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THE RED TURTLE


THE RED TURTLE (Red Turtle: Aru shima no monogatari)


 August 31, 2016
Q&A guest: Director Michael Dudok de Wit


MDW poster KM-172Michael Dudok de Wit ©Koichi Mori

Imagine that you are an animator of short films — a very, very good animator, an award-winning animator, but nevertheless, a short-form animator — and out of the blue one day, you receive an email from Studio Ghibli.

The email asks you two questions: Would you allow us to distribute your Oscar-winning Father and Daughter in Japan? And would you be interested in working with Studio Ghibli on your first-ever feature film?

London-based Dutch animator Michael Dudok de Wit laughs when he recalls that magical moment in November 2006, when his life changed: “It was a shock when it all started …[the email explained]: ‘You would team up with Wild Bunch in Paris, and you would write the film.’ I had two simultaneous reactions: The first one was ‘Yes!!’ And the second one was, ‘Hang on.’ I wrote back and asked, ‘Could you please explain? I want to make sure that I understood your email properly.”

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© 2016 Studio Ghibli - Wild Bunch - Why Not Productions - Arte France Cinéma - CN4 Productions - Belvision - Nippon Television Network - Dentsu - Hakuhodo DYMP - Walt Disney Japan - Mitsubishi – Toho

The director then met right away with the heads of Wild Bunch in London, and, “My first question was, ‘This is unbelievable. Tell me, is there’s something I’ve not been told yet?’ They said, ‘No, no, this is really genuine. They want to know if you have a story. We aren’t promising that we will make the film, but we’ll have a go. It’s new for [Ghibli], it’s new for you to make a feature film, so let’s take it step by step.’ Straight away, I started writing the synopsis.”

As far as fantastical genesis stories go, it’s a suitably Ghibli-esque one.

Dudok de Wit shared that anecdote and many others with FCCJ’s audience during a lengthy Q&A session following a sneak preview screening of his first feature, The Red Turtle — which also became Studio Ghibli’s first international coproduction, in collaboration with France’s Wild Bunch and Why Not Productions. Watching proudly from the audience, and later responding to a question, was legendary Studio Ghibli producer Toshio Suzuki.

TS KM-160 Suzuki responds, essentially putting the kibosh on the
Ghibli-collaboration fantasies of animators everywhere.   ©Koichi Mori

Since it was the question on everyone’s mind at FCCJ, and is surely foremost on the minds of those reading this blog, we’ll cut to the chase:

Suzuki was asked whether The Red Turtle was to be the first of many international projects to come from Studio Ghibli. He responded: “I think Michael is a very special case. In my line of work, I meet many different people and I often becomes friends with them. But as one of the producers of the film, what got me started on this was falling in love with Michael’s short film, Father and Daughter, and simply being curious: What would a feature film by this director look like? That was the impetus for the film, and if you’re asking if this project will be a catalyst for future collaborations with foreign filmmakers, I would have to say, it simply depends on whether I encounter a similar situation like that again.”

In the ensuing decade since Dudok de Wit received his life-altering email, many things changed, not least the makeup of Studio Ghibli itself, after anime titan Hayao Miyazaki retired from long-form filmmaking in 2014, and Suzuki stepped down from producing in 2015. But in May 2016, The Red Turtle premiered at the 2016 Cannes Film Festival, winning the Un Certain Regard Special Prize and a slew of rapturous reviews. As Indiewire raved: “It showcases the best ways in which Studio Ghibli productions maintain a certain elegant simplicity that points to deeper truths. This is a quiet little masterpiece of images, each one rich with meaning, that collectively speak to a universal process.”

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           Photo left ©Koichi Mori; right, FCCJ

Throughout the Q&A session, Dudok de Wit stressed just how universal the process of creation had been: “For a feature film, you want to make sure your [choices as director] work for other people as well. So I was very sensitive to how [Studio Ghibli and Wild Bunch] reacted during the development process. After that, we became a team: the animators arrived and the background artists arrived, and we were dozens of people in the same building, making the film.” Over the three years of production, the director constantly encouraged feedback from his team, as well as reading nonverbal signals and body language — something he emphasized every animator does.

One journalist remarked immediately on the film’s similarities with Ghibli releases. Responded Dudok de Wit: “I don’t think there’s a typical Ghibli aesthetic. I think there’s a [Hayao] Miyazaki aesthetic and a [Isao] Takahata aesthetic. There’s a sensitivity and a maturity about the films that is very obvious, but it was never the idea to make a film that looks like a Ghibli film. From the beginning, [Takahata, who is credited as the film’s artistic producer, and Suzuki] said, ‘We like Father and Daughter a lot, we feel like it’s a Japanese film,’ which is a huge compliment. I would not have been good at imitating their style. I find it extraordinary to make a haiku-style film like Takahata’s My Neighbors the Yamadas. We could never do that in the West.”

