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5 MILLION DOLLAR LIFE

'Five Million Dollar Life': Assessing the value of a single life


5 MILLION DOLLAR LIFE (Gooku Yen no Jinsei)


 June 19, 2019
Q&A guests: Director Sungho Moon and star Ayumu Mochizuki


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Star Ayumu Mochizuki (left) and director Sungho Moon compare notes on Mochizuki's resemblance to the protagonist. ©FCCJ

Several months back, one of the producers of 5 Million Dollar Life expressed surprise when FCCJ’s Film Committee approached him about screening the film. “Are you sure that international audiences would be interested?” he asked, doubtful. “We thought it was purely for domestic appetites.”

We assured him that he was wrong. And naturally, we were right.

The film had its world premiere at the Shanghai International Film Festival on June 17, where it was met with great fanfare; its North American premiere is on July 11, in competition at the New York Asian Film Festival; and European festivals are locking in dates.

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©Koichi Mori

Most importantly for FCCJ, 5 Million Dollar Life prompted an enthusiastic Q&A session that could have continued long past its time limit, proving that the film strikes a chord with Japanese and foreign audience members alike.

5 Million Dollar Life encompasses an unusual range of social issues, some of them seen rarely on Japanese screens (and certainly not all together in a single film) — broken families, social media bullying, teen suicide, day-labor exploitation, homelessness, the underage sex industry, telephone scams, debt-prompted suicide, murder scene cleanups, even Fukushima’s toxic waste disposal — yet it manages to stay positive, to locate a delicate tonal balance between earnestness, laughter and tears.

In this era of copycat filmmaking in Japan, with its surfeit of franchised mainstream releases and its dearth of original stories, there’s nothing quite as exciting as a work that takes both its protagonist and its audience on a completely unexpected journey; nothing quite as heartening as the discovery of a fresh directorial voice, and of a young actor who has come of age and is apparently game for anything.

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Mirai (Mochizuki) may dress brightly, but his life is clouded by dark thoughts.
© 2019 "FIVE MILLION DOLLAR LIFE" Film Partners

As the film opens, it is the 11th anniversary of Mirai Takatsuki’s recovery from a near-fatal disease. Members of the local community, who together contributed the staggering sum of 500 million yen ($5 million), to pay for his open-heart surgery as a child, have gathered at his mom’s house to watch the annual televised tribute to the lad.

Mirai (Ayumu Mochizuki), who is now a diffident high schooler, has increasing difficulties living up to everyone’s expectations. All the media attention amplifies his self-doubt, and the online attention is even worse: “You’d be better off quitting… a life like that,” a stranger snipes on SNS. Mirai types back, “I’ll die, then. Just watch me.” But before he can seriously contemplate his next step, another stranger cautions he has no right to kill himself until he’s paid everyone back for their generosity.

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©︎FCCJ

And so, Mirai sets out to earn $5 million. When construction work barely covers enough for daily meals, he moves on to more lucrative employ, some of it questionable, some of it downright illegal. Along the way, he learns a thing or two about the world and himself, and just what the value of life really is — and a journey that began with familiar echoes of the teen suicide/coming-of-age/road movie genres has grown into something far more poignant.

The unique twists and turns of 5 Million Dollar Life hoist it way above the average offering; but so does the infectiously charismatic performance of its young star, who has quietly built a resume of spot-on portrayals since earning accolades for his striking debut in 2015, as a junior high student who is killed by classmates in Solomon’s Perjury I and II.

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Mirai with one of his rescuers, a shady man played by Ryu Morioka.
© 2019 "FIVE MILLION DOLLAR LIFE" Film Partners

Mochizuki is such a natural for the role of Mirai, it comes as a surprise that it had not been written with him expressly in mind. During the Q&A session after our screening, director Sungho Moon told the audience, “He was just the perfect actor for the role. Everyone asks whether we [rewrote the script after casting him], but we didn’t have to. I’m really thankful we found him.”

The young actor beamed. Did he feel a kinship with the character? He agreed, “There are similarities, but we’re completely different people. There were a lot of aspects to him that I could empathize with. For example, since I’m an actor, I have to deal with the pressure of being out there and having people see me. The source of the pressure comes from a different place, but in that sense, I think we’re really similar.”

Asked what had drawn him to such an unusual story for his first feature, Moon admitted that he hadn’t planned on it being his debut, but he “doesn’t have any regrets” about getting the chance to make it. That chance was given to him when he and Naomi Hiruta, a veteran stage and TV scriptwriter, won the grand prize in the New Cinema Project. The initiative, backed by entertainment giants Amuse and Gyao, aims to bring greater originality back to Japan’s movie screens by supporting emerging talent who want to tell original stories.

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A Hiroshima native, Moon had studied filmmaking in college in Korea before launching a career as a commercials director in Japan. In 2013, he was selected for the prestigious New Directions in Japanese Cinema project and directed the short 35mm film Michizure, giving him a powerful calling card in the industry. But Japan favors adaptations of existing properties, predominantly bestselling novels or manga. Luckily for us, Moon had other things in mind.

As the film explains, the average Japanese worker earns ¥230 million ($2.3 million) from birth to death, and the average lifetime expenditure is ¥210 million ($2.1 million) — meaning people devote just about their entire life earnings to live, and then they die.

How, then, did Moon and Hiruta arrive at ¥500 million ($5 million) for Mirai’s burden? “We looked at real-life cases of heart transplant surgeries and fundraising drives,” the director explained, “and the amounts raised were usually between $1 and $3 million. I made it $5 million for impact. Also, if it was an amount that was too close to reality, [we felt] it might conjure up traumatic memories for those who have actually gone through the surgery. So we fictionalized it.” 

