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21ST CENTURY GIRL


21ST CENTURY GIRL 
(21 Seiki no Onna no Ko)


February 6, 2019
Q&A guests: Producer-director Ū-ki Yamato and
directors Aya Igashi, Ayaka Kato, Risa Takeuchi and Yuka Yasukawa


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21st century women: Igashi, Kato, Yamato, Takeuchi, Yasukawa ©FCCJ

There are times when the Film Committee screens a work whose target audience is not the typical FCCJ demographic. This was one of those times.

But considering the dire statistics related to the global film industry — that women never account for more than 20% of the workforce, and that women directors helm an abysmal average of 7 – 10 % of the films made — it felt like the right time to expose attendees to something they wouldn’t normally watch.

Aimed squarely at a young, female viewership, 21st Century Girl is an omnibus feature that is (to borrow the producer’s declaration of independence) of the girls, by the girls and for the girls. The work of 15 women directors under the age of 30, each of whom contributed an 8-minute film, the package highlights a range of genres, visions and thematic concerns.

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© “21st Century Girl Film Partners” (ABC Rights Business, VAP)

The films are all beautifully shot, with top-notch production and costume design, and star some of Japan’s most popular actresses, including Kaho Minami, Ai Hashimoto, Shizuka Ishibashi, Mei Kurokawa, Kiki Sugino, Sairi Itoh and Serena Motola.

One need not be young, female or even Japanese to find points of empathy/ports of entry into these deeply-felt short stories, specific as they may be.

As Aya Igashi, one of the five directors who appeared at FCCJ's Q&A session, said, “The directors might be touching on something personal or on something universal, but I think the film delivers a direct message about what’s going on in women’s minds.”

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Clockwise from top left: Igashi, Kato, Yamato, Takeuchi, Yasukawa  ©FCCJ

21st Century Girl producer Ū-ki Yamato concurred. “All the protagonists in the films are female, in their teens or 20s,” she explained. “It was intentionally skewed to women in their 20s because what we’re all making is a kind of self-portrait. I think [taken all together], it’s a pure record of our lives and our reality.”

Many of the 15 emerging writer-directors have already won awards for their short work, have already appeared at Berlin, Cannes and other leading festivals, and have also released features. But none has yet tasted the box-office success that Yamato did with her 2016 release of Drowning Love. Rather than heading instantly into production on her next feature, as hitmakers are prone to do, she decided it was important to first develop and produce an ambitious, female-drive omnibus that would speak to the girls of the future.

When she had made the final selection of directors, she then gave them simple instructions. Recalled Yamato, “I requested that they capture a moment in which their sense of sexuality or gender was shaken or had wavered. That was the connecting theme between all the films. I did not give them any input on what kind of stories to tell or characters to depict.

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Producer-director Ū-ki Yamato and her film For Lonesome Blossoms 
Left: ©Koichi Mori  Right: © “21st Century Girl Film Partners” (ABC Rights Business, VAP)

“I don’t think there have been any other omnibus films like this anywhere else in the world, where all the films are directed by women in their 20s. It was a good opportunity to create a space for them to tell the stories they had to tell, at a time when their artistic sensitivities and imaginations are at their most ripe.”

Before its world premiere at the Tokyo International Film Festival last November, Yamato told the audience, “I think there are many wonderful forms of art, but only through cinema, which has arms so long that it can reach all the way into the most remote areas, can they all be consolidated and contribute to changing a woman’s life.”

Asked during the Q&A session at FCCJ how she hoped the film might change female lives, Yamato responded, “Most art and film depicts women as objects. I wanted to counter that with films that portray them as strong, proactive characters. I wanted to convey [such characters] to rural regions in Japan, especially. I want these stories to leap beyond the boundaries of urban areas, because there’s a larger gender gap in rural areas. And I hope they also cross boundaries to the rest of Asia. All of Asia is heavily infused with Confucian [patriarchal] philosophy, and women are more repressed.”

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Director Aya Igashi and her film Your Sheet 
Left: ©Koichi Mori  Right: 
© “21st Century Girl Film Partners” (ABC Rights Business, VAP)

Yamato’s own short film in the omnibus, For Lonesome Blossoms, also elaborates on the role that cinema can play. It features 3 women dancing in a garden (one of whom is played by Erika Karata of Asako I & II), representing a “holy trinity of Mother, God and Cinema.” They celebrate life and love before delivering a manifesto: “We will return the three primary colors to cinema, and for the first time, those working in the shadows will appear… We will create the ultimate art, combining love, language, religion and politics.”

