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JAM


JAM (jam)


November 30, 2018
Q&A guests: Director Sabu and actor/co-producer Shintaro Akiyama


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Sabu and Jam's co-producer, Shintaro Akiyama, appeared the night before their film opened in Japan.  ©FCCJ

It is not essential to know everything — or even much at all — about LDH Pictures before watching Sabu’s new film, Jam. But for those of us who became ardent followers of Japanese indie film after discovering his hilariously dark, high-speed, genre-blending comedies in the 1990s, it comes as a bit of a jolt to hear that the heralded director is now one of them.

“Them” is LDH World, a powerful artist management agency and related empire spanning music, dance, theater and most recently, films. Under the leadership of Chief Creative Officer Exile Hiro (ne Hiroyuki Igarashi), the firm launched LDH Pictures in 2016 and began actively producing and distributing films featuring its huge stable of talent. Its contract with Sabu assures that one of Japan’s most distinctive auteurs will continue to be funded and reach appreciative audiences, many of whom are overseas, with his work.

Sabu has been feted with awards and retrospectives around the world since his 1996 feature debut, Dangan Runner, which established his uniquely kinetic, blackly humorous style. He has continued to explore themes of fate and faith, guilt and retribution, coincidence and karmic payback in such films as Postman Blues (1997), The Blessing Bell (2002), Miss Zombie (2013) and Chasuke's Journey (2015); but like all singular filmmakers, he has had to contend with increasing budget challenges and a shrinking theatrical marketplace.

AoyagiSho Aoyagi is utterly unforgettable in Jam.
©2018"jam"Production Committee

LDH manages the enormously popular Exile performing group, many of whom appear in Jam. Sabu had first worked with Exile star Sho Aoyagi on his 2017 film Mr. Long, and as he told the FCCJ audience, “[At that time] I had several discussions with LDH about projects that we wanted to do together, but they didn’t come to fruition. In the meantime, they asked me to come up with some ideas for a film featuring Mr. Aoyagi and other members of the Exile group, and that’s how this came about.”

Jam co-producer Shintaro Akiyama, who also plays the role of a friendly-but-dimwitted thug in the film, explained, “It all started with my boss, the executive producer of this film, Hiro. He very passionately approached Sabu to sign with LDH.”

Demonstrating impressive English skills, Akiyama briefly outlined LDH World’s global ambitions, with new branches and training schools now running in Asia, Europe and the US. Among other milestones, he noted, “Our actors and artists are branching out overseas, and one of them, Naoki, will be starring in a Netflix Hollywood movie. I look forward to starring in my own Hollywood film soon.”

(Exile members often use first names only. “Naoki” is Naoki Kobayashi, who appeared at FCCJ in 2017 with the very first LDH Pictures film, Tatara Samurai. He moved to Los Angeles shortly afterward, and stars in Wash Westmoreland’s 2019 Earthquake Bird with Alicia Vikander and Riley Keough.) 

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Akiyama appeared in the first-ever Exile stage production in 2007, and is now co-producing as well as
eyeing his own directorial debut, based on one of his novels. ©FCCJ

The LDH focus prompted one audience member to ask whether Sabu still had the freedom to make films on his own terms. “My contract allows me to do as I please,” Sabu reassured him. “The only stipulation is to use LDH artists whenever possible. I don’t feel restricted in any way, and I haven’t been told to focus on certain genres. They also haven’t asked me to target the Japanese market — on the contrary, they want to make films that will appeal to international film festivals and overseas markets.”

Jam is precisely that type of film. A bittersweet confection in which three lives collide and converge after random chance and a series of fateful encounters, it eventually erupts into one of Sabu’s trademark foot chases, made even more mirthful by the addition of drone shots.

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Hiroshi (Sho Aoyagi, almost too convincing in his role) is a jaded, small-time enka singer who holds “Talk to Me” sessions after each of his shows, building a real-world fan base that would normally spring up spontaneously on social media. “These events are essential to going global,” he tells the middle-aged women who flock to his shows. Meeting personally with them seems to work, though: he has a huge following of ardent admirers, each vying to know more about him and his work than the next.

After a series of “secret live” gigs at the Oldies but Goodies Jukebox bar, two of Hiroshi’s fans get into a contretemps over the order of his set list, one suggesting that he should swap one song for another that is more upbeat; and the other defending Hiroshi’s artistry. “Real fans should respect his song choice,” she insists.

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The marvelous Mariko Tsutsui is Hiroshi's No. 1 fan. ©2018"jam"Production Committee

This real fan, Masako (Mariko Tsutsui, of Harmonium, relishing the part), waits for Hiroshi after the show and assures him, “I won’t let anyone denigrate your art.” She then does the only logical thing: drugs and kidnaps him. She gets unexpected help from a friendly young man with a car, Takeru (Keita Machida), who offers to drive them home. What ensues is every obsessed fan’s dream, and every celebrity’s nightmare.

Takeru, meanwhile, goes on to the hospital where his girlfriend is in a coma, and reports that he’s done two more good deeds that day. The young woman took a bullet in crossfire as armed robbers were chased by the police. God then told Takeru that she will regain consciousness if he does good deeds, and so he does.

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Akiyama credits LDH boss Hiro with bringing Sabu onboard. ©Koichi Mori

On the same evening, Tetsuo (Nobuyuki Suzuki) is released from prison and immediately goes after the yakuza gang who had him sent up. With impressive fighting skills, a lethal pickaxe and apparent immortality, he fells dozens of them, even when he’s pushing his dementia-stricken grandmother to the train station in a wheelchair to meet her (deceased) husband.

Responding to a question about how much Sho Aoyagi’s own life might have shaped his character in the film, Sabu said, “I created the character of Hiroshi before I had any discussions with Mr. Aoyagi. He usually wears a bit of stubble, which I think makes him look a lot like an enka singer. When we were walking on the red carpet at the Berlin International Film Festival for Mr. Long, he had on this tuxedo that really gave him an enka vibe. That’s how the character came to me. Also, Mr. Aoyagi is very popular with older women.”

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Akiyama sported blonde hair to play a friendly thug in the film. ©2018"jam"Production Committee

He expanded, “I decided to make him an enka singer because enka fans happen to be women of a certain age. There aren’t that many films out there with a lot of older women in them. Enka is like country music in the West, and although this is true of other musical genres as well, I find the phenomena of fandom to be quite interesting — this psychology of the fan who thinks s/he can listen to a song and believe it was written just for them.”

Sabu enjoyed creating the character so much that he even wrote the lyrics for Hiroshi’s songs, as well as working with composer Junichi Matsumoto on the music. One critic noted that she could just imagine Hiroshi appearing on the popular year-end NHK-TV singing contest "Kohaku Uta Gassen/Red and White," and asked whether Sabu planned to release a CD of the music.