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One of Mirai's many jobs, at Shared Sleep House TT Bears, with a customer.
 © 2019 "FIVE MILLION DOLLAR LIFE" Film Partners

Given the film’s cynical attitude toward certain events, Moon was asked whether he’d intended a strong criticism of certain aspects of society. He replied, “Because this wasn’t based on another work, we did have a discussion about whether the protagonist should be male or female. But we decided that if she were female, it would have been a story you’ve seen: a girl prostituting herself in order to survive. Also, we drew a clear line about Mirai not committing any crimes himself in the film. Of course, the protagonist is essentially on the brink of life and death, so he takes on jobs that are also on the brink, that are risky.”

Somewhat like Blanche DuBois, Mirai has always relied on the kindness of strangers. At some point during his journey, he meets a pimp who teaches him a few things about self-worth, and later saves him from life-threatening danger. When Mirai asks why he’s been so kind to him, the pimp tells him that Mirai is the type of person who deserves it. One audience member was impressed with the concept and wondered where it came from. Moon admitted, “Ms. Hiruta firmly believes it. However, I don’t think it’s so binary; you can’t split people into just two types, those who deserve kindness and those who don’t. There are still times when you want to be nice to people who don’t necessarily deserve it.”

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©︎Koichi Mori

Mochizuki was asked whether he’d done any firsthand research on the many odd jobs that his character takes in the film, particularly the unsavory ones. “I did quite a lot of research on the jobs depicted,” he responded, “but I was under 18, so I never experienced any of them, or went to places [like the Shared Sleep House].”

Was he worried about taking a role that had so many risqué aspects? He smiled and nodded. “My mother is very strict. So my only real worry was What is she going to think when she sees the film?” And what did she think? “She hasn’t seen it yet.”

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Before running away from home, Mirai tells the TV interview crew that he plans to study medicine, so he can save children in return for being saved himself. “Is Mirai going to become a doctor in the end?” asked an audience member. “I don’t think so,” said Mochizuki. “He probably can’t become a doctor.”

So what will he be instead? “I think that he’ll finally start doing things that he’d always wanted to do, or had chosen not to do, before [his journey]. At least that’s how I felt after watching the film myself.”

And what, he was asked, are Mochizuki’s own plans for the future? “I recently had the opportunity to act in (popular TV show) Mr. Hiiragi’s Homeroom, and I was really inspired by my costar, Masaki Suda. Because of him, I would like to play a teacher someday… but not one who is sick.”

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© 2019 "FIVE MILLION DOLLAR LIFE" Film Partners

Selected Media Exposure

WE ARE LITTLE ZOMBIES


WE ARE LITTLE ZOMBIES


 June 5, 2019
Q&A guests: Director Makoto Nagahisa and producer Shinichi Takahashi


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Producer Shinichi Takahashi (left) and writer-director Makoto Nagahisa brought some friends to the screening. ©FCCJ

Blame it on the braids, the ready grin, the boyish mien. One could be forgiven for imagining that filmmaker Makoto Nagahisa identifies overly much with the protagonists of We Are Little Zombies, who are all of 13 years old.

There’s also the energized exuberance of his award-winning debut feature, which is exhilarating and mind-bending in equal measure, and seems to explode from the consciousness of a young person not yet bogged down with the wearisome woes of adulthood.

Belying his appearance and his demonstrated brilliance with visceral imagery, however, Nagahisa is in fact a thoroughly mature professional.

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Nagahisa fields wide-ranging questions. ©Koichi Mori and ©︎FCCJ (right)

Appearing at the Q&A following our screening of We Are Little Zombies, he responded to questions in a measured, thoughtful manner, underscoring the level of care and compassion that are crucial underpinnings to the film’s success, along with its stylistic inventiveness.

Although one critic called the writer-director a “mad scientist” (a compliment), We Are Little Zombies is in reality the work of a serious-minded (and seriously imaginative) auteur, a longtime Dentsu ad planner who in 2017 became the first Japanese to win the Sundance Short Film Grand Jury Prize, for And So We Put Goldfish in the Pool.

Producer Shinichi Takahashi told the FCCJ audience that his company, venerable Nikkatsu Corp., had immediately recognized Nagahisa’s talent and begun talking with him shortly after Sundance about plans for his first feature. “He promised to come up with ideas for five or six stories during his paternity leave, so we could choose one to produce,” he recalled. “But when his leave ended, he came to us with a full script.

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Hikari (Keita Ninomiya) at his parents' funeral.
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“During development, he’d wondered if it might be difficult to do a story about 13-year-olds, since it might not do so well at the box office. But when he came to us with the script, I realized that was really the story he wanted to tell.”

We Are Little Zombies is a tragicomic exploration into parental neglect, loss, grief, alienation, media manipulation, personal growth and other capital-T themes. It is also the most manically inventive, colorfully chaotic, whacked-out, surrealistic, joyously vibrant film you will see this year, if not this decade.

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©FCCJ

Taking his cue from his juvenile protagonists, Nagahisa has adopted the style of a Super Nintendo RPG game, with characters each having to overcome various challenges before moving on to the next stage of their lives.

If the resulting candy-colored, eye-popping pastiche of madcap mayhem seems devoid of emotional depth for most of its running time, it is precisely because the director is echoing the children’s own emotional voids. But as it nears the finish line, Zombies sparks to poignant life, presenting its characters, as well as audiences, with an unexpected — but well-earned — catharsis.

