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THE ONDEKOZA


THE ONDEKOZA (Za Ondekoza)


December 14, 2016
Q&A guests: Taiko pioneer Eitetsu Hayashi and remastering producer Tetsuya Nakagawa


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Eitetsu Hayashi, pioneer of taiko drumming, and Shochiku's Tetsuya Nakagawa, who oversaw the digital remastering of the film.
©Mance Thompson

Behind many great works of art are dark stories about their creation, and The Ondekoza is no exception. Gracing the FCCJ with his presence — despite having skipped the first two screenings of the film, at the Venice and Tokyo Filmex festivals — Ondekoza’s star, taiko pioneer Eitetsu Hayashi, spoke eloquently about the genesis of the musical group and the eponymous film that pays tribute to its extraordinary accomplishments. There is no hint on screen about its true backdrop: that of a powerful mentor and his cruel exploitation of the young.

Thirty-five years after its heralded premiere and subsequent disappearance from public view, the musical masterpiece The Ondekoza now returns in a blaze of cinematic glory, thanks to Shochiku, which first commissioned the documentary in 1979, and has now digitally restored it, in 4K, to mark the 100th anniversary of the birth of its director, Tai Kato (1916-1985).

Kato had begun shooting in 1979 and continued for two years, following the young people who had formed the Ondekoza Japanese music ensemble in 1971 on Sado Island, north of Niigata, under the leadership of Tagayasu Den. The teens had been lured north by Den’s plan to build a liberal arts college on the island, and had decided, despite their lack of musical training, to raise funding by performing updated versions of Japanese standards, particularly by forming a tight unit of taiko drummers.

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Hayashi generously detailed his behind-the-scenes experiences.    ©Mance Thompson

The first half of The Ondekoza follows the group’s daily routines, as well as the rehearsals and concerts in local halls, and the efforts to adapt traditional folk pieces to fit their burgeoning repertoire. They live communally, work and train together in Spartan conditions, craft their own instruments, create their own choreography and sew their own costumes. They run together, too, building up physical stamina, as they traverse many miles across the island’s rugged terrain. (They would go on to run the Boston Marathon each year from 1975 – 1981, playing drums immediately after crossing the finish line.)

In its second half, the film positively explodes in vivid colors across the screen, as the group performs a series of dazzling setpieces — many on sets designed by legendary designer Tadanori Yokoo and Chiyo Umeda — including Devil Sword Dance (Oni kenbai), O-Shichi of the Tower (Yagura no O-Shichi), Changing Cherry Blossom Song (Sakura Hensokyoku), The Big Taiko (Odaiko), Monochrome II (Monokuromu II), Float Orchestra (Yatai bayashi) and Tsugaru Shamisen (Tsugarujamisen). Kato’s unique camera techniques heighten the visual brilliance of the numbers, capturing the performers as they achieve astonishing levels of virtuosity, transforming the screen into a perfect expression of art’s transcendent power.

ondekoza image-s                                   ©1989 "The Ondekoza" Film Partners

Perhaps the film’s most spectacular sequences involve scenes of drummers, clad in loincloths, beating enormous taiko drums, encircled by leaping flames of hellfire. While most people assume that groups of drummers playing together in disciplined unison is the Japanese tradition, it first occurred after WWII. Eitetsu Hayashi himself is credited with originating the wadaiko form, in which a carefully choreographed group (like those in the film) plays large taiko drums, often with their backs to the audience for greater dramatic effect.

Speaking at the Q&A session following the screening, which he had watched, Hayashi explained, “In the 1960s, I was a huge Beatles fan and had my own amateur band. Since I had that experience and a sense of rhythm, I wound up supervising the drum sequences in the film, and composing the music for them. Usually with musical films, you record the music first, then you lip synch and match the dancing to the music. But the director wanted to shoot everything live. We only had one camera, so we had to shoot [again and again] from various angles. With wadaiko, there’s a lot of intensity when you play, and you’re working up a sweat. When you cut to shoot from another angle, you have to work up to the same intensity again, so I had to play the entire piece from the beginning each time. It was a very strenuous shoot.”

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Hayashi demonstrates the now-familiar taiko drumming stance, with sticks up above the head.      ©FCCJ

After spending 11 years with the Ondekoza, Hayashi would go on to cofound the globally acclaimed taiko troop Kodo, before commencing a solo career. He has since moved from one triumph to the next, beginning in 1984, when he became the first-ever solo taiko performer to play with the American Symphony Orchestra at Carnegie Hall. Renowned for his virtuosity, his physical stamina and his range, which fuses traditional, classical, jazz, rock and world music, his performances have influenced such popular musician-percussionists as the Blue Man group and Stomp.

But before the flourishing career and the happy circumstances that have finally brought about the release of The Ondekoza, there was the agony. Hayashi admitted, “I had qualms about coming here to see it tonight. It took a lot of courage for me to watch it again. It reminds me of those days when we were putting our heart and soul into our performances … not knowing that the film would not be released. My life changed drastically after that.”

Pressed to elaborate, he told the audience, who sat transfixed throughout, “What you see up on the screen may seem like we came together for the love of art, and aspirations to become great performers, but that’s not the case. We didn’t set out to become professional musicians, but the leader of the group [Den] was very strong, very determined, a bit of a dictator. He’d been one of the students who led the student protests [at a university in Tokyo], and he was draconian. He did not allow any TV, radio or newspapers, we weren’t free to spend time with friends outside the group, we were not paid, we did not have any vacations or time off.

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              Nakagawa, manager of Shochiku’s Home Entertainment & Licensing Division, is the man responsible for working to clear the myriad
copyright and other issues that had prevented the film from being shown more than a handful of times since 1981. ©Mance Thompson

“It was our duty to listen to whatever he had to say, and to follow his orders. But we thought the money we were earning [from performances] was going to the establishment of the college. It was an honor, back then, to earn money overseas, and we were grateful to him. However, he gradually changed his mind. The college never came to fruition. And the group became like a cult. As cults go, as dictatorships go, it was impossible to escape. We had no money, no boats, so we couldn’t leave.

