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FIRST LOVE


FIRST LOVE (Hatsukoi)


 February 25, 2020
Q&A guests: Director Takashi Miike and star Masataka Kubota


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Kubota (left) and Miike reunite after a decade for a noirish love story... with comic elements.  ©Koichi Mori

If the FCCJ audience expected Takashi Miike to be as outrageous, outlandish or outré as many of his films, they were sorely disappointed. Appearing at the Q&A session following a sneak peek of his new film, he was gracious, thoughtful and on occasion, droll — reminding us that the artist and the art are not always made of the same stuff.

But it should come as no surprise that even the Godfather of Asian Extreme plays by the rules of civil engagement at home in Japan. That partially explains how the compulsively prolific auteur has managed to direct over 100 features (in every possible genre, including several that he invented), since 1991. These have justly earned him global adulation and notoriety; yet he is also a critics’ favorite, having won awards at every leading film festival from Berlin to Cannes to Venice to Toronto, and been more widely distributed overseas than any other Japanese filmmaker.

While he's provided plenty of instant ramen for fanboys over the years, Miike has also proven with numerous titles, from The Bird People in China to Hara-Kiri: Death of a Samurai, that he can produce restrained, humanistic works when the mood strikes. His latest, a violently pulpy action-comedy-thriller about a lonely boxer who finds a soulmate, gives us both sides of Miike: the sober, introspective romantic and the gleefully subversive bad boy.

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  ©Koichi Mori

But First Love is no blushing romance. Told with hurtling kinetic oomph, it returns the director to noirish territory and features a familiar assortment of Miike lowlifes — drug smugglers and addicts, corrupt cops and cold-blooded killers, call girls and Chinese gangsters, sociopaths and screw-ups — all vying to survive anarchic gunfights, swordfights, exploding toys, flying cars and meth-induced delirium in Japan’s rotten underbelly.

In the film, Leo Katsuragi (Masataka Kubota) is an “unknown boxer with promise” who fights well in the ring, but has nothing to live for outside it. An abandoned orphan with a menial day job at a Chinese restaurant, he learns that he has a brain tumor and little time left. His doctor advises that he dedicate himself to helping someone else, and presto, he meets Monica (Sakurako Konishi), a sweet young meth addict haunted by the ghost of her abusive father, whose debts she has been forced into prostitution to pay off.

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Leo saves Monica from the mob and the ghost who haunts her.  ©2019 FIRST LOVE Production Committee

The star-crossed pair are unwittingly enmeshed in a drug-smuggling double-cross hatched by minor hoodlum Kase (a hilarious Shota Sometani) and dirty-dealing cop Otomo (Nao Omori), and are pursued through a single chaotic night by an array of eccentric characters, including, mostly memorably, a rampaging gangster’s girlfriend, Julie (a kickass Becky), who’s out for brutal revenge after he’s murdered; and a female assassin working for the Chinese Triads (Mami Fujioka), who laments that there’s no honor or humanity among thieves anymore.

Kubota joined Miike for the FCCJ Q&A session. It had been 10 years since the two had worked together, on the heralded 13 Assassins. In the intervening decade, the director continued to work at a blistering pace, averaging two film releases each year, including two more with British super-producer Jeremy Thomas, Hara-Kiri: Death of a Samurai (2011) and Blade of the Immortal (2017).

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A pair of old-style yakuza share a smoke.  ©2019 FIRST LOVE Production Committee

Miike had played a part in establishing Kubota’s career, having cast him as the lead in his 2008 TV series, Cellphone Investigator 7. After that, Kubota’s rise was meteoric. Nearly as prolific as his director, he starred in dozens of TV series and films of every genre, including hit franchises like Rurouni Kenshin (2012, 2014, 2020), High & Low (2016, 2017) and Tokyo Ghoul (2017, 2019), as well as in Prophecy (2015), 64 (2016), Thicker than Water (2018), Gintama 2 (2018), Diner (2019) and Fancy (2020).

So how did it feel for them to reunite on the set of First Love? Said Miike, “I’ve spent the past 10 years working constantly, and it seems like it’s been the blink of an eye. I don’t feel the terrifying passage of time unless I look in the mirror. Meanwhile, Mr. Kubota now looms over me in the industry. God can be so cruel.”

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©FCCJ

Chuckling appreciatively, his star recalled, “I was 19 when I first worked with Mr. Miike, and I really didn’t know left from right. Now that we’re working together again after 10 years, I feel like he’s softened somewhat. Even though he’s still wearing those sunglasses, he was spicier back then. He’s mellower now, and that’s made him more accessible and easier to talk to.”

Miike looked a little hangdog about this, but Kubota continued: “Once principle photography started, I realized what it is about a Miike set that makes all Japan’s leading actors want to work with him. When you experience other sets, it’s clear that Mr. Miike really is a grandmaster, and I realized how lucky I was to start my career on one of his sets.”

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©2019 FIRST LOVE Production Committee

The grandmaster was asked about Kubota’s costar, debuting actress Sakurako Konishi. “We auditioned unknowns,” he recalled, “and while acting technique and character motivation are important elements of standard auditions, for unknowns, it’s really about the presence they exude the moment they step through the door. With Ms. Konishi, I instantly sensed ‘That’s our lead.’ It’s like she was born to play this role.

“The same thing happened [in 2008], when we were casting the lead for Cellphone Investigator 7. When Mr. Kubota stepped through the door, I knew right away that he was the one.”

Kubota was also quick to praise the actress, telling the audience, “I still have a long way to go as an actor, but working with Ms. Konishi made me realize how much technique I’d accumulated through these years, the kind of technique that allows an actor to answer the question of what to do in a certain moment. Watching the way she approached the role, without a lot of technique, but with great agility, reminded me what it felt like 10 years ago. I just hope I can continue being a working actor 10 years from now, when Ms. Konishi is a big star.”

