SNOW WOMAN (Yuki Onna)
February 23, 2017
Q&A guests: Director-star Kiki Sugino and star Munetaka Aoki
Sugino and Aoki are infinitely warmer in person than in their hauntingly frosty film. ©FCCJ
The chilly relationship they depict onscreen is clearly all an act; indie film queen Kiki Sugino and her costar Munetaka Aoki seemed like the oldest of friends during the Q&A session following FCCJ's sneak preview of their film Snow Woman. Trading compliments, laughing frequently, they were relaxed and loquacious, the polar opposites of the characters they play.
After the first three questions had gone to the director, Aoki even felt comfortable enough to break in and say, “I want to answer a question now.” Asked about his (fairly erotic) love scene with Sugino, and his experiences working with a female helmer, the popular actor (Rurouni Kenshin, A Woman Wavering in the Rain, NHK’s Chikaemon) answered by first demonstrating his impressive English skills: “When I got this offer, I was really excited,” he said, “because [Sugino] is really talented as an actress and a producer, and I really wanted to work with her.” Switching into Japanese, he continued, “As an actor, you always want to be inspired by your director, and that goes for male directors and directors who are younger than you. I was able to throw myself into the world of Snow Woman, but I don’t think it was because Ms. Sugino is female. I enjoyed it immensely. As for the love scene, yes, it was the first time I had a love scene with my director, and it was very interesting.”
The costars introduced the film before the screening. ©Koichi Mori
Sugino was marking her third visit to FCCJ, but her first as a director — she had joined us as producer-star of Koji Fukada’s Au revoir l’éte in 2014, and as producer-star of Takuya Misawa’s Chigasaki Story in 2015. A veteran of just 10 years in the film industry, she has been active on both sides of the camera — and internationally — since producing the award-winning Hospitalité, also from Fukada, in 2009. She made her own directorial debut with a pair of disparate features in 2014, one an adaptation of a popular manga (Kyoto Elegy); the other based on an original story about a Japanese couple visiting Indonesia (Taksu). It won her the Rising Director Award at the Busan Film Festival.
Snow Woman, which Sugino also co-wrote and shot in her home prefecture of Hiroshima, earned a Competition berth at the 2016 Tokyo International Film Festival, and accolades like this from Variety: “[I]n her most accomplished film yet, Sugino finds the icy heart of an ancient, oft-repeated story, and makes it her enigmatic own.”
Sugino directed, cowrote and starred in her third feature, her first period piece. ©FCCJ
That story is the ghostly “Woman of the Snow,” from Lafcadio Hearn’s 1904 anthology “Kwaidan: Stories and Studies of Strange Things;” and although it may seem overly familiar to the Japanese (and fans of Masaki Kobayashi’s 1965 Kwaidan), Sugino’s gorgeously lensed reinterpretation offers a suitably modern approach. Make that modernist. It is set in a timeless era when mountaineers sleep in huts under straw mats while factory workers engage in the production of electrical goods; when girls sing in haunting unison as they carry bowls of plums on their heads, where news seems to travel only by grapevine, not by internet.
“It takes place in the present,” explained Sugino, “but in a parallel present. You see influences from the Taisho and early Showa eras in the set design and the costumes. When you go back to the original story, you don’t know if it takes place 1,000 years ago, 100 years ago or now. The essence of the story transcends time. The snow woman as a being really is science fiction, so she can’t be constrained to any period.” She mentioned that the plum-carrying girls are actually engaging in a traditional coming-of-age ritual, but that the song was specially written for the film. “It’s a symbolic moment in the film. The girls [are crossing a river], which is a symbol of the in-between from childhood to adulthood, just as the boat is symbolic of being in between two worlds [the netherworld and the real world].”
Aoki had a superlative 2016, and heads to a 3-month run on the stage in 2017. ©Kochi Mori
The stylized, elliptical Snow Woman is daringly short on dialog and long on such metaphors. The average multiplex-goer may be disappointed with its lack of transparency, but there are scenes of such trancelike beauty and mesmerizing mystery, the arthouse viewer will look past the film’s many riddles, and succumb to its stately pace and poetic power.
One snowy night deep in the mountains, a young hunter named Minokichi (Aoki) awakens to see a beautiful yuki onna hovering over his mentor, Mosaku (Shiro Sano), literally stealing his breath away. “Should you tell anyone,” she warns the hunter, “I will take your life.” Minokichi’s encounter is so surreal, he does not dare to believe it occurred. A year later, he meets and marries a beautiful lass from another village, an outsider named Yuki (Sugino). She bears him a daughter, Ume, and they live a happy, if frugal, existence. But as the years pass, there are several more mysterious deaths, and the villagers begin pointing fingers in Yuki’s direction. Minokichi remains mum, yet his doubts begin to grow. It isn’t until Ume blossoms into a radiant young lady (emerging star Mayu Yamaguchi) and befriends the village leader’s son that his troubles really begin.
Minokichi and Yuki in the woods. ©Snow Woman Film Partners
Lauding the director’s aesthetic mastery of the medium, one journalist asked Sugino about her inspirations. “I’ve really been inspired by Daiei movies, which I love, especially the work of Kenji Mizoguchi and Yasuzo Masumura,” she enthused. “For this film, I drew a lot of inspiration from Kozaburo Yoshimura and Yasujiro Ozu, especially Ozu's use of color in Floating Clouds. They inspired me to become a filmmaker, and I think you can feel their spirit in this film, in its depiction of the traversing between the netherworld and the [real world]. I suppose some people were hoping for more of a contemporary take on this folklore story, but I think it blends aspects of classic and contemporary cinema.”