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The Little Zombies in their performance wear, assembled at a garbage dump.
©2019“WE ARE LITTLE ZOMBIES”FILM PARTNERS

The film’s four protagonists meet for the first time at a crematorium. Hikari (Keita Ninomiya, who played the architect’s son in Like Father, Like Son), Ikuko (Sena Nakajima), Ishi (Satoshi Mizuno) and Takemura (Mondo Okumura) have all lost their parents at the same time. As they swap stories, they discover something else in common: they feel nothing at all for their parents, nor for most adults, except disdain. “Reality is too stupid to cry over,” says Hikari. Unable to grieve, unwilling to follow society’s absurd prescripts, they begin skipping school and hanging out together. Like so many of today’s plugged-in tweens, they have no dreams, no energy to move forward, no future.

Then one day, they find inspiration in a “garbage band” at a homeless encampment, where the members channel their misfortunes into music. The kids decide to form their own retro-chiptune band to try to retrieve their emotions, and dub themselves the Little Zombies. After creating costumes and instruments with stuff on hand, they find an online influencer (a hilarious Sosuke Ikematsu), have him shoot a music video and upload it. Overnight, they become viral sensations, and their mistrust of adults is amply rewarded (there are satirical cameos by Kuranosuke Sasaki, Youki Kudoh, Jun Murakami, Shiro Sano, Rinko Kikuchi and Masatoshi Nagase).

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©Koichi Mori

Nagahisa told the audience he was first inspired to write the film by a mysterious story out of Russia in 2016 dubbed the “Blue Whale Challenge,” an SNS phenomenon that reportedly targeted young gamers with a series of innocuous tasks that eventually led to a final challenge requiring players to commit suicide.

“This was making headlines around the world, and I was really shocked to hear it,” Nagahisa recalled. He’d been an avid gamer himself as a youth, especially when he was “in the throes of despair, since it made life a little easier. I could lose myself in games, and detach myself from reality. It was a filter for going through hardship.”

He apologized that the film “doesn’t have any real zombies.” But responding to a question about the metaphorical meaning of the title, he explained, “It’s a representation of the ways in which we’re incapable of communicating anymore, and it reflects the real world in the divide between adults and children.”

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Ikuko (Sena Nakajima) with her parents (Masatoshi Nagase, Rinko Kikuchi) before they die.
 ©2019“WE ARE LITTLE ZOMBIES”FILM PARTNERS

Praised for the film’s music, which Nagahisa himself composed (with the exception of the 1967 Zombies tune “This Will Be Our Year”) the director admitted, “Originally, I wanted to be a musician. I find that playing an instrument really helps give shape to certain internalized emotions and brings them to life. The music in the film is as important as the dialogue. Music is an artform that is more powerful than visuals. It instantly and directly reaches [the viewers'] heart. This was really my attempt to create a 120-minute opera.”

One audience member asked about the film’s references to writers Albert Camus and Franz Kafka. Said Nagahisa, “I studied French literature in college and was really into surrealism. I find a certain beauty in the juxtaposition of A and Z, rather than A and B. I think that absurdity should be accepted, and when it comes to dealing with the absurdities of life, surrealism is a tool and an approach that allows me to overcome them.

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Takahashi  ©︎Koichi Mori

“That’s why I’ve layered the images in the film the way I have. The story is about how the protagonists deal with the absurdities of their lives and with events that have no rational explanation, and it’s only natural that I would draw from Camus’ and Kafka’s works.”

As for those layers, the director was asked just how many cuts the film has. “There are 1,800 cuts, or about 180 scenes in 2 hours, so I apologize if I wore you out.”

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(Want to play Spot the References? Told that Zombies has a Juzo Itami (The Funeral, Tampopo) vibe, Nagahisa expressed enthusiasm for the work of Nagisa Oshima, Takeshi Kitano, Luis Buñuel, Michael Haneke and Richard Linklater, films like Kazuhiko Hasegawa’s The Youth Killer and La Jetée, and “films from the 70s and 80s, especially ATG films.”)

Another audience member, suggesting that the Zombies’ concerns seem specifically Japanese, asked about the film’s international reception (a foreign festival favorite, it won the 2019 Sundance World Cinema Special Jury Award for Originality, as well as a Special Mention in the Generation section of the 2019 Berlin International Film Festival).

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Sosuke Ikematsu (center) is a social influencer-cum-Zombies manager.
 ©︎2019“WE ARE LITTLE ZOMBIES”FILM PARTNERS

“I want to avoid generalizations about how audiences react overseas vs. Japan,” Nagahisa began, “but it seems that more Japanese understand this emotionless state of the kids and can empathize with it, having been accused themselves of being the same way when they were young. With international audiences, [discussions] have focused on the character arcs of the kids as they learn to feel emotions again. Also, there have been comments about how cool [the Little Zombies band] is, that it’s a survival strategy. Instead of succumbing to the depths of despair, they developed a tactic to forge their own path.”

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Takahashi and Nagahisa strike a pose familiar to all Japanese film fans. ©FCCJ

His producer nodded. “When he won the Short Film Grand Jury Prize at Sundance,” Takahashi recalled, “the reaction from Americans had been ‘This is our story, too.’ So we knew that Mr. Nagahisa’s themes have a certain universality, and the way he depicts the distance between children and adults also feels universal. [On this film] it was important to us to be protective of his visual sensitivity and to encourage his creative vision throughout the process. After the latest Sundance award, he’s received a lot of interest from studios and big-name producers, and [he’s considering several projects].”

Nagahisa hastened to add, “I didn’t make this film to win awards or praise. I made it because I truly, truly believed in it. And I made it as if my life depended on it.”

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©2019“WE ARE LITTLE ZOMBIES”FILM PARTNERS

Selected Media Exposure

JESUS


JESUS (Boku wa Iesusama ga Kirai)


 May 8, 2019
Q&A guests: Director Hiroshi Okuyama and actors Chad Mullane and Hinako Saeki
 


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The "Godlike" director (left) with two of his stars. ©FCCJ

Japan comes in for a fair share of head-scratching over its “English” retitling of foreign films (personal favorites: New York Style Happy Therapy for Anger Management; Wild Speed for The Fast and the Furious).