“We were increasingly gaining attention overseas — even Seiji Ozawa, who was conducting the Boston Symphony Orchestra then, invited us to appear together in 1976, and we won many accolades. After that, we started to perform in very large venues, going on tours, even appearing on Broadway. At that point, the leader thought, ‘We should make a film about ourselves and take it to the Cannes Film Festival, to show how successful we’ve been overseas.’

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                                                          © FCCJ

 “So a large amount of money was borrowed to make a film. But once it was completed, the leader said, ‘I don’t like this film. I’m going to direct my own film.’ There was no means to return the money we’d borrowed to finance it, and no way to continue operations with the Ondekoza. The group members finally voiced our concerns, and the dictator that he was, he said, ‘You’re all fired.’ So the group ultimately dissolved, which meant that Shochiku couldn’t release the film.”

Before Hayashi provided this painful context for The Ondekoza, the FCCJ audience had been able to experience the film’s lasting artistic achievement without the shadows cast by its backstory. That the backstory has now deepened their appreciation is beyond a doubt; but its troubling questions linger, much as they did in Damien Chazelle’s 2014 Whiplash, another film about a mentor’s monstrously autocratic abuse of musicians, particularly one young drummer, and the toll that it takes upon his soul.

 

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Hayashi and Nakagawa pose with one of the three remaining original posters for the film (right), designed by Tadanori Yokoo.  
©Mance Thompson

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                                                   ©1989 "The Ondekoza" Film Partners

DDT: WE ARE JAPANESE WRESTLERS


DDT: WE ARE JAPANESE WRESTLERS (Oretachi Bunkakei Puro-Resu DDT)


November 21, 2016
Q&A guests: Co-directors Muscle Sakai and Tetsuaki Matsue


 86A3367                                                                  Super Sasadango Machine presents a riveting preshow event.          ©Mance Thompson

The Film Committee is committed to presenting the widest possible range of work to our audiences, and there’s no better proof than our sneak peek of DDT: We Are Japanese Wrestlers. We steeled ourselves for criticism that we shouldn’t be screening sports movies — especially when they’re not about Olympics athletes — but the criticism never came.

On the contrary, we discovered that a surprising number of FCCJ members are fans of professional wrestling, and they seemed thrilled to watch a theatrical documentary about one of Japan’s most popular teams, the Dramatic Dream Team, on the club's premises. They were also looking forward to the special preshow event, which the DDT’s legion of followers and Samurai TV had helped popularize.

From its beginnings with the great Rikidozan and Giant Baba, through Antonio Inoki, the spirit and presentation of Japanese “proresu” have been more high-minded, with fewer theatrics, than the western version. Still considered primarily a combat sport (thanks to Inoki’s introduction of traditional martial arts into the mix) proresu matches in Japan have always been considered real competitions, with grueling, body-slamming, high-flying action.

DDT, founded in 1997 by Sanshiro Takagi, began injecting matches with a far greater theatrical verve, incorporating stories and comedy, striking a delicate balance between the hair-raising and the hilarious, and bringing the team's style closer to the nonstop mayhem of western wrestling. Their astounding athleticism, creative costuming and dazzling choreography soon made DDT one of the top names in indie wrestling. DDT was dubbed “cultural” puroresu for its theatrics, as well as for Super Sasadango Machine’s introductory PowerPoint presentations before every tournament. Yes, PowerPoints.

 86A3427                                                                                                 ©Mance Thompson

Only the third pro wrestler in its 71-year history to appear at FCCJ — following Rikidozan and Inoki — SS Machine himself burst into the screening room in all his green-spangled glory, and took the stage to wild applause. He raised his arm and…click, began his PowerPoint show, custom-created for the FCCJ crowd. For the next 30 minutes, the entire room was in a state of extreme merriment, with each new slide prompting a fresh round of appreciative chortles (along with giggles, guffaws and a few howls).

It was such a two-thumbs-up performance, such a combination of serious and silly, informative and entertaining, and all before the main event had begun, that no one wanted SS Machine to leave. (The senior managing director of Sakai Precision Molding in Niigata Prefecture, SS Machine is also an MBA holder, although this is not public knowledge, and a TV comedy talent.)

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     Ever the professionals, SS Machine and interpreter Taro Goto
rehearse their timing before the event.    ©Koichi Mori

For those of us who have never attended a live match (ahem, guilty), and wondered how “puroresu” could have grown into a $120 million sport, SS Machine’s slideshow made it crystal clear. After colorfully introducing the wrestlers and the documentary team, including the “outstanding filmmaker” Muscle Sakai (SS Machine himself), he laid out the feud that erupted in 2014 between DDT (which he estimated made only $5 million last year) and New Japan Pro Wrestling ($32 million), the country's No. 1 agency, founded by Antonio Inoki. Apparently, New Japan’s MVP Hiroshi Tanahashi had fanned the fires of the feud by “sending shockwaves through the industry” with remarks slamming DDT’s low-level technique: “We’re competing at a whole other level from you.”

DDT decided to offer Tanahashi a chance to prove his supremacy, so invited him to a playoff. “It’s not easy being a little company taking on a big corporation,” SS Machine explained. “So we adopted the Lancaster strategy: to find the opponent’s vulnerability, and concentrate the attack on that weak point. Unfortunately, however, Tanahashi has no vulnerabilities.” The wrestler-filmmaker then described how he’d been at work, watching a plastic injection mold machine, when he realized how DDT could beat the MVP: “Let’s hypothesize that Tanahashi is the pro wrestling mold, and that we oppose this extremely precise instrument by pitting him against the unpredictable element of Ken Ohka [DDT’s least-experienced wrestler]. Then we may have a shot at victory. Businesses, whether large or small, show their true colors when they’re faced with a crisis. Did DDT’s Lancaster strategy work? You’ll have to watch the documentary.”