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©FCCJ

Kubota’s character in First Love is limited to fighting only with his fists, which proved to be effective. But Kubota admitted, “I was very envious of my costars, because it makes things so much easier to have a sword or a gun in your hands — you have ultimate power, don’t you? But in terms of physical preparation, I was the most prepared of all the cast. Since I play a boxer, I started training about a month before the shoot. I spent 2 hours a day in the gym every day, and I ate a lot of meat.”

Asked for his standout memories of the filmmaking process, Kubota recounted the many night shoots and the “car action scenes, with six of us crammed into a minivan, including Mr. Miike, with the car-action coordinator pushing the gas pedal. I kept nearly whacking my head on the windshield, so it’s something I’ll never forget.”

Miike was queried about working with Jeremy Thomas on his fourth project together. Said Miike, “He’s one of those rare producers who really understands the Japanese way of doing things and the Japanese approach. He left us to our own devices. During the editing process, he provided feedback. But ultimately, he left the decision-making to us. He’s a really rare producer in that respect, and I feel very lucky to work with him. I consider him a friend.”

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©Koichi Mori

But he noted, “The international version is cut slightly differently than the Japanese version; there are many things you have to take into consideration in Japan.”

There is a clever, colorful animated sequence in the film, and Miike was asked why it had been included. “Honestly speaking, there are a lot of restrictions on creative work in Japan,” he explained. “Japanese film has become [more conservative]. Most films are now ‘safe for viewing.’ One of the starkest differences between Japanese and international films is the risk factor, especially when it comes to action scenes. It’s not possible here anymore for young people to dream of being stunt performers, because the environment has changed. Most of the stunt people are veterans, over 60. So for a scene where you go over the edge like that, it does terrible things to your back and we couldn’t do it. But I was adamant about not cutting that scene from the script, and we ultimately made the decision to turn it into an animated sequence.”

Tom Mes, author of the two definitive books “Agitator: The Cinema of Takashi Miike” and “Re-Agitator: A Decade of Writing on Takashi Miike,” was in the audience and mentioned that the auteur had spent the past several years directing an animated TV series directed squarely at the female tweener audience. “Do you see this film as a sort of male-focused rebound from that?” he asked. “Or is it a continuation?”

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The double-crossing yakuza Kase and dirty cop Otomo. ©2019 FIRST LOVE Production Committee

Said the director, “One reason we came up with the title First Love and the tagline ‘Farewell to violence,’ is because we were hopeful that certain audience members would be misled into seeing the film.” (Cue laughter.)

“As Tom said, I’ve been working on this TV series that airs weekly and is aimed at young female viewers. We’re in our 4th season. It’s about using the power of love, rather than violence, to [overcome obstacles in life], and that’s a message I truly take to heart.

“For this film, though, I wanted to depict the lives of these outlaws who lead very foolish lives. My hope was to cast a glimmer of hope into them. Most directors stick to one genre and chew over the same themes in all their work. That’s not the case with me. One thing leads to another, and I’ve been given the opportunity to make many films. For all the genre-crossing, I’m always trying to grab at the heart of the characters. Regardless of the size of the screen, all the characters are the same at their core. They’re struggling through the same conflicts and trying to find the same kind of happiness. It doesn’t make any difference what genre they’re in.”

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©FCCJ

Film critic Mark Schilling, wearing a mask (as were many in the room), noted that COVID-19 had effectively shut down the film industry in China, with many distributors moving their releases online in order to continue providing content. “How do you feel about the future of theatrical releases vs. streaming?” he asked.

Miike grew somber. “With the coronavirus, we’re in uncharted waters, and all of us are grappling with ways to cope with it. But I’m not opposed to bringing work to people in their own private spaces, so they can enjoy it without having physical interactions with other human beings. I admit I watch films online, and it’s interesting that watching films in your own personal space allows you to view them in a different light.

“But in my own experience, I feel it’s really important to spend time not only with a film’s characters but with other audience members in a theater. When you share a space with other viewers, even when the theater isn’t crowded, it makes for [a richer experience.] That’s essential for me, personally. Formats will continue to change, but I hope theatrical releases will continue forever.”

The Japan release of First Love is uncharacteristically late, coming after the film has screened at nearly 30 festivals overseas and opened in Europe, the US and elsewhere. Whether the delay was planned or imposed, it will be interesting to see whether Miike — and his “looming” star — can attract a larger female audience despite all the rambunctious, hyperviolent fun.

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©2019 FIRST LOVE Production Committee

Selected Media Exposure

Selected TV Exposure

  • 日本テレビ ZIP! SHOWBIZ 窪田正孝、再会した三池崇史監督は「鋭利なものが丸くなった」
  • TBS はやドキ! 窪田正孝・三池崇史監督が出席。「オレは10年で歳をとった、窪田くんはずいぶん出世した」
  • 日本テレビ Oha!4 NEWS LIVE 窪田が10年ぶりのタッグについて「緊張が解けたのか喋りやすくなった」
  • フジテレビ めざましテレビ 三池崇史監督は「窪田君は10年で出世した」と窪田正孝の活躍が嬉しい様子。 

BENEATH THE SHADOW


BENEATH THE SHADOW (Eiri)


 February 4, 2020
Q&A guests: Director Keishi Otomo and producer Masashi Igarashi


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 Igarashi (left) cracks that it's a lot harder to make a film based on a prizewinning novel than it is to make one based on a manga,
which "Mr. Otomo has done time and again."
©Koichi Mori

Most of us know Keishi Otomo as the director and cowriter of the blockbuster Rurouni Kenshin trilogy, arguably the most globally successful samurai-swashbuckler franchise of our time. The first-ever Japanese helmer to sign a multipicture deal with Warner Bros., Otomo produced slick, big-budget, live-action adaptations of the popular manga/anime series that were instant classics for their mix of spectacular swordfights, slapstick humor and romanticism.

