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SAMURAI AND IDIOTS


Samurai and Idiots – The Olympus Affair
(Samurai to Orokamono — Olympus Jiken no Zembo)


April 4, 2018
Q&A guests: Hyoe Yamamoto and documentary cast members
Yoshimasa Yamaguchi, Jonathan Soble and Waku Miller


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Director Hyoe Yamamoto (2nd from right) and eyewitnesses to history (from left) Miller, Yamaguchi and Soble.  ©FCCJ

On April 19, 2012, corporate whistleblower Michael Woodford appeared at FCCJ, just a day before his former employer’s annual shareholders meeting. “The Olympus scandal would have been a wonderful opportunity to really get it right,” he told an enormous crowd of reporters. “All they’ve done is make it worse. Olympus may get away with it, and the institutional shareholders, after sweating tomorrow, may be fine with it. But the damage is done. Would you invest in Japan? Do you believe in the integrity of company accounts?”

In Samurai and Idiots — The Olympus Affair, Woodford and other eyewitnesses demystify one of the biggest corporate governance debacles in postwar Japan (it was neither the first nor the last). An engrossing case study of a documentary, it is finally being released in Japan some 3 years after its heralded UK premiere, and some 5 years after Olympus was fined ¥700 million ($6 million) and its three top executives plead guilty to massive accounting fraud.

Watching it all unfold, as director Hyoe Yamamoto forensically peels back layers of the onion to reveal more rot within, is jaw-dropping stuff. 

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At top, Yamamoto and Soble  ©FCCJ; bottom, Miller and Yamaguchi.  ©Koichi Mori

But for the large contingent of financial and cultural reporters in FCCJ’s sneak preview audience, many buffeted by today’s impediments to truth-telling — from internet trolling to state secrets laws to presidential tweets — it was also a reminder that their work is absolutely essential. Samurai and Idiots is not just a dissection of corporate governance gone wrong, it is also a celebration of the courage and perseverance of journalists and others who support whistleblowers, sometimes at great personal risk.

In October 2011, Woodford had become the first non-Japanese appointed CEO of the multibillion-dollar optical firm, having "exceeded expectations" as Olympus president and COO for the prior six months. Just two weeks later, he was at the center of a widening uproar, having gone public when the board ousted him rather than answer his questions about $1.7 billion in fees that Olympus paid to and for what he termed “Mickey Mouse” companies (some with ties to organized crime), apparently to hide old losses.

Woodford had been tipped off by a series of articles written by Yoshimasa Yamaguchi in the bravely independent news magazine Facta. Woodford gave his own inside scoop to reporter Jonathan Soble, then at the Financial Times, the same day he was fired; and while Japan’s press toed the Olympus line (the foreign CEO had “failed to overcome cultural differences and communications difficulties” and “ignored the hierarchy”), the truth began exploding across global business pages.

Tracing the unfolding mystery from its beginnings, and presenting pithy data with a streamlined digestibility, Samurai and Idiots reveals that Woodford sparked an East-West cultural showdown that grew increasingly polarizing, and continued to be vilified, even after the corporate malefactors were finally arrested. 

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Michael Woodford gives his side of the story. ©Team Okuyama / Uzumasa

At the lengthy Q&A session after the FCCJ's sneak preview screening — which evolved into a master class in corporate governance, whistleblowing and deteriorating employee trust in today’s Japan — director Hyoe Yamamoto recalled, “One of our first major hurdles was how [to cover so many] technicalities and present this as a very simple story, so that people who may not have knowledge of how the financial world works will understand exactly what happened … We had a lot of discussions about where to take the film, and there were a lot of angles we could have covered. I felt my job as a storyteller was to make it as accessible to as many audiences as possible. It presents so many aspects of the ‘culture clash’ and what’s going on in the world right now.”

Yamamoto was joined on the dais by journalists Yoshimasa Yamaguchi and Jonathan Soble, and by Waku Miller, a longtime friend and adviser of Woodford — all of whom are expert talking heads in the film. They were asked what has changed in the years since the scandal broke.

“It’s said that the Olympus scandal was one impetus for new corporate governance rules that came into effect a couple of years ago in Japan,” responded Soble. “It’s probably worth noting that, on paper, Olympus had great corporate governance. The [new 2015] rules stated that you have to have independent directors on your board, but Olympus actually had that. In some ways, it’s a reminder that on paper, it can only go so far. Toshiba, which got into trouble recently for [hiding its profit-padding], on paper also had great corporate governance. There’s a debate right now in Japan about whether the new rules are good or bad, whether they go far enough or not, and that’s all very healthy. But I think it’s a reminder that the Olympus story is about how the rot inside a company goes beyond what you can do with rules on paper.” 

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Facta editor-in-chief Shigeo Abe, says, "Things haven't changed much since the feudal era... 
Anachronistic practices are preventing needed reform."  ©Team Okuyama / Uzumasa

The director concurred, adding, “I couldn’t put it in the film, but there was a lot of struggle between Olympus and the auditing company, Azusa, which [had pointed] out a lot of questionable dealings. After Azusa asked too many questions, Olympus switched to Ernst and Young [instead]. I’m assuming it was clear that shady deals were going on, and the auditors had to point them out. But obviously, Olympus decided to switch auditors at a curious [juncture].”

Yamaguchi cautioned, “If we start talking about the auditing, we’ll be here until tomorrow morning.” Waiting for the audience laughter to die down, he added, “Let me reassure you that the government is taking this seriously. The individuals in the industry, the CPAs and others in auditing firms, have a strong sense of urgency about the way they operate. But organizationally, we face what you’d have to characterize as systemic rot.”

Said Yamamoto, “All these rules and other systems were in place, but no one took a stand except Michael Woodford. I think that’s the important point. This could have been stopped. I can see this happening all across the board in Japanese society, and this is something we really need to confront and recognize. It’s happening everywhere, even now.”

But recognition doesn’t always lead to change. As Yamaguchi told the audience, “Seven years [after I wrote the initial articles], we find that Olympus has continued to engage in all sorts of shenanigans, including fraud in China and the employment of representatives of organized crime groups to facilitate that fraud, as proven by investigations conducted by multiple legal offices. So has Olympus changed? I would conclude No. The faces have changed in management, but the mindset has not. It makes me want to go after them with an endoscope [a reference to one of Olympus’ key products], to see what’s going on inside.” 

Samurai FCCJ--021Yamamoto marks his feature debut with Samurai and Idiots, which was produced by
Japan, France, Germany, Sweden and Denmark. ©Koichi Mori

Mentioning that Woodford had certain “luxuries” as the CEO that lower-ranking employees would not have had if they had blown the whistle, Soble said, “The idea that whistleblowers need some kind of protection is spreading. You see a lot of cases in Japan right now. A lot of the business news has been taken up with falsification of product quality data at companies like Mitsubishi Materials and Kobe Steel. A lot of that is coming from whistleblowers. Whether they’re doing that because they feel more protected, or whether it’s because the relationship between Japanese employees and their companies is changing and they don’t feel the loyalty that they used to, there are more people coming to authorities and speaking out than there used to be. Olympus was definitely a catalyst in that.”