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             SS Machine illustrates DDT's Lancaster strategy.                ©Mance Thompson

It was a most excellent setup for DDT: We Are Japanese Wrestlers, which opens with restless jumps from one contest to the next, as if it’s suffering from attention-deficit disorder, which quickly orients viewers to the style of coverage favored by Japan's premier sports channel, Samurai TV, where the team has a wildly popular hour-long timeslot. Documenting a year of matches and backstage stories, the film reveals that these rough-n-tumble customers have very soft underbellies indeed (they even submit to “popularity ranking” contests, much like boy bands). By the time Ken Ohka and Harashima finally get their chance to go up against the bruisers of New Japan Pro Wrestling in late 2015, the audience is resoundingly on their side. Not quite a classic underdog contest, since the DDT have fought their way to a No. 2 ranking, there is still much at stake. And Tanahashi makes the perfect villain.

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                                              Co-directors Sakai and Matsue share a laugh.         ©Mance Thompson

As DDT approaches its 20th anniversary, the film is a fittingly scruffy tribute to the team’s staying power.

Following the screening, Muscle Sakai (SS Machine in street clothes) returned with Tetsuaki Matsue, his co-director and the acclaimed documentarian behind award-winning films Annyong Kimchi, Live Tape, Tokyo Drifter and Flashback Memories 3D. The first question was about how Matsue got involved in the project. “The DDT president asked me about making a documentary in the spring of 2014,” he said. “He suggested following the team for a year. But I thought it would be interesting to follow one subject, and I was always fascinated with Muscle Sakai, whom I’ve known for 10 years.”

He later expanded: “In summer, Mr. Sakai was in the ring at Ryogoku and announced that we were doing the film, and said that it would be in 3D. At the time, it wasn’t a joke. I had contacted specialists and we had shot for about a year. I started editing it, but it just didn’t work as a film. That’s when I proposed refocusing on Muscle instead. I always felt that there was something about his performance and aesthetic that was similar to my approach to documentary. I also felt like the [DDT-New Japan] match was a nice narrative center.”

Matsue went on to explain, “I’m 39 right now, and Muscle is also 39. If you look at the whole DDT culture, there’s something about it that looks like a college festival. What they do requires such an expenditure of energy; they put everything into it. There’s a kind of exuberance there that I was drawn to. The subject matter is so enjoyable that, even at my age, I was able to tackle this project. I think this film might appeal to people in our age group as they look back, nostalgically, at the phenomenon of going all out.”

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                                                                                                                                        ©Mance Thompson

Asked how he got into proresu, when he clearly had a lot of other options, Sakai admitted, “The president of DDT asked me if I wanted to try wrestling. At the time, I was a university student and I was the team’s videographer. Mr. Takagi came to me and said, ‘You’re a big guy. Why don’t you try wrestling?’ And here I am.”

But where did the PowerPoint presentations come from? Said Sakai, speaking metaphorically: “As pro wrestlers and mold makers, we’re often overwhelmed by these big corporations who come at us with complex marketing and advertising strategies, and PowerPoint presentations with business ideologies. They come at us with graphs and try to embroil us in something we don’t understand, and I felt it was important to understand. I gave my first PPT presentation in 2014.”

A DDT fan in the crowd asked whether he thinks things have changed, now that Tanahashi has fought against the underdogs. “There are a lot of inter-organizational feuds,” Sakai admitted. “Ever since that incident, I’ve been asked to officiate and be a peacemaker. Whenever there’s some kind of trouble, they bring me in as a troubleshooter. I’ll continue to serve in any capacity that may help.”

Matsue was asked whether he thought Ken Ohka had international appeal, and had chosen to highlight him in the film for that reason. “We actually filmed a lot of the DDT wrestlers,” responded the director, “and it wasn’t our intention that Ohka-san would be so central to the story. He just kind of ended up that way. Some of the wrestlers look like stars on screen, either because they emit a certain star wattage or because they seem to invite the spotlight. Ohka-san doesn’t have star wattage, but it seemed that the camera always turned to him. I thought, that’s the kind of character we want.”

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                                                  Sakai lines up the nameplates for a selfie with FCCJ's famous banner.                     ©Mance Thompson

Sakai added, “If he were the type of wrestler who deserved international acclaim, I believe that WWE would’ve approached him by now. So the probability of him going international is pretty low. But you never know. Maybe after this FCCJ screening, the film will get seen overseas and a big promoter will discover him.”

This prompted a journalist to ask whether the English title had been chosen with a global audience in mind. Said Sakai: “In Japan, whether you’re wrestling in the DDT or New Japan Pro Wrestling style, I think a lot of Japanese fans are familiar with a lot of the elements in the film. But we chose to put ‘Japanese’ in the title because we’re proud of our wrestling, and we want international audiences to see it.”

Matsue admitted: “Sakai-san came up with the English title and he really pushed for it. Initially, I had in mind calling it DDT: Ego Search." He laughed, "But I’m actually awful at coming up with titles for my own films. Everyone always winds up disagreeing.”

We may never see this sport at the Olympics, but that doesn’t mean its practitioners aren’t every bit as dedicated to training and determined to win as any Olympic athlete — nor that its many millions of fans aren’t as justifiably devoted. Why should trampoline and synchronized swimming be the only contests that inspire levity during the Olympic Games? It’s too late for 2020, but with athletic prowess of this heart-pounding level, surely there’s an outside chance for pro wrestling on the next go-around?  

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                                                            The directors brandish their new FCCJ honorary membership cards.         ©Mance Thompson      

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                                                                              ©DDTプロレスリング

 

Media Coverage

 

 

A BRIDE FOR RIP VAN WINKLE and Q&A in collaboration with TIFF


A BRIDE FOR RIP VAN WINKLE (RIPPU BAN WINKURU NO HANAYOME)


October 4, 2016
Q&A guests: TIFF Director in Focus Shunji Iwai,
Japan Now Progam Advisor Kohei Ando and TIFF Director General Yasushi Shiina


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From left, Ando, Iwai and Shiina discuss TIFF's upcoming salute to the director.  ©Koichi Mori

The Film Committee has been cohosting events with the Tokyo International Film Festival (TIFF) at FCCJ for nearly a decade, but the past two years have been especially exciting for us, thanks to TIFF’s newfound focus on Japanese film. Anyone who has attended FCCJ’s screenings over the past nine years knows that our emphasis is on introducing Japanese films and filmmakers to international audiences through the Tokyo-based journalists, critics, festival programmers and cinéphiles who join us for our events.

