl buried in ribbons, and bits and pieces of conversations I had jotted down over the years. As I imagined turning these ideas in my head into a movie, I decided to make the main character a student at an art university, something that I have always admired. That's when I started doing research on art university students and discovered that art thesis exhibitions all over were being canceled due the pandemic. What particularly struck me was an interview I came across online where a student said, "The work I had spent a whole year on suddenly seemed like garbage." The reality of what art university students were facing drove me to think, "If not now, when will I ever make this film?!" and I started writing the screenplay.
It was right around when I started on the screenplay when I happened upon the Degree Show Re-exhibited held at the Tokyo Midtown Design Hub. When I went, they were showing work by students from Tama Art University and Musashino Art University. It was the final day of the exhibition and the venue was filled with graduates, graduate school students, and teachers. With all those people there I just had to hear their thoughts, and I couldn't help but interview some on the spot.
University Labs Exhibition 2020
The University Labs Exhibition 2020: Degree Show Re-exhibited moved Non and inspired the production of Ribbon. This year, the 2022 iteration of the event collaborated with seven schools of art education and research to display assignments and in-class work to show how current students learn design at the respective institutions. It provides a look at the themes and new learning methods taken up during the two years since the start of the pandemic. Held at the Tokyo Midtown Design Hub until February 15, 2022 (Tue).
There was a student who had gotten rejected from the job that they had already been accepted to and were worried about the future. Another had been a central organizer for the thesis exhibition and had desperately tried to get the students' work shown in some way or the other but to no avail, and had bottled-up their frustrations. Yet another was a student majoring in automotive and architectural design who had lost the chance to show a large-scale model made for the thesis exhibition, which they ended up destroying in tears. It was also striking to hear that they had all but given up on the chance to have their work seen when they were given the chance to show at the Degree Show Re-exhibited, which made them feel like their efforts had finally paid off.
In hopes of easing unspoken, pent-up emotions
I had also made the tough choice to cancel a music festival I had organized due to the pandemic, so I understood the frustration and pain the students were going through. Their situation really resonated with me, which made me think, "I have to let people know about this!" and hardened my resolve to make the film. Of course, a lot of thoughts ran through my mind when I canceled the music festival, but as a working adult there were other endeavors I could pursue. I even had the option of still holding the festival in live stream format, or plan and make a movie. But for students who are about to take off towards their futures and discover who they are going to become, there are some experiences that can only be had in school, at that particular time and place. Even just a year or two spent during that period is incredibly precious. It carries so much more significance than the same period of time as an adult.
I'm sure they must feel that it isn't fair that they had to graduate during the pandemic, with a feeling of "Why us?" But there is definitely unspoken pressure to not speak out and complain about it. I mean, when you think about the health-care workers and the people who are actually facing death, of course it makes sense that they feel that pressure. But if their academic lives end this way, their desire to create and show people their work will always gnaw at them and stay pent-up inside of them forever. I wanted to do something to ease that frustration and pain, even just a little bit. That was my motivation for making this film.
Ribbons put a positive spin on negative emotions
Ribbon is a story about students attending an art university, including the main character Itsuka Asagawa (Non) and her best friend Hirai (Rio Yamashita). Just like in real life, their thesis exhibition is canceled due to the COVID-19 pandemic and Itsuka has no choice but to take her project home. A mess of emotions throws Itsuka into a rut and she even clashes with Hirai. Itsuka constantly struggles with anger and pent-up emotions, and it's hard to express those frustrations in front of others, you know? But I think that it's important to value those kinds of negative emotions, too. Itsuka and Hirai are both hindered from creating art and struggle with complicated feelings, making them wonder, "Why am I trying to make art at all?!" But it's exactly because of those struggles that they figure out what it is they really want to do, and they're able to move forward to pry open the doors to their futures.
Alluding to the title of the film, ribbons appear throughout the story to represent Itsuka's emotions. I love how depicting negative emotions as ribbons puts a positive spin on them. I feel like it provides acceptance that it's okay to be frustrated, to be angry. The presence of the ribbons floating in mid-air and in swarms is a little eerie at first, but each individual one is cute and kind of artsy. I think ribbons have a power that's pretty incredible. I kind of think that today, people have lost the ability to notice the subtle emotions and unspoken, pent-up kind of feelings that the ribbons represent in the film. That's why I think it's important to use creative work as well as words to show the importance of perceiving and understanding how others are feeling.
Rediscovering that people won't understand unless you communicate
The process of creating the film was a very clear reminder that people won't understand unless you communicate. We would have meetings where I would try to explain things to the staff, but it wasn't very smooth. There were times when I would get frustrated and wish that everyone could just see inside of my head. Of course, people can't see inside other people's heads (laughs), but because I wasn't very good at putting things into words, I realized that I needed to come up with another mode of communication to get my thoughts across. I gathered resources to communicate and presented image boards I made to share ideas. One of the revelations from this process was that even if communication is difficult, it's possible as long as you devise the right methods.
