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YAEKO'S HUM


YAEKO'S HUM (Yaeko no Humming)


April 25, 2017
Q&A guests: Director Kiyoshi Sasabe and stars Takeshi Masu and Yoko Takahashi


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                       Masu, Takahashi and Sasabe     ©Mance Thompson

Like all fast-graying societies, Japan has not dodged the healthcare bullet. Current estimates put the number of dementia sufferers in the country at 4.6 million, but with 65-and-overs expected to account for over 30% of the population by 2025, that is sure to surge. 

While the government has championed community-wide caregiving, the burden of funding and implementing much-needed initiatives has fallen on NGOs and NPOs at the local level. Yet even with neighborhood watch networks, innovative daycare centers and millions of trained volunteer caregivers, there are simply not enough people involved.

Taking his inspiration from a true story, writer-director-producer Kiyoshi Sasabe means his new film as a wake-up call — a poignant argument against the outsourcing of Alzheimer’s care. “Kindness is the best medicine,” says one of its protagonists, and Yaeko’s Hum amply demonstrates the resulting improvements in quality of life and dignity.

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                     The writer-director often tackles pressing social issues, but this time, it was more personal.  
©Mance Thompson

The film follows the broad outlines of the memoir of the same name by Nobutaka Minami, an educator who not only devoted himself selflessly to the care of his wife after she developed early-onset Alzheimer’s, but did so while concurrently undergoing a series of debilitating cancer operations himself. Sasabe first read the book 8 years ago, and was immediately interested in adapting it.

During the Q&A session following FCCJ’s sneak preview screening, one audience member praised Sasabe’s gifts as a “master tearjerker,” but asked why the film hadn’t been made by a major studio, given the seemingly made-for-mainstream-audiences approach to the subject. The director responded, “I wrote a script 8 years ago and initially planned to make it with a studio. But it’s about an elderly couple, about sickness and caregiving, and that does not sit well with younger audiences. So every major studio and TV station that I went to said no to the project.”

But traveling the Japanese festival circuit with other films, Sasabe was often asked why there were no more films for mature audiences, and gradually realized that Yaeko’s Hum could appeal to older fans.

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                   Yoko Takahashi, an accomplished novelist, returns to the screen after a 28-year hiatus. 
©Mance Thompson

His commitment deepened further when the story took a personal turn. “I lost my mother two years ago, and before she passed away, she suffered dementia herself for 3 or 4 years,” he explained. “My younger sister took care of her, and it was a very challenging time. Whenever I talk with my contemporaries, the topic always seems to come around to ‘What do we do about our aging, ailing parents?’ I think this is a film that Japanese society needs. So I ultimately decided that I would raise the funds and make it independently.”

Sasabe had explored the theme before, in his Japan Academy-Prizewinning Half a Confession (2004) — although that work was equally concerned with the issue of euthanasia, when a husband is arrested for killing his Alzheimer’s-afflicted wife at her request. He had also, as an assistant director, worked on Solitude Point (1998), a story of the enduring love between a Japanese Alzheimer's sufferer and her Korean War-veteran husband.

With Yaeko’s Hum, Sasabe focuses on a relationship that would seem far too good to be true. Except that it really happened.

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                   Masu, accustomed to supporting roles, is perfectly cast as the uber-devoted husband.  ©Mance Thompson

The film opens after Yaeko’s death, as Seigo Ishizaki (Takeshi Masu), a retired principal and school board director, addresses an avid crowd. "I cared for my wife for 12 years,” he tells them. “We’d been married for 38 years, so that amounts to the last third of our life together. I watched her gradually lose her memory… but then it struck me… my wife was just taking her time saying goodbye.” As Ishizaki speaks, his memories come alive in a series of flashbacks, beginning with the first signs of the disease in 1989.

As Yaeko’s illness progresses, it soon takes a tremendous toll on the family, yet Ishizaki remains impossibly patient as his wife reverts to childhood. Yaeko (Yoko Takahashi) was once a music teacher, and she retains her love of song; since she cannot remember the words now, she must hum them. When she hears her favorite songs by Shinji Tanimura, her smile always returns. But these are not easy years, and the film doesn’t gloss over the difficulties of home care — the diapers, the mood changes, the tantrums, the disappearance of romance from the couple’s relationship. Yet with the support of the couple’s two daughters, and eventually the entire town, Ishizaki tends to Yaeko’s needs, protects her dignity and extends her life as he bids her a “long farewell.”

Looking far younger than she does onscreen (and younger than she deserves to), Yoko Takahashi thrilled several members of FCCJ’s audience who remembered her early career burning up the screen as the sexy star of such films as Koichi Saito’s Journey into Solitude, Kei Kumai’s Sandakan 8 and Shuji Terayama’s Farewell to the Ark. But Takahashi left the film world to write fulltime. With a successful, ongoing career as a novelist, what was it about this role that enticed her back to acting after a 28-year break?