Queried about the mainstream Japanese press’ toeing of the Olympus line on the Woodford story, playing it as an East-West showdown, Yamaguchi noted, “I never regarded this as a clash of cultures, but when I first started working on the story, I didn’t know about the hiding of losses that was underneath it. As I learned more about the accounting fraud that had occurred, I began to see it as a characteristically Japanese reaction — the notion of moving losses off the balance sheet to hide them was something we could regard as a cultural issue.”

Said Soble, “It’s important to remember that it was Olympus that initially framed it as a cultural clash in the announcement about Woodford’s firing. They didn’t say he was fired because he asked questions about some dodgy acquisitions; they said he was fired because he wasn’t fitting in. The Japanese media basically took that and ran with it.” 

The director expanded, “Playing up Michael as a very aggressive guy who didn’t understand the culture was just total nonsense… This was just a cover story, and after Woodford went to the Financial Times and it was known around the world, I think that became very clear, even to the Japanese press. You see in the press conferences with the executives in the film, the Japanese press were asking very tough questions and turning pretty nasty, but the executives weren’t giving any answers. Seeing those interactions, it becomes obvious that this is a case where these guys… no one in their right mind would say the things they were saying in a public forum, when this is a listed company that has access to public funds. But I was in the court when [former Olympus Chair] Mr. Kikukawa testified, and he [was convinced] that the firing of Woodford had nothing to do with [the financial issues].”  

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Jonathan Soble scooped the scandal in the Financial Times. ©Koichi Mori

One longtime FCCJ member argued that tobashi, the deferring of losses, should not be considered cultural, since “it’s a normal accounting practice” on a worldwide basis. “After the bubble collapsed,” he said, “tobashi was taken for granted, because otherwise a lot of companies in Japan would have gone bankrupt... so what is the cultural dimension?”

The director recalled, “I asked the same question to Jonathan [Soble], because apparently, tobashi was a word used outside of Japan as well. I asked if there was something specifically Japanese about the concept, and his answer was that it was something that could be done in a similar way, on the books, in other countries.”

Added Soble, “The Japanese term caught on, but it doesn’t mean it’s a particularly Japanese thing. And it’s true, it was perfectly legal for the first decade or so after the bubble burst. If it hadn’t been, if companies had been forced to admit all their losses, you would have had all these companies, employing tens of thousands of people on paper, that would’ve been bankrupt. You would’ve had a whole lot of unnecessary economic and social disruption in Japan. So the government essentially allowed a long time for companies to defer losses, using various techniques to get them off their balance sheet, so it didn’t show up. Many companies, not just Olympus, did this. You had whole departments in respectable investment banks in Japan dedicated to helping them come up with methods to keep these losses off the books.”

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 ©Koichi Mori

He continued, “But you can’t do that forever, and eventually the government said, ‘We’re going to tighten the rules.’ It went from perfectly legal to frowned upon to illegal but not enforced to ‘We have to stop this.’ Most companies took those 10 years to put their houses in order. Olympus failed to do that. It’s a bigger story than this, but these are the bones of the story.”

Said Yamaguchi, “I don’t want to stretch things out, but I would insist that the urge to hide the shame of having incurred losses is, to a certain extent, a characteristically Japanese trait. When we look into the cottage industry that’s taken shape here, an industry of experts who are prepared, for a fee, to help company’s hide losses, we find that a lot of the experts are non-Japanese. Olympus received a lot of assistance from a European investment bank. So to that extent, I would agree with you that this is not confined to Japan.”

Miller interjected, “I would like to argue that there was a tremendously cultural dimension to what happened at Olympus. At the end of the day, there was no magic. The balance sheet remained balanced… and you had three presidents in a row who would have been incredibly ashamed and embarrassed to have incurred such huge losses on ill-conceived financial speculation, but who were much less embarrassed or ashamed to have recorded grossly inflated goodwill in connection with stupid acquisitions. This is something that would never have occurred in America, because these transgressions are equally silly. Only in Japan would you look at one as being more grievous than the other. It’s very much a cultural problem.”

Soble agreed. “The idea that you can get away with that rests on the idea that your shareholders will never come down hard on you for overpaying for an acquisition. This is probably more true in Japan than in other countries. There’s an economic argument for not bankrupting companies, but these guys weren’t motivated by big economic calculus, they were motivated by the internal pressure to make sure that [a former] president isn’t embarrassed because of decisions he took. Those motivations are probably stronger in Japan.”

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Articles by independent journalist Yoshimasa Yamaguchi first prompted Woodford to
ask the financial questions that lead to his firing. ©Koichi Mori

Another longtime FCCJ member, referencing Nissan CEO Carlos Ghosn’s firing of Nissan employees, “using gaiatsu, or foreign pressure, to cover up the embarrassment,” asked what might have happened if Woodford had not decided to “air his company’s dirty laundry” in public. Explained Soble, “Initially, to the extent that Olympus wanted to use Michael as an outsider, even though he’d worked for the company for 20 years, it was on the operations side. Olympus had to restructure. And Michael, in Europe, was known as a cost-cutter, kind of like how Carlos Ghosn was known as a cost-cutter. So the idea was that you bring in the European and have him do things that, for social reasons, would be difficult for a Japanese CEO, to cut jobs and cut costs. The idea was to have him do that, but to keep the past losses out of sight. Which is a pretty risky decision.”

Miller clarified, “I want everyone to go home with an accurate understanding of Michael’s stance. Long before he became president of Olympus, I argued with him many times about the massive employment in Olympus’ camera operations, for example. I said, ‘Don’t you have to get rid of those people?’ And Michael always said, “No! You don’t cut jobs. My job is to save jobs and protect lives.’ He’d been saying this to me for the past 15 years. After he was named president, of course he looked for places to get rid of people who were making huge salaries for doing very little. But that was not the people who were generating value in the trenches. He was always dedicated to preserving those jobs.” 

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Waku Miller is a longtime friend and advisor of Woodfords's, and now his de facto
representative in Japan. ©Koichi Mori

Asked whether lax oversight by shareholders had been a major factor in the crisis, Soble said, “You can disguise a big loss on an investment you made 20 years ago as a foolish and massively overpaid acquisition you made yesterday only if you can be confident that your shareholders aren’t going to question you or punish you for it. That worked at Olympus until the press got hold of it and it all came out.”

But Yamaguchi noted, “I perceive some gradual changes for the better. Just today, I read a story about a metals processing firm that had moved to name a new president. One of their largest shareholders actually came out and objected, and blocked the proposed change. This would have been unheard of several years ago. Nomura Asset Management is moving a lot of money and becoming something of an activist shareholder too. These are small steps, but they’re significant.”