Sounding like a true producer, Akiyama said, “That’s a very good idea. But I’ll have to consult with Mr. Aoyagi and our company.” Added Sabu, “I had hoped to debut the character of Hiroshi [as a new singer], but unfortunately that hasn’t happened yet.” (It’s never too late — just look at Spinal Tap!)

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©Koichi Mori

The director was asked whether Stephen King’s Misery, adapted into Rob Reiner’s superlative film, had influenced the Hiroshi-Masako storyline. Sabu concurred that he’d been reminded of the story while writing. “I had that kind of heavy character in mind at first” for the No. 1 fan, “a little heavier than she ended up being in the film,” he said. “I ultimately decided to not go in that direction, because I wanted to suggest that they could actually be a couple, that it’s not so strange to imagine. That’s why I offered the role to Ms. Tsutsui, because she’s an amazing, amazing actress. She did it so wonderfully, bringing so many different facets to the character. She can be so charming and yet so scary. If I’d gone with a character like in Misery, it would’ve been more of a horror film.”

The Japanese flier features a prominent image of a jar of jam, and a film critic asked Sabu just what the title refers to, since jam “can mean the stuff you spread on bread, or that you’re in a fix, and also musicians improvising on stage.” The director responded, “Yes, it means all those things. That’s spot on.” He laughed and then said, “I’ll share the backstory with you. In 2017 I was with my family in Victoria, Canada and we just happened to visit a café called Jam. The food was really great, and my wife said, ‘You should call your film Jam.’ And so I did.”

The critic also asked about the classic car that Takeru drives in the film. “I couldn’t take my eyes off it,” he enthused. As it turns out, it wasn’t such a trivial question. Sabu explained, “I wanted the car to have a classic feel, and I wanted Takeru to have a backstory. The backstory could be that he’s actually quite affluent, so I imagined him choosing a vintage auto, a classy classic. The interiors are classier, too, with leather seats. Modern cars aren’t interesting — they’re round and boring.” And then the aha! moment: “Also, the car is important because we’re hoping to make a couple of sequels to the film.” 

poster Sabu AkiyamaJamFCCJ
 ©FCCJ

The director had done his post-production in Germany, and he was asked whether that was because he felt a foreign post-production crew might lend the film a different flavor. Noted Sabu, “I’ve had a longtime relationship with [Germany’s] Rapid Eye Movies. They funded three of my earlier works. I find that it’s much better to do post-production overseas, especially when it comes to color grading and sound mixing. The post-production crews overseas have such craftsmanship, and such ownership of their work, so the quality is much better.”

Akiyama was asked the same question, and his response was something the majority of Japanese directors will sadly never hear. Said the co-producer, “The director made this request to do post-production overseas, and we supported him because we felt it would help bring an international sensibility to the film. It’s our company policy to respect the freedom of the creator, and since we are also looking to expand overseas, it’s very beneficial to have that kind of foreign influence. So we were really thankful that we could complete the film in that way.”

Although the international premiere of Sabu’s Jam has not yet been announced, one can imagine it will be appearing soon on German screens.

jam 2018jamProduction Committee
©2018"jam"Production Committee

Selected Media Exposure

KILLING


KILLING (Zan)


November 7, 2018
Q&A guest: Director Shinya Tsukamoto


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Shinya Tsukamoto kicks off the screening series in FCCJ's new Marunouchi home.  ©FCCJ 

The Film Committee could not have imagined a better inaugural guest for FCCJ’s spacious new digs in Marunouchi: acclaimed writer-director-producer-cinematographer-editor-actor Shinya Tsukamoto.

Nearly three decades on from his 1989 cyberpunk masterpiece Tetsuo: The Iron Man, which hurtled him into international prominence, Tsukamoto has won dozens of awards but remains fiercely independent, creating high art on shoestring budgets, each film the impeccably crafted work of a singular visionary, from Tokyo Fist (1995), Bullet Ballet (1998) and A Snake of June (2002) to Kotoko (2011) and Fires on the Plain (2014, marking his last visit to FCCJ). 

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Mokunoshin, Ichisuke and Yu watch a sudden duel. ©SHINYA TSUKAMOTO/KAIJYU THEATER

An outspoken critic of the Abe Administration, the director continues his exploration of the moral implications of war in his new masterwork, Killing. Although it is his first jidaigeki period film, the parallels between his depiction of Japan’s bloody past and modern-day militarism cannot be ignored.

Killing is set in the mid-19th century, after 250 years of peace, a time when masterless samurai roam the countryside in search of work and sustenance. Young ronin Mokunoshin Tsuzuki (Sosuke Ikematsu, extraordinary in the role) is helping villagers prepare for the harvest, and has found a friend and sparring partner in Ichisuke (Ryusei Maeda), a farmer’s son. But word has spread about Commodore Perry’s demands and the black ships along the coast. As civil unrest builds in Edo, Mokunoshin knows that he must go there to “prove my worth.” Ichisuke’s sister Yu (Yu Aoi) silently watches the two men training, pining for Mokunoshin. “Will you die?” she later asks him. “No,” he answers, “I won’t.” 

Sosuke TsukamotoSHINYA TSUKAMOTOKAIJYU THEATER
Sawamura recruits the young ronin. ©SHINYA TSUKAMOTO/KAIJYU THEATER

When a more seasoned ronin, Jirozaemon Sawamura (Tsukamoto), observes the young man’s sword skills and tries to recruit him for an elite squad that will help “keep the peace” in the capital, Mokunoshin sees it as his duty to join him. But first, he must protect the farmers from a gang of brigands led by ruthless outlaw Sezaemon Genda (Tatsuya Nakamura). Despite promising “We only make trouble for people who deserve it,” they target the hot-headed Ichisuke. What starts as a bout of bullying soon escalates into an ongoing eruption of violence… and through it all, Mokunoshin cannot — or will not — raise his sword to kill.

Whether he is a “pacifist samurai,” as critics dubbed him following the world premiere of Killing in Competition at the Venice International Film Festival in August, remains ambiguous. Short, sharp and shocking though it is, the film is a complex creation, with layers that demand deeper contemplation. 

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Yu pines for Mokunoshin. His own intentions are never quite clear.
©SHINYA TSUKAMOTO/KAIJYU THEATER

As the director fielded wide-ranging questions following the FCCJ screening, the audience’s obvious enthusiasm for the film fueled Tsukamoto’s own passion for introspection — and gradually, the Q&A session grew nearly as long as Killing itself.

The emcee plunged right in, asking about the film’s seeming correlation between violence and sex. (Tsukamoto later tweeted that he “sat up straighter” when he heard it.) “Indeed, this is a very important factor in the film,” the director acknowledged. “Strangely enough, nobody has asked this question, so I’m very happy you did. Originally, we had a different version of the shooting script ready just before the shoot. That version focused on the samurai studying his sword, pondering the question of whether or not to kill. I thought something was lacking, so I reverted to an earlier version of the script that contained eroticism. Although one could question whether it’s appropriate to equate his dilemma of whether to kill with his sexual urge, I thought the story wouldn’t feel truthfully told without it.”

