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HANAGATAMI


HANAGATAMI


December 1, 2017
Q&A guests: Director Nobuhiko Obayashi and producer Kyoko Obayashi


HanagatamiMance Thompson-0
Legendary director Nobuhiko Obayashi.  ©Mance Thompson

Sometimes it just doesn’t matter that FCCJ’s seats aren’t well-padded or that unimpeded views of the screen are limited. Sometimes, all that matters is having the privilege to watch a film by one of our greatest cinematic visionaries.

And this was one of those times. 

A surprisingly large audience arrived for the screening of Hanagatami from the early hour of 6pm; and when the lights came up 169 minutes later, they stayed glued to their seats for a Q&A session that went on nearly another hour.

The new masterwork by 79-year-old writer-director Nobuhiko Obayashi realizes his 40-year dream to bring Naoki Prizewinner Kazuo Dan’s 1937 novella to life, and it’s no exaggeration to view it as the culmination of his many impulses and obsessions, his magnum opus. A visual, aural and metaphorical feast, Hanagatami is also marked by an unbridled joie de vivre that borders on the contagious.

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Producer Kyoko Obayashi has been her husand's filmmaking partner for 60 years.  ©Koichi Mori

Those familiar with Obayashi’s work — he is the author of 2,000+ singular creations — may have been primed for the film’s staggeringly inventive visuals, its narrative density, its kinetic editing, elaborate soundtrack and fist-bumping creative energy. But as everyone in Japan now knows, the director learned he had stage-four lung cancer just before going into production on Hanagatami, and was told he had only 6 months to live.

That he finished the film is remarkable enough. That he underwent chemotherapy while shooting in 40 locations, with a huge cast of up-and-coming actors, is inconceivable. Yet Obayashi seems to have been cured by the very process of self-expression. Hanagatami fairly explodes with youthful vigor. 

That vigor may no longer emanate as confidently as it once did from the director himself. Yet, as FCCJ’s crowd discovered when he took gingerly to the stage with his wife and producer, Kyoko, his physical diminishment has not affected his eloquence nor quenched his passion for his vocation. Obayashi is still a master storyteller, both on screen and in life; and the Q&A session, although too brief even at 50 minutes, did not disappoint.

The legendary creator of House, the 1977 comedy-horror extravaganza that brought him to overnight global renown when it was discovered in the West some 32 years after its release, the  filmmaker has been exceedingly prolific in the third act of his career. Not only has he received critical acclaim for recent work like Casting Blossoms to the Sky (2012) and Seven Weeks (2014) — which together with Hanagatami form an antiwar trilogy of sorts — he has traveled the globe to be feted with career retrospectives and a handful of awards.

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The main characters assemble in Hanagatami.   ©karatsu film partners/PSC 2017

He has also become increasingly vocal about the role of filmmakers as messengers of peace, believing that their work must convey the urgency of today’s political situation in Japan. The first Q&A question addressed that role, when an American film historian asked, “Why did you choose such a fantastical, rather than a realistic, style to present the tragedy of war?”

“I chose a stylized approach because I didn’t think it would help cinematically to depict the subject realistically,” Obayashi answered. “My wife Kyoko sat beside me during the editing, and kept saying it didn’t matter how many incendiary bombs we had going off in a certain scene, the reality was 5 or 10 times worse. Even with the CG technology we have available today, it’s just not possible to depict reality with realism. I thought it would be more effective to use the construct and the deceit of fiction to convey reality. So I chose a heightened approach — heightened beauty, heightened reality, heightened acting, heightened directing — to get at what is really real.”

He then emphasized: “The lie that is most prevalent among us is the lie of peace. No matter how much we hope for it, we can’t attain it. This isn’t exactly an antiwar film; I just hate war, and I think that sentiment is conveyed.” 

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©Koichi Mori (left), ©Mance Thompson (right)

Obayashi had first planned to make Hanagatami in 1975, when he was enjoying a successful career directing commercials and short films. But history intervened with an invitation from Toho to help them reach a younger demographic with a new style of film that eschewed logic. (The resulting work, House, marked his feature debut.) Why then, asked a journalist, did it take 4 decades to finally make Hanagatami?

“Akira Kurosawa would often say that he had 30 films he wanted to make,” recalled Obayashi of the great auteur, “but that the proper timing would be decided by [the winds]. Hearing that, I realized that even if you have an important message to convey, there’s no point in trying to convey it unless there are ears willing to heed it. The purpose of [filmmaking] is to create a dialogue with the audience, and if they’re not willing to listen, there’s no point.

“The author of the original novella, Kazuo Dan, did not have the liberty to say that he hated war and hoped for peace, because that would have instantly made him an enemy of the state in those days. Yukio Mishima [who was inspired by Hanagatami to become a writer himself] said that the only thing that matters during wartime is to love as if your life depends on it, or else to be a delinquent. The novella depicts characters who are loving as if their lives depend on it, and a close comradery between the male characters, who drink and smoke together. They even ride horseback together naked. But they end up wanting to kill each other. And these motifs were really the only way you could depict the horrors and atrocities of war.

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High-school hijinx with, from l., Kubozuka, Emoto, Mitsushima and Nagatsuka.  ©karatsu film partners/PSC 2017

“Now that times have changed, we have a younger generation that doesn’t know much about war, but they can hear its footsteps gradually approaching, and they’re finally beginning to open their ears to what we have to say. We’re living in dangerous times. I felt that [Dan’s and] my father’s generation was telling me, ‘Now is the time. You have to make this film.’”

Hanagatami is set in the spring of 1941, and opens with 17-year-old Toshihiko Sakakiyama (Shunsuke Kubozuka), who has just returned from Amsterdam to Karatsu. Lonely in his high school dorm, he often visits his Aunt Keiko (Takako Tokiwa) and her young sister-in-law, Mina (Honoka Yahagi), who is suffering from tuberculosis. Mina’s brother also had TB, which emboldened him to march off to war. At school, where the teacher has them reading Poe’s The Black Cat out loud in English, Toshihiko meets a number of eccentric fellow students, including the “brave as a lion” Ukai (Shinnosuke Mitsushima), who goes swimming every dawn and enjoys being shirtless; the “zen monk” Kira (Keishi Nagatsuka), who walks with a cane, grew up as a Christian and utters cynical proclamations; and eager-to-please class clown Aso (Tokio Emoto). There are also the girls, friends of Mina’s: Akine (Hirona Yamazaki), whose family runs the town’s best izakaya and provides endless delicacies to Keiko’s household; and the mysterious Chitose (Mugi Kadowaki), Kira’s cousin, whom he has taught to use a camera. 

