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MARRIAGE


MARRIAGE (Kekkon)


June 20, 2017
Q&A guests: Star Dean Fujioka and director Shinichi Nishitani


Dean and Nishitani Koichi Mori
Nishitani directed Fujioka playing that paragon of virtue, Godai-sama. This time out, he's an incorrigible scoundrel.    ©Koichi Mori

The flashbulb orgy was just a tad overwhelming as Dean Fujioka took his seat onstage following FCCJ’s screening of his new film, Marriage.

“I’m going blind,” he said in English, laughing happily. “You guys are amazing!”

The irony wasn’t lost on the large crowd, which was clearly thrilled to experience the megawatt voltage of Fujioka’s smile and his rockstar magnetism in person. Most of them were there because they’d already been mesmerized by the force of his NHK debut on the morning drama Here Comes Asa.

Playing the real-life father of Osaka commerce, Tomoatsu Godai, with an impossibly charming, breezy confidence, he had imbued the character with a buoyant optimism that seemed to dovetail perfectly with his own personality. Male viewers yearned for his let’s-change-the-world fighting spirit; females yearned for a man who would cherish and cheer them on, as Godai had done for Asa, the title character.

Over the course of its six-month run, the series became a cultural juggernaut and the “Godai-sama boom” continued unabated. Soon, Fujioka’s “reverse-import” status as Japan’s first Asia-wide star was firmly cemented. His presence drove Here Comes Asa to record-setting viewership, and Fujioka, to a stratospheric level of popularity.

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 The Fujioka supernova had first glowed in 2006 in Hong Kong and Taiwan, where he parlayed a successful (albeit unplanned) modeling career into a series of attention-grabbing roles in television and film. Impressively, he also added Cantonese and Mandarin to his fluent English, which he’d honed during college in Seattle.  

He signed on with Japan’s Amuse talent management company in 2011, and for the next few years, split his time his time between TV projects in Japan, Taiwan and North America — where he appeared in eight episodes of the 2014-2015 detective series The Pinkertons — as well as Japanese indies.

But it wasn’t until Here Comes Asa started in late 2015 that Fujioka became an overnight sensation in his homeland. The years at midlevel fame apparently helped him adapt to his newfound mega-celebrity with amiable equanimity.

Veteran NHK director Shinichi Nishitani was one of the helmers on Here Comes Asa, and during the Q&A session, he recalled being “blown away” by Fujioka’s charisma on their first meeting, becoming an instant fan. After working with him, he found him to be “an actor who can really immerse himself in a role and become the character, whereas many actors stay themselves. With Dean, he plunges into it with full commitment. I find that astonishing.”

marriage dean Koichi Mori   marriage nishitani-036 Koichi Mori  
                                       Marriage marks the third collaboration for Fujioka and Nishitani.  @Koichi Mori 

While the asadora series was running, they made a TV movie together, Noisy Street, Silent Sea. With Fujioka’s meteoric rise, they were also able to fast-track a feature project. The resulting film, Marriage, is the long-awaited adaptation of a bestselling novel by Areno Inoue, about a marriage scammer. Nishitani cleverly cast Fujioka as the conscience-free conman, earning instant audience sympathy for a character who wouldn’t otherwise deserve it.

But both men deflected the suggestion that playing a scoundrel was meant to counteract the Godai-sama effect. Says Nishitani, “We wanted to widen the spectrum of his roles this time around. Of course he’d done I Am Ichihashi: Journal of a Murderer, which was quite a departure. But I wanted to show his utter charm, how he can sweep women off their feet and put a spell on the them.”

Fujioka added, again in English, “I did everything I could to convince myself that I was the person he wanted me to portray. After we finished shooting, during the editing process, Mr. Nishitani took a different approach, and I was surprised. But I’m happy with the outcome.”

In Marriage, Fujioka’s lothario is not a hero, far from it: he separates his victims from their savings accounts and redefines their notions of romantic bliss. But he’s also not quite a villain, not even in the women’s eyes. There is apparently a dark secret in his past, and this is at the root of his fraudulent schemes.

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                 Kenji puts a spell on Ruriko, before she's wise to his ways.   @2017 "Marriage" Film Partners

Kenji Urumi (Fujioka) is perpetually polished and happily married to Hatsune (Shihori Kanjiya). He just happens to make his living from con games, slipping in and out of whatever skin suits his latest conquest, with marriage as the bait. For avid reader Asami (Eriko Nakamura), he is a popular web novelist with 500,000 followers; for classy magazine editor Mana (Wakana Matsumoto), he is a budding restaurateur who can also tickle the piano keys with just the right seductive pizzazz; for Hatoko (Tamae Ando), who despairs of the future as she stamps marriage license applications at a city office, he is a suave wine connoisseur.   

Then there’s Ruriko (Shuko), Kenji’s partner in crime, a former target who realizes she can keep him close only by sharing in the spoils of his misadventures. She provides him with a “never-ending supply” of lonely hearts in need of love. Until one day, he meets his match in Yasue (Hisako Manda), who digs into his past and reveals the ugly truth.