Left: ©Kochi Mori, Right: ©FCCJ
Discussing the impetus for her adaptation, Sugino explained: “I read [Hearn’s] book about 4 years ago. He was born in Greece, then lived in Ireland and the US, working as a journalist, and ultimately, came to Japan and naturalized as a Japanese. Through his work, he wanted to convey the spirit and virtues of Japan to both the Japanese and non-Japanese. I think he also wanted to convey the spirit of coexistence [even] with something you can’t quite grasp or someone that is different from you. Considering the intolerance toward immigrants in Europe and the radical philosophies developing in the US, I think it is so important to keep in mind that coexistence is one of the cornerstones for building the future. I think [Hearn’s] story reflects this ideal, and that’s why I felt there was a lot of meaning in making it into a film in this day and age.”
Asked about the earlier adaptation by Masaki Kobayashi, Sugino said, “I love Kobayashi’s Snow Woman, which is faithful to the short story. “But I wanted to take a different approach. I didn’t want to copy his work, and we had budget limitations [that Kobayashi didn’t have]. So the question was, what type of point of view do I imbue the film with, how do I bring a new twist to it? That’s where the daughter comes in, the daughter of Yuki and Minokichi, a half-breed between a human and non-human. I think [her existence] also makes it relevant to this day and age.”
Emerging star Mayu Yamaguchi plays the "halfbreed" daughter of Sugino and Aoki. ©Kochi Mori
Commenting on assembling her cast and crew, Sugino said, “I was able to assemble my favorite actors and actresses for this film. I had Mr. Aoki in mind from the very beginning. I hadn’t even completed the script when I went to him with the story, and it was like a dream, being able to work with him. I don’t think I’m someone with special leadership skills, but I feel strongly that I have more passion than other people. When I want to do something, I find a way to do it, I find a way to tell people that I want to involve them in my project. I think maybe I’m more persistent than others. I don’t know if I have the technique to convey what I want, but I have passion and I put it in a straightforward way, albeit clumsily at times.”
Aoki brandishes his new Honorary FCCJ Membership card after the event. ©Kochi Mori
She concluded, “I really enjoyed the process of making this film, because all the actors, not only Mr. Aoki, were so committed to it, and we were able to collaborate a great deal.”
“What choice do you have,” laughed Aoki, “when the Snow Woman looks into your eyes and warns you that she’ll kill you? You just have to put everything you’ve got into the film.”
On a more serious note, he added, “Ms. Sugino's personality attracts a lot of people. She has this power.”
Countered Sugino, “Mr. Aoki is only saying such kind words because we’re in front of the press.”
But Aoki got in the last word: “She really is the Snow Woman. We shot this film last year and it was a very warm winter, but whenever she came on set, it would snow. The cast and crew started wondering about her. But it made us all believe that it was going to be a wonderful creation and a wonderful film.”
©Snow Woman Film Partners
CLOSE-KNIT (Karera ga Honkide Amu Toki wa)
February 8, 2017
Q&A guest: Director Naoko Ogigami
Writer-director Naoko Ogigami's new film focuses on family ties, but not the typical kind. ©FCCJ
“Unconventional” is an adjective that describes nearly all of Naoko Ogigami’s characters, from the Japanese women who open a washoku restaurant in Helsinki (Kamome Diner, 2006) to the frazzled city dweller who learns how to “twilight” on a quaint island (Megane – Glasses, 2008), to the grandmother who longs for a Toto Washlet while living overseas (Toilet, 2010), to the young woman who rents cats to people who need pet therapy (Rent-a-Cat, 2012).
So it comes as a surprise that while the writer-director’s first new film in 5 years, Close-Knit, includes its share of unconventional characters — including a transgender woman as the protagonist — it is really her most conventional work yet, if “conventional” is understood to mean “sure to appeal to a broad audience.”
Appearing at FCCJ shortly before she was due to leave for the film’s world premiere at the Berlin International Film Festival, and speaking without an interpreter, Ogigami explained why Close-Knit feels different: “One of my challenges was, I’m really fed up with people calling my films iyashi-kei eiga [akin to ‘films that promote emotional healing,’ a genre that Ogigami has been credited with starting], and I wanted to do something new. I think I have done something new, and if it attracts a different audience, that’s great. My previous films were almost all fantasies, so I tried to make this more realistic.”
Perhaps it is Close-Knit’s serious consideration of LGBTQ (and other pressing social) issues that lends it a greater sheen of realism, although there are still several quirky characters and scenes with the director’s patented eccentric humor. The story of a very modern family, it begins when fifth-grader Tomo (Rinka Kakihara), is abandoned by her often-absent mother. Already resourceful, Tomo heads for her uncle Makio’s (Kenta Kiritani) place. There, she meets his beautiful girlfriend Rinko (Toma Ikuta), who warmly welcomes her and proves to be a much better mother than her own. But Rinko is transgender, and soon, Tomo is being bullied by classmates for her new “weird family" (among less gentle name-calling). When Tomo fights back and the police are called, Rinko helps calm her by showing her how to knit, and how to work out her anger with each stitch. Rinko herself has been knitting strange, colorful objects that she terms her “worldly desires.” When she has made a certain number of them, she says, she will conduct a “manhood memorial service,” and file papers to legally change her gender. With Makio and Tomo’s support, Rinko will not only reach her goal, but also be inspired to pursue a dream that she thought was outside her reach.
Ogigami admits she wanted a beauty for her leading lady, and she got one in Toma Ikuta. ©FCCJ
Close-Knit features a trio of extraordinary lead performances, two of them by major movie stars — Toma Ikuta (The Mole Song, The Top Secret: Murder in Mind) and Kenta Kiritani (Too Young to Die!, Gonin Saga) — marking the first time that Ogigami has cast big names. The third performance is by a complete unknown, preteen Rinka Kakihara, who more than holds her own.