As Japan marches inexorably toward war, these carefree youths gather for parties and picnics (and never seem to lack for the very best in creature comforts, including imported delicacies). But the boys know that all too soon, they will be sucked into the chaos of battle, try as they may to resist their destiny. One of the characters even references Sadao Yamanaka’s Humanity and Paper Balloons, the last film the director made before being sent to Manchuria, where he died. Finally, the friends gather one last time to attend the Karatsu Okunchi festival with its enormous floats, just outside the old castle...

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From left, Yamazaki, Yahagi and Kadowaki.   ©karatsu film partners/PSC 2017

In Obayashi’s bucolic fever dream, the Karatsu moon is always full, cherry blossoms bloom and fireflies flit, colors are eye-popping, poetry is on every lip, music ebbs and swells, mirrors crack, ghosts return with messages, and metaphors are hard to parse (like the falling crimson rose petal that transforms into blood as it hits a tabletop, a recurring image that is perhaps a memento mori for the generation destroyed by WWII, its souls lost and its survivors forever scarred).

But if Hanagatami is a cautionary tale for the Japanese who haven’t experienced war or hard times, as the director claims, it also touches on the familiar Obayashi lament over the loss of communities and traditions, local customs and cultures.

He discussed his approach: “When I became a filmmaker, I decided not to join a company and be a professional, but to live my life, with my wife as my producer, as an ‘amateur’ filmmaker. As an amateur, you have the freedom to do only what you believe in. Moviemaking is a business, and your freedom is [often] hindered. Filmmakers like Ozu and Kurosawa had limitations — maybe Ozu wanted to make a film like Ikiru; maybe Kurosawa wanted to make Tokyo Story. But it wasn’t possible for them, because they were commercial filmmakers. So I decided to become a freelance director, or honestly speaking, to be often unemployed.

HanagatamiKoichi Mori-14©Koichi Mori

“Kurosawa and Ozu had their own styles and themes. Kurosawa made films about society for Toho, Ozu made family films for Shochiku, Mizoguchi made period films for Daiei. [As a freelancer] I had to find my own path, and starting out with 8mm film, I decided I should become a furusato (hometown) director, and make films set in my hometown, Onomichi. Japan’s lush greenery and landscape were destroyed after the war, because we were such a hurry to revitalize our economy that all the scenery was ruined. What better thing to do than to make ‘home movies’ about the old ways of life and culture?”

To a question about Hanagatami’s length, Obayashi replied, “I don’t want to be bound by the rules of economics, because I think there can be 1-second films, 100-second films and films that could take a lifetime to watch. Film emerged from technological inventions, and I think I’m free to be an inventor myself, to try out possibilities and come up with new expressions that people haven’t seen before.”

Asked why he set the film in Karatsu, a small castle town in Saga, Kyushu, Obayashi explained, “Dan mentioned that the story could be set in a fictional town, not a specific one. So I asked him, when we were thinking of shooting the film [in 1975], where it should be set and where we should location hunt. He said, very seriously, ‘Go to Karatsu.’ At that time, he had been told that he had stage-four lung cancer, so I took this to be akin to a final request. I went with his son, Taro, to Karatsu, and was very impressed with it. [Forty years later] we shot every scene in Karatsu, although we couldn’t depict the landscape of the original novella. We depicted its spirit, and the spirit of Dan. But [the festival] was my wife’s idea.”

“We had looked at Nagasaki first,” said Kyoko Obayashi, but the reason I was really impressed with Karatsu was the Okunchi Festival, with all the floats. I discovered that only men, not women, are allowed to participate. I usually just go with my instincts, and intuitively, I thought that the spirit of this festival — the spirit of the floats and the men who pull them — would go well with Hanagatami. So I suggested that to my husband.”

Special Screening Hanagatami TIFF 2017Mance Thompson-29
Obayashi (in sunglasses) is surrounded by the Hanagatami cast after a screening of the film
at the Tokyo International Film Festival in October. ©Mance Thompson

“My wife’s instincts are really wonderful,” said Obayashi. “She manages to get to the truth, to the essence of things, so I usually go with her instincts. That allows me to find the right approach to directing the scenes. The spirit of the festival arises from some historical facts. Karatsu is a castle town, and even now, you can see a separation: those who lived within the castle walls were of the samurai class, and those outside were the merchants or commoners who worked for the samurai. The festival is very much a commoners’ festival, and those who participated were risking their lives.* When they were drafted into war, they would [go AWOL to] return to their hometown to participate, which was also risking their lives.”

[*According to sources online, the 400-year-old autumn festival, designated an Important Intangible Folk Cultural Property, features 14 massive floats called hikiyama, with the largest ones standing 6.8 meters tall and weighing 3 tons. They are designed to look like lions, grampuses, samurai helmets, sea bream, and flying dragons called hiryo, and are lacquered and finished with gold and silver leaf. The potential danger for participants can easily be seen in clips on YouTube.]

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©Mance Thompson

Obayashi continued, “The festival site is the same location as warlord Hideyoshi Toyotomi’s base of operations, from which he would send troops into the Korean Peninsula. In this area of powerful samurai, the festival was all about the common people, a way for them to show their local pride to those in power. I also discovered that Kazuo Dan had committed a crime and been labeled a Communist when he was 18 years old. He spent time in Karatsu, so going there and shooting felt like I was coming full circle, and truly making a furusato film about the spirit of these townspeople.”

“If war is worth fighting for,” goes one line in Hanagatami, “so is a festival.” And no one puts on a festival like Obayashi. May his next film — yes, he has announced plans to go into production soon — be as brilliantly idiosyncratic and inspiring.

hanagatami poster
   ©karatsu film partners/PSC 2017

Selected Press Coverage

VIGILANTE


VIGILANTE


November 14, 2017
Q&A guest: Director Yu Irie


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The director returns to darker territory with his latest film, a very personal project. ©FCCJ

With his breakout hit 8,000 Miles (SR Saitama no Rapper) in 2009, writer-director Yu Irie struck pay dirt in his rural Saitama hometown, using it as the backdrop for a bittersweet tale about the struggles of wannabe rap stars. Returning twice over the next few years to complete a trilogy, he won a devoted international following for his humorous, humanistic depictions of the strivers, outsiders and has-beens who populated his particular pocket of the prefecture.