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                                       ©FCCJ

“It’s like getting back on a bicycle,” she told the audience. “Once you learn, you never forget how to ride. It didn’t seem like a long hiatus to me. But when the director asked me to play the role, I did have to think twice. I didn’t have a lot of lines, and I would have to play this person who’s ailing. So I hesitated. With the issue of dementia, you often hear about people becoming increasingly irritable, about them wandering and essentially becoming troublemakers. But Mr. Sasabe wanted me to make Yaeko charming [too], and that’s what really attracted me to the role.” A beat. “But it was a lot easier to play her when she’s aggressive.”

Takeshi Masu, a familiar face from literally dozens of supporting roles on stage, screen and TV for the past 35 years, marks a deeply moving debut in the lead here. Without his convincing portrayal, a fine balance of tender sentiment and gentle exasperation, the film would have collapsed under its own best intentions.

Asked how he prepared to become a saint, Masu admitted, “To tell you the truth, I couldn’t figure out how to approach the role because it was so starkly different from my past roles. But when I went on the set, Yoko-san was there as Yaeko, being really charming, and that helped me want to help her, to be as kind to her as possible.”

Takahashi mentioned that she had prepared for the role by meeting the author of the memoir, Yaeko’s widower, as well as by watching an NHK documentary on the couple.

Because there are flashbacks to the way back, as well as to the more recent past, Takahashi and Masu frequently found themselves tasked with playing their characters at different ages, even on the same shooting day. Masu spoke about the physical challenges of the role: “I played someone who starts at 40 and ages up to 80, so I would have to carefully gauge how slowly to walk or to speak for each scene, so that it would all seem seamless when edited together.”

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©Mance Thompson

One foreign audience member mentioned her mother’s dementia and her own surprise at discovering, after moving her mother into a Japanese nursing home, that no one goes to visit their family members. Another viewer discussed how many people in Japan are now dying alone with no chance to be supported by the community, and asked the director whether he would consider making a “more realistic” film about someone who doesn’t have a family or a support system.

“I didn’t want to depict the harsh reality of caregiving,” said Sasabe. “There are so many documentaries about that out there. I wanted to make a film about loving Yaeko, and how love prevails. I wanted it to be a pure love story about this elderly couple, represented by the line, ‘There are limits to anger, but kindness is limitless.’”

He continued, “I want you to see this film as a sort of fantasy. I wanted to depict [the husband] as a kind of superhero. It’s about dreams and about hope.”

Sasabe shot Yaeko’s Hum in the small castle town of Hagi, facing the Sea of Japan, where he has set four previous films. It afforded him not only gorgeous views, but also immense support from the city and its citizens. He hails from nearby Shimonoseki, and in an echo of his film’s message, having a local network has clearly been essential to him.

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©2017 Team “Yaeko’s Hum”

Press Coverage

STAR SAND


STAR SAND (Star Sand – Hoshizuna Monogatari)


April 10, 2017
Q&A guests: Director Roger Pulvers, stars Lisa Oda and Shinnosuke Mitsushima


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                       The emerging director and his two rising stars.     ©Koichi Mori

In a prolific career that has taken him from the US to Russia to Poland to Japan and beyond, American-bred Australian Roger Pulvers has been known primarily as an award-winning author, translator, journalist, playwright, theater director and educator. Despite having famously served as Nagisa Oshima’s assistant on Merry Christmas, Mr. Lawrence (1983), and as co-writer of Takashi Koizumi’s Best Wishes for Tomorrow (2008), he has notched most of his achievements in realms other than film.

But he has just added another feather to his cap: film director.

A familiar figure at FCCJ, Pulvers sneak-previewed his directorial debut, Star Sand, ahead of the world premiere on April 22 at the Okinawa International Movie Festival. When he was asked what took him so long to helm his own production, Pulvers laughed, “I would have liked to make a movie a long time ago. I had a plan in 1990, but the asset bubble burst and I couldn’t.”

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                                                                Oda and Mitsushima both lauded Pulvers' directorial skills.    Above: ©FCCJ  Below: ©Koichi Mori

He recalled how he’d visited Hatomajima in 1977, first encountering the sparkly star sands (tiny, star-shaped marine protozoa), and hearing that the island had escaped the ravages of war. Some years later, he began thinking about “making a movie about a deserter, making a hero out of a deserter. I think that in times of intense warfare, it is heroic not to fight.” With the 2003 invasion of Iraq, “I remembered Vietnam, and I was very angry. So I wrote ‘Star Sand.’”

