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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.

Kushina two  ATELIER KUSHINA
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.

Kushina OnoKoichi Mori-1
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.”

Kushina InamotoFCCJ-8   Kushina OnoFCCJ-5
©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.)

Kushina main Kader  ATELIER KUSHINA
© 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.”

Kushina HayamiFCCJ-12
©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.

KushinaKoichi Mori01  Kushina InamotoFCCJ-9
©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.”

Kushina HayamiKoichi Mori
©
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

AN EVENING WITH VETERAN FILM CRITIC MARK SCHILLING


AN EVENING WITH VETERAN FILM CRITIC MARK SCHILLING


 June 23, 2020
Q&A guest: Mark Schilling


Tony TakitaniKoichi Mori-3
Schilling, right, with Sachiko Ichikawa, widow of Jun Ichikawa, and Tony Takitani DP Taishi Hirokawa. ©Koichi Mori

Three long months after our last event, the Film Committee cautiously emerged from Covid-19 lockdown to host an intimate conversation with veteran film critic, festival advisor and cycling enthusiast Mark Schilling.

The small-town Ohio boy is now the world’s leading voice on Japanese film, with a catbird seat as a critic for the Japan Times since 1989. He has been the local correspondent since 1990 for Screen International and now Variety, is a cultural reporter for a wide range of international publications, and has authored six books on Japan, including the recently published “Art, Cult and Commerce: Japanese Cinema Since 2000.”

When we first approached him about joining us on the FCCJ dais, we suggested also screening a film of his choice. His immediate response had been, “something by Jun Ichikawa” — his favorite Japanese filmmaker, who had died in 2008 at the age of 59. With the assistance of Ichikawa's widow, Sachiko, we were able to treat the audience to a very special screening of the director’s 2004 masterpiece Tony Takitani, based on a Haruki Murakami short story. A delicate, haunting film shot in luminous near-monochrome, it beautifully renders the spiritual isolation of its eponymous protagonist, as well as of modern Japan.

Tony Takitani  2005 WILCO Co. Ltd
© 2005 WILCO Co., Ltd

Introducing the screening, Sachiko Ichikawa shared a statement her husband wrote after he’d finished the film, highlighting his “attempt to answer demands brought about by Murakami’s literary world, which may be solid but is nonetheless floating a few centimeters off reality’s ground;” and of his own conviction that the film version should have “shots comprised of blank spaces like Edward Hopper’s paintings.”

The director’s longtime collaborator, acclaimed photographer Taishi Hirokawa, the award-winning cinematographer of Tony Takitani, told the audience Ichikawa wanted the film to feel as if “viewers were turning the pages as they read the story,” resulting in the camera’s subtle, ceaseless movements from left to right. He also recalled how they had had just two weeks to shoot, and had built all the sets in the open air on a hillside near Yokohama, despite the imminent typhoon season. “But Ichikawa was always lucky,” he said. “The rains skipped us.”

Settling in for a long, genial chat after the screening, Schilling was asked why Jun Ichikawa is so important to him. “I didn’t know much about him when I first started reviewing in 1989,” he admitted, “so for me, the discovery was Dying at a Hospital [1993]. I went into the screening cold and I was totally blown away. You’re watching patients who are all being treated for cancer… and you also see people outside the hospital, doing ordinary things. That combination, of people who are going to die and people who are very much alive — the contrast just hit me so hard.

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Hirokawa discusses building the open-air sets. ©
Koichi Mori

“I ended up showing it at Udine (Far East Film Festival, where he curated the first international spotlight on Ichikawa’s work in 1994), and believe me, the last 10-15 minutes, everyone in the audience was [sobbing]. I couldn’t stop crying myself, and afterward, the director said, ‘I feel kind of sorry — I just make films that make people cry.’

“I ended up seeing everything he made after that, and he became my touchstone. This is why I’m doing this. At the time, there were up-and-coming directors getting attention, like (Takeshi) Kitano, (Hirokazu) Kore-eda and later (Kiyoshi) Kurosawa and (Naomi) Kawase. It was great for them, but I thought, ‘Wait a minute, Ichikawa should be up there with them.’ He wasn’t being ignored in Japan, but I thought he could take a step up, beyond Japan, and I tried to do what I could. I thought, ‘This is my mission, to make his films better known.’”

