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SILENCE


SILENCE (Chinmoku –Silence–)


January 12, 2017
Q&A guests: Stars Tadanobu Asano, Yosuke Kubozuka and Issey Ogata


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Tadanobu Asano, Yosuke Kubozuka and Issey Ogata wave to the TV cameras.   ©Kochi Mori

As Silence begins to roll out across America and the clock ticks down to the Oscar nominations, there is much hand-wringing in Los Angeles, where it seems the buzz for Martin Scorsese’s long-awaited passion project is closer to a chilly hush.

But that is surely not the reception to expect in Japan — where the film is set, where the story transpires, where the novel upon which it is based, Shusaku Endo’s Tanizaki Prize-winning 1966 Chinmoku, continues to find new generations of readers.

A late 2016 visit by the film's legendary director and prerelease publicity have already created intense anticipation here, especially concerning the many Japanese actors featured in the work. If FCCJ’s event is any indication of how Silence will be received, then it will earn a following in Japan that honors its many extraordinary achievements, echoing the US critics who have placed it on their 10 Best lists.

A slow-burn masterwork, Silence is set in the 1640s, but its message continues to reverberate across the centuries, lending it contemporary resonance — and urgency. As Scorsese reminds us, “The conflicts that occur — the persecution of religious minorities, the testing of faith — are timeless.” A clarion call for tolerance, acceptance and inclusion, the timing of its release, amidst the convulsions of a new world order, couldn’t be better.

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at kadokawa km 01Kadokawa Cinema Yurakucho, site of the preview screening.   ©Kochi Mori

Marking a most memorable launch to our 2017 Film Committee screening series — and only the second time in our history that we’ve had the privilege of screening a work off site — the film’s distributor, Kadokawa, generously previewed the film for our 200-strong audience at itsbeautiful Kadokawa Cinema Yurakucho, just steps away from FCCJ. A very crowded Q&A then followed back at FCCJ, lasting over an hour, as journalists from many nations gathered to hear from the three Japanese stars who have been singled out for praise by US critics.

Although only Tadanobu Asano has already had a substantial overseas career, Silence is set to change that for Yosuke Kubozuka and Issey Ogata. Asano (Thor, Mongol) has just finished shooting Martin Zandvliet’s The Outsider, costarring with Jared Leto; Kubozuka is costarring with Elizabeth Banks in the war drama Rita Hayworth With a Hand Grenade; and Ogata (Yiyi: A One and a Two, The Sun) stars with Momoi Kaori (Memoirs of a Geisha) in Latvian director Maris Martinsons’ upcoming Magic Kimono.

with dirKubozuka and Asano flank Martin Scorsese at a fall 2016 event in Tokyo.   ©Koichi Mori

Each of the three had nothing but praise for their director, as well as their costars. It didn’t hurt that they also introduced themselves with a measure of levity at the Q&A session. “I play an interpreter in the film,” said Asano, “but my English isn’t very good. So please let me speak through this interpreter.” Calling himself a “fumie master,” Kubozuka went on to say, “Thanks to this film, I’m able to dream again, [as innocently] as if I were a child.” And Ogata, whose turn in the film earned him runnerup honors from the LA Film Critics for Best Supporting Actor, mentioned, “I’ve given a few interviews in the US, and looking back at them, some of my statements have changed. So whatever questions you have, and whatever answers I give, please note that this is what I said as of January 12.”

Before sharing the actors’ behind-the-scenes stories, however, a word about the film and their roles in it is in order.

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Kubozuka as Kichijiro   ©2016 FM Films, LLC. All Rights Reverved.

As most readers know, it took the Oscar-winning director nearly 30 years to bring Endo’s novel about the persecution of “hidden Christians” (kakure kirishitan) in 17th-century Japan to the screen. It is the final in Scorsese’s trilogy of faith-based films, after The Last Temptation of Christ (1988) and Kundun (1997), and it is by far his most deeply felt and yes, most challenging, to date. It is also dazzlingly shot (on celluloid), beautifully scripted and thankfully, gets its Japanese setting and action just right.

Silence tells the story of two Portuguese “padres,” Sebastian Rodrigues (Andrew Garfield) and Francisco Garupe (Adam Driver), who journey from Macao to Japan in the early 1640s to search for their missing mentor, Christavao Ferreira (Liam Neeson), after receiving the startling news that he has gone native. The priests find a Japanese wretch, a lapsed Christian named Kichijiro (Kubozuka), to help make the dangerous crossing to the southwestern coast. The Tokugawa shogunate’s sakoku policy has closed the country to outsiders, creating an increasingly hostile environment for anyone brave enough to enter. Worse, the government has encouraged the violent persecution of the devout, forcing some 300,000 believers underground.

Silence-03863Ogata as Inquistor Inoue  ©2016 FM Films, LLC. All Rights Reverved.