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The director discusses how painful even a small sword slash, like the one Sawamura sustains on his hand, can be. ©Koichi Mori

Noting that the three key battles in the film take place offscreen, an audience member asked whether that was a conscious choice or due to budgetary restrictions. “Although we were on a shoestring budget, it wasn’t because of that, it was a very intentional choice,” the director responded. “I wanted to touch on two themes: I wanted the film to be the antithesis of the heroism that we’re used to seeing in samurai films, and I also wanted Yu to represent all the peasants, the people like us. During World War II, the government told us we were winning, and we were all overjoyed, shouting ‘Banzai!’ We didn’t know what was really happening, all the gruesome details of the reality on the battlefields, where the faces and psyches of Japanese soldiers were being shredded. We [were victims of propaganda and] had no way of knowing.

“I wanted to depict the lack of knowledge about what’s happening on the frontlines. It’s only when violence is on our doorstep that we become aware of it. When Yu says, ‘I want you to avenge [her brother’s] death,’ she can say it because she doesn’t know what really happens when someone is sliced open by the blade of a sword. We see the violence drawing closer throughout the film, and I think this echoes what’s happening in everyday Japan. The people who fought in or witnessed World War II are dying away, and we’re gradually losing our sense of danger. I think that’s why we seem to be inching our way toward war. That’s the kind of intent that went into the omission of the battle scenes.” 

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Super-interpreter Mihoko Imai reacts to Tsukamoto's compliment about her abilities: "Wow, you're so lively!" ©Koichi Mori

He later admitted, “I’m an ardent fan of jidaigeki films and have great respect for [the genre], especially Akira Kurosawa’s Seven Samurai, Yojimbo and Sanjuro. But I wanted to do something a little different this time around, and not focus on what we usually see, which is a kind of beauty of form… I didn’t want to glamorize the battle scenes, as you see done in other samurai films. I didn’t want to go too far, though. I didn’t want to make a jidaigeki film with no battle scenes, just as you wouldn’t want a Godzilla film in which Godzilla doesn’t appear.

“I was aware that, if you’re doing a jidaigeki, the audience expects sword fighting. So where I wanted to make the difference was how the story unfolds leading up to the battle scene. I had to find the balance between the archetypical samurai film and the atypical. The atypical portions should make you a bit uncomfortable and leave you with questions about [what it means].” 

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©FCCJ

Complimented on the film’s impressive performances, Tsukamoto was asked about his own, as the skilled swordsman Sawamura. How did he summon the heroic-but-murderous spirit needed? He responded, “My impression of the character when I was writing the script was quite different from my impression when I watched the film, which surprised me. We’re used to seeing samurai characters depicted as chivalrous and kind, and I wanted to pose a question about what they were really like. So you should see the antithesis of that in the film. But although I wrote him that way, when I saw him on film, he seemed very villainous, as if he were the cause of all the problems that occur.”

Another audience member complimented Tsukamoto on the “magnificent” sword-fighting scenes and the skill with which the actors wielded their swords, and asked how they’d prepared. “We had a tateshi, a sword-fighting action director, Mr. Tsujii, with whom I’d worked in the past, who gave us direction and advice,” the director responded. I wanted to ground the fighting sequences in reality, so I also sought the advice of a sensei at the Hokushin Ittoryu dojo about how to carry your body and how to sheathe and unsheathe the sword, as well as the principles behind the actions.

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Tsukamoto as Mifune as Sawamura. ©SHINYA TSUKAMOTO/KAIJYU THEATER

“Unfortunately, I sprained my lower back while we were shooting one of the sword fights, so for all the high aspirations I had for the battle scenes, I wasn’t able to do much myself… I’d hoped to be like Toshiro Mifune in Yojimbo, where he was slicing and dicing these 10 opponents. I noticed he always carried his back [at the same height] from the ground, which really impressed me. I was really disappointed that I couldn’t do that.”

He joked that he was a better editor than an actor, since he’d had to improve his own fight scenes in the editing room. “I think the reason the sword-fighting sequences look like they’re exquisitely done is because Mr. Ikematsu is so good. He didn’t have much [fighting] experience before, but he’s like a sponge, a very quick learner, and he has great physicality. He elevated the level of [those sequences].”

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©FCCJ

He elaborated, “What I wanted to do with Mr. Ikematsu was to transport a modern-day youth back to the Edo period, and bring a sense of reality and rawness to the story. This reflects my influences, including an early formative experience for me, watching Kon Ichikawa’s Matatabi [aka The Wanderers]. That film also had young actors in a period piece that feels very modern.”

Renowned Iranian filmmaker Amir Naderi was in the audience, and asked how Tsukamoto always manages to direct such “fresh” performances from his female characters, in a way “unlike any other Japanese director.” He answered, “The way I work with actresses depends on the film, of course, but I think you can get the sense in my films that I really respect women, who are amazing… As you know, Ms. Aoi is an accomplished and versatile actress, so I didn’t really have to direct her much. Usually, she can detect the through-line quite easily, but she seemed to find it difficult with my script. So she decided to go at the role from diverse directions, almost as if we see her maturing from 15 to 28 years old, coming of age. It’s wonderful how she did that, and I think she’s marvelous.”

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Naderi greets Tsukamoto after the screening.  ©Mance Thompson

Naderi had also asked about Tsukamoto’s unique use of sound, “which is almost like music in the film.” The director responded, “I’ve collaborated with the sound designer since A Snake in June, and I think the sound is as important as the visuals. I wanted to make something that you couldn’t just watch objectively; I wanted to make an experiential film. I wanted audiences to feel the presence of nature, since it surrounds the characters, as well as the presence of the blades. They’re very heavy, which you can feel through the sound design.”

He continued, “I used Chu Ichikawa’s music in the film. We’d been collaborators for 30 years, starting with Tetsuo. We shot the film, and just as we started editing, he succumbed to a long-term illness and died. I didn’t have a desire to go to anyone else; I wanted to use his music. It was a rushed shoot (just 3 weeks), but the editing process was lengthy. I used parts of compositions he’d done over the past 30 years. With his wife’s permission, I went to his home and looked for unfinished pieces. It was a mourning process for me. I could collaborate with Mr. Ichikawa, event though he’s up in heaven, and I was able to hear music I hadn’t heard before.”