Tony TakitaniFCCJ-2
©FCCJ

Asked why had he selected Tony Takitani to screen at FCCJ, when it was almost too good at making the audience feel “extremely isolated and lonely,” Schilling responded, “It’s the time we’re living in now, isn’t it? Mrs. Ichikawa shared her husband’s thoughts about Edward Hopper, who’s become the artist of the coronavirus era. When I first saw it, I remember thinking that maybe it wasn’t cinematic enough. But I watched it again, and everything fits together the way Ichikawa intended it to: the images, the music, the acting. For me, it builds up to that moment when Tony’s wife is gone and he’s alone in her closet, a huge room, with all her clothes. I’ve had that experience in my own life. Someone dies, you go in and see their things the way they left them for the last time. And you never forget that. You never forget the feeling you have, the smells. That sums up the absence you feel when someone dies. Tony Takitani works for me like a film but also like a visual poem.”

Tony  2005 WILCO Co. Ltd
© 2005 WILCO Co., Ltd

Here, with ellisions, are other highlights of our conversation:

On selecting the reviews, interviews and essays included in his new book
The last time I did this was for the 1999 book “Contemporary Japanese Film,” which collected articles I wrote for the Japan Times from 1989. The publisher for that told me, “If you want to include all these reviews, you’re going to have to cut them down. They’re too long.” So I spent about a month and it was agonizing. I kept thinking, “Did I really write that?” This book wasn’t as bad. At the beginning of the millennium, I had about 1,200 words to play with. Now I have 550. It forces you to compress your thoughts, but it’s not quite enough. Every time they cut me down, I was fighting for the word count. Now I realize maybe it’s not so bad.

On whether his opinion of some films had changed since writing his initial review
Sometimes I see films after a long time and realize, “I liked this too much the first time around,” or I see something in it that I didn’t see before. That was the case with Tony Takitani, since when I first saw it, I hadn’t had the experience of having someone close to me die. And then I did. Seeing it again, I realized it’s a very artistic, very minimal film. But it’s deeply emotional, too.

Tony TakitaniFCCJ-1
©FCCJ

I have to give stars for the Japan Times reviews, and I think I gave 5 stars to only a few films every decade. I look back on those and think, “I really shouldn’t have done that.” (Pushed for examples, he finally relented.) There’s one called Sakuran, based on a manga by a woman, directed by a woman, starring the great Anna Tsuchiya, with a brilliant score by Ringo Sheena. I saw it and thought it was the ultimate feminist film. Women had been working so hard for so long to make any mark in the industry here, and it seemed like this was the breakthrough. I thought about it afterward. Really 5 stars? Maybe not.

On who will supplant the 4Ks (Kitano, Kore-eda, Kurosawa, Kawase)
They’re all over 50, and the ones coming up behind them, Koji Fukada and Miwa Nishikawa, are in their 40s. So they’re not young, but they’re ready to take the step up, too. Fukada’s new film was just selected for the Cannes 2020 label. I really like Shuichi Okita. We’ve shown six of his films at Udine, and every one has been a hit. He’s on the verge of a breakthrough. Shinichiro Ueda, director of One Cut of the Dead, is another one. We gave that film its world premiere at Udine, and it’s made more than 1,000 times its budget at the box office.

On film(s) he wishes had gotten greater attention
Jun Ichikawa’s, of course! And Nobuhiko Obayashi’s. He became famous abroad for House. I first discovered him in 1989 with Beijing Watermelon, about Chinese students in Japan. He was going to shoot in China but Tiananmen prevented it, so he just made a mock-up of an airplane and shot everything here. He plowed right ahead. I thought, this guy’s got balls and imagination. The last film he made before he died, Labyrinth of Cinema, a film made by a dying man [Obayashi had terminal cancer], had more energy than many, many films made by people healthier and younger, but not as brilliant as he was.

Tony   2005 WILCO Co. Ltd
© 2005 WILCO Co., Ltd

On which director has gotten too much attention
I mean, really, Japanese directors don’t get that much attention. Even someone like (Hayao) Miyazaki, when he started going abroad, Harvey Weinstein wanted to release Princess Mononoke as an arthouse film. It was so huge in Japan, and in the circle of overseas anime fans, but it just didn’t get out to a wider audience, compared with Pixar or Disney films.

On how he decides which films to review
It’s always difficult. I’ll look through all the upcoming films, watch the trailers, spend a day on that. Sometimes I think, “Oh, jeez. My time on earth is limited!” I’m at the point now where I don’t want to see a film I know I’m gonna hate. Very often the upcoming films are by directors I really admire or young directors who seem interesting, and I’ll [choose that way]. That’s only 4 films a month out of how many? Over 600 Japanese films were released last year, and I can’t cover them all. We have another couple of reviewers now, James Hadfield and Matt Schley, who’s covering all the anime. Thank god I have help.