What we didn’t recognize from Rurouni Kenshin — or his other domestic box-office hits — is that underneath the polish of this world-class director, beats the heart of a poet.

But Otomo’s new film demonstrates just that. With his first arthouse title after three decades in TV and film, he takes a surprising turn toward the contemplative, the elegiac, the ineffable with Beneath the Mask.

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Otomo took time out from the final weeks of editing his summer Rurouni Kenshin releases.  ©Koichi Mori

Based on the 2017 Akutagawa Prizewinner “Eiri,” it is set in the director’s hometown of Morioka, Iwate Prefecture, both before and after the 3/11 tragedy. The sense of loss that infuses many of its scenes signals just how much personal resonance the story has for him.

Appearing after a sneak preview at FCCJ, Otomo immediately confirmed this. He recalled, “In 2011, I came to the decision, after working at NHK [since 1990], that I would leave the company to focus on making films without corporate backup. Just after I made that decision, 3/11 happened. The question that I’ve kept going back to is, Is there anything I could have done, or anything I can do [as a filmmaker] for my hometown of Morioka? I did receive project offers aimed at rejuvenating the area, and those planted a seed. But after I started my own company [Office Oplus], all the pieces finally fell into place.

“Also, since this is the year of the 2020 Tokyo Olympics and Paralympics, and all eyes will be on Tokyo, that made me somewhat apprehensive about how Tohoku would be viewed. I wanted to make this film for the people of Tohoku, to express their thoughts and feelings, to record them in an accurate way and share them with audiences. So many bereaved family members said ‘Goodbye, see you later’ to someone who never came back. What happened to their pain, their sadness? I wanted to give them a voice. It’s that kind of sentiment that went into the making of this film.”

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Ryuhei Matsuda as Hiasa (left), in his new life as a traveling salesman. Go Ayano as Konno (right), who's just arrived in Morioka. 
©2020 Beneath the Shadow Film Partners

The protagonist of Beneath the Shadow, Shuichi Konno (Go Ayano), first meets Norihiro Hiasa (Ryuhei Matsuda) when his pharmaceutical company transfers him to Morioka, where the latter already works. Both men are 30 years old and seemingly solitary, but they have little else in common. Konno is an introverted stickler for rules who spends his free time with books and a jasmine plant sent by his family; Hiasa is a smiling rebel, a rule shirker who loves to fish in the nearby rivers.

The two men begin to spend time together, and Konno develops his own fondness for angling as they fall into an uneasy comradery. Infected by Hiasa’s enthusiasm and the beauty of Morioka's natural surroundings, Konno starts emerging from his shell, joining the company’s sansa dance team and smiling more often.

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©2020 Beneath the Shadow Film Partners

But one day, Hiasa abruptly quits and leaves town without a word. When he shows up again, half a year later, it’s to beg his friend to buy a policy he’s selling for a “mutual aid society,” since he’s “just one sale short of the quota.” Their friendship and fishing trips gradually resume, but Konno remains unnerved. And then 3/11 hits, and Hiasa completely disappears. Like so many others, he is assumed to be dead.

Konno contacts Hiasa’s father (Jun Kunimura) for news, and discovers that what little he knew about his friend had probably been a lie. He remembers what Hiasa said to him late one night: “You only see what the light hits for an instant. When you look at someone, you should look at the other side, the side where the shadow is deepest.”

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The friends fish local rivers for a variety of species.
  ©2020 Beneath the Shadow Film Partners

Like its literary inspiration, the film’s tale of fly fishing, drinking and male bonding skirts obvious interpretation, as straightforward as it seems. It begins with the suggestion of tragedy, is driven by mystery and ends even more enigmatically than it began. Laden with subtext, heavy with meaning and metaphor, it’s that rare film where nearly every line, nearly every action, can be interpreted both literaly as well as symbolically.

Discussing the film’s title and its implications about the hidden sides of all of us, Otomo told the FCCJ audience: “Konno has so much anger inside him, which he represses and manages to live quietly. But we can feel it roiling underneath the surface. Hiasa is also full of complexities and contradictions. We sense that he is of the moment but also eternal. He’s an adult, but also childish; there’s a double-sidedness to his character.”

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Konno reacts when he hears shocking news from Hiasa's father (Jun Kunimura).  ©2020 Beneath the Shadow Film Partners

Expanding on the character sketches, he explained: “Konno is an LGBTQ character, and as with such characters in many societies, not just Japan, he’s gone through many hardships. These have led him to be very sensitive about how people react to him. Since he’s come to Morioka as a newcomer, it’s liberating because no one knows that he’s gay. He’s embarking on a new life, but he’s lonely because he doesn’t know anyone.”

On the other hand, “Hiasa was born and brought up in Morioka. He’s free-spirited and doesn’t follow the rules. I think we can say he’s a metaphor for uncontrollable nature, anthropomorphized. He’s not ill-intentioned, he just doesn’t want to adjust himself to society’s norms.”

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©Koichi Mori

Asked about the casting of his two leads, both of whom Otomo had previously directed, he admitted, “I basically went with my intuition. From the moment I read the novel, through the process of working (with Kaori Sawai) on the script, I felt these were the only two actors for the roles. With Mr. Ayano, he has this very intellectual, cultured aspect to his presence, while Mr. Matsuda is somehow just so cinematic. He has a very poetic presence. I just couldn’t wait to see them play the roles.”