Admitted Aya Igashi, “When I saw the full film, I felt like I’d never seen anything like it before. It was really hard to digest, because each short film was so dense with meaning.”

Igashi, whose Your Sheet focuses on Saho, a young woman living with her boyfriend who seems to be pining for or fantasizing about a female love, explained, “My film was just a way of answering as best I could the question about a moment that had shaken my gender or sexuality. But it’s not that I limited myself to the constraints of the project; what you’re seeing is my natural inclination as a filmmaker.”

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Director Ayaka Kato and her film Mucous Membrane  
Left: ©Koichi Mori  Right: 
© “21st Century Girl Film Partners” (ABC Rights Business, VAP)

With her 2018 feature Crimson Star having earning critical raves and begun its international festival journey, Igashi also said, “I want as many women as possible to see the film, but I also want to reach as wide a demographic as possible. I think that’s what being a filmmaker and telling stories is all about. You do want to bring your art to the masses.”

Ayaka Kato noted that although there was a unified theme, “Everyone’s films are very different from each other’s. It’s only natural that each film is uniquely the director’s own.” Kato’s film Mucous Membrane opens with a memorable shot of a woman counting the hairs on her lover’s toe in extreme closeup, and focuses on two young women who work in a flower shop, as they deal with their relationships with men and gender expectations.

The director, whose second feature, Itsumo Tsukiyo ni Kome no Meshi, was released in Japan in 2018, later mentioned, “I think my segment was the only one that depicts sexual relationships between men and women. There are women in the world who happen to like sex, but it seems there’s still a taboo about them expressing themselves in that way. I wonder why it’s women only who are given this [stamp of shame]?”

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Director Risa Takeuchi and her film Mirror
 Left: ©Koichi Mori  Right:
© “21st Century Girl Film Partners” (ABC Rights Business, VAP)

Risa Takeuchi, whose feature Mitsuko and the Space Bump was released in Japanese theaters in 2018, agreed with Kato about the omnibus: “Even though there may be connecting themes or overlapping stories, there are also differences in each story, and I think we’ve been able to portray reality.”

Risa Takeuchi’s own short film, Mirror, concerns the visit of a young woman to the gallery show of a celebrated “lesbian photographer,” who turns out to be her former lover. While it shares the motif of voyeurism with several of the other works, one of its concerns is the boxes that artists are put into, and the lengths they’ll go to create work.

She later noted that although she’d felt a bit uncomfortable about being restricted to addressing the theme of gender or sexuality, “As I continue in my career, I think I won’t be able to avoid them. So I feel this was the first time that I was really being tested as a filmmaker.” 

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Director Yuka Yasukawa and her film Muse 
Left: ©Koichi Mori  Right: 
© “21st Century Girl Film Partners” (ABC Rights Business, VAP)

Yuka Yasukawa recalled that she was “keen on participating in this project because when it comes to gender, society tends to pigeonhole roles for males and females. People seem to have a really one-dimensional sense of what a woman is.”

Her film Muse depicts a photographer (played by Shizuka Ishibashi of The Tokyo Night Sky is Always the Densest Shade of Blue) who befriends the wife of a famous novelist (Jun Murakami), whose heroines always die young. Before the photographer realizes she’s fallen in love, however, there is a tragedy.

Said the director, “I wanted to depict this kind of story because it’s about a novelist who fictionalizes his own wife. I thought that was a really invasive thing to do, to repress her personality until it’s one dimensional. But the female photographer is able to see this novelist’s muse as a whole person.”

And taken all together, that’s the accomplishment of 21st Century Girl: that a whole female, in all her complexity and full of promise, emerges. When Ayaka Kato remarked, “I’d love to see us all come together again in 30 years to make a film about grandmothers of the 21st century,” a substantial portion of the audience nodded and smiled.