But what happens when a director must decide on the English name of a film that is rather colorfully titled (read: potentially offensive) in Japanese? That was the dilemma facing Hiroshi Okuyama in 2018.

As the young filmmaker explained during the Q&A session following FCCJ's screening of his heralded feature debut, Jesus, “I had originally thought about calling it I Hate Jesus, a direct transliteration of the Japanese. But when it was selected for the San Sebastian International Film Festival, I was asked to reconsider. I got advice from a lot of people, and I realized that it was drastically different from the nuance of the Japanese title [Boku wa Iesusama ga Kirai].

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Chad Mullane, playing the eponymous character, triggers giggles. ©Koichi Mori

“First of all, boku is not the same as I. And Iesusama, or Jesus-sama, is very respectful, which is also not translatable. So the title I Hate Jesus sounded too rock-n-roll, according to some people. Also, I think there’s a different approach to titling films in Japan. With international films, it seems they [often] hone it down to a single word, which leaves the director’s intention up to the audience’s imagination. With Japanese titles, there’s a lot of explaining beforehand. So those differences in approach resulted in the difference between the Japanese and English titles of this film.”

We’ll never know whether his choice had an impact on the film’s fate, but Jesus propelled Okuyama to the New Directors Award at San Sebastian, making him the youngest recipient of the prize and making the film an instant Must Watch. It went on to garner further awards and acclaim at other international festivals, assuring that the emerging writer-director-cinematographer-editor will be on every programmers’ radar with his follow-up effort.

Asked whether he felt the festivals had been a good way to foment interest, Okuyama demurred, saying he didn't yet have enough experience to know. But he added, “As an independent filmmaker... you really have to think about how to commercialize your film, how to get as many people as possible to see it. I think entering international film festivals is one way to do that, and it’s better to do it than not to do it.” 

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Saeki, Okuyama, Mullane ©︎FCCJ

He recalled, “I didn’t have any qualms about having a religious figure like Jesus in my film when it came to Japanese audiences. But when it came to the audiences at San Sebastian, the anxiety set in. There’s this huge statue of Jesus Christ above the town, and I was really worried at first. But ultimately, the audience seemed to receive the film very well. They were able to read enough meaning into the film that they could understand the Jesus figure as both a symbol of the protagonist’s belief and as his imaginary friend.”

Suffused with a nostalgic glow and told entirely through the eyes of its 11-year-old protagonist Yura, Jesus is so gentle, so modest, that the international accolades may seem excessive on first viewing. But the story sticks long after one leaves the theater. 

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Yura in his new smalltown classroom. ©︎2019 Heikai Sengen

As the film opens, Yura (Yura Sato) and his parents are leaving Tokyo for a snowy town in Gunma following his grandfather’s death. Moving in temporarily with his grandmother Fumi (Akko Tadano), the introverted young boy attempts to fit into his new environment. Arriving at his new school, he is surprised when his classmates run off to “worship” after roll call. A helpful teacher loans him a bible and escorts him to the chapel, where a sermon is delivered, a prayer recited and hymns sung.

Completely unfamiliar with the Christian catechism, Yura proves to be a fast learner. One morning during the Lord’s Prayer, Jesus himself (Chad Mullane) appears before him — apparently invisible to everyone else — and silently communicates “Ask and ye shall receive.” So Yura begins to ask, and when his wishes are granted, to have faith in His power.

By divine intervention, he even becomes best friends with the most popular boy in the school, Kazuma (Riki Okuma), who loves soccer and has a gorgeous, giggly mom (Hinako Saeki).

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Kazuma and Yura ©2019 Heikai Sengen

Everything is wonderful until tragedy strikes, and Yura is faced with a full-blown crisis of faith.

Jesus is filled with delightful surprises and oddball moments and its snowy setting is shot with breathtaking beauty (by Okuyama himself, who also edited the film). There is also an autobiographical dimension to the story (an important dedication appears in the end credits that suddenly puts things into perspective).

Prompted to tell the audience more about that, Okuyama explained, “I did have the experience of losing a friend when I was just about the same age as Yura, in 5th grade. I remember the teacher coming to me and saying, ‘Let’s pray together.’ I was really puzzled by that, to tell you the truth. So I always had in mind that, if I were to make a film based on my own experience, this was one of the things I wanted to depict.”

While the film is anchored in reality, Okuyama’s singular approach to depicting Jesus elevates it to art.

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Mullane indicates where he will be taking confessions. ©Koichi Mori

Mullane, who appeared at FCCJ in full Christlike regalia, from the robes of flax to the crown of thorns, stayed in character throughout the Q&A session, regularly cracking up the Japanese press. Although he’d had no lines in the film, his silent antics therein — from ascending upward with arms spread to hanging out with Yura as he takes a bath — spoke reams about the character. Mullane, an Australian-born comedian who’s a member of the Yoshimoto comedy empire, was no less goofy in person.

“Hello,” he introduced himself to FCCJ’s crowd in Japanese. “I am Jesus Christ. I have come from Gotanda, my second hometown, by train, where everyone was praying to me. I would like to extend an offer to hear your confessions tonight. If you’re interested in confessing, please see me later.”

When Okuyama was asked about the subtitles, which were done by Mullane, the director responded, “I didn’t give him much guidance. But one thing that really impressed me was how meticulous he was regarding which Christian denomination the [characters] were members of, since that would affect the sacred verses they were reciting. I think that was one of the reasons it was so well received among international audiences.” 

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Yura celebrates Christmas with Kazuma and his mother.  ©︎2019 Heikai Sengen

Mullane chimed in: “Apparently we had a barter agreement. If I wanted to appear in the film, I had to do the subtitles.”