Otomo was praised for eliciting such nuanced performances, and asked about his approach to directing them. He concurred that they were “wonderful,” and that Matsuda, in particular, “really grounded his role,” despite its challenges. (Matsuda won the award for Best Actor at the Hainan Island International Film Festival in December, where Beneath the Shadow had its world premiere).

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   Igarashi produced Netflix's Hibana: Spark and Naoko Ogigami's Close-Knit, among other titles. ©Koichi Mori

“As with any good actor,” he said, “Mr. Ayano and Mr. Matsuda can tell from the production design and costumes what kind of approach you imagine in a certain scene. I didn’t have to explain a lot. And we didn’t talk a lot about the characters on set. I didn’t want to impose anything on their own interpretations. Sometimes it seemed like I was just shooting a documentary about the characters, except when they would occasionally veer too far from what I’d imagined. Then I would quietly pull them aside so we could discuss the scene. But mostly, I would work closely with my production designer to adjust the backdrops of the scenes to heighten the acting choices they had made.”

Otomo’s business partner and producer, Masashi Igarashi, was asked what it was like to work on the modestly budgeted project. “We’ve only been working together since founding the company 3 years ago," he responded, "but I was always a great admirer of Mr. Otomo’s work. He may be best known for Rurouni Kenshin, but he’s also done films like the two-part March Comes in Like a Lion, that are really rich, profound human dramas. Despite the fact that this film wasn’t on as massive a scale as his other work, I’m happy that we could make such a rich, intense film together.

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Ayano first worked with Otomo on Rurouni Kenshin, while Matsuda had a role in
the director's first film, Vulture (2009)
  ©2020 Beneath the Shadow Film Partners

“It’s very difficult to make films like these in the present environment in Japan,” he lamented. “It’s a lot easier to make films based on manga — which Mr. Otomo has done time and again — than it is to make a film based on an Akutagawa Prizewinning work [that requires audiences to read] between the lines. But it’s still possible, and I hope audiences here and overseas will [appreciate] this.”

Asked for his own thoughts on the film’s international appeal, Otomo waxed nostalgic. “When I was growing up," he recalled, "I would go to a really tiny cinema in Morioka, and that was really my window on the world. I traveled the world and learned so much that way. I think film should be a submersive experience in a cinema, not viewed on a small screen.

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Otomo with the film's Japanese poster. ©︎FCCJ

“I always hope my films will become a tool of communication. It was such an enjoyable experience participating in the Hainan International Film Festival, seeing how the audience digested and interpreted my film. Film isn’t only art, it’s a way to communicate.”

While it won't attract the frenzied fanship of his most famous series, Keishi Otomo's Beneath the Shadow is certain to travel widely, and to launch many a conversation — on love, loss, loneliness, trust and betrayal, not to mention hidden meanings in the water, the weather, the trees and even that pomegranate.

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©2020 Beneath the Shadow Film Partners

Selected Media Exposure

COMPLICITY


COMPLICITY (Complicity Yasashii Kyohan)


 January 15, 2020
Q&A guests: Director Kei Chikaura and
stars Yulai Lu and Tatsuya Fuji


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Lu, Fuji and Chikaura — a talented and affable trio. 
©Koichi Mori

Nearly two years ago, writer-director-producer-editor Kei Chikaura took to the stage at the 2018 Toronto International Film Festival amid warm applause, following the world premiere of his feature debut, Complicity. In the ensuing months, the film would have its European premiere at the Berlin Film Festival, its Asian premiere at the Busan Film Festival, and its Japan premiere at Tokyo Filmex, where it won the all-important Audience Award.

All told, Complicity would screen at more than a dozen prestigious international film festivals. Normally, this would lead to an early Japanese release, to capitalize on the film’s overseas success.

But these are not normal times. With relations remaining chilly between Japan and China, the Japan-China coproduction was delayed another year before finally making its domestic bow.

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Chikaura and Lu react to one of Fuji's gentle wisecracks.
©Koichi Mori

Yet the timing couldn’t be better: As Japan struggles to become more immigrant friendly, it’s crucial that local audiences see more progressive, less superficial depictions of non-Japanese in the country’s media and the arts. Complicity provides exactly that, treating its Chinese protagonist with empathy and authenticity, erasing cultural barriers as it touches on themes of trust, friendship, family and food as the catalysts for building bonds.

It doesn’t hurt that Chikaura was able to cast the film with two certifiable stars, and that he had worked with both of them on short films prior to the feature: Tatsuya Fuji (In the Realm of the Senses, Ryuzo and the Seven Henchmen) on Empty House in 2013, and Yulai Lu (Soundless Wind Chime, Trap Street) on Signature in 2017.

Appearing at FCCJ after the sneak preview screening for a Q&A session that stretched to an hour, the three were affable and voluble, visibly united in their respect for one another, and delighted that Complicity would finally be available to Japanese audiences.

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Fuji (left ©Koichi Mori), Lu, Chikaura (©FCCJ)

“It’s really hard to secure cast and crew when there’s no promise of theatrical distribution,” explained Chikaura. “Fortunately, everyone believed me when I promised that it would be released in Japan, as well as internationally. I’m grateful that everyone had such faith in me, and that I was able to keep my promise.”

Fuji recalled that he’d first read the script three years ago. “I like Mr. Chikaura as a person, but that didn’t necessarily guarantee I would agree to appear in the film," he said. "However, I found the script to be very powerful, and I had faith that we would be able to get to where we are today.”

Lu concurred. “Since I first met Mr. Chikaura, I’ve seen him develop so much. Complicity was especially hard because we also filmed in China. As a director myself, I know how difficult it is to realize a film. I admire Mr. Chikaura’s confidence and hard work, and I really had a great time acting with Mr. Fuji.” (The feeling was mutual: Behind the scenes, Fuji lauded Lu’s acting skill, and his ability to communicate so much without dialogue.)