The director, asked why the documentary doesn’t present Olympus’ side of the story, responded, “We approached their lawyers, but access was denied. We knew, going in, that it was going to be very difficult to have any access. My job as a filmmaker was to figure out how to present this in a somewhat comprehensive manner without having that perspective. Japanese investors and distributors pointed out that we don’t have a movie without that perspective, without new revelations, whether [former Olympus chair] Mr. Kikukawa’s testimony or other people involved. I felt it was worth telling without having that perspective, that there was so much we could present that was more relevant to what was going on and is still going on.”   

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Executive Producer Kazuyoshi Okuyama explains the documentary's genesis. ©Koichi Mori

Explaining why the Japanese release had been delayed, Yamamoto said, “We finished the film in 2015 and were looking for a distributor, but we knew not many would be willing to put it in theaters. Olympus are big advertisers in many major media outlets. It took a long time, but Uzumasa stepped in with an offer and that was really a lucky break for us. I made this especially for the Japanese audience, and I’m happy we’ve been given this opportunity.”

In the night’s most unexpected line of questioning, a film historian in the audience asked about the involvement of Kazuyoshi Okuyama, one of the film’s executive producers. Okuyama, he said, “had his own unceremonious removal from his company, Shochiku, and [I’m wondering if] perhaps he felt something sympathetic with Mr. Woodford.”

To his surprise, Okuyama was in the audience and willingly took the microphone: “Absolutely,” he concurred. “When I read Michael’s book, I saw compelling parallels between his experience and mine. [But] the most compelling aspect for me was the story’s universal message, a message about the struggle between the organization and the individual; the inevitable conflicts that arise between them in any society. That’s what grabbed me about the story, originally, the common ground between what happened at Olympus and what happened at Shochiku.”

The finished documentary refrains from mentioning Shochiku, the kabuki and film production behemoth. But as Yamamoto put it, “I think we shared the mutual goal of telling a universal story with universal themes. And I think that’s what we’ve done.”  

Poster Samurai and Idiot Team Okuyama  Uzumasa
©Team Okuyama / Uzumasa 

DYNAMITE SCANDAL


DYNAMITE SCANDAL (Sutekina Dynamite Scandal)


March 14, 2018
Q&A guests: Director Masanori Tominaga and star Tasuku Emoto


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Tominaga and Emoto discuss the finer points of foggy glasses and unkempt hair.   ©Koichi Mori

Just two months shy of Akira Suei’s 70th birthday, writer-director Masanori Tominaga is releasing his biopic of Japan’s 1980s porn-magazine king. Known for unconventional dramas with edgy characters, convoluted plotlines and dashes of dark humor (see The Pavilion Salamandre, Vengeance Can Wait, Rolling and last fall’s Pumpkin and Mayonnaise), Tominaga’s latest film is all those things. But it is also a considerably lighter affair: a surprisingly G-rated treatment of an often X-rated subject.

And if you never quite believed that truth is stranger than fiction, Dynamite Graffiti will surely be your corrective. 

Suei’s utterly improbable but true adventures in the skin trade began during the early years of the bubble era. Then a struggling illustrator, he discovered he could make more money in the erotic publishing business than painting signboards for Tokyo’s increasingly naughty cabarets. By the early 1980s, he had become the Hugh Hefner of Japan, editing in quick succession three best-selling pornography magazines: New Self, Weekend Super and Shashin Jidai (Photo Age). Remarkably uninterested in porn himself, he focused instead on printing the work of distinguished writers like Genpei Akasegawa, copywriter Shigesato Itoi, editor-illustrator Sinbo Minami and photographers Nobuyoshi Araki and Daido Moriyama, earning them international renown and bringing unexpected cachet to his publications. 

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Both the director and his star saw a resemblance between Suei and Emoto, however unlikely that seems.    ©Mance Thompson

But as Suei continued to press buttons and push boundaries, police scrutiny intensified. Called in regularly to be reminded just what was permissible in print (pubic hair, penetration and sex organs were absolute no-nos), he mastered the art of the repeated deep bow (“I apologize, but never regret”) and with “balls and stamina,” managed to stay in business and to capitalize on the zeitgeist (inadvertently inventing telekura phone sex clubs along the way). 

Then one day, the freewheeling ‘80s were over, Suei’s magazines were banned and he lost millions of yen in bad investments. So he did what any bankrupt publisher would do: dressed up like his mother, called himself Gonzolo Suei, and began pitching “How to Win at Pachinko” guides on television. 

dynamite 3Acclaimed actress Machiko Ono plays Suei's mother in the film.  
© 2018 “Dynamite Graffiti” Film Partners

Suei, as we are amply reminded in Dynamite Graffiti, has a mother complex. “Some say art is an explosion,” he references Taro Okamoto early in the film. “In my case, my mom was an explosion.” He’s not being metaphoric. When he was a child in Okayama, Suei’s mother blew herself and her lover to bits with sticks of dynamite from the nearby coal mines. It is a defining moment that opens the film, and that the adult Suei (played with amiable and indelible charm by Tasuku Emoto), can’t get out of his mind.

In the film’s production notes, Tominaga explains: “In 1955, ten years after [Japan’s] nuclear explosion, a smaller explosion occurred in a mining village a hundred miles east of the Hiroshima epicenter, one that derailed the life of Akira Suei. He was young when his mother’s body was blown to bits. However, he was destined to be transformed by [it]. Had his mother not chosen to end her life in the grand finale of a lovers suicide pact by dynamite, the son may have grown to stay in the village and plow fields, or become a miner like his father, taking care of his aging mother as he builds a home with a wife and child; he may have even earned the respect of the village and become a member of the town council. Instead, he climbed to the peak of the erotic magazine industry.” 

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The smut peddler and the zealous cop (wonderfully played by Yutaka Matsushige)
consider where to censor New Self magazine.  © 2018 “Dynamite Graffiti” Film Partners 

During the Q&A session after FCCJ’s sneak preview of the film, Tominaga was asked just how much artistic license he took with Suei’s story. “I suppose I did take some,” he responded. “The film is based not only on his own autobiography, which goes by the same name as the film, but also on many other autobiographical essays he wrote. I also heard stories directly from Mr. Suei that were not included in any of his published writings, so I included some of them. I condensed those, to a certain degree, and created several composite characters. But there were so many interesting figures around Mr. Suei, I just had to include them. He was such a wonderful observer of those people, [he created] a really interesting reportage of those days. So I focused on the people who influenced him and who shunned him, taking about 100 characters and condensing them into 20.”

Asked whether he’d met Suei himself to prepare for the part, Emoto said, “I read the original [autobiography] when I knew they were interested in me. It just so happened that the cover has a photo of Mr. Suei, cross-dressing in his kimono, and I [agreed with the director] that it looked very much like me. That resemblance gave me some confidence to take on the role. I did meet Mr. Suei, and he was on set for about 6 days during shooting. He was watching the monitor, which was quite unnerving. I tried to observe him as much as possible when the cameras weren’t rolling, when he was talking with someone or standing there alone, gazing into the distance. I drew on those moments, on how he holds himself, to interpret how he is.”  