The film is based on that story (later a novel in both English and Japanese), an Okinawa-set mystery tale with a powerful message about compassion and quiet acts of heroism during wartime. Calling in favors from his nearly five decades in Japan, Pulvers was able to cast A-list actors like Shinobu Terajima, Renji Ishibashi and Mako Midori, and to shoot on location in Iejima with veteran cinematographer Shinji Ogawa and art director Koichi Kanekatsu (it was the first production ever permitted on the island, which had been destroyed by bombing in 1945). The film’s haunting theme song was written by Oscar-winner Ryuichi Sakamoto, an old friend from Merry Christmas days (which also deals with a friendship between soldiers from opposing sides).

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                                                                                                                                              ©Koichi Mori

Star Sand jumps nimbly between three distinctly different eras — April 1945, 1958 and 2016 — although its primary action takes place during the horrific Battle of Okinawa on a tiny speck of land remote from the main theater of action. Nevertheless, its inhabitants have all been touched, some in more disastrous ways than others, by the Pacific War. Sixteen-year-old Hiromi (Oda) has recently arrived on the island, while her father goes to work in a Nagasaki factory and her Japanese-American mother stays in Los Angeles. Out hunting for star sand one day, she comes upon two men in a cave. One is Takayasu, a Japanese deserter (Mitsushima); the other is an ailing American deserter named Bob (Brandon McClelland). Hiromi helps nurse Bob back to health, and brings food to the two men, who pledge never to commit an act of violence again. All is well until Takayasu’s brother, a fanatical soldier (Takahiro Miura), discovers the trio and vows to kill them all. Eventually, three of the four people in the cave will perish; we do not learn their identities until a modern-day university student in Tokyo reads a diary discovered in the cave in 1958, and goes on a quest to uncover the startling secret.

Pulvers brought along his two young stars, Lisa Oda and Shinnosuke Mitsushima, both of whom are on the cusp of major career recognition, to the FCCJ event.

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                      © 2017 The STAR SAND Team

A popular model since 2012, Oda made her memorable film debut just a year ago, playing a young woman who holds the key to a grisly crime in Keishi Ohtomo’s The Top Secret: Murder in Mind. Although she has also been appearing for the past two seasons as Sena, the pirate girl, in NHK’s television drama Moribito: Guardian of the Spirit, Oda’s acting resume is extremely slender for one so poised. She is not only the protagonist of Star Sand and its emotional center; she also delivers nearly half her lines in English.

Greeting the audience in English prior to the Q&A session, Oda was clearly nervous in front of her first crowd of international critics. “I was delighted to be offered the part of Hiromi, and couldn’t believe my good luck,” she told the audience. “Actually, I was so nervous because I have not had much acting experience. Also, I really didn't know about the wartime history of Japan. The biggest problem was how to be Hiromi with the right emotional responses. It wasn’t easy, but thanks to guidance from everybody, I was able to [play the role]. I'm grateful for the chance to be part of Star Sand.

Mitsushima proved to be as loquacious in person as his Star Sand character is reticent. “Good evening, everyone,” he introduced himself, also in English. “I’m from Okinawa, and I’m very honored to join this film and to be here tonight.” Switching to Japanese, he continued, “When I met Roger, he showed me a photo of an island, and I knew right away that it was Iejima, where I spent a lot of time [visiting] in my childhood. Being from Okinawa, you hear a lot more war stories and wartime experiences, and we see people who still have bullets in their bodies and older people who have lost limbs. The war is part of our being. So I worried about taking the role, since it would mean that I would have to face my identity as an Okinawan and shoulder the sentiments of my ancestors. Also, my grandfather is an American, so I would not have been born if it weren’t for World War II. But I was taken with Roger’s passion. Without him, it wouldn’t have been possible.”

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                                                    Both
©FCCJ

Pulvers returned his stars’ compliments: “I knew from the very beginning that if I didn’t get Lisa to play Hiromi, no one else could,” he said. “I think there are many among you tonight who will agree that she’s quite miraculous. As for that guy over there [indicating Mitsushima], that Okinawan-American, I thought there wouldn’t be a chance to get him in my movie. But when he saw that photo of Iejima and recognized it immediately, I put my dibs on him. It’s probably the first time a director’s gotten an actor just by showing one photograph.”

Asked how they prepared for their roles, Oda said, “I wouldn't be so pompous as to call my preparation for this role an ‘approach,’ but I will say that the first thing I did was to work with the director on improving my English pronunciation.”

Mitsushima, who’s been acting on stage and screen since 2010, and will appear in five other high-profile films this year (including titles by Takashi Miike, Yoshihiro Nakamura and Hirokazu Kore-eda), mentioned that the rehearsal period had been very helpful. “The character I play doesn’t have a lot of lines, and he’s the symbol of how Roger sees the Japanese — the conflicts, the strengths, the love for their families. I could prepare for that on my own physically, but I wouldn’t have been able to capture the essence of the character without having many, many discussions with the director. He knows twice as much as [the younger actors] do about Japan and Japanese history.”