On how much his own experience influences his choices of ‘good’ films
The famous critic Manny Farber once said, paraphrasing, “The critic watches the film, but the critic is also a man.” I don’t try to hide that. If something connects with me on a personal level, I mention it. One example is watching Koji Fukada’s Harmonium. That’s one of the greatest films [in a long time]. There’s a scene when the character played by Kanji Furutachi goes into the river to try to rescue his daughter. He comes out and he freaks out. If I’d seen the film without knowing anything about the situation, I might’ve thought he was overacting.

Tony TakitaniFCCJ-3
©FCCJ

But I have been in that situation, way back 40 years ago in my hometown in southern Ohio. I was on my bike, and a motorboat overturned. I’m a trained lifeguard, so I jumped in and swam out to the boat. People were screaming, “Get the baby! Get the baby!” and pointing to the water. It was very murky, I couldn’t see 2 feet in front of my face. I couldn’t find the baby. Then this teenager who was trying to help started drowning, so I went over to him. Finally, they brought the grandmother [who’d been holding the baby] to the shore, and she was just screaming and screaming. I thought, “She’ll never recover.” For whatever reason, Furutachi understood this. His character will never, ever be the same. And he gets that.

On documentaries
I write on documentaries when I can, when one is so important for some reason. Kazuo Hara just did one, Reiwa Uprising, about an election last year. It’s 4 hours long, and I sat, transfixed, throughout the whole thing. He’s someone who can do that to me. He also did Sennan Asbestos Disaster, and he spent years putting that together. He’s trying to be objective, but he has a point of view. He’s trying to get under the surface. He’s not really the friend [of the film’s plaintiffs], he’s making a film and he’s going to do what’s best for the film. For me, Hara’s work is equal to or better than what anyone’s doing in fiction films.

On whether his interviewing style has changed over the years
Interviews used to really intimidate me. I couldn’t sleep for days beforehand. Somehow, I got over that. My strategy was to read as much as I could about the person, see the film, but not write up questions until I was on the train to the interview, after everything percolated in my head. I have this scribbled question list with me like a safety blanket, but I never look at it because my objective is to start a conversation. A lot of directors have a script in their head, they’ve prepared what they want to say and they’re gonna somehow get it in there. So my strategy is to have a conversation and get them off script.

books
Schilling's new book, left, and others from Awai Books. ©Koichi Mori

On Donald Richie’s influence    
Donald Richie was my friend and mentor for about 20 years. He really encouraged me when I first started out. I could never repay him. We would go to movies together and talk about them afterwards. To hear the voice of Donald Richie is like hearing the pronouncement of God. He had no doubts about what he thought about a film. He lived in Ueno, in this little apartment overlooking Shinobazu Pond. He would invite me over to eat dinner and watch films. He had this collection of DVDs, all great films, and he would suggest titles. I’d say, “Hmmm, how about this one?” And he’d say “No, we’ll watch this.” He had this tiny TV sitting in his oshiire closet, which he used as a monitor, and he’d put in a DVD. All he had to sit on were straight-backed chairs. I thought, “I can’t slump, I can’t sleep, I’ve got to pay attention! Donald Richie is here! We’re watching this together!”

Watching with him, in the privacy of his apartment, I paid attention to every frame. He gave me that gift of attention. I’m still pretty degenerate in the way I watch some films, but one worth paying attention to, it’s worth paying attention. I always end up with 10, 12, 15 pages of notes about everything from the story to the editing to the camerawork. I wasn’t trying to be Donald Richie, I was just trying to hold my own in the conversation. So I had to bring my best game. That’s what he gave me.

For more anecdotes, as well as reviews, essays and interviews spanning the past 20 years of Japanese film, see Mark Schilling’s “Art, Cult and Commerce: Japanese Cinema Since 2000” (Awai Books, New York and Tokyo).

MISHIMA: THE LAST DEBATE


MISHIMA: THE LAST DEBATE
(Mishima Yukio vs. Todai Zenkyoto: Gojunenme no Shinjitsu)


 March 17, 2020
Q&A guests: Director Keisuke Toyoshima and novelist Keiichiro Hirano


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Director Keisuke Toyoshima (left) and acclaimed novelist Keiichiro Hirano.  ©Koichi Mori

Yukio Mishima: the name still towers over the local literary landscape, especially when viewed from overseas. There is arguably no other Japanese writer whose works have been as widely translated, whose life — and death — have been as well documented internationally, whose controversial reputation has been subjected to such intense scrutiny.