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                                                                                                                                                                                             ©Koichi Mori

He continued, “What we do have in common is a certain sensitivity. We have a respect for nature and a deep, positive respect for human nature. To be honest, I felt it clicked between us. There was a sort of natural chemistry between us.”

That chemistry translates onscreen into a perfect synthesis of animation sensibilities. The Red Turtle is an expressionistic ode to human resilience, to family bonds, to the search for happiness and to the very cycle of life. Stripping existence to its most basic elements, the breathtakingly visual film follows a man who washes ashore on a deserted island following a ferocious storm, eventually builds a raft to escape and is prevented from leaving by an enormous red turtle. One morning, he awakens to find that a woman has become a castaway with him on the island, and after a courtship of sorts, the two have a child.

As their odyssey continues, Dudok de Wit’s hand-drawn charcoal backgrounds and the artisanal quality of his digital animation imbues his allegorical tale with a delicate, painterly beauty. While uniquely the director’s, The Red Turtle warmly evokes Ghibli, especially in its Greek chorus of sand crabs who are the man’s only friends at first, and the unmistakable message that man can only survive if we learn to coexist with nature.

(Variety called the film “a fable so simple, so pure, it feels as if it has existed for hundreds of years.” In fact, although the titular turtle was Dudok de Wit’s idea, the story has faint echoes of the Japanese myth of Urashima Taro, which also features a turtle and a lost soul).

When one journalist lauded the director for “creating a world within the film, a world that we come away remembering vividly, as we do with Ghibli films,” Dudok de Wit reassured him that animators “usually do far more research than spectators realize, taking thousands and thousands of photographs, because that’s our job. And it’s a joy. I went to La Digue, one of the Seychelles islands, particularly because it has ancient granite rocks. I thought they were very beautiful, very sensual.” He also mentioned that he’d purposely chosen something different from one palm tree with a coconut, as deserted islands always are in the castaway clichés. He found his inspiration in a famed bamboo grove near Kyoto and a wild bamboo forest in Kyushu, as well as another in France.

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                                                                                              ©FCCJ

To a question concerning his choice to make the film dialogue free, Dudok de Wit said, “There were a few moments, later in the story, where I felt it was essential to have a few sentences, both for the clarity of the story, and to enhance the humanity of the characters … But new arrivals on the film team would say, ‘I like the story a lot, but the voices are a bit odd.’ [With writer Pascale Ferran,] we kept working on the lines, and in the end, we kept just a few … Then one day I got a call from Studio Ghibli, saying, ‘We looked at the animatic [storyboard] and looked at the words the characters are saying. We discussed it, and we feel that the film actually doesn’t need dialogue.’ I defended my idea that we occasionally needed it for clarity, but in the end, they said ‘We think the film will survive without dialogue and will actually be stronger.’ At that point, I felt a huge relief. I thought, ‘If they feel it works without dialogue, I’m really interested in this challenge.’”

He then discovered a way to bring the characters more alive without having them speak: “We got voice actors in, and we asked them to breathe through the whole film. To my pleasant surprise, the breathing not only created a stronger empathy for the characters, but the sound of breathing was more expressive than I’d anticipated. We don’t need to hear words, but the fact that we hear them breathe brings them closer to us.”

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 Dudok de Wit embellishes his autograph with a quick sketch of the titular turtle. ©Koichi Mori

All of Dudok de Wit’s short films, including the Oscar-nominated The Monk and the Fish (1994), a playfully absurd comedy, and his achingly poignant Oscar winner Father and Daughter (2000), are driven by music, with no dialogue at all. Asked whether a future film might include lines, the director said, “There are many, many short films with no dialogue. That’s very common. They don’t need the spoken language, the film language is already strong enough. In this film, the [main character] doesn’t need to speak aloud to himself; he’s not like Tom Hanks. I would be open to using dialogue [in future]. I’ve used dialogue in many of the commercials I’ve made.”

The Red Turtle is coming soon to screens around the world, since most territories have been sold. It has opened in France, Belgium and the French-speaking part of Switzerland, and Sony Pictures Classics will be releasing the film later this year in North America. It’s sure to attract animation and art-film lovers everywhere, as well as making all the animation award shortlists at the end of this year. But will it lead to more magical emails from Studio Ghibli, winging their way across cyberspace to transform the lives of other animators…? Only time will tell.

 redturtle
© 2016 Studio Ghibli - Wild Bunch - Why Not Productions -
Arte France Cinéma - CN4 Productions - Belvision -
Nippon Television Network - Dentsu - Hakuhodo DYMP -
Walt Disney Japan - Mitsubishi – Toho

