The Belle Game – River Music Video (w/ Band & Director Interviews in 日本語 & English)

After their collaboration on The Belle Game’s first music video proved natural and compelling in narrative, director Kheaven Levandowski and the band decided to once again work together on the music video for “River”, from their debut album, Ritual Tradition Habit. Much less upbeat than the previous track, “River”‘s finds its setting moving from Western countrysides into Japanese cityscapes, as it follows a male sex worker – also known as a rent-boy – through neon-lit streets and into a realistically-documented underbelly of the city. The result is both sensual and raw, leaving viewers curious to know more about the subculture. Levandowski and The Belle Game’s Adam Nanji discuss the formulation and execution of the music video, as well as the social ideas it stirs up, in this bi-lingual English-Japanese Q&A interview.

After their collaboration on The Belle Game’s first music video proved natural and compelling in narrative, director Kheaven Lewandowski and the band decided to once again work together on the music video for “River”, from their debut album, Ritual Tradition Habit. Much less upbeat than the previous track, “River”‘s finds its setting moving from Western countrysides into Japanese cityscapes, as it follows a male sex worker – also known as a rent-boy – through neon-lit streets and into a realistically-documented underbelly of the city. The result is both sensual and raw, leaving viewers curious to know more about the subculture. Lewandowski and The Belle Game’s Adam Nanji discuss the formulation and execution of the music video, as well as the social ideas it stirs up, in the bi-lingual English-Japanese Q&A interview below.

Japanese translation by Katch, Matt Erik and Yoshiko Sanda

The Belle Game – “River” Music Video


Can you talk a bit about the narrative and how that first came to form? Are there any overlapping themes between the song or record and the music video?


Kheaven Lewandowski (Director // ディレクター)

The narrative came to form from discussions with the band about what the song meant to them. I tend to ask a lot of questions in the beginning stages, to understand what the band wants and how they want their music to be visually portrayed. So it was a matter of understanding the song and its themes, and finding an avenue to express all those ideas in a narrative form.

The band sent me this statement about the song: “River describes a relationship where one person’s purpose is to take the burden of the other’s insecurities. It’s about craving the attention of the other and the willingness to take whatever they give, simply because it makes you feel as if they need you. In spite of this, it was important to us that the song didn’t have a victim… There’s something powerful about being in this position and we wanted this to come across, especially as the narrator reaches their breaking point.”

There were a lot of keywords and phrases that popped out at me and pushed me in certain directions. I can’t pinpoint when in the process I tried changing the setting to Japan, but something there seemed really intriguing to me. I really liked the idea of taking these universal themes and injecting it into a very specific niche culture and character. At that point I started researching Japanese subcultures, and that’s when I first learned about rent boys or “hosts”. There I found the basis for a character to express all these ideas we wanted to come through in the video. I think it was the third sketched out idea I sent them, was really happy they went for it.





The music video took five months to complete. What took so long? How much storyboarding was there to begin with, and how much did the narrative shift throughout the process?


Kheaven Lewandowski (Director // ディレクター)

The process took so long because we couldn’t find a reliable producer in Tokyo that was willing to work with our tiny production budget. I think there was three false-starts with a number of Tokyo producers, that took weeks with every one. Eventually, Kyle Hollett (executive producer) ended up finding Darryl Rigby (our future Tokyo producer) just before we flew over. Darryl was great, and managed to pull a lot of things together through his connections that we would have otherwise never been able to get. Darryl brought in another American producer, Patrick Cunningham, (who produced “Martha Marcy May Marlene”) who was also a tremendous help as well. It was a huge group effort in putting this video together. I can’t even tell you how many people along the way told us, “This concept simply cannot be done for this budget in Japan.” It was always a matter of putting together the right team, and we were luckily able to do that.

There was almost no storyboarding done, save for a few images I had in mind for certain scenes. I developed a shot list the day before each shoot day (3 in total), based on what I knew of the locations, and what story beats we had to hit. But it was more about consciously not getting married to any one way of how I wanted to shoot things – and more about quickly coming up with a way to best take advantage of the space we had to work with. It was mostly shot guerrilla-style, so the luxury of time and multiple takes was not an option. We had to embrace that mentality; to be present and on our toes the whole – I think it bred a lot of great moments.

The narrative surprisingly remained almost completely unchanged from the written treatment. The mantra throughout the production was always that “the story needs remain intact”. Luckily, Jason Aita (our Canadian producer who was with us), was really on top of making sure we didn’t miss story beats – as well as getting all the pieces we needed to communicate the Rent Boy profession. Other variables in the story did change though, like for example, hitching a ride with a Bōsōzoku biker gang vs. a Dekotora truck driver.