Yamato mentioned that an article in the Asahi Shimbun last month reported that only 3% of the major films made over the past 20 years in Japan had female directors. So remember these names: Yuka Eda, Momoko Fukuda, Kanae Higashi, Aya Igashi, Yurina Kaneko, Ayaka Kato, Hana Matsumoto, Aimi Natsuto, Yukari Sakamoto, Rin Shuto, Yuka Yasukawa, Risa Takeuchi, Sakura Tamagawa, Yoko Yamanaka, Ū-ki Yamato.

They have fully committed to ongoing careers in the film industry, and their time is now.

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© “21st Century Girl Film Partners” (ABC Rights Business, VAP)

HIS LOST NAME


HIS LOST NAME (Yoake)


Jauary 15, 2019
Q&A guest: Director Nanako Hirose


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Nanako Hirose makes her first appearance at FCCJ.  ©Koichi Mori 

There’s nothing quite like being called the protégé of a beloved Cannes Palme d’Or-winning director to attract interest in your own directorial debut.

But while she must be feeling intense pressure from all the attention, Nanako Hirose displays the equanimity of a veteran. As she told the FCCJ audience following the sneak preview screening of her first feature, His Lost Name, “I’ve been watching Mr. (Hirokazu) Kore-eda work up close for a very long time, so I have to admit that his work is at the core of my own. I’m very grateful to him for allowing me to make my feature debut with this film, but I look at this as my declaration of independence, as my becoming a filmmaker in my own right.” 

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©Koichi Mori

Hirose had joined Bunbuku, the production company run by Kore-eda and Miwa Nishikawa, in 2011, after graduating from Musashino Art University. Over the next seven years, she worked as a director’s assistant on Kore-eda’s TV series Going Home (2012), as well as his films Like Father, Like Son (2013), Our Little Sister (2015) and After the Storm (2016). She also served in the same capacity on Nishikawa’s The Long Excuse (2016).

Kore-eda and Nishikawa are credited with providing “development supervision” for His Lost Name, and when queried about the meaning of that, Hirose said, “Bunbuku is essentially a collective, and its mission is to discover and [nurture] new talent. We can propose a film project, and if it’s accepted, Mr. Kore-eda and Ms. Nishikawa will participate in and oversee the project. I started writing the script in the summer of 2016, and we went into production about 18 months later, shooting for about a month.”

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Kaoru Kobayashi rescues Yuya Yagira... or is it the other way around? 
©2019 "His Lost Name" Production Committee

Like her mentor, Hirose takes her time telling her story in His Lost Name. As the camera gently observes their quotidian rituals, her characters grapple with unanswerable questions, and only gradually are the mysteries at the heart of her deeply moving film revealed.

As it opens, a young man grieves on a bridge, but we are spared his ensuing act of desperation. Discovered and rescued from the riverbank by taciturn widower Tetsuro (Kaoru Kobayashi of Midnight Diner), the young man (Yuya Yagira, Destruction Babies) is clearly torn between fleeing and staying. “Stay until you feel better,” suggests the older man, who seems to have an innate understanding of the youth’s anguish, and perhaps other reasons for the generous gesture. 

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 ©2019 "His Lost Name" Production Committee

Later, he asks his name. “Shinichi Yoshida,” says the youth, hesitantly admitting that he’s “doing a little soul-searching,” and that he had been in the rural town “a long time ago.” Tetsuro assures him it’s none of his business, and that Shinichi must follow his own path to answers. But he immediately takes him under his wing, giving him a place to stay, teaching him carpentry skills in his woodworking shop and including him in get-togethers with his friendly coworkers and his younger fiancée.

In Hirose’s unhurried style, a lot goes unsaid. It is some time before we realize that “Shinichi” is also the name of Tetsuro’s dead son, and nearly half-way through the film before we are given even a hint of what dark secret is haunting the youth. When he finally breaks down and confesses, he unleashes the older man’s own feelings of guilt, regret and crippling self-doubt. Eventually, the relationship will begin to unravel as Tetsuro’s over-eager acceptance and Shinichi’s past incites the suspicions of those around them.

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In brief remarks before the screening, Hirose had told the audience, “I will be pleased if you find similarities with Mr. Kore-eda’s work in this film, but I hope you'll also find differences.”