Although saying more would spoil the film, there is an unexpected outcome that differs substantially from the original novel. Discussing that during the Q&A session, Fujioka said, “I think it was really effective that Mr. Nishitani decided to bookend the film with the traditional lullaby Hamabe no uta. It evokes something that should be there, and is not — something that Kenji should have had, that would allow him to have [healthy] relationships with women, but that’s been ruined.”

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                             Hatoko meets and falls for Kenji at a wine tasting.    @2017 "Marriage" Film Partners

Addressing the director, a foreign journalist commented, “The British psychoanalyst Christopher Bollas has said that we get married in order to escape growing up. Can you tell us your thoughts on how you tried to show the institution of marriage in this film?”

Nishitani initially answered, “I would say that we portrayed it as something that soothes you.” But after further prompting by the emcee and Dean, he admitted, “I’ve arrived at this answer after experiencing multiple marriages.”

“Pretty convincing, right?” laughed Fujioka. “Home is where the heart is!”

marriage 56 Mance Thompson
                                                           Fujioka reacts to Nishitani's description of marriage based on "multiple" experiences with it.   ©Mance Thompson

A female journalist asked Fujioka about the process of making his character empathetic. “Being an actor is a lot like being a conman,” he said, responding in Japanese because the question was in Japanese. “You have to do what the character calls for or you can’t be an actor. But the professions are polar opposites. For the conman, it’s all about his own ego — he breaks the law and the consequences are quite tragic.

“But it’s interesting,” he continued, “because Kenji’s ability to please women is what makes him such a good conman, and makes the film so compelling. To make a woman happy, [Kenji knows] you have to like her. You have to feel that you like her. It’s about having curiosity. ‘What is she thinking? What does she want to do? What does she really want?’ And it’s about making the other person comfortable, putting her at ease.”

Another audience member asked the star about the scene in which he’s playing the piano. Despite being an accomplished musician, he admitted, “It was technically challenging. It’s the first time I’d played the piano while saying my lines and also reacting to the actress’ lines. It was like we were doing a musical, and it took a lot of concentration.”

marriage poster-69 Mance Thompson
                                                                                                                                            ©Mance Thompson

Returning later to the subject of music, Fujioka was queried about the film’s theme song, Permanent Vacation, which he wrote and performed. “I knew right away that I wanted to start the song with the line asa ga kita, or here comes asa, since the director and I met on the NHK drama. So it begins, When morning comes, we still don’t know where we’re headed. I wanted to convey this sense of being lost, of not knowing where to go. I wrote the rest of the lyrics during the shoot, and didn’t start writing the music until we’d finished shooting.

“The lyrics are a kind of soliloquy, a confession,” he concluded, “because we only tell Kenji’s story from the perspective of these women that he’s swindled. So it’s a glimpse into his heart and mind, and that’s how we ended the film.”

The actor doesn’t need to worry that this rogue turn will diminish his female following. Coincidentally, he is currently starring in Amazon Prime’s hit Happy Marriage!?, and fans can find comfort as his character continues to evolve from a “tyrannical-devoted-sadistic-charming” husband (as per Wikipedia) into someone more closely mirroring Dean Fujioka himself.

Marriage poster 2017 Marriage Film Partners
                            @2017 "Marriage" Film Partners

Press Coverage

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LEAR ON THE SHORE


LEAR ON THE SHORE (Umibe no Lear)


May 31, 2017
Q&A guests: Screen legend Tatsuya Nakadai and director Masahiro Kobayashi


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Nakadai and Kobayashi collaborate on film No. 3, and no water bottles were thrown during the Q&A (as they are in the film).    ©Mance Thompson

Just how young is Tatsuya Nakadai? Younger than any of us.

Eager to get the show on the road, Japan’s greatest living actor strode energetically into FCCJ’s packed screening room without waiting for the emcee to announce him, and seemed almost oblivious to the flashbulb onslaught, if not the sustained applause.

Without meaning to, Nakadai had perfectly evoked the character he plays in his new film, Lear on the Shore, a once-bright star of screen and stage who has just escaped from the luxury nursing home where his ungrateful daughter (Mieko Harada) and son-in-law Yukio (Hiroshi Abe) have stashed him, after forcing him to leave them everything in his will. Tugging a carry-on bag behind him, he strides purposefully along a deserted beach at dawn, unsure where he’s come from or where he’s going… but determined to find an audience that appreciates his talents. (The actual bag showed up at the photocall following the Q&A session, provoking much mirth.)

The great actor reunited with singular director Masahiro Kobayashi for the film, marking their third collaboration after Haru’s Journey (2010) and Japan's Tragedy (2013). In Lear, Nakadai stars as the majestically barefoot, silk pajama-clad Chokitsu Kuwabatake, who has dementia and only fleetingly recalls his daughter’s betrayal. But a thespian to the core, he can still recite great chunks of dialog from heralded performances.

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                     Despite the film's many tragic undertones, there was ample laughter during the Q&A.  
©Mance Thompson

Nakadai had famously played the mad daimyo Hidetora Ichimonji, loosely based on Shakespeare’s King Lear, in Akira Kurosawa’s acclaimed Ran (1985). Befitting Kobayashi’s preference for arthouse pacing, the auteur’s new tragicomedy is as stripped down as Kurosawa’s melodrama is supercharged. Yet the success of both films pivots on a towering performance by the celebrated star — and age has only burnished his brilliance.

