Notes from Japan

Imagining a Possible Future: Filmmaker Felicity Tillack

Suzanne Kamata brings to us people, experiences and cultures from Japan

Director and writer, Felicity Tillack, preparing a shot at Uji.  Photo courtesy : William Yagi Lewis

Before coming to Japan in 2006, Felicity Tillack had hoped to become a Japanese high school teacher in Australia. She had grown up in Mackay in West Queensland where Japanese was one of the languages taught in primary school. “I fell in love,” Tillack says. In spite of her passion for the language and culture, she concedes that she wasn’t very good at Japanese. She decided to drop education as a major. After earning a B.A. in literature, she got on a plane to Japan. Now based in Kyoto, Tillack teaches at an international school, writing and making films on the side.

Tillack started making videos in 2012 on her Youtube channel Where Next Japan. She eventually moved on to documentaries such as New Japanese Citizens and 3rd Culture Kids in Japan. These projects, she says, “really started me thinking more deeply about the concept of identity and how it is tied to the culture you grow up in as well as your ethnic roots and background. I’ve seen so many kids struggle with their identity. I taught many biracial kids, with one Japanese parent and one foreign parent who, in their struggle to feel legitimate and accepted within Japan, would often strongly reject their non-Japanese heritage. So, a lot of experiences and observations started to come together and slowly built into a story.”

Impossible to Imagine, her debut narrative feature film is the story of Ami Shimizu (played by Yukiko Ito), a Kyoto woman doing her best to keep her mother’s kimono rental shop alive, and Hayato Arai (played by first-time actor William Yagi Lewis), the biracial Japanese business consultant that she hires for advice. It evolves into a romance, but it’s also an exploration of tradition versus change in one of Japan’s most traditional and impenetrable cities.

Although Tillack is Australian, the film is mostly in Japanese. “I felt that it was a story that needed to be told in Japanese with Japanese characters,” she says. “I wanted to start a conversation here in Japan.” She wrote the script initially in English and had it translated into Japanese. Tillack admits that the language barrier is “a big difficulty” when filmmaking in Japan, but both of the actors in the starring roles are bilingual. They were able to offer advice on cultural details and interpret, when necessary.

Tillack made the film on a shoestring budget of about a million yen (around US$10,000), financed out of her own pocket. The movie was shot in about ten days on the streets near her home. Although she wasn’t able to pay her actors and crew much, she said that she and her colleagues saw the making of the film as a “learning experience.”

Left to right: Felicity Tillack (director, writer), Yukiko Ito (main actress, Ami Shimizu) and William Yagi Lewis (main actor, Hayato Arai) at the Kyoto premiere of Impossible to Imagine.  Photo Courtesy: Morgan Lewis

Impossible to Imagine has been shown at several film festivals, including the Paris Lift-Off Film Festival, and the Shinjuku World Film Festival in Tokyo. Tillack has also hosted screenings at various venues in Japan. At one such event held at a Buddhist temple in Kagawa Prefecture, the audience was mostly elderly and eager to discuss the issues brought up by the film. The movie is now streaming on Amazon, making it accessible to viewers all over the world.

Tillack, who cites Richard Linklater’s Before Sunrise series as an inspiration, had plans to start shooting a sequel: I had written the script, lined up financing, and everything.” But then the pandemic hit. Unable to make movies for the time being, she has started on another script, this one tentatively entitled Before Real Life Begins. It refers to the idea that foreigners often come to Japan after graduating from college intending to stay for a year or two before their “real life” starts. Tillack’s script contends that time spent in Japan is real life. Keeping in mind that Westerners experience Japan differently than Filipinos, for example, she hopes to explore this issue from various viewpoints. She is working on this story with two other writers who are based in Tokyo.

Tillack also had a hand in the forthcoming film Matcha and Vanilla, a love story written and directed by her friend Hamish Downie, who was the producer of Impossible to Imagine. Tillack is listed in the cast as “journalist” on the movie’s IMBD site, however she insists it’s only a bit part. Tillack’s future in filmmaking is off to a promising start.

In imagining a future for Japan, Felicity Tillack looks back at her own country’s history. “I was told when I was very young not to marry outside my culture,” she says – advice that she did not heed. She points out that in the 1970s, Australia was “95% white”, however, now, one in four in the country were born overseas. “Australia has changed culturally.” Through her work, both on this film and her other creative endeavors, Tillak suggests that her adopted country, too, may become more inclusive and accepting in the not-too-distant future.

Felicity Tillack (director, writer) and Shota Wanibe (sound mixer, boom operator) receiving an award at Shinjuku World Festival. Photo Courtesy: Shota Wanibe


Suzanne Kamata was born and raised in Grand Haven, Michigan. She now lives in Japan with her husband and two children. Her short stories, essays, articles and book reviews have appeared in over 100 publications. Her work has been nominated for the Pushcart Prize five times, and received a Special Mention in 2006. She is also a two-time winner of the All Nippon Airways/Wingspan Fiction Contest, winner of the Paris Book Festival, and winner of a SCBWI Magazine Merit Award.

Thanks to the columnist Suzanne Kamata for sourcing the photographs.


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