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A GIRL MISSING in Collaboration with TIFF


A GIRL MISSING IN COLLABORATION WITH TIFF


 October 19, 2020
Q&A guests: Director Koji Fukada, TIFF Festival Chairman Hiroyasu Ando
and TIFF Selection Committee member Kohei Ando


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Kohei Ando, Koji Fukada and Hiroyasu Ando. ©FCCJ

The Film Committee has been collaborating on annual special screening events with the Tokyo International Film Festival (TIFF) for a decade or more, but in this very challenging year, it feels more important than ever. TIFF announced last month that, barring catastrophe, it will hold a physical 33rd edition, with the implementation of strict health and safety measures, from October 31 – November 9 at theaters in Roppongi.

This in itself was a milestone, since many international festivals were forced to cancel due to the pandemic, and others were stymied by ongoing theater closures in their host cities. The most famous of canceled festivals was Cannes, which nevertheless announced a lineup of 'Cannes Premiere 2020' titles, a selection of films that it would have premiered at the festival, had one been held.

Among those titles was award-winning director Koji Fukada’s The Real Thing, a nearly 4-hour opus about a consummately dull salaryman whose life is overturned by an eccentric woman. Although Fukada was not able to appear in person, the film had its International premiere at the Pingyao Film Festival in mid-October, and will have its Japan premiere during TIFF, with the director and cast present.

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 ©Koichi Mori

Fukada has been named the Japan Now Director in Focus for this year’s TIFF, and he joined TIFF Chairman Hiroyasu Ando and Selection Committee member Kohei Ando at FCCJ to discuss some of the highlights of the 33rd edition.

“There was a lot of deliberation as to whether to hold the festival this year, and whether it should be in a physical form,” admitted the chairman. “But we ultimately came to the decision that we would hold it physically so that we could bring audiences back to the cinemas. We want them to once again experience the joy of watching films on the big screen and to find hope for the future.”

TIFF will be screening over 100 films, with 32 of them (10 from Japan, 10 from the US/Europe and 12 from Asia) selected to receive the 'Tokyo Premiere 2020' label, making them eligible for the single prize that will be bestowed on films this year, an Audience Award chosen by all viewers.

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 ©Koichi Mori

While conceding that there would be almost no foreign guests, from filmmaking teams to programmers to journalists (unless they are already in Japan), Ando emphasized that TIFF would be screening many world premieres as well as films drawn from the Berlin, Cannes and other festivals around the world, and that there would be virtual talks sessions with an array of international participants.

He also had this to say: “To represent what this year’s festival aims to achieve, we will be featuring the work of Koji Fukada in the Japan Now Section. We chose Mr. Fukada because he has been very active internationally, has made international co-productions and has an impressive filmography. Another reason that we hold him in high regard is that this year, he initiated the Mini-Theater Aid campaign in order to help support arthouse cinemas in Japan, who were struggling in the face of the pandemic.”

Kohei Ando (no relation), TIFF’s Japan Now programmer since the section was created 7 years ago and one of the members of TIFF’s new Selection Committee, shared his enthusiasm, while also invoking last year’s Japan Now Director in Focus: “Allow me to (first) quote from a great filmmaker that we recently lost, Nobuhiko Obayashi: ‘Films cannot change the past, but they do have the power to change the future.’

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 ©FCCJ

“Mr. Fukada is a filmmaker who gives us deep insight into today’s Japan, and into the human condition, while urging us to contemplate the absurdities of society. We’re facing a very tumultuous year with the coronavirus pandemic; but with the perceptive work that Mr. Fukada has been producing, we look forward to seeing his vision of the future in the future.”

Asked how he felt about the Japan Now retrospective, which will showcase four of his feature films, including Cannes Jury Prizewinner Harmonium (2016) and a range of shorts from 2006-2020, Fukada had this to say: “It’s a real honor to be chosen as the Japan Now Director in Focus, and I thank the Tokyo International Film Festival for their brave decision.

“Exactly 10 years ago, I received the first major award of my career at TIFF and that was the springboard to launching my films into many other international film festivals, allowing us to secure distribution and reach overseas audiences as well as those in Japan. So this feels like a turning point, and I’ll take it as a sign of encouragement to continue making films."

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 ©Koichi Mori

The first question from the assembled press was an obvious one: “Why did you call your selection a ‘brave decision?’”

Fukada laughed. “I chose the word because, first and foremost, I’m a rather young director and I don’t have that many films in my filmography yet. Also, I don’t make commercial films. I do think one of the functions of a film festival, perhaps its ‘social responsibility,’ is to shine a spotlight on filmmakers whom we haven’t [passed judgment on] yet, to highlight a particular artistic vision or a type of auteurism. In terms of fulfilling that responsibility, I appreciate TIFF’s bravery.”

Although this was not mentioned, Fukada plays a uniquely activist role in the Japanese film industry, and the Mini-Theater Aid crowdfunding campaign is just one manifestation of it. In 2012, he was one of the founders of the Independent Cinema Guild, a support group for all practitioners in the field — from filmmakers and festival organizers to cinema owners and film critics — to correct the “serious imbalance in the diversity of films being produced in this country” and to stop the “cultural impoverishment,” as well as actual impoverishment, of indie filmmakers who work with insanely low budgets.

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 ©Koichi Mori

In 2019, when issues of sexual and power harassment in the film industry started making headlines, Fukada spoke out in support of public dialogue, and he has stayed in the headlines with his candid criticisms of an industry that is built on constant manga, novel and TV-show adaptations, and his pleas for more government subsidies to support culture. Just last month, in an interview with AFP, he said, “It's difficult to produce non-commercial films in Japan, where a lot of importance is given to their marketability… At this rate, Japanese cinema is going to go down the drain.”

Asked whether he thought there would be significant changes in the industry as a result of Covid-19, Fukada said that there was now “an extra layer of security precautions that have to be implemented on set. We were probably not taking stringent enough precautions prior to the pandemic, because we work within very small budgets and that limits the amount of time we have on set. Now that we have to fight the pandemic, it means we need a larger budget to increase the manpower required on set. We need to create a support system within the industry, and hopefully, be able to rely on some government funding to do so.”