On the dais, Nakadai said, “I am very old, in the final stages of my life. As you’ve just seen, the film depicts an actor named Chokitsu. There are indeed similarities between this role and myself. We are both 84 years old, we are both so-called stars, so I thought perhaps Mr. Kobayashi was making a documentary about me — although I didn’t hear that directly from him.”

Kobayashi admitted, “I had Mr. Nakadai in mind when I wrote the script for this film, and I wanted to bring him the project and pull him in. In order to pull him in, I wanted to surprise him. And to do that, I had to figure out what kind of story to concoct. Shakespeare was a playwright, and he would write certain roles for certain actors in his troupe, and I think that kind of style suits me, as well.”

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©Mance Thompson

He continued, “Before becoming a film director, I was a screenwriter for a little more than a decade. I was always careful about writing something that actors would want to do. In order to do that, you have to imagine situations and what they would say, and write a character in which they can evoke their own sentiments. If an actor is allowed to play a part like that, they can reveal their true selves and I presume that’s quite an enjoyable process.”

Speaking about Kurosawa’s Ran, Roger Ebert once noted that there strong parallels between daimyo rulers and filmmakers, since both must “enforce their vision in a world seething with jealousy, finance, intrigue, vanity and greed.” In Lear on the Shore, how much of Chokitsu is Nakadai and how much Kobayashi? When the film’s fallen actor assures us that he “only wanted to please everyone” and later laments, “You claw your way to the top, then tumble down the other side,” do the lines not borrow sentiments from both men?

While striding along that beach at daybreak, Chokitsu runs into a forlorn young woman and takes her for an assistant. “Are you my accomplice?” he jokes, but she is not amused. This, it turns out, is his younger daughter Nobuko (Haru Kuroki), sent packing by Chokitsu when she became pregnant years earlier. She has returned home for reasons that only become clear much later, and her father’s failure to recognize her is another crushing blow. “I was the only one who loved you,” she wails, but Chokitsu sees only an actress playing Lear’s beloved youngest, Cordelia, and happily plays along, before turning to take his bows.

1 2017 Lear on the Shore Film Committee
                   
@2017 "Lear on the Shore" Film Committee

The interactions between Nakadai and Kuroki — the National Living Treasure and the young sparkplug who won Best Actress at the Berlin Film Festival for Yoji Yamada’s The Little House — are at the heart of the film, and one marvels at the level of craft.

A British journalist asked Nakadai what the Lear character actually means to him, and why he’d never played the role on stage. “It’s always been my wish, for many years now, that I could someday do a full production of King Lear on the stage,” answered Nakadai. “Akira Kurosawa’s Ran was a Japanese adaptation of the play, and has a different perspective from Shakespeare’s original, in that the protagonist, Hidetora, comes into conflict with his sons. Mr. Kurosawa himself said, ‘This is a god’s-eye portrayal of humans, and how they’ll keep on fighting. War will never end, so long as humankind is on this earth.’’

He paused. “I’ve been wondering myself, just how much Mr. Kobayashi was inspired by King Lear, and how much he put into the film.” And he turned, eyebrow cocked in that familiar way, to his director.

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©Mance Thompson (left), FCCJ (right)

Responded Kobayashi: “When I was young, there was this shingeki acting style [new drama style, based on Western realism], and Mr. Nakadai is of that school. What they did was import the works of Shakespeare and other foreign playwrights, and translate them into Japanese for their productions. Honestly speaking, it doesn’t really suit my taste. What I wanted to do was not a costume play of King Lear [like Kurosawa’s Ran], but rather, to depict what would happen if a Japanese were to play King Lear. What would that look like? How would that actor prepare for the role? Very much in the vein of Al Pacino’s Looking for Richard, I didn’t want to depict Lear himself, but to depict the life of an actor, and of acting.”

Once again not waiting (this time for the interpreter to translate Kobayashi’s remarks), Nakadai said, “I see. I didn’t know that. I didn’t ask about that when we were on the set.”

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lear100 mance             Kobayashi's revelation about the film's final scene came as a surprise to his star.  ©Mance Thompson

And he went on, “To speak about Mr. Kobayashi’s work, [after this third collaboration] I think there’s a connecting thread between these three films. Although he hasn’t said it to me directly, they’re all about aging and about whether you’re able to say, when you have death staring at you, ‘I have lived this life to the fullest.’ I presume that’s the common thread he’s after. But on set, I just follow his orders.”

Kobayashi was asked about his unusual shooting style, especially his choices of camera angles and long takes. “It’s a difficult question to answer concisely,” the director responded, “but I would say that a lot of thought went into what you see on the screen. It was intentional, for the first half, to have many long shots. What I was aiming at was to find a way to bring both comedy and pathos into the scenes. I think the long shots, with a tiny person in a vast landscape, are much funnier.

“The second half was also intentional,” he added. “But despite going into the shoot with a meticulous plan and storyboards, you have to look at your actor, see what kind of acting he’s doing and decide which approach would best reflect his acting.”

