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SENNAN ASBESTOS DISASTER


SENNNAN ASBESTOS DISASTER
(Nipponkoku vs. Sennan Ishiwata mura)


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


Asbestos-KM-11
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.  

Asbestos-KM-1   Asbestos-KM-5

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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 

 

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© Shissoh Production 

 

THE SCYTHIAN LAMB


THE SCYTHIAN LAMB (Hitsuji no Ki)


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


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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.  

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©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." 

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              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


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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.”

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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.]

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©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

VIGILANTE


VIGILANTE


November 14, 2017
Q&A guest: Director Yu Irie


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The director returns to darker territory with his latest film, a very personal project. ©FCCJ

With his breakout hit 8,000 Miles (SR Saitama no Rapper) in 2009, writer-director Yu Irie struck pay dirt in his rural Saitama hometown, using it as the backdrop for a bittersweet tale about the struggles of wannabe rap stars. Returning twice over the next few years to complete a trilogy, he won a devoted international following for his humorous, humanistic depictions of the strivers, outsiders and has-beens who populated his particular pocket of the prefecture.

But with his new film, Vigilante, Irie makes it clear that home is decidedly not where his heart is. Penning his first original screenplay since completing the trilogy, the young hitmaker has once again revisited his roots — but this time, he has found them rotten.

The pitch-black world of Vigilante is one in which ethics have been torn asunder and the ugliness of humanity is on full display. Exploring such hot-button social issues as child abuse, drug addiction, sexual aggression, crimes against foreigners, crimes by foreigners, and the inexorable decline of Japan’s countryside, Irie’s unsettling vision allows nary a sliver of light to pierce the darkness.

The film begins with a chase through the twilight, as three small boys are pursued by a frightening adult figure. On the day their mother dies, the young brothers have attempted to kill their tyrannical father, Takeo (Shun Sugata), a leader in the local community. The eldest, Ichiro, runs away after the incident, and does not return until Takeo has died, 30 years later. In adulthood, middle brother Jiro (Kosuke Suzuki, TV’s “Dr. X”) has become a city council member, while the youngest, Saburo (Kenta Kiritani, Close-Knit), makes ends meet by managing a deriheru ("delivery health") call-girl business for a volatile gangster (rapper Hannya).

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©Koichi Mori

After Takeo’s funeral, Ichiro (Nao Omori, Outrage Coda) suddenly reappears. He’s brought with him a notarized will, and declares that he will take possession of their father’s legacy. But Jiro needs to retain a large tract of nearby land for a megamall construction project that will ensure his political future. Ever the obedient civil servant, he must now choose between his family and his career prospects. As the brothers indulge in an increasingly violent tug-of-war, all hell breaks loose around them. A community of foreign workers clashes with an overzealous neighborhood watch group. Powerful politicians collude with organized criminals. Soon, tensions in the entire town begin to boil over.

In the Q&A session following FCCJ's screening, Irie was asked whether any of the film’s political intrigues had been influenced by actual events in the director’s hometown. He responded, “I want to make clear that it wasn’t my intent to depict Fukuya — this is set in a fictional town. If I don’t make this clear, I’ll never be able to go back." 

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Kiritani confronts local gangsters in the film. © 2017 VIGILANTE Film Partners

Irie laughed before continuing, “I left Fukuya when I was 19 to study filmmaking in Tokyo, so I didn’t really have a full understanding of the politics of regional cities. What did leave an impression on me was that there were always yakuza at our local festivals. It was only after I started making films, and I would return home [on visits], that I started to realize there were these issues involving immigrants, these ‘trainees’ from overseas, and also that there were vested interests involved in public projects.”

Was it necessary to shoot in Fukaya, if audiences are not meant to connect the screen’s fictions with the real setting? Said Irie, “There was this impetus to go back, because the themes were personal. I could have shot elsewhere, but I wanted to return and get the support of people living there.”

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Omori faces a bleak future.  © 2017 VIGILANTE Film Partners

Vigilante was filmed in the dead of winter and mostly at night, which undeniably helped strip the performances by its three main stars of any artifice. But Irie admitted that he’s a bit worried the actors are still upset about the filming conditions: “A lot of my films are set in winter, actually. I suppose it’s a season I like a lot. When the three brothers were fighting in the river, it contributed to some movie magic. It started snowing while we were filming, and it rarely snows there.”