Although she didn’t have Ikuta and Kiritani in mind when she wrote the script, Ogigami admitted that she knew “I needed [an actor with] a beautiful face, since he had to [convincingly] play a woman. The first time I saw Ikuta-san in a film was 7 years ago, and I was so impressed with how beautiful he is. So he was always in my mind. I finished writing and started thinking about casting, and I thought he would be good for the role. But he’s from Johnny’s [Jimusho, the notoriously controlling management company], and I thought even if I offered him the role, he would have to decline. But fortunately, he said, ‘Yes.’
“Once Ikuta-san decided to do this, I thought for his partner, I had to find someone taller than him, but with a [gentle demeanor]. When Kiritani-san was young, he used to play hotheads all the time, but as he got older, he started getting calmer, and I thought he would be good.” As for Kakihara, she enthused, “I found her at an audition. She’s an absolute genius. I had a lot of rehearsals with Ikuta, but not so many with Kakihara. This was the first time she’d been in a film, and she was just a natural.”
Since the film “pushes social boundaries,” as one journalist put it, he found it surprising that the bulk of the budget came from status quo monolith Dentsu. “It was very hard to find financing,” admitted Ogigami, “because it’s based on an original story, and it’s very hard, nowadays, to make films [that aren’t based on bestselling novels or popular manga]. But Dentsu came aboard.” Asked if that was before or after Ikuta had signed on to the project, she laughed, “About the same time.”
Asked what had inspired the story, Ogigami said that she’d spent 6 years in Los Angeles during her 20s, and had had a lot of friends who were gay and lesbian. “When I came back to Japan, I didn’t have many friends who were sexual minorities,” she explained, “and that was awkward for me. I realized it’s still difficult for people to come out of the closet in this country. That was one of the reasons I made the film.”
An Argentinian journalist mentioned that her country had just begun educating teachers to treat trans children according to the gender with which they identify, thereby doing away with the longheld notion that they are abnormal. “In the film,” she noted, “Rinko’s mother completely accepted her when she was young, unlike the boy’s mother [a friend of Tomo’s who may be gay]. Did you base these characters on real people?”
Kiritani and Kakihara in the film. ©2016 ”CLOSE-KNIT” Film Partners
Ogigami responded, “I found an article in the newspaper about a transgender woman [Natsuki Majikina], who told her mother when she was 14 that she wanted to have breasts. Her mother knitted fake boobs for her. I went to her mother to ask her about this. She said she always knew that her daughter was different, but she always accepted her. On the other hand, I have a friend who’s gay and Catholic, and says that he will never tell his mother, as long as she lives.”
Asked about other research she’d done before writing the script, the director said, “Since I’m not a sexual minority myself, I was worried about whether I was allowed to make this kind of film. If I don’t have any prejudice or discrimination, I thought it would be all right. But I didn’t want to hurt anyone, so I asked my transgender and gay friends to read the script, to make sure no one was offended.”
Close-Knit is an apt metaphor for the film’s themes, referring as it does not only to the creation of new family ties and the bolstering of old ones, but also to the actual act of knitting — an important feature of the story that required several months of intense practice before filming commenced.
Noting that the film encompasses a number of important social issues beyond LGBTQ concerns — bullying, elder care, youth suicide, family estrangements and abuses that repeat from one generation to the next — one member of the audience suggested, “I think it would be great if families could see this film together.” It wasn’t entirely clear which definition of “family” he meant, but “the family of man” is just about right.
- Naoko Ogigami’s latest film offers another take on the Japanese family
- Close Knit: Naoko Ogigami contra los prejuicios
SILENCE (Chinmoku –Silence–)
January 12, 2017
Q&A guests: Stars Tadanobu Asano, Yosuke Kubozuka and Issey Ogata
Tadanobu Asano, Yosuke Kubozuka and Issey Ogata wave to the TV cameras. ©Kochi Mori
As Silence begins to roll out across America and the clock ticks down to the Oscar nominations, there is much hand-wringing in Los Angeles, where it seems the buzz for Martin Scorsese’s long-awaited passion project is closer to a chilly hush.
But that is surely not the reception to expect in Japan — where the film is set, where the story transpires, where the novel upon which it is based, Shusaku Endo’s Tanizaki Prize-winning 1966 Chinmoku, continues to find new generations of readers.
A late 2016 visit by the film's legendary director and prerelease publicity have already created intense anticipation here, especially concerning the many Japanese actors featured in the work. If FCCJ’s event is any indication of how Silence will be received, then it will earn a following in Japan that honors its many extraordinary achievements, echoing the US critics who have placed it on their 10 Best lists.
A slow-burn masterwork, Silence is set in the 1640s, but its message continues to reverberate across the centuries, lending it contemporary resonance — and urgency. As Scorsese reminds us, “The conflicts that occur — the persecution of religious minorities, the testing of faith — are timeless.” A clarion call for tolerance, acceptance and inclusion, the timing of its release, amidst the convulsions of a new world order, couldn’t be better.
The Human Trust Cinema Yurakucho, site of the preview screening. ©Kochi Mori
Marking a most memorable launch to our 2017 Film Committee screening series — and only the second time in our history that we’ve had the privilege of screening a work off site — the film’s distributor, Kadokawa, generously previewed the film for our 200-strong audience at its beautiful Human Trust Cinema, just steps away from FCCJ. A very crowded Q&A then followed back at FCCJ, lasting over an hour, as journalists from many nations gathered to hear from the three Japanese stars who have been singled out for praise by US critics.
Although only Tadanobu Asano has already had a substantial overseas career, Silence is set to change that for Yosuke Kubozuka and Issey Ogata. Asano (Thor, Mongol) has just finished shooting Martin Zandvliet’s The Outsider, costarring with Jared Leto; Kubozuka is costarring with Elizabeth Banks in the war drama Rita Hayworth With a Hand Grenade; and Ogata (Yiyi: A One and a Two, The Sun) stars with Momoi Kaori (Memoirs of a Geisha) in Latvian director Maris Martinsons’ upcoming Magic Kimono.