Rodrigues and Garupe find safety of sorts with a group of clandestine worshippers in the tiny village of Tomogi, and begin ministering to them, conducting baptisms, hearing confession, reciting the Latin mass. But soon enough, the area’s ruthless government “Inquisitor” Inoue (Ogata) has Rodrigues and his new followers behind bars, and sets about putting their faith to the ultimate test. Abetting him is the “Interpreter” (Asano), who scoffs, “We have our own religion, Padre; a pity you did not notice it.” Gloats Inoue to Rodrigues, “The price for your glory is their suffering.” Forced to witness the gruesome tortures that befall those who refuse to renounce their faith, some prisoners make the ultimate sacrifice of apostasy, stepping upon fumie (icons of Christ), and abandoning hope of reaching paradise. Throughout his many trials, Rodrigues continues to beseech God for guidance, but He is silent, even as his believers are met with intolerable fates.

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Asano as the Interpreter  ©2016 FM Films, LLC. All Rights Reverved.

Highlights of the Q&A:

Question: Despite publicity to the contrary, I didn’t think the Inquisitor or the Interpreter were nefarious characters. As you were playing your characters, what was your perspective on the roles?

Asano: “I really empathized with the character of the Interpreter, and didn’t see him as nefarious. The backstory I read into him was that he was probably Christian, but was no longer able to carry on his faith. So that’s what led him to his line of work. Having been Christian gave him special insight into the Christians and their belief. He’s not a simple villain; because of his position, he has to work between Inoue and Rodrigues.”

Ogata: “In approaching Inoue, I must say that everything was in the script. During my audition, I did the scene where he’s trying to get Rodrigues to apostatize, and he tells him the story about the four concubines. What I brought to this scene was, we were talking [metaphorically] about Christianity and faith in God, and those were the heavenly aspects of the film; [but] Inoue was a more grounded, earthy character. And that’s where this voice [he does Inoue’s croaky whine] comes from.”

Kubozuka: "In the original work, my character, Kichijiro, is depicted as a weakling, someone who’s ugly, cunning, dirty and weak. He steps on the fumie again and again, which makes me wonder whether he’s really weak. He seems to be quite determined. Of course he steps on the fumie, but as the Interpreter says, he korobu (tramples), which is not the same as kikiyo (apostatizing). He goes back and forth. Mr. [Shusaku] Endo says that the character is very much about himself. I was in the US earlier this month, and there were many questions about the fumie, and whether Americans would step on it in this day and age. A lot of people said, 'Probably!' So I think the character of Kichijiro is very human, and relevant to the modern age."

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Said Variety about Kubozuka’s Kichijiro, “[His] sneaky, social-outcast behavior suggests the way
Toshiro Mifune might play the role of Gollum.”   
©FCCJ (except bottom right: ©Mance Thompson)

Question: Is Kichijiro really a Christian, or just the type of Japanese person who believes in his sempai, Rodrigues?

Kubozuka: I think he has a sense of innocence. Mr. Scorsese never gave me specific directions, explaining what the character was about or what kind of person he was supposed to be. He really left a lot of it up to me. I saw the film for the first time, without subtitles, at the LA premiere on January 5th, and I was surprised that he’d edited out the takes in which I was more emotional, more pure. What you see is the more flippant, light, stupid — for lack of a better word — side of Kichijiro. He really is a pitiful character. I suppose Mr. Scorsese’s answer to your question can be found there. The way I see the character is, I think Kichijiro doesn’t truly understand Christianity, but he is adamant about his belief."

Question: Inoue is such a fascinating character. How did you prepare for it, Mr. Ogata? Did you have any role model?

Ogata: “It’s all in the script. It’s said that the character might have [also] been Christian in the past, and this is evident the very first time he meets Rodrigues. He tells him, ‘If you are a true Christian, a true priest, then you would come to the decision to apostatize to save all these Japanese Christians who are suffering for you.’ I don’t think he would’ve said this line unless he had the experience of being Christian himself. He also knows that it’s a powerful logic, because he’s [used the line before], with Father Ferreira."

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When Asano auditioned for the film, Scorsese was thrilled, since he admired him in such films
as Mongol, Bright Future and Ichi the Killer.     
©Mance Thompson (except top right: ©FCCJ)

Question: What did you see as any differences between the book and the film?

Ogata: “I tried reading Endo’s novel when I was young, and only got halfway through. [After reading it all the way through], the character I was most drawn to is Kichijiro. He’s the closest to who I am. As for the character of Inoue in the film, there is a lot that isn’t in the original work, and that’s thanks to Mr. Scorsese’s imagination. He inflated the role for me, and left me a lot of room to act it my way."

Kubozuka: — SPOILER ALERT! — “The place where I saw the starkest difference between the novel and the film is in the final scene, where Rodrigues bears the cross that Mokichi had given him, in his tomb. I think this scene came about because of Mr. Scorsese’s [own belief]; that he felt it was key to him bringing this story to the world. I understand this was shown at the Vatican, and got a wonderful reception. I think he probably felt this was necessary to bring the strength and the power of the original novel to the world. Mr. Ogata and I were discussing this earlier tonight, and he mentioned that Shusaku Endo had a protégé named Mr. Kato, who applauded when he saw this scene. He really liked it.