No surprise, then, that many members of the audience who gathered at FCCJ to watch Mishima: The Last Debate had not only read most of his 34 novels (and/or his 50 plays, 25 short story collections and 35 books of essays), watched his film Patriotism, in which Mishima also stars, viewed Paul Schrader’s Mishima: A Life in Four Chapters or Koji Wakamatsu’s 11:25 The Day He Chose His Own Fate. Those with an enduring interest may have also read the essential biographies by John Nathan and Henry Scott Stokes, or Andrew Rankin’s authoritative Mishima, Aesthetic Terrorist: An Intellectual Portrait.

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©FCCJ

No surprise, either, that several audience members had even been present at the University of Tokyo, where The Last Debate is set, or had firsthand experience of the film’s 1969 time period, 50 years ago, when student rioting was convulsing college campuses across the country.

The surprise comes with the revelation of discovering/rediscovering Yukio Mishima, the man. No amount of reading him/about him prepares the viewer for the charismatic rockstar figure who dominates 45 minutes of The Last Debate’s runtime, in long-lost footage of a historic verbal duel between right and left that has been restored to 4K, and forms the centerpiece of the riveting new documentary.

Mishima-1 2020 Mishima The Last Debate Film Partners
©2020 “Mishima The Last Debate” Film

Surprising, too, is the choice of director. As Keisuke Toyoshima (There Is No Lid on the Sea, Moriyamachu Driving School, Maniac Hero) admitted to the audience, “I’ve been making genre movies, so I was [quite amazed] when I got this offer. TBS discovered at the beginning of 2019 that they had this footage from the 1969 debate, and a TBS producer who was a classmate of mine at Todai was involved in planning a documentary about [the time period]. He wanted to hire a director who [hadn’t lived through it] and thought of me.

“The best-known image of Mishima comes from his controversial 1970 suicide,” he continued, “so a lot of people have this idea that he was an eccentric man with extreme thoughts. That’s the image I had before I started making the film. But the more I learned about him, the more my image changed. It took a 180-degree turn.”

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©Koichi Mori

Award-winning novelist Keiichiro Hirano (“The Eclipse,” “Dawn,” “A Man”), who is often compared with Mishima for his acclaim at an early age and the intensity of his intellect, provides expert commentary in the documentary, and joined Toyoshima at FCCJ. “I wasn’t surprised at all by the footage,” he told the audience. “I read my first Mishima novel at 14 and became a big fan of his work. I’ve read all his books, I’ve listened to him on CDs and I read the book about this debate (“Toron: Mishima Yukio vs. Todai Zenkyoto,” Shinchosha, 1969), which I’ve cited in my own writing.

“I’ve also had opportunities to talk with many people who knew Mishima in person, like Tadanori Yokoo, Jakucho Setouchi and Akihiro Miwa. They all talked about how charming he was. Everything they told me was about the genuine, human side of Mishima. So the image I had of him was very similar to how he appears in the footage.”

Mishima-3 2020 Mishima The Last Debate Film Partners
Although accounts differ about whether all the students were members of Zenkyoto, one can't help wondering how they breathed.
©
2020 “Mishima The Last Debate” Film

How he appears is this: Vibrantly cerebral, nearly pulsating with intellectual energy and wit, effortlessly commanding attention from the 1,000 students who were at the University of Tokyo’s Komaba campus on May 13, 1969 to see him. He had been invited by the Zenkyoto (All Campus Joint Struggle Committee) to debate his rightwing views with its revolution-minded members, and Lecture Hall 900 had been declared neutral territory to accommodate the exchange.

At the time, Mishima had already founded the private Tatenokai (Shield Society) militia and trained them (using live ammunition, the film reveals) with the Japan Self-Defense Forces. (Unbeknownst to his soldiers, he had probably already begun planning a coup attempt at the SDF headquarters to restore power to the ‘Emperor,’ which would precede his suicide the following year.)

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©Koichi Mori

Providing essential context before focusing on the Todai meeting, Mishima: The Last Debate opens with heartbreaking scenes of Tokyo under siege, as students, radicalized from protesting the Vietnam War and the US-Japan Security Treaty, occupied college buildings and demanded affordable tuition and greater autonomy. Rioting quickly engulfed campuses, culminating in the barricading and burning of Todai’s Yasuda Auditorium, which marked the beginning of the end for Zenkyoto, which had instigated much of the violence.

Their final united act was to invite the “anachronistic gorilla” — as posters at the door crudely depicted him — to defend his views. “I came to see if words are still an effective method of communication,” Mishima tells the students in his 10-minute opening speech, and proceeds to amuse, impress and engage his audience with the mental agility of a gold-medal gymnast. Beating back each counterargument with poetic logic, he never once condescends, antagonizes nor treats his audience with disrespect.