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 ©Koichi Mori

Outside of the Japan Now section, TIFF will be showing over 3 dozen more Japanese titles, including many animated films, remastered classics, upcoming commercial releases and new work by emerging directors. Kohei Ando recommended several Japanese titles before commenting, “The European and Asian films in in this year’s Tokyo Premiere 2020 selection focus heavily on race, immigration, minority and gender issues. I wish that more Japanese filmmakers would delve into societal themes — but this does not apply to Mr. Fukada’s work, of course.”

TIFF’s chairman noted that there was likely to be much discussion of such issues during the nightly Asia Lounge Conversation Series, a new initiative proposed (and sometimes moderated) by Palme d’Or winner Hirokazu Kore-eda. “Although it will be online only,” explained Ando, “we will be pairing up various filmmakers and film industry leaders from throughout Asia, with prominent Japanese industry figures.”

TIFF 2020 poster
©Tokyo International Film Festival

Following the panel, the audience was treated to a special screening of Fukada’s award-winning 2019 film, A Girl Missing, and a Q&A session with Fukada that lasted another 50 minutes. There were questions on topics ranging from cinematography, casting and poster art to the state of indie film industry in general — and the director would have welcomed many more if closing time hadn't arrived.

a-girl-missing photo-2 2019 YOKOGAO FILM PARTNERS  COMME DES CINEMASTsutsui (front) and Ichikawa (back) in an image from A Girl Missing.
©2019 YOKOGAO FILM PARTNERS & COMME DES CINEMAS

For the film, Fukada reunited with the inimitable star of his Cannes award-winner Harmonium, Mariko Tsutsui, for a layered story about a woman whose kindness is ruthlessly crushed following a scandal in which she’s an innocent bystander. Tsutsui brilliantly plays Ichiko, a devoted home hospice nurse to the cancer-stricken matriarch of the Oishi family, and surrogate mother to her two granddaughters, Motoko (Mikako Ichikawa, equally superb) and Saki, whom she helps study for their exams. Ichiko is preparing to marry again, to a doctor whose young son clearly adores her. All is well until Saki goes missing and Ichiko’s nephew is implicated in the crime. At Motoko’s urging, she says nothing about the connection to the police. But before the guilt can start consuming her, her relationship to the culprit goes public and the press makes her life a living hell.

A master of the family-crisis genre, Fukada ratchets up the suspense and the ambiguities in A Girl Missing, creating a double-strand narrative of incredible chronological complexity that rewards viewer vigilance and packs a deep emotional punch.

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“I offered Ms. Tsutsui the part even before I started writing the script, and she accepted,” the director explained. “It was wonderful for me because I know that she’s extremely skilled and there’s nothing she can't do, so I wrote it [without compromises].”

One audience member, a professed fan of Fukada’s work, apologized for “being rude” but noted that she’d found the character of Ichiko to be “even more repulsive than the criminal in Harmonium. I was fascinated with her but I didn’t like her at all.”

Fukada nodded. “People often come to me and say they can’t empathize with this or that character of mine. I wonder whether it’s really necessary to be able to empathize? As someone who’s been an ardent filmgoer for years, I must say that I’ve never made the protagonist’s likability a factor in my decision about whether or not I like a film.

“Actually, I’m more excited by a character that I can’t understand or can’t relate to. I think a character we can’t understand reflects reality more closely than otherwise. I think it’s hard to really understand someone else. You can guess, but you can never really know — not even with yourself.”

A Japanese film critic, noting that the film had opened in August in France, where it had become a big hit and played in more theaters than Takeshi Kitano’s films ever did (Kitano was once hugely popular there), asked why the reception had been so different from at home.

Nodded Fukada, “It opened in 119 theaters and expanded to 200 theaters, becoming what they called a ‘smash hit.’ I think that is probably at least partially the result of the pandemic, since not too many films were opening. But my previous film, Harmonium, actually drew a much larger crowd in France than in Japan. It’s not that my name is better known in France, so they’re not coming to see it because it’s a ‘Fukada film.’ I’m not a commercially successful director like Mr. Kitano or Mr. Kore-eda, I don’t make entertainment pieces, my films are rather dark. But I think the cultural backdrop allows for more cinematic diversity there.”

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The North American and Japanese film posters. ©2020 Film Movement; © 2019 YOKOGAO FILM PARTNERS & COMME DES CINEMAS

Marveling that children are taught about cinema from an early age in France — “they’re even shown Yasujiro Ozu films in grade school!” — Fukada continued, “They grow up watching films, and they have a wider range of tastes when it comes to art and cinema. It also allows for diversity and openness toward different cultures. I think this is something Japan could benefit from doing. Perhaps we should start including film education in our classrooms. If we do that now, more people in this country might come to see my films 20 years from now.”

Fukada was asked why the Japanese and English titles were so very different. “I had decided on the Japanese title, Yokogao (meaning profile), early on,” he responded, “because I thought Mariko Tsutsui’s profile was really striking. It was also a good metaphor for the story, because we can only see one side of ourselves (the front). My international sales company, MK2, came up with the English title, which is quite nice because it has a double meaning. They wanted it to sound like a suspense film, which it is, and also to indicate that the girl who’s missing is the protagonist herself. The French title is L’Infermiere, meaning caregiver. So the titles are all different and so are the posters.”

a-girl-missing photo-1Ichiko is confronted by a rabid press. ©2019 YOKOGAO FILM PARTNERS & COMME DES CINEMAS

Taking the French theme even further, another critic asked about Fukada’s experience getting funding in Japan vs. in France (the National Centre for Cinema and the Moving Image or CNC supported both A Girl Missing and Harmonium). Admitting that he could address the subject for the next 2 hours, the director said, “I would say that independent filmmakers in Japan are in dire straits in three respects: first, they don’t receive the same level of funding, in terms of either the budget or the percentage of government subsidies that go to culture and film. The arts subsidies from Bunkacho (the Agency for Cultural Affairs) are ¥200 million, while in Korea, KOFIC contributes ¥4 billion and in France, CNC contributes ¥8 billion. Japanese are getting only 1/9 of what Korean filmmakers get, and 1/8 of what French filmmakers can expect. In the US, where there aren’t a lot of government subsidies, at least there’s a lot of private financing from individuals and companies.

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©Koichi Mori

“Second, in Japan, about 80% of box office revenues go to big studios and corporations, because it’s still legal here for them to also own the distribution chains.