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               An Okinawa representative invites Pulvers to return soon and make a sequel.                      ©Koichi Mori

He continued, “I decided to not take too cerebral an approach, but just to feel it emotionally, to bring back my childhood memories of spending time in caves. As [the character] says, ‘The world may be at war, but you’re able to breathe when you’re in this cave.’ We actually shot in one of the caves where people hid during the war, and you could feel this intangible power. I would get goosebumps every time we went in. Brandon and Miura-san and I would offer incense and prayers to the deceased each time, to help us connect with that generation.”

Pulvers was asked why he cast himself — in a very small role in the film’s closing minutes — in his own film. “I didn’t want to!” he lamented. “I’ve known [actress] Mako Midori forever; we’re the same age, and I had to play her son! But my producers put pressure on me, probably because they didn’t have money to audition someone else. So the biggest ham actor comes out at the very end.”

Star Sand will be opening in Okinawa before its Tokyo run begins in August, during the annual period of war remembrance, and Pulvers is sure to feature even more prominently in media analyses about the escalation of tensions in Asia. By bravely recasting war’s so-called cowards as the real heroes — the “true messengers of peace,” as he puts it, Pulvers’ first film is a poignant reminder that, even in periods of hatred and brutality, there is also the chance for hope.

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© 2017 The STAR SAND Team

Press Coverage

 

DON’T BLINK - ROBERT FRANK


DON’T BLINK - ROBERT FRANK (Don't Blink - Robert Frank no Utsushita Jidai)


March 24, 2017
Q&A guest: Director Laura Israel


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                       Laura Israel, Frank's editor, archivist and now, cinematic biographer.   ©Koichi Mori

Before she found the perfect title for her documentary, Laura Israel had planned to call it Robert Frank, You Got Eyes. As she explained to FCCJ’s Q&A audience, “Jack Kerouac wrote that in the forward to ‘The Americans.’ We always knew it was a working title, and I was never really happy with it because I felt it was too old and over-used already. But Robert came up with the title. He was answering a journalist who asked him, ‘What would you tell young photographers?’ He said, ‘Keep your eyes open. Don’t blink.’”

Heads nodded approvingly around the room, not only because many of those present were photographers themselves, but also because the words seemed positively Frankian: deceptively simple, enduringly deep.

The Swiss-born New Yorker revolutionized the art of photography and independent film in the 1950s, with work that was personal, impulsive and (purposely) imperfect. In his 60-year career, he has documented the Beats, Welsh coal miners, Peruvian Indians, the Rolling Stones (infamously) and of course, the Americans.

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©FCCJ

Frank first came to fame in 1958 with the French publication of his seminal book “The Americans,” which was the result of a 9-month, 10,000-mile, 30-state journey through his adopted country (funded by a Guggenheim Foundation fellowship). Culled from 767 rolls of film and 27,000 images, the book’s racially-charged depictions of America’s downtrodden, lonely and marginalized, were haunting and controversial. One critic dubbed Frank’s work a “sad poem for sick people,” while another slammed the “meaningless blur, grainy, muddy exposure, drunken horizons and general sloppiness.” But “The Americans” is now considered the most influential photo book of the 20th century.

Frank’s sympathies have always been with “people who struggle,” and he has portrayed them with unfailing empathy, as well as unblinking honesty. Yet he has not been a willing subject himself. In one scene is Israel’s film, we see him, circa 1988, staring into a video lens. “I hate these f***ing interviews,” he complains to his interlocutor, getting increasingly irritated. Finally he growls, “I can’t stand to be pinned in front of a camera, because I do that to people. I don’t want it to be done to me!” And he gets up and walks out of frame.

But Don’t Blink presents a different side of Robert Frank. A sprightly 90 years old when the film was made, and a little more relaxed in front of the camera than he was in the 1980s, the irascible, reclusive subject of Israel’s immersive documentary reveals he has a surprisingly sanguine character.

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Photo of Robert Frank by Lisa Rinzler, copyright Assemblage Films LLC

It helps that the woman behind the camera is his long-time collaborator. Israel has been his editor and archivist-preservationist for nearly 30 years, and their intimacy has allowed her to tap into a staggering wealth of archival images and footage, as well as to capture Frank in a variety of settings over three years, from his New York loft to his isolated cabin in Nova Scotia.

Asked how the project came about, Israel explained, “I went with my first film [Windfall, 2009] to the International Documentary Festival Amsterdam, and [took part] in the mentoring program there. I met with a writer, Tue Steen Müller. He was kind of a gruff, older guy and had a lot of personality, like Robert Frank. He wasn’t particularly happy with my film [which looks at a small town’s troubles with wind turbines]. I was intimidated, so I told him, ‘I thought we would get along, because I work with Robert Frank.’ He lunged over the table at me and said, ‘That’s your next film! You’re doing a film about Robert Frank!’”