"Mr. Kobayashi does long, long takes,” confirmed Nakadai. “There was a lot of dialogue that I had to remember. For Japan’s Tragedy, he kept the camera on my back for 20 minutes without cutting. That was one single cut. I was shocked by that. But I was quite satisfied when I saw the finished film, and I finally understood what he was getting at.”

A foreign journalist asked about the film's unusual setting. “I’ve seen Lear done in the park, but I’ve never seen it on the beach,” he said. “Was that freeing for you?”

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                     Chokitsu's very suitcase is reunited with Nakadai during the photocall.  
©Mance Thompson

Nakadai laughed. “No, actually. The background doesn’t have much to do with the acting. Whether you’re acting on stage or on a set or on a beach on the Noto Peninsula, like this time, it doesn’t affect the acting approach. But I’m not a good swimmer. I can’t swim. So [for the final scene], we had to rehearse the night before shooting. Mr. Kobayashi had asked me, ‘Can you bear to be underwater for 10 seconds?’ I said, ‘Well, I don’t know how to swim.’ And he said, ‘We’ll have to rehearse.’ We were in an onsen town, so we went to the bath together and rehearsed." He noticed the audience tittering and stopped. "I’m sorry to crush your imagination. I apologize.”

He continued, “But I think Ms. Kuroki had the conscience to [pull me out of the water] a little faster than planned, because she was worried about me."

Kobayashi interjected, “In fact, I decided to wait more than 10 seconds. Mr. Kuroki was ready to jump into the frame but I tugged at her hand and told her to wait a few more seconds.”

Nakadai shot him a look and then laughed appreciatively. “What a cunning director you are!”

And then he leapt to his feet to instigate the photocall.

Lear Poster 2
@2017 "Lear on the Shore" Film Committee

Press Coverage

 

 

TATARA SAMURAI


TATARA SAMURAI


May 15, 2017
Q&A guests: Director Yoshinari Nishikori and star Naoki Kobayashi


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                       Naoki Kobayashi and Yoshinari Nishikori were all smiles on the dais.    ©Koichi Mori

Writer-director Yoshinari Nishikori is a history buff. Nothing excites him like discovering little-known or forgotten facts about bygone Japan — especially those that relate to Shimane, his home prefecture — and bringing his discoveries to the big screen. Four of his films have been shot in Shimane, and his latest, the gorgeously cinematic parable Tatara Samurai, is no exception.

The director’s first jidaigeki period piece, it is set in a small village in ancient Izumo that is renowned for its steelmaking prowess. Using a secret method to forge the purest steel known to man, the blacksmiths of Tatara have become legendary. Their fame attracts warriors from across the land during the 16th-century Warring States period, lured by the promise of indomitable katana swords. But it also attracts the unwanted attentions of rival clans, and of merchants bent on procuring steel for the latest weaponry: firearms.

Gosuke (Sho Aoyagi) has been groomed from youth to become the next Murage (master blacksmith) after his father and grandfather. But he dreams of leaving home to become a samurai under Oda Nobunaga, and one day, he siezes his opportunity. On the road, he meets the merchant Yohei (Takashi Sasano), who helps him join Oda’s army. But Gosuke proves to be no soldier, and returns home resigned to his fate. When Yohei later arrives to ply guns over blades, there is little resistance from the villagers, except for Gosuke’s childhood friend Shimpei (Naoki Kobayashi), who senses the merchant’s true motives but is branded a traitor and banished. It isn’t until the Izumo lord, Shinnosuke (Akira), falls victim to the senseless violence that accompanied the armaments, that Gosuke begins to understand the true essence of the Bushido spirit.

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Aoyagi at the tatara oven. ©2017 Tatara Samurai Production Partnership

Appearing for the second time at FCCJ after his 2013 Konshin (also set in Shimane and also starring Aoyagi), the irrepressible Nishikori discussed the impetus for the film: “Japanese people think they know their history, but I discovered they didn’t know the story of tatara-buki and the swords that were made in Shimane,” he said. “The tatara [smelting] technique is better at producing steel for swords than today’s state-of-the-art machines.”

The 1,300-year tradition of passing down tatara-buki through the generations had been halted after World War II, the director explained, before being resumed under the auspices of the government. In 1977, the Agency for Cultural Affairs and the Japanese Society for the Preservation of Japanese Art Swords (Nittoho), built the Nittoho Tatara foundry in Shimane with Hitachi Works to provide the steel necessary for the continued production of Japanese swords. It operates only between late January and early February, but creates the purest, most refined form of steel available anywhere — attracting customers from around the world, including Stephen Spielberg, for its sought-after blades.

“Hitachi’s employees carry on this legacy,” said Nishikori, “and [tatara-buki] is still a secret technique.”

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                     Nishikiori explains the finer points of steelmaking.   ©Mance Thompson, Koichi Mori

But Nishikori wasn’t inspired to make Tatara Samurai just because he was intrigued with the ancient craft. In the production notes, he had called Tatara village “a microcosm of the unresolved problems and suffering that exists across the contemporary world today. The secretive craftsmanship of the tatara-buki and the power-wielding ability of the swords it creates is [similar to] the issues behind global oil demand today. In the film, the village is determined to use arms in order to fend off an impending attack – leading to a critical situation.”