“Third, what also helps filmmakers in France and Korea is that a tax is imposed on each ticket sale — in France 10%, Korea 3% — and that tax money is pooled and redistributed to the film industry. The CNC and Korea’s KOFIC push for the further development of film culture as well as diversity in filmmaking. Here, there’s simply no systematic way that the industry is able to come together, regardless of whether they’re major studios or indie filmmakers.”

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 But despite the depressing state of the industry, the delays in shooting his new script, and major lifestyle changes imposed by Covid, Fukada’s mood was upbeat. After all, the Tokyo International Film Festival will be holding a physical edition, and Fukada will be appearing for live Q&As after each of his films is screened, along with key cast members.

There is also this to look forward to: Mariko Tsutsui has been nominated as Best Actress for her exception performance in A Girl Missing at the 14th Asian Film Awards, and the winners will be announced on October 28.

Koji Fukada Facebook upload photo copy
©FCCJ

Selected Media Exposure

AINU MOSIR


AINU MOSIR


 October 8, 2020
Q&A guests: Director Takeshi Fukunaga and actor Debo Akiba


FCCJ Ainu Mosir FCCJ-7Debo Akiba joins director Takeshi Fukunaga from Hokkaido, via the magic of Zoom.  ©FCCJ

Like many nations with colonial pasts, Japan once deployed a policy of forced assimilation, economic and social discrimination, even family separation against its indigenous Ainu people — almost completely erasing their culture and identity. In the 19th-20th centuries, the government denied them the right to speak their language (it has been classified as critically endangered by UNESCO), as well as their right to hunt and gather.

Only with the 2019 passage of the Ainu Policy Promotion Act, the first recognizing them as an indigenous people, were the Ainu extended the right to “live with pride in their ethnicity” and to be afforded equal treatment.

Takeshi Fukunaga’s beautifully crafted second feature, Ainu Mosir, thus arrives at an auspicious juncture. Five years in the making and already the recipient of several major international festival awards, it portrays, in the guise of a gentle coming-of-age tale, the ongoing challenges facing the natives who call Hokkaido’s Akan Ainu Kotan home.

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Fukunaga smiles at Debo, on a screen to his left. ©Koichi Mori

Fukunaga first appeared at FCCJ in 2017 with his debut feature Out of My Hand, which he had shot partially in Liberia and in New York City, the director’s adopted home for 16 years. With Ainu Mosir, the Hokkaido native once again demonstrates that he is uniquely positioned to tell stories about outsiders that are also universally human stories.

The film focuses on Kanto (Kanto Shimokura) a sensitive 14 year old who lives in Akan Kotan, a UNESCO World Heritage site. His mother runs one of Akan’s craft shops and takes part in the nightly performances of Ainu music and dance “traditions,” which are accompanied by flashing lights and videos.

Akan is “too tiny, it’s not normal and they make you do Ainu stuff,” complains Kanto, who would rather sing “Johnny B. Goode” in his middle-school rock band. But like the other students, he is deeply conflicted about his sense of identity.

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©AINU MOSIR LLC/Booster Project

When a family friend named Debo (Debo Akibe) takes him under his wing, it’s clear Kanto has yet to come to terms with the loss of his father a year earlier. Debo teaches him the ways of their ancestors, shows him the path to the other side of the world where the dead live, and asks him to help raise a bear cub he’s keeping.

What Kanto doesn’t realize is that the bear is to be sacrificed in the ancient religious rite known as iomante, to thank the kamui gods for the gifts they have bestowed upon humans. But the controversial ritual has not been observed since 1975 in Akan (although the last one in Hokkaido was performed in 1990), and the villagers are at first opposed due to the impact it would have on tourism. “People won’t accept it!” protests one. “No one else needs to understand,” says Debo. “This is about us.”

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©
AINU MOSIR LLC/Booster Project

As Kanto grapples with his shifting sense of morality and takes his first tentative steps toward manhood, Ainu Mosir remains gently non-judgmental, fully immersing viewers in the quotidian sounds and sights of this colorful indigenous community, engrossing the viewer in this young man's journey toward understanding and acceptance.

Appearing after FCCJ’s screening, Fukunaga told the audience that his intention was always to work with a (primarily) non-professional cast of locals.

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Koichi Mori

 “Being from Hokkaido myself, I realized after I’d left that I hadn't had a chance to learn about the indigenous Ainu people,” he explained. “Only after moving to the states did I recognize that I wanted to make a film about them. However, as a Japanese, or what the Ainu people call ‘Wajin,’ I knew I had to be very careful about depicting them, since I wanted to stay away from anything contrived or romanticized, as often occurs.

“I did write dialogue, but I didn’t want [the cast] to memorize it, I wanted them to express things in their own words, in a way that was close to their own stories. I tried to create an environment in which each of the cast members felt free to act in a natural way. I didn’t direct them as much as I would had they been professional actors.”

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Debo Akibe, who joined Fukunaga via Zoom from Akan, was one of the exceptions to the “non-professional” rule, having appeared in such films as Lee Sang-il’s 2013 hit Unforgiven, alongside Ken Watanabe and Koichi Sato. In fact, one imagines that Akibe is the exception to quite a few rules. His character in Ainu Mosir is both frightening and admirable, yet his doting tutelage of young Kota makes him an endearing father figure at the same time that he is a formidable defender of the Ainu tradition.

“How close are you to the amazing character you play?” he was asked. “There are similarities,” Akibe admitted,” but I don’t think I have as much perseverance and I’m more short-tempered. I wouldn’t have the patience to teach that young man so [wisely] and gently, as my character does in the film.”

That “young man,” Kanto Shimokura, also came in for his share of praise. Discussing the casting, Fukunaga explained, “We’d already decided that we were going to shoot in Akan, so our choices were quite limited. We needed to select someone who was in junior high school or below (Akan does not have a high school, so students must go elsewhere) or a much older man. The woman who plays Kanto’s mother in the film is his actual mother, and she was really cooperative, and introduced us to all the townspeople. Through discussions with her, I met Kanto early on. I knew he had a special presence, a special sensitivity about him.

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©AINU MOSIR LLC/Booster Project

“When we rewrote the script and made [the character] younger, we immediately cast Kanto. It was an easy choice because we’d already built a relationship with him through preparations for the shoot. He’s actually very interested in acting, so I think it was a good decision.”