Kubozuka and Asano flank Martin Scorsese at a fall 2016 event in Tokyo. ©Koichi Mori
Each of the three had nothing but praise for their director, as well as their costars. It didn’t hurt that they also introduced themselves with a measure of levity at the Q&A session. “I play an interpreter in the film,” said Asano, “but my English isn’t very good. So please let me speak through this interpreter.” Calling himself a “fumie master,” Kubozuka went on to say, “Thanks to this film, I’m able to dream again, [as innocently] as if I were a child.” And Ogata, whose turn in the film earned him runnerup honors from the LA Film Critics for Best Supporting Actor, mentioned, “I’ve given a few interviews in the US, and looking back at them, some of my statements have changed. So whatever questions you have, and whatever answers I give, please note that this is what I said as of January 12.”
Before sharing the actors’ behind-the-scenes stories, however, a word about the film and their roles in it is in order.
Kubozuka as Kichijiro ©2016 FM Films, LLC. All Rights Reverved.
As most readers know, it took the Oscar-winning director nearly 30 years to bring Endo’s novel about the persecution of “hidden Christians” (kakure kirishitan) in 17th-century Japan to the screen. It is the final in Scorsese’s trilogy of faith-based films, after The Last Temptation of Christ (1988) and Kundun (1997), and it is by far his most deeply felt and yes, most challenging, to date. It is also dazzlingly shot (on celluloid), beautifully scripted and thankfully, gets its Japanese setting and action just right.
Silence tells the story of two Portuguese “padres,” Sebastian Rodrigues (Andrew Garfield) and Francisco Garupe (Adam Driver), who journey from Macao to Japan in the early 1640s to search for their missing mentor, Christavao Ferreira (Liam Neeson), after receiving the startling news that he has gone native. The priests find a Japanese wretch, a lapsed Christian named Kichijiro (Kubozuka), to help make the dangerous crossing to the southwestern coast. The Tokugawa shogunate’s sakoku policy has closed the country to outsiders, creating an increasingly hostile environment for anyone brave enough to enter. Worse, the government has encouraged the violent persecution of the devout, forcing some 300,000 believers underground.
Ogata as Inquistor Inoue ©2016 FM Films, LLC. All Rights Reverved.
Rodrigues and Garupe find safety of sorts with a group of clandestine worshippers in the tiny village of Tomogi, and begin ministering to them, conducting baptisms, hearing confession, reciting the Latin mass. But soon enough, the area’s ruthless government “Inquisitor” Inoue (Ogata) has Rodrigues and his new followers behind bars, and sets about putting their faith to the ultimate test. Abetting him is the “Interpreter” (Asano), who scoffs, “We have our own religion, Padre; a pity you did not notice it.” Gloats Inoue to Rodrigues, “The price for your glory is their suffering.” Forced to witness the gruesome tortures that befall those who refuse to renounce their faith, some prisoners make the ultimate sacrifice of apostasy, stepping upon fumie (icons of Christ), and abandoning hope of reaching paradise. Throughout his many trials, Rodrigues continues to beseech God for guidance, but He is silent, even as his believers are met with intolerable fates.
Asano as the Interpreter ©2016 FM Films, LLC. All Rights Reverved.
Highlights of the Q&A:
Question: Despite publicity to the contrary, I didn’t think the Inquisitor or the Interpreter were nefarious characters. As you were playing your characters, what was your perspective on the roles?
Asano: “I really empathized with the character of the Interpreter, and didn’t see him as nefarious. The backstory I read into him was that he was probably Christian, but was no longer able to carry on his faith. So that’s what led him to his line of work. Having been Christian gave him special insight into the Christians and their belief. He’s not a simple villain; because of his position, he has to work between Inoue and Rodrigues.”
Ogata: “In approaching Inoue, I must say that everything was in the script. During my audition, I did the scene where he’s trying to get Rodrigues to apostatize, and he tells him the story about the four concubines. What I brought to this scene was, we were talking [metaphorically] about Christianity and faith in God, and those were the heavenly aspects of the film; [but] Inoue was a more grounded, earthy character. And that’s where this voice [he does Inoue’s croaky whine] comes from.”
Kubozuka: "In the original work, my character, Kichijiro, is depicted as a weakling, someone who’s ugly, cunning, dirty and weak. He steps on the fumie again and again, which makes me wonder whether he’s really weak. He seems to be quite determined. Of course he steps on the fumie, but as the Interpreter says, he korobu (tramples), which is not the same as kikiyo (apostatizing). He goes back and forth. Mr. [Shusaku] Endo says that the character is very much about himself. I was in the US earlier this month, and there were many questions about the fumie, and whether Americans would step on it in this day and age. A lot of people said, 'Probably!' So I think the character of Kichijiro is very human, and relevant to the modern age."
Said Variety about Kubozuka’s Kichijiro, “[His] sneaky, social-outcast behavior suggests the way
Toshiro Mifune might play the role of Gollum.” ©FCCJ (except bottom right: ©Mance Thompson)
Question: Is Kichijiro really a Christian, or just the type of Japanese person who believes in his sempai, Rodrigues?
Kubozuka: I think he has a sense of innocence. Mr. Scorsese never gave me specific directions, explaining what the character was about or what kind of person he was supposed to be. He really left a lot of it up to me. I saw the film for the first time, without subtitles, at the LA premiere on January 5th, and I was surprised that he’d edited out the takes in which I was more emotional, more pure. What you see is the more flippant, light, stupid — for lack of a better word — side of Kichijiro. He really is a pitiful character. I suppose Mr. Scorsese’s answer to your question can be found there. The way I see the character is, I think Kichijiro doesn’t truly understand Christianity, but he is adamant about his belief."
Question: Inoue is such a fascinating character. How did you prepare for it, Mr. Ogata? Did you have any role model?