But with his new film, Vigilante, Irie makes it clear that home is decidedly not where his heart is. Penning his first original screenplay since completing the trilogy, the young hitmaker has once again revisited his roots — but this time, he has found them rotten.

The pitch-black world of Vigilante is one in which ethics have been torn asunder and the ugliness of humanity is on full display. Exploring such hot-button social issues as child abuse, drug addiction, sexual aggression, crimes against foreigners, crimes by foreigners, and the inexorable decline of Japan’s countryside, Irie’s unsettling vision allows nary a sliver of light to pierce the darkness.

The film begins with a chase through the twilight, as three small boys are pursued by a frightening adult figure. On the day their mother dies, the young brothers have attempted to kill their tyrannical father, Takeo (Shun Sugata), a leader in the local community. The eldest, Ichiro, runs away after the incident, and does not return until Takeo has died, 30 years later. In adulthood, middle brother Jiro (Kosuke Suzuki, TV’s “Dr. X”) has become a city council member, while the youngest, Saburo (Kenta Kiritani, Close-Knit), makes ends meet by managing a deriheru ("delivery health") call-girl business for a volatile gangster (rapper Hannya).

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©Koichi Mori

After Takeo’s funeral, Ichiro (Nao Omori, Outrage Coda) suddenly reappears. He’s brought with him a notarized will, and declares that he will take possession of their father’s legacy. But Jiro needs to retain a large tract of nearby land for a megamall construction project that will ensure his political future. Ever the obedient civil servant, he must now choose between his family and his career prospects. As the brothers indulge in an increasingly violent tug-of-war, all hell breaks loose around them. A community of foreign workers clashes with an overzealous neighborhood watch group. Powerful politicians collude with organized criminals. Soon, tensions in the entire town begin to boil over.

In the Q&A session following FCCJ's screening, Irie was asked whether any of the film’s political intrigues had been influenced by actual events in the director’s hometown. He responded, “I want to make clear that it wasn’t my intent to depict Fukuya — this is set in a fictional town. If I don’t make this clear, I’ll never be able to go back." 

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Kiritani confronts local gangsters in the film. © 2017 VIGILANTE Film Partners

Irie laughed before continuing, “I left Fukuya when I was 19 to study filmmaking in Tokyo, so I didn’t really have a full understanding of the politics of regional cities. What did leave an impression on me was that there were always yakuza at our local festivals. It was only after I started making films, and I would return home [on visits], that I started to realize there were these issues involving immigrants, these ‘trainees’ from overseas, and also that there were vested interests involved in public projects.”

Was it necessary to shoot in Fukaya, if audiences are not meant to connect the screen’s fictions with the real setting? Said Irie, “There was this impetus to go back, because the themes were personal. I could have shot elsewhere, but I wanted to return and get the support of people living there.”

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Omori faces a bleak future.  © 2017 VIGILANTE Film Partners

Vigilante was filmed in the dead of winter and mostly at night, which undeniably helped strip the performances by its three main stars of any artifice. But Irie admitted that he’s a bit worried the actors are still upset about the filming conditions: “A lot of my films are set in winter, actually. I suppose it’s a season I like a lot. When the three brothers were fighting in the river, it contributed to some movie magic. It started snowing while we were filming, and it rarely snows there.”

The film’s low-budget aesthetic reminded one critic in the audience that — long before Irie helmed big-studio productions like his Memoirs of a Murderer (which spent 3 weeks at the top of Japan’s box office earlier this year) — he had felt trapped in the no-budget rut. In 2010, Irie had gone on record with complaints that independent directors couldn’t have sustainable careers, and couldn’t possibly afford to live in a city like Tokyo. The voluble rant went viral, prompting a dialogue across the industry that continues today. Asked whether he felt any differently now, Irie admitted, “I’ve shot quite a few commercial films now, so I’m able to live in Tokyo. I made those comments when I [wasn't yet 30] to bring attention to the plight of young directors in the film industry, and I don’t think that situation has changed much at all. People forget about these issues all too easily.” 

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©Koichi Mori (left), ©FCCJ (right)

What does he think might be done about the situation? “Toei Video, which is behind Vigilante, is really unique,” he responded. “They back original scripts, rather than just those based on novels or manga, and this opens a lot of doors for people who want to work on original material, as well as for indie filmmakers. I think there’s a lot of work to be done to solve the problem, but when it comes to the major studios, I’d like to see more of them embarking on original projects. I think it’s up to my generation now to make changes by writing original scripts and finding producers, or it will never change.”

A leading critic in the audience, noting that Vigilante has echoes of Yoichi Sai’s Blood and Bones, another work that features an overpowering father figure, asked how important the theme of family ties is to Irie’s own work. “I wasn’t directly influenced by the film,” said Irie, “although I like it a lot. I think its depiction of a towering, violent father is unparalleled in Japanese film. As for my own work, I’d avoided depicting blood ties in the past; but two years ago, I was filming a jidaigeki film set in the Edo period, and I had to do some genealogical research. That led me to research my own family tree, and if you go back 5 or 6 generations, you reach the Edo period. I started thinking about blood ties and what family means, and that influenced this film.”

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Suzuki (center) leads the neighborhood watch one fateful evening.  © 2017 VIGILANTE Film Partners

He later admitted that he’d been “heavily influenced” by the star of Blood and Bones, “Beat” Takeshi Kitano, who also directs “starkly, painfully violent” films. “Kitano’s films really show us what it is to hurt another, what pain really is,” he explained. “That’s a theme that I wanted to revisit, What does it mean to hurt someone? What is pain? Vigilante doesn’t speak just about physical pain, but also emotional and psychological pain. I regret avoiding this theme until now. I’m interested in seeing how younger audiences will react — especially audiences that are used to watching bubbly coming-of-age films.”

Asked to explain the title, the director said, “I’ve had a long-time interest in neighborhood watch-type organizations, which are policing in an unofficial capacity. I’m personally quite scared of 'communities' and people who organize groups like that. What I wanted to depict was how the individual is swallowed up by the community, so the first title that came to mind was Vigilante.” 