Asano: “The way I approached the film was that it was all about the script. I read it again and again, concocting a backstory for my character. Whenever I would get lost, I would go back to the novel. But I soon discovered that the backstory I imagined was very different from the one in the novel, so I decided not to rely on it much.

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Variety had this to say about Ogata, a renowned comedian: “An unnerving inquisitor named Inoue has a wheedling voice
and faux-gracious manner that suggests the Japanese equivalent of Christoph Waltz’s Nazi colonel in Inglourious Basterds.”
©Mance Thompson (except bottom right: ©FCCJ)

Question: For those who haven’t read the original novel, what do you think the highlights of the film are?

Kubozuka: "I would say that the ultimate message of the film is that God is silent. If you’re to find an answer, it’s all about introspection. You have to go inside yourself for answers."

Ogata: "Has God ever spoken, really? As a non-Christian, I don’t know the answer. The film is less like real life than a picture scroll, in which characters are going through unbearable suffering. But strangely, no matter how painful it all is, after watching it, I feel this notion of purity that resonates. It’s a film that has that kind of sustenance."

Question: If you had been in the position, historically, to stem the spread of Christianity, would you have done the same thing as your characters?

Ogata: "If I’d been born in the Edo period, I think I would still have become an actor. And I would probably have played a character like Inoue, and demanded that the Christians trample on the fumie. But only if Mr. Scorsese could have directed me."
 
Kubozuka: "It’s a difficult question. It depends on whether your parents were Christian, or whether you were born with the choice of which religion to follow, or whether you were a Buddhist, like many Japanese. If I’d been born back then, I think I would’ve still been a fumie master like Kichijiro."

Asano: "If I’d been born in the Edo period, I would have done my best to stay away from that kind of situation."

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©Koichi Mori

Question: You can’t tell it from watching the film, but it was actually shot in Taiwan. How did you feel about that?

Asano: "I wish we could have shot in Japan, but Taiwan is a wonderful country, with such great food and a great crew, and it was very easy to shoot. Since it takes place in such a long-ago Japan, we had an otherworldly feeling on set. I don’t know if it would have been different if we shot in Japan."

Kubozuka: "Whenever I think of the shoot, I think of xiao long bao (soup dumplings) — they were wonderful. On set, we had a lot of crew from Kyoto who are specialists in jidaigeki period films, and they only had one complaint: We built this little village up in the mountains, and the doors to the hut opened like Western doors, rather than being sliding doors. But they were able to change them before shooting. Mr. Scorsese had the utmost respect for Mr. Endo, and for us, and for Japanese culture. When he found anything wrong or off, he would immediately fix it, since he wanted to stay true to Japan. A lot of historical and cultural research went into the making of the film, and that’s why it passes as Japan."

MAIN Photo Credit Kerry Brown
Cult director Shinya Tsukamoto also shines in the film, here with Andrew Garfield.   ©Kerry Brown

Question: How is it working with Mr. Scorsese, compared to other filmmakers?

Ogata: “It was very inspiring being able to work with Mr. Scorsese, as well as my fellow cast and crewmates. I felt like I was the luckiest actor alive, to have experienced this. The way he approaches directing his actors is, he never really instructs you how to act, he lets you bring what you have to the part. He never, ever says anything negative about what you provide. It’s really inspiring, and it leads to many other ideas. He leaves room for things to happen.

Asano: "Even in the audition process, he really enjoys what you have to bring, and he really, really watches you. He sees you. But he never tries to stop you or put pressure on you. For an actor, it’s a really enjoyable process. You also feel that responsibility, that you really have to bring something to the part. I haven’t seen this in a lot of directors. Some directors will treat only certain actors in this way, but Mr. Scorsese treats every actor like that."

Kubozuka: “I agree. On set, Mr. Scorsese is like a king, but [he makes it] so easy when you’re on set. He holds a mirror up to you and helps boost your acting, and you’re able to trick yourself into thinking that you’re a superb actor. There’s immense power and strength in this film, and I hope — I believe — it will help serve a better tomorrow. I’m so grateful and honored to have been able to participate.

Question: There’s been a lot of talk about the Oscars. What do you think about the film’s chances?

Ogata: "Let’s let Mr. Asano answer that one."

Asano: "I think the film will be nominated. If it isn’t, maybe God said something He shouldn’t have."

poster silence mance 47
©Mance Thompson

Note to fans of Japanese film: Although Asano, Kubozuka and Ogata have the largest roles, there are many other Japanese actors acquitting themselves admirably in the film. Look for brilliant Paris-based actor Yoshi Oida and beloved actor/cult director Shinya Tsukamoto in important roles, as well as appearances by Shun Sugata, Nana Komatsu, Ryo Kase and even actor/director Sabu (who was in Taiwan to film his upcoming Mr. Long, which world premieres next month at the Berlin Film Festival).

silence poster
©2016 FM Films, LLC. All Rights Reverved.

Media Coverage

TV Exposure

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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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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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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…?

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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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 TIIF poster

Media Coverage

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.

 Harminium poster KM-90
                                                                                                                                                                                                        ©Koichi Mori

 

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©2016 FUCHI NI TATSU FILM PARTNERS & COMME DES CINEMAS

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