Media Coverage

 

Nikkatsu Roman Porno Reboot Project


NIKKATSU ROMAN PORNO REBOOT PROJECT


 August 24, 2016
Q&A guests: Reboot directors Hideo Nakata, Akihiko Shiota, Kazuya Shiraishi, Sion Sono and Isao Yukisada


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The 5 reboot directors together for the first time ever: from left, Shiota, Shiraishi, Sono, Nakata, Yukisada. ©Mance Thompson

Perhaps we’ll never know exactly how Nikkatsu arrived at its short list of candidates to revive the studio’s acclaimed Roman Porno series for a new generation of fans, but they clearly didn’t just flip coins. The five singular directors who eventually made the cut — Hideo Nakata, Akihiko Shiota, Kazuya Shiraishi, Sion Sono and Isao Yukisada (alphabetically) — couldn’t be more different in style and substance, so perhaps Nikkatsu was simply trying to cover all the bases of audience appeal. While the five have each had commercial success and been hailed internationally, the similarities essentially end there.

Marking the 45th anniversary of the softcore porn that put Japanese cine-erotica on the world map, Nikkatsu chose the helmers, none of whom had previously made a Roman Porno (although several have made non-Nikkatsu softcore, or assisted porn maestros early in their careers), to create completely original 70- to 80-minute features for theatrical release and broadcast via SKY PerfecTV, as well as international festival play.

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                                                                                                                                                                     ©Koichi Mori

The five directors were given very limited budgets and required to shoot their films within one week, just as Roman Pornos had been made in their 1970s-80s heyday. Nikkatsu’s unique concept then, as now, was to require only that there be a sex scene every 10 minutes or so, but otherwise to allow complete freedom in the choice of stories and styles.

The reboot, according to the studio, “revives [Nikkatsu’s] function as a sandbox for playful experimentation with the aim of attaining new forms of cinematic expression.”

The venerable Nikkatsu Studio was facing bankruptcy in 1971 when it decided to shift production from action and gangster films to mid-length “romantic pornography,” or story-driven tales with copious sex. Tremendously popular with audiences and critics alike, the series stretched to nearly 1,100 titles before competition from straight-to-video adult films put an end to it in 1988. Acclaimed directors like Shinji Somai (Sailor Suit and Machine Gun), Kichitaro Negishi (Villon’s Wife) and Shusuke Kaneko (Death Note) all worked for Nikkatsu at the start of their careers. Others, like Tatsumi Kumashiro, Noboru Tanaka and Masaru Konuma, became masters of the genre, admired overseas as well as at home.

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        Nikkatsu President Naoki Sato makes opening remarks.  ©
Koichi Mori

At the landmark FCCJ event, which brought together the reboot directors for the first — and likely, last — time, Nikkatsu unveiled exclusive behind-the-scenes footage from the five new Roman Pornos, clips that underscored for the SRO audience just how different the five directors’ approaches are, and thus how different their films are going to be. This is an important distinction, since Roman Porno was never a genre, but a brand. Within the brand, a wealth of genres were represented, from thrillers to period pictures to coming-of-age stories to mysteries.

In opening remarks from Nikkatsu President Naoki Sato, he explained that the brand had originally attracted an abundance of talented young creators because, “They were able to use Roman Porno as a springboard to convey their own message, whether it be about a social issue or about an idol… The films were made by a respected studio and they received a seal of approval from Eirin [the ratings agency akin to the MPAA]. So while they included sex scenes, they were all distributed to theaters for general audiences.”

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          Nikkatsu President Naoki Sato     ©FCCJ

Nikkatsu was inspired to start considering the reboot following the ecstatic reception, particularly by Millennials and females, of a Roman Porno Best Hits package that made the rounds internationally several years back. Said Sato, “As a business, we’re happy that the Japanese film industry is robust, but in this day and age, it’s questionable whether filmmakers really have creative freedom. So we thought it might be interesting to see if we could bring back the same freedom of expression to our reboot productions.”

And so, businesslike, the studio selected directors who have built enviable fan bases alternating between studio and indie films. Hideo Nakata, of course, is considered the father of J-horror, having unleashed Ringu (1998) and Dark Water (2002) upon the world, following up with a fistful of chillers like his latest, Ghost Theater. Akihiko Shiota is known for his offbeat takes on the coming-of-age drama, as in his award-winning Harmful Insect (2002), but he’s also made such domestic blockbusters as Yomigaeri (2003) and Dororo (2007). The youngest of the bunch, Kazuya Shiraishi, has brought an unsettling sensibility to his three dark, moody features, Lost Paradise in Tokyo (2010), Devil’s Path (2013) and this year’s delirious corrupt-cop thriller, Twisted Justice. Sion Sono has courted controversy even while sweeping up awards overseas for his prolific, often outrageous output, from Love Exposure (2009) and Cold Fish (2010) to Tokyo Tribe (2014), although his latest, Whispering Star, is placidity personified. Isao Yukisada, a stylish master of high-gloss commercial features concerned with memory and identity, had a megahit with Go (2001), broke all box office records with Crying Out Love in the Center of the World (2004), and just had another hit with this year’s Pink and Gray.