The film’s allegorical wrapping is difficult to miss, but viewers will find themselves, first and foremost, immersed in its historical accuracies. Among its many impressive features is a fully operational Sengoku-era tatara, and there are dazzling scenes of steelmaking that feel imbued with documentary-level exactitude. Because it is crafted with such loving attention to detailed authenticity, one audience member admitted being confused about whether Tatara Samurai was or was not based on true events.

“There are almost no historical records from the Sengoku period,” explained Nishikori. “What we see of this period in films and read in novels is basically fiction. So we based the film on the supposition that this type of thing probably happened, that the people in power were trying to get their hands on the tamahagane steel [used to forge the samurai blades].

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                   Kobayashi answered in English, and then translated himself. 
©FCCJ, Mance Thompson

He continued, “The people who made this steel were very, very rich and there was a lot of abundance in the region. Through the research we did for the film, we discovered that there was a lot of international trade going on, and there were a lot of foreigners visiting this area. So that’s how we constructed the story. Because it was such a rich region and there was a lot of money, Izumo had ties to the people in power, and was under the warlords’ protection.”

Nishikori was asked about Tatara village itself, and explained that “The village is not real, [but a set]. It was all built for the film, except for the shrine, which is about 1,500 years old. We had a lot of help from the local carpenters in Izumo, the miyadaiku craftsmen who do a lot of restoration work on the Izumo Shrine [Japan’s oldest]. They have a specialized technique that allows them to build without using any nails.”

Nishikori was accompanied by one of the film’s stars, Naoki Kobayashi, a member of the Exile theatrical troupe and leader of the J-pop supergroup Sandaime J Soul Brothers. Although he’s been dancing and acting for a decade, Tatara Samurai marks Kobayashi’s film debut.

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        Kobayashi demonstrates his fighting skills in the penultimate batte. 
©2017 Tatara Samurai Production Partnership

During the Q&A session, he immediately charmed the audience with his English skills (apparently perfected over just a single year of study) and his relaxed manner — a far cry from his stoic character in the film. Asked whether he got to use one of the state-of-the-art katana, he said, “I wanted to use a real sword, but this is a movie, right? Of course it was an imitation. But I trained with a real sword to get the sense of being a samurai.” (He then plunged amiably into the Japanese version of his response, prompting a spate of Japanese-press headlines about his “self-translation” capabilities.)

Kobayashi was asked whether his dancing had helped him prepare for his demanding role as Shimpei, the devoted friend and sparring partner of Gosuke who is banished from the village when he dares to challenge the gun merchants’ motives. “Since I’m a dancer, that experience was the best way [for me] to understand the lives of the characters,” he responded. “I like expressing myself through dancing, without any words. Acting uses words, so it’s difficult for me. But using my body is close to acting. My character’s main scenes are fighting scenes, so expressing myself using my body was easy.”

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             The villagers opt for modern armaments, bringing about a crisis.  ©2017 Tatara Samurai Production Partnership

Another FCCJ viewer asked about the beautiful dance performed by a miko shrine maiden in the film, wondering if it had been influenced in any way by Exile style. Nishikori verified that it is one of many miko-mai that are still performed at shrines throughout Japan. This one was inspired, he said, by “Izumo no Okuni, the woman who started the kabuki tradition. She was said to have been raised in an iron-making house in Shimane and gone to Kyoto, where the tradition took root.”

While lauding the film’s authenticity, one audience member said he couldn’t help noticing an absence of blood. “It’s grounded in reality,” said Nishikori. “It was intentional to show as little blood as possible. We’re used to seeing blood spurting out as samurai are cut or split open. But in reality, that isn’t real. The blade is so sharp that the blood doesn’t spurt out [like that]. Before Kurosawa started showing blood spurting, Japanese jidaigeki weren’t like that.”

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©Mance Thompson

“Also,” he added, “we wanted to make a film that’s accessible to children, so the whole family could go and see it.”
 
Tatara Samurai was shot on 35 mm film, not on the currently preferred digital format, to better capture Shimane’s magnificent scenery and the excitement of swordfights choreographed by famed stuntman Yoshio Iizuka. While limited theaters across Japan will project it in digital 4K resolution, even in its 2K condensed form, the film has the look and epic sweep of the sumptuous cinematic feasts once served up by the major studios. That this independent production achieves such a level of artistry has already earned it international awards, including one for Best Artistic Contribution at the 2016 Montreal World Film Festival.

Izumo is the birthplace of many vaunted Japanese traditions, including kabuki, sumo (which Nishikori celebrated in his earlier film, Konshin) and even sake. Tatara Samurai has not been made to promote the prefecture, but audiences may find it impossible to resist booking a Shimane visit as soon as they’ve seen the film’s stunning visuals.

after bunch KM                  Nishikori and Kobayashi joined attendees in the bar after the screening event.  ©Koichi Mori

 

Poster
©2017 Tatara Samurai Production Partnership

Press Coverage

YAEKO'S HUM


YAEKO'S HUM (Yaeko no Humming)


May 15, 2017
Q&A guests: Director Kiyoshi Sasabe and stars Takeshi Masu and Yoko Takahashi

 


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                       Masu, Takahashi and Sasabe     ©Mance Thompson

Like all fast-graying societies, Japan has not dodged the healthcare bullet. Current estimates put the number of dementia sufferers in the country at 4.6 million, but with 65-and-overs expected to account for over 30% of the population by 2025, that is sure to surge. 