Asked about his experience working with Shimokura, Akibe recalled, “The first scene we did in front of the camera, I was really surprised at what he delivered. With every scene from them on, he completely understood what he had to do and he didn’t second-guess himself at all. I don't know how many conversations he had with the director, but his presence went beyond acting.

“I wanted to make sure that my own performance didn’t feel actorly. I wanted to show something that didn’t look like acting. I was able to do that because of Kanto’s wonderful performance — as well as Mr. Fukunaga’s wonderful directing.”

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©AINU MOSIR LLC/Booster Project

The film’s credits note that no animals were harmed in its making, and in fact, it depicts iomante only through a scratchy VHS tape that Kanto has found in his father’s things. Fukunaga and Akibe were asked how they had morally positioned themselves concerning the townspeople’s struggle to decide whether to resurrect the ancient ritual.

Said Fukunaga, “Debo-san gave me a lot of advice about this. Among the Ainu, some are opposed to resurrecting the ritual, and of course, some are not. They all have their own reasons for it. I couldn’t think of any other motif that captures the spiritually and culture of the Ainu so completely as iomante, and that’s why I chose to depict it.

“This is not a documentary, so what you see in the town meeting is fictional. But those who spoke out against it are actually opposed to it in real life, and the same goes for those who support it in the film. I don’t think I’m in a position to have my own opinion on this, but I wanted to depict the [town’s divide].”

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©AINU MOSIR LLC/Booster Project

Akibe was candid: “That scene, in which the townspeople are deliberating whether or not to go forward with iomante, had no dialogue written for it, so what you see is an impromptu enactment of what it would be like. As for my own sentiments, I was surprised to discover that so many people were against the revival of the ritual.

“To tell you the truth, 10 years ago I had a little cub that I called ‘Chibi,’ or ‘Little One’ [just as my character does in the film], and I was raising it to ultimately kill him. But everyone was against it and I couldn’t find one person to join me. My wife told me that if I killed and ate him, she would leave me. So I had no choice but to give up on the idea.

“When it comes to issues like tradition and culture, through the process of participating in this film, I came to discover just how personally people in Akan take iomante, and how much they value life. I realized that reviving tradition is sometimes not the completely the righteous thing to do."

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©AINU MOSIR LLC/Booster Project

 A Canadian cultural historian, noting that she shows Inuit and Mohawk films in her classes, said, “We have a similar colonization history, where filmmakers stole the stories of the native people, and now the native people are telling the stories themselves. I wonder if Mr. Akibe could talk about the decision to accept Mr. Fukunaga into the community and the relationship you had with him.”

Akibe broke into a wide smile on the Zoom screen. “The first time I met him,” he said, “my impression was, ‘Ohhhh, this is going to be complicated.’ After we had talked about the kind of film he wanted to make, and heard that he wanted to depict the iomante ritual, we knew it would be difficult. But he was very passionate about it, and he was able to convince me to believe in it, to want to help him. I felt that if a director was that serious about a film, then it would a success.”

He continued, “Throughout these 160 years, the Ainu and indigenous peoples around the world have been through dire straits as the colonists stripped them of their culture and their language. Of course it’s understandable that there are many indigenous people today who are still suspicious of the colonists and remain very resentful.

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“But across these past few decades, I’ve seen that kind of sentiment gradually wane, and everyone now seems to accept the notion of thriving together.* I did make one special request of the director. I wanted him to make sure that the revival of the tradition would not be depicted as any sort of revenge of the Ainu against the non-indigenous people.”

Indeed, one of the film’s many strengths is Takeshi Fukunaga’s restrained, non-judgmental depiction of cultural practices that are unfamiliar to most. Ainu Mosir should help to change that, as should the new National Ainu Museum and Park, which opened in July in Shiraoi, Hokkaido, with the mission of reviving and developing Ainu culture.

Viewers in the U.S. will also have a chance to see the film, after the just-announced acquisition by Ava DuVernay’s Array Releasing, which focuses on stories by and about minorities. They also distributed Fukunaga’s Out of My Hand, and will play this theatrically in select cities in November before debuting on Netflix.

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©AINU MOSIR LLC/Booster Project

Selected Media Exposure

THE ASADAS


THE ASADAS (Asadake!)


 September 30, 2020
Q&A guests: Director Ryota Nakano and photographer Masashi Asada


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Masashi Asada (left) and director Ryota Nakano pose with the medallion for their film's international premiere.  
©Koichi Mori

It’s the rare Japanese director who can balance humor and pathos with the dexterity demonstrated by Ryota Nakano. After just four feature films, he has established a familiar voice and a favorite subject: the family, as it faces dark days. Yet there is always brightness in the gloom, and scenes of gentle humor are punctuated by endearingly quirky details.

In his much-heralded feature debut, Capturing Dad (2012), the titular patriarch has just died, yet one remembers most the moments of mirth, like the payoff to a slow-building punchline about a young boy’s obsession with a tuna fish. Admittedly, Nakano’s next two releases, both enormous hits in Japan, elicited more tears than laughter —in Her Love Boils Bathwater (2016), a matriarch who runs a bathhouse is dying of cancer, and in A Long Goodbye (2019), an aging father is spiraling into Alzheimer’s.

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©Koichi Mori

But his playful, poignant new The Asadas rediscovers the joyous, slightly off-kilter tone of Capturing Dad, even with a second half that is set in the aftermath of the 2011 Tohoku earthquake and tsunami. The film is a reminder that, should the trend continue, Nakano may become this generation’s answer to the legendary Yoji Yamada, whose prodigious output (nearly 90 films and counting) has been almost entirely devoted to comedies centered on the family unit.

Appearing at the Q&A session following FCCJ's screening, Nakano explained how he’d become involved in the project, the first he’s made based on real-life characters. Indie producer Shinji Ogawa (Piéta in the Toilet, River’s Edge) had optioned the underlying rights in 2012, and approached Nakano after seeing Capturing Dad. Recalled the director, “He showed me this amazing photobook of all the Asada family members in cosplay, and said he wanted me to make a film about them. My first reaction was, ‘What a bizarre family!’ But I thought there must be some really interesting drama behind the impulse to dress up and pose for all those photos.

“As a filmmaker,” he continued, “I also always felt I had a responsibility to make a film about the 3/11 Tohoku disaster, and I had so far been unable to do that. When I met Mr. Asada and his very unique family, I finally felt that I could depict the disaster in a way that was true to my vision.