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©Koichi Mori

He elaborated: “What I wanted to depict was not just person-to-person violence, but violence brought on by a certain economy or a community that swallows up the individual. I think it would be difficult for moviegoers to take home a positive message from the film. But I would like them to ponder the situation and imagine what they would do. I recently read a book by Mario Vargas Llosa in which he discusses the character of Emma Bovary, and he wrote, ‘Her death is our hope.’ He meant that such characters die for us, in our place, and we should derive a sense of relief. That really struck a bell with me, and I hope Vigilante’s viewers will feel the same.”

Although he will surely continue to write and direct entertaining stories about viral epidemics, bio-terror, serial murderers and spies (if his recent successes are any indication) the pared-down nastiness of Vigilante should reassure fans of Yu Irie that he does not intend to shy away from shocking visions, even in today’s shock-averse Japan.

vigilante poster
© 2017 VIGILANTE Film Partners 

Selected Press Coverage

 

PSYCHIC KUSUO (Saiki Kusuo no Sainan)


PSYCHIC KUSUO


October 19, 2017
Q&A guest: Director Yuichi Fukuda


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The director is like a character in one of his own films. ©Mance Thompson

Screening just its second-ever comedy in the past decade, the Film Committee welcomed ebullient director Yuichi Fukuda to a Q&A session that we imagined would focus on his astounding success in Japan and recently, in China — only to discover that he would rather talk about his love of 1970s American sketch comedy and his dream to work on the late-night TV show Saturday Night Live.

“I’ve liked slapstick and gags ever since I was a kid,” he told the FCCJ audience, “since my parents were huge comedy fans and instilled that in me. They would recommend that I watch shows like The Drifters and Oretachi Hyokin Zoku [with Beat Takeshi and Sanma Akashiya] and Owarai Star Tanjo, which my dad used to tell me to cut school early to come home and watch.

“When I was in grade school, I really loved the Zucker Brothers’ Airplane! and the Naked Gun series. They did this 6-episode TV series called Police Squad! that was the basis for Naked Gun, also starring Leslie Nielsen. It was very tongue-in-cheek, and I loved the gags. You would see Nielsen driving in his cop car and they would randomly superimpose these visuals on the rear window, like the Roman Coliseum, or there would a monkey sitting next to him. That kind of throwaway gag isn’t the sort of thing that was often seen in Japan. I wanted to bring an American sensibility to comedy.”

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                     Interpreter Mihoko Imai had difficulty keeping a straight face.   ©Mance Thompson

And that he did, although few realized it until Fukuda appeared at FCCJ. As recently as 2014, one could have imagined that Japan’s beloved gag-comedy king was stuck in a (comfortable) rut, having achieved unprecedented domestic success for his peculiar brand of retro humor. If he did not exactly invent the genre, Fukuda had nurtured it to a fine sheen of ridiculousness. His obsession with the sight gag, the inside joke, the exaggerated double-take, the off-kilter line reading, the non-sequitur and the 4th-wall-breaking meta-commentary has subtly shifted the tenor of the entire comedy industry.

In just over a decade, Fukuda has built an empire of amusement through his stage plays (including adaptations of Broadway hits like Spamalot), his TV series (like 33-Minute Detective and Kid’s Police), and his film adaptations of best-selling Japanese manga (like the HK: Forbidden Super Hero series, in which a high school boy dons women’s panties to gain superpowers).

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©Mance Thompson

And then the director’s Midas Touch led him to Gintama, the gag-manga property from Shueisha (51 million copies sold globally). Creating the first live-action version with his friend (and sometime co-writer) Shun Oguri as the silver-maned, nose-picking samurai hero Gintoki, Fukuda had a certified summer smash.

Gintama is currently 2017’s No. 1 live-action domestic film at the Japanese box office, at $40 million and counting.

Perhaps more significantly, the film got the largest-ever China opening for any Japanese film in history, when it opened on a record 12,000 screens in early September, handily dispatching the former title-holder, Makoto Shinkai’s global juggernaut, Your Name.

But it’s unlikely his newfound box-office clout will change Fukuda’s approach to supremely silly storytelling, both visual and verbal. If his latest film, Psychic Kusuo, is any guide, he continues to be devoted to lean budgets, retro special effects and casts filled with faces familiar from his other work.

Asked about the film’s enormous success and whether he hoped to repeat it with Psychic Kusuo, Fukuda said, “I’m honestly not that interested in box-office results, so I’m not sure how massive a hit Gintama was in China, although I do know it was successful in Japan. I would be happier if it were a hit in the US, honestly speaking, because I want to work there.”

He hastened to add, “I hope my work is universal, and I hope it caters to every nationality. But I’m always saying, ‘Can’t we please bring this to America?’ I believe all my work has been inspired by Western influences, like the Zucker Brothers and Monty Python, and pieces of them have been the basis of my Japanese comedies. I love Saturday Night Live, and it’s been my dream for a long time to live in New York and work as an SNL writer.”

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Teen heartthrob Kento Yamazaki.  ©SHUICHI ASO / SHUEISHA 2017 “Psychic Kusuo” FILM PARTNERS

But first, the prolific multi-hyphenate has new product to pitch, and that would be Psychic Kusuo. An adaptation of the popular gag manga series in Weekly Shonen Jump (5 million copies sold), it concerns a pink-haired teen with unimaginable psychic powers: telepathy, psychokinesis, X-ray vision, teleportation, clairvoyance, walking on air — you name it. Yet Saiki Kusuo (Kento Yamazaki) calls himself “the unluckiest guy in the world,” and longs to lead a normal life.

Saiki’s classmates at the PK Academy are all troublemakers, and he is forever having to secretly use his powers to sidestep all the trouble they cause. It’s the start of the annual school festival, and Saiki’s homeroom teacher warns that one more dangerous incident like last year, and the event will be canceled forever. The excitable red-haired Hairo (Hideyuki Kasahara) decides the class project will be an Exhibition of Interesting Rock Formations on Campus, just to be safe (although one class has cross-dressing waitresses, while another lets kids machine-gun their tentacled teacher, in a nod to Assassination Classroom).