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               From top left, Nakata, Shiota, Shiraishi (©Koichi Mori), Sion Sono (©Mance Thompson), Isao Yukisada (©FCCJ)

The first batch of Roman Porno titles, being rolled out in Tokyo from mid-October through February 2017, is sure to represent a dazzling diversity of approaches; but none of them will be a woman-centric approach. Why is it, one must ask (especially when one is female), that Nikkatsu did not select a woman from among the star directors it has supported, including Naoko Ogigami, Mipo Oh, Yuki Tanada and Satoko Yokohama? Surely this was an unforgiveable oversight?*

During the Q&A session, the selected directors first responded to questions about their inspirations. Hideo Nakata is the only one of the five who actually worked on Roman Porno films before, serving in his youth as an assistant director for Masaru Konuma. (In 2000, he made the marvelously titled documentary about him, Sadistic and Masochistic, a reference to Konuma’s S&M work). Nakata’s own Roman Porno debut is called White Lily, and it highlights a lesbian relationship. Recalled the director: “When Nikkatsu approached me about the project, I thought about two films that Konuma-san made, Lesbian World and the sequel. In the sex scenes [of my film], I was inspired by what I learned from him.”

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Nakata is the only director with a Roman Porno history. 
©
Mance Thompson

Akihiko Shiota released a straight-to-video pink film at the start of his career, and studied screenwriting under Atsushi Yamatoya, who wrote many screenplays for Roman Porno films (as well as for Seijun Suzuki). Shiota’s Roman Porno, Wet Woman in the Wind, pays homage to both Yamatoya and to Tatsumi Kumashiro’s 1973 film, Lovers Are Wet. “These two filmmakers have been very important to me,” said Shiota. “I think they were both able to make amazing works of art from adult films, and I hope to follow in their footsteps.”

Kazuya Shiraishi served as an assistant director on several of Koji Wakamatsu’s pink films, including Asunaki Machikado (1997) and Perfect Education 6 (2004). But he’s drawn most of his influence from Noboru Tanaka. While his Roman Porno film, Dawn of the Felines, was inspired, at least in the broad strokes of its storyline, by Tanaka’s 1972 Night of the Felines, Shiraishi noted that his first film, Lost Paradise in Tokyo, was far more heavily indebted to him.

Sion Sono has repeatedly pushed the envelope of Eirin respectability in his films, but he has released just one porn film: Aru Hisokanaru Tsubotachi (2000). His Roman Porno is called Antiporno, but it is not, as per certain online descriptions, a satire of the porn industry. “In this day and age, I don’t think there’s any necessity to shoot porn films,” said Sono of the work. “When Nikkatsu asked me about the project at first, I said ‘No.’” But when they let me call it Antiporno, I said ‘Yes.’ I decided to consider what it means to consume female nudity today, as well as to consider women’s rights and freedoms. You’ll be seeing those themes in my film.”

Isao Yukisada’s Roman Porno film, Aroused by Gymnopédies, is also not inspired by any of the earlier Nikkatsu films or directors. But he was listening to Erik Satie’s Gymnopédies piano pieces while writing the film, and decided that he should use it in the film, despite it being a little too well known. “I must say,” he said, “I was delighted when Nikkatsu came to me, because I never thought I would have this opportunity. From an early age, I was always going to see Roman Porno films in the theaters, and I especially admired Tatsumi Kumashiro’s work. When I decided to become a director, I went to Nikkatsu in the hopes of becoming an assistant director on Roman Porno — but they weren’t making them any longer! So I’m really glad to have been part of this.”

Asked whether they had a particular audience in mind when making their films, the directors all turned immediately to the question of gender.

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                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                       ©Mance Thompson

Shiota, whose film had world premiered at the Locarno Film Festival and received an award, said that he’d been struck by how female audiences responded. “It received attention from women in their 20s and up to their 60s,” he said, “and I discovered happily that women also want to see this kind of film.”

Said Shiraishi, “I often went to Eurospace to watch Nikkatsu Roman Porno retrospectives, and I realized that female audiences were increasing over time. I think it’s very freeing for a director to make a film left to his own devices, as long as he has a sex scene every 10 minutes, and I hope that my film is one that females can also empathize with.”