In 2015, TIFF established two new sections devoted to Japanese film, Japanese Classics and Japan Now, and included nearly 80 Japanese films across all the sections in its lineup. This year’s 29th iteration of the festival will be equally Japan-centric, with two local titles in the main Competition selection and dozens more in the Special Screenings, Asian Future, Japanese Cinema Splash and other sections. Among the highlights will be the world premiere of the first TIFF-Japan Foundation international coproduction, Asian Three-Fold Mirror: Reflections, a special Kabukiza program with kabuki performance and film screenings accompanied by a benshi narrator, and personal appearances in The World of Mamoru Hosoda tribute.

Among this embarrassment of riches, our heart still belongs to the Japan Now section, presided over by Program Advisor Kohei Ando. A genius at selecting the most piquant, provocative, evocative films among those that hit Japanese theaters during the year, Ando has also made another brilliant choice for the section’s Director in Focus: acclaimed creative force Shunji Iwai. Despite being one of Japan’s most famous exports — especially in Asia, where new Iwai releases are trumpeted like the Second Coming — Iwai has not yet been the subject of a career retrospective in his own country.

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Shiina marks his fourth year as TIFF leader with another round of welcome enhancements.                    ©Mance Thompson, Koichi Mori

Ando and TIFF are correcting that. Japan Now will be featuring five Iwai films, including the 1993 work that kicked off his career, Fireworks: Should We See It from the Side or the Bottom?, and his latest hit, the enchantingly enigmatic A Bride for Rip Van Winkle (2016) in the festival’s mini-tribute, with Iwai on hand for Q&A sessions.

Iwai and Ando appeared at FCCJ to discuss details of the tribute, along with TIFF Director General Yasushi Shiina. The evening then continued with a special screening of A Bride for Rip Van Winkle and an hour-long Q&A session with Iwai.

Shiina is marking his fourth year at the helm, and continues to oversee enhancements and expansions to the only festival in Japan accredited by the International Federation of Film Producers Associations (FIAPF). In his opening remarks at FCCJ, he noted, “This year, TIFF will be showing the past, present and future of films. The Japan Now section features present Japan. In our new Youth section, we will focus on films that portray… the future. The Japanese Classics Section revisits the past history of Japanese cinema.”

Shiina stressed that the Youth section, featuring films for children and teens, aims “to bring in younger audiences, as they will be the generation to carry on the future of cinema.” Among other highlights, he mentioned that a a plethora of open-air screenings will be held this year, taking advantage of Tokyo’s mild fall temperatures. (Knock wood.)

Shiina also expressed his delight with Kohei Ando’s selection for Japan Now, which the filmmaker-academic has programmed since its inception in 2015. “He is selecting the films 3 to 4 months prior to the festival,” said Shiina, “including films that haven’t been released or been played up in the press. I think he has an exceptional eye, and I feel confident leaving it all in his hands.”

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 Ando returns for his second year with another spot-on selection for Japan Now, including the year's two surprise blockbusters.   ©FCCJ, Koichi Mori

A showcase of outstanding Japanese titles from recent and coming months, the section highlights the diversity of the domestic film industry, as well as providing a multifaceted look at the country today. TIFF’s English-subtitled screenings are also meant to help boost the films’ recognition internationally. “There will also be special guest appearances,” said Ando, “including Makoto Shinkai, director of [box office juggernaut] Your Name; Kiyoshi Kurosawa, director of Daguerrotype; Koji Fukada, director of [Cannes prize-winning] Harmonium, stars and surprise guests and many more.”

A journalist in the FCCJ audience asked, “Do you decide your selection based on whether a film has international appeal? Is that your main criteria?” Responded Ando: “Great question. No, it’s not about international appeal; it comes down to whether it’s a good film or not, whether I would want to introduce it to international audience. What is a ‘good’ film is difficult to define, so my own personal taste also goes into the selection. But it is, first and foremost, about showing good films.”

The Japan Now Director in Focus tribute allows Ando to help expand the overseas recognition of midcareer creators like Iwai, whose groundbreaking style and youth-focused vision have been internationally acclaimed in such masterworks as Love Letter (1995), Swallowtail Butterfly (1996), All About Lily Chou-Chou (2001) and Hana and Alice (2004). Iwai is the only Japanese director who has shot films in New York (for the 2008 omnibus New York, I Love You), Paris (as producer of the 2010 I Need to Buy New Shoes) and Vancouver (his 2011 English-language debut, Vampire). In a career of infinite variety, he has also written novels and made an animated feature (The Case of Hana and Alice, 2015), documentaries (The Kon Ichikawa Story in 2006; Friends After 3.11, about the long-lasting devastation in Fukushima), as well as dozens of much-imitated music videos.

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Iwai has crafted singular films for over 20 years.          ©Koichi Mori

Ando chose Iwai, he said, after first seeing his latest film, A Bride for Rip Van Winkle. “I immediately felt proud being Japanese,” he told the FCCJ audience. “He has such a unique aesthetic, but he also has an allegorical way of storytelling, a way of bringing the sentiment of young Japanese to the screen. I think this time, he’s really topped himself.”

Asked how he had decided on the Iwai lineup, Ando said, “It was so hard to narrow it down to just a few films, because Mr. Iwai has made so many wonderful works.” In the end, he decided to bookend the selection with Iwai’s earliest and latest masterpieces, and to also include Love Letter, “an unbelievable feat for a first feature” and the underseen, English-language Vampire, which is “infused with his distinctive aesthetics.”

He lamented that he couldn’t show such hits as Hana and Alice and the groundbreaking All About Lily Chou-Chou, but stressed, “Of course Mr. Iwai is already hugely popular with the Asian audience, and has won awards in America as well” — including a Lifetime Achievement Award from the New York Asian Film Festival in July — “but he still doesn’t have the reputation he deserves in countries like France. I hope Europeans will watch his films at TIFF, and help spread the word.”