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Yamazaki and Hashimoto.  ©SHUICHI ASO / SHUEISHA 2017 “Psychic Kusuo” FILM PARTNERS

But the black-caped Dark Reunion choose the festival to reappear and issue a dragon-ball challenge to Shun (Ryo Yoshizawa), who’s suffering from chuunibyou syndrome (in his case, he’s a wannabe manga hero). Even worse, the most popular girl in school, Kokomi (Kanna Hashimoto), starts stalking Saiki and very nearly reveals his superpowers. Bombarded with such potentially disastrous situations, it’s no wonder that the young lad starts to panic a little — even if his expression never changes and his hands never, ever come out of his pockets.

Asked whether Saiki’s desire to be normal represented typical Japanese youth, the director responded with a laugh, “Usually, if you have superpowers, you would want to use them or weaponize them. But this particular character is the exact reverse. That’s why I found it so interesting — he’s like the antithesis of the superhero — and that’s why I wanted to make it into a film.”

The casting, as with all Fukuda’s films, is sure to draw in a huge youth crowd. How does he manage to get all the hottest stars? “The casting, I’ll be frank about this, is all done by my wife,” Fukuda said. “She constantly tells me who I should get for all the roles, and I tell the producers, who are very nice, and always cast as my wife wishes. So I do what my wife says, because otherwise, I’ll ultimately regret it. When I’m shooting and I haven’t listened to her advice, I always discover that the actor’s not right for the part. So I’ll tell her and she’ll say, ‘See what happens when you don’t listen to me?’ I’ve found that it’s better to listen.

“For Gintama, 80 percent of the casting was done by my wife. She’s the one who told me to cast Kento Yamazaki for Psychic Kusuo. She noticed him long before he became so popular in shojo (female) manga adaptations. I didn’t know who he was, but I followed her advice.”

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©Mance Thompson

On a roll, relishing the truth, he confessed, “I would go so far as to say that a lot of my work is led by my wife. She often advises me on which projects to do or not to do, like a manager. But she’s never been part of the industry, she’s just a regular homemaker.”

A beat.

“I say ‘homemaker’ but she doesn’t clean, cook or do the laundry,” he laughed. “But she’s a genius wife and I’m like her marionette. I just listen to what she says.”

His wife isn’t the only helping hand in the family. Explained Fukuda, “I went into my eldest son’s room looking for something, and found 5 volumes of the Disastrous Life of Saiki Kusuo manga. My son only ever read One Piece, but there were these 5 volumes. I started reading and found it to be really funny and compelling. And I could tell from the visuals that Kento Yamazaki would be perfect for the part.”

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©Mance Thompson

As knowledgeable as he is about American TV, Fukuda did not grow up in the US, and when a prominent entertainment journalist drew clever connections between scenes in the film and the actions of Wile E. Coyote and Road Runner, and between a character played by the great comic actor Murotsuyoshi and Gene Wilder, circa Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, the director said he was pleased, but did not have such homages in mind.

After being told by one attendee that Psychic Kusuo might be considered a bit over the top in the West, Fukuda said, “I think there are two types of comedy, the first being a straightforward ‘well-made’ comedy and the other being slapstick. Billy Wilder’s films were ‘well-made’ comedies, and certain prestigious directors have followed in his footsteps in Japan, such as Koki Mitani. I’m on the other end of the spectrum, and there aren't many who do gag comedy in Japan. Since I was heavily influenced by American comedies, my films have a strong parody aspect. For some reason, we don’t we do much parody in Japan, either.”

But he also insisted that the Japanese audience is “literate” in both types of comedy, and that he doesn’t “look down on or over-explain or dumb down my comedy for the audience. I trust them to get it.”

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Fukuda has fun in the FCCJ photo gallery. ©Mance Thompson

For the past decade or so, every project Fukuda has touched has turned to gold. Big studios line up to work with him, while eminent actors gamely deliver his brilliantly inane dialog and tackle his inspired physical gags. And his legion of followers? They’re the all-important youth demographic (and the millions who never quite grew up). They clearly can’t get enough of him.

In short, no one has his finger on the Cool Japan comedy zeitgeist quite like Fukuda. It seems impossible that he won’t get a shot at US glory. But in the meantime, he is remaking a US romantic comedy hit and will soon begin adapting the popular “Saint Young Men” manga.

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©SHUICHI ASO / SHUEISHA 2017 “Psychic Kusuo” FILM PARTNERS

Press Coverage

RADIANCE (Hikari)


RADIANCE Special Screening and TIFF Panel


October 3, 2017

Guests: Director Naomi Kawase, TIFF Festival Director Takeo Hisamatsu
and Japan Now advisor Kohei Ando
 


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Ando, Kawase and Hisamatsu react to a pointed question during the Japan Now session.    ©Mance Thompson

Making her first appearance at FCCJ in 10 years (but not for our lack of trying), Cannes Film Festival favorite Naomi Kawase laughed with delight when a journalist asked her, “What’s your impression of the last 29 installments of the Tokyo International Film Festival? And please, do be frank.”

Kawase was at FCCJ to talk about her participation in this year’s festival, where she will deliver a Master Class and field questions following a screening of her Palm d’Or nominee, Radiance. Everyone knew TIFF wasn’t her usual stomping grounds. After the laughter died down, the room held its breath.

“Something unattainable,” she began, then paused. “Since I was born and raised in Nara, I always had the impression that Tokyo was so filled with bright lights and so unattainable to me. It seemed so distant and so inaccessible. TIFF is one of the major international film festivals, and it seemed out of reach. But being able to participate in Japan Now this year, and hearing about all the other films that are being shown, I’m starting to feel it’s more accessible.”

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Kawase is the only Japanese filmmaker selected for Cannes seven times. This will be her first film in TIFF.      ©FCCJ

TIFF’s Japan Now Programming Advisor Kohei Ando was sitting next to Kawase, and hastened to follow up. “TIFF has always tried to include the brilliant films of master directors like Hirokazu Kore-eda and Ms. Kawase in the past,” he explained, “but because of the timing of the festival, late in the year, they always appeared at Cannes and other earlier festivals. This is why we created Japan Now: to showcase their work each year, without [worrying about] a world premiere.”

