Tokyo, known for being a city where lines are blurred between what’s virtual and what’s physical, is the perfect setting for Azsa West & Valentine Freeman‘s music video for The Ruby Suns “The Zipper,” a color-drenched celebration of queer identity awakenings.
Two Tokyo-dwelling teenagers begin personal explorations into gender expression and sexual fantasy, played out both in person and through their virtual reality avatars. The video is a lovely ode to the power of unspoken desire and individual construction of identity, bolstered by the freedoms afforded by technology.
Azsa and Valentine are Cannes-awarded creative directors, artists and collaborators whose partnership predates the pyramids. They work remotely between Tokyo and Los Angeles.
Azsa has been at Wieden + Kennedy for nearly a decade, working in Portland, New York, Shanghai and Tokyo. She is a Creative Director for Nike Japan, Nike Korea and Shiseido, and has exhibited art in Berlin, New York and Paris. Azsa is developing a feature film and TV series about her friends surviving the end of the world.
Valentine is a freelance creative director who has worked with W+K, Ace Hotel, NBCUniversal, CAA, Samsung, Burberry and BEAMS, with clients in fashion, tech, hospitality and activism. She is a Sundance Film Festival-awarded costume designer and is currently developing a TV show about a feminist cat from space.
We got to speak with Azsa and Valentine about working collaboratively despite a 17-hr time difference, how freedom is more important than money, bringing richly-textured life experience into your work as a creative director, and why framing the question of diversity around “tolerance” is backwards and insulting.
How did the two of you begin working on this music video together? Have you collaborated on other projects before? How did the idea for this video take shape?
We have the luxury of sharing a brain that spans decades and time zones. The trust that we have for one another creatively means that making things together is a given. Directing together has always been on the table, and Azsa started brewing this particular idea up from a conversation with Ryan, her expat Oslo-by-way-of-Auckland-based cousin, who is also the frontman for The Ruby Suns.
Ryan is such a beautiful songwriter, very abstract but with so much weight and feeling. He said the lyrics for The Zipper were inspired by his girlfriend’s Norwegian father never telling his daughter he loved her. The love was there, but never spoken. Ryan metabolized her emotion around that as co-parents raising a young child, and started constructing the song around this idea of desire and the internal friction that comes from not getting what you want, even if you don’t understand it or can’t admit it.
When Azsa envisioned the film, she was on her way home on a train in Tokyo during rush hour. Surrounded by people, physically pressed against them, she was struck with how much she feels like an outsider, as a mixed-race, queer person, and a foreigner. The paradox of that urge to blend and wholly participate in Japanese culture, while suppressing the individuality that Americans champion — this is really complex for a queer person. So this concept of desire, belonging and suppression gave way to video for The Zipper.
The video is a dreamy queer digital exploration that will probably resonate with any queerdo who grew up shape-shifting their identity in chat rooms and games online. Was this based on personal experience for both of you? What ideas about queer identity and the freedom of the internet were you interested in conveying?
We are both monstrously gay, gender-complicated and only human-adjacent creatures. Most of our connection to one another and to the people we love happens through the transcendence of imagination and play. We both come from a generation where in order to form a subculture, spark any kind of revolt, or connect with people like you, you had to either xerox a greyhound ticket or make your own shitty zine and try to mail it to people. That has its enormous magic, but it’s undeniable that the internet, and now virtual reality, completely change the game for any marginalized or weirdo kid.
Ryan’s beautiful songwriting refracts all kinds of meanings and secrets and this sort of painful optimism and tenderness. His openness to how queer this concept initially was, and how batshit it became as we developed it, is the epitome of his spirit and intelligence. The song and where it came from are deeply resonant with that special brand of longing, angst, wildness and desire.
What were your aesthetic reference points for the video?
Because Azsa has been living in Tokyo for a couple of years, Valentine was set to visit anyways, and we decided to transform the trip into our production time frame. To set it in Tokyo had a lot to do with Azsa’s ability to crew up and get the film cast, etc. while she was initially developing the idea. But as we started working more closely together from different continents and the idea evolved, Tokyo became a central source of inspiration and metaphor. The 80s bubble era architecture and color and this sort of timeless aesthetic lent itself to this otherwordly space of VR, and the safe space where our characters find each other, and themselves.
What elements of working on this music video proved to be the most challenging? Did anything surprise you during the process of realizing your vision for the video?
We both work with huge budgets in our commercial work, so anytime you go straight from shooting a Nike or Samsung commercial to making a music video or a short film, the constraints are really sobering. But they bring out every part of your brain and your skill-set, and it’s so much more fun to be that close to the work. It’s a family meal where everyone is doing everything and all the boundaries dissolve.