While the government has championed community-wide caregiving, the burden of funding and implementing much-needed initiatives has fallen on NGOs and NPOs at the local level. Yet even with neighborhood watch networks, innovative daycare centers and millions of trained volunteer caregivers, there are simply not enough people involved.

Taking his inspiration from a true story, writer-director-producer Kiyoshi Sasabe means his new film as a wake-up call — a poignant argument against the outsourcing of Alzheimer’s care. “Kindness is the best medicine,” says one of its protagonists, and Yaeko’s Hum amply demonstrates the resulting improvements in quality of life and dignity.

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                     The writer-director often tackles pressing social issues, but this time, it was more personal.  
©Mance Thompson

The film follows the broad outlines of the memoir of the same name by Nobutaka Minami, an educator who not only devoted himself selflessly to the care of his wife after she developed early-onset Alzheimer’s, but did so while concurrently undergoing a series of debilitating cancer operations himself. Sasabe first read the book 8 years ago, and was immediately interested in adapting it.

During the Q&A session following FCCJ’s sneak preview screening, one audience member praised Sasabe’s gifts as a “master tearjerker,” but asked why the film hadn’t been made by a major studio, given the seemingly made-for-mainstream-audiences approach to the subject. The director responded, “I wrote a script 8 years ago and initially planned to make it with a studio. But it’s about an elderly couple, about sickness and caregiving, and that does not sit well with younger audiences. So every major studio and TV station that I went to said no to the project.”

But traveling the Japanese festival circuit with other films, Sasabe was often asked why there were no more films for mature audiences, and gradually realized that Yaeko’s Hum could appeal to older fans.

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                   Yoko Takahashi, an accomplished novelist, returns to the screen after a 28-year hiatus. 
©Mance Thompson

His commitment deepened further when the story took a personal turn. “I lost my mother two years ago, and before she passed away, she suffered dementia herself for 3 or 4 years,” he explained. “My younger sister took care of her, and it was a very challenging time. Whenever I talk with my contemporaries, the topic always seems to come around to ‘What do we do about our aging, ailing parents?’ I think this is a film that Japanese society needs. So I ultimately decided that I would raise the funds and make it independently.”

Sasabe had explored the theme before, in his Japan Academy-Prizewinning Half a Confession (2004) — although that work was equally concerned with the issue of euthanasia, when a husband is arrested for killing his Alzheimer’s-afflicted wife at her request. He had also, as an assistant director, worked on Solitude Point (1998), a story of the enduring love between a Japanese Alzheimer's sufferer and her Korean War-veteran husband.

With Yaeko’s Hum, Sasabe focuses on a relationship that would seem far too good to be true. Except that it really happened.

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                   Masu, accustomed to supporting roles, is perfectly cast as the uber-devoted husband.  ©Mance Thompson

The film opens after Yaeko’s death, as Seigo Ishizaki (Takeshi Masu), a retired principal and school board director, addresses an avid crowd. "I cared for my wife for 12 years,” he tells them. “We’d been married for 38 years, so that amounts to the last third of our life together. I watched her gradually lose her memory… but then it struck me… my wife was just taking her time saying goodbye.” As Ishizaki speaks, his memories come alive in a series of flashbacks, beginning with the first signs of the disease in 1989.

As Yaeko’s illness progresses, it soon takes a tremendous toll on the family, yet Ishizaki remains impossibly patient as his wife reverts to childhood. Yaeko (Yoko Takahashi) was once a music teacher, and she retains her love of song; since she cannot remember the words now, she must hum them. When she hears her favorite songs by Shinji Tanimura, her smile always returns. But these are not easy years, and the film doesn’t gloss over the difficulties of home care — the diapers, the mood changes, the tantrums, the disappearance of romance from the couple’s relationship. Yet with the support of the couple’s two daughters, and eventually the entire town, Ishizaki tends to Yaeko’s needs, protects her dignity and extends her life as he bids her a “long farewell.”

Looking far younger than she does onscreen (and younger than she deserves to), Yoko Takahashi thrilled several members of FCCJ’s audience who remembered her early career burning up the screen as the sexy star of such films as Koichi Saito’s Journey into Solitude, Kei Kumai’s Sandakan 8 and Shuji Terayama’s Farewell to the Ark. But Takahashi left the film world to write fulltime. With a successful, ongoing career as a novelist, what was it about this role that enticed her back to acting after a 28-year break?

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                                       ©FCCJ

“It’s like getting back on a bicycle,” she told the audience. “Once you learn, you never forget how to ride. It didn’t seem like a long hiatus to me. But when the director asked me to play the role, I did have to think twice. I didn’t have a lot of lines, and I would have to play this person who’s ailing. So I hesitated. With the issue of dementia, you often hear about people becoming increasingly irritable, about them wandering and essentially becoming troublemakers. But Mr. Sasabe wanted me to make Yaeko charming [too], and that’s what really attracted me to the role.” A beat. “But it was a lot easier to play her when she’s aggressive.”