Ogata: “It’s all in the script. It’s said that the character might have [also] been Christian in the past, and this is evident the very first time he meets Rodrigues. He tells him, ‘If you are a true Christian, a true priest, then you would come to the decision to apostatize to save all these Japanese Christians who are suffering for you.’ I don’t think he would’ve said this line unless he had the experience of being Christian himself. He also knows that it’s a powerful logic, because he’s [used the line before], with Father Ferreira."
When Asano auditioned for the film, Scorsese was thrilled, since he admired him in such films
as Mongol, Bright Future and Ichi the Killer. ©Mance Thompson (except top right: ©FCCJ)
Question: What did you see as any differences between the book and the film?
Ogata: “I tried reading Endo’s novel when I was young, and only got halfway through. [After reading it all the way through], the character I was most drawn to is Kichijiro. He’s the closest to who I am. As for the character of Inoue in the film, there is a lot that isn’t in the original work, and that’s thanks to Mr. Scorsese’s imagination. He inflated the role for me, and left me a lot of room to act it my way."
Kubozuka: — SPOILER ALERT! — “The place where I saw the starkest difference between the novel and the film is in the final scene, where Rodrigues bears the cross that Mokichi had given him, in his tomb. I think this scene came about because of Mr. Scorsese’s [own belief]; that he felt it was key to him bringing this story to the world. I understand this was shown at the Vatican, and got a wonderful reception. I think he probably felt this was necessary to bring the strength and the power of the original novel to the world. Mr. Ogata and I were discussing this earlier tonight, and he mentioned that Shusaku Endo had a protégé named Mr. Kato, who applauded when he saw this scene. He really liked it.
Asano: “The way I approached the film was that it was all about the script. I read it again and again, concocting a backstory for my character. Whenever I would get lost, I would go back to the novel. But I soon discovered that the backstory I imagined was very different from the one in the novel, so I decided not to rely on it much.
Variety had this to say about Ogata, a renowned comedian: “An unnerving inquisitor named Inoue has a wheedling voice
and faux-gracious manner that suggests the Japanese equivalent of Christoph Waltz’s Nazi colonel in Inglourious Basterds.”
©Mance Thompson (except bottom right: ©FCCJ)
Question: For those who haven’t read the original novel, what do you think the highlights of the film are?
Kubozuka: "I would say that the ultimate message of the film is that God is silent. If you’re to find an answer, it’s all about introspection. You have to go inside yourself for answers."
Ogata: "Has God ever spoken, really? As a non-Christian, I don’t know the answer. The film is less like real life than a picture scroll, in which characters are going through unbearable suffering. But strangely, no matter how painful it all is, after watching it, I feel this notion of purity that resonates. It’s a film that has that kind of sustenance."
Question: If you had been in the position, historically, to stem the spread of Christianity, would you have done the same thing as your characters?
Ogata: "If I’d been born in the Edo period, I think I would still have become an actor. And I would probably have played a character like Inoue, and demanded that the Christians trample on the fumie. But only if Mr. Scorsese could have directed me."
Kubozuka: "It’s a difficult question. It depends on whether your parents were Christian, or whether you were born with the choice of which religion to follow, or whether you were a Buddhist, like many Japanese. If I’d been born back then, I think I would’ve still been a fumie master like Kichijiro."
Asano: "If I’d been born in the Edo period, I would have done my best to stay away from that kind of situation."
Question: You can’t tell it from watching the film, but it was actually shot in Taiwan. How did you feel about that?
Asano: "I wish we could have shot in Japan, but Taiwan is a wonderful country, with such great food and a great crew, and it was very easy to shoot. Since it takes place in such a long-ago Japan, we had an otherworldly feeling on set. I don’t know if it would have been different if we shot in Japan."
Kubozuka: "Whenever I think of the shoot, I think of xiao long bao (soup dumplings) — they were wonderful. On set, we had a lot of crew from Kyoto who are specialists in jidaigeki period films, and they only had one complaint: We built this little village up in the mountains, and the doors to the hut opened like Western doors, rather than being sliding doors. But they were able to change them before shooting. Mr. Scorsese had the utmost respect for Mr. Endo, and for us, and for Japanese culture. When he found anything wrong or off, he would immediately fix it, since he wanted to stay true to Japan. A lot of historical and cultural research went into the making of the film, and that’s why it passes as Japan."
Cult director Shinya Tsukamoto also shines in the film, here with Andrew Garfield. ©Kerry Brown
Question: How is it working with Mr. Scorsese, compared to other filmmakers?
Ogata: “It was very inspiring being able to work with Mr. Scorsese, as well as my fellow cast and crewmates. I felt like I was the luckiest actor alive, to have experienced this. The way he approaches directing his actors is, he never really instructs you how to act, he lets you bring what you have to the part. He never, ever says anything negative about what you provide. It’s really inspiring, and it leads to many other ideas. He leaves room for things to happen.
Asano: "Even in the audition process, he really enjoys what you have to bring, and he really, really watches you. He sees you. But he never tries to stop you or put pressure on you. For an actor, it’s a really enjoyable process. You also feel that responsibility, that you really have to bring something to the part. I haven’t seen this in a lot of directors. Some directors will treat only certain actors in this way, but Mr. Scorsese treats every actor like that."
Kubozuka: “I agree. On set, Mr. Scorsese is like a king, but [he makes it] so easy when you’re on set. He holds a mirror up to you and helps boost your acting, and you’re able to trick yourself into thinking that you’re a superb actor. There’s immense power and strength in this film, and I hope — I believe — it will help serve a better tomorrow. I’m so grateful and honored to have been able to participate.
Question: There’s been a lot of talk about the Oscars. What do you think about the film’s chances?
Ogata: "Let’s let Mr. Asano answer that one."
Asano: "I think the film will be nominated. If it isn’t, maybe God said something He shouldn’t have."