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©Koichi Mori

“From the beginning of the project, we knew we wanted to have a happy ending. I felt it might be difficult to end in an upbeat way, considering that we were depicting the aftermath of 3/11. But after I’d gone to the stricken areas and interviewed survivors, I realized that they were much more forward-looking than we’d expected. So we felt it would be acceptable to end on a hopeful note.”

After some 18 drafts of the script, and dozens of interviews with various Asadas and other real-life people who would be depicted in the film, Nakano was ready for the casting process. With the actual Masashi Asada sitting next to him on stage, he told the FCCJ audience, “Needless to say, the most important role to cast at first was Masashi Asada. As I got to know him, I realized that he can be quite a slacker, quite laid back; but he’s also really affable, and has a way of winning people over, making it very difficult to dislike him.

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© 
2020 “The ASADAS”Film Partners

“We had to figure out the best person to play that kind of character. When it comes to (Kazunari) Ninomiya, he can seem quite detached at first, but he’s a real people person. He has this genuine quality, like Mr. Asada, that attracts people to him.”

Ninomiya is one of Japan’s hugest movie (and pop) stars (Letters from Iwo Jima, Nagasaki: Memories of My Son), and his casting enabled Ogawa and Nakano to attract another huge star, Satoshi Tsumabuki (Waterboys, Traces of Sin), to play Masashi’s older brother, as well as a big-name supporting cast.

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©Koichi Mori

The film was inspired by Masashi Asada’s exploits, and while judiciously skirting hagiography, Nakano’s script allows Ninomiya to express Masashi’s reckless, free-spirited character in ways that are as irritating as they are charming.

Admitted the real-life Masashi, “I still have trouble believing that my photobook has been made into a film, and that Mr. Ninomiya is playing me. I’m very honored by that.”

Whether or not you’re familiar with that photobook — which immortalizes the Asada family in a series of hilarious, inventive photographs taken by Masashi — you will be enchanted by this foursome and its unusual dynamic. Here’s a family that plays together, stays together, talks about their hopes and fears together, and occasionally, dresses up in silly costumes together.

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©FCCJ

In The Asadas, Masashi (Ninomiya) is given his first camera by his photo-nut father (Mitsuru Hirata) at age 12, and decides he will grow up to be a photographer. When he’s close to flunking out of art school, he’s assigned to take the one photo he would take if he knew it would be his last. Masashi decides to recreate a childhood incident in which the entire family, including his elder brother Yukihiro (Tsumabuki) and mom (a marvelous Jun Fubuki) are in the hospital together. The Asadas have so much fun with the reenactment that Masashi begins shooting them in a range of cosplay getups: as firefighters, racecar drivers, superheroes, ramen chefs, rockband members, politicians and more.

But no Tokyo publisher will touch his “family photos” at first, and Masashi has to rely on childhood crush Wakana (Haru Kuroki) for support. After his fortunes finally begin to turn — in a twist that is stranger than fiction — he starts receiving requests to take family photos from across Japan. When the Fukushima disasters occur, he rushes to the devastated area to check on one of the families he had shot, and winds up staying on in a pivotal role.

 FCCJ Asadas KM-6-2
©Koichi Mori

With spirited recreations from Masashi’s bestselling photobooks (there have been several more since the first in 2008) and a cast working in top form, The Asadas pays tribute not only to the significance of family ties but also to the power of the photograph. As Masashi puts it, “a single photo can make memories tangible and sometimes, it can even give us the strength to live on.”

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©Koichi Mori

Asked how he’d engendered such a close-knit vibe from the actors, Nakano responded, “I decided to start the film shoot with the recreation of the Asada family photo album. We shot about 15 photos over the course of two days, working morning to sunset, with constant costume changes. The actors were laughing a lot and by the end of those two days, they’d become a family because they’d worked through the process together. That had been exactly my intention by starting production that way.”

Explained Masashi Asada, “The family photos you see in the film are nearly identical to the ones I shot with my own family. The first one we recreated was the firefighters photo, and we were able to shoot it at the exact same fire station, with the same fire engine and uniforms.”

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©Koichi Mori

And what was it like shooting actors rather than real people? Admitted Asada, “Professionals make me a lot more nervous than amateurs, because I’m much more used to the latter and it’s easier for me to coax people who are quite shy. [As for Ninomiya], watching him up close on set, I found his method of easing himself into a scene without seeming to prepare quite surprising. But when we were recreating the family photos, he was attuned to the tiniest details. He really has an eye for things.”

“Did the experience make you want to start directing films yourself?” he was asked. Asada laughed. “This was the first time I’d been involved on a movie set, and I hadn’t realized just how many people are involved in the process. When I shoot my own photos, I don’t even have 10 people there. On this set, there were more than 10 times that many people, and it was quite amazing to see the director bringing them all together. I realized that it was something I would never be able to do. In short, I don’t think I’ll be making a film in the future.”

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©Koichi Mori

Asada was asked about his greatest influence, and immediately responded, “Shoji Ueda. He was a photographer based in Tottori, where the huge sand dunes are located, and he would shoot his family against the backdrop of the dunes. The photography scene was centered in Tokyo, but he stayed in Tottori and developed such a distinct style that he became internationally known for what we call ‘Ueda-cho’ (Ueda-style) photography. I respect him not only for his work but for his way of life.”

He paused before adding, “And I hope that my work might someday become internationally famous and lead to the coinage ‘Asada-cho.’”

Without missing a beat, the director chimed in, “And I, too, hope to be known internationally for ‘Nakano-cho’ films.”

Nakano is no stranger to non-Japanese audiences, having first traveled widely with Capturing Dad. His new film will make its international premiere in competition at the Warsaw International Film Festival in mid-October, before going to the Busan International Film Festival and elsewhere.

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©FCCJ

“It was my intent from the beginning to make this film not just for Japanese audiences,” he said. “Because it’s a film about family, and about the 3/11 disaster, I believe that it will also strike a chord with international audiences.

“I would go so far as to say that tonight’s screening, with an audience of people from so many different countries, feels like attending a small international film festival. So this is the de facto international debut of the film, and I’m very eager to know what you thought of it.”