Protested Okuyama, “Let me set the story straight: we cast Chad before long before thinking about subtitling the film. It was only later that I discovered Chad also did subtitles. There was no barter.”

When Okuyama was asked about the subtitles, which were done by Mullane, the director responded, “I didn’t give him much guidance. But one thing that really impressed me was how meticulous he was regarding which Christian denomination the [characters] were members of, since that would affect the sacred verses they were reciting. I think that was one of the reasons it was so well received among international audiences.”

“There are many truths,” quipped Mullane.

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Saeki  ©︎Koichi Mori

Asked about casting Hinako Saeki, known for her roles in horror films, as Kazuma’s mother, Okuyama said, “I’d seen her in films in the past, and I felt she had the qualities I was looking for, especially for the final scene. It’s a devastating scene, and she had to be as devastating as she was in it, because that’s the completion of the protagonist’s character arc, where he parts way with Jesus. So it had to be a strong moment and she had to be a strong character.”

Recalled Saeki, “The first time I read the script, I was thoroughly impressed. I actually cried three times while reading it. I honestly didn’t know why the director came to me for the role, but I was so honored and so happy to be part of the film.”

And the casting of the eponymous role? “I had Chad in mind from the get-go,” Okuyama said. “I’d already decided on him even before I had the script. I only had the [plot outline], so I couldn’t even give a script to him. I’d seen him on TV, and what I liked about him is that he sometimes has this expression that makes him look like a few screws are loose.”

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©Koichi Mori

Before Mullane could fashion a retort, he was asked whether he’s Christian himself. “I died and was resurrected, so I suppose I must be a Buddhist,” he responded, coyly.

Did he have any fears or trepidation about taking the role, portraying a Christ figure the likes of which the world has not seen? “I was a bit worried about being a punchline,” admitted Mullane. “But referring to the bathtub scene, it wasn’t me who parted the waters. And [referring to a scene of sumo wrestling] sumo is almost a religious sport in Japan. I do think the director was the most God-like figure on the set.”

Okuyama was asked about his relationship to faith today, so many years after it had been shaken. “I do believe in Jesus Christ and I do believe in Christianity,” he said. “Why did I then make a film called I Hate Jesus Christ? I had an interesting experience at the Macao International Film Festival. There was an audience member who was Christian but very excited about the film, so I asked him what he thought about that title. He said he thought that hating something means that you believe in it. So I realized that’s [the way I feel], and I do believe.”

In a film of only 76 minutes, Hiroshi Okuyama has created a world that feels not only true to life, but also otherworldly.

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Yura and the school minister.  ©︎2019 Heikai Sengen

When a journalist asked about the opening scene, in which an old man pokes holes in shoji screens, he replied, “My grandmother told me that my own grandfather [did that]. When we got to the set and I saw the shoji, I started wondering why he did it. I thought perhaps he was trying to imagine this other world that he was about to enter, and I thought it was a good metaphor for religion: that people are peering into a world that is beyond them or is on the other side.”

He added, “I think it’s important for film to leave a little room for interpretation and not to explain everything. So I intentionally left room in this film. If audiences are able to derive their own meanings from it, that will make it a more personal film for each of them.”

“Notice that the director also leaves room for interpretation with his eloquent answers,” cracked Chad Mullane, suitably claiming the final word.

And with that, audience members moved to the other side, ie., to the club restaurant, which was finally open in the late evenings.

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©︎2019 Heikai Sengen

Selected Media Exposure

TV Exposure

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KINGDOM


KINGDOM


April 16, 2019
Q&A guest: Director Shinsuke Sato


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Shinsuke Sato  ©Koichi Mori

It’s the type of question that every filmmaker secretly longs to hear.

It came to Shinsuke Sato following FCCJ’s sneak preview of his hotly-anticipated period epic, Kingdom. “A lot of live-action adaptations of manga are a disappointment,” an American film critic told him. “But yours are always so good. What’s the secret sauce? What makes your adaptations so great?”

Forever humble, the director responded, “There’s no secret sauce. When you have a script for an adaptation, you want to make it into a film that is good as a film. I don’t feel the pressure of having to conform to the original work or to adhere to it as closely as possible. I approach manga adaptations the same way I approach an original story.

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©︎FCCJ

“There are certain details I can imagine some might pay attention to. For example, this manga has x number of fans and they are expecting x type of work, and therefore we have to meet their expectations. I don’t have that in mind. Instead, I think about what would ideally be a good film, sometimes drawing on my own experiences as a moviegoer. I start from scratch, in a sense, even if it’s based on a manga.”

Then, warming to the question, Sato delivered a few of the ingredients, if not the entire recipe. “When I do a manga adaptation, there are always two basic things that I want to accomplish,” he admitted. First, for fans of the original work, I want to surprise them. I want the film to exceed their expectations by a mile. I want them to say, ‘Wow. I didn’t expect this!’ I want to give them the type of entertainment that only cinema can give. I want them to understand why it was necessary to bring that work to the screen.

1-Kingdom poster Yasuhisa HaraShueisha  KINGDOM Film Partners 2019
©︎Yasuhisa Hara/Shueisha  ©︎KINGDOM Film Partners 2019

“Second, I want to entertain audience members who are not familiar with the original manga, and make it accessible even if they don’t know what the story is. In order to accomplish these two objectives, you have to always be thinking about the essence of what is fun and entertaining. That’s what I do.”

And that’s what he has done now for nearly 20 years, helming one blockbuster action hit after another, many of them also international award-winners. Heralded for his mastery of CG effects in bringing fantastical worlds to life, Sato’s major works include the Gantz series (2011), the Library Wars series (2013 - 15), Death Note: Light Up the New World (2016), Inuyashiki (2018) and Bleach (2018).