Note to fans of Japanese film: Although Asano, Kubozuka and Ogata have the largest roles, there are many other Japanese actors acquitting themselves admirably in the film. Look for brilliant Paris-based actor Yoshi Oida and beloved actor/cult director Shinya Tsukamoto in important roles, as well as appearances by Shun Sugata, Nana Komatsu, Ryo Kase and even actor/director Sabu (who was in Taiwan to film his upcoming Mr. Long, which world premieres next month at the Berlin Film Festival).
©2016 FM Films, LLC. All Rights Reverved.
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THE ONDEKOZA (Za Ondekoza)
December 14, 2016
Q&A guests: Taiko pioneer Eitetsu Hayashi and remastering producer Tetsuya Nakagawa
Eitetsu Hayashi, pioneer of taiko drumming, and Shochiku's Tetsuya Nakagawa, who oversaw the digital remastering of the film. ©Mance Thompson
Behind many great works of art are dark stories about their creation, and The Ondekoza is no exception. Gracing the FCCJ with his presence — despite having skipped the first two screenings of the film, at the Venice and Tokyo Filmex festivals — Ondekoza’s star, taiko pioneer Eitetsu Hayashi, spoke eloquently about the genesis of the musical group and the eponymous film that pays tribute to its extraordinary accomplishments. There is no hint on screen about its true backdrop: that of a powerful mentor and his cruel exploitation of the young.
Thirty-five years after its heralded premiere and subsequent disappearance from public view, the musical masterpiece The Ondekoza now returns in a blaze of cinematic glory, thanks to Shochiku, which first commissioned the documentary in 1979, and has now digitally restored it, in 4K, to mark the 100th anniversary of the birth of its director, Tai Kato (1916-1985).
Kato had begun shooting in 1979 and continued for two years, following the young people who had formed the Ondekoza Japanese music ensemble in 1971 on Sado Island, north of Niigata, under the leadership of Tagayasu Den. The teens had been lured north by Den’s plan to build a liberal arts college on the island, and had decided, despite their lack of musical training, to raise funding by performing updated versions of Japanese standards, particularly by forming a tight unit of taiko drummers.
Hayashi generously detailed his behind-the-scenes experiences. ©Mance Thompson
The first half of The Ondekoza follows the group’s daily routines, as well as the rehearsals and concerts in local halls, and the efforts to adapt traditional folk pieces to fit their burgeoning repertoire. They live communally, work and train together in Spartan conditions, craft their own instruments, create their own choreography and sew their own costumes. They run together, too, building up physical stamina, as they traverse many miles across the island’s rugged terrain. (They would go on to run the Boston Marathon each year from 1975 – 1981, playing drums immediately after crossing the finish line.)
In its second half, the film positively explodes in vivid colors across the screen, as the group performs a series of dazzling setpieces — many on sets designed by legendary designer Tadanori Yokoo and Chiyo Umeda — including Devil Sword Dance (Oni kenbai), O-Shichi of the Tower (Yagura no O-Shichi), Changing Cherry Blossom Song (Sakura Hensokyoku), The Big Taiko (Odaiko), Monochrome II (Monokuromu II), Float Orchestra (Yatai bayashi) and Tsugaru Shamisen (Tsugarujamisen). Kato’s unique camera techniques heighten the visual brilliance of the numbers, capturing the performers as they achieve astonishing levels of virtuosity, transforming the screen into a perfect expression of art’s transcendent power.
©1989 "The Ondekoza" Film Partners
Perhaps the film’s most spectacular sequences involve scenes of drummers, clad in loincloths, beating enormous taiko drums, encircled by leaping flames of hellfire. While most people assume that groups of drummers playing together in disciplined unison is the Japanese tradition, it first occurred after WWII. Eitetsu Hayashi himself is credited with originating the wadaiko form, in which a carefully choreographed group (like those in the film) plays large taiko drums, often with their backs to the audience for greater dramatic effect.
Speaking at the Q&A session following the screening, which he had watched, Hayashi explained, “In the 1960s, I was a huge Beatles fan and had my own amateur band. Since I had that experience and a sense of rhythm, I wound up supervising the drum sequences in the film, and composing the music for them. Usually with musical films, you record the music first, then you lip synch and match the dancing to the music. But the director wanted to shoot everything live. We only had one camera, so we had to shoot [again and again] from various angles. With wadaiko, there’s a lot of intensity when you play, and you’re working up a sweat. When you cut to shoot from another angle, you have to work up to the same intensity again, so I had to play the entire piece from the beginning each time. It was a very strenuous shoot.”
Hayashi demonstrates the now-familiar taiko drumming stance, with sticks up above the head. ©FCCJ
After spending 11 years with the Ondekoza, Hayashi would go on to cofound the globally acclaimed taiko troop Kodo, before commencing a solo career. He has since moved from one triumph to the next, beginning in 1984, when he became the first-ever solo taiko performer to play with the American Symphony Orchestra at Carnegie Hall. Renowned for his virtuosity, his physical stamina and his range, which fuses traditional, classical, jazz, rock and world music, his performances have influenced such popular musician-percussionists as the Blue Man group and Stomp.
But before the flourishing career and the happy circumstances that have finally brought about the release of The Ondekoza, there was the agony. Hayashi admitted, “I had qualms about coming here to see it tonight. It took a lot of courage for me to watch it again. It reminds me of those days when we were putting our heart and soul into our performances … not knowing that the film would not be released. My life changed drastically after that.”
Pressed to elaborate, he told the audience, who sat transfixed throughout, “What you see up on the screen may seem like we came together for the love of art, and aspirations to become great performers, but that’s not the case. We didn’t set out to become professional musicians, but the leader of the group [Den] was very strong, very determined, a bit of a dictator. He’d been one of the students who led the student protests [at a university in Tokyo], and he was draconian. He did not allow any TV, radio or newspapers, we weren’t free to spend time with friends outside the group, we were not paid, we did not have any vacations or time off.