The film’s low-budget aesthetic reminded one critic in the audience that — long before Irie helmed big-studio productions like his Memoirs of a Murderer (which spent 3 weeks at the top of Japan’s box office earlier this year) — he had felt trapped in the no-budget rut. In 2010, Irie had gone on record with complaints that independent directors couldn’t have sustainable careers, and couldn’t possibly afford to live in a city like Tokyo. The voluble rant went viral, prompting a dialogue across the industry that continues today. Asked whether he felt any differently now, Irie admitted, “I’ve shot quite a few commercial films now, so I’m able to live in Tokyo. I made those comments when I [wasn't yet 30] to bring attention to the plight of young directors in the film industry, and I don’t think that situation has changed much at all. People forget about these issues all too easily.” 

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©Koichi Mori (left), ©FCCJ (right)

What does he think might be done about the situation? “Toei Video, which is behind Vigilante, is really unique,” he responded. “They back original scripts, rather than just those based on novels or manga, and this opens a lot of doors for people who want to work on original material, as well as for indie filmmakers. I think there’s a lot of work to be done to solve the problem, but when it comes to the major studios, I’d like to see more of them embarking on original projects. I think it’s up to my generation now to make changes by writing original scripts and finding producers, or it will never change.”

A leading critic in the audience, noting that Vigilante has echoes of Yoichi Sai’s Blood and Bones, another work that features an overpowering father figure, asked how important the theme of family ties is to Irie’s own work. “I wasn’t directly influenced by the film,” said Irie, “although I like it a lot. I think its depiction of a towering, violent father is unparalleled in Japanese film. As for my own work, I’d avoided depicting blood ties in the past; but two years ago, I was filming a jidaigeki film set in the Edo period, and I had to do some genealogical research. That led me to research my own family tree, and if you go back 5 or 6 generations, you reach the Edo period. I started thinking about blood ties and what family means, and that influenced this film.”

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Suzuki (center) leads the neighborhood watch one fateful evening.  © 2017 VIGILANTE Film Partners

He later admitted that he’d been “heavily influenced” by the star of Blood and Bones, “Beat” Takeshi Kitano, who also directs “starkly, painfully violent” films. “Kitano’s films really show us what it is to hurt another, what pain really is,” he explained. “That’s a theme that I wanted to revisit, What does it mean to hurt someone? What is pain? Vigilante doesn’t speak just about physical pain, but also emotional and psychological pain. I regret avoiding this theme until now. I’m interested in seeing how younger audiences will react — especially audiences that are used to watching bubbly coming-of-age films.”

Asked to explain the title, the director said, “I’ve had a long-time interest in neighborhood watch-type organizations, which are policing in an unofficial capacity. I’m personally quite scared of 'communities' and people who organize groups like that. What I wanted to depict was how the individual is swallowed up by the community, so the first title that came to mind was Vigilante.” 

Vigilante Koichi Mori-75
©Koichi Mori

He elaborated: “What I wanted to depict was not just person-to-person violence, but violence brought on by a certain economy or a community that swallows up the individual. I think it would be difficult for moviegoers to take home a positive message from the film. But I would like them to ponder the situation and imagine what they would do. I recently read a book by Mario Vargas Llosa in which he discusses the character of Emma Bovary, and he wrote, ‘Her death is our hope.’ He meant that such characters die for us, in our place, and we should derive a sense of relief. That really struck a bell with me, and I hope Vigilante’s viewers will feel the same.”

Although he will surely continue to write and direct entertaining stories about viral epidemics, bio-terror, serial murderers and spies (if his recent successes are any indication) the pared-down nastiness of Vigilante should reassure fans of Yu Irie that he does not intend to shy away from shocking visions, even in today’s shock-averse Japan.

vigilante poster
© 2017 VIGILANTE Film Partners 

Selected Press Coverage

PSYCHIC KUSUO (Saiki Kusuo no Sainan)


PSYCHIC KUSUO


October 19, 2017
Q&A guest: Director Yuichi Fukuda


Yuichi FukudaMance Thompson-3
The director is like a character in one of his own films. ©Mance Thompson

Screening just its second-ever comedy in the past decade, the Film Committee welcomed ebullient director Yuichi Fukuda to a Q&A session that we imagined would focus on his astounding success in Japan and recently, in China — only to discover that he would rather talk about his love of 1970s American sketch comedy and his dream to work on the late-night TV show Saturday Night Live.

“I’ve liked slapstick and gags ever since I was a kid,” he told the FCCJ audience, “since my parents were huge comedy fans and instilled that in me. They would recommend that I watch shows like The Drifters and Oretachi Hyokin Zoku [with Beat Takeshi and Sanma Akashiya] and Owarai Star Tanjo, which my dad used to tell me to cut school early to come home and watch.