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 ©Mance Thompson

Calling Killing “one of the finest Japanese films of the past decade,” a critic asked whether Tsukamoto intended to make another trilogy, as he had with the Tetsuo films. “I had this idea of the ronin pondering [the moral implications of wielding] his sword 20 years ago,” said the director. “I was also entertaining the idea of having the protagonist duel with Zatoichi in part II. It would be wonderful to see Mr. Ikematsu doing battle with Zatoichi. I’m interested in the late Edo period, the Bakumatsu era. But there’s a jinx with films depicting that era, they’re usually not successful. I’d like to take up the challenge. I thought it would be interesting to have the guitarist Hotei portray (imperial loyalist) Ryoma Sakamoto, because he’s very, very tall and I think he would look good in hakama and boots, carrying a gun.”

Obviously relishing the image, he went on, “Of course I would then have to depict the Shinsengumi (who murdered Sakamoto), who were in reality a bunch of rowdy outlaw teenagers. Just talking about it makes me smile. I don’t want to strike out the possibility of doing that in the future. If saying it here helps to [get the project off the ground], all the better.”

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 ©Mance Thompson

Tsukamoto has had an active parallel career as an actor in a diversity of films by other filmmakers, including key roles in Martin Scorsese’s Silence and the Japanese blockbuster Shin Godzilla, both in 2016. He was asked whether his experience with Scorsese had left a lasting impact. “Of all the filmmakers alive today, Martin Scorsese is the one I respect the most, ever since I first saw Taxi Driver in high school,” he responded. “I play a Christian who dies for his beliefs in Silence, and I would say that my own religion is Scorsese. I think he’s influenced me in the way he leaves a lot of freedom for his actors. Although he’s so accomplished, he has a wonderful respect for his actors. I learned that from him, and I tried to do a little of that on this film.” 

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©SHINYA TSUKAMOTO/KAIJYU THEATER

Selected Media Exposure

TEN YEARS JAPAN


TEN YEARS JAPAN (Juu Nen)


October 16, 2018

Q&A guests: Directors Akiyo Fujimura, Chie Hayakawa
Kei Ishikawa, Yusuke Kinoshita and Megumi Tsuno


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All five directors appeared at FCCJ, uniting them in public for the first time since the omnibus film’s completion: (from left) Chie Hayakawa, 
Yusuke Kinoshita, Akiyo Fujimura, Megumi Tsuno and Kei Ishikawa. It was a fitting final Film Night at the club’s current facilities.
After 42 years, we’re moving to brand-new quarters at the end of the month.  ©Koichi Mori

The phrase “film franchise” invariably evokes mega-budget Hollywood series like Harry Potter, X-Men, even James Bond. So when producer Miyuki Takamatsu told the FCCJ audience that Ten Years Japan represented a new type of arthouse franchise, it gave them pause.

Takamatsu, founder of the sales and distribution firm Free Stone Productions, decided to become a franchise player after seeing the angry, dystopian omnibus film Ten Years, in 2015. Co-directed by five young filmmakers in Hong Kong, it had been inspired by the Umbrella Movement that began shaking the colony in late 2014, and imagined an exceedingly bleak future under China’s tightening control.

Surprisingly, Ten Years went on to win Best Film at the HK Film Awards, causing China to black out the awards show and to ban the film. Nevertheless, it earned HK$6 million in covert, self-distributed screenings, and was seen around the world.

FCCJ Ten Years miyuki Mance ThompsonMiyuki Takamatsu, producer and "franchise" founder. @Mance Thompson

Along with that film’s international sales agent, Felix Tsang, and former Fox executive Lorraine Ma, Takamatsu discussed taking the concept regional. They formed a partnership called Ten Years Studio and in 2017, announced a trio of follow-on projects, with films to be made concurrently in Taiwan, Thailand and Japan.

Takamatsu then convinced Palm d’Or-winning auteur Hirokazu Kore-eda to sign on as executive producer of the Japanese version, which like its counterparts, is thematically and stylistically varied, as well as deeply thought-provoking. Ten Years Japan may lack the urgency and political spitfire of the original, but its quiet, contemplative approach does not mask its overall vision of hopelessness.

Speaking fluently in English and Japanese, Takamatsu told the FCCJ audience: “I think this is the first experience for the film industry around the world that a concept has been shared. Pick five directors, each of them makes a short film of less than 20 minutes, and freely expresses how their countries will be in 10 years. I think it was quite interesting to expand the concept to other countries, and after these first three, we are hoping to have Ten Years Korea, Ten Years India and more.”

FCCJ Ten Years Mance Thompson-11The directors were chosen for their visions, not their names. @Mance Thompson

Praising her fellow producers for Ten Years Japan, Eiko Mizuno Gray and Jason Gray of Loaded Films, who were also in the FCCJ audience, she explained: “We asked some 30 young filmmakers to submit a short synopsis and chose 12. We then discussed them with Mr. Kore-eda, and finally picked these five because their ideas and scripts were great, not because of their names or previous work. It was really important for Mr. Kore-eda and for us to take the time to discuss the scripts, and to mold the entire process to create one feature film.”

Kicking off the Q&A session following our sneak preview, a journalist noted that the molding process had yielded films of equally impressive quality, unlike the usual unevenness of most omnibus efforts. He wondered whether there had been any coordination or even collaboration between filmmakers during production to achieve such a uniform level of excellence.

Speaking for the group, Chie Hayakawa explained, “In August last year, all of us met and heard for the first time about each other’s projects. There was no coordination or even communication between us during the production process, so we heard each other’s concepts, and then we saw the completed films. That made it a really interesting experience.”

Although the five emerging filmmakers, appearing together for the first time in public since the completion of the film, received several specific questions, in the interests of fairness, here’s a brief rundown of the questions that were posed to all five. Responses appear in alphabetical order.

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Akiyo Fujimura ra won the Skip City Award at the 2016 Skip City International D-Cinema Festival for her feature debut, Eriko, Pretended.
Left: ©Koichi Mori, Right: ©Mance Thompson

On how they selected their themes:
Akiyo Fujimura, director of The Air We Can't See, in which a disaster has driven the Japanese population deep underground, until one lonely girl finds a “place only kids can go”: “While I was thinking about my theme, I looked back on the past 10 years in Japan. What really stood out was the 2011 Fukushima disaster, and when that happened, there was a real fear of the air, which we can’t even see. I’d never imagined being afraid of the air, and it seemed a real likelihood that [a disaster like that suggested in the film] could happen within the next 10 years.”

Chie Hayakawa, director of Plan 75, in which longevity has become a liability in Japan, leading to a government-promulgated solution that targets the disenfranchised: “My theme was inspired by our aging society, and the sentiment behind it was my anger at the way the disabled and the poor, society’s weak, are treated. There’s not a lot of room for them these days, and that made me very angry and lead to this film.”