Working in Tokyo proved really challenging in some ways because of language barriers, different working cultures, totally surprising differences in the parameters of how a production is done in Japan vs in the US, and for our Cinematographer, Michelle Lawler, it was just shy of insane. She was being handed different cameras at different moments with menus she’d never seen before, all in Japanese. She had an incredible Gaffer (“Lighting Designer” in Japan!), Nishi Gaya, and together they managed to make the film look like it cost about five times its budget — without even understanding a single word the other was saying.
There also may or may not have been some deft interactions with the Yakuza in order to steal some rainy nighttime Shibuya shots.
As the idea started to take the form of actual storyboards and crew members building out their depts etc., we were also just stuck with how this freedom from huge financial resources and all the bullshit that comes with that was allowing us to never question or back down from putting a friend’s dog in a leather daddy harness or sensually caress a faceless man in a silver body suit with a cat toy. Freedom is more exciting than money.
What are some of the benefits of co-directing?
Making a film together is kind of like having a baby. There are endless obstacles and details to sort out in order for it all to come together. Having a partner you can trust is a huge advantage. When that’s your best friend, it’s the secret that makes it work. It’s like having a twin version of you who knows you well but also has their own special power that sets you both apart. No matter how hard the project was, or what was thrown our way, we were always able to hot potato stuff and pass the torch back and forth. Even when it was pure hell, it was pure heaven. I think that’s important. You support the other when they need it and if you are confident enough to not have an ego about certain things you can embrace each other’s skills and advantages for the greater good. There were some very Chevy Chase Family Vacation elements to this production that you can probably imagine if you’ve ever made something with 1/5 of the budget you need. For instance, after losing locations, equipment mixups, a crisis with a weiner dog that was later solved with a poodle, among other disasters, Azsa woke up on our first shoot day with violent food poisoning. The night before, we had gone out with Michelle for a moment of celebration and eaten some really questionable raw fish. So that day, we realized Valentine, with Michelle’s help, would have to Roxanne-style direct with both her and Azsa’s input. We were shooting in a Love Hotel — a place in Tokyo where couples who live with their parents can go to make babies. When we arrived, the manager told us we couldn’t bring any of our production design, makeup, wardrobe or hair crew into the hotel room. So we took direction from them, grabbed their kits and boxes and bags, and we all just did everything, while our lead actress, who speaks English and Japanese fluently, quickly drove Azsa to the hospital.
That’s what it was like to shoot in Tokyo. So you can imagine our surprise when this actually turned out to be a beautiful little film.
Can you talk about blending the live-action with animation in this video?
The animated world represents the place these two characters feel most at home. In the live action world we see them go through various attempts at exploring gender and desire in their private, isolated, mostly interior lives. Without seeking each other, they find one another in a virtual world, and feel none of the normal real world self-consciousness around exploring ideas of who they wanted to be. We see clues along the way in the real world when the more masculine female-assigned character presents extra butch in her body language or when she dabbles in domination. We see this when the more feminine male-assigned character when he rents a room at a Love Hotel and tries on a red dress and fake nails for the first time. In both of their experiments, they are completely at home. As the video progresses, we reveal that the leather daddy and the femme are avatars to these two characters’ still fluid and undefined, but super powerful desires and identities.
Both of you have worked as Creative Directors prior to this project — tell us about your respective career trajectories and what led you to begin directing.
We were many things before becoming creative directors and filmmakers. Bread slicers, housemaids, Christmas elves, journalists, beer wenches, regional karaoke champions, artists, sushi waitresses, male impersonators, data entrists, nannies, merch roadies, and personal assistants to rich chodes. All of those life experiences lend themselves well to being a creative — despite the agency-afflicted pedigree so many dudes wear around like a sandwich board. It’s a blessing that we came in to this industry pre-failing the test. It lets you fail flamboyantly, despite being “wrong” for the job. Once you’re not preoccupied with impressing people, you can actually pull from the time capsule of your life and it can be humbling and inspiring and help you make better work. We’ve both always managed to learn a little about a lot and have taken on and still continue to don multiple hats. As a creative, you are also expected to have a full menu of skills and perspectives, if you’re worth your salt. You need to know about music, design, writing a script, selling an idea, providing direction, tastemaking, partnerships, production, budget, communication, inspiring people, thinking about the business end, all while keeping track of a vision that can easily get eviscerated in all of the politics and meat grinders. Being a jack of all trades comes in handy too when it comes to filmmaking, especially when you’re first starting out. For example, Valentine is also a published poet who is also exploring costume design and is developing a TV series with another writing partner. Azsa still makes art and writes in addition to directing and creative directing. As creatives in the ad industry, you peripherally work alongside some of the best in the world, so it can be a kind of like film school. As ideas people with wild imaginations who grew up poor, it’s always been a dream for us to make things with our friends and make money while doing it. But we would live in a van down by the river if meant we could make things together. That’s the dream.