The scenes in China were coordinated by Chikaura’s Chinese producing partner, Wei Fu. “Without his help, I don’t think the film would have been possible,” the director emphasized.” He organized everything. We were shooting 1,000 km south of Beijing in Henan Province. We had to make the long journey by car three times before everything was ready. So it took a lot of preparation, but we were able to get the shoot permissions and wrap in 5 days.”

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Hiroshi and Kaori treat Liang like a member of the family. ©2018 CREATPS / Mystigri Pictures

Shot with a startling sense of immediacy and realism, Complicity opens in Japan, with Liang Chen (Lu), paying dearly for a fake ID and a cellphone so he can work. He’s immediately besieged with calls for Wei Liu, his assumed identity, and after finding language assistance, discovers that Liu has been offered a job as apprentice to a soba noodle master. It doesn’t pay much, but it comes with room and board. Given his circumstances, Liang doesn’t hesitate long. Soon he has moved into an attic room at his employer’s soba restaurant in Yamagata, and is arising at the crack of dawn to prepare the buckwheat with him.

Hiroshi (Fuji) runs the restaurant with his daughter Kaori (Kio Matsumoto), and they are grateful to have this eager, hard-working young man helping out. Despite his limited Japanese — and total lack of experience in the kitchen — he proves a quick study. His dedication earns Hiroshi’s admiration, and a touching father-son relationship quickly develops.

Delivering noodles one day, Liang meets and is smitten with Hazuki (Sayo Akasaka), an artist who is studying Mandarin in hopes of attending school in Beijing. But after she reports to the police that he’s lost his wallet at a club, he stops taking her calls, fearful that his true identity might be exposed at any moment.

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Liang attempts to master the way of the noodle. ©2018 CREATPS / Mystigri Pictures

And then there’s his guilt: we learn through flashbacks that he has left his ailing mother and demanding grandmother in his native Henan, where family responsibilities had curtailed any dreams he might have had. He’d come to Japan in the hopes of working for 3 years, saving money and returning to start his own business. But an urgent phone call from home and the threat of exposure puts his new life, and his new family, in danger.

Chikaura was asked whether it was personal experience with the immigrant community in Japan that had enabled him to create such a sensitive depiction of Liang’s plight. “I didn’t know much about the issues before I embarked on the project,” he admitted. “But back in 2014, I read an article about a Vietnamese man who was part of the government’s technical trainee program, and it said that he’d slaughtered a goat and eaten it. That got me thinking about why he would have done that, so I began researching the immigrant experience. I spent about 18 months meeting and talking with immigrants here, which was crucial to bringing a sense of reality and conviction in the film. I felt a moral imperative to [do the research first].”

And how did he decide on soba as the film’s culinary metaphor? “There are two reasons soba became the film’s motif,” Chikaura explained. “The first is that we’d decided on Oishida, Yamagata Prefecture for our shooting location, and it’s famous for its soba culture. As you see in the film, the ‘restaurant’ is really a tatami room in someone’s house. It was apparently a custom for wives in the town to make soba to entertain visitors, and if they were particularly good at it, they would start serving the noodles and earning a living from it. That’s how the [home-restaurant] culture developed.

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 ©2018 CREATPS / Mystigri Pictures

“The second reason is because of soba’s metaphorical qualities. It’s something that’s very simple, but it takes a lot of time and technique to master, which is exactly what I wanted to depict: something that’s simple but goes very deep.”

Fuji makes a thoroughly believable soba master, heaving huge bags of buckwheat, rolling and cutting with practiced finesse. Asked how he had achieved such realism, the star responded, “It’s troublesome when you have to play a detective or a cop or a yakuza gangster because you really can’t do research by becoming a yakuza. But when you’re playing a craftsman, you can try to become that craftsman. I get immense pleasure out of delving into role models for such a role.

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©Koichi Mori

“A month before principle photography, I went up to Oishida. I had two masters as coaches. Every day for about 20 days, I practiced all day, [eventually] processing about 100 kilos of buckwheat. Once you’ve embodied a craftsperson, you [can concentrate on other things]. I focused on embodying how grateful I was that this young Chinese immigrant had come all the way to this small town in Japan and was willing to help out with my work.”

Chikaura recounted an anecdote illustrating Fuji’s mastery of the craft. “The meijin soba masters agreed to teach us on one condition: that the soba making would not be a lie when depicted on screen. They said that even with months of training, it probably wouldn’t be possible to show closeups of the actors making the noodles, since it would be instantly obvious that they weren’t professionals. Mr. Fuji said, ‘I understand. I’ll do my best.’

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©Koichi Mori

“Toward the end of his training, one of the masters came to me and said that he’d passed the room in which Mr. Fuji was cutting soba, and that he’d heard a professional inside. He could tell just by the sound of cutting that it was a professional, and he was convinced it was a pro. When he found out it was Mr. Fuji, [he was amazed]. So the closeups you see in the film are really Mr. Fuji.”

Lu also trained to handle the noodles, and recalled, “Even when I read the script, I loved the parts with soba making. When I was making soba, I felt a natural connection to Mr. Fuji. I remember one scene in particular, when he was rolling out the dough and being very serious. It seemed like he was in his own world, and there was an aura around him that made me feel like he was really my father.”

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©Koichi Mori

On the subject of family, the director was asked whether the sour relations between the Hiroshi character and his son were to be interpreted as a comment on Japanese families. “It wasn’t my intention to make a social commentary on families or the problems we have with immigrants in Japanese society,” answered Chikaura. “I just wanted to tell the story of a soba craftsman who welcomes a Chinese man into his house, and forms a pseudo-family with him. But it was also my hope that this story about a ‘father’ and a ‘son’ would symbolize amiable relations between Japan and China.”