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Atsuko Maeda plays Suei's long-suffering wife. © 2018 “Dynamite Graffiti” Film Partners

Tominaga shoots 1960s – 1980s Tokyo in a de-glamorized style, capturing the rough-and-tumble excitement of Suei’s world. Asked why so many of the men in the film have fogged-up, taped-together glasses, Band-Aids on their faces and tangled hair, Tominaga explained, “That came from some hints in Mr. Suei’s work. He writes in detail about working in the red-light district, in the cabarets and so-called pink salons. He says that the cabaret managers, the girls who work there and the customers would always be in fights with each other. He writes about how many of them had injuries, scrapes and cuts and what-not. They weren’t well to do — these were people on the lower rungs of the ladder, what he called ‘survivors.’ I wanted to capture the survival mode that they were in through the details of how they look. I figured no one was going home with their clothes crisp and unstained. So I made their clothes dirty, their hair uncombed and their glasses smudged.”

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    ©Koichi Mori

Was the charm a mirror of Suei’s own character, or rather Emoto’s own? Although he’s starred in several dozen films (including Tada’s Do-It-All House, We Were There, Piece of Cake, Gonin Saga, 64 and Reminiscence), few of his previous roles can be considered charismatic. “It wasn’t that I found [him] to be charming and tried to depict that,” laughed the actor. “I suppose it was the director who pulled that out of me. There’s an interesting dynamic between us, because I happen to be really feminine, and [Tominaga] is really masculine. He’s very determined and sure-handed when he directs, and that’s very manly. I found it comforting and let him lead the way. It was an enjoyable shoot, no stress on the set. I suppose that’s why I managed to depict the character in a charming way.”

With Dynamite Graffiti, Masanori Tominaga has fashioned a biopic that is at once a spirited, sprightly slice of the times and an ode to his subject’s self-made success through sheer hard work. Suei never stops working for long, putting in time at the drawing board in the wee hours, sometimes abetted by his long-suffering wife (Atsuko Maeda). The extra income may go toward various love affairs (a prominent one is with an employee who apparently contracts syphilis and goes crazy), or it may be to start up new magazines, it’s not made clear. 

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              Gonzolo Suei touts her book on winning at pachinko. © 2018 “Dynamite Graffiti” Film Partners

Despite the often salacious subject matter of the film, like Shohei Imamura’s The Pornographers, it is heavy on double entendre and suggestion, but light on the actual sex act itself. Oh sure, there are scenes of women posing for Araki’s “ero-mantic” art photograpy, and endless shots of women in suggestive poses in the magazines. But in this age of #MeToo and #TimesUp, Dynamite Graffiti feels blessedly free of casual sexism and gratuitous smut.  

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© 2018 “Dynamite Graffiti” Film Partners 

Selected Media Exposure

SENNAN ASBESTOS DISASTER


SENNNAN ASBESTOS DISASTER
(Nipponkoku vs. Sennan Ishiwata mura)


Feb 13, 2018
Q&A guest: Director Kazuo Hara


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The legendary director turns his focus on multiple protagonists in his new masterwork. ©Koichi Mori

Environmental catastrophes have become the regular stuff of Hollywood blockbusters, as well as the focus of serious consideration in documentary films.

Kazuo Hara's Sennan Asbestos Disaster falls into the latter category, and although it has already received accolades on the international festival circuit - including the Best Asian Documentary Award upon its premiere at the 2017 Busan International Film Festival, and coveted Audience Awards at the Yamagata International Documentary Film Festival and Tokyo FILMeX International Film Festival - it deserves a wider audience.

Everyone now knows that asbestos is toxic, that countless millions around the world have been exposed to it, and that many have died from the lung cancers, mesotheliomas and respiratory ailments caused by significant exposure. 

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The legal team announces good news outside the Supreme Court of Japan. © Shissoh Production

But few realize that the deadly material has been banned outright in just 55 nations, not including China, Russia, India, Brazil, Canada (although a ban is expected this year) and the United States. In the US, up to 1% of a product may legally contain the harmful substance, thus continuing to endanger workers in such high-risk jobs as construction, firefighting and military service, among others.

Sennan Asbestos Disaster is one of the first films to closely chronicle the prolonged struggles of former asbestos workers and their families in Japan. Hara spent 8 years following them as they grappled with their ticking time-bomb diseases while awaiting the outcome of class-action lawsuits against the government for its culpability in their shortened lifespans.

A firebrand whose work often takes aim at the Powers That Be, Hara has been making what he calls "action documentaries" since 1972, collaborating closely with a forceful protagonist on each, and creating work that is both intensely personal and formally daring. Through these "characters with an edge," he has challenged traditional perceptions, confronted social injustices, shed light on issues too long in the dark, broken taboos and continually nudged viewers out of their comfort zones.

sennan sub 02Plaintiffs demonstrate outside the Ministry of Health. © Shissoh Production

In his first film, Goodbye CP (1972), his handicapped protagonist forced us to reconsider the relationship between the able-bodied and the disabled; in Extreme Private Eros: Love Song 1974, his protagonist was Hara's ex-wife, a crusading feminist, bisexual and mother of an interracial child with an American GI; in The Emperor's Naked Army Marches On (1987), his protagonist was a former soldier who relentlessly hounded his superior officers, demanding they be held accountable for their actions in World War II; in A Dedicated Life (1994), his protagonist was the controversial novelist and communist Mitsuharu Inoue.

With Sennan Asbestos Disaster, Hara has his first-ever group protagonist: the "normal people" who lived and worked in Osaka's Sennan district. Yet despite an expansive cast of characters and a nearly 4-hour running time, he manages to portray them as fully-rounded individuals, and to infuse their tragedy with gentle humor and a winningly empathetic warmth.

As helpful graphics inform us at the beginning of the film, Sennan was an erstwhile "asbestos village" that once hosted the largest number of asbestos factories in Japan. The district flourished from the late Meiji through the Showa periods (1868-1989), boasting over 200 processing plants at its peak, and lured thousands of uneducated job-seekers from the Japanese and Korean countrysides.

Although the Japanese government was well aware of the health hazards involved for many decades, it continued to prioritize economic development above human health long after other nations had ceased manufacturing the material, and neglected to implement either health regulations or countermeasures.

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Plaintiff Miyoko Sato, whose husband, Kenichi, died from asbestos exposure. © Shissoh Production

In 2006, 31 Sennan plaintiffs filed suit against the government seeking compensation for irreversible damages to their health, and Hara began covering meetings of the Citizen's Group for Sennan Asbestos Damage, founded by Kazuyoshi Yuoka. Yuoka previously managed an asbestos factory started by his grandfather, and his own guilt motivates him to occasional extremes during the course of the trials.