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Photo of Robert Frank by Lisa Rinzler, copyright Assemblage Films LLC

Despite Israel’s resistance, and initially, that of Frank, the project took off just days after she mentioned it to him. And did he demand any changes, once the film was finished? “No changes,” Israel told the FCCJ crowd. “He said, ‘I really like the music, and you made the photographs come to life.’”

Don’t Blink is like a visual game of free association that pays tribute to Frank’s own style, cut together as if it were one of the restless artist’s frequent road trips, with rapid-fire montages of his photographic and film work, from his fashion-snapping years with Harper’s Bazaar and his freelance photojournalism, to his handmade-style films and his friendships with Jack Kerouac, Allen Ginsberg and other assorted counterculture artists, as well as with the everyday people who continue to fascinate him.

Israel discussed the accomplishment of putting the documentary together. A veteran editor herself, she said, “I worked with an editor, which I would recommend to any filmmaker. It was a lot of footage, and Robert gave us access to all of his work, and he’s very prolific. We set up an editing room with all his books, all his photos, all his films, and we surrounded ourselves with Robert Frank for a year and a half. It was wonderful. But when we see the film now, we look at each other and say, ‘Whew. I’m glad we don’t have to do that again!’”

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                         ©Koichi Mori

One journalist asked about the impact of the 9/11 terrorist attack on Frank’s life and work, and why it wasn’t included in the film. “Robert wasn’t in New York around 9/11,” responded Israel. “He was in Nova Scotia, and he returned immediately. He brought back that beautiful film about the guy who delivers papers [Paper Route, 2002; excerpted in Don’t Blink]. I had been there on the Lower East Side on 9/11, and that film means so much to me. After 9/11, seeing that simplicity and beauty and that kind of life really helped me. It was very cathartic to work on that film, editing with Robert.”

It turned out that Frank wasn’t the only fan of the film’s soundtrack. With each subsequent audience question, the filmmaker was praised for her musical choices. Asked how she managed to afford so many well-known names, Israel explained, “I worked with a wonderful music producer, Hal Willner, and his associate, Rachel Fox. After Hal saw the first 30 minutes of the film, he was very excited and said, ‘Okay, I’ll call up Bob Dylan’s manager.’” And I was like, ‘Okay, go ahead and do that and we’ll see how that goes.’ [laughs] He called me the next week and said, ‘Bob Dylan said yes.’ After we got Bob Dylan, it seemed that all the musicians, either by design or by pure luck, had a connection to Robert Frank. This was the rare project where you call and ask someone for a favor, and they thank you for calling and asking them to help.

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Israel with the film's Japanese poster.  ©FCCJ

“Let me give a few examples: Charles Mingus — someone told us ‘Sue Mingus [his widow] never gives his music to any film. You’ll never get that music. Never, ever.’ Then we found out that Robert actually introduced her to Mingus, and he was at the wedding and everything. So she said yes right away. Yo La Tengo — I didn’t know until later that they had done a song called ‘Pablo and Andrea’ [the names of Frank’s two children, who died tragically young], and that they had gone to school with them [at the school featured in Conversations in Vermont, 1969]. Tom Waits — we found out that he was very excited about the one song we used. So we said, ‘We’ll use two, then.’ And the Kills — I really love the song ‘The Way New York Used to Be,’ and we approached Alison Mosshart, and she said ‘I would do anything for Robert Frank. I would never say no to Robert Frank.’ So all these things fell together.”

The ranks of Robert Frank fans are bound to swell after the Japanese release of Don’t Blink, although he has long had a devoted following here. Impressive not only for its historical immersiveness, the film also delivers positive messages about aging and creativity. Frank has continued to create at an exhaustive pace, embracing work for its energizing and its healing properties, and is still finding new stories to tell about his fellow outsider Americans. “These are good people,” he says, “these marginal people who live at the edge. They interest me.” And then he snaps another shot to add to his one-of-a-kind collection.

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Photo of Robert Frank by Lisa Rinzler, copyright Assemblage Films LLC

Press Coverage

SNOW WOMAN


SNOW WOMAN (Yuki Onna)


February 23, 2017
Q&A guests: Director-star Kiki Sugino and star Munetaka Aoki


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Sugino and Aoki are infinitely warmer in person than in their hauntingly frosty film.    ©FCCJ
 

The chilly relationship they depict onscreen is clearly all an act; indie film queen Kiki Sugino and her costar Munetaka Aoki seemed like the oldest of friends during the Q&A session following FCCJ's sneak preview of their film Snow Woman. Trading compliments, laughing frequently, they were relaxed and loquacious, the polar opposites of the characters they play.