But then he seems to meet his match in a smiling young man with a Buster Brown haircut and a baby in his arms. For a good 15 minutes, the documentary circles around Mishima’s increasingly theoretical interchange with Masahiko Akuta (who would go on to become an experimental theater pioneer, working with the likes of Shuji Terayama), until a student yells, “This is all philosophical nonsense! I’m here to see Mishima get beaten up!” And while this never happens, for many audience members, the earth moved that day.

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©Koichi Mori

This much is clear from many of the commentators whom Toyoshima interviews in the film — including Akuta himself (still blazingly brazen), former University of Tokyo students, former Shield Society members and of course, Keiichiro Hirano — allowing them to elucidate and expand upon the debate in ways that are extremely valuable.

“Before I started making the film,” recalled Toyoshima, I did a lot of research and read a lot of books about Mishima. Most of them start by asking why he died, why he had to die, what was the story behind his death. I didn’t want to add yet another interpretation to all those that have been done. Instead of looking at the debate from the point of view of why he died, I wanted to focus on his life.

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A match made in philosophical heaven: Masahiko Akuta and Mishima  ©2020 “Mishima The Last Debate” Film

“The reason I included the footage [from just before his] suicide at the end of the film is because I felt there was an interesting juxtaposition to be made between the 1,000 students in the hall during the debate, when his words really seemed to be reaching them, and the 1,000 members of the Self Defense Forces, who did not accept his message. I thought that comparison could be very interesting.

“The other reason is that I came to realize I was making a film about those who happened to meet Mishima during their lifetime, not about Mishima himself. The more people I talked to who were there during the debate, the more obvious it became that their encounter with him had had a powerful impact on their lives. In some cases, it even seemed to determine the future course of their lives.

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©
2020 “Mishima The Last Debate” Film

“So I included the suicide because I wanted to focus on how those people who spent the day at Todai on May 13, 1969 felt about his death, about his loss. It’s not about the meaning of his death, but about how his loss was received by those who were there.”

Inevitably, the FCCJ audience wanted to know how the filmmaker and the novelist felt about Mishima’s stated hope to reify Japan under the concept of the emperor.

Hirano dove right in. “Mishima’s attitude right after the war was very critical of society and the LDP. That’s quite different from today’s conservatives, who only want to praise Japan. He spoke about an ideal image of Japan that derived from his prewar education, which was centered on [emperor worship] when he was young.

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©Koichi Mori

“But he also tried to adjust to what was happening in Japanese society, to separate himself from his early idea of the emperor. He was successful in that, in the sense that he became a superstar novelist and a frequent presence in the media. He wasn’t really aligning himself with a democratic society, but he did embrace the materialistic aspects of [Japan’s capitalistic culture]. But he was tired of this by his mid-30s and reverted to his earlier image of the ideal Japan, and its [abstract traditional essence] under the 'Emperor.'”

Added Toyoshima, “As you saw in the film, Mishima says to the students, ‘If you’d said ‘Emperor,’ I’d have joined you’ [in their cause]. I wanted to understand why he said such a thing, and that was one of the motivations for me to interview so many people. I would be curious to know what Mishima would think of our current definition of tenno, since the Heisei Emperor (who abdicated the throne in 2019) seemed to support the constitution and traveled around the country trying to help people heal (after tragedies like 3/11). The recent emperors seem to sympathize with leftwing ideals.”

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©Koichi Mori

Toyoshima stresses that although Mishima wielded both pen and sword, it is the former that has had the greatest lasting impact. Rarely has a film captured the dynamic interchange of ideas and the power of language in quite so compelling a form. Mishima: The Last Debate is a timely reminder that words, wielded judiciously and meaningfully, will always triumph over swords; that there is always a common ground even when arguing political ideologies at opposite extremes.

Is it possible, Hirano was asked, for political discussion in today’s world to remain civilized and courteous? “I can’t generalize about the current situation,” he responded. “I’m around the same age as Mishima when he was debating the Todai students, so as much as they seemed to be on an equal footing, I still think there was the sense that [an adult was talking to students], and students were talking with a star novelist.

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©FCCJ

“But there was a kind of balance which made the debate very gentlemanlike, even when the students tried to provoke him. There was a power balance. Today, especially on the internet, it’s nearly impossible to have a constructive conversation like this between people of opposing opinions. But I think in the proper venue, it is still possible.”