One watches Sennan Asbestos Factory on the edge of the seat, with a mounting sense of despair as the government wages a war of attrition against the ailing plaintiffs. As the years stretch on — punctuated by minor victories in court, but no admission of responsibility nor compensation — many of the plaintiffs will gradually succumb, not surviving to see their own suits through. 

Eventually, the Supreme Court rules that the government must compensate the victims, but caps the liability period at 1971, although asbestos was used in Japan from 1900 - 2006 and the first dangers were recognized in 1957.  

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Hara makes points from the dais. © Koichi Mori

During the Q&A session following the screening, an FCCJ member asked how they arrived at the year 1971 - was it because the workers themselves were expected to have known by then? 

Responded Hara, "In this case, and many others, the court has tried to limit who will be compensated, and who not. I think this is an instance of pandering to authority, and trying to maintain the face of the government. At least that's my guess."

Another audience member followed up, saying that he appreciated the film's emotional journey, but that he wondered whether the director felt that judicial decisions and the power of the court should not be subjected to scrutiny by documentarians. Hara sought to disavow him of the notion, explaining, "In Japan, video cameras are not allowed inside the courtroom. It's very difficult to question the fundamental nature of the court [proceedings]. Now that I've finished the film, I realize that intentionally but subconsciously, I probably wanted to depict the Japanese people, the 'commoners,' their pride and their prejudices, and their achievements."

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Citizen's Group founder and activist Kazuyoshi Yuoka with plaintiff Kazuko Minami.  © Shissoh Production

Noting that the film's subjects had already watched the film "3 or 4 times" during a pre-release run in a theater in Sennan, he continued, "As you mentioned, I did put a lot of emotional weight on these commoners, and whether I could show their emotions interestingly, cinematically, was a bit of [a challenge] for me. You may have seen my film The Emperor's Naked Army Marches On, in which I depicted a man who attacked the emperor alone, a very strong-willed character. You could say that he's as far removed from the common people as you can get. That kind of strong character with an ego is 180 degrees opposite to the protagonists of this new film. I focused on creating an entertaining documentary despite their being so ordinary."

(Hara later added that Kenzo Okuzaki, the government combatant in The Emperor's Naked Army — like the other subjects of his previous documentaries - became famous because of his films. "Until his death," he said, "he was adamantly demanding that I make a sequel.")

Asbestos-KM-16
©Koichi Mori

Hara was asked about the stylistic differences between the two parts of the film, and if they were a result of the progress of the struggle or otherwise. "I've heard from viewers that the two halves give very different impressions," responded the director, "and they've suggested that I provoked things to happen in the second half. It's true that in my previous films, I have actively provoked my subjects. But not this time. This film is edited chronologically [and] because of the course of events, a certain energy arose that came to a head in the latter half of the struggle."

He pauses for effect. "It was as if the sky fell for me. I couldn't believe my ears. I was really angry to hear that. I'm very fond of these common people, but it's something they should never have said. I despise the very goodness of their nature." Another pause. "That is the message of the film."

And he means it, but has put it better previously. On the Japan premiere of Sennan Asbestos Disaster at the 2017 Yamagata International Documentary Film Festival, Hara declared, "With this work, what I wanted to say most was, 'People of Japan, faced with these authorities who do whatever they please, are you just going to sit back and accept it?'" 

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© Shissoh Production

One imagines that the message may be the same for his next film, about the Minamata mercury poisoning tragedy. "I've been documenting Minamata for the past 12 years," he told the audience, "and it's such a huge problem, it's been difficult for me to focus on one theme. But I'm determined to finish the film, one way or another, by the end of 2018."

To the applause that erupted, he immediately said, "Please don't clap, [it increases the pressure on me]. In the asbestos trials, Mr. Yuoka had very different opinions from the legal counsel on many occasions, but they managed to work together to the very end. When you go to Minamata, however, you see that the people who voice different opinions from the main group are being sidelined and bad-mouthed. There's a hatred in the air. Trying to make a film in that kind of atmosphere, I can only feel this negative energy. So even though you applaud me, and I know I must finish this film one way or another, I'm not feeling very optimistic."

Hara's latest masterwork is a harrowing exploration into the inhumanity of capitalism, colonialism and the state. There is no reason to worry that his next will not measure up. 

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Hara said he chose to include illustrations in the poster because it would feel more "familiar" to Japanese. ©Koichi Mori 

 

NVA omote
© Shissoh Production 

 

THE SCYTHIAN LAMB


THE SCYTHIAN LAMB (Hitsuji no Ki)


January 31, 2018
Q&A guests: Director Daihachi Yoshida and star Ryo Nishikido


 scythian lamb posterMance-14-a
Nishikido and Yoshida with 2 of the film's 8 main characters (right)   ©Mance Thompson

Who doesn't love being a witness to history - even if we don't realize it until after the fact?

The Film Committee found itself at the center of a historic turning point on January 31, when, following the jam-packed Q&A session for Daihachi Yoshida's new black dramedy The Scythian Lamb, Johnny & Associates officially announced that it was easing restrictions on the use of images on online media. 

As everyone in Japan knows, Johnny's is the largest and most successful management agency for male entertainers, with "boy band" acts like SMAP, Arashi, Hey! Say! JUMP, KinKi Kids, NEWS, Kanjani8 and KAT-TUN, and award-winning actors like Takuya Kimura, Kazunari Ninomiya and Junichi Okada. The agency has long wielded enormous cultural clout, and tightly controlled the use of its talents' images, which appear only in newspapers and magazines.

Because Johnny's actors headline many of the films the FC screens, we had tried numerous times in the past decade to bring Johnny's talent to FCCJ, with no success. When the agency agreed to allow Ryo Nishikido, the star of The Scythian Lamb, to appear at the Q&A following our screening — with photo-taking by journalists allowed — we knew it was a minor triumph.

The icing on the cake was to learn that Johnny's had chosen FCCJ for its watershed moment. Not only had photos of Nishikido been allowed online for the first time — resulting in an ever-expanding flurry of postings — Johnny's then announced that images from all press conferences, interviews and stage greetings involving its stars would now be allowed on news sites online (although limited to 3 images for each site). 

scythian lamb twoKM-3-2-aAn unexpectedly delightful pairing of talent.               ©Koichi Mori

Ryo Nishikido handled his history-making appearance with exceptional poise, greeting the audience with a thoughtfully considered statement in fluent English. After thanking everyone for being there, he said: "This movie made me think about how I would act if someone I didn't know anything about joined my community. Then I realized that it's not just entertaining, but it also reflects social aspects. So I hope this film can give people a chance to think about issues such as depopulation and immigration."