Nakagawa, manager of Shochiku’s Home Entertainment & Licensing Division, is the man responsible for working to clear the myriad
copyright and other issues that had prevented the film from being shown more than a handful of times since 1981. ©Mance Thompson
“It was our duty to listen to whatever he had to say, and to follow his orders. But we thought the money we were earning [from performances] was going to the establishment of the college. It was an honor, back then, to earn money overseas, and we were grateful to him. However, he gradually changed his mind. The college never came to fruition. And the group became like a cult. As cults go, as dictatorships go, it was impossible to escape. We had no money, no boats, so we couldn’t leave.
“We were increasingly gaining attention overseas — even Seiji Ozawa, who was conducting the Boston Symphony Orchestra then, invited us to appear together in 1976, and we won many accolades. After that, we started to perform in very large venues, going on tours, even appearing on Broadway. At that point, the leader thought, ‘We should make a film about ourselves and take it to the Cannes Film Festival, to show how successful we’ve been overseas.’
“So a large amount of money was borrowed to make a film. But once it was completed, the leader said, ‘I don’t like this film. I’m going to direct my own film.’ There was no means to return the money we’d borrowed to finance it, and no way to continue operations with the Ondekoza. The group members finally voiced our concerns, and the dictator that he was, he said, ‘You’re all fired.’ So the group ultimately dissolved, which meant that Shochiku couldn’t release the film.”
Before Hayashi provided this painful context for The Ondekoza, the FCCJ audience had been able to experience the film’s lasting artistic achievement without the shadows cast by its backstory. That the backstory has now deepened their appreciation is beyond a doubt; but its troubling questions linger, much as they did in Damien Chazelle’s 2014 Whiplash, another film about a mentor’s monstrously autocratic abuse of musicians, particularly one young drummer, and the toll that it takes upon his soul.
Hayashi and Nakagawa pose with one of the three remaining original posters for the film (right), designed by Tadanori Yokoo.
©1989 "The Ondekoza" Film Partners
DDT: WE ARE JAPANESE WRESTLERS (Oretachi Bunkakei Puro-Resu DDT)
November 21, 2016
Q&A guests: Co-directors Muscle Sakai and Tetsuaki Matsue
Super Sasadango Machine presents a riveting preshow event. ©Mance Thompson
The Film Committee is committed to presenting the widest possible range of work to our audiences, and there’s no better proof than our sneak peek of DDT: We Are Japanese Wrestlers. We steeled ourselves for criticism that we shouldn’t be screening sports movies — especially when they’re not about Olympics athletes — but the criticism never came.
On the contrary, we discovered that a surprising number of FCCJ members are fans of professional wrestling, and they seemed thrilled to watch a theatrical documentary about one of Japan’s most popular teams, the Dramatic Dream Team, on the club's premises. They were also looking forward to the special preshow event, which the DDT’s legion of followers and Samurai TV had helped popularize.
From its beginnings with the great Rikidozan and Giant Baba, through Antonio Inoki, the spirit and presentation of Japanese “proresu” have been more high-minded, with fewer theatrics, than the western version. Still considered primarily a combat sport (thanks to Inoki’s introduction of traditional martial arts into the mix) proresu matches in Japan have always been considered real competitions, with grueling, body-slamming, high-flying action.
DDT, founded in 1997 by Sanshiro Takagi, began injecting matches with a far greater theatrical verve, incorporating stories and comedy, striking a delicate balance between the hair-raising and the hilarious, and bringing the team's style closer to the nonstop mayhem of western wrestling. Their astounding athleticism, creative costuming and dazzling choreography soon made DDT one of the top names in indie wrestling. DDT was dubbed “cultural” puroresu for its theatrics, as well as for Super Sasadango Machine’s introductory PowerPoint presentations before every tournament. Yes, PowerPoints.
Only the third pro wrestler in its 71-year history to appear at FCCJ — following Rikidozan and Inoki — SS Machine himself burst into the screening room in all his green-spangled glory, and took the stage to wild applause. He raised his arm and…click, began his PowerPoint show, custom-created for the FCCJ crowd. For the next 30 minutes, the entire room was in a state of extreme merriment, with each new slide prompting a fresh round of appreciative chortles (along with giggles, guffaws and a few howls).
It was such a two-thumbs-up performance, such a combination of serious and silly, informative and entertaining, and all before the main event had begun, that no one wanted SS Machine to leave. (The senior managing director of Sakai Precision Molding in Niigata Prefecture, SS Machine is also an MBA holder, although this is not public knowledge, and a TV comedy talent.)
Ever the professionals, SS Machine and interpreter Taro Goto
rehearse their timing before the event. ©Koichi Mori
For those of us who have never attended a live match (ahem, guilty), and wondered how “puroresu” could have grown into a $120 million sport, SS Machine’s slideshow made it crystal clear. After colorfully introducing the wrestlers and the documentary team, including the “outstanding filmmaker” Muscle Sakai (SS Machine himself), he laid out the feud that erupted in 2014 between DDT (which he estimated made only $5 million last year) and New Japan Pro Wrestling ($32 million), the country's No. 1 agency, founded by Antonio Inoki. Apparently, New Japan’s MVP Hiroshi Tanahashi had fanned the fires of the feud by “sending shockwaves through the industry” with remarks slamming DDT’s low-level technique: “We’re competing at a whole other level from you.”
DDT decided to offer Tanahashi a chance to prove his supremacy, so invited him to a playoff. “It’s not easy being a little company taking on a big corporation,” SS Machine explained. “So we adopted the Lancaster strategy: to find the opponent’s vulnerability, and concentrate the attack on that weak point. Unfortunately, however, Tanahashi has no vulnerabilities.” The wrestler-filmmaker then described how he’d been at work, watching a plastic injection mold machine, when he realized how DDT could beat the MVP: “Let’s hypothesize that Tanahashi is the pro wrestling mold, and that we oppose this extremely precise instrument by pitting him against the unpredictable element of Ken Ohka [DDT’s least-experienced wrestler]. Then we may have a shot at victory. Businesses, whether large or small, show their true colors when they’re faced with a crisis. Did DDT’s Lancaster strategy work? You’ll have to watch the documentary.”