After the first three questions had gone to the director, Aoki even felt comfortable enough to break in and say, “I want to answer a question now.” Asked about his (fairly erotic) love scene with Sugino, and his experiences working with a female helmer, the popular actor (Rurouni Kenshin, A Woman Wavering in the Rain, NHK’s Chikaemon) answered by first demonstrating his impressive English skills: “When I got this offer, I was really excited,” he said, “because [Sugino] is really talented as an actress and a producer, and I really wanted to work with her.” Switching into Japanese, he continued, “As an actor, you always want to be inspired by your director, and that goes for male directors and directors who are younger than you. I was able to throw myself into the world of Snow Woman, but I don’t think it was because Ms. Sugino is female. I enjoyed it immensely. As for the love scene, yes, it was the first time I had a love scene with my director, and it was very interesting.”  

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                       The costars introduced the film before the screening.   ©Koichi Mori

Sugino was marking her third visit to FCCJ, but her first as a director — she had joined us as producer-star of Koji Fukada’s Au revoir l’éte in 2014, and as producer-star of Takuya Misawa’s Chigasaki Story in 2015. A veteran of just 10 years in the film industry, she has been active on both sides of the camera — and internationally — since producing the award-winning Hospitalité, also from Fukada, in 2009. She made her own directorial debut with a pair of disparate features in 2014, one an adaptation of a popular manga (Kyoto Elegy); the other based on an original story about a Japanese couple visiting Indonesia (Taksu). It won her the Rising Director Award at the Busan Film Festival.

Snow Woman, which Sugino also co-wrote and shot in her home prefecture of Hiroshima, earned a Competition berth at the 2016 Tokyo International Film Festival, and accolades like this from Variety: “[I]n her most accomplished film yet, Sugino finds the icy heart of an ancient, oft-repeated story, and makes it her enigmatic own.”

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Sugino directed, cowrote and starred in her third feature, her first period piece.   ©FCCJ

That story is the ghostly “Woman of the Snow,” from Lafcadio Hearn’s 1904 anthology “Kwaidan: Stories and Studies of Strange Things;” and although it may seem overly familiar to the Japanese (and fans of Masaki Kobayashi’s 1965 Kwaidan), Sugino’s gorgeously lensed reinterpretation offers a suitably modern approach. Make that modernist. It is set in a timeless era when mountaineers sleep in huts under straw mats while factory workers engage in the production of electrical goods; when girls sing in haunting unison as they carry bowls of plums on their heads, where news seems to travel only by grapevine, not by internet.

“It takes place in the present,” explained Sugino, “but in a parallel present. You see influences from the Taisho and early Showa eras in the set design and the costumes. When you go back to the original story, you don’t know if it takes place 1,000 years ago, 100 years ago or now. The essence of the story transcends time. The snow woman as a being really is science fiction, so she can’t be constrained to any period.” She mentioned that the plum-carrying girls are actually engaging in a traditional coming-of-age ritual, but that the song was specially written for the film. “It’s a symbolic moment in the film. The girls [are crossing a river], which is a symbol of the in-between from childhood to adulthood, just as the boat is symbolic of being in between two worlds [the netherworld and the real world].”

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Aoki had a superlative 2016, and heads to a 3-month run on the stage in 2017.  ©Kochi Mori
 

The stylized, elliptical Snow Woman is daringly short on dialog and long on such metaphors. The average multiplex-goer may be disappointed with its lack of transparency, but there are scenes of such trancelike beauty and mesmerizing mystery, the arthouse viewer will look past the film’s many riddles, and succumb to its stately pace and poetic power.

One snowy night deep in the mountains, a young hunter named Minokichi (Aoki) awakens to see a beautiful yuki onna hovering over his mentor, Mosaku (Shiro Sano), literally stealing his breath away. “Should you tell anyone,” she warns the hunter, “I will take your life.” Minokichi’s encounter is so surreal, he does not dare to believe it occurred. A year later, he meets and marries a beautiful lass from another village, an outsider named Yuki (Sugino). She bears him a daughter, Ume, and they live a happy, if frugal, existence. But as the years pass, there are several more mysterious deaths, and the villagers begin pointing fingers in Yuki’s direction. Minokichi remains mum, yet his doubts begin to grow. It isn’t until Ume blossoms into a radiant young lady (emerging star Mayu Yamaguchi) and befriends the village leader’s son that his troubles really begin.

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Minokichi and Yuki in the woods.  ©Snow Woman Film Partners

Lauding the director’s aesthetic mastery of the medium, one journalist asked Sugino about her inspirations. “I’ve really been inspired by Daiei movies, which I love, especially the work of Kenji Mizoguchi and Yasuzo Masumura,” she enthused. “For this film, I drew a lot of inspiration from Kozaburo Yoshimura and Yasujiro Ozu, especially Ozu's use of color in Floating Clouds. They inspired me to become a filmmaker, and I think you can feel their spirit in this film, in its depiction of the traversing between the netherworld and the [real world]. I suppose some people were hoping for more of a contemporary take on this folklore story, but I think it blends aspects of classic and contemporary cinema.”