少ない制作費の中で信頼できるプロデューサーを東京で見つけることができなかったのです。三回見つかりそうになったけど、結局ダメになりました。その間に何週間も経ってしまいました。やっとのところでエグゼクティブプロデューサーのKyle Holletは東京のプロデューサーのDarryl Rigbyを見つけて来ましたが。Darrylはとてもよくしてくれました。彼のコネクションがなければやり遂げられなかったでしょう。Darrylはほかのアメリカのプロデューサーをプロジェクトに誘いました。Patrick Cunninghamです。(“Martha Marcy May Marlene”を手がけたプロデューサーです。) 彼もプロジェクトによく協力してくれました。このビデオは本当に多くの人の力でできています。これまで多くの人が私たちに日本でこんな予算では到底出来上がらないだろうと言われていましたから。幸運なことに問題が起きてもその度に正しいチームが結集して解決していきました。


驚いたことにストーリーは初めの台本からあまり変わりませんでした。製作の間、共通目標として話の骨組みを変えないように心がけていました。幸いなことに、Jason Aita(私達のカナダのプロデューサー)は特に話の骨組みについてこだわっていました。さらにホストの仕事をリアルにするために小道具などもよく集めました。骨組み以外の様々な撮影内容は変えることになりました。例えば、暴走族と一緒にバイクに乗ったり、デコトラに乗ったりするのはボツにしました。

Adam Nanji (The Belle Game // バンドのメンバー)

I feel bad talking about the actual process behind this video. For us, it was one of those beautiful experiences where we spoke to Kheaven about it, daydreamed about it for a few months, then received a copy that was better than what we had hoped for. We were talking to Kheaven while we were in Montreal last week and he was telling us about what the process actually entailed… I think it was a little less cozy for him and the crew…


What is your experience with Japanese culture, and how difficult or easy did you find it to create a piece that expresses an authentic understanding of the country and this specific culture of rent-boys?


Kheaven Lewandowski (Director // ディレクター)

My experience with Japanese culture was quite limited before this project. I knew about as much as anyone from pop culture and movies. But from doing research, and watching a few documentaries (namely “The Great Happiness Space: Tale of an Osaka Love Thief”), my understanding got to the point where I felt I could take a crack at it. One of my biggest fears was for the video to come off as made by a Westerner with a surface level understanding of Japan and this subculture.

There was a few key things that I felt would contribute immensely to the authenticity of the video, and one of them was to shoot at a real host club. It was an incredible feat that our production manager, Chiaki Saito, managed to get us a real host club location – with real rent boys no less! I was pushing for it the whole time, but was warned it would be nearly impossible because all these clubs reside in the biggest Yakuza-controlled neighborhoods in Japan, called Kabukichō, and it would have been out of our budget range to pay them off. But Chiaki somehow arranged for us to meet a club owner, who liked the idea, and agreed to let us shoot there for a few hours with her actual hosts.

We shot the “champagne call” scenes in a faux documentary approach, by simply getting the hosts to go through the process as they would normally would, except with our actor in place as the main guy. Ben Loeb, my cinematographer and I, would do a bit of a dance in covering the action, but we did two takes in two setups, and that was that. It was quite surreal talking to 30 Japanese people with a translator behind me; luckily, the language barrier didn’t slow us down too much.

I also wanted our lead actor, Hiraku Kawakami, to solicit girls outside the club, which we learned was illegal, so our hosts weren’t able to do it. But as we were shooting some exteriors around Kabukichō, I noticed a group of rent boys from a different club trying to wrangle girls passing by. I asked Hiraku to walk up to them in-character, and to just go along with it and do what they do. It made for some really authentic footage that made it into the intro of the video. Soon after, we were told by a suited Yakuza member to stop filming and to leave – we got off easy, according to our local crew.

Any other sort of authenticity that comes through I think was just a result of asking Hiraku a thousand questions about everything. He was very much our cultural compass in keeping things authentic.

このプロジェクトの前にはかなり限定的な大衆文化や映画など狭い知識を持っている程度でした。何本かドキュメンタリーなどを観たりして、映像を作るヒントにできたと思います。(特に”The Great Happiness Space: Tale of an Osaka Love Thief”は役を立ちました。)表面的にしか知らない外国人が作ったという印象を残すことを恐れていました。


“シャンパンコール”のシーンはドキュメンタリーを作るスタイルを使いました。本物のホストはいつもの仕方をしてもらい、俳優はメインのホストの役になりました。Ben Loeb(メーンのカメラマン)と私は皆の周りにカットにおさめるためにちょこちょこと動きまわりました。2つセットを作って2回撮り直してできました。30日本人と通訳者に頼りながら話すのはかなりシュールな経験でしたが、幸いなことに言葉の壁はあまり問題には感じませんでした。