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Chie Hayakawa’s 2014 film Niagara won the Grand Prix at the Pia Film Festival as well as prizes from the
Vladivostok International Film Festival and the International Women’s Film Festival in Seoul
.
Left: ©Koichi Mori, Right: ©Mance Thompson

Kei Ishikawa, director of For Our Beautiful Country, in which an adman (Taiga, in a standout performance) begins to rethink his job when he has to promote Japan’s remilitarization: “What I wanted to express was the freedom of expression. There was a Japanese painter, Leonard Foujita, who became a wartime [propaganda] painter during WWII, and that made me try to imagine how creative artists can be co-opted into the vortex of politics and the State in times of war or tumult. I thought that what would be most likely, 10 years from now, would be universal conscription.”

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Kei Ishikawa’s feature debut, Gukoroku: Traces of Sin, premiered at the Venice International Film Festival in 2016 and
went on to domestic box office success.  Left: ©Koichi Mori, Right: ©Mance Thompson

Yusuke Kinoshita, director of Mischievous Alliance, in which children disrupt the 24/7 monitoring systems that control their every thought and deed, in order to rescue a dying horse: “When I received the offer to participate in the project, it was only 3 days after the birth of my son, and I decided to make the protagonist a 10-year-old boy. Since April this year, ethics was made a part of Japan’s compulsory education, and that made me think about what effect that would have 10 years from now. My own view is that it’s really difficult for children to learn ethics in a classroom setting. We can only find our own answers through action, and trial and error. I think that’s the way children should learn ethics. Neither teachers nor adults are perfect, so I feel dubious about our ability to teach through lecturing.”

Megumi Tsuno, director of Data, in which a young woman (rising star Hana Sugisaki) finds her mother’s digital inheritance card, and is able to connect with her past, which is a mixed blessing: “I know that the original Hong Kong version essentially focused on one political theme. But what I wanted to depict was the clear and present danger [of technology] that exists in our daily lives.”

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Yusuke Kinoshita’s feature debut, Water Flower, premiered at the Berlin International Film Festival.  ©Mance Thompson
 

On working with Kore-eda:
Akiyo Fujimura, director of The Air We Can't See: “I received advice from Mr. Kore-eda several times during both scriptwriting and editing. What made me especially happy is that he took the trouble to watch our previous films. He commended certain aspects that he liked, and gave me advice about how I could’ve improved it. That was a really good experience for me. He really respects the creative process and each director’s style. While following his advice, I realized it was steering me in the direction that I’d wanted to go in the first place.”

Chie Hayakawa, director of Plan 75: “He would always say to us ‘You are the directors,’ and I felt a real respect from him, that he was treating us as equals. He was never didactic in the way he related to us.”

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Megumi Tsuno joined Bun-Buku in 2015, under acclaimed directors Hirokazu Kore-eda and Miwa Nishikawa, and directed the
making-of documentary for Kore-eda’s The Third Murder©FCCJ

Kei Ishikawa, director of For Our Beautiful Country: “He gave us a lot of advice throughout the scriptwriting and editing process. But what really struck me was that, after I’d completed my film, he said that when he gave advice and a director came back without changing their script in certain ways he’d advised, he interpreted that as a sign that the director was principled. So he wouldn’t give the same advice twice. My discussions with him were very different from my experiences with other producers.”

Yusuke Kinoshita, director of Mischievous Alliance: “I received his feedback on three drafts of my screenplay. Naturally, since he is also a wonderful filmmaker in his own right, he gave me feedback not only on how he thought the audience would interpret the film, but also in terms of figuring out exactly what my own intentions were. When I first told him the synopsis, he asked me whether or not it had a happy ending. It really didn’t occur to me to look at it either as a happy or sad ending, and it was a challenge for me to figure out what I really wanted to say as a filmmaker.”

Megumi Tsuno, director of Data: “[As a staff member at Kore-eda’s own production company] I’ve had the fortunate experience of working with Mr. Kore-eda on set, and what always struck me is that he would continue writing and rewriting his scripts until just before shooting. Sometimes he would arrive on set and say, ‘I just thought of something in the taxi, so I’m going to change this part.’ I know it’s really daring for an inexperienced filmmaker like myself, but I’m afraid I did the same thing, and made changes until the last minute.” 

FCCJ Ten Years Koichi Mori-10 ©Koichi Mori

On whether they felt any constraints on their creative self-expression:
Akiyo Fujimura
, director of The Air We Can't See: “As a child, I didn’t enjoy studying. I was a film buff from my earliest years, and through cinema, I learned about the history of Japan and of the world. For instance, watching The Grave of the Fireflies taught me that war is something we should avoid at all costs. I think film can teach us about the world in the same way that school can, and it would be great if we could see films depicting more political and social issues. I hope I can continue incorporating them into my feature filmmaking.”

Chie Hayakawa, director of Plan 75: “Of course there isn’t any censorship in Japanese filmmaking, so we should be free to depict any theme we want. However, I do sense a kind of self-censorship when it comes to film companies and investors. They’ll say, ‘Well, that topic is hard to fund.’ I heard from the producers that this project was difficult in that sense. But it gave us a lot of confidence that it was a pan-Asian project, and that other filmmakers in other countries were also making films.”  

Kei Ishikawa, director of For Our Beautiful Country: “I don’t think Ten Years Japan is overtly political, at least not compared to the Hong Kong version. But perhaps this fact, that we five all drew the line, reflects the current state of our country. It’s unnatural, the way that [other filmmakers] are avoiding depictions of these issues. I think there could have been more [hard-hitting] films about the Fukushima disaster, but there does seem to be self-censorship surrounding this country. So against that backdrop, I think we should be grateful to be given this platform to freely create.”

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The omnibus directors applaud the audience following their first joint appearance. ©Koichi Mori

Yusuke Kinoshita, director of Mischievous Alliance: “I’m so grateful to the producers and to Mr. Kore-eda for offering this platform to create original scripts and original films. What instigated my film was the idea that I don’t think politics are separate from ourselves, they’re not ‘the other side.’ We have to consider ourselves part of politics, and when we do, that sentiment can change the system. I hope audiences who see my film will feel that way and help instigate change.” 

Megumi Tsuno, director of Data: “I realize the difficulties that result from trying to depict political issues in film, including funding difficulties. So I was really thankful to participate in this pan-Asian project, to have the opportunity to create my own original script, and to be able to make my film without any limitations. I think it’s quite a revolutionary platform, and I’m so grateful to be part of it. Going forward, what I really want to do is to depict human stories. So I think it’s inescapable that politics and society will appear in the background of my films.”

FCCJ Ten Years Mance Thompson-16

The team with the Japanese poster for the film. @Mance Thompson

Ten Years Japan had its world premiere at the Busan Film Festival in October, where the three “franchise” films played together for the first time. Audience reactions were diverse, as they are for any omnibus project. But it’s clear that there is a future for this type of cinematic exploration, especially as the world continues its swing to the right.