Toyoshima concurred. “I hope this film and the footage of the debate will communicate the passion and respect that were present that day. You see how the opinions were exchanged, how close physically the debaters actually were as they talked. Making the film, I wanted to believe in Mishima’s opening remarks — that words are still an effective means of communication.”

And so, it goes without saying, do we.

Mishima poster 2020 Mishima The Last Debate Film Partners
©2020 “Mishima The Last Debate” Film

Selected Media Exposure

FUKUSHIMA 50


FUKUSHIMA 50


 March 04, 2020
Q&A guests: Kadokawa Corporation Chairman and Fukushima 50 supervising producer
Tsuguhiko Kadokawa, director Setsuro Wakamatsu and stars Koichi Sato and Ken
 Watanabe


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Ken Watanabe (left) and Koichi Sato star in only their second film together.  ©Koichi Mori

It was not lost on the sizable crowd gathered at FCCJ for a sneak preview of Fukushima 50 that they were in the midst of one disaster (COVID-19) while watching another unfold onscreen.

Many of them had been in Japan on March 11, 2011 and had covered its aftermath. Some had even been able to speak directly with the engineers, technicians, firefighters, soldiers and other staff who stayed at the Fukushima Daiichi Nuclear Power Plant after the earthquake and tsunami had laid siege, risking their lives in a desperate 5-day struggle to prevent a total meltdown of the overheating atomic reactors and to minimize the (literal) fallout from the world's worst nuclear accident since Chernobyl.

Dubbed the “Fukushima 50” by the international press (but actually numbering in the hundreds), few of these brave workers — whether for fear of ostracism or reprisal — spoke on the record. But journalist Ryusho Kadota managed to interview over 90 of them, and their testimony was compiled in his 2012 nonfiction book, “On the Brink: The Inside Story of Fukushima Daiichi” (republished by Kadokawa Publishing in 2016).

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©Koichi Mori

That book now forms the backbone of the powerful, poignant Fukushima 50, the first film that depicts the tragedy head-on and in minute detail. While fact-checkers are already sharpening their pens, there is no doubt that its nationwide release, just days before the 9th anniversary of the triple disasters, will open up an expanded public dialogue.

Appearing at the Q&A session following the screening, fabled stars Ken Watanabe and Koichi Sato discussed the timing of the release, their hopes for its impact and their own working relationship.

“When we’re in the throes of a national crisis like this,” Watanabe told the audience, “I think films, or at least this film, can give us an opportunity to reflect on ourselves, to reflect about the choices we’re making and which direction we should be heading in. I hope Fukushima 50 will provide an important opportunity to step forward into the future.” 

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©Koichi Mori ©FCCJ

Recalled Sato, “When they first approached me with this project, I was wary. I thought it might be a little premature to come out with a film about Fukushima. It wasn’t long after the accident and there were still a lot of victims suffering from the experience. But after completing the film, we shared it with audiences in Fukushima. They understood there would be traumatic scenes, but they stayed until the end and thanked [director Setsuro] Wakamatsu for making it.

“So I went from thinking the film was premature to thinking that we’d made it just in time. It’s necessary for painful memories to fade, so that people can move forward. But you don’t want the memories to fade completely. Fukushima 50 creates an opportunity for us to reflect on the accident and in that sense, the timing is just right.”

The actors were flanked by their director, and by the chairman of Kadokawa Corporation, Tsuguhiko Kadokawa, who greenlit the project and served as its supervising producer. “I’d wanted to make a film based on the events of March 11 early on,” he told the crowd. “I had privately invested in a planned production with [late actor-director] Masahiko Tsugawa. But it was difficult [to move forward]. Then I read ‘On the Brink,’ and it pulled me back on track. We are approaching the ‘Reconstruction’ Olympics and Paralympic Games this year, and I wanted to complete it in time for that.”

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Supervising producer Kadokawa (left) and director Wakamatsu. ©Koichi Mori, ©FCCJ

As for Wakamatsu, “What attracted me to this story was that it depicts all the strengths and all the weaknesses of human beings. There were all these workers who had to summon up the courage to volunteer to go into the reactor building. There are so many layers of vulnerability but also courage in these characters, and that’s why I was attracted to directing the film.

“Every year at this time, 3/11 has dominated the TV news, especially NHK. But I feel there has been less TV coverage recently, and I hope Fukushima 50 can be shown each year to encourage us to reflect on the pros and cons of nuclear power, among other issues.”