Not surprisingly, the applause was spontaneous and substantial. It's surely a sign of things to come.

asadas  2020 The ASADASFilm Partners

© 2020 “The ASADAS”Film Partners

Selected Media Exposure

SOIRÉE


SOIRÉE


 August 19, 2020
Q&A guests: Director 
Bunji Sotoyama and stars Nijiro Murakami and Haruka Imou


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Director Bunji Sotoyama and stars Nijiro Murakami and Haruka Imou. ©FCCJ

In the future, Bunji Sotoyama’s visually and emotionally rewarding Soirée may be remembered as a film of important firsts. The first release of the freshly minted production company Shinsekai, it also marks the cultural moment when we all discovered Haruka Imou.

But for now, still on the cusp of stardom, it was not Ms. Imou’s presence that brought a huge contingent of still photographers and nine TV cameras to the Q&A session following our screening — it was the film’s producers, Kosuke Toyohara and Kyoko Koizumi, two of Japan’s most popular and prolific actors. 

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Citing the careers of John Cassavetes, Clint Eastwood, Jodie Foster and Juzo Itami,
producer KosukeToyohara reassured journalists that he would continue to act,
as well as produce and direct. 
©FCCJ

Gamely agreeing to comment briefly about the genesis of the project — but humbly standing off to the side of the stage as he did so — Toyohara recalled, “Two years ago, we met with Mr. Sotoyama about making a film together in Wakayama, and [decided to] establish a company together, Shinsekai (‘new world’). We wanted to protect the uniqueness [of his script] and the freedom of the filmmaking. This wasn’t only because it was our first project as a production company, but because we felt these are values that should be highly prized in filmmaking, and in culture in general. We also wanted to protect Mr. Sotoyama’s artistry without diluting the [weightiness] of the project.”

The audience immediately understood that Toyohara was referring to the film’s backdrop of power and sexual abuse, issues that have begun popping up more frequently in Japanese narrative films, but have rarely been handled with the same level of empathy and discernment that they are in Soirée

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©
Koichi Mori

Sotoyama, who reportedly spent some 10 months working on the script with the producers, recalled, “They encouraged me to question exactly what I wanted to say with my work, and finally, we were able to arrive on the same page. One message I wanted to make clear is that we are not born to be hurt. That leads to the theme of Japan’s unforgiving, non-inclusive society, which is forcing people to suffocate. Unfortunately, I don’t have any answers, but I think what I can do as a filmmaker is to continue making films about this.”

The two young protagonists of Soirée do indeed seem to be slowly suffocating. Sharing attributes with many of today’s disaffected youth, they are immeasurably lonely, alienated, unable to overcome their crippling self-doubt. Shota (Nijiro Murakami, Still the Water, Destruction Babies, The Gun) has come to Tokyo to pursue his dreams of being an actor, but when we first meet him, he is instead skimming an innocent victim in an “ore-ore” fiscal scam. He may be a skillful conman, but in his acting class, he’s also the target of a cruel verbal outburst from the director.

Soiree2020 SOIREE Film Partners
©2020 SOIRÉE Film Partners

When Shota’s drama group journeys to a remote seaside town in Wakayama, where they will hold workshops with the inhabitants of a senior citizens’ home, we learn that Shota is from the area himself, but that he has essentially severed ties with his family. At the Sakura Garden senior facility, he meets the forlorn Takara (Haruka Imou, immediately magnetic in her first leading role).

Shota is tasked with bringing her along to the local summer festival, and as he arrives to pick her up, so too does the man most responsible for crushing her spirit. After a violent scuffle, Shota grabs Takara by the hand and they run. Their escape is misconstrued, and their unplanned journey takes on a more urgent tone. But as it continues, the pair are put to the test physically, emotionally, financially. “God puts us through trials, but always gives us a way out,” Shota reassures Takura. As they search for that way, they encounter and are helped by caring souls; but until they’ve faced up to their own pasts, the journey cannot end well.

ride2020 SOIREE Film Partners
©2020 SOIRÉE Film Partners

Beautifully lensed, with performances of rare delicacy and naturalness, Soirée marks a real departure for the director, who has previously demonstrated an unusual commitment to depicting the older generation. His award-winning short On This Side (2010) and his feature debut, A Sparkle of Life (2013), focused only on characters of a certain age. Even the short that brought Murakami and Sotoyama together for the first time in 2017, Harunareya, costarred the veteran Kazuko Yoshiyuki and foregrounded dementia.

“I’ve been depicting the elderly in my films for the past 10 years,” Sotoyama explained. “The elderly taking care of the elderly, people dying isolated and lonely deaths — it’s these issues that Japanese have not faced head on, which is why I want to continue depicting them. I want to draw the audience’s attention to them, to give voice to the voiceless. 

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The film's distributors brought in special dividers to reduce the Covid-19 risk. ©Koichi Mori

“This isn't because of a particular experience or family situation. My intention is to depict the issues confronting society in Japan, and one of those is aging and the way the elderly are suffocating. That’s a recurring theme in my work. So those who are familiar with it might be surprised that I’m telling this story about young people and their escape from reality. But nowadays, I think it’s not only the elderly who are suffocating, it’s also young people. I thought the time was ripe to focus on the younger generation as well.”

He was inspired to write the script, Sotoyama explained, after a visit to Wakayama Prefecture, south of Nara, where he’d been given an opportunity to set a film. “When I first visited, I discovered that the legend of Anchin and Kiyohime, which you see the characters enact in the film, is part of the town’s history and has been told [for generations]. I wanted to figure out a way to tell a contemporary story that connects to that.” (The legend is the subject of the acting troupe’s training with the seniors, and is also incorporated into one of the film’s most enchanting scenes of magic realism.)

run2020 SOIREE Film Partners
©2020 SOIRÉE Film Partners

Lauded for his casting decisions, the director was asked how he had made the selection. “We auditioned over 100 actors for Takara,” he responded, “and what ultimately convinced us to go with Ms. Imou was that she exhibited the fragility and ephemeralness of the character, as well as a strong life force. She had the right balance.

“It’s a story about a girl who’s gone through a very rough childhood and as the narrative progresses over the course of the film, we see her regain her life force, little by little. That’s what we wanted to bring to the screen, and that’s why we needed her.