Pressed afterward to discuss how she had dealt with the comparisons that would inevitably be made, she said, “I was aware of the need to differentiate my work from Mr. Kore-eda’s and Ms. Nishikawa’s. I put a lot of thought into two points in particular: first, I didn’t want to spell out my intentions with words, or to rely on the dialogue too much. Second, I wanted to have the camera mirror the viewpoints of the characters.”

Elaborating on her approach to the film’s cinematography, Hirose explained that the film begins with the camera shooting from behind the characters, and then, “towards the middle, it starts shooting from in front of the characters, so it’s no longer pushing or chasing from behind, but rather pulling. I wanted this to reflect how we see the characters change. When we first see the protagonist, played by Mr. Yagira, we don’t know what he’s all about. He’s hard to read. I wanted to emphasize that. But as the story progresses, we start to understand him in a way, whereas the character played by Mr. Kobayashi starts out as a very friendly character, someone we can empathize with. But as the story progresses, it’s increasingly hard to figure him out, and we see the sort of madness that’s in him.” 

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©2019 "His Lost Name" Production Committee

Hirose was asked whether she’d had any hesitations about casting Yagira, given that he had won the Best Actor award at Cannes for Kore-eda’s Nobody Knows when he was just 14. She responded, “Mr. Kobayashi was the first character that was cast. We had trouble deciding who should play the protagonist. We discussed Mr. Yagira at a very early stage, but as we all know, Mr. Kore-eda gave birth to his career, in a sense. So I felt a certain pressure about including him. I wasn’t initially sure about casting him.

“But [while writing the script] I ran into problems moving forward with the character, because he’s such a passive character. It was hard pushing him along. Then I discovered that if I imagined Mr. Yagira in the role, I could progress smoothly with the script. So we realized we had no choice but to cast him in the film.”

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Asked about the casting of Young Dais, a rapper and film star who plays Daisuke, one of Shinichi’s colleagues at the woodworking shop, Hirose explained, “I cast him because I wanted a sense of danger and creepiness to the character. On the surface, he’s very nice and kind, but there’s an apprehension that comes with that. When someone’s too kind or says words that are overly kind, I’m always apprehensive. In the face of obsequiousness, I think our dark sides come out. It’s intentional that all the adults around Shinichi in the film are very kind. I think that’s reflective of contemporary Japan, and it homes in on the discomfort the younger generation feels.”

In response to a question about the film’s English title, the director said, “The Japanese title, Yoake, means dawn. The process that the protagonist goes through in the film is like walking through a dark tunnel, and the title reflects the hope that he will see the light of dawn. I really like the Japanese title, but when we discussed the English title for international sales, it seemed that a straight translation of the Japanese wouldn’t be specific enough. So we ultimately decided on His Lost Name because I thought it would be a good way to pull the audience in. Although it doesn’t reveal much, it has a hint of suspense to it, and I thought it was an accessible title.” 

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The film’s soundtrack is driven by a moodily melancholy score, written by American singer-songwriter Tara Jane O’Neil, not the most obvious choice for a Japanese filmmaker — but one that beautifully underscores Shinichi’s out-of-placeness. Said Hirose, “Since the film takes place in a rural area and is quite claustrophobic, I wanted to use music that was a little more free-spirited, let’s say. I initially wanted to use something like Nordic post-rock, but we couldn’t imagine which musicians we would be able to use.

“One of the producers, Eiji Kitahara, who’s my senior colleague at Bunbuku, knows a lot about music and has this very eclectic taste. One day he said, ‘Nanako, we’re going to a live gig tonight,’ and we went to Shibuya and saw Tara Jane O’Neil. It just happened to be the last day of her Japan tour. I thought her music was wonderful, and a really good match for the visuals I was imagining for the film. It had this expansiveness to it. So we went to discuss the soundtrack with her after the concert. She said okay right away, and that’s how the collaboration came about.”

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 ©Koichi Mori

The Q&A session revealed that viewers had been interpreting the final scene of His Lost Name in different ways, and that their understanding could be attributed to neither national or generational backgrounds. Reporting what Hirose’s intention would involve a spoiler, so suffice to say that she did not intend to suggest an open interpretation. That the film’s ending creates ambiguity, opening the door to viewer discussion, is an accomplishment for a first-time filmmaker — and a tribute to the mentoring of Hirokazu Kore-eda and Miwa Nishikawa.