SS Machine illustrates DDT's Lancaster strategy. ©Mance Thompson
It was a most excellent setup for DDT: We Are Japanese Wrestlers, which opens with restless jumps from one contest to the next, as if it’s suffering from attention-deficit disorder, which quickly orients viewers to the style of coverage favored by Japan's premier sports channel, Samurai TV, where the team has a wildly popular hour-long timeslot. Documenting a year of matches and backstage stories, the film reveals that these rough-n-tumble customers have very soft underbellies indeed (they even submit to “popularity ranking” contests, much like boy bands). By the time Ken Ohka and Harashima finally get their chance to go up against the bruisers of New Japan Pro Wrestling in late 2015, the audience is resoundingly on their side. Not quite a classic underdog contest, since the DDT have fought their way to a No. 2 ranking, there is still much at stake. And Tanahashi makes the perfect villain.
Co-directors Sakai and Matsue share a laugh. ©Mance Thompson
As DDT approaches its 20th anniversary, the film is a fittingly scruffy tribute to the team’s staying power.
Following the screening, Muscle Sakai (SS Machine in street clothes) returned with Tetsuaki Matsue, his co-director and the acclaimed documentarian behind award-winning films Annyong Kimchi, Live Tape, Tokyo Drifter and Flashback Memories 3D. The first question was about how Matsue got involved in the project. “The DDT president asked me about making a documentary in the spring of 2014,” he said. “He suggested following the team for a year. But I thought it would be interesting to follow one subject, and I was always fascinated with Muscle Sakai, whom I’ve known for 10 years.”
He later expanded: “In summer, Mr. Sakai was in the ring at Ryogoku and announced that we were doing the film, and said that it would be in 3D. At the time, it wasn’t a joke. I had contacted specialists and we had shot for about a year. I started editing it, but it just didn’t work as a film. That’s when I proposed refocusing on Muscle instead. I always felt that there was something about his performance and aesthetic that was similar to my approach to documentary. I also felt like the [DDT-New Japan] match was a nice narrative center.”
Matsue went on to explain, “I’m 39 right now, and Muscle is also 39. If you look at the whole DDT culture, there’s something about it that looks like a college festival. What they do requires such an expenditure of energy; they put everything into it. There’s a kind of exuberance there that I was drawn to. The subject matter is so enjoyable that, even at my age, I was able to tackle this project. I think this film might appeal to people in our age group as they look back, nostalgically, at the phenomenon of going all out.”
Asked how he got into proresu, when he clearly had a lot of other options, Sakai admitted, “The president of DDT asked me if I wanted to try wrestling. At the time, I was a university student and I was the team’s videographer. Mr. Takagi came to me and said, ‘You’re a big guy. Why don’t you try wrestling?’ And here I am.”
But where did the PowerPoint presentations come from? Said Sakai, speaking metaphorically: “As pro wrestlers and mold makers, we’re often overwhelmed by these big corporations who come at us with complex marketing and advertising strategies, and PowerPoint presentations with business ideologies. They come at us with graphs and try to embroil us in something we don’t understand, and I felt it was important to understand. I gave my first PPT presentation in 2014.”
A DDT fan in the crowd asked whether he thinks things have changed, now that Tanahashi has fought against the underdogs. “There are a lot of inter-organizational feuds,” Sakai admitted. “Ever since that incident, I’ve been asked to officiate and be a peacemaker. Whenever there’s some kind of trouble, they bring me in as a troubleshooter. I’ll continue to serve in any capacity that may help.”
Matsue was asked whether he thought Ken Ohka had international appeal, and had chosen to highlight him in the film for that reason. “We actually filmed a lot of the DDT wrestlers,” responded the director, “and it wasn’t our intention that Ohka-san would be so central to the story. He just kind of ended up that way. Some of the wrestlers look like stars on screen, either because they emit a certain star wattage or because they seem to invite the spotlight. Ohka-san doesn’t have star wattage, but it seemed that the camera always turned to him. I thought, that’s the kind of character we want.”
Sakai lines up the nameplates for a selfie with FCCJ's famous banner. ©Mance Thompson
Sakai added, “If he were the type of wrestler who deserved international acclaim, I believe that WWE would’ve approached him by now. So the probability of him going international is pretty low. But you never know. Maybe after this FCCJ screening, the film will get seen overseas and a big promoter will discover him.”
This prompted a journalist to ask whether the English title had been chosen with a global audience in mind. Said Sakai: “In Japan, whether you’re wrestling in the DDT or New Japan Pro Wrestling style, I think a lot of Japanese fans are familiar with a lot of the elements in the film. But we chose to put ‘Japanese’ in the title because we’re proud of our wrestling, and we want international audiences to see it.”
Matsue admitted: “Sakai-san came up with the English title and he really pushed for it. Initially, I had in mind calling it DDT: Ego Search." He laughed, "But I’m actually awful at coming up with titles for my own films. Everyone always winds up disagreeing.”
We may never see this sport at the Olympics, but that doesn’t mean its practitioners aren’t every bit as dedicated to training and determined to win as any Olympic athlete — nor that its many millions of fans aren’t as justifiably devoted. Why should trampoline and synchronized swimming be the only contests that inspire levity during the Olympic Games? It’s too late for 2020, but with athletic prowess of this heart-pounding level, surely there’s an outside chance for pro wrestling on the next go-around?
The directors brandish their new FCCJ honorary membership cards. ©Mance Thompson
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