TYJ poster 2018Ten Years JapanFilm Partners
©2018 “Ten Years Japan” Film Partners

Selected Media Exposure

ASIAN THREE-FOLD MIRROR PANEL AND SCREENING IN COLLABORATION WITH TIFF


ASIAN THREE-FOLD MIRROR PANEL AND SCREENING IN COLLABORATION WITH TIFF


October 3, 2018
Q&A guests: Directors Isao Yukisada and Daishi Matsunaga,
TIFF Director Takeo Hisamatsu, Japan Foundation President Hiroyasu Ando,
TIFF Japan Now advisor Kohei Ando


Yuki-Matsu-2-FCCJ TIFF2018 Mance-27
Daishi Matsunaga and Isao Yukisada screened their Asian-shot films at FCCJ. ©Mance Thompson

The Film Committee’s annual event in conjunction with the Tokyo International Film Festival (TIFF) did not focus, as it has for the past decade, on the Japanese films in this year’s 31st edition. Instead, two of Japan’s most acclaimed directors, Isao Yukisada (Go, River’s Edge) and Daishi Matsunaga (Pieta in the Toilet, Hanalei Bay), joined us to discuss their participation in the omnibus film project Asian Three-Fold Mirror.

A coproduction between the Japan Foundation Asia Center and TIFF, Asian Three-Fold Mirror has twice brought together three young directors from Japan and other Asian countries to co-create omnibus films with a common theme. The first volume, Asian Three-Fold Mirror 2016: Reflections, which included Yukisada’s Pigeon, debuted at the 29th TIFF. On October 26, the second volume, Asian Three-Fold Mirror 2018: Journey, which includes Matsunaga’s Hekishu, will have its world premiere at the 31st TIFF.

Prior to the special screening of Pigeon and a sneak preview of Journey, the directors spoke briefly of their experiences working outside Japan. “I’ve been really influenced by Asian films,” said Yukisada. “In Malaysia, where I shot Pigeon, there’s a very famous director called Yasmin Ahmad, whose work really influenced me. Unfortunately, she passed away recently. But I wondered how my own filmmaking might change when combined with the atmosphere of Malaysian film. The tradition of filmmaking in each country should be enjoyed and appreciated, and I have very fond memories of my experience working with an international cast and crew in Malaysia.”  

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Clockwise from uppper left: TIFF Director Takeo Hisamatsu, Japan Foundation President Hiroyasu Ando,
TIFF Japan Now Programming Advisor Kohei Ando, Yukisada, Matsunaga. Top right ©Mance Thompson, Others ©FCCJ

Matsunaga agreed. “I worked with a crew from China, Indonesia, Myanmar and the UK on Hekishu, which was shot in Myanmar,” he said. “It was really a great experience, allowing me to learn a lot and grow as a director.”

Discussing the importance of this ongoing coproduction project for the film festival, TIFF Director Takeo Hisamatsu told the FCCJ audience, “TIFF has been focusing on Asia and other themes since my predecessor’s time. Of course we’re an international film festival, so we think it’s important for a number of reasons, including distance, to have a strong relationship and interactions with other countries in Asia. We would like to continue working with the Japan Foundation Asia Center to focus more attention on the region. We believe that Asian Three-Fold Mirror is a wonderful project, and we hope it will continue.”

Providing important context for the project, Japan Foundation President Hiroyasu Ando noted, “Fifty-three percent of the world’s population is in Asia, and the rapidly growing economies of the region are acting as an engine for the world economy. Most of the foreign tourists coming to Japan are Asian. For these and other reasons, we believe Asia will continue to be very important to Japan, and we are working to create a two-way cultural flow between Japan and the cultures of Asia.”

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The panel shares a laugh.  ©Koichi Mori
 

When queried specifically about the future of Asian Three-Fold Mirror, he responded, “The Japan Foundation would like to continue working with TIFF on cultural exchanges between Japan and Asian countries. Asia is a vast region, and we’re looking forward to hearing feedback from audiences at TIFF as well as around Asia, in regards to the direction of the next Asian Three-Fold Mirror project.”

Hisamatsu also spoke briefly about some of the other highlights at this year’s festival, which runs from October 25 – November 3. Among them is the addition of a Best Director prize in the Japanese Cinema Splash section, which is devoted to indie film and has nurtured the careers of such notable filmmakers are Rikiya Imaizumi, Daigo Matsui, Eiji Uchida and Hirobumi Watanabe.

Programming Advisor Kohei Ando also revealed some of the highlights of his Japan Now lineup. “There’s a global trend right now to reduce everything to a slogan, like ‘America First,’” he said. “With this year’s Japan Now, we want to do the opposite, and focus on films that highlight Japanese ambiguity. We are showcasing the work of internationally renowned actor Koji Yakusho, who’s famous for revealing the ambiguous natures of the diverse characters that he’s played. We’re starting with his starring role in The Eel, which won the Palm d’Or at the Cannes Film Festival 20 years ago, and showing a total of five films, including his latest, Blood of Wolves, in which he portrays a very ambiguous detective. Mr. Yakusho will be attending every screening for a Q&A session, along with the film’s directors. We are also showing nine other films that are among the best works of this past year.”

(Included in the Japan Now lineup is Yukisada’s River’s Edge. Not included, to Ando’s regret, is Matsunaga’s Hanalei Bay, the adaptation of a Haruki Murakami short story. The film opens just before TIFF and thus wasn’t available for festival screenings.)  

Poster Visual AsianThree-Fold Mirror 2018-s   reflections 2016
©2018, ©2016 The Japan Foundation. All Rights Reserved.

Following the Asian Three-Fold Mirror screenings, Yukisada and Matsunaga returned to the dais and fielded a range of questions about their omnibus contributions.

Prompted for examples of differences in film production styles, Yukisada said, “In Malaysia, film shoots begin with a group photo, followed by a meal together. The Japanese crew members got really impatient about that, but it dawned on me that it was really Malaysian. They want to work together in harmony, so they take the time to share a meal and get to know each other before they start working. Unlike Japanese crews, Malaysians will never argue on set. They avoid conflict as much as possible. I think it encapsulates Malaysia, because it’s a nation where so many people from diverse cultures are living and working together. I really felt ashamed of our Japanese impatience, and I felt it was a great lesson.”

Matsunaga mentioned that he had shot Hanalei Bay in Hawaii before shooting in Myanmar, and noted that both places are far stricter about crews not working as long without a break as they do in Japan. “In Myanmar,” he said, “if you work over 12 hours, it becomes another day and you’re charged accordingly. That would be unthinkable in Japan. Even though Myanmar’s film industry is still developing, they’re already protecting casts and crews in this way. I felt the crew had great respect for my wishes, and would try their best to realize them. In my limited experience with Japanese crews, that’s not the case. Everyone seems to have their own ideas here, which they feel strongly about. It felt really liberating, working with the international crew in Myanmar.”