His Lost Name world-premiered at the Busan Film Festival in October 2018, won a Special Mention from the international jury at November’s Tokyo Filmex, and has just been included in the competition lineup of the Vesoul International Film Festival of Asian Cinema. It’s sure to have long legs.

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©2019"His Lost Name" Production Committee

Selected Media Exposure

THE LEGEND OF THE STARDUST BROTHERS


THE LEGEND OF THE STARDUST BROTHERS:
Director’s Cut
(Hoshikuzu Kyodai no Densetsu)


December 13, 2018
Q&A guest: Director Macoto Tezka


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Makoto Tezka charmed the audience instantly with a story of gratitude for the foreign press.  ©Mance Thompson

Macoto Tezka’s business card identifies him, simply and elegantly, as “Visualist.”

As the FCCJ audience discovered, he is also many other things — prominent among them, “Master Storyteller.”

Tezka was at the club for a Q&A session following a special screening of his 1985 directorial debut, The Legend of the Stardust Brothers, released in Japan (and sadly, nowhere else), 33 years ago. The film has now been impressively remastered and given English subtitles by UK distributor Third Window Films, and the Film Committee was hosting the first-ever Japan screening of the English-subbed director’s cut. (In fact, FCCJ’s audience was only the fourth in the world to see the new version, following its October premiere at the Sitges Film Festival in Spain, and showings at the Hawaii International Film Festival and the Santa Barbara Film Festival.)

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The film's star-crossed siblings. ©Kinema Junpo DD

“I was just 23 years old when I made The Legend of the Stardust Brothers,” Tezka explained. “It was my commercial film debut and while it seems I was able to please audiences, I did not please the critics. Many of them said the budget was too low, the acting was crappy and it was just a cheap film. But then I met a foreign journalist who had come to Japan to view work by emerging filmmakers.

“Because I’d been so harshly criticized by Japanese critics, I found myself trying to explain that I was still young, I hadn’t mastered the technique, I didn’t have a big budget, my cast were all novices. She replied, ‘Yes, I can see that. But even the most celebrated filmmaker has to start somewhere. It’s not about the budget or the technique, it’s about what you want to express to the audience. That was very clear to me — I got it, I think it’s good and I recognize [your talent].’

“Her words saved me, and gave me the courage to continue making films” Tezka concluded. “So I’ve always been really grateful for foreign journalists."

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It’s hard to imagine Tezka not rallying, even without the critical approval. Born the son of legendary manga artist Osamu Tezuka, he had already made a number of experimental 8mm films as a student, and earned praise from the likes of renowned director Nagisa Oshima. Then he met musician, composer, producer, critic and radio-TV personality Haruo Chikada, who had written a soundtrack to a nonexistent movie called The Legend of the Stardust Brothers.

“The film started with the music,” Tezka recalled. “Mr. Chikada brought the album to me to make a film out of. I wrote the screenplay to match all the songs, and he added more songs as we made the film. He’s a very talented composer, and it was a real collaboration between us.”

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Singing star Kiyohiko Ozaki plays the brothers' manager. ©Kinema Junpo DD

A zany pop musical with minimal dialogue, The Stardust Brothers follows a familiar storyline about the youthful thirst for fame and the exploitation of talent, as “lucky, sexy twins” Shingo (Shingo Kubota) and Kan (Kan Takagi) get their first break via shady Atomic Promotion President Minami (Kiyohiko Ozaki). They also get their first fan club president, Marimo (Kyoko Togawa), their first hit record and their first magazine covers. But it isn’t long before they realize that “Once you become No. 1, you sing the same song again and again forever.”

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Shingo, Kan and Fan Club President Marimo. ©Kinema Junpo DD

Soon, the band has personal problems and their brand image is tarnished. Minami, meanwhile, is seduced by a briefcase of cash to make a star of Kaoru (the Bowie-esque Issay), the son of a very powerful figure whose identity, when revealed, feels like a strikingly contemporary reference.

A time capsule of inspirations, the film draws from the likes of A Hard Day’s Night, The Night of the Living Dead, The Rocky Horror Picture Show and Phantom of the Paradise (Tezka dedicates the film to its protagonist, Winslow Leach), with dashes of animation, the Village People, Klaus Nomi, George Michael (ca. Wham!) and Las Vegas revues thrown in.