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©Kochi Mori, Right: ©FCCJ

Discussing the impetus for her adaptation, Sugino explained: “I read [Hearn’s] book about 4 years ago. He was born in Greece, then lived in Ireland and the US, working as a journalist, and ultimately, came to Japan and naturalized as a Japanese. Through his work, he wanted to convey the spirit and virtues of Japan to both the Japanese and non-Japanese. I think he also wanted to convey the spirit of coexistence [even] with something you can’t quite grasp or someone that is different from you. Considering the intolerance toward immigrants in Europe and the radical philosophies developing in the US, I think it is so important to keep in mind that coexistence is one of the cornerstones for building the future. I think [Hearn’s] story reflects this ideal, and that’s why I felt there was a lot of meaning in making it into a film in this day and age.”

Asked about the earlier adaptation by Masaki Kobayashi, Sugino said, “I love Kobayashi’s Snow Woman, which is faithful to the short story. “But I wanted to take a different approach. I didn’t want to copy his work, and we had budget limitations [that Kobayashi didn’t have]. So the question was, what type of point of view do I imbue the film with, how do I bring a new twist to it? That’s where the daughter comes in, the daughter of Yuki and Minokichi, a half-breed between a human and non-human. I think [her existence] also makes it relevant to this day and age.”

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Emerging star Mayu Yamaguchi plays the "halfbreed" daughter of Sugino and Aoki.  ©Kochi Mori
 

Commenting on assembling her cast and crew, Sugino said, “I was able to assemble my favorite actors and actresses for this film. I had Mr. Aoki in mind from the very beginning. I hadn’t even completed the script when I went to him with the story, and it was like a dream, being able to work with him. I don’t think I’m someone with special leadership skills, but I feel strongly that I have more passion than other people. When I want to do something, I find a way to do it, I find a way to tell people that I want to involve them in my project. I think maybe I’m more persistent than others. I don’t know if I have the technique to convey what I want, but I have passion and I put it in a straightforward way, albeit clumsily at times.”

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Aoki brandishes his new Honorary FCCJ Membership card after the event.  ©Kochi Mori

She concluded, “I really enjoyed the process of making this film, because all the actors, not only Mr. Aoki, were so committed to it, and we were able to collaborate a great deal.”

“What choice do you have,” laughed Aoki, “when the Snow Woman looks into your eyes and warns you that she’ll kill you? You just have to put everything you’ve got into the film.”

On a more serious note, he added, “Ms. Sugino's personality attracts a lot of people. She has this power.”

Countered Sugino, “Mr. Aoki is only saying such kind words because we’re in front of the press.”

But Aoki got in the last word: “She really is the Snow Woman. We shot this film last year and it was a very warm winter, but whenever she came on set, it would snow. The cast and crew started wondering about her. But it made us all believe that it was going to be a wonderful creation and a wonderful film.”

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©Snow Woman Film Partners

Coverage

CLOSE-KNIT


CLOSE-KNIT (Karera ga Honkide Amu Toki wa)


February 8, 2017
Q&A guest: Director Naoko Ogigami


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                            Writer-director Naoko Ogigami's new film focuses on family ties, but not the typical kind.     ©FCCJ 

 “Unconventional” is an adjective that describes nearly all of Naoko Ogigami’s characters, from the Japanese women who open a washoku restaurant in Helsinki (Kamome Diner, 2006) to the frazzled city dweller who learns how to “twilight” on a quaint island (Megane – Glasses, 2008), to the grandmother who longs for a Toto Washlet while living overseas (Toilet, 2010), to the young woman who rents cats to people who need pet therapy (Rent-a-Cat, 2012). 

So it comes as a surprise that while the writer-director’s first new film in 5 years, Close-Knit, includes its share of unconventional characters — including a transgender woman as the protagonist  — it is really her most conventional work yet, if “conventional” is understood to mean “sure to appeal to a broad audience.”

Appearing at FCCJ shortly before she was due to leave for the film’s world premiere at the Berlin International Film Festival, and speaking without an interpreter, Ogigami explained why Close-Knit feels different: “One of my challenges was, I’m really fed up with people calling my films iyashi-kei eiga [akin to ‘films that promote emotional healing,’ a genre that Ogigami has been credited with starting], and I wanted to do something new. I think I have done something new, and if it attracts a different audience, that’s great. My previous films were almost all fantasies, so I tried to make this more realistic.”