Asked to comment about his selection as Director in Focus, Iwai said, “I’m very pleased to be selected. It’s a huge honor for me, and I’m glad that five films will be screened for TIFF audiences.” Reminded that Love Letter had been the first Japanese film to screen in Korea during the country’s long-running ban on Japanese works, and had been such a monster hit that it led to a gradual easing of quotas, Iwai mentioned that he had been on a promotional tour to Korea the week before. “I went for the release of A Bride for Rip Van Winkle,” he said, “and I was invited to appear on a news program on one of the leading TV channels. They told me it was the first time a Japanese person had appeared on the program. It reminded me of the time when they couldn’t even show the Love Letter trailer on TV, since the Japanese language was prohibited. In retrospect, I think I may have been destined to act as a bridge between cultures, and it dawns on me that it’s a huge responsibility.”

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                                                                                                                                                                    ©Koichi Mori

Iwai was asked whether he had any plans for a coproduction in China, since he’s been spotted there recently. “I actually have produced a couple of films with China and am working on a few at this moment,” he said. “It’s a very good thing for directors like me, who have our own distinct style, when film markets open up and expand. Hopefully, there’s a trickle-down effect, where the bigger the market becomes, there can be more room for art films [like mine] as well.”

A Russian journalist then asked whether he might have plans venture into the Russia market. Iwai laughed. “I’ve had the pleasure of attending the Moscow Film Festival before, and to see many Russian films,” he said. “I think Russian films are extravagant in the best way. They have this Dostoyevskian scale to them. I understand that Russian people like long stories, so if the opportunity falls on me, I would be more than happy to take on the challenge. Perhaps I could follow in the footsteps of Mr. Kurosawa, who did Dersu Uzala [in Russia].”

Asked whether he had plans to continue directing animated films, the director answered: “I take my own approach to creating animated work. I have a team with me, and we make music videos, as well. I also like to draw, so working on animation brings me that joy. Greedy as it may sound, I would like continue to create both live action and animated work.”

He was then asked: “Do you think there’s any significance to having your films shown at festivals, as opposed to having them released commercially?” Iwai’s answer was surprising. “It’s a good opportunity for me as a director to sit back, relax and enjoy my films together with the fans and critics,” he said. “There’s unbelievable pressure with commercial releases, so I can relax and enjoy festivals a lot more.”

Iwai was clearly relaxed at FCCJ, too, and was extremely generous with his time during the Q&A session that followed A Bride for Rip Van Winkle. Returning to the dais once again to chat with the large audience (many of whom had been there for 4 hours) after the screening, he spoke in both Japanese and English on a range of subjects related to the film, from casting to inspirations to censorship to the film’s apparent criticisms of societal issues.

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                                                                                                                                                                      ©FCCJ, Mance Thompson

Adapted from Iwai’s own novel of the same name, the film returns to the aching melancholy of several earlier romances, but introduces new notes of cynicism. Nanami (Silver Bear-winning actress Haru Kuroki) has been sleepwalking through life, her docility and submissiveness almost terrifying to behold. Like the legend of Rip Van Winkle, in which the protagonist awakens after 20 years to an unfamiliar world, she is about to be rudely shaken out of her slumber.

A lost soul whose loneliness makes her deeply gullible, she is only able to express herself by adopting another identity on the social network Planet. On the site, she meets a fellow teacher and they soon plan to wed, although we learn that she has divorced parents, no interaction with relatives, and no friends she can invite to the reception. Through Planet, she meets jack-of-all-trades Amuro (Go Ayano), who provides actors to play her family at the wedding. Her marriage thus begins with an innocent-seeming deception, and sure enough, it begins to unravel.

Nanami turns to Amuro again when she suspects her husband is cheating and he continues to appear whenever Nanami’s in need, rescuing her for a hefty fee. Eventually, he finds her a job in an enormous mansion, which she shares with the outgoing Mashiro (Cocco). The two women bond tightly in this otherworldly setting, becoming the sisters and friends that neither has. But who is its owner and why have they really been brought there…?

rip sub large© 2016 A Bride for Rip Van Winkle Film Partners

A female viewer asked the first question after the screening: “The marriage at the beginning of the film symbolizes a kind of imprisonment, but the second time around, it’s a kind of liberation. Was that deliberate?”

“My point is not which is better,” Iwai answered. “My point is that happiness is elusive. Yes, Nanami meets Mashiro and they’re so happy. But my point is that even days that never happen can give us happiness. Sorry, it’s hard to explain.” A little later, he said, “It’s really a harsh, cruel story that I’m telling. Nanami finds only a fleeting happiness, and it’s based on a deception.”

Another journalist queried, “In China, we talk about the character of Nanami as being weak and strong at the same time — so we feel she must be a metaphor for Japan itself. Is that your intention?” Sidestepping the question’s political overtones, Iwai said, “She appears to be weak, but whether that’s an inherently Japanese trait, I would say ‘No.’ The same goes for her naiveté and sensitivity. She’s also resilient and a survivor, but whether this is Japanese or not depends on the individual.”

Iwai admitted, however, that he was intentionally making points about Japanese society: “I did make an effort to depict how Japanese are unconditionally willing to use all the technology at our disposal without suspecting a thing. Nowadays, at the click of a button, you can summon a car, you can summon a person. I think we’re all overly eager and too trusting of these services.”


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Interpreter Mihoko Imai and Iwai react as the emcee asks, "Where do you walk? Maybe I could accidentally run into you."   ©Koichi Mori

The conversation took a more personal turn with questions about Iwai’s inspirations for the story and his approach to writing. “I wrote the script chronologically, and a lot of the scenes are based on things I’ve heard,” he explained. “My friend met his girlfriend on Facebook, which is similar to how Nanami meets her husband. I met some people in an izakaya who told me they were acting as family members for weddings. I also have a friend from school who went into the AV industry, like the Mashiro character, and I met her mother, who was complaining about it. Doing research is important, but when you can hear about things from your friends, it has greater impact.”  