Non created boards with collections of illustrations and collages to communicate her ideas for the movie or for particular shots. For example, for the scene included in the trailer where Itsuka gets buried in ribbons, Non depicted details such as lighting and the color scheme of the ribbons to help explain her ideas to the staff. As Non explained, "Just a verbal explanation made it sound like a crazy fantasy world, but people understood that it wasn't supposed to feel bizarre when I showed them how the character existed in everyday settings through illustrations and collages. Providing a visual really helps to communicate the degree of how fantastical something is supposed to be."
I put so much of my thoughts into this film, which I managed to shoot thanks to everyone's help. I can only hope that it might help somebody, somewhere, in some small way. The film is not a direct portrayal of the grim realities of the pandemic, but I think it manages to capture some of the emotional aspects of the impact. In that sense, I think the film is a record of the current moment in time.
Understanding what you like provides emotional support in life
Around the time when I started working towards the production of the film Ribbon, society was treating art and entertainment as "non-essential." There's a line in the film that goes, "Apparently, everyone in society thinks they don't need art in their lives." To people like myself who make a living out of those things, being deemed unnecessary really, really hurts. But thinking about whether the things I do are actually non-essential gave me the opportunity to reexamine myself. When I thought about it, I realized that I am who I am today because of the influence from so many films, plays, music, and art. Art and entertainment don't directly affect life or death, but they do help me "live." In that sense, you could say they have to do with emotional life or death.
I reconfirmed that art and entertainment are what I want to be doing, and I also realized that they were more important to me than I had ever imagined. It's hard to explain, but I think it was a period when I got to understand the degree to which I liked those things. I think it's a very fortunate and good thing to identify how much you like something. Itsuka, the character I played in Ribbon, initially puts all her efforts into painting simply because she loves it, but in a sense she runs solely on sheer passion. But when she gets into a situation where she can't paint anymore, it makes her realize how much she truly loves it, and she comes to the decision that she wants to continue painting.
Even if a person isn't an artist, I think it's very important to know what one likes. For example, if you figure out that you like a certain painting and understand what moves you, it becomes something that provides emotional support. Once you have a clearer grasp of yourself, I think it helps transition from a state of living blindly to realizing how you might actually want to live your life. I think it must be comforting to have an experience with art that triggers the realization of how you want to spend your days or live your life.
There are discoveries to be made in both looking at art in museums and looking at nature around the city
I like going to museums to look at art, so I frequent exhibitions at the Mori Art Museum and The National Art Center, Tokyo. I end up spending a lot of time at museums. Regardless of whether I like the exhibition or whether it doesn't resonate with me, I always spend time thinking about each piece, so I often realize that time has flown by without me noticing.
The museums in Roppongi are housed in contemporary architecture, which I find interesting. The glass curtain wall of The National Art Center never fails to blow me away, and I always think, "Whoa, it's so wavy." When I was younger, I used to think I wasn't the type who would ever go to Roppongi. I wanted to stay uncultured in a modest environment (laughs), but as I grew older, I discovered the wonderful museums and tasty places to eat there, and changed my opinion as I realized what a great area it is. Now, I think of it as an area for stylish grownups.
I obviously enjoy looking at art in museums, but I've also always liked to observe nature outdoors. I enjoy things like looking for plants growing in curious places, wondering, "Why is there a dandelion growing here?" Or finding plants that I like but don't know what they're called. If I find the same flower in a different place I think, "There it is again," and the discovery makes me happy. It's also interesting to explore with a bit of cynicism, like thinking, "Sure, of course they would have this plant in a park. They always do!" (laughs)
It all started with Aquirax Uno's ribbons, and now they're an important motif for expression
Speaking of plants, I created a piece where I put lots of ribbons on a banyan tree for the Yambaru Art Festival 2021-2022 that was held in Okinawa until just recently. The collaboration of nature and ribbons was very powerful and I had a lot of fun with it, so I would love to make ribbon art in Roppongi as well. For example, there could be something that makes you wonder, "Wait, why is there a weed growing here?" but once you get closer it's actually made of ribbons, or there's some creepy object that makes you think, "What is that?!" and after a careful look it turns out to be a bundle of ribbons. I'm very intrigued by that idea!
Yambaru Art Festival 2021-2022
An annual art event for enjoying art and the great natural landscape of Yambaru, held in the northern region of Okinawa island, including villages such as Ogimi and Kunigami. Non participated this year in what was the festival's fifth event with a piece entitled Butterfly and Banyan Tree, in which she covered a large banyan tree in a hotel garden with butterfly-like ribbons in bright red. The event ran from December 18, 2021 (Sat) to January 16, 2022 (Sun).