Hekishu
Hiroki Hasegawa in Hekishu. ©2018 The Japan Foundation. All Rights Reserved

A journalist from Indonesia asked how it came about that popular Indonesian actor Nicholas Saputra appeared in all three of the Journey films. Matsunaga answered, “I had Skype meetings, as well as meeting in person with my fellow omnibus directors, Degena Yun [from Inner Mongolia, China] and Edwin [from Indonesia], and we decided that we should have a common theme that would unite our three films. We also decided, since Nicholas had already been cast to star in Edwin’s film, that we could give him small cameos in each of our films, as a way to further unite our work. Nicholas’ role in Edwin’s film is a rather mysterious Japanese-like man, and that inspired both me and Degena in our scripts.”

Matsunaga’s Hekishu is set in Yangon, Myanmar, which is experiencing rapid democratization and urban renewal, although the old cityscape is still prominent, especially around the city’s slow-moving circular railway. A Japanese businessman, Suzuki (Hiroki Hasegawa of Shin Godzilla) arrives to work on the implementation of a new rapid-transit system. Yet, after meeting a Burmese seamstress named Su Su (Nandar Myat Aung), he begins to question just how much progress is actually good for the residents, many of whom will be displaced by the upgrade.

Yukisada FCCJ TIFF2018 Mance-22
©Mance Thompson

"I wanted to show the existing railway, and capture it as it is, almost like a documentary,” recalled Matsunaga. “I started my career with documentaries, and that appealed to me. When I thought about who I should cast for the role of the businessman, I wanted an actor who wouldn’t draw too much attention to himself, to maintain this documentary feel. I thought of Mr. Hasegawa because he has a unique presence, but at the same time, I thought he would blend into the landscape of Myanmar.”

Asked how he had cast Nandar Myat Aung, who is a first-time actressl, Matsunaga said, “We had assistance from the Myanmar-based production company and held auditions with professionals. But I wanted someone who wouldn’t ‘act,’ since it would undermine Mr. Hasegawa’s naturalness. We found her at an art school [where she’s currently studying film].”

Yukisada’s Pigeon is set in Penang, Malaysia, which is home to many Japanese retirees. The story revolves around a lonely old man (acting legend Masahiko Tsugawa) who lives in a spacious house and keeps pigeons on the roof. After his greedy son (Masatoshi Nagase) visits and flies into a rage, the old man grows even closer to his empathetic caregiver, Yasmin (Sharifah Amani). With her help, he is finally able to visit the beach where his brothers were killed during WWII and to make peace with their spirits.  

Pigeon Yukisada
Sharifah Amani and Masahiko Tsugawa in Pigeon. ©2016 The Japan Foundation. All Rights Reserved

Yukisada was asked about working with Tsugawa, who died in early August. “When I heard about his death, it was really a shock for me, as well as for the people we worked with on the film,” he recalled. “He was famous for hating to work overseas, and it was an incredible honor that he agreed to accept the role and come to Malaysia. It was the only chance I’d had to work with him, and he was playing a role that was based on my own grandfather. His intensity intimidated the cast and crew at first, but they came to really love him. None of us will ever forget the experience of working with him.”

Yukisada also spoke about casting his actress. “Sharifah Amani had been acting in the films of Yasmin Ahmad, the director I respected so much, since she was a child. After I couldn’t find anyone appropriate during auditions, I contacted her and reached her when she was shopping in a department store. So I rushed to the store and met her in a coffee shop there. It was so surprising how generally cheerful she is, yet when she’s hurt or depressed, she cries like a small child. It’s really rare to find someone like that.”

A Malaysian journalist lauded Yukisada’ direction, saying that Pigeon felt “very much like a Malaysian, not a Japanese, film.” How, he wondered, did the director write such realistic interactions between the Malaysian characters and direct them to such authentic performances? 

Fiveposter-FCCJ TIFF2018 Mance-16
 ©Mance Thompson

“What a compliment! Thank you,” responded Yukisada. “I have to admit that it was Sharifah Amani and the other actress, whom she had recommended, who came up with ideas. I wrote the storyline, but the details, and their reactions, were devised by the two women. I’m sure that’s why you felt it was so authentic.”

He couldn’t resist adding, “Also, I must say that Malaysian actors are surprisingly good at pronouncing Japanese as if they understand every line. They all grow up watching Japanese animated shows like Captain Tsubasa, Dragon Ball and Sailor Moon. That’s where the line about Sailor Moon came from.

Asian Three-Fold Mirror 2016: Reflections is getting a theatrical release in Tokyo — after 2 years making the rounds of festivals and special events overseas — from October 12-18. Following its world premiere at TIFF, Asian Three-Fold Mirror 2018: Journey will also be theatrically released, from November 9 to 15.

Poster Visual Tokyo International Film Festival

Selected Media Exposure

PASSAGE OF LIFE


PASSAGE OF LIFE (Boku no Kaerubasho)


September 20, 2018
Q&A guests: Director Akio Fujimoto, producer Kazutaka Watanabe and star Khin Myat Thu


Passage of life three KM-18
From left, producer Kazutaka Watanabe, director Akio Fujimoto and star Thin Myat Thu. ©Koichi Mori

The line between fiction and reality is blurred in Akio Fujimoto’s debut feature, Passage of Life. A poignant family drama with an undercurrent of political urgency, the Japan-Myanmar coproduction won both the Spirit of Asia Award and the Best Asian Future Film Award at the 2017 Tokyo International Film Festival — the first time a Japanese director had been so honored.

It went on to screen around the world to critical accolades, winning awards in the Netherlands and Thailand (where it qualified as a Burmese film). Just last month, it also received a Special Recognition honor from Japan’s Education Ministry, meaning that it is recommended for school viewings. As the awards season looms, there is every expectation that Passage of Life will be on many year-end lists.

The domestic accolades are especially important, since there are surprisingly few contemporary Japanese fiction films that incorporate pressing social issues into their storylines, and fewer still that treat non-Japanese characters (who barely seem to exist on screen here) with understanding or real compassion. 

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©Mance Thompson

At the Q&A session that followed the FC’s sneak preview, producer Kazutaka Watanabe explained the film’s genesis, way back in 2013: “The idea [to depict Burmese immigrants] came from Yuki Kitagawa, who appears in the film as the Japanese man who’s helping the family, and who also became the film’s co-producer. We had no money, and I didn’t have any experience as a producer yet, but we decided to go ahead with the project. Most of the information about Myanmar online is about the military government and Aung San Suu Kyi, not about the daily lives of Burmese. We wanted to tell a story that Japanese audiences could empathize with, that could also be full of discoveries. So we put out a monthlong open call for writer-directors online, and had about 40 responses. Mr. Fujimoto was the only one who wrote an entire script in that month, and he was also one of the most passionate. We were really impressed that despite his limited knowledge of Myanmar, he was able to create a believable world.”