Wakamatsu’s film feels as tense as if it were unfolding in real time. Shot in sequence on a big open set in Suwa, Nagano, with 2,000 extras and some convincing computer graphics, it thrusts viewers straight into the harrowing eye of the developing disaster, and into the decision-making processes of the two men closest to the crisis, Toshio Izaki (Koichi Sato), chief of Fukushima Daiichi Nuclear Power Plant Units 1 and 2, and Plant Director Masao Yoshida (Ken Watanabe).

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Daiichi plant workers react to the approaching tsunami. © 2020 “Fukushima 50” Film Partners

Fukushima 50 begins precisely at 2:46 pm on March 11, as the magnitude 9 earthquake strikes off the coast of Tohoku, triggering immediate reverberations at the plant. As workers stream from buildings, Izaki and his crew try to determine what damage has been done, and where. His longtime colleague, Yoshida, assesses the situation from his office in another part of the plant, and communicates via videocam with Tokyo Electric Power Company (Tepco) headquarters.

But the quake has triggered a “mega-tsunami” with waves that will soon pour over a 40-meter-high seawall, engulfing the plant. Just 54 minutes after the temblor, Fukushima Daiichi experiences a station blackout, halting cooling systems and leading the reactors and spent fuel-rod assemblies to begin to overheat. Despite the remaining staff’s valiant efforts to keep equipment running with car batteries, the plant is soon running nearly manually, and technicians must risk radiation exposure to open valves the dangerous, old-fashioned way — wearing Hazmats and gas masks in utter darkness.

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Izaki rallies his crew to assess the damage.  © 2020 “Fukushima 50” Film Partners

Working frantically to solve each fresh catastrophe as it emerges, and inspiring their workers by their own examples, Izaki and Yoshida confront the unprecedented crisis with tireless ingenuity and an occasional outburst that is fully earned. At one point, Yoshida drops his pants and moons his Tepco bosses in Tokyo. Eventually, his defiance of orders will help avert a disaster of global magnitude.

In a film that is as harrowing as it is moving, Sato and Watanabe shine. But their characters aren’t the only samurai at the plant; all the workers who stayed behind know they’re risking their lives, and Fukushima 50 celebrates their selfless sacrifices by depicting them in strength and weakness, in bravado and in teary-eyed relief. 

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Yoshida barks orders in the control center. © 2020 “Fukushima 50” Film Partners

The film provided the first opportunity in 7 years for Sato and Watanabe to act together (since Li Sang-il’s Unforgiven), and they were asked how it felt to be in the same film but almost never on the same set.

“There’s just one scene in which you see us together, and that’s in the toilet,” cracked Sato. After the laughter died down, he continued, “We shared many tense moments over that emergency red phone, and we gave a lot of thought about how we could convey the intensity of [those phone calls].

“We’ve both been working in the film industry for 40 years. There were many missed opportunities when we could have worked together. So it was a big moment when we could finally do Unforgiven together, and we managed to establish a relationship built on trust.”

Watanabe nodded. “It was definitely a challenging experience shooting Unforgiven, and we established a solid friendship. I remember Mr. Sato was approaching his 100th film at the time, and I told him I would work on his 100th even if it meant being a passerby in the background. But he made so many films so quickly, it just didn’t happen. 

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Izaki before all hell breaks loose. © 2020 “Fukushima 50” Film Partners

“I’d actually received a few offers to play the plant director in other films before this one, but I’d felt it wouldn’t be enough to just depict Mr. Yoshida’s story. Then I read the script for Fukushima 50, which focuses on the character of Mr. Izaki, who grew up alongside the Fukushima Daiichi plant. When I saw how it was structured, I realized how dramatic the film could be. When I heard that Mr. Sato had been cast in the role, I immediately said I wanted to be part of it. I have complete trust in him as an actor.”

Asked how he had prepared for his role as Yoshida, who died in 2013, Watanabe answered, “Mr. Yoshida is the only character who goes by his actual name; the other characters have all been given new names. He was heavily covered by the media during and after 3/11, so I think that a lot of people remember seeing him. I knew it would be futile to simply mimic him, so I researched his background, his education, his career. But the most helpful thing for me was hearing from people who worked with him. They talked about how he responded to the accident, especially how he negotiated with the people at Tepco, in the government and how he tried to defuse the tension in the control center.”

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©FCCJ
 

Thanking the team for a “challenging film,” one journalist asked the question on everyone’s mind: had they experienced any interference from either the government or from Tepco in making the film?

“We anticipated that we would get a question like this,” responded Kadokawa. “For 30 years, Kadokawa has been making films about social issues, like Jubaku: Spellbound, about (corruption in) the banking industry, and The Unbroken, starring Mr. Watanabe, which depicted an airline company (after the horrific crash of a jumbo jet, based on JAL 123). Many film companies avoid making such films in this era of sontaku (sucking up to the powers that be), in deference to certain parties or people.