Already a hit on the international festival circuit, and winner of the prestigious Kim Jiseok Award at the 2017 Busan International Film Festival, The Scythian Lamb is arguably Yoshida's most compassionate work yet. While his previous six films (including The Kirishima Thing, Pale Moon and A Beautiful Star) have also been darkly strange dramedies with social relevance, the messages here — not only about rural revitalization through immigration, but also tolerance, forgiveness, friendship and second chances — seem essential for today's Japan. 

Ever spent a few hours in one of Japan's small towns and wondered just what it would take to liven it up a little? What if the government had a secret plan for repopulating such towns, and what if you were in charge of helping newcomers make themselves at home?

hitsuji zMikako Ichikawa helps children bury a favorite pet.  
©2018 "The Scythian Lamb" Film Partners  
©Tatsuhiko Yamagami, Mikio Igarashi/KODANSHA

That's the position Hajime Tsukisue (Nishikido) finds himself in as The Scythian Lamb opens. Tsukisue is a city functionary in (fictional) Uobuka, a down-at-its-heels harbor town somewhere Out There, and he's been assigned to acclimate six strangers - four men, two women - as they arrive a few days apart via planes and trains, all a little dazed.

A model official, Tsukisue goes about the job with friendly efficiency, welcoming each arrival with helpful local factoids. "It's a nice place," he tells them. "Nice people, great seafood." A faded sign proclaims Uobuka: Full of Life, Cheer and Comfort

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Nishikido turned the star wattage way down to play Tsukisue.    ©FCCJ

When he asks his first new charge where he's come from, the answer is so odd, he doesn't pose the question again. Tsukisue isn't the curious type, and besides, he's just discovered that his high-school crush, Aya (Fumino Kimura), is back from the big city. It's only later that he learns they're part of a program to release convicted felons who are considered low risk back into society. His boss warns him to breathe a word to no one, since the ex-cons must remain in town for 10 years in exchange for early parole. Feigning broad-mindedness and citing Japan's strict privacy laws as an excuse for the secrecy, he nevertheless warns, "Keep them apart, so they don't conspire." 

Gradually, the newcomers settle in and assimilate into the community. There's Hiroki Fukumoto (Shingo Mizusawa), a timid type who starts apprenticing to a barber; Katsumi Ono (Min Tanaka), a silent type with a bad scar over his eye, who starts working in a dry cleaning shop; Reiko Ota (Yuka), a sexy type who becomes a caregiver in the senior day-care home that Tsukisue's dad frequents; Kiyomi Kurimoto (Mikako Ichikawa), who has a penchant for burying dead birds and fish, and whose methodical work as a janitor leaves something to be desired; Katushi Sugiyama (Kazuki Kitamura), a boisterous fisherman and photographer who is definitely up to something; and the youngest, Ichiro Miyakoshi (Ryuhei Matsuda), who happily becomes a deliveryman and begins taking guitar lessons from Aya after Tsukisue introduces him.

And then one day, a body washes up in Uobuka harbor, and foul play is suspected….

Nishikido has been honing his acting chops primarily on TV since 2003, but his past as a singer-dancer in idol bands Kanjani8 and NEWS informs many of his roles. Surprisingly, he is utterly convincing as Tsukisue, the boring-but-nice city functionary. There is underlying charm, but not for a moment does his character seem anything other than a small-town salaryman. His authenticity anchors the film in a believable reality, even as events begin spiraling out of control.  

hitsuji no ki
©2018 "The Scythian Lamb" Film Partners  ©Tatsuhiko Yamagami, Mikio Igarashi/KODANSHA

Asked how he tamped down his innate effervescence, Nishikido replied, "Acting in a film is solitary work, and I don't feel the need to bring my 'idol' presence into it. I think for everyone there are parts of your life that are more glamorous than others. There are moments where I'm just at home, watching TV, forgetting to eat. The glamour is just one part of my life. I didn't consciously suppress it, but I brought out my darker, flatter side."

"It was necessary for him to be a regular guy on screen," Yoshida concurred. "But not only that, he also had to have a presence that attracts you. Watching his previous work, I found him to be 'normal' but also attractive. You can't take your eyes off of him. He was just what I needed for this part."

Mentioning that Nishikido's character would probably be played by a young Tom Hanks if the film had been made in America, one FCCJ member asked the actor whether he had drawn from any foreign actors in approaching the character, and whether he had any designs on Hollywood. "I can't think of anyone I drew from in particular, but I learned a lot from the director, and I've learned a lot cumulatively from the 'role models' I've found while watching films. If I were to mention favorites, they would be Jake Gyllenhaal, Russell Crowe and Denzel Washington. I've watched their films over and over, so I may be unintentionally imitating them. As for career aspirations, if there was an opportunity for me in Hollywood, I would very much like to have it. But I was very nervous speaking in English tonight, so I need to work on that." 

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Yoshida has created his most compassionate film yet.    ©FCCJ

Asked how he had juggled so many different genres ("comedy, yakuza gangster, even a tokusatsu monster film!"), characters and story strands, the director explained: "I tend to be really greedy in my filmmaking. I want to depict as many different emotions as possible, which makes my films very difficult to promote. But film should reflect the reality of our everyday lives, and the characters shouldn't be stereotyped or simplified. I think it's feasible to create such stories if you have enough time, and I always try to do so."

The next question concerned Yoshida's approach to keeping the film from being either lurid or conventional. "The film has a more subdued tone than the original work [the manga series Hitsuji no Ki, by Tatsuhiko Yamagami and Mikio Igarashi], which is more chaotic and sensational. But I wanted my characters to be more realistic, and to express their inner conflicts and the clashes between them in a more restrained way. So we decided to avoid creating in-your-face violence."

Striving to deliver on Yoshida's earlier invitation to ask "fresh, unexpected questions," one journalist inquired about the garage band in the film, a noisy trio composed of Tsukisue, Aya and their fellow high-school classmate on drums. "It's not in the original," said Yoshida. "But I had to think about how young people in rural areas spend their time. In my own case, I always played music with my friends. I thought it was a good way to bring these three together, since it was over a decade since they graduated from high school. Also, the emotion is coming from Aya, on guitar, and Tsukisue is supporting her on bass. That [relationship] is what I wanted to depict." 

hitsuji z3
              Kazuki Kitamura (left) tries to lure Min Tanaka back into a life of crime.
 ©2018 "The Scythian Lamb" Film Partners  ©Tatsuhiko Yamagami, Mikio Igarashi/KODANSHA

Nishikido added: "I usually play guitar, not bass, but the music was really edgy and I quite liked it. Also, I think the bass allows you to look at your band members while you're playing, and I watched Aya closely." He quickly clarified, "My character was watching Aya closely."

Surprisingly, no one asked about the film's title. While it opens with lines from an eponymous poem, it is only later, when one of the transplanted characters finds a plate bearing an image of the Vegetable Lamb of Tartary (below), that the meaning begins to dawn on us.