“When I was in grade school, I really loved the Zucker Brothers’ Airplane! and the Naked Gun series. They did this 6-episode TV series called Police Squad! that was the basis for Naked Gun, also starring Leslie Nielsen. It was very tongue-in-cheek, and I loved the gags. You would see Nielsen driving in his cop car and they would randomly superimpose these visuals on the rear window, like the Roman Coliseum, or there would a monkey sitting next to him. That kind of throwaway gag isn’t the sort of thing that was often seen in Japan. I wanted to bring an American sensibility to comedy.”

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                     Interpreter Mihoko Imai had difficulty keeping a straight face.   ©Mance Thompson

And that he did, although few realized it until Fukuda appeared at FCCJ. As recently as 2014, one could have imagined that Japan’s beloved gag-comedy king was stuck in a (comfortable) rut, having achieved unprecedented domestic success for his peculiar brand of retro humor. If he did not exactly invent the genre, Fukuda had nurtured it to a fine sheen of ridiculousness. His obsession with the sight gag, the inside joke, the exaggerated double-take, the off-kilter line reading, the non-sequitur and the 4th-wall-breaking meta-commentary has subtly shifted the tenor of the entire comedy industry.

In just over a decade, Fukuda has built an empire of amusement through his stage plays (including adaptations of Broadway hits like Spamalot), his TV series (like 33-Minute Detective and Kid’s Police), and his film adaptations of best-selling Japanese manga (like the HK: Forbidden Super Hero series, in which a high school boy dons women’s panties to gain superpowers).

Yuichi FukudaMance Thompson-207
©Mance Thompson

And then the director’s Midas Touch led him to Gintama, the gag-manga property from Shueisha (51 million copies sold globally). Creating the first live-action version with his friend (and sometime co-writer) Shun Oguri as the silver-maned, nose-picking samurai hero Gintoki, Fukuda had a certified summer smash.

Gintama is currently 2017’s No. 1 live-action domestic film at the Japanese box office, at $40 million and counting.

Perhaps more significantly, the film got the largest-ever China opening for any Japanese film in history, when it opened on a record 12,000 screens in early September, handily dispatching the former title-holder, Makoto Shinkai’s global juggernaut, Your Name.

But it’s unlikely his newfound box-office clout will change Fukuda’s approach to supremely silly storytelling, both visual and verbal. If his latest film, Psychic Kusuo, is any guide, he continues to be devoted to lean budgets, retro special effects and casts filled with faces familiar from his other work.

Asked about the film’s enormous success and whether he hoped to repeat it with Psychic Kusuo, Fukuda said, “I’m honestly not that interested in box-office results, so I’m not sure how massive a hit Gintama was in China, although I do know it was successful in Japan. I would be happier if it were a hit in the US, honestly speaking, because I want to work there.”

He hastened to add, “I hope my work is universal, and I hope it caters to every nationality. But I’m always saying, ‘Can’t we please bring this to America?’ I believe all my work has been inspired by Western influences, like the Zucker Brothers and Monty Python, and pieces of them have been the basis of my Japanese comedies. I love Saturday Night Live, and it’s been my dream for a long time to live in New York and work as an SNL writer.”

Psychic Kusuo image2 SHUICHI ASO  SHUEISHA 2017 Psychic Kusuo FILM PARTNERS
Teen heartthrob Kento Yamazaki.  ©SHUICHI ASO / SHUEISHA 2017 “Psychic Kusuo” FILM PARTNERS

But first, the prolific multi-hyphenate has new product to pitch, and that would be Psychic Kusuo. An adaptation of the popular gag manga series in Weekly Shonen Jump (5 million copies sold), it concerns a pink-haired teen with unimaginable psychic powers: telepathy, psychokinesis, X-ray vision, teleportation, clairvoyance, walking on air — you name it. Yet Saiki Kusuo (Kento Yamazaki) calls himself “the unluckiest guy in the world,” and longs to lead a normal life.

Saiki’s classmates at the PK Academy are all troublemakers, and he is forever having to secretly use his powers to sidestep all the trouble they cause. It’s the start of the annual school festival, and Saiki’s homeroom teacher warns that one more dangerous incident like last year, and the event will be canceled forever. The excitable red-haired Hairo (Hideyuki Kasahara) decides the class project will be an Exhibition of Interesting Rock Formations on Campus, just to be safe (although one class has cross-dressing waitresses, while another lets kids machine-gun their tentacled teacher, in a nod to Assassination Classroom).