As for writing, Iwai revealed, “The most helpful thing for me is walking. I love walking. I walk every day when I’m writing a story. There’s a turning point where I go back to my house, and I found a clothes shop called Rip Van Winkle. I borrowed the name for the title and thought I would change it to something else, but I never did.”

Only a creator of Iwai’s stature could possibly devise such incredibly intricate plot machinations from the name on a store window, and assemble them so they unfold in such deliciously ambiguous — and unexpectedly moving — ways. But A Bride for Rip Van Winkle reminds us once again that he is one of cinema’s most masterful storytellers.

In the final minutes of the Q&A session, Iwai said, “We can’t always be the person we should be. Sometimes we’re good, sometimes not. I wanted to focus on how even people like porn stars and conmen, or murderers, or people who love sucking blood [a nod to his Vampire] still breathe the same air we do. They see the same sky above their heads. I couldn’t stop thinking about that, and it was my greatest motivation. People like that can make us notice another point of view and inspire us to create something.”

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                                                                                                                                                      ©Mance Thompson

 

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HARMONIUM


HARMONIUM (Fuchi ni Tatsu)


 September 28, 2016
Q&A guests: Director Koji Fukada and stars Mariko Tsutsui and Kanji Furutachi


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Furutachi (left) and Tsutsui (center) hardly seem the dysfunctional couple they play in the film, but Fukada (right) saw the chemistry.  ©FCCJ

Extreme weight gain or loss for a film role is such a common celebrity headline in the West that it’s all become a bit ho hum. After Robert De Niro snagged an Oscar for packing on pounds to play Jake LaMotta in Raging Bull, a long line of stars has followed suit, from Renee Zellwegger and Charlize Theron (big gains for Bridget Jones’ Diary and Monster) to Christian Bale and Matthew McConaughey (big losses for The Machinist and Dallas Buyer’s Club).

But such feats aren’t common in Japan*, so when this exchange occurred at the beginning of the Q&A session for Harmonium, there were audible gasps from the audience:

Question: “How did you prepare to portray this couple who change so much between the first and second part of the film, which commences 8 years later?”

Mariko Tsutsui: “After reading the script, I realized my character undergoes drastic changes. I knew right away that it wouldn’t be enough to express her inner turmoil without going through some physical changes, as well, and I discussed with the director how we might achieve that. One thing we did was to shoot in sequence.”

Koji Fukada: “Since Ms. Tsutsui is too modest to mention this herself, I will add that she took the character’s physical transformation seriously, and gained 13 kg [29 pounds] in 3 weeks.”

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Fukada can now add a Cannes Jury Prize to his mantel.         ©Mance Thompson, Koichi Mori

The gasps erupted partially because Tsutsui was so glamorously slender on the FCCJ stage, and partially because the Method approach to acting has so few practitioners in Japan. One of them, coincidentally, was sitting right next to Tsutsui — her costar, Kanji Furutachi. The popular actor studied at the famed HB Studio in New York with Uta Hagen, Carol Rosenfeld and others, and his fellow alumni include De Niro, Al Pacino, Liza Minnelli, Anne Bancroft and Matthew Broderick.

Despite such bragging rights, Furutachi’s disarming modesty remains intact. “No matter what kind of character I depict, I usually take the same approach,” he admitted. “For this film, I hadn’t had any of the experiences that my character has, so I had to rely more on my imagination. But I think I made the right decisions. I hope I made the right decisions.”

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 Tsutsui is a theater and TV veteran with lengthy film credits, but this marks her first starring role.   ©FCCJ, Koichi Mori

Tsutsui mentioned that she’d made her decisions based on “hints” she received from Fukuda regarding his own parents’ relationship, which was obviously fraught. “Mr. Furutachi and I are both theater veterans, and it’s very easy for us to communicate because we can be straightforward with each other and say what we want to each other. But it does seem like our banter comes off like we’re a husband and wife squabbling. That helped us during the shoot.”

Interjected Furutachi (in English, without realizing he'd switched languages), “I think that’s due to the magic of Mr. Fukada. We were perfectly cast as this couple. It’s amazing. It’s not like we had to even pretend, or make up something we didn’t have. Maybe it was already there.”

The director was asked how he managed to find two actors of the same caliber as international star Tadanobu Asano, thus assuring he wouldn’t eclipse his costars. Said Fukada: “While I was writing the script, which was about 10 years ago, I already had Mr. Furutachi in mind [in the interim, the actor would play the interloper in Fukada’s 2010 breakout hit Hospitalité, a role similar to Asano’s in Harmonium]. Then three years ago, when we got the greenlight to go ahead, the producers suggested Ms. Tsutsui, and I saw right away that she would be perfect for the role of his wife. After that, we cast Mr. Asano. So he was actually cast last, after these two were already in place.”

As Harmonium's inscrutable stranger in white coveralls, Asano is haunted and haunting; but his quietly commanding performance is more than matched by Furutachi and relative unknown Tsutsui, who is the true revelation here, particularly in her second-half transformation (the weight helps, but there is also gut-wrenching emotional heft).

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Furutachi and Tsutsui, an even match.  ©Koichi Mori

The synergy between all three costars is nothing short of startling, surely a contributing factor to the film’s success at Cannes, where it emerged with the Un Certain Regard Jury Prize despite intense competition in a lineup that also included Cannes-favorite Hirokazu Kore-eda. The French festival does love dark portraits of fractured families, to be sure, but Fukada’s win is a remarkable achievement for the indie filmmaker, whose budgets — impossibly low, even by Japan’s rock-bottom standards — have been no match for his ambitions.

In just over a decade since his debut, Fukada has worked in a variety of genres and received awards for all his work (from black comic romp Hospitalité, to gentle coming-of-age frolic Au revoir l’eté, to apocalyptic fable Sayonara), but none has been quite as enigmatic, as strangely alluring yet serious minded, as his latest. While he has always infused his stories with Timely Themes (racism, ostracism, exile due to nuclear disaster), they have never overshadowed his central focus, which is forever and always on the disconnection between family members.