Perhaps it is Close-Knit’s serious consideration of LGBTQ (and other pressing social) issues that lends it a greater sheen of realism, although there are still several quirky characters and scenes with the director’s patented eccentric humor. The story of a very modern family, it begins when fifth-grader Tomo (Rinka Kakihara), is abandoned by her often-absent mother. Already resourceful, Tomo heads for her uncle Makio’s (Kenta Kiritani) place. There, she meets his beautiful girlfriend Rinko (Toma Ikuta), who warmly welcomes her and proves to be a much better mother than her own. But Rinko is transgender, and soon, Tomo is being bullied by classmates for her new “weird family" (among less gentle name-calling). When Tomo fights back and the police are called, Rinko helps calm her by showing her how to knit, and how to work out her anger with each stitch. Rinko herself has been knitting strange, colorful objects that she terms her “worldly desires.” When she has made a certain number of them, she says, she will conduct a “manhood memorial service,” and file papers to legally change her gender. With Makio and Tomo’s support, Rinko will not only reach her goal, but also be inspired to pursue a dream that she thought was outside her reach.   

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                        Ogigami admits she wanted a beauty for her leading lady, and she got one in Toma Ikuta.   ©FCCJ

Close-Knit features a trio of extraordinary lead performances, two of them by major movie stars — Toma Ikuta (The Mole Song, The Top Secret: Murder in Mind) and Kenta Kiritani (Too Young to Die!, Gonin Saga) — marking the first time that Ogigami has cast big names. The third performance is by a complete unknown, preteen Rinka Kakihara, who more than holds her own.

Although she didn’t have Ikuta and Kiritani in mind when she wrote the script, Ogigami admitted that she knew “I needed [an actor with] a beautiful face, since he had to [convincingly] play a woman. The first time I saw Ikuta-san in a film was 7 years ago, and I was so impressed with how beautiful he is. So he was always in my mind. I finished writing and started thinking about casting, and I thought he would be good for the role. But he’s from Johnny’s [Jimusho, the notoriously controlling management company], and I thought even if I offered him the role, he would have to decline. But fortunately, he said, ‘Yes.’

“Once Ikuta-san decided to do this, I thought for his partner, I had to find someone taller than him, but with a [gentle demeanor]. When Kiritani-san was young, he used to play hotheads all the time, but as he got older, he started getting calmer, and I thought he would be good.” As for Kakihara, she enthused, “I found her at an audition. She’s an absolute genius. I had a lot of rehearsals with Ikuta, but not so many with Kakihara. This was the first time she’d been in a film, and she was just a natural.” 

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                                                                                                                                                                                          ©Kochi Mori 

Since the film “pushes social boundaries,” as one journalist put it, he found it surprising that the bulk of the budget came from status quo monolith Dentsu. “It was very hard to find financing,” admitted Ogigami, “because it’s based on an original story, and it’s very hard, nowadays, to make films [that aren’t based on bestselling novels or popular manga]. But Dentsu came aboard.” Asked if that was before or after Ikuta had signed on to the project, she laughed, “About the same time.”

Asked what had inspired the story, Ogigami said that she’d spent 6 years in Los Angeles during her 20s, and had had a lot of friends who were gay and lesbian. “When I came back to Japan, I didn’t have many friends who were sexual minorities,” she explained, “and that was awkward for me. I realized it’s still difficult for people to come out of the closet in this country. That was one of the reasons I made the film.” 

An Argentinian journalist mentioned that her country had just begun educating teachers to treat trans children according to the gender with which they identify, thereby doing away with the longheld notion that they are abnormal. “In the film,” she noted, “Rinko’s mother completely accepted her when she was young, unlike the boy’s mother [a friend of Tomo’s who may be gay]. Did you base these characters on real people?”

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Kiritani and Kakihara in the film.  
©2016 ”CLOSE-KNIT” Film Partners

Ogigami responded, “I found an article in the newspaper about a transgender woman [Natsuki Majikina], who told her mother when she was 14 that she wanted to have breasts. Her mother knitted fake boobs for her. I went to her mother to ask her about this. She said she always knew that her daughter was different, but she always accepted her. On the other hand, I have a friend who’s gay and Catholic, and says that he will never tell his mother, as long as she lives.” 

Asked about other research she’d done before writing the script, the director said, “Since I’m not a sexual minority myself, I was worried about whether I was allowed to make this kind of film. If I don’t have any prejudice or discrimination, I thought it would be all right. But I didn’t want to hurt anyone, so I asked my transgender and gay friends to read the script, to make sure no one was offended.” 

Close-Knit is an apt metaphor for the film’s themes, referring as it does not only to the creation of new family ties and the bolstering of old ones, but also to the actual act of knitting — an important feature of the story that required several months of intense practice before filming commenced. 

Noting that the film encompasses a number of important social issues beyond LGBTQ concerns — bullying, elder care, youth suicide, family estrangements and abuses that repeat from one generation to the next — one member of the audience suggested, “I think it would be great if families could see this film together.” It wasn’t entirely clear which definition of “family” he meant, but “the family of man” is just about right. 

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Coverage

 

 

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