Kingdom is not only certain to bring him another box-office success; there will surely be a sequel. Any doubters need only examine its pedigree. 

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Kento Yamazaki as Shin. ©︎Yasuhisa Hara/Shueisha  ©︎KINGDOM Film Partners 2019

Kingdom is the first live-action adaptation of the bestselling manga series by Yasuhisa Hara, which started running in Shueisha's Weekly Young Jump in 2006, won the Tezuka Osamu Cultural Prize in 2013, and has now been collected into 53 volumes and sold an eye-popping 38 million copies.

To the eternal bemusement of non-Japanese, the series presents a fictionalized account of China’s Warring States period, which ended in 221 BC when Ying Zheng, king of Qin, succeeded in conquering six rival states and unifying China. In Hara’s manga, however, all the names of the characters — many of whom are based on actual historical figures — have Japanese names and speak in Japanese. The same is true of the film, so Ying Zheng becomes Eisei; his trusted general, Li Xin, is Shin; and his half-brother Zhao Chengjiao is Seikyou.

Kingdom achieves a widescreen grandeur and heroic scale that are rare in Japan, partially due to the film’s budget (small by Hollywood’s standards; bountiful by Japan’s) and its three-week shoot on a massive open set in Zhejiang, China. Last year at this time, it was temporary home to a handful of Japan’s leading young actors, 700 crew from Japan and China, close to 100 horses and some 10,000 extras.

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Ryo Yoshizawa as Eisei. ©︎Yasuhisa Hara/Shueisha  ©︎KINGDOM Film Partners 2019

Sato had first come to FCCJ in 2016 with his superlative zombie flick I Am a Hero, a film that benefitted greatly from its extensive location shooting in South Korea, about which the director and his star, Yo Oizumi, had shared both hilarious and heartwarming anecdotes.

Asked why he’d been inspired to shoot in China, Sato responded, “The film’s story takes place in ancient China, so it was only natural to shoot there. That’s what I’d envisioned from the moment the project started. I really wanted to see what it would be like to collaborate with a Chinese crew. Having had the experience of shooting in Korea, I had a lot of fond memories of all the sweat and toil we put into the production, and that influenced my desire to shoot in China.

“The collaboration in China was in much the same spirit as it had been in Korea. We had core crew members who were Japanese, but we also had a large local crew. There was some trepidation, because there are differences in customs and practices, and of course there was the language barrier. We were worried about how it would turn out, because we had massive scenes to shoot and limited financial resources. But when we arrived, we discovered how robust China’s film industry has become. The crew were really skilled, and we enjoyed very effective collaboration through all the filmmaking processes. The Chinese crew put a lot of attention into details, and we really appreciated that.”

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©Koichi Mori

But the shoot wasn’t without its challenges. Asked about the best and worst of these, Sato recalled, “We had crew members in Shanghai and Beijing. The studio lot was a 5-hour drive from Shanghai, so it was quite arduous logistically, and there was a lot of communication that couldn’t take place in person. For example, we had a vendor in Beijing for all the costumes, and although we rented a lot of them, we also had to make many of them. So there was a lot of back-and-forth communications about the details. There were difficulties because what we wanted to do was often different from the style in which they were used to making costumes. It took a lot of time and effort to get all the nuances across.

“But what made a great impression on me was that they were really diligent and stuck with us until the very end. There were certain details that we wanted to fix or change, and with a Japanese production we might not have been able to do that. With this company, they responded to all our requests, and what they produced was very nicely done.”

As with all of Sato’s work, costumes are absolutely crucial to the creation of his colorful characters and his imaginative worlds. Kingdom is no exception.

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Masami Nagasawa as Youtanwa. ©︎Yasuhisa Hara/Shueisha  ©︎KINGDOM Film Partners 2019

Set in approximately 245 BC, during China’s Spring-Autumn Warring States period (770 BC-221 BC) in the state of Qin (present-day Shaanxi province), it tells the tale of two young war orphans, Shin (Kento Yamazaki), who dreams of becoming the greatest general under the heavens, and Hyou (Ryo Yoshizawa), who just wants to win against Shin in their daily sparring matches. They’re separated in their teens, when an emissary from the king takes Hyou away to work in the palace. Shin continues to train alone and dream big. Then one day, Hyou suddenly returns.

He bears an urgent message, leading Shin to a surprising encounter with King Eisei (also Yoshizawa), who dreams of uniting all seven of the Warring States under a single banner. But Eisei’s half-brother Seikyou (Kanata Hongo) has led a successful coup, and before unification, Eisei must first amass enough allies to help him reclaim the throne. Shin signs up, but the challenge is staggering: Seikyou has 80,000 soldiers at his beck and call, and Eisei’s forces barely number 3,000.

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Kanata Hongo as Seikyou. ©︎Yasuhisa Hara/Shueisha  ©︎KINGDOM Film Partners 2019

Praised by another film critic for his direction of the film’s many action scenes, Sato said, “I relied on crew members that I’ve worked with for a long time, all the way back to Princess Blade [in 2001]. We had all this experience of creating action sequences together, and that formed the basis of the film. We had a lot of discussion and debate about each sequence, and one of the things we did was to shoot video of all the action scenes in an empty room before going on to the set, because there’s a lot of drama in those scenes, too. We shot footage like an indie film, cut it together and discussed what we needed to change. So there was one extra step in the process.”

The director admitted that he couldn’t take credit for the casting of megastar Kento Yamazaki (best known overseas for playing Josuke in JoJo's Bizarre Adventure: Diamond is Unbreakable). Asked why he’d been selected to play Shin, Sato explained, “The producer had already made the decision to cast him before I joined the project. It was like: ‘Kingdom, with Kento Yamazaki.’ Mr. Yamazaki has played a variety of roles in the past, but this was quite a departure from his previous films. I think it was a challenging and difficult process for him, but he is very savvy and smart, a really passionate actor. We discussed his approach to the character a lot, but what he created made it seem that he was accustomed to roles like this, and it fit him really well.”