With Harmonium, he proves that he is not afraid to confront and crush the conventions of that most hackneyed of genres, the Japanese family drama. In the film’s production notes, Fukada wrote: “I’m tired of all these Japanese films idealizing family ties. By continuing to relay this outdated and stereotypical image of an ‘ideal family,’ we deny the various other family types that actually exist.”

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               Furutachi told the audience: "I actually come here sometimes to see films, so I usually sit on your side, looking this way. Tonight, I’m very honored  to be sitting on this side, looking the other way."         ©FCCJ

In Harmonium we watch, with sinking heart, as one such “family type” collapses following the arrival of an old acquaintance. We’ve just barely met Toshio (Furutachi), his wife Akie (Tsutsui) and their young daughter Hotaru (Momone Shinokawa) when Yasaka (Asano) arrives, just out of prison for murder and somehow linked to Toshio’s past. Without consulting his wife, with whom relations are noticeably strained, Toshio moves the new arrival into a spare room in their cramped quarters, and puts him to work in the small factory downstairs. Yasaka is well mannered and hard-working; he washes his own dishes and wins over Hotaru with a blithe tune on the harmonium, which she’s attempting to play. He also wins over Akie, attending church with her and confessing his past sins. But their flirtation clearly alarms Akie, even as her husband remains oblivious. Then one morning, a tragedy occurs, and the final estrangement of family members is complete. As the story jumps forward in time, the aftermath is chilling to behold. Probing undercurrents of surprising philosophical depth, Harmonium ends with an ambiguity that will incite discussion long after its final, devastating moments.

Film critic Mark Schilling, who would later bestow a rare 4.5 out of 5 stars on the film in the Japan Times, mentioned that on his second viewing, Harmonium’s depiction of evil reminded him of Stanley Kubrick’s The Shining. Fukada demurred. “I didn’t want to depict Yasaka as an antihero or a villain or anything that could be construed as charismatic, because I don’t think there’s a clear line between what is evil and what is good. It’s not black and white. I think we live in degrees of gray. Evil depends on what perspective you view it from. In some scenes Yasaka is gentle and kind, in some he’s very threatening, in some he’s gripped with an anger he can’t control. I wanted to depict him in a multifaceted way.”

When Fukada was asked where the idea for the story came from, he laughed, “I get that a lot.” After admitting that he couldn’t remember exactly what he was thinking 10 years earlier, he noted, “I do remember that I wanted to depict how violence could come into someone’s life in such a random way, and just shatter it. Car accidents and acts of god can drastically change the course of life. I wanted to depict violence in a way that defies logic, defies cause and effect, defies crime and punishment.”

With the Cannes trophy leading to an uptick in international sales, audiences in France can look forward to seeing Harmonium in theaters in December, while US audiences will have to wait only until early 2017.

*Perhaps this is about to change, with Tsutsui’s in Harmonium, and Kenichi Matsuyama’s 35-pound gain to play chess champion Satoshi Murayama in the upcoming Satoshi: A Move for Tomorrow.

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                                                                                                                                                                                                        ©Koichi Mori

 

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©2016 FUCHI NI TATSU FILM PARTNERS & COMME DES CINEMAS

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CHAMBARA: THE ART OF JAPANESE SWORDPLAY


CHAMBARA: THE ART OF JAPANESE  SWORDPLAY (Jidaigeki wa Shinazu: Chambara Bigakko)


 September 12, 2016
Q&A guests: Director Sadao Nakajima, fight choreographer Mitsuhiko Seike, Toei Tsurugi Association


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Members of the elite Toei Tsurugikai gave a dazzling live performance after the screening, and then struck ferocious poses with Nakajima (center) and Seike (left). These highly trained swordsmen and women are the real stars of Kyoto’s action films, putting the thrills and chills into the fight scenes, and elevating the performances of the top-billed stars.©Mance Thompson

 The term sensei is often wielded too lightly in Japan, a catch-all title meant as a demonstration of respect for one’s elders and/or betters that seems to find its way onto the end of altogether too many names, whether deserved or not.

But sometimes, the title fits perfectly, and Sadao Nakajima — always “Nakajima Sensei” or “Professor Nakajima” — wears it well. A veteran Toei director, having helmed over 60 films in nearly 60 years in the industry, he is a cult figure, a fount of knowledge, a veritable walking encyclopedia of chambara lore. (Speaking of walking, to see the 82-year-old stroll into FCCJ’s screening room is to see the picture of crackling-with-youth energy, and it seems certain that his cane is just for show — perhaps, I imagined, there was a hidden blade inside, just like the shikomi gatana carried by one of his characters).

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                                                                      The professor speaks to a rapt audience.  Photo left ©Koichi Mori; right ©Rob Nava-Moreno

In his new documentary, Chambara: The Art of Japanese Swordplay, the professor proves to be not only an impassioned scholar, but also a most affable screen presence, as he relates milestones in the history of Japan’s homegrown swashbuckler film (chambara being the sound of clashing swords), and trades anecdotes with an array of authorities (swordfight artists, actors, armorers, historians, critics). A must-see for all fans of spectacular swordsmanship, Chambara is also a veritable master class in everything jidaigeki (samurai period) film, providing just the layman’s approach necessary for those of us (ahem, guilty) who have remained willfully ignorant of the medium’s many delights.

As we learn, Japan’s first-ever jidaigeki was screened in Kyoto in February 1908. Directed by the great Shozo Makino, an industry pioneer whose son Masahiro would become Nakajima’s mentor, the one-reel drama featured kabuki actors in the roles of rival samurai. Almost nothing of Makino’s work has survived, but the swashbuckler continued to flourish with the rise of the samurai, ninja and yakuza genres.