Do you find that approaching filmmaking with the experience of creative direction has an effect on the work?
At the end of the day, they are two unique jobs that can differ in a lot of ways. However, there is a lot of crossover in terms of the role that you play on a project. When you are a creative who knows how to develop a good rapport with your directors, it helps you learn those boundaries and how to respect someone’s decisions, even if you see them flailing or you disagree. The hierarchy on a set can be very freeing, as long as no one’s being a diva. There is no one way to be a director or how to approach a project. It comes down to what the idea is, how you want to work and who you work with. Working with likeminded people you respect is important. Sometimes you may not have the luxury to pick and choose who you work with, but being able to be open, flexible, intuitive, decisive, and resourceful all come in handy. These are some things that being a creative director has taught us, as well as living and working around the world with lots of different people. As a creative director you go through a very rigorous process in terms of getting an idea approved. There’s a lot of obstacles to overcome before anything is actually real or put out into the world. In some ways, this primes you well for entering the world of filmmaking. Filmmaking is on another level entirely — but being able to navigate communication with all sorts of people and sell a strong vision helps.
Since Azsa is based in Tokyo and Valentine lives in LA, is it difficult to collaborate long-distance? What elements of your respective environments inspire your work?
A 17 hour time difference can be a pretty cruel reality when you not only need to talk about your budget and decide what kind of fish the producer should buy to pour into a jacuzzi, but your relationships with loved ones, your existential panic, work, friends, family, blardiblar. But with the dark magic of technology we are able to work closely together. There is also a lot of trust and love there. So it works. At the end of the day, we are best friends first, so we are willing to do whatever we need to do to make sure the friendship is intact. In terms of presentation we are pretty different from one another. One of us has more body hair than the other, and one of us is unusually tall while the other fits in your pocket. Tokyo and LA are pretty opposite in terms of what it’s like to live there. In some ways this may shape who we are and what we like. Valentine once said she could no longer live in Shanghai because there was no kombucha. Azsa stayed on despite the lack of metaphysical beverages because there was something about the chaos of a big city that inspired her. We are really into fantasy. Anything surrealist, imaginary, made-up, ridiculous, impossible. We love a metaphor and feel comfortable with abstract shapes versus clear cut lines. There’s something that feels androgynous about that. Azsa’s new age, magical realist childhood and Valentine’s hippy, houseboat upbringing have made us both into escapists who hate labels. Azsa’s art really embodies this — it’s the world The Zipper is built on.
What are some dream projects that you’d love to work on, together or separately?
Separately, we are both working on films about our fucked up magical childhoods. Both projects draw on fantasy and blur reality — we’re both drawn into those themes, maybe they ease pain. But they also emancipate you from contending forever with stories about who you are. To be queer, and for Azsa as a mixed-race POC, the biggest survival tool you have is to cut yourself free from proscribed logic. Gondry and Alma Har’el are big inspirations.
Together we have a bucket list of ideas we want to achieve. Most of these traverse the spectrum from lesbian art house to dumb and dumber. Dad jokes and art museums are our mutual medicine. So — watch this space!
Free The Bid is committed to advocating for diverse perspectives and points of view. What do you think are some of the benefits to diverse, intersectional representation on both sides of the camera lens?
It’s truly insane that it’s even still a question. It feels like everyone is still on the doorstep of human potential, debating if there’s a door. The queer and POC history you see in film and textbooks is often about “tolerance” and “acceptance.” Never were more vile words spoken. The last thing we aspire to be is tolerable. For so long, the conversation around “diversity” has been framed around making equity appealing to people who are afraid of losing their power and privilege. We promise you’ll enjoy having us around!
At this point, it’s beyond obvious that when film sets, and film casts, and every other work space, reflect the world as it’s actually populated, our work and our quality of life get better. Why this is even still an issue boggles us every day as we commune with the bros and art-jocks around us (some of whom we truly adore).
This is one area of our lives where being Creative Directors has strengthened us. You realize, but barely register, that you are always the only woman being conferred any power in whatever room you’re in or set you’re on. And still you know that people are constantly questioning your power and your ability. After you get over the years of it making you angry, you realize what a pleasure it is to not give a shit. Then you can start hacking into that dynamic and hiring and supporting more diversity in your work. And it actually increases the love and potential and connection for everyone, including the dinosaurs.
Any final words of advice for our readers?
Buy a van to live in down by the river. Just kidding! Use every part of yourself, your experience, and your totally unproven, wild-ass, futuristic dream vision — you are the only person who can make work out of that. And keep your best friend close.