Psychic Kusuo image1 SHUICHI ASO  SHUEISHA 2017 Psychic Kusuo FILM PARTNERS
Yamazaki and Hashimoto.  ©SHUICHI ASO / SHUEISHA 2017 “Psychic Kusuo” FILM PARTNERS

But the black-caped Dark Reunion choose the festival to reappear and issue a dragon-ball challenge to Shun (Ryo Yoshizawa), who’s suffering from chuunibyou syndrome (in his case, he’s a wannabe manga hero). Even worse, the most popular girl in school, Kokomi (Kanna Hashimoto), starts stalking Saiki and very nearly reveals his superpowers. Bombarded with such potentially disastrous situations, it’s no wonder that the young lad starts to panic a little — even if his expression never changes and his hands never, ever come out of his pockets.

Asked whether Saiki’s desire to be normal represented typical Japanese youth, the director responded with a laugh, “Usually, if you have superpowers, you would want to use them or weaponize them. But this particular character is the exact reverse. That’s why I found it so interesting — he’s like the antithesis of the superhero — and that’s why I wanted to make it into a film.”

The casting, as with all Fukuda’s films, is sure to draw in a huge youth crowd. How does he manage to get all the hottest stars? “The casting, I’ll be frank about this, is all done by my wife,” Fukuda said. “She constantly tells me who I should get for all the roles, and I tell the producers, who are very nice, and always cast as my wife wishes. So I do what my wife says, because otherwise, I’ll ultimately regret it. When I’m shooting and I haven’t listened to her advice, I always discover that the actor’s not right for the part. So I’ll tell her and she’ll say, ‘See what happens when you don’t listen to me?’ I’ve found that it’s better to listen.

“For Gintama, 80 percent of the casting was done by my wife. She’s the one who told me to cast Kento Yamazaki for Psychic Kusuo. She noticed him long before he became so popular in shojo (female) manga adaptations. I didn’t know who he was, but I followed her advice.”

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©Mance Thompson

On a roll, relishing the truth, he confessed, “I would go so far as to say that a lot of my work is led by my wife. She often advises me on which projects to do or not to do, like a manager. But she’s never been part of the industry, she’s just a regular homemaker.”

A beat.

“I say ‘homemaker’ but she doesn’t clean, cook or do the laundry,” he laughed. “But she’s a genius wife and I’m like her marionette. I just listen to what she says.”

His wife isn’t the only helping hand in the family. Explained Fukuda, “I went into my eldest son’s room looking for something, and found 5 volumes of the Disastrous Life of Saiki Kusuo manga. My son only ever read One Piece, but there were these 5 volumes. I started reading and found it to be really funny and compelling. And I could tell from the visuals that Kento Yamazaki would be perfect for the part.”

Yuichi Fukuda with posterMance-17
©Mance Thompson

As knowledgeable as he is about American TV, Fukuda did not grow up in the US, and when a prominent entertainment journalist drew clever connections between scenes in the film and the actions of Wile E. Coyote and Road Runner, and between a character played by the great comic actor Murotsuyoshi and Gene Wilder, circa Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, the director said he was pleased, but did not have such homages in mind.

After being told by one attendee that Psychic Kusuo might be considered a bit over the top in the West, Fukuda said, “I think there are two types of comedy, the first being a straightforward ‘well-made’ comedy and the other being slapstick. Billy Wilder’s films were ‘well-made’ comedies, and certain prestigious directors have followed in his footsteps in Japan, such as Koki Mitani. I’m on the other end of the spectrum, and there aren't many who do gag comedy in Japan. Since I was heavily influenced by American comedies, my films have a strong parody aspect. For some reason, we don’t we do much parody in Japan, either.”

But he also insisted that the Japanese audience is “literate” in both types of comedy, and that he doesn’t “look down on or over-explain or dumb down my comedy for the audience. I trust them to get it.”

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Fukuda has fun in the FCCJ photo gallery. ©Mance Thompson

For the past decade or so, every project Fukuda has touched has turned to gold. Big studios line up to work with him, while eminent actors gamely deliver his brilliantly inane dialog and tackle his inspired physical gags. And his legion of followers? They’re the all-important youth demographic (and the millions who never quite grew up). They clearly can’t get enough of him.

In short, no one has his finger on the Cool Japan comedy zeitgeist quite like Fukuda. It seems impossible that he won’t get a shot at US glory. But in the meantime, he is remaking a US romantic comedy hit and will soon begin adapting the popular “Saint Young Men” manga.

Psychic Kusuo poster SHUICHI ASO  SHUEISHA 2017 Psychic Kusuo FILM PARTNERS
©SHUICHI ASO / SHUEISHA 2017 “Psychic Kusuo” FILM PARTNERS

Selected Press Coverage

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