And yet, even then it's open to multiple interpretations — just like the best films should be. 

hitsuji no ki poster
©2018 "The Scythian Lamb" Film Partners  
©Tatsuhiko Yamagami, Mikio Igarashi/KODANSHA
 

Selected Media Exposure

 

TV Exposure

  • テレビ東京 ワールドビジネスサテライト WBS News:「羊の木」 海外メディアに試写
  • テレビ東京 一夜づけ (エンタメ情報):2月3日に公開される映画「羊の木」の告知。
  • TBS はやドキ! スポーツ紙 まるごとチェック:錦戸亮さんが映画「羊の木」の外国特派員協会の記者会見を行い、英語で語った。
  • 日本テレビ Oha!4 NEWS LIVE スポタメ:錦戸亮 英語でスピーチ
  • 日本テレビ ZIP! SHOWBIZ 24:21:00 関ジャニ錦戸 英語で記者会見
  • フジテレビ めざましテレビ エンタみたもん勝ち:海外メディアも注目 錦戸亮(33)主演映画を英語でPR
  • フジテレビ めざましどようび コレぐぅー Movie:今週未公開作品の期待度ランキング

  • 日本テレビ スッキリ クイズッス:あさって公開!錦戸亮主演 映画「羊の木」
  • 日本テレビ news every. TIME4:関ジャニ∞錦戸 英語であいさつ 

HANAGATAMI


HANAGATAMI


December 1, 2017
Q&A guests: Director Nobuhiko Obayashi and producer Kyoko Obayashi


HanagatamiMance Thompson-0
Legendary director Nobuhiko Obayashi.  ©Mance Thompson

Sometimes it just doesn’t matter that FCCJ’s seats aren’t well-padded or that unimpeded views of the screen are limited. Sometimes, all that matters is having the privilege to watch a film by one of our greatest cinematic visionaries.

And this was one of those times. 

A surprisingly large audience arrived for the screening of Hanagatami from the early hour of 6pm; and when the lights came up 169 minutes later, they stayed glued to their seats for a Q&A session that went on nearly another hour.

The new masterwork by 79-year-old writer-director Nobuhiko Obayashi realizes his 40-year dream to bring Naoki Prizewinner Kazuo Dan’s 1937 novella to life, and it’s no exaggeration to view it as the culmination of his many impulses and obsessions, his magnum opus. A visual, aural and metaphorical feast, Hanagatami is also marked by an unbridled joie de vivre that borders on the contagious.

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Producer Kyoko Obayashi has been her husand's filmmaking partner for 60 years.  ©Koichi Mori

Those familiar with Obayashi’s work — he is the author of 2,000+ singular creations — may have been primed for the film’s staggeringly inventive visuals, its narrative density, its kinetic editing, elaborate soundtrack and fist-bumping creative energy. But as everyone in Japan now knows, the director learned he had stage-four lung cancer just before going into production on Hanagatami, and was told he had only 6 months to live.

That he finished the film is remarkable enough. That he underwent chemotherapy while shooting in 40 locations, with a huge cast of up-and-coming actors, is inconceivable. Yet Obayashi seems to have been cured by the very process of self-expression. Hanagatami fairly explodes with youthful vigor. 

That vigor may no longer emanate as confidently as it once did from the director himself. Yet, as FCCJ’s crowd discovered when he took gingerly to the stage with his wife and producer, Kyoko, his physical diminishment has not affected his eloquence nor quenched his passion for his vocation. Obayashi is still a master storyteller, both on screen and in life; and the Q&A session, although too brief even at 50 minutes, did not disappoint.

The legendary creator of House, the 1977 comedy-horror extravaganza that brought him to overnight global renown when it was discovered in the West some 32 years after its release, the  filmmaker has been exceedingly prolific in the third act of his career. Not only has he received critical acclaim for recent work like Casting Blossoms to the Sky (2012) and Seven Weeks (2014) — which together with Hanagatami form an antiwar trilogy of sorts — he has traveled the globe to be feted with career retrospectives and a handful of awards.

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The main characters assemble in Hanagatami.   ©karatsu film partners/PSC 2017

He has also become increasingly vocal about the role of filmmakers as messengers of peace, believing that their work must convey the urgency of today’s political situation in Japan. The first Q&A question addressed that role, when an American film historian asked, “Why did you choose such a fantastical, rather than a realistic, style to present the tragedy of war?”

“I chose a stylized approach because I didn’t think it would help cinematically to depict the subject realistically,” Obayashi answered. “My wife Kyoko sat beside me during the editing, and kept saying it didn’t matter how many incendiary bombs we had going off in a certain scene, the reality was 5 or 10 times worse. Even with the CG technology we have available today, it’s just not possible to depict reality with realism. I thought it would be more effective to use the construct and the deceit of fiction to convey reality. So I chose a heightened approach — heightened beauty, heightened reality, heightened acting, heightened directing — to get at what is really real.”

He then emphasized: “The lie that is most prevalent among us is the lie of peace. No matter how much we hope for it, we can’t attain it. This isn’t exactly an antiwar film; I just hate war, and I think that sentiment is conveyed.” 

HanagatamiKoichi Mori-20-2   HanagatamiMance Thompson-3-1
©Koichi Mori (left), ©Mance Thompson (right)

Obayashi had first planned to make Hanagatami in 1975, when he was enjoying a successful career directing commercials and short films. But history intervened with an invitation from Toho to help them reach a younger demographic with a new style of film that eschewed logic. (The resulting work, House, marked his feature debut.) Why then, asked a journalist, did it take 4 decades to finally make Hanagatami?

“Akira Kurosawa would often say that he had 30 films he wanted to make,” recalled Obayashi of the great auteur, “but that the proper timing would be decided by [the winds]. Hearing that, I realized that even if you have an important message to convey, there’s no point in trying to convey it unless there are ears willing to heed it. The purpose of [filmmaking] is to create a dialogue with the audience, and if they’re not willing to listen, there’s no point.

“The author of the original novella, Kazuo Dan, did not have the liberty to say that he hated war and hoped for peace, because that would have instantly made him an enemy of the state in those days. Yukio Mishima [who was inspired by Hanagatami to become a writer himself] said that the only thing that matters during wartime is to love as if your life depends on it, or else to be a delinquent. The novella depicts characters who are loving as if their lives depend on it, and a close comradery between the male characters, who drink and smoke together. They even ride horseback together naked. But they end up wanting to kill each other. And these motifs were really the only way you could depict the horrors and atrocities of war.

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High-school hijinx with, from l., Kubozuka, Emoto, Mitsushima and Nagatsuka.  ©karatsu film partners/PSC 2017

“Now that times have changed, we have a younger generation that doesn’t know much about war, but they can hear its footsteps gradually approaching, and they’re finally beginning to open their ears to what we have to say. We’re living in dangerous times. I felt that [Dan’s and] my father’s generation was telling me, ‘Now is the time. You have to make this film.’”