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Imou and Murakami. ©FCCJ

“I first worked with Mr. Murakami on the short film Harunareya,” he continued. “He was still a teen at the time, and I found him to be a very interesting artist. Emotionally, he has this universality to him, but he also has a really contemporary aura, and I felt he could embody the dilemmas of contemporary youth.”

Commending them on their “sensitive, multifaceted portrayals” of characters dealing with abuse, a film historian asked the actors how they had prepared for the roles. Said Murakami, “Allow me to answer first, although in terms of the situation that both characters are facing, Ms. Imou’s character is the more cornered of the two. She has much more serious issues to deal with.

looking back2020 SOIREE Film Partners
©2020 SOIRÉE Film Partners

“I think my character is more universal, in a way. He’s a simple, straightforward young guy who’s grappling with issues like How far can I go with my [limited] talent? What am I going to do? How am I going to achieve my dreams? He’s come all the way from Wakayama to Tokyo to become a star, but he’s almost on the brink of giving up. Yet through this relationship with Takara he’s given the chance to be, or to act as, a hero.

“It’s about the conflicts that Shota goes through and the walls he has to [tear down],” he elaborated. “There are several important themes: first of all, you have to work hard and study hard. And then, you have to learn how to discern between people who are just hard on you and those who are hard on you but love you. Is it coming from a place of love? Those are some of the things the role made me think about.”

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©FCCJ

Said Imou, “It was challenging to prepare for my role because I hadn’t gone through such an experience, yet I needed to confront it head on [in order to portray it with the right sensitivity.] It wasn’t enough to just presume what Takara must’ve gone through psychologically, I really had to live the character, to walk in her path.

“They say that you can’t choose your parents, but it’s a fact that you can choose your own path. You can stand on your own two feet. You can stand up and put yourself back together, no matter how many times you topple over. That’s what I wanted to depict through this character. And through her, I was able to experience how strong and utterly cool a woman can be."

Demonstrating a media savvy that will stand her in good stead as her career takes off, Imou also noted, “I was able to work on this project with wonderful producers who are extremely active as actors themselves. They kindly gave me a platform where I could release my creativity and express myself, and it’s been a really rewarding experience. I’m also grateful that I had this opportunity to create a singular role together with the director, my castmates and the crew. I’m a film lover myself, and I hope to continue working as an actress for the rest of my life. I also hope Soirée gives people a bit of optimism about this unforgiving, non-inclusive society.” 

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©
Koichi Mori

The director, too, is ready for his closeup. Taking a question about the film’s French title, he made it really matter: “In Japan, ‘soirée’ equates to the evening presentation of a stage production,” he explained. “However, the film’s also about the hours between dusk and dawn, and ‘soirée’ speaks to the themes we’re trying to depict. It also alludes to the fact that we are our own life’s [leading] character. And in this era of Covid-19, I think it can also be seen in terms of how all of us are waiting for the dawn to break, for the light at the end of the tunnel.”

An exciting international premiere will be announced very soon, kicking off what is sure to be an abundance of overseas festival appearances.

Soiree poster2020 SOIREE Film Partners
©2020 SOIRÉE Film Partners

Selected Media Exposure

KUSHINA


KUSHINA, WHAT WILL YOU BE (Kushina)


 July 15, 2020
Q&A guests: Director 
Moët Hayami, actors Yayoi Inamoto and Miyuki Ono


Kushina posterFCCJ-14
Writer-director Moët Hayami (right) with her stars, Yayoi Inamoto (left), and Miyuki Ono. ©FCCJ

In these times of self-isolation and social distancing, a film like Kushina, what will you be feels almost like allegory.

From our mid-2020 vantage point, it's hard to resist reading it as a cautionary tale about the fragility of our cultural ecosystems, the ease with which interlopers can rend the social fabric, and the real/imagined threats that external forces pose to even the most tightknit of communities.

The enigmatic first feature of Moët Hayami, Kushina is set in a remote matriarchal utopia. Hidden deep in the forested mountains of Japan, cloaked in almost otherworldly scenery, its residents live off the grid among the near-ruins of what might be a long-vanished civilization, with only the basic necessities and clothing that appears nearly feudal.

Kushina Kader  ATELIER KUSHINA
© ATELIER KUSHINA

Fourteen-year-old Kushina (Ikumi Kader) is the youngest inhabitant of this village of women, born and raised here, while others had come intent on suicide but stayed on to live with like-minded souls. The female sanctuary was founded by fierce matriarch Onikuma (Miyuki Ono), who had fled modern “civilization” with her daughter Kagu (Tomona Hirota) when she was 14 and had become pregnant with Kushina.

Onikuma hasn’t completely cut ties with the outside world — she makes long, dangerous trips to the city to trade the cannabis the women cultivate for food and other provisions. But she will do anything to protect the isolation of the colony. And soon, she will have to.

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Onikuma and Kushina. © ATELIER KUSHINA

The peaceful existence is upended by the arrival of anthropologist Soko (Yayoi Inamoto) and her male assistant Keita (Suguru Onuma), who have been searching for the village for some time. “Human beauty develops distinctively in isolated communities,” Soko had told him, and she now has her chance to document the proof. She finds herself enchanted with Kushina’s innocence and her curiosity about what lies beyond the woods, and she unwittingly crosses the line, altering the women’s lives forever.

Kushina Inamoto  ATELIER KUSHINA
Soko documents her find. ©
ATELIER KUSHINA

Appearing with two of her lead actresses for the Q&A session after the screening of her film, the director was asked what had compelled her to create such an unusual world. “The seed of the story was actually not this community of women living in the forest,” admitted Hayami. “The seed was that I wanted to create a mother-daughter story — it all sprang from there. I also imagined that if you’re very young and you get pregnant in Japan, it must be really suffocating.

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Hayami earned immediate acclaim for her debut feature. ©FCCJ

“That led me to imagine what would happen if a woman got pregnant, ran away to the forest to commit suicide, and decided instead to stay. As we all know, there are these jukai, or seas of trees (aka suicide forests) in which there’s no way out, once you go in. But I imagined if a woman went in and decided to stay, she might build a community, whereas a man would probably drift away. That’s how I started creating the characters and the story.”

Hayami admitted that she had been repeatedly cautioned against shooting too much and for too long, considering the limited budget and her inexperience. When the location was finally decided on —somewhere in Yamanashi Prefecture that is difficult to find even by GPS (a situation echoed in the film) — the director had even more reason to limit the shoot. She would eventually do her own production and costume design, as well as spending 2 years on editing the film.