Nakata recalled that his Sadistic and Masochistic played at theaters running Roman Porno events particularly aimed at female audiences, and they would be packed. “In this day and age,” he said, “I’m not sure what the situation is. But we had two female producers working with us… and I did have the younger female audience in mind.”

Yukisada said he wound up having to write two scripts for the project, since Nikkatsu wasn’t happy with the first one, which “was about my own sexual awakening as a boy, and there was a bit of scatology in there. I thought it was beautiful, but no one else did.” For the second script, he hired a female scriptwriter (perhaps the first in Roman Porno history), and “it really caters to the female audience.”

Admitted Sono, “In recent years, I’ve been harboring this anger toward the nation and other issues. I think my film is really about anger, especially aggravation and anger toward myself. You really don’t have to come see my film. I didn’t have any particular audience in mind.”

Each of the directors also responded to a question about creative freedom in the industry as a whole, transforming the Q&A into a mini-Master Class in filmmaking.

Said Shiota: “I think all directors know that it’s a given that there really isn’t any freedom in the film industry. A film never goes the way you envision it — you may not always get the casting right and the script may change. You won’t have a choice about where and when to shoot it… and we also had restrictions imposed on us by the Roman Porno quota of sex scenes. But these restrictions provide a springboard for filmmakers’ creativity… That’s the history of B pictures, working with low budgets and other restrictions. I think what Nikkatsu is doing right now is giving directors the opportunity to create their own projects, as long as they abide by the restrictions. It’s a wonderful opportunity and that’s why I think the project is so great.”

Shiraishi lamented, “Right now in the Japanese film industry, it’s all about commercial success. Commercial success is all about whether the original novel or original manga has sold tens of thousands of copies, and about who’s in the cast. I don’t think that’s all that films are about. It’s important to bring originality to film projects.”

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 From top left: Nakata (@Koichi Mori), Shiota (©Mance Thompson), Shiraishi, Sion Sono (©Koichi Mori), Isao Yukisada (©FCCJ)

Sono, partially reversing his earlier statement questioning the need for porn, noted, “This was really a meaningful experience for me. I was able to do it my way, and for that, I’m really grateful to Nikkatsu.”

But Nakata sounded a note of caution: “I must say, if you were able to have anything you desired, life would be boring. The same is true of filmmaking. If you have no time restrictions, no financial restrictions, no schedule restrictions, it would be quite boring. Within certain parameters, comes creativity. Speaking about the current Japanese film industry, the bigger the studio is, the more difficult it is for executives to say ‘yes’ to a film. Of course a film has to make money, that’s what Hollywood says: if the film won’t make money, don't make it. In that sense, Japan is becoming a mini-Hollywood. But there are also a lot of people making films very freely in America, and I really envy that.”

Reminding the audience that Nikkatsu had turned down his first script, Yukisada said, “I think there’s a bit of studio distrust of filmmakers. And maybe that’s because the studios think we’re trying to arm-wrestle them, to trick them into making films our way. Whenever I make a commercial film, I feel this watchful eye, and I get paranoid. It’s senseless. I wish we could understand each other better. But on the other hand, when a studio says you can do whatever you want, that’s a lot of pressure, too. This experience with Nikkatsu, with restrictions, was an extraordinary experience, actually. My regular crew worked with me and we were surprised at how speedily and efficiently it all went.”

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Nikkatsu's inaugural Roman Porno reboot directors obviously enjoyed the experience. Will audiences respond?  ©Mance Thompson

Following the Q&A, a good portion of the audience stayed on for the special screening of The World of Geisha (Yojohan fusuma no urabari), a 1973 masterwork from Tatsumi Kumashiro that was adapted from the erotic novel by Kafu Nagai, and features big names like Junko Miyashita, Hideaki Esumi, Moeko Ezawa and Naomi Oka. The most highly acclaimed director of the early Roman Porno era, Kumashiro made films that were box-office successes and regularly appeared on the yearly Best Ten lists. Nevertheless, according to film scholar Kyoko Hirano, “Kumashiro's Roman Porno films were revolutionary in terms of his unique narrative style, usage of songs, disjunctive editing of auditory and visual images, and subversive ideological stance.”

Set in 1918 against the backdrop of the rice riots rocking Japan — with abrupt inserts reminding us also of the Korean uprisings and Russia's October Revolution — The World of Geisha is unabashedly political, as well as sumptuously beautiful, emotionally engrossing, sexy and often downright hilarious. Kafu Nagai’s original lines are sprinkled throughout, providing helpful context for the milieu, such as: “A quick snack outside the home now and then spices up the menu. Wives should understand and not get jealous.” The film’s opening love-making session lasts for over a third of the total running time, interspersed with subplots involving other geisha and their clients, and the film often features Kumashiro’s trademark “indictment of the hypocrisy of censorship” — black placards blocking certain naughty bits, and clever use of “xxx” in the Japanese titles appearing onscreen.