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Sato with the posters for the film. ©FCCJ

With such an enormous cast, the leads aren’t the only roles to savor. There is also Masami Nagasawa as Youtanwa, the high-kicking chieftan of the mountain tribe; Tak Sakaguchi as Saji, an exceedingly cruel mercenary; Masahiro Takashima as Eisei’s righthand man Shobunkun; and Takao Osawa, making his return to film after a 3-year absence, as the greatest general under the heavens, Ouki.

How did Sato lure Osawa back to the cinema when he’d gone on public record as having lost his acting mojo? “General Ouki is a really popular character with fans, and I can imagine there was a lot of discussion about who was going to play the role,” said Sato. “So a lot of thought went into the casting choice, as well as into the visual design. A lot of effort of went into the makeup, the beard, the armor. Because he’s such an overwhelmingly powerful character in the manga, we thought it would be quite a feat for us to ground him in reality. I think we did a pretty good job of that, and I think Mr. Osawa delivered the vibrancy of the character that fans expect.”

Whether Kingdom’s realm will now expand to encompass the entire globe is yet unkown; but at least it will be coming to fans old and new in the US, where Funimation will be releasing the film later this year.

Kingdom poster Yasuhisa HaraShueisha  KINGDOM Film Partners 2019
©︎Yasuhisa Hara/Shueisha  ©︎KINGDOM Film Partners 2019

Selected Media Exposure

SHUSENJO


SHUSENJO: THE MAIN BATTLEGROUND OF THE COMFORT WOMEN ISSUE (Shusenjo) 


April 4, 2019
Q&A guest: Director Miki Dezaki


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If you have even a casual interest in Asia, Miki Dezaki's Shusenjo should not be missed.  ©FCCJ

The FCCJ has hosted many a press conference devoted to what is perhaps the most incendiary flashpoint in Japan’s postwar relations with Korea and China. Since the early 1990s (at least since 1991, when Hak Sun Kim became the first Korean to testify about it), the comfort woman issue has spiraled into a seemingly insurmountable impediment to improving ties in the region.

The internet has encouraged a proliferation of counterproductive arguments and counterarguments about the treatment of these women, casting doubt on “the truth” and creating an increasingly bifurcated divide. One side supports the victims, who have given moving accounts of the outrages perpetrated against them; the other side insists the women were well-paid prostitutes and the Japanese government was not complicit in “creating a massive, organized rape system,” as has been charged. 

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©FCCJ

Surprisingly, until Miki Dezaki’s Shusenjo: The Main Battleground of the Comfort Women Issue, there has not been a feature documentary that thoroughly investigates the facts, figures, opinions and distortions of both sides. For this reason alone — and there are many, many others — the film is absolutely essential viewing.

Appearing at the jam-packed Q&A session following FCCJ’s screening, the director told the audience: “I always get the question ‘Why did you make this film?’ And one of the reasons why is that I thought a 2-hour film could flesh out or give context to this issue that the media aren’t able to do in the short time they have to report on it … I thought maybe there needed to be a more comprehensive introduction to the issue, to remind ourselves how we got here.”

Unless you’re a member of a neo-nationalist group with ties to Japan or a devoted fan of Japan-focused YouTube videos, you’ve probably never heard of Dezaki, aka Medama Sensei. In 2012, the Japanese-American teacher (as well as former Buddhist monk and graduate of Sophia’s Global Studies Graduate Program) raised uyoku (far-right) ire by posting a short video called “Racism in Japan,” in which he discussed zainichi Koreans and burakumin outcasts. It led to relentless online attacks by Japanese neo-nationalists, ongoing harassment, even death threats.

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The placement of comfort women statues in California has aggravated
tensions even further.  
©No Man Producions LLC.

Realizing that deeper issues were at play, Dezaki eventually decided to meet the challenge head-on.

He spent the next several years conducting the type of balanced, in-depth reporting that was once the purview of the news media. On his own dime, he criss-crossed the globe, meeting with a wide-ranging group of experts and eyewitnesses, amassing footage from milestone events dating back to before WWII, even conducting man-on-the-street-style interviews. Then he edited it all into a comprehensive, comprehensible whole.

Shusenjo does a remarkable job of exploring, explaining and de-sensationalizing this most contentious of disputes in Asia, this “gross human rights violation” that has also impacted the lives of women in China, Taiwan, the Philippines, Indonesia, Burma, Malaysia, East Timor and Micronesia. 

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Tokyo's Yasukuni Shrine, where war dead are enshrined.  ©No Man Producions LLC.

Dezaki casts himself as the lead inquisitor and seeker of understanding in the film, and patiently counters arguments on both sides of the ideological divide. Shusenjo probes a range of crucial questions: Were all comfort women “sexual slaves?” What does “coercive recruiting” really mean? Does the often-inconsistent testimony of the elderly victims even matter? Does Japan have a legal responsibility to apologize? Are the Chinese paying for those comfort women statues in California? Where the hell is the smoking gun? Why are venerable newspapers like the Japan Times “redefining” their vocabulary around the issue? And what does it all have to do with Shinzo Abe’s march to remilitarize Japan?

Shusenjo lays out a complicated timeline of acceptance of facts and increasingly aggressive denials, with unexpected confessions and revelations that allow Dezaki to deconstruct the dominant narratives and uncover the hidden intentions of both supporters and detractors. Few, it turns out, are innocent of fanning the flames of outrage.