Hanagatami is set in the spring of 1941, and opens with 17-year-old Toshihiko Sakakiyama (Shunsuke Kubozuka), who has just returned from Amsterdam to Karatsu. Lonely in his high school dorm, he often visits his Aunt Keiko (Takako Tokiwa) and her young sister-in-law, Mina (Honoka Yahagi), who is suffering from tuberculosis. Mina’s brother also had TB, which emboldened him to march off to war. At school, where the teacher has them reading Poe’s The Black Cat out loud in English, Toshihiko meets a number of eccentric fellow students, including the “brave as a lion” Ukai (Shinnosuke Mitsushima), who goes swimming every dawn and enjoys being shirtless; the “zen monk” Kira (Keishi Nagatsuka), who walks with a cane, grew up as a Christian and utters cynical proclamations; and eager-to-please class clown Aso (Tokio Emoto). There are also the girls, friends of Mina’s: Akine (Hirona Yamazaki), whose family runs the town’s best izakaya and provides endless delicacies to Keiko’s household; and the mysterious Chitose (Mugi Kadowaki), Kira’s cousin, whom he has taught to use a camera. 

As Japan marches inexorably toward war, these carefree youths gather for parties and picnics (and never seem to lack for the very best in creature comforts, including imported delicacies). But the boys know that all too soon, they will be sucked into the chaos of battle, try as they may to resist their destiny. One of the characters even references Sadao Yamanaka’s Humanity and Paper Balloons, the last film the director made before being sent to Manchuria, where he died. Finally, the friends gather one last time to attend the Karatsu Okunchi festival with its enormous floats, just outside the old castle...

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From left, Yamazaki, Yahagi and Kadowaki.   ©karatsu film partners/PSC 2017

In Obayashi’s bucolic fever dream, the Karatsu moon is always full, cherry blossoms bloom and fireflies flit, colors are eye-popping, poetry is on every lip, music ebbs and swells, mirrors crack, ghosts return with messages, and metaphors are hard to parse (like the falling crimson rose petal that transforms into blood as it hits a tabletop, a recurring image that is perhaps a memento mori for the generation destroyed by WWII, its souls lost and its survivors forever scarred).

But if Hanagatami is a cautionary tale for the Japanese who haven’t experienced war or hard times, as the director claims, it also touches on the familiar Obayashi lament over the loss of communities and traditions, local customs and cultures.

He discussed his approach: “When I became a filmmaker, I decided not to join a company and be a professional, but to live my life, with my wife as my producer, as an ‘amateur’ filmmaker. As an amateur, you have the freedom to do only what you believe in. Moviemaking is a business, and your freedom is [often] hindered. Filmmakers like Ozu and Kurosawa had limitations — maybe Ozu wanted to make a film like Ikiru; maybe Kurosawa wanted to make Tokyo Story. But it wasn’t possible for them, because they were commercial filmmakers. So I decided to become a freelance director, or honestly speaking, to be often unemployed.

HanagatamiKoichi Mori-14©Koichi Mori

“Kurosawa and Ozu had their own styles and themes. Kurosawa made films about society for Toho, Ozu made family films for Shochiku, Mizoguchi made period films for Daiei. [As a freelancer] I had to find my own path, and starting out with 8mm film, I decided I should become a furusato (hometown) director, and make films set in my hometown, Onomichi. Japan’s lush greenery and landscape were destroyed after the war, because we were such a hurry to revitalize our economy that all the scenery was ruined. What better thing to do than to make ‘home movies’ about the old ways of life and culture?”

To a question about Hanagatami’s length, Obayashi replied, “I don’t want to be bound by the rules of economics, because I think there can be 1-second films, 100-second films and films that could take a lifetime to watch. Film emerged from technological inventions, and I think I’m free to be an inventor myself, to try out possibilities and come up with new expressions that people haven’t seen before.”

Asked why he set the film in Karatsu, a small castle town in Saga, Kyushu, Obayashi explained, “Dan mentioned that the story could be set in a fictional town, not a specific one. So I asked him, when we were thinking of shooting the film [in 1975], where it should be set and where we should location hunt. He said, very seriously, ‘Go to Karatsu.’ At that time, he had been told that he had stage-four lung cancer, so I took this to be akin to a final request. I went with his son, Taro, to Karatsu, and was very impressed with it. [Forty years later] we shot every scene in Karatsu, although we couldn’t depict the landscape of the original novella. We depicted its spirit, and the spirit of Dan. But [the festival] was my wife’s idea.”

“We had looked at Nagasaki first,” said Kyoko Obayashi, but the reason I was really impressed with Karatsu was the Okunchi Festival, with all the floats. I discovered that only men, not women, are allowed to participate. I usually just go with my instincts, and intuitively, I thought that the spirit of this festival — the spirit of the floats and the men who pull them — would go well with Hanagatami. So I suggested that to my husband.”

Special Screening Hanagatami TIFF 2017Mance Thompson-29
Obayashi (in sunglasses) is surrounded by the Hanagatami cast after a screening of the film
at the Tokyo International Film Festival in October. ©Mance Thompson

“My wife’s instincts are really wonderful,” said Obayashi. “She manages to get to the truth, to the essence of things, so I usually go with her instincts. That allows me to find the right approach to directing the scenes. The spirit of the festival arises from some historical facts. Karatsu is a castle town, and even now, you can see a separation: those who lived within the castle walls were of the samurai class, and those outside were the merchants or commoners who worked for the samurai. The festival is very much a commoners’ festival, and those who participated were risking their lives.* When they were drafted into war, they would [go AWOL to] return to their hometown to participate, which was also risking their lives.”

[*According to sources online, the 400-year-old autumn festival, designated an Important Intangible Folk Cultural Property, features 14 massive floats called hikiyama, with the largest ones standing 6.8 meters tall and weighing 3 tons. They are designed to look like lions, grampuses, samurai helmets, sea bream, and flying dragons called hiryo, and are lacquered and finished with gold and silver leaf. The potential danger for participants can easily be seen in clips on YouTube.]

HanagatamiMance Thompson-8-2
©Mance Thompson

Obayashi continued, “The festival site is the same location as warlord Hideyoshi Toyotomi’s base of operations, from which he would send troops into the Korean Peninsula. In this area of powerful samurai, the festival was all about the common people, a way for them to show their local pride to those in power. I also discovered that Kazuo Dan had committed a crime and been labeled a Communist when he was 18 years old. He spent time in Karatsu, so going there and shooting felt like I was coming full circle, and truly making a furusato film about the spirit of these townspeople.”

“If war is worth fighting for,” goes one line in Hanagatami, “so is a festival.” And no one puts on a festival like Obayashi. May his next film — yes, he has announced plans to go into production soon — be as brilliantly idiosyncratic and inspiring.

hanagatami poster
   ©karatsu film partners/PSC 2017

Selected Press Coverage

Page 1 of 16

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