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Nakata, a true cinephile, stayed afterward to chat with foreign viewers
about the Roger Corman-like impressario of Roman Porno. ©Koichi Mori

Those of you reading from overseas, take note: Shiota’s Wet Woman in the Wind will next be seen at Paris’ L’Etrange Film Festival in September, along with Sono’s Antiporno, which will also be showing at Spain’s Sitges Fantastic Film Festival in October. Korea’s Busan Film Festival has announced the inclusion of three of the films: Nakata’s White Lily, Shiota’s Wet Woman in the Wind and Yukisada’s Aroused by Gymnopédies.

*There was no chance to ask this during the Q&A, but off stage, I spoke with producer Saori Nishio, one of two female producers on the reboot project. The explanation turned out to be both simple and stunning: timing. They had planned to include a female director, said Nishio, but each of their candidates had either just gotten pregnant, just given birth or was pregnant when the project was beginning. One hopes a hormone hurricane won’t interrupt attempts to include a female director in the next batch of films.

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                                                                 ©2016 Nikkatsu

Media Coverage

KEN AND KAZU


KEN AND KAZU (Ken to Kazu)


 July 20, 2016
Q&A guests: Director Hiroshi Shoji and stars Shinsuke Kato and Katsuya Maiguma


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                      Maiguma (Kazu), Kato (Ken) and writer-director Shoji were as light as the film is dark.              ©Koichi Mori

Three handsome young men in black suits descended upon FCCJ for the sneak preview screening of Ken and Kazu, looking for all the world like the grown-up yakuza versions of the street punks in the film. But then they smiled and laughed, and it was clear that they were nothing at all like the lowlifes populating the extraordinarily beautiful, brutal and moving feature debut of Hiroshi Shoji.

By rights, the film should provide a major bounce on the trio’s springboard to success, and the suits were in honor of their first joint public appearance since October last year, when Ken and Kazu won the Best Picture Award in the Japanese Cinema Splash section at the 2015 Tokyo International Film Festival.

In the months since, the film has been traveling the international festival scene, from Shanghai to Edinburgh to Taiwan to Germany to New York and Korea, earning acclaim for its breathtaking cinematography and the bravura acting chemistry of its two leads, as well as the Shakespearean depths of its tragic tale.

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Top: Shoji (©Koichi Mori), Left: Maiguma (©FCCJ),  Right: Kato (©Koichi Mori)

As is often the case with unknown filmmakers, however, Shoji and his up-and-coming stars have not had the privilege of accompanying Ken and Kazu on every stop. Thus, the reunion at FCCJ provided a rare opportunity to share their filmmaking adventures with an appreciative international audience.

Based on the writer-director’s award-winning 2011 short of the same name, and with Shinsuke Kato and Katsuya Maiguma in place again as the titular characters, the film wastes no time in luring us into its thoroughly realistic Japanese underworld: Ken and Kazu are small-time dealers of methamphetamines operating out of an auto-repair shop that’s mostly a front for money laundering by a local yakuza boss (Haruki Takano) who was Ken’s childhood classmate.

They’re in it only for the money: Ken needs it to start a new life with his pregnant girlfriend, Saki (Shuna Iijima), and Kazu needs it so he can put his mother, suffering from dementia, into a care home. Ken is level-headed, responsible, watchful; but he is forced to go along when Kazu — all glares and threats, a wounded tough guy with a dark secret — decides to up the ante for a bigger piece of the action. They start working for a rival gang, but inevitably, the two friends are driven into a desperate double-cross.

Despite working on a shoestring budget, Shoji delivers one of the most powerful character studies in recent memory. Ken and Kazu is evermore intense and thrilling as it hurtles inexorably to its fateful climax, anchored by performances of heartbreaking tenderness and explosive anger. The film’s accomplishments are partially due to the two-and-a-half years the director spent meticulously whittling it down from 141 minutes to a tight 96 minutes; but also to the incredible casting.

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                          Ken and Kazu break in a new member of the gang.     ©KenToKazu_Movie

It is, as one FCCJ audience member put it, “just stellar, all down the line. Everybody was just great. How did you do the casting?”

Explaining that he had gone to Tokyo Film Center College of Arts with Maiguma (who also graduated from the directing course, but took up acting afterward), Shoji replied: “We’ve been friends for over 10 years now, and after he played the same character [Kazu] in the short film, of course I had him play it in the feature. As for the role of Ken, Kato-san actually auditioned for [the short film version] online. After we’d selected him, I then started molding the characters around them. That’s why I think the characters suit the actors, and why we could get a realistic depiction of the characters.”