Takeshi Masu, a familiar face from literally dozens of supporting roles on stage, screen and TV for the past 35 years, marks a deeply moving debut in the lead here. Without his convincing portrayal, a fine balance of tender sentiment and gentle exasperation, the film would have collapsed under its own best intentions.

Asked how he prepared to become a saint, Masu admitted, “To tell you the truth, I couldn’t figure out how to approach the role because it was so starkly different from my past roles. But when I went on the set, Yoko-san was there as Yaeko, being really charming, and that helped me want to help her, to be as kind to her as possible.”

Takahashi mentioned that she had prepared for the role by meeting the author of the memoir, Yaeko’s widower, as well as by watching an NHK documentary on the couple.

Because there are flashbacks to the way back, as well as to the more recent past, Takahashi and Masu frequently found themselves tasked with playing their characters at different ages, even on the same shooting day. Masu spoke about the physical challenges of the role: “I played someone who starts at 40 and ages up to 80, so I would have to carefully gauge how slowly to walk or to speak for each scene, so that it would all seem seamless when edited together.”

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©Mance Thompson

One foreign audience member mentioned her mother’s dementia and her own surprise at discovering, after moving her mother into a Japanese nursing home, that no one goes to visit their family members. Another viewer discussed how many people in Japan are now dying alone with no chance to be supported by the community, and asked the director whether he would consider making a “more realistic” film about someone who doesn’t have a family or a support system.

“I didn’t want to depict the harsh reality of caregiving,” said Sasabe. “There are so many documentaries about that out there. I wanted to make a film about loving Yaeko, and how love prevails. I wanted it to be a pure love story about this elderly couple, represented by the line, ‘There are limits to anger, but kindness is limitless.’”

He continued, “I want you to see this film as a sort of fantasy. I wanted to depict [the husband] as a kind of superhero. It’s about dreams and about hope.”

Sasabe shot Yaeko’s Hum in the small castle town of Hagi, facing the Sea of Japan, where he has set four previous films. It afforded him not only gorgeous views, but also immense support from the city and its citizens. He hails from nearby Shimonoseki, and in an echo of his film’s message, having a local network has clearly been essential to him.

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©2017 Team “Yaeko’s Hum”

Press Coverage

 

STAR SAND


STAR SAND (Star Sand – Hoshizuna Monogatari)


April 10, 2017
Q&A guests: Director Roger Pulvers, stars Lisa Oda and Shinnosuke Mitsushima


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                       The emerging director and his two rising stars.     ©Koichi Mori

In a prolific career that has taken him from the US to Russia to Poland to Japan and beyond, American-bred Australian Roger Pulvers has been known primarily as an award-winning author, translator, journalist, playwright, theater director and educator. Despite having famously served as Nagisa Oshima’s assistant on Merry Christmas, Mr. Lawrence (1983), and as co-writer of Takashi Koizumi’s Best Wishes for Tomorrow (2008), he has notched most of his achievements in realms other than film.

But he has just added another feather to his cap: film director.

A familiar figure at FCCJ, Pulvers sneak-previewed his directorial debut, Star Sand, ahead of the world premiere on April 22 at the Okinawa International Movie Festival. When he was asked what took him so long to helm his own production, Pulvers laughed, “I would have liked to make a movie a long time ago. I had a plan in 1990, but the asset bubble burst and I couldn’t.”

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                                                                Oda and Mitsushima both lauded Pulvers' directorial skills.    Above: ©FCCJ  Below: ©Koichi Mori

He recalled how he’d visited Hatomajima in 1977, first encountering the sparkly star sands (tiny, star-shaped marine protozoa), and hearing that the island had escaped the ravages of war. Some years later, he began thinking about “making a movie about a deserter, making a hero out of a deserter. I think that in times of intense warfare, it is heroic not to fight.” With the 2003 invasion of Iraq, “I remembered Vietnam, and I was very angry. So I wrote ‘Star Sand.’”

The film is based on that story (later a novel in both English and Japanese), an Okinawa-set mystery tale with a powerful message about compassion and quiet acts of heroism during wartime. Calling in favors from his nearly five decades in Japan, Pulvers was able to cast A-list actors like Shinobu Terajima, Renji Ishibashi and Mako Midori, and to shoot on location in Iejima with veteran cinematographer Shinji Ogawa and art director Koichi Kanekatsu (it was the first production ever permitted on the island, which had been destroyed by bombing in 1945). The film’s haunting theme song was written by Oscar-winner Ryuichi Sakamoto, an old friend from Merry Christmas days (which also deals with a friendship between soldiers from opposing sides).