To me, ribbons are super important as a motif. Whenever I paint pictures of girls I usually give them ribbons, and I love ribbons so much I sometimes even put them on pictures of dinosaurs. My love for ribbons started with work by Aquirax Uno. I was drawn to his illustrations, where cute girls in ribbons look surly, while erotic, sexy ladies are dressed up with cutesy ribbons. My use of color has been heavily influenced by Uno-san as well. I used to only make drawings in black and white with pencil, like sketches, and I thought I wasn't cut out for adding color. But when I discovered Uno-san's work I thought, "These are so cute. I want to be able to use color like this!" and I started drawing with Cray-Pas oil pastels and watercolor.
I love the energy of "cute and ferocious" girls
Don't you think it's interesting how ribbons are cute but can look creepy or like trash when they're crumpled together in a heap? To begin with, I like things that aren't just "cute," and the reason I'm drawn to the energy of girls is because they're "cute and ferocious." In that sense, I might want to not just make ribbon art but also gather a bunch of girls for an art event. For example, I think it would be fun to splash paint onto a road and paint something all together as a group. Roppongi feels like an area you're not supposed to mess up, but that's exactly what makes me want to paint directly on with wild abandon. We could have everyone work together to paint one thing, or we could have each person make separate paintings all around Roppongi that are actually connected as part of one whole. Oh, and I know I said it would be a girl's event, but sex doesn't matter as long as the person can relate to the energy I'm looking for! I like making things with everyone who wants to participate. It would be interesting to gather everyone's vibrant energy together to cover Roppongi with colorful art.
That reminds me of a city I once visited in Mexico called Guanajuato, which was really colorful and just overflowing with energy. Each house is delightfully painted in bright colors, with art interspersed throughout the city. And the food there is so good. They have this cheese with charcoal on the outside that's so good, I want to go to Guanajuato again just to eat that cheese. There are so many more great things about it, and it's a city I love.
A state capital in central Mexico. The colonial architecture and cobblestone streets that remain from the Spanish colonial period were designated as a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1988.
So 2022 has started, and the thing I'm interested in right now is getting into shape. I realize that's a sudden shift away from the topic of art and entertainment (laughs), but I think fitness is very important in order to work and express myself in various ways. In particular, I acted in some stage shows last year that required acrobatic movements, which made me realize the need to be physically fit. In order to deliver cheerful, energized art and entertainment, I hope to build up strength and muscle to attain a body that allows me to move with the energy I need.
Photo location: Tokyo Midtown Design Hub University Labs Exhibition 2022 (on until February 15, 2022)
Editor's Thoughts Some people describe Non-san as a comedienne. But that's not so much about her skill of acting in comedies as her ability to depict the absurd and comical nature of humans in extremely charming, endearing ways. That's the feeling I got from watching Ribbon. At the risk of being misunderstood, I would say that while she may not be the most eloquent, each word she utters is imbued with piercing passion, firm intent, and kindness. I believe that's what moves others and draws them to her.（text_akiko miyaura）
Born in Hyogo Prefecture in 1993. She played the voice of the main character Suzu in the theatrical anime "In This Corner of the World" released in 2016, which won the 38th Yokohama Film Festival "Special Jury Prize" and received high acclaim.
In 2019, the filmmaking documentary YouTube Originals "Nontare (I AM NON)," her first film "Ochi wo Tsuke Nanase," and the theatrical anime "In This (And Many More) Corner of the World" were released.
In 2020, "Hoshikuzu no Machi", "12 Days of a Monster Who Died in 8 Days", and "Watashi wo Kuitomete" were released.
In 2017, she launched a new label "KAIWA(RE)CORD", represented by herself. She released the singles "Super Hero ni Naritai" and "RUN! In 2019 released a mini-album "Baby Face" and a digital-only single "Watashi wa heyaju". In February 2020, she held NON KAIWA FES vol.2, a festival organized by NON with no spectators at the site for COVID measures and later broadcasted on MTV in March 2020 as "NON KAIWA FES". Since May 2020, she has been actively organizing the online live "NON OUCHI DE MIRU LIVE". In December 2021, "NONZAURUS in Zepp Tokyo-1st and Last LIVE" was held at Zepp TOKYO just before its closing and was a great success.
She is also active as a creative artist, and held her first exhibition "'NON' Hitori Exhibition - Girls bare their fangs -" in 2018.
In 2020, she was selected as the first SDGs People by the Japan SDGs Action Promotion Council, and has been creating characters to expand awareness of the SDGs.
In 2021, she exhibited art installations at the YOKOHAMA ART STATION project 2020 and the Yanbaru Art Festival 2021-2022.
On February 25, 2022, the movie "Ribbon," which was written, directed, and starred by NON is scheduled to be released.