The emcee interjected, “So these two are actually violent drug dealers?” “Yes,” laughed Kato. “We were beating each other up in the greenroom while you were all watching the film.”

Shoji discussed the process of rehearsal and script revision after the actors had been cast. “These two are really different types of actors, so we spent about 3 weeks developing the characters and script together, and we changed just about everything from my original script. “No, we didn’t!” said Kato. “Shoji-san is actually really stubborn — we didn’t really veer much from the original script at all.”

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                                                                                                                                                                             ©Koichi Mori

“What’s the key to Ken and Kazu’s relationship?” asked another interlocutor. “So much of their backstory was left unexplained, and I wondered what had brought them so close together.” Said Maiguma, “Maybe this is different from what the director had in mind, but my own take on the characters is that they’re like brothers. You can’t explain a sibling relationship, but it’s there and you just feel it.” Added Kato, “With friends that you’re always around, there aren’t always clear reasons why you became friends to begin with. But I think Ken and Kazu complement each other, they need each other, they wouldn’t be able to complete anything without relying on each other.”

Another audience member commented on the setting. “This doesn’t look like the Japan that we usually see. These characters, did you live near people like that and know them personally?” Shoji responded, “I shot in the town where I’m living, Ichikawa, Chiba Prefecture, and I think I was able to capture the nuances of the people and the area because I’m living there.”

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Ken and Kazu show just how tough they can be during the photo call. 
©
Koichi Mori

Yet the feeling persisted that Shoji himself couldn’t possibly be part of that milieu. Shoji sidestepped the suggestion that the film fits snugly in the Japanese yakuza genre, noting that he’d been a huge fan of Hollywood and Korean films for years. “They say that directors always put a lot of themselves in their first film,” he said. “That’s true in my case. I often think about friendship, rivalry, making choices. I think about these issues a lot, and that’s why I wanted to make a film addressing them.” He later stressed that his main focus could be seen in the film’s final minutes, and the actions of Ken: “I think it all comes down to the moments in life when you do something for someone else, selflessly, and that’s one of the important messages.”

In my introduction before the screening, I had evoked Martin Scorsese’s Mean Streets, the 1973 work that shares some parallels with Ken and Kazu, not only in style and character, but in career timing. That little film was made when Scorsese was still relatively unknown, and the two lowlife pals were played by relatively unknown actors: Harvey Keitel and Robert De Niro. Mean Streets launched all three into the firmament, of course; only time will tell if Ken and Kazu does the same.

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Japan's answer to the young De Niro and Keitel? Or is Kato Japan's Al Pacino?  ©Koichi Mori

 But this is not your usual Japanese indie, at least by today’s standards. Proof positive: UK-based distributor Third Window Films is handling international sales for the film, which are reportedly brisk. The company’s CEO, Adam Torel, recently went on record, joining many other international critics in lambasting the current crop of Japanese releases. Among their complaints: actors either overact or do nothing at all, directors favor rambling longueurs over story- and character-building arcs, and bargain-basement production values cripple the impact.

There’s a long way to go before the Japanese industry can recapture its once-vaunted position in the global cinema firmament, but Ken and Kazu is a reminder that talent will out.

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                                                                                                                              ©Koichi Mori

 

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                                                      ©KenToKazu_Movie

KAMPAI! FOR THE LOVE OF SAKE


KAMPAI! FOR THE LOVE OF SAKE


 June 28, 2016
Q&A guests: Director Mirai Konishi, brewer Kosuke Kuji and sake evangelist John Gauntner


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                      Brewer, evangelist and director, enjoying a laugh about potential sequels to the film.              ©Mance Thompson

I may be a teetotaler, but I can appreciate a good alcohol-themed story when I see one, and Kampai! For the Love of Sake is exactly that — although it’s really four stories, not just one. And as we discovered during the Q&A session after our screening, sake tales are as tasty, and as ancient, as the drink itself.

Nihonshu (the correct Japanese term) has a long history, and brewers faithfully followed the process created in the 15th century until the popularity of the drink began declining in the 1990s, partly because of the very constancy of the industry. Many breweries went out of business, or began producing beer or shochu intstead; but just in time for others, a revolution was born. Although the majority of Japan’s 1,200-odd sake breweries are still small and family-owned, drastic changes have been occurring as younger kuramoto (brewery owners) stepped into their father’s shoes. [Yes, it’s still a man’s business, but more on that below.]

Following the international success of an array of documentaries about food, especially Jiro Dreams of Sushi, along with the 2013 registration of washoku (the “traditional dietary cultures of the Japanese”) on the UNESCO Intangible Cultural Heritage list, it’s no wonder that sake — an essential ingredient, accompaniment and complement to Japanese cuisine — is now in the spotlight.