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Ono marks her return to the screen with an indelible role. ©Koichi Mori

Magnificently shot (by Ryo Muramatsu, the director’s husband), Kushina had its world premiere at the Osaka Asian Film Festival in 2018, where it won the Japan Cuts Award, taking its director and stars to New York City for a widely heralded screening. And yet, Hayami ultimately decided against releasing it in Japan.

Believers in kismet might imagine that distribution was delayed so it could coincide with the coronavirus pandemic 2 years later, thus lending the film a newfound resonance. The truth is nearly as remarkable.

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Popular TV actress Inamoto makes her film debut in Kushina. ©Koichi Mori

“I had the opportunity to screen the film at several film festivals in 2018, and I was approached about distributing it,” recalled Hayami. “However, when my mother read a few of the interviews I did, she seemed shocked and hurt at what I’d said. I realized that I’d put her in an unpleasant position. She told me she now recognized she had caused me a lot of pain and perhaps she’d made a mistake in the way she’d raised me.

“Since it wasn’t my intention to depict that in the film, I decided to let it lie a little bit while I grappled with how to release it commercially. It took me 2 years, during which I worked on other projects. I wanted my mother to understand my intentions, and in order to move forward with my next project, I needed to see this one released first.”

Kushina threeKoichi Mori
©Koichi Mori

An audience member asked, “Did your mother intuit this from watching the film, or was it only when you started doing press for the film? I’m curious because writers often have the problem that family members read themselves into their characters, even when they aren’t meant to.”

Responded Hayami, “My mother saw the movie before reading the interviews and said she didn’t understand what it was about (laughter). Then she read the interviews and said it was quite shocking to discover that it was about herself. So she revisited the film, and told me ‘I still didn’t understand.’ (more laughter) But my older sister watched the film and burst into tears, so I could see that we were on the same page.”

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©FCCJ

If Hayami saw herself as Kushina, then it’s arguable that the little girl’s grandmother in the film, Onikuma, is her mother’s stand-in. Miyuki Ono plays the character with gravitas and overprotective intensity, reminding us how much she’s been missed. Ono had made her film debut in 1979 opposite the late, great Bunta Sugawara, and gone on to appear in a range of distinctive works, including Ridley Scott’s Black Rain (1989).

But as she told the audience, “I’d been away from film for 16 years when we shot Kushina (in 2016), since I had become a mother myself. During that time I also became a regular audience member. Maybe because I was watching more, I started finding an increasing number of Japanese films that were really interesting. I wanted to work with this new generation of talented filmmakers, and that was the main impetus for me to sign on to this project.

Hayami was asked whether the film’s haunting poster image — depicting Kushina in the forest, curled up like a cat as she listens again and again to a song on her fading Walkman cassette player — might have been the inciting image for the script. But the director said she had instead seen the image of a woman returning home from somewhere far away. (We hear Kushina’s song only after the credits have rolled, when Doris Day’s “Que Sera Sera” fills the soundtrack. It turns out that this was a song that deeply connected Hayami and her mother, and thus seems to be a covert message of hope, and of forgiveness.)

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© ATELIER KUSHINA

TV tarento Yayoi Inamoto, who made her film debut playing the anthropologist in the film, was asked whether she imagines Kushina is thankful that her character has drawn her into the real world, away from the isolated life she’s led. Responded Inamoto, “I guess we need to have a sequel to know [for sure], but as the mother of 3 children myself, I have to say that if one of them were taken away like that, it would be unthinkable to me. Of course, given the kind of environment that this little girl was brought up in, there’s no way of knowing.”

When Hayami was lauded for her costume design, particularly the choice to color-code characters, Hayami explained, “Since their thoughts and sentiments are quite ambiguous in the story, I thought that it was important to understand what each character’s function was, and to use clear color themes. I indicated that in the screenplay, but there was also a lot of discussion with my crew. And Ms. Ono kindly brought some of her own clothes, so we mixed and matched them."

Said Ono (whose defining color is midnight blue), “My character changes clothes (to more modern garb) when she goes into town so she can more easily blend in. But all the costumes and kimono existed [in some form or another]; none of them were created from scratch. I think that brings a level of reality to the community, because if women came together to live in the forest, they would probably be wearing clothing like this, not buying new pieces.”

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©FCCJ

She continued, “When I was doing an interview with a male journalist earlier tonight, he mentioned perhaps he should go visit his mother. This is not a didactic film — it is about the power and the strength and the beauty of female characters. In that sense, you can call it a fantasy that is infused with reality.

“When I was working as an actress 20 years ago, there weren't many films that depicted females with a sense of agency or intention. They were always these fragile beings that men had to protect. I was in my 20s and 30s at the time, and I remember feeling very uneasy about being pigeonholed into that kind of stereotype.

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©Koichi Mori (left),
©FCCJ (right)

“This film, on the other hand, allows you to see the power that females have, how they raise their children, what it truly means to love and the depth of emotions that come with that. I think it must be a revelation for male audiences of the younger generation. It’s a way of seeing women through new eyes. These are not fragile, outdated characters. This is not to say that traditional women should be looked down upon, but rather, that the way they’ve been depicted [is wrong], and that goes for films from many countries around the world.”

Inamoto concurred. “I hope audiences consider the genesis of the project as a mother-daughter story, but I imagine it must be very interesting to view the story as a man,” she said. “After all, it [includes] a man going into a village where men are not allowed. And it’s also about an outsider who goes into a community intending no harm at all but who creates a kind of rupture in that society, in the end. I guess that alludes to the many forms of affection that exist, which might be another interesting way of seeing the story.”

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©
Koichi Mori

Finally, speaking rather cryptically (unless one has been apprised of the situation with her mother), Moët Hayami told the audience, “We have to make many decisions throughout the course of our lives, and a lot of them are driven by love. I’d like the audience to think about the fact that when you give love to someone, you don’t always know that it is being received.

“We were working on a very low budget, but I love fantasy films. I don’t think there are many prominent Japanese films that are [like the fantasies being made overseas], and this is my own attempt at making one.”

Kushina poster  ATELIER KUSHINA
© ATELIER KUSHINA

Selected Media Exposure

Page 1 of 23

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