Ando and Kawase were joined on the dais by TIFF Festival Director Takeo Hisamatsu, taking over the reigns of the venerable festival from Yasushi Shiina for TIFF's 30th anniversary edition. The Film Committee has been cohosting events with TIFF for nearly a decade, and this year’s panel began with Hisamatsu, who provided an overview of festival highlights. Hisamatsu is a veteran of four decades in the industry, a producer of many award-winning titles, and a former top executive at Shochiku and Warner Bros. Pictures Japan. He has been busy expanding the diversity of programming, as well as lining up some tasty treats to celebrate the past, present and future of TIFF. He quickly mentioned several: the Midnight Film Festival (10 filmmakers addressing 6 different themes on 6 screens, running all night), Cinema Arena 30 (outdoor screenings of 28 vintage films, with bountiful food carts and blankets), the Godzilla Cinema Concerts (the original 1954 film accompanied by live orchestra), and the annual Special Night Event at Kabukiza (Ebizo Ichikawa preforming live plus the digitally remastered classic, The Gate of Hell).

Hisamatsu then elaborated, “Especially worth noting is the Japan Now section, which we consider to be especially important because it introduces the world to contemporary Japanese cinema. This is the third edition of the section, and all the films in the lineup, including Ms. Kawase’s Radiance, are sure to be entering the [year-end] awards race. In the past two years, Japan Now has featured a special Director in Focus. This year, we are instead highlighting four actresses, the Muses of Japanese Cinema, chosen because they have so inspired directors: Sakura Ando, Yu Aoi, Hikari Mitsushima and Aoi Miyazaki. I hope you will enjoy the outstanding films at the 30th TIFF.”

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Hisamatsu is helming his first TIFF (©FCCJ).  Ando returns for his third outstanding Japan Now program.  ©Mance Thompson

Japan Now’s Kohei Ando followed up with a description of the section’s bountiful offerings, ranging from Hirokazu Kore-eda’s acclaimed The Third Murder to a new masterwork from veteran arthouse maestro Nobuhiko Obayashi, Hanagatami. The section will showcase not only films starring the four muses, but also by four female directors. He enthused, “We will be showing two films for each of the four actresses, all of which have marked important turning points in their careers, and we’ll be holding special talk events with the actresses and directors after the screenings.”

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©Mance Thompson (left), ©Koichi Mori (right)

Ando proceeded to unveil an impressive roster of further guests: Along with Kawase, Kore-eda and Obayashi, directors Shunji Iwai (Hana and Alice), Momoko Ando (0.5mm), Lee Sang-il (Rage), Yang Yonghi (Our Homeland), Kei Ishikawa (Traces of Sin), Shinji Aoyama (Eureka), Masaaki Yuasa (The Night Is Short, Walk on Girl), Daihachi Yoshida (A Beautiful Star) and Michio Koshikawa (Life and Death on the Shore) will appear, as will Hanagatami star Takako Tokiwa.

Asked to divulge details about her Master Class, Kawase said, “First of all, I would like to congratulate [TIFF] on its 30th anniversary, because that’s a major accomplishment. I’m organizing the Nara International Film Festival in my hometown, which will turn five next year. So I really recognize what an immense feat it is to keep a film festival running. I think it’s a lot like life and like filmmaking in many respects, because we have to overcome so many hurdles to survive. Festivals are such hard work, so once again, congratulations to TIFF.

“I do not separate my life from my filmmaking,” she continued. “Filmmaking is my life. So in my TIFF Master Class, I would like to touch on a few examples of what emerging filmmakers might do to fuse their lives with their filmmaking. That will probably be my theme.”

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The panelists share another moment of mirth.  ©Mance Thompson

Kawase fondly recalled her earliest festival experiences and concluded, “Festivals are wonderful, because they are platforms for people from many nationalities who bring their films, come together, communicate, and take that back to their homelands. Then they come together again at a different festival. They help us overcome cultural differences and they motivate me as a filmmaker.”

The evening continued with a special screening of Kawase’s Radiance, her fifth film in the Cannes official competition and winner of the Ecumenical Jury Prize, before the writer-director returned for a vastly satisfying Q&A session — with the types of questions one might expect from a European arthouse audience. (Bravo, FCCJ Film Night regulars!)

Radiance is a luminous meditation on loss and salvation, and on the power of art to transform our lives. “Nothing is more beautiful than what disappears before our eyes,” says one of Kawase’s characters, and the line serves both as a metaphor for the film’s story and for cinema itself.

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©2017 “RADIANCE” FILM PARTNERS/KINOSHITA、COMME DES CINEMAS、KUMIE

Misako Ozaki (Ayame Misaki) writes audio commentary for visually impaired filmgoers, and as Radiance opens, her words are the subject of scrutiny from a focus group following a test screening session. The participants offer specific suggestions for improving her script, which is too wordy by far. Only one of them is downright rude about it. “It’s intrusive,” he barks, suggesting she’s robbing them of their own imaginations, and questions her competence. He is Masaya Nakamori (Masatoshi Nagase) a famed photographer who has slowly been losing his sight. Fate will continue to bring the two together, and despite his abrasiveness, Misako will soon find that Nakamori is a kindred spirit.

Both are lost souls — she, since the disappearance of her father and the progression of her mother’s dementia; he, as he loses his calling and his ex-wife prepares to remarry. Nakamori’s photographs, taken on an ancient Rolleiflex, entrance Misako, particularly one of the sun setting behind the mountains. It will eventually solve a mystery from her past. As both emerge, tentatively, from the limbos in which they’ve been living, they learn to see the world through each other’s eyes. In Kawase’s images, it is radiant.

Kawase was asked first how she came up with such an unusual setting for her film. “We had to make an audio guide for An/Sweet Bean, my last film,” she responded, and that’s how I first discovered it. When they showed me the dialog list for the guide, I was very moved by the words. Cinema is essentially visual, but for someone who is visually impaired, words are needed. The way they used the words, the way they described the scenes, were so beautiful. I had the idea that, if I had a protagonist who was doing this kind of work, I could express my love for cinema.”

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Kawase returned to field questions after the screening of her latest Cannes Palm d'Or nominee.  ©Koichi Mori (left), ©Mance Thompson (right)

Pointing out that Misako asks a film director in Radiance whether one of his characters is simply a projection of himself, one audience member asked, “Is this film itself a projection of yourself?” Answered Kawase, “After An/Sweet Bean was a commercial success, I was having a hard time figuring out what I really wanted to depict in my next film. I finally felt that I wanted to depict film itself as the core theme, because filmmaking is so intertwined with the way I live. In depicting my love for cinema, I’ve been able to project myself into the film.”