“But it wasn’t our intention to make a film [condemning] a public utility, per se. The core message of Fukushima 50 is that we cannot conquer nature. As Mr. Watanabe’s character says in the film, human ego has made us disrespect nature. If the audience can take that message away with them, I would be very happy.”

Wakamatsu elucidated, “We didn’t hear any direct comments from the government. Maybe something was said behind closed doors, but we have no way of knowing. Personally, I received no pressure at all from the government. In fact, the Reconstruction Agency and the current prime minister were involved, and our former prime minister (Naoto Kan, who is depicted in the film), saw the film and I haven’t received any complaints from him. So I suppose there’s no problem.”

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©Koichi Mori

Martin Fackler, Tokyo bureau chief of The New York Times in 2011 and the first foreign reporter to enter the Fukushima Daiichi plant after the disaster (his team’s coverage would later result in a shortlisting for the Pulitzer Prize), was one of the many FCCJ members in the audience who had firsthand knowledge of the events depicted in the film. Addressing Kadokawa, he said, “There are many versions of what happened in Fukushima, and the one you chose, by Kadota, is fairly positive. There are others that are more negative, and Yoshida left us his own version in the ‘Yoshida Chosho.’ Why did you choose the Kadota version?”

Responded Kadokawa, “It wasn’t until I read Mr. Kadota’s book that I realized there was a way we could actually tell the story. I felt that adapting his book would also allow me to realize Mr. Tsugawa’s dream. When you’re grappling with a theme like this, you have 100 people involved in the project and 100 different opinions. All we could do was stay true to the facts.

“It’s become increasingly complicated for the media to cover these issues, and we’re approaching a dangerous juncture when it comes to reporting through the media. In such an [environment], I think film may be a better medium for conveying the truth. Being a publisher myself, I still have this sense of respect and awe toward the medium that is film. I approached the project with the conviction that we were going to depict the facts, and I think we were able to do this.”

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©Koichi Mori ©FCCJ

For his part, Wakamatsu was “quite confident that we could make an effective film that wasn’t just a chronological record of what happened, but was about the men who had to fight on the site. I felt it was an opportune moment to show the world what the Fukushima 50 were made of.

“I imagine that if the international media were asked what they would have done in that situation, face to face with death, many would answer that they would have fled. I suppose you could say that this sense of self-sacrifice or ‘Yamato spirit’ is a Japanese trait. It’s something that resonates throughout the film, and I wanted to share it with audiences.”

(There was no time to draw comparisons to first responders around the globe, who constantly put their lives on the line to ensure the safety and welfare of the community at large.)

But Fukushima 50 has already been sold to 73 international territories, demonstrating the universality of its remarkable story and the strength of its telling — so the dialogue about manmade disasters and the human toll is sure to expand.

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©FCCJ

“I have a lot of friends living overseas,” noted Watanabe, “and I have the sense that the word ‘Fukushima’ has a very negative connotation. When we hear ‘Fukushima,’ it’s all about how Japan is still trying to come to grips with 3/11. We experienced Hiroshima and Nagasaki seven decades ago, and we’ve finally reached a point at which ‘Hiroshima’ and ‘Nagasaki’ have become words that prompt us to think about nuclear arms. They’ve become symbols of peace. In the same way, I hope that ‘Fukushima’ will prompt us to think about nuclear power, and that someday, the word has a positive connotation.”

His costar concurred. “A disaster like this is bound to leave a negative legacy,” said Sato. “But I think it’s very important to tell the story in an accurate way, and in the spirit of sublimating what happened so that we can leave a positive legacy for the next generation — as we were able to do with Hiroshima and Nagasaki. I hope Fukushima 50 leaves audiences with that kind of sentiment.” 

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© 2020 “Fukushima 50” Film Partners

Selected Media Exposure

Selected TV Exposure

  • 日本テレビ【Oha!4 佐藤&渡辺】映画に込めた思い ”未来に向かうステップになる”
  • 日本テレビ【ZIP!】渡辺謙のメッセージ 国難乗り越えるヒント
  • TBS【はやドキ!】佐藤浩市&渡辺謙 絶対の信頼関係
  • フジテレビ【めざましテレビ】佐藤浩市 映画化に葛藤
  • MX【モーニングCROSS】佐藤浩市×渡辺謙『絶対の信頼関係』語る

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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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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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.

FL 2019 FIRST LOVE Production Committee

©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。 
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