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As he traces the origins and growth of the Kyoto-centric industry, Nakajima treats Chambara viewers to rare footage from a wealth of early and later films, and compares the styles of the major stars of each era, from Matsunosuke Onoe (“Medama Matsu”), Tsumabasaburo Bando (“Bantsuma”), Chiezo Kataoka, Utaemon Ichikawa and Arashi Kanjuro (“Arakan”) to Raizo Ichikawa, Jushiro Konoe, Kinnosuke Nakamura, Shintaro Katsu and Hiroki Matsukata. Naturally, much screen time is also devoted to the enormous impact of Akira Kurosawa and Toshiro Mifune on the genre (not all commentators view it as positive).

At its peak in the late 1950s, there were 100 professional swordfighters working on Kyoto’s sound stages, and jidaigeki would account for over 150 film releases each year. But those days are done. In Ken Ochiai’s elegiac Uzumasa Limelight, which we screened at FCCJ in 2014 (and in which Nakajima has a small role essentially playing himself), we see that the skilled bladesmen of Kyoto are running out of work as the jidaigeki industry dries up. It’s no wonder that the swordsmen and women of the Toei Tsurugikai, an elite team started in 1952 at the Kyoto Toei Studio to develop tate, or chambara techniques using kata swords, now number very few, and must support themselves in a variety of realms, not just on film.

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                                                                        Famed fight choreographer Mitsuhiko Seike.  Photo left ©FCCJ; right, ©Mance Thompson

Not surprisingly, the first questions asked of Nakajima and famed fight choreographer Mitsuhiko Seike after the screening of the documentary concerned the future of jidaigeki. Both men were fairly upbeat. Seike noted, “While it’s true that the number of chambara films are decreasing year by year, we have the Jidaigeki Senmon Channel on cable TV, which specializes in jidaigeki programming. Often they air classics and reruns of old shows. But in the past few years, they’ve started producing their own shows. These are sometimes adaptations of classics or jidaigeki manga, or they’re series based on famous novels. They feel slightly different from what we used to see, but I think that’s one avenue for the future of the genre.”

One journalist commented: “This movie’s full of old men complaining about how good times will never come back. But Chihiro Yamamoto, star of Uzumasa Limelight, is in the film, and tonight we’ve just seen a demonstration in which a woman struck down three men. So is chambara’s future perhaps in women’s hands?”

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Nakajima nodded and admitted, “It’s true that the films have been male centered. After the war, they became much more conscious of the female audience, but the strange truth is that in Japan’s history, especially during the Muromachi Period, women really shined in real life. Unfortunately, that hasn’t been portrayed in films enough, except in the o-oku stories about the harems in the inner chambers of the shogunate. I started the whole series of o-oku films, and yet the sad fact is that these women are still seen from the perspective of men, and the films tend to be tragedies. Even with a female protagonist, they’re still seen through the prism of the male gaze.”

He continued, “But we’ve seen a lot more women being interested in history [the so-called “female history buff” or rekijo, trend that many have seen as empowering for young women], and there are many young women who are drawn to the Japanese sword … and the chambara culture in general. So I think that’s encouraging.”

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                                                                                            ©Mance Thompson

To a suggestion from the audience that Toei should consider launching a “jidaigeki renaissance,” and hire young directors to reinvigorate the genre, Nakajima responded, “I don’t see Toei doing that. Financing both production and distribution in Japan is often under the same umbrella, so everyone wants to do what’s most profitable for the least risk. They only invest in what is very safe. Those of us in the older generation must create an environment in which [chambara] filmmakers feel they can thrive, and perhaps we should provide case-study examples of how these films can succeed. I’ve been asking myself how I can best create that kind of environment for younger filmmakers to be able to carry on the torch.”

Chambara: The Art of Japanese Swordplay reveals the secrets of how those shiny stage kata are made, and discussion returned several times to these potent symbols of the samurai soul. One audience member asked whether real swords were ever used. “Yes,” said Nakajima, to audible gasps from the audience. “But never to swing them. I used them to capture the light reflected on the blades, but we would never use them in action. It’s simply too dangerous. When you see and handle a real sword, you’re confronted with how frightening it is. It’s too intense and emotional. There’s a power that Japanese swords have, and we can’t imagine swinging them around in a movie.”

In the old days, noted an elderly audience member, “we didn’t hear the sounds of slashing and we didn’t see so much blood. Why did this change? Have chambara been pursuing an ever-greater level of reality to make them more popular today?”

Nakajima explained that the sword material itself had changed. “During the postwar period, they used takemitsu, basically wooden swords made from a type of oak,” he said. “The sound on set was thus the blunt sound of wood on wood. We didn’t replace them with sound effects. It wasn’t until 1960 or so that we started replacing the sound with something more metallic. There hasn’t been much evolution since then… But we have to remember that the world was a different place in the period in which jidaigeki are set, and they could hear things — the sound of geta, or the wind blowing — that we hear in a different way today. Most of these sounds have now been wiped out by music on the soundtracks, too.”

Added Seike, “Today, a lot of the blood is done with computer graphics, but we still use pumps and fake blood, and often, we try something different with them. But you’re providing entertainment for the audience, and it’s difficult to answer the question of ‘what is most real?’ I have no doubt that some films will continue to experiment with what works best for a particular film, but I don’t see this as an industry-wide trend.”

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Mance Thompson, photographer and ninja specialist,
gets Nakajima's autograph.  ©Koichi Mori

After mentioning that jidaigeki once attracted the biggest talents from literature and theater, a situation that is glaringly different today, Nakajima obliged one audience member with a recommendation for a couple of films to watch: “I think Samurai Hustle I and II are good, because even though they don’t have much chambara action, they really show what it was like to be a samurai, and show a new aspect of what jidaigeki can do. The action sequences aren’t too exaggerated; they maintain a certain reality. I think this offers a new direction for jidaigeki.”

Although he didn’t say it, Sadao Nakajima surely hopes that Chambara: The Art of Japanese Swordplay can also play a role in suggesting new directions. At the very least, it should help swashbuckle up interest in the genre among younger generations, as well as among those, like me, who didn’t realize quite what they were missing until now.

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                                                                                ©Yoshimoto Kogyo

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