Asked about the “themes of disability and decrepitude” in her last two films, and how she sees the relation of art to physical breakdown, Kawase said, “I think creators, including filmmakers, are always looking for what’s missing within ourselves. By doing this, we come to realizations that help us grow. For me, being able to make films has enriched my life immensely. Films generally tend to shine a light on things that are to be celebrated or glorified, but I want to shine a light on people who aren’t usually depicted, and on that which is still in the dark or unknowable.”

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Ando, Kawase and Hisamatsu with the TIFF poster, featuring images shot by Mika Ninagawa.  ©Mance Thompson

Another audience member asked about the recurring image of a woman lost in the forest in several of her films, including Radiance, and the role of nature. “I think of nature and the natural landscape as a protagonist in my films. I believe there is nature, and within it, there is mankind. That’s how I see the world, and that’s the approach I take to my filmmaking. I think the natural landscape is sometimes more eloquent than words.”

Discussing her two leads, Kawase said, “I’d worked with Mr. Nagase on An/Sweet Bean, and when we took the film to Cannes, we talked about doing another film together. He’s a photographer in his own right, and I knew he could bring a realism to the role of a photographer losing his sight. I had him live in the apartment in Nara for a while before we shot there, and he wore goggles that impaired his sight. As for Ms. Misaki, I found her to be a very strong-willed, determined woman, especially on hearing about her suffering related to the [1995 Kobe] Earthquake.”

But after an audience member commented that she’d found Misaki to be “perhaps too young to portray the emotional depth” required of the character, Kawase admitted that had been her intention in casting her. “I felt she needed a little more depth, she wasn’t quite there yet,” said the director. “What you’re seeing in the scene with the audio guide [focus group] is based on a guide script that I had Ms. Misaki actually write herself, and her tears are real tears. I wanted to depict a girl who has a limited perspective and is thinking only about herself at first.”

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©Mance Thompson

A professional photographer wondered how Nagase’s character could have let go of his Leica camera in one pivotal scene, since they’re so expensive, and it's clear that the character cannot possibly live without it. “The idea behind that,” explained Kawase, “is that if you rid yourself of that which is most valuable to you, you make room for something even more valuable to come in.”

Finally, she was asked about her new film, currently in production in Nara and tentatively titled Vision. It stars Nagase again, as well as the celebrated French actress Juliette Binoche, making her first film in Japan. “It’s so exciting,” said Kawase, in English. “Working with Juliette is wonderful. She’s an amazing actress and has exceeded my expectations. One of the most wonderful things about her is her ability to improvise. She gives so much more than the script provides. She spends days and days trying to inhabit the character. She’s playing a woman named Jean, and she [created a backstory] about what her parents were like, where she studied, why she came to Japan. I always ask my actors to inhabit the location where their character lives prior to shooting, but I didn’t have to ask Juliette. She’d already done her homework. I felt like, finally I’ve met a [complete] actress.”

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Kawase with Ando and renowned film critic Reiko Kitagawa.  ©Koichi Mori

And then she raised goosebumps around the room, sharing a bittersweet memory from this year’s Cannes: “At the closing ceremony, Juliette was the presenter of the Palm d’Or. As Mr. [Pedro] Almodovar [who was head of the jury] was about to speak, she stopped him and said, ‘Cinema is light.’ She said ‘light’ in every language that she knew, including 'lumiere,' so I erroneously thought, ‘Maybe I’m going to win the Palm for my film!’ To be able to talk with her in Nara, just three months later, about how cinema is light and love, is quite miraculous to me.”

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  ©2017 “RADIANCE” FILM PARTNERS/KINOSHITA、COMME DES CINEMAS、KUMIE

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ERNESTO


ERNESTO


September 19, 2017
Q&A guests: Director Junji Sakamoto and star Joe Odagiri


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Writer-director Junji Sakamoto and his star, Joe Odagiri, crack up during the photo call.    ©Mance Thompson

At least three generations of Japanese have grown up wearing t-shirts emblazoned with the iconic image of Ernesto “Che” Guevara, the Argentinian physician, author and Marxist revolutionary. But few of them know about Guevara’s controversial exploits, and fewer still know that a Japanese-Bolivian fought with him — and died, as did Che, in a CIA-assisted ambush in Bolivia — 50 years ago this October.

Junji Sakamoto’s new film, Ernesto, pays tribute to that man, Freddy Maemura Hurtado, a second-generation immigrant who became radicalized while in Cuba pursuing medical studies. Inspired by “The Samurai of the Revolution,” a novelized biography penned by Maemura’s sister Mary, Sakamoto has created a work that is at once Cold War history, coming-of-age story, compelling relationship drama and cautionary tale.

The project began when Sakamoto (The Projects, The Human Trust) came across the story of Maemura Hurtado, and was deeply impressed that he had followed his convictions so completely throughout his (tragically short) life. Realizing that he would do best to coproduce the film with a Cuban production company, thus gaining access to the island’s locations and local talent pool, he set about putting together the first Japan-Cuba coproduction since 1969 (not counting one documentary). Almost entirely in Spanish, the film is perfectly timed to mark the anniversaries of Che’s and Freddy’s deaths.

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Sakamoto's films frequently feature scenes in languages other than Japanese, but this is the first
that is almost completely in another language.      ©Mance Thompson, ©FCCJ (top right)

Ernesto opens with a historic 1959 scene, shot in Hiroshima. Just months after the Cuban Revolution resulted in the ousting of US-backed dictator Fulgencio Batista, Che Guevara (dead ringer Juan Miguel Valero Acosta) visits Japan in his role as a trade diplomat for the new communist government. Without notifying his hosts at the Foreign Ministry, he goes to the Hiroshima Peace Memorial Park to pay his respects. Then he turns to a Japanese journalist (Kento Nagayama) who has followed him there. “Why aren’t you angry at the Americans?” he demands. “They have done such a horrendous thing to you.” It is a question that hangs heavily over the entire film.