カワカミ ヒラクさん(主人公の俳優)がクラブ以外で女性を口説くシーンも撮りたかったのですが、それは違法なのでできませんでした。歌舞伎町の路上で本物のクラブのホストが女性を口説いているのを撮ろうと思いました。その光景の中にヒラクさんは主人公のホストとして紛れ込ませました。それでPVのイントロためにいいカットができました。しかし私達はヤクザは「やめろ!」と怒られました。後で日本のスタッフはそれだけで済んだだけでラッキーだと言っていました。


Adam Nanji (The Belle Game // バンドのメンバー)

It was really important to everyone that the video didn’t turn the country or the characters into a “spectacle”. We didn’t want the video to shout, “Look, it’s Japan! It’s so different from Canada.” To avoid that, it had to be a pretty accurate depiction of that lifestyle. The little scenes that depict how the whole rent boy process were really important to achieving this. All that said, the specific culture of rent boys is unique to Japan, so it became a really exciting way to explore the themes of the song and touch on the idea that people’s behaviours and personalities are the result of their surroundings.


Have you seen films of similar themes being produced within Japan? Do you know how the video is received there, and whether it differs at all from international reactions?


Kheaven Lewandowski (Director // ディレクター)

From what I can tell on Twitter, they seem to be intrigued by the rent boy/host culture as well. I think it’s unknown to a lot of Japanese people as well.

Adam Nanji (The Belle Game // バンドのメンバー)

A lot of the sentiment behind “River” is the result of my obsession with the [Alain Resnais] movie Hiroshima Mon Amour. It was co-produced by governments of France and Japan. A Japanese man and French woman have an affair with each other and throughout the story the movie reveals their own past with the other person’s country as they’re walking through the city. There’s this interesting conflict between their identity and the cultural identity of each country. The fact that this video was made in Japan is coincidence, but it definitely got me on board right away.
“River”は私が非常に好きな[アラン·レネの]”Hiroshima Mon Amour”という映画に影響をうけています。この作品は日本とフランス政府の合作です。日本人の男とフランス人の女が浮気している話です。二人は広島を漂うように歩きながらそれぞれの過去が描かれています。それぞれの国の文化的なアイデンティティの違いがおもしろく描かれています。舞台が日本というのは単なる偶然の一致ですが、そこにもこのプロジェクトに私は惹かれました。


Hiroshi Mon Amour Trailer


The Guardian recently published an extremely fascinating article about the view of Japanese youngsters on sex. In your research, personal experience, or in the process of making this music video, might you have any opinions or thoughts to shed on this matter?

最近The Guardian紙は日本人の若者のセックスについての意見の記事を発表しました。この話題について考えがありますか。

Kheaven Lewandowski (Director // ディレクター)

It was fascinating to see relationships commodified into that form; it’s almost a nuisance to endure a real relationship for a lot of young people. There’s an epidemic happening there because they have one of the lowest birthrates in the world. I think it might have something to do with the fact that women are becoming more and more independent and don’t want to have leave behind all they’ve accomplished to start a family. From what I was told, women are expected to quit their jobs after getting married to start a family. It’s a old world model of thinking that is obviously shifting quite rapidly. I had to see it with my own eyes to believe that a pretty young girl would pay to be entertained, but I guess the allure of small bite-sized relationship portions has its benefits for a girl with a career aspirations and limited time.




The Belle Game – “Wait Up For You” Music Video

Directed by Kheaven Lewandowski


Written by
Vee Hua 華婷婷

Vee Hua 華婷婷 (they/them) is a writer, filmmaker, and organizer with semi-nomadic tendencies. Much of their work unifies their metaphysical interests with their belief that art can positively transform the self and society. They are the Editor-in-Chief of REDEFINE, Interim Managing Editor of South Seattle Emerald, and Co-Chair of the Seattle Arts Commission. They also previously served as the Executive Director of the interdisciplinary community hub, Northwest Film Forum, where they played a key role in making the space more welcoming and accessible for diverse audiences.

Vee has two narrative short films. Searching Skies (2017) touches on Syrian refugee resettlement in the United States; with it, they helped co-organize The Seventh Art Stand, a national film and civil rights discussion series against Islamophobia. Reckless Spirits (2022) is a metaphysical, multi-lingual POC buddy comedy for a bleak new era, in anticipation of a feature-length project.

Vee is passionate about cultural space, the environment, and finding ways to covertly and overtly disrupt oppressive structures. They also regularly share observational human stories through their storytelling newsletter, RAMBLIN’ WITH VEE!, and are pursuing a Master’s in Tribal Resource and Environmental Stewardship under the Native American Studies Department at the University of Minnesota.

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Written by Vee Hua 華婷婷
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