Asked how it felt to see the film opening at long last, Fuji joked, “Like a defendant about to be put on trial.” As for Lu, “It was such a joy making this film. I feel like I had encounters similar to my character’s, meeting strangers [who become friends]. You never know what kind of encounters you’ll have, either in making a film or in life. I hope to work with Mr. Chikaura and Mr. Fuji again.”

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With the film's poster. ©︎FCCJ

While the image of an intercultural Japan, with people of diverse nationalities and ethnic backgrounds working together, may remain illusory, honest depictions of immigrants and their stories on screens large and small would help make that vision a reality. Kei Chikaura’s compassionate portrayal of a young man doing his best to atone for a bad conscience and bad choices marks a positive — and poignant — step.

Complicity is already available on DVD with English subtitles via Amazon, and it is currently going through the process necessary to obtain China’s “dragon seal,” which will allow it to be shown in Chinese theaters.

Complicity poster2018 CREATPS  Mystigri Pictures
©2018 CREATPS / Mystigri Pictures

Selected Media Exposure

TALKING THE PICTURES


TALKING THE PICTURES
(Katsuben!)


 December 2, 2019
Q&A guests: Director Masayuki Suo and star Ryo Narita


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Newly minted movie star Ryo Narita assumes character as his director, Masayuki Suo, cracks up.  ©Koichi Mori

The Golden Age of Silent Cinema lasted longer in Japan than anywhere else, spanning roughly 45 years (1896-1939). While the transition to sound was all but complete in the West by 1930, and many Japanese films were full talkies by the mid-1930s, the transition was delayed here. Why? Not because technology was lagging, but because of the popularity of katsudo benshi live narrators.

At the height of their immense popularity, around 1927, there were 6,818 benshi actively performing in Japan, including 180 women. These performers would not only write complete scripts for each film, they would enact all of the roles and narrate the action. Many of them were bigger stars than the actors on screen, with devoted fan followings and salaries that reportedly rivaled the prime minister’s (!). Books have been written about their influence on early filmmaking styles, and a handful of modern practitioners have regularly traveled the world to bring the art to today’s filmgoers.

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©Koichi Mori

So it comes as a surprise that benshi have never been the subject of their own fiction film. Talking the Pictures now rectifies that, and it is likely to launch a mini-boom in live-narrated films. Directed by Masayuki Suo, creator of such indelible works as Sumo Do, Sumo Don’t (1992), Shall We Dance? (1996) and I Just Didn’t Do It (2007), the story takes place over a decade in the early Taisho era, when motion pictures were still accompanied by benshi and a small musical group, but talkies were beginning to encroach on their dominance.

Although the subject seems — and is — right up his alley, for the first time in his career, Suo did not originate the idea for his latest film. Speaking to the audience at the Q&A session following FCCJ’s sneak preview screening, the director gave full credit for that to Shojo Katashima, who’d been his assistant director on Lady Maiko (2014). “He brought his script to me, but he came to me for advice, not to ask me to direct,” he explained. “He just wanted my comments on the script. I found it especially interesting because it was about benshi and how they supported the silent film era for 30 years. Japanese have either forgotten about benshi or didn’t know they existed, so I liked that the script spotlighted the profession. I also liked that it was written in a way that suggested the silent film style, with [slapstick action] that would make the audience laugh.”

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 Ryo Narita studied with professional benshi for months to nail his performance in the film. ©Koichi Mori

Suo wasn’t the only one captivated by Katashima’s scenario. “Soon after I read it," he said, "my longtime producer, Shoji Masui, came to me with the exact same script and suggested that we should take on the project.”

From its opening frames, as children and weather disrupt the filming of a silent swashbuckler, to the hilarious bicycle chase in its final reel, Talking the Pictures enthusiastically proclaims its love for the movies. Endlessly inventive, populated with colorful characters and chockfull of clever period detail, it evokes the Taisho period through its production design as well as its (purposely) anachronistic storytelling, although it assiduously avoids becoming a melodrama like most of the films-within-the-film that its benshi stars narrate.

The story concerns young Shuntaro Someya (Ryo Narita), who has dreamed of being a benshi since childhood. Then he grows "as tall as a telephone pole" and falls in with a group of thieves who do their dirty work while he poses as a phony narrator, copycatting the styles of bygone benshi stars. By chance, Shuntaro escapes one day with a bundle of money and finds work at the small-town Aoki-kan, where audiences (and staff) have dwindled since the opening of a fancier rival theater nearby. It’s just the kind of place where he’ll be safe from the vicious head of the thieves (Takuma Otoo), who wants his cash back, and a police detective (Yutaka Takenouchi) who wants to punish the phony narrator for the “dishonor he’s brought to motion pictures.”

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Shuntaro escapes from the bad guy. ©2019 TALKING THE PICTURES Production

But when he gets his big break on stage one night, his pursuers discover his whereabouts. And then there’s the girl, Shuntaro’s childhood crush, Umeko (Yuina Kuroshima). The aspiring actress is in the Aoki-kan that night, recognizes the flourishes of his performance, and rushes to his rescue. But when (real-life film director) Buntaro Futagawa hires her for a role that will take her away to Kyoto, Umeko has to choose between a career and Shuntaro.
 
Team Suo favorites Naoto Takenaka and Eri Watanabe are slide-splitting as the owners of the ailing Aoki-kan, which is populated with some of the most uniquely endearing characters seen on Japanese screens since Suo’s 1996 hit. Masatoshi Nagase is the theater’s drunken former katsuben star, self-styled as the Poet of the Dark; Kengo Kora is the oily new star, too big for his own silk breeches; Fumiyo Kohinata is the unscrupulous owner of the rival theater and Mao Inoue is his seductive secret weapon for putting Aoki-kan out of business. Also making appearances are Sosuke Ikematsu as Futagawa, director of the classic silent tragedy Orochi (which plays under the film’s final credits), and Koji Yamamoto as Shozo Makino, another real-life director who is considered the father of Japanese film.