During the Q&A session after the FCCJ screening, Sakamoto was first asked whether that visit had taken place, and why he’d included it in the film. “It’s a fact that Che Guevara visited Hiroshima and laid flowers at the Peace Memorial cenotaph,” responded the director. “It’s also a fact that Freddy went to Cuba for his medical studies, and not long after, the Cuban Missile Crisis began. I wanted to juxtapose these two events, and through them, to pose questions about nuclear warfare.”

He continued, “During the missile crisis, Che was probably the only one who had been to Hiroshima and had memories of what nuclear warfare could do. That must have been at the back of his mind.”

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Che and Freddy in Cuba.  ©2017 “ERNESTO” FILM PARTNERS

Following up, another audience member asked about the lines (quoted above) that Che speaks to the journalist, and how Sakamoto had balanced fact with fictional elements in the film. “That line actually came from the journalist who covered the event, who had been with Che Guevara on that day," responded the director. "All the lines in that scene are factual, and came from the journalist, who was the only one to cover his visit, since no one really knew who he was at the time. He has since passed away, but he made detailed notes about the visit. His family was kind enough to share them with me.”

Sakamoto went on, “I don’t think films should fictionalize events; they must be grounded in reality. We did a lot of interviews and research. I did take liberties as long as they were fact-based. Sometimes it’s necessary to take liberties in order to better depict the atmosphere or the spirit of the historical [time].”

Considering today’s constant North Korean missile "tests" and Donald Trump's chest-beating, did Sakamoto intend to play up the looming danger of war by delving into the complicated Cold War-era proxy wars in his screenplay?

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Odagiri spent 4 months mastering his Spanish lines, as well as the correct body language.  ©Mance Thompson

“The approach I took was to tell the story of one individual,” said Sakamoto. “There are, of course, Hollywood movies like 13 Days, that depict the Cuban Missile Crisis. But I wanted to depict this medical student who arrived in Cuba and experienced the crisis, but wasn’t ‘in the know.’ The students weren’t given a lot of information, and they were later angry that the US and Soviet Union had negotiated without [Cuban] involvement.”

Ernesto’s “one individual,” Freddy Maemura Hurtado, was born in Trinidad, Bolivia to a well-to-do Japanese father from Kagoshima Prefecture and a Bolivian mother, and he was determined from childhood to become a doctor so he could treat the poor. In 1962, Maemura (Joe Odagiri, nearly unrecognizable as a very studious young man) arrives in Fidel Castro’s Cuba to study not only medicine but also the “spirit of liberty and equality.” Yet classes are soon disrupted by the US naval blockade, and the school becomes a barracks for anti-aircraft artillery troops for the duration of the Cuban Missile Crisis. Maemura and his classmates are given the choice of enlisting in the fight against America’s presence, and the young physician’s radicalization begins.

Missile Crisis averted, Maemura continues his studies against the backdrop of the escalating Cold War, and is soon skillful enough to become a lab assistant. He shares his salary with Luisa, a fellow student whom his friend has impregnated but refused to help support, and life seems good. But when civil war breaks out in Bolivia following a US-backed military coup in 1964, he decides to slip back home and join Che Guevara’s revolutionary army there. He visits Che, a fellow physician-turned-rebel, to tell him that he is following Castro’s advice to “follow my heart” about becoming a fighter, rather than a doctor. The guerrilla commander bestows the nom de guerre "Ernesto Medico" on him. Two years later, their fates are forever entwined when deep-jungle ambushes by CIA-backed Bolivian troops capture the men and they are killed within weeks of each other.

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Freddy listens to Castro speak at his medical school.   ©2017 “ERNESTO” FILM PARTNERS

Odagiri (Bright Future, Over the Fence) disappears completely into the role of Freddy, aided by convincing makeup, and delivers a slow-burn, career-best performance. One of Japan’s tiny handful of truly international stars, he is surely the only Japanese actor who has tackled roles in every major language but Italian. Here, he speaks entirely in Bolivian-accented Spanish.

Admitting it was one of his most challenging to date, the actor responded to a question about preparing for the role: “Thank you for that question. I’d wanted to have a drink before this press conference, but I refrained. I’m so glad I did, because I’m so ready to give a very serious answer. The way I approached the Spanish was not just to memorize the lines, but to be able to act in Spanish. For that, I sought the help of my [mostly Cuban] costars. I had three or four very kind costars who spent hours and hours with me, helping me mold this character.

“They each had their own visions of what Freddy would talk like in certain scenes, and they would read the dialogue for me. So I would ask them, ‘In this situation, how would he say this line?’ They showed me many possibilities, a full range of tones, and I then discussed different approaches to each scene with the director. With foreign languages, there are issues with [pronunciation], where to take a breath and the rhythm of the speech. It was all really complicated, and I’m so thankful to my costars, who I heavily relied on. Without their help, I wouldn’t have been able to make this character so well-defined.”

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©FCCJ

Pointing out that Odagiri’s first lead, in Kiyoshi Kurosawa's Bright Future, ends with a scene in which aimless young men sporting matching Che Guevara t-shirts kick garbage along a Tokyo street, an audience member asked about the actor’s personal connection to Che. “I hadn’t thought about that last scene, thank you for reminding me,” Odagiri laughed. “When I decided to take this role, I told my circle of friends about it and they all said, ‘Are you playing Che?’ They probably didn’t think it was such an outrageous idea. One reason might be that I usually grow a beard and have unkempt hair. I do actually have a Che Guevara poster on my wall, and I have Che t-shirts, as well.”

Sakamoto had high praise for the film’s Cuban producers. “When we took this project to them,” he explained, “they said yes right away. We asked if there was any sensitivity with [a Japanese production] depicting this time period on film — since there are no Cuban films depicting this decade — and they kindly took it on as their own project, as well.”

For all its heavy political overtones, the director made it clear that the theme is one of commitment and optimism: “The name of the film, Ernesto, is not just Che Guevara’s name, it also has a meaning: someone who is very earnest… someone who has a goal and is adamant about obtaining it. I think that's an important message. Whether you’re involved in political activities or just going about your day-to-day life, it’s important to have a goal, and to have unwavering faith as you strive to achieve it.”

Freddy Maemura’s remains, which were missing until 1999, are now laid to rest alongside Guevara’s in Santa Clara, Cuba. Ernesto ends with footage of Maemura family members visiting the site, to thank Freddy for “inspiring millions of revolutionary doctors with your dream,” and becoming a role model for succeeding generations.

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