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©FCCJ

The filmmaker was asked whether his opinion had changed during the process of making the documentary. Dezaki nodded. “I think I was like every other American who’s read about this issue in the newspaper. It’s taken as fact in America that there were 200,000 women, and they were sex slaves who’d been forcibly recruited. I had no information to rebut that, so I took that as fact at first. Through research and interviews — I actually interviewed more people on the conservative side first — I started to question a lot of things that I thought I knew.

“I didn’t have anything to rebut them with, either. I had this constant going back-and-forth as I was making the film. That was emotionally difficult because, as human beings, we want to have an idea of what’s right. We don’t want to waver and be in the middle. I wanted the audience to feel that as they watched the film. There were times I was challenged and re-challenged on a lot of issues. I had debates and discussions with my co-producer and associate producers, and I didn’t come to my conclusions until the editing stage of the film.” 

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Young supporters of the comfort women in Korea.  ©No Man Producions LLC.

Among the many interviewees who appear in the film, familiar names to those who follow the issue, are Yoshiko Sakurai, Mio Sugita, Yoshiaki Yoshimi, Koichi Nakano, Kent Gilbert, Tony Marano, Nobukatsu Fujioka, Mina Watanabe, Setsu Kobayashi, Hirofumi Hayashi. Still, one attendee was critical about the “lack of balance” between the film’s talking heads. “You interviewed a lot of scholars who support the comfort women,” he said, “but you didn’t interview many on the other side. Obviously, you knew Prof. Ikuhiko Hata. Did he decline to be interviewed? Do you know Tsutomu Nishioka, a leading professor? I spoke to him and he said that you never approached him.”

(Hata is a historian and retired professor of international relations who has written about the comfort women. Nishioka is a Korean studies professor at International Christian University who has also written extensively about comfort women.)

Responded Dezaki, “One of the first persons we wanted for the film was Professor Hata. The problem was that he asked us first to interview Prof. [Etsuro] Totsuka and Prof. [Yoshiaki] Yoshimi, so that he could respond to them. So once we did that, we went back to him. He said, ‘Please write a proposal.’ So we wrote a proposal for him. I talked with him on the phone once after that. He said, ‘Call back.’ I called back and his wife answered. She said, ‘Please call back in the evening.’ As an American, I don’t think it’s polite to call people in the evening about work. So I called back the next day, and he was very upset that I didn’t call him in the evening. Because of that, he didn’t want to be interviewed.

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©Koichi Mori

“As for Tsutomu Nishioka, I was planning on interviewing him towards the end. But when I was reading the materials he’d written online, I noticed that a lot of things he said were very similar to many of the things that had already by said by many of the people I’d interviewed before. I didn’t feel like I needed that footage again.”

Shusenjo had its world premiere, aptly, at the 2018 Busan International Film Festival. Asked how it was received in South Korea, Dezaki said, “The response was interesting. I do criticize the comfort women supporters to some extent [in the film]. I don’t think they felt totally comfortable with the film. But one of the comments I got, from a young Korean woman, was that she was surprised so many Japanese people supported the comfort women. For her, this was a kind of Japan-Korea battle, but [now] she realized it was more of a human rights issue. I think that shows how biased the media are not only in Japan but also in Korea on this issue.” 

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 ©Koichi Mori

Calling the film “powerful and important,” another attendee asked where Dezaki had procured the rare historical footage of Korean comfort women that is used sparingly in the film. Said the director, “I got it from my South Korean associate producer, who got it from Korea’s MBC Broadcasting. I didn’t use too many testimonies in the film [because] there are many films already with extensive footage of the comfort women’s testimonies.”

The Glendale and San Francisco statue-placement disputes are included in the film, and Dezaki was asked what he thought the US position was. He responded, “I don’t think they necessarily care about this issue that much, but they know it’s a big sticking point between the two allies, [so] whatever they can do to bring the allies closer. With the [2015 agreement between Japan and South Korea], I think they felt it was finally something that could be resolved. Prior to that, they had the House Resolution 121 that was demanding that Japan apologize for this. The [2015] agreement was kind of a shock to a lot of people in Korea who support the comfort women. The American government sort of flipped on this issue and I think it’s probably because they don’t care much about it.”

“What do you think it would take for the Japanese government to do to satisfy those Koreans who are most invested in the issue?” asked another audience member. Said Dezaki, “I really don’t want to speak for them, but what I oftentimes hear from them is that they would like this to be taught in schools and they would like a Diet resolution passed, similar to what [then-President] Reagan did. It seems that they don’t care about the [reparations] money so much, from what I understand. I think for them it’s more about passing on that history.”

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©FCCJ

Dezaki was asked why he’d relied on his “own research and analysis, rather than interviews,” in the section of Shusenjo that explores the position of the Abe Administration vis-à-vis the comfort women. Admitting that he had used the narration mainly to pick up the flagging pace, the director answered: “This is a film on the comfort women issue, but in the opening, I ask why the revisionists, or the so-called denialists, want to censor or silence the issue. That’s the overarching theme of the film. What led me there was realizing that there was this connection. The question for me was why do they care about this so much? Why was the Japanese government sending an amicus brief for the Glendale statue trial? That’s a pretty big thing for a government to do for a small trial. I went down that path and tried to find the answer.”

Finally, the filmmaker was asked whether the government had asked for a special viewing of the film. “I would love for the Abe Administration to see the film, that would be great” said Dezaki. “I don’t know if they want to. I can’t go into too much detail, since I don’t want to get anyone in trouble, but when I was in Europe showing the film at a private [university] screening, the Japanese consulate in that city contacted the professor and said, ‘Why are you showing this film? Please come to the consulate to talk about this.’ So I guess it’s on their radar to some extent.”

Shusenjo No Man Producions LLC
©No Man Producions LLC.

Selected Media Exposure

 

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