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©2019 TALKING THE PICTURES Production

But it is really Ryo Narita — whose presence on Japanese screens large and small has practically exploded since his first appearance just 4 years ago — who anchors Talking the Pictures, and with an exuberant, affable star turn that is sure to propel him even faster into the pantheon.

How did Suo find him? “I wasn’t really familiar with too many actors in the younger generation,” the director confessed. “I met a lot of young actors and actresses during the casting process, but the reason I ultimately cast Mr. Narita wasn’t his acting talent or his voice. It was because I liked him. [During casting] I said to myself, ‘I really like this young man,’ and that’s it.” (Cue appreciative laughter.)

He continued, “I think there are two reasons he’s so good in the film. First, as an actor, there’s a naturally good-humored, amiable side to him, and I knew that if I could bring that out in his performance, it would make Shuntaro a wonderful character. Secondly, he put everything into his training as a benshi. Exerting all that sweat and toil is a talent in itself, so I really [can’t take too much credit] for his amazing performance.”

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Shuntaro and his childhood love Umeko reunite for the first time in a decade. ©2019 TALKING THE PICTURES Production

Asked whether he had a natural aptitude for impressions, Narita told the FCCJ audience, “I think I probably do have a bit of natural talent. But it took me 7 months of training for 3 hours every day with a professional benshi to play this role. I didn’t even know there was such a profession, but when I saw what they did and how they did it, I realized it really fit my [natural physicality].

“The most amazing thing about benshi is that they actually take on three roles — that of scriptwriter, actor and narrator. The first time I performed, it felt really good. It really grew on me. After we wrapped, I had a yearning to continue, but I didn’t want to have to keep [training so hard].”

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Cops and robbers on the move. ©2019 TALKING THE PICTURES Production

In a discussion about the younger generation’s reduced attention spans and the trend toward interactive experiences, Suo was asked what he thought about the audience being encouraged to interact vocally with his film, a la Rocky Horror Picture Show. While the director grappled with the question, which was then rephrased to include the suggestion that he create a director’s cut and have Narita narrate all the roles, the actor warmed to the approach. “I’d love to do that, although I’m not sure my voice would hold out for 2 hours,” he enthused. But Suo, citing his age, remain unenchanted: “I’d rather have someone else make a film like that.”

In a film driven by a terrifically jazzy soundtrack, the theme song, which plays jauntily over the end credits, invites continued humming long after one leaves the theater. To the surprise of the audience, who imagined it was written expressely for Talking the Pictures, a film critic asked how an 1865 tune written for the American Civil War came to be used for the film. Responded Suo, “The song was actually sung by a big star in Japan in the Taisho era, if not the early Showa era, and became a massive hit. The title was ‘Tokyo Bushi’ and the lyrics were changed to focus on Tokyo. I wanted to use a song that was symbolic of the Taisho era, so we changed the lyrics again to focus on benshi.”

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Narita and Suo with the film's poster. ©︎FCCJ

At the end of the session, the audience was treated to a short live performance by Narita, who had to push himself way back from the microphone, since he’d learned to project his voice like a true benshi. Tilting his chin as he hit the lower registers, he recited lines by one of the many, many characters he’d voiced in Talking the Pictures, demonstrating his skill at raising goosebumps even when no action is taking place on the screen behind him.

 

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©2019 TALKING THE PICTURES Production

Selected Media Exposure

THE 47 RONIN IN DEBT


THE 47 RONIN IN DEBT
(Kessan! Chushingura)


 November 20, 2019
Q&A guest: Director Yoshihiro Nakamura


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Yoshihiro Nakamura’s new film has our favorite movie tagline of the year: “Revenge is... ultra-expensive!”  ©Koichi Mori

When we talk about the “cost” of revenge, we invariably refer only to its psychological and physical tolls. This instantly makes Yoshihiro Nakamura’s The 47 Ronin in Debt — a title to be read literally, not metaphorically — a groundbreaking addition to the category of jidaigeki period films about loyal samurai exacting retribution for offences against their masters.

The versatile writer-director of cult hits like Fish Story and The Foreign Duck, the Native Duck, and God in a Coin Locker, as well as commercial hits like Golden Slumber, A Boy and His Samurai, The Snow White Murder Case, Prophecy and The Magnificent Nine, Nakamura has taken a unique approach to adapting one of Japan’s most oft-told historical tales, “Chushingura.”

Although the tragic real-life incident has already been adapted to stage and screen hundreds of times, he has now boldly reinterpreted it not only as a comedy of sorts, but also as a fiduciary thriller. Surely both are firsts in the “Chushingura” canon.

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Shinichi Tsutsumi balances humor and pathos perfectly as Ako chief retainer Kuranosuke Oishi.
©2019 "The 47 Ronin In Debt" Film Partners

The idea came from Shochiku producer Fumitsugu Ikeda, with whom Nakamura had worked on 2016’s The Magnificent Nine, a samurai comedy that also has serious themes at its core.

As the director told FCCJ’s audience following a sneak peak of his new film, “It’s widely known that the story is a tragedy, but I wasn’t familiar with all the details. So I first spent about 3 or 4 months ingesting all the books and films about it. The more I read, the more I realized how difficult it would be to turn into a comedy. So I decided not to tackle the legend but to focus instead on the Ako Incident, basing the story on the actual account ledgers of the Ako clan, which were kept by the chief retainer, Kuranosuke Oishi.”