Fujimoto conducted his initial research in Takadanobaba, which has one of Tokyo’s largest Burmese populations, and decided to portray one of the hard-luck stories he’d heard. He didn’t realize that his script would have to be vetted with the Myanmar government, nor that a representative would be on set during the shoot there. But despite the censorship, the film’s family can be seen as a metaphor for every family that has and is still facing an uncertain future. 

Passage of Life-2
Kaung contemplates life in Myanmar.  ©E.x.N K.K

Passage of Life drops us without preamble into the lives of Issace (Issace) and Khin (Khin Myat Thu), who immigrated to Japan from Myanmar without visas, along with their two sons, Kaung (Kaung Myat Thu) and Htet (Htet Myat Naing). They were following in the footsteps of many others, who began coming here in the wake of the 8888 Uprising (1988 pro-democracy demonstrations) in Myanmar. (There is briefly-seen newsreel footage of brutal military clampdowns on protestors.)

Issace and Khin find illegal work in Tokyo and create a happy life with their boys — although Kaung, now 7, and Htet, 4, believe they are Japanese and have the attitudes to go with it (“Idiot!” yells Htet, nearly hitting his mother in one fit of pique).

After several years of residency, Issace learns it is possible to file an application for political refugee status, and during his interview with Immigration, explains they left their country because “it was no longer safe.” But the request is denied, as happens all too frequently here, and no clear explanation is given. Issace tried to reassure Khin, who is struggling with an unnamed illness, but she pleads with him to return to Myanmar before their re-application is rejected again. “Things have changed back home since we came,” she says hopefully. “No way,” he responds. “Things can’t be that different. There’s no way we could back.”

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Kaung gets lost enroute to the airport.  ©E.x.N

Then one night, Immigration shows up at the door and warns Issace to stop working. Khin says, “We can’t be safe, not even in our own home… coming here was a big mistake. I want a normal life.”

After a hospitalization and with options fast dwindling, Khin makes the choice to takes the boys to Yangon, where they will grapple with their loss of friends and Japanese identity — as well as their distance from Issace, who has stayed in Japan to continue working so he can send them money. But Skype calls are not the same as being there, and one day, Kaung packs his rucksack, grabs a toy gun and heads for the airport.

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©FCCJ

Despite the film’s impressive social-issue immediacy, the initial Q&A questions focused on the extraordinary performances of the two small boys. Noting that it was the one thing he had been asked everywhere he traveled with the film, Fujimoto said, “No matter what nationalities the audiences were, everyone seemed to empathize with Kaung and this family. That made me really happy.”

He continued, “The most difficult part was that this was not an actual family, so the challenge was how to make them as real as possible. Since the father is not the boys’ real father, we had to figure out how to build a loving relationship between them. Khin-san [Khin Myat Thu] is their real mother, but the father is a Myanmar-based [stranger]. It was very difficult for the boys to call him ‘Papa’ at first.”

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 Fujimoto laughs as Myat Thu recalls mock-fighting with her son. ©Koichi Mori

Myat Thu, who has lived in Japan for 18 years, and whose sons were raised here, signed on to portray the mother when her elder boy, Kaung, decided he wanted to be in the film. She recalled, “The most challenging part of the process for me was the scene in which Kaung and I had to have a fight. That never happens in real life, so we had to find a way to fight realistically, and that was difficult.”

To capture a high degree of authenticity from the children, Fujimoto decided to shoot lengthy takes without interruption, and then spent 2 years editing down the resulting tens of hours of footage. He was asked why he had adopted the film’s documentary-like shooting style. The director answered, “It’s difficult to lock down the camera when you’re shooting children, unless you direct them to move in a restricted way. We wanted to have them move freely, and to have the camera move freely along with them.”

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Mom and the two boys explore the forests outside Yangon.  ©E.x.N K.K

Fujimoto also said he had accepted a certain degree of improvisation from the children, as long as the meaning of the original dialogue did not change. “We were extremely lucky, because although the younger boy, Htet, couldn’t read the script, he didn’t veer too far from it. But there was a certain scene in which he cries profusely, and that wasn’t included in the original script. It was supposed to be a very heartwarming scene, but when I explained what was happening [in the story] before the camera rolled, he just burst into tears.

“The original plan had been to tell the story of the older brother, Kaung, and [his coming of age]. We shot in sequence, and I was quite happy with how things were going. But thanks to [Htet’s outburst], it created a sudden juxtaposition with the younger boy’s own growth, or coming of age.”

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 Watanabe and Fujimoto.  ©Koichi Mori

Asked what he thought the film’s main message is, producer Kazutaka Watanabe replied, “What I found most impressive is that we had a Japanese director who was able to empathize with Burmese children. I feel that’s a rarity here — most creators don’t seem to feel empathy for people from Southeast Asian, or any foreigner, for that matter. Of course immigrants coexist with us in Japan, you see them working in convenience stores and family restaurants. But there’s no empathy. If we manage to get the audience to empathize with characters like this, we can expose them to something different. Of the film’s many messages, I think that’s the most important.”

Another journalist asked the director why Passage of Life was vague about the reasons that Isaace’s application for refugee status had been rejected. “It was intentional not to include too much exposition, or to give the background for why they had come to Japan in the first place,” responded Fujimoto. “This was a point I thought a lot about, but I ultimately decided to pare down those details. I could have given some explanation of why the system in Japan is so complicated and so strict. But what I really wanted to do was to show to daily lives of these people from their viewpoint.”

He added, “I think it’s probably very difficult even for professionals working in the immigration field to explain the reasons for a rejection, and it’s also difficult to prove that you’re a refugee. It would make me very happy if the film instigates discussion among immigrants in Japan.”

Passage of life Mance-13
©Mance Thompson

There are an estimated 10,000 Burmese currently here on legal visas, although watchdog groups suggest there are many more undocumented immigrants (from many nations) than the government’s official count.

Last year, Japan granted refugee status to only 20 people, out of nearly 20,000 applicants (a sharp increase over the previous year’s applications). The year before, it approved just 28. The Justice Ministry started a stricter screening system in January this year to eliminate applicants believed to be purely job-seekers, and reported in late August that applications had plunged 35% in the first half of 2018 (22 applicants were approved).

But Japan has not officially adopted an immigration policy, and as security is beefed up ahead of the 2020 Tokyo Olympics, the government is cracking down on those working illegally while awaiting the outcome of their refugee applications, putting them in detention centers and creating the sense that every visa overstayer is a criminal.

In a perfect world, every Japanese would watch Passage to Life and help, somehow, to implement correctives.

Passage of Life poster s
©E.x.N K.K

 

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