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                                                                                                                                              ©Koichi Mori

Star Sand jumps nimbly between three distinctly different eras — April 1945, 1958 and 2016 — although its primary action takes place during the horrific Battle of Okinawa on a tiny speck of land remote from the main theater of action. Nevertheless, its inhabitants have all been touched, some in more disastrous ways than others, by the Pacific War. Sixteen-year-old Hiromi (Oda) has recently arrived on the island, while her father goes to work in a Nagasaki factory and her Japanese-American mother stays in Los Angeles. Out hunting for star sand one day, she comes upon two men in a cave. One is Takayasu, a Japanese deserter (Mitsushima); the other is an ailing American deserter named Bob (Brandon McClelland). Hiromi helps nurse Bob back to health, and brings food to the two men, who pledge never to commit an act of violence again. All is well until Takayasu’s brother, a fanatical soldier (Takahiro Miura), discovers the trio and vows to kill them all. Eventually, three of the four people in the cave will perish; we do not learn their identities until a modern-day university student in Tokyo reads a diary discovered in the cave in 1958, and goes on a quest to uncover the startling secret.

Pulvers brought along his two young stars, Lisa Oda and Shinnosuke Mitsushima, both of whom are on the cusp of major career recognition, to the FCCJ event.

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                      © 2017 The STAR SAND Team

A popular model since 2012, Oda made her memorable film debut just a year ago, playing a young woman who holds the key to a grisly crime in Keishi Ohtomo’s The Top Secret: Murder in Mind. Although she has also been appearing for the past two seasons as Sena, the pirate girl, in NHK’s television drama Moribito: Guardian of the Spirit, Oda’s acting resume is extremely slender for one so poised. She is not only the protagonist of Star Sand and its emotional center; she also delivers nearly half her lines in English.

Greeting the audience in English prior to the Q&A session, Oda was clearly nervous in front of her first crowd of international critics. “I was delighted to be offered the part of Hiromi, and couldn’t believe my good luck,” she told the audience. “Actually, I was so nervous because I have not had much acting experience. Also, I really didn't know about the wartime history of Japan. The biggest problem was how to be Hiromi with the right emotional responses. It wasn’t easy, but thanks to guidance from everybody, I was able to [play the role]. I'm grateful for the chance to be part of Star Sand.

Mitsushima proved to be as loquacious in person as his Star Sand character is reticent. “Good evening, everyone,” he introduced himself, also in English. “I’m from Okinawa, and I’m very honored to join this film and to be here tonight.” Switching to Japanese, he continued, “When I met Roger, he showed me a photo of an island, and I knew right away that it was Iejima, where I spent a lot of time [visiting] in my childhood. Being from Okinawa, you hear a lot more war stories and wartime experiences, and we see people who still have bullets in their bodies and older people who have lost limbs. The war is part of our being. So I worried about taking the role, since it would mean that I would have to face my identity as an Okinawan and shoulder the sentiments of my ancestors. Also, my grandfather is an American, so I would not have been born if it weren’t for World War II. But I was taken with Roger’s passion. Without him, it wouldn’t have been possible.”

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                                                    Both
©FCCJ

Pulvers returned his stars’ compliments: “I knew from the very beginning that if I didn’t get Lisa to play Hiromi, no one else could,” he said. “I think there are many among you tonight who will agree that she’s quite miraculous. As for that guy over there [indicating Mitsushima], that Okinawan-American, I thought there wouldn’t be a chance to get him in my movie. But when he saw that photo of Iejima and recognized it immediately, I put my dibs on him. It’s probably the first time a director’s gotten an actor just by showing one photograph.”

Asked how they prepared for their roles, Oda said, “I wouldn't be so pompous as to call my preparation for this role an ‘approach,’ but I will say that the first thing I did was to work with the director on improving my English pronunciation.”

Mitsushima, who’s been acting on stage and screen since 2010, and will appear in five other high-profile films this year (including titles by Takashi Miike, Yoshihiro Nakamura and Hirokazu Kore-eda), mentioned that the rehearsal period had been very helpful. “The character I play doesn’t have a lot of lines, and he’s the symbol of how Roger sees the Japanese — the conflicts, the strengths, the love for their families. I could prepare for that on my own physically, but I wouldn’t have been able to capture the essence of the character without having many, many discussions with the director. He knows twice as much as [the younger actors] do about Japan and Japanese history.”

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               An Okinawa representative invites Pulvers to return soon and make a sequel.                      ©Koichi Mori

He continued, “I decided to not take too cerebral an approach, but just to feel it emotionally, to bring back my childhood memories of spending time in caves. As [the character] says, ‘The world may be at war, but you’re able to breathe when you’re in this cave.’ We actually shot in one of the caves where people hid during the war, and you could feel this intangible power. I would get goosebumps every time we went in. Brandon and Miura-san and I would offer incense and prayers to the deceased each time, to help us connect with that generation.”

Pulvers was asked why he cast himself — in a very small role in the film’s closing minutes — in his own film. “I didn’t want to!” he lamented. “I’ve known [actress] Mako Midori forever; we’re the same age, and I had to play her son! But my producers put pressure on me, probably because they didn’t have money to audition someone else. So the biggest ham actor comes out at the very end.”

Star Sand will be opening in Okinawa before its Tokyo run begins in August, during the annual period of war remembrance, and Pulvers is sure to feature even more prominently in media analyses about the escalation of tensions in Asia. By bravely recasting war’s so-called cowards as the real heroes — the “true messengers of peace,” as he puts it, Pulvers’ first film is a poignant reminder that, even in periods of hatred and brutality, there is also the chance for hope.

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© 2017 The STAR SAND Team

Press Coverage

 

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