Nakamura had come across a 2012 nonfiction work by University of Tokyo historiographer Hirofumi Yamamoto, who analyzed period records pertaining to the 1701-1703 planning and execution of the revenge plot, and used them to reconstruct the timeline of events.

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 ©Koichi Mori

“Oishi kept track of the Ako accounts. During the [two-year period of planning for revenge], they spent ¥100 million on 113 items, all of which were in the balance sheets.” he explained. “The legends tell us that Oishi had a lot of foresight and was very strategic. But when you look at what actually happened and the balance sheets he left behind, you find a character who’s quite different, and that’s what we’ve brought to the screen.”

Nakamura’s approach admittedly favors a Japanese audience, who are overly familiar with the story and the dozens of main characters, and thus won’t find the film’s multiple monetary and name captions distracting. In a roundabout way, he was asked whether he might have worried it become one of those only-for-Japan titles.

“My previous films have been invited to international film festivals, and I’ve heard enthusiastic audiences laughing during screenings,” Nakamura began. “When I was editing, I would even intentionally leave some space in the films for [the anticipated] laughter. But with this film, we did not have an international audience in mind, because we knew it was so dense with information. It’s the first time I’ve approached a film this way.

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Shochiku is cleverly billing the film as “budget attainment entertainment.” ©2019 "The 47 Ronin In Debt" Film Partners

“We were invited to the Tokyo International Film Festival last month, so we had to subtitle it. When I did a screen check of the subtitled version, I realized how challenging it would be for international audiences to watch it. So I must thank you for [taking up the challenge] of watching it tonight.”

Asked why he’d chosen the unconventionally jazzy soundtrack rather than a more traditional score, the director said, “This was my plan from the beginning. There were jidaigeki TV shows back in the 70s that used this kind of music and to my ears, it’s a good fit.”

The music certainly emphasizes the film’s comedy elements, which arise primarily from the relentless focus on finances. While the many previous screen iterations of “Chushingura” (directed by the likes of Shozo Makino, Kenji Mizoguchi, Kon Ichikawa and Kinji Fukasaku), have been all about the samurai code of honor, loyalty and self-sacrifice, Nakamura’s is all about the money.

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©Koichi Mori

The screen is sometimes awash with captions detailing the Ako clan’s expenditures for everything from actual salaries, uniform costs and travel expenses to a night out in the pleasure district for 20 rowdy warriors. These have been helpfully/humorously converted into today’s equivalents in yen (and in subtitles, dollars) based on the cost of a single bowl of soba noodles ($4.40).

How did Nakamura decide on that unit, one audience member wanted to know. “We considered many items,” he responded, “including the price of a bowl of rice or a per diem paid to carpenters. But we ultimately decided on soba. The Edo period lasted for 260 years, and the price of a bowl of soba was the only item that remained unchanged in that time.”

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Even a bowl of noodles is pricey when there are too many mouths to feed. ©2019 "The 47 Ronin In Debt" Film Partners

The 47 Ronin in Debt opens when Ako Lord Asano (Sadawo Abe) is at the height of a rather overzealous anti-corruption crusade. In 1701, he draws his sword on Lord Kira rather than pay him the expected bribe, and this results in his forced seppuku. Asano’s righthand man, Kuranosuke (a very good Shinichi Tsutsumi), is left to organize revenge with the fallen lord’s other devoted retainers. But the Ako must immediately surrender their castle, thus ending their tidy allowances and bringing their once-proud clan to the verge of bankruptcy. Kuranosuke’s immediate concern instead becomes to maintain solvency. There is just $877,000 in the treasury, and with 50 members of the clan plus their families, servants and his own concubines, the chief retainer soon realizes that his abacus-wielding accountants are mightier than any warrior.

Without them, attempts to win the shogun’s support for a restoration of the clan’s holdings cannot be properly financed, nor can anything else be accomplished. Yet as the days stretch into months and plans for vengeance remain just that, the samurai prove they will be spendthrifts. As the coffers are further drained and insolvency begins to engulf the Ako, Kuranosuke sees no other choice but to embrace the plan to assassinate Kira… if only they can afford the weapons and battle outfits to do it right.

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©Koichi Mori

Nakamura’s financial approach to the fateful years leading to the Ako’s revenge allows him not only to bring a fresh perspective to the tragedy and find a way into the comedy; it also adds a greater sheen of contemporary relevance. But the director declined to take the bait when questioned about the correlation, as a journalist noted Japan now “has the world’s highest debt.”

Said Nakamura, “It isn’t an intentional commentary on present-day Japan.” But he did note, “Back in the Genroku Era, it was the townspeople who put pressure on the Ako samurai to take revenge. And it was a time when the shogun, Tokugawa Tsunayoshi, was enacting onerous political policies.”

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Nakamura, in a happi coat similar to the Ako clan's firemen finery, with the Japanese poster. ©︎FCCJ

Nakamura had mentioned that they’d needed to costume 130 samurai for the film, prompting a journalist to see the Ako clan’s struggles as a metaphor for the act of filmmaking. Was that why, she wondered, there were almost no horses in the film?

“Horses are so expensive!” Nakamura laughed, admitting they’d had the budget for just a single steed. “I think you’re right that we can draw comparisons. In such a scenario, I suppose I would be the Sugaya Hannojo character (played by Satoshi Tsumabuki, he’s an aggressive type who constantly pushes his fellow samurai to attack). The producer would be Oishi Kuranosuke. When the assistant director would ask whether I needed a horse in a certain scene and I said Yes, the producer would later go to him and be very angry.”

But the producer is sure to forget all about that once the film debuts in Japanese theaters. It’s one of the two most hotly anticipated releases of late 2019 and is expected to finish in the year’s top 10 at the box office.

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©2019 "The 47 Ronin In Debt" Film Partners

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FIRST LOVE

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