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 ©Mance Thompson

Endlessly innocent and kinetic in the way of vintage music videos, as well as hugely enjoyable, there are echoes, homages and pastiches from pop history, and juicy roles for some of Japan’s most interesting creators of the time, including musicians Kiyohiko Ozaki, Issay, Sunplaza Nakano and Hiroshi Takano; and cameos by mangaka Monkey Punch (“Lupin the 3rd”), Shinji Nagashima (“Hana Ichi Monme”), Yosuke Takahashi (“Mugen Shinsi”); and even emerging film director Kiyoshi Kurosawa (Tokyo Sonata).

Tezka was asked how he was able to attract talent like singer-actor Ozaki, who was then a household name. “Being young means being foolish,” he laughed. “When you’re young, you don’t know what real fear is. So we boldly approached all these people. Mr. Chikada was already quite famous and established as a musician, and he’d appeared on TV many times. So I’m sure Mr. Ozaki knew about him. Also, Mr. Oshima had talked about my films to many distribution companies, and I’m quite sure Mr. Ozaki had heard about those, too. But unexpectedly, when he showed up on set, he told me, ‘I’m not an actor. I don't know how to act.’ Of course he’d appeared in numerous films by that time, but he still thought of himself only as a singer.”

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A dash of Busby Berkeley.  ©Kinema Junpo DD

The director then offered one of the juiciest casting antidotes an FCCJ audience has ever heard. (SPOILER ALERT) “There’s a scene in which an actor appears in Hitler makeup,” he began. “We had first approached Toshiro Mifune to play the part. He agreed to do it, but he also said that if we used 1 second of footage, it would cost ¥1 million. We didn’t have the money in the budget, so we had to give up on that idea. We learned the hard way that if you want big names, it will cost big money.

“So we adopted a different approach and decided to go after non-actors. Our next idea was Akira Kurosawa. But he said he couldn’t make it, because he was in the middle of directing Ran. So we went to Nagisa Oshima. He was also in the middle of a shoot. So we tried yet another approach: how about a big artist? We went to Taro Okamoto, famous for his Tower of the Sun. He actually said okay, and we were elated, imagining the chair swiveling around and revealing it was Taro Okamoto. But after we’d told him details of the scene he would appear in, he said, ‘I don’t like politicians and I do not want to play one.’”

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 ©Mance Thompson

A critic wondered whether Kentucky Fried Movie had been one of Tezka’s inspirations. “When we were working on the film, Mr. Chikada and I discussed a lot of rock musicals and cult movies,” the director responded. “But it was such a simple story, about these two boys and their stairway to stardom. What I had in mind were films by Richard Lester, like A Hard Day’s Night, and Mel Brooks’ Young Frankenstein, and there are also some Monty Python references.”

Asked about the intriguing animated interlude in the film, Tezka said, “I wanted to include that fantastical sequence, that hallucination in which the protagonist turns into an animated figure. I ultimately asked Yosuke Takahashi, a young manga creator back then, because I was a big fan of his work. I could have gone to my father’s company, but it would have cost us a lot of money that we simply didn't have.”

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 ©Mance Thompson

In 2016, marking the 30th anniversary of The Legend of the Stardust Brothers, Tezka created a sequel/remake to the original film. He recalled, “It all started with a discussion about doing a live concert to commemorate the anniversary. One of the original musicians said he would bring in sponsors, and suggested that we make a new film. I told him, ‘If you can get the funding, I’ll make the film.’

“After we went ahead with the production, the musician came back and told me the sponsors had pulled out. Normally, in a case like that, you would just pull the plug. But we’d already assembled the cast and crew, and I’d always had this sense that I hadn’t done as well as I could have with the first one. So I wanted to give it another go.

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 ©Mance Thompson

“I submitted the film you saw tonight to the very first Tokyo International Film Festival in 1985, and it was turned down. The Brand New Legend of the Stardust Brothers, however, was screened in the 2016 Tokyo International Film Festival, so I’m quite satisfied with how things turned out.”

Following further international festival play, Macoto Tezka’s original The Legend of the Stardust Brothers is set to be released on BD/DVD in March 2019.

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©Kinema Junpo DD

Selected Media Exposure

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

Page 1 of 19

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