Mirai Konishi, a Hollywood-based film journalist, marks his feature directing debut with Kampai!, which was picked up for international distribution following its world premiere at the 2015 San Sebastian Film Festival and will be opening in the US in August. But he readily admits that he was not at all a sake connoisseur when he began the process. Quite the contrary: “I started the film because I had a big complex about sake. I’d been living in LA for 23 years, and every time I went to a Japanese restaurant, friends would ask me which sake to choose. I didn’t have a clue.”

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Top: Gaunter (©FCCJ), Left: Kuji (©Koichi Mori), Right: Konishi (©Mance Thompson)

A certified sake outsider, then, Konishi intriguingly chose to explore the rarefied, mysterious and secretive world of nihonshu through the eyes of three distinctive outsiders who have devoted themselves to its production and dissemination around the globe. Taking us on a fascinating journey from a small brewery in the mountains of Kyoto to a modern Japanese restaurant in London to a bustling sake-tasting event in the center of Tokyo, the film illustrates how these unique men, two of them non-Japanese, have turned their love affairs with sake into a celebration of Japan’s finest progressive traditions.

The breakout star of the film — and perhaps the sake universe — is fifth-generation kuramoto Kosuke Kuji, of Nanbu Bijin Brewery in Iwate. The director met Kuji in LA, where the brewer himself was an outsider, but seemed to gain instant insider status despite speaking little English. “I was amazed by his vitality and energy,” recalled Konishi. “He also had a lot of pride in his brewery, without being arrogant about it. I decided I wanted to know more.” Thus, Kampai! was born.

In the film, Kuji vividly recalls his struggles convincing his father to let him “take sake to the next level” by applying the latest scientific knowledge to develop new labels, as well as to expand distribution overseas. His sake has gone on to win national and international awards, including the top prize in the Honjozo category of the International Wine Challenge, which he’ll pick up in London in early July. The ebullient Kuji also earns bragging rights for earning Nanbu Bijin the first Kosher certification in the industry, and for the brewery’s creation of “no sugar added” plum sake.

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Also profiled in Kampai! is Ohio-born sake “evangelist” John Gauntner, recognized as the world’s leading non-Japanese expert. The first foreign Master of Sake Tasting, as well as a certified Sake Expert Assessor, Gauntner recalls in the film his unlikely path to his calling, and discusses the development of his Sake Professional Course, which has educated hundreds around the world, including the owners and operators of many foreign sake-centric stores.

British brewer Philip Harper, the first non-Japanese to earn the prestigious title of toji, or master sake brewer, is the third outsider profiled in Kampai! Harper was hired to help save the faltering Kinoshita Brewery in Kyoto, and in the film, he draws parallels between his early life amid nature and his current life, while taking viewers through the deceptively simple process of brewing.

During the Q&A, one FCCJ audience member wondered whether the film’s three outsiders were in any way representative of today’s sake world, especially in their openness. Kuji jumped in to confirm that, “In a nutshell, we’re all strange and weird. That’s why we could make the film.” On a more serious note, he explained, “Toward the end of the 1990s, we had this idea to take sake abroad, and that was considered unusual. Nihonshu was still very popular, but thinking about the future, we had this ambitious aspiration to sell more abroad.”

Gauntner added, “I don’t think the world of sake was actually closed. It’s just that the business was doing so well until the mid-90s, there was no reason for brewers to advertise, or open up and talk to people so much. But over the past 10 to 20 years, a lot more kuramoto have been open, inviting people to come and visit them, making contact with the rest of the world because the need is there.”

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With the poster for the film, coming to screens around the world.                ©FCCJ

One viewer asked why the film was so overwhelmingly male-focused, and whether the industry itself was still male dominated. Kuji replied, “Yes, women are still on the outside. But there are brewery owners who are female, and there are quite a few women toji — including Morikiri Rumiko, who makes the famous Rumiko no Sake.” He then joked that Konishi’s next film should focus on women in the industry, and suggested it be called Kampai Women!

“Female toji are really doing well these days,” added Gauntner. “Out of about 1,200 breweries, I think there are 50 female toji, and a lot of them are really technically adept.”

Sake has traditionally been strongly associated with Shintoism, and several viewers queried the absence of a religious context in the film. Konishi apologized for the oversight, admitting that he had travelled around Japan for the very first time during production of the film, and hadn’t realized how strong the connection was. Said Kuji: “At the beginning of the film, you can see a long set of stairs. Those lead to the shrine behind my house. Back in ancient times, sake was made a Shinto shrines. I now regret not introducing my friend, who’s a Shinto priest, to Konishi-san. He should make another sequel: God, Sake and Kampai!

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Sake-tasting partygoers (top left: ©FCCJ, top right: ©Koichi Mori, bottom: ©Mance Thompson)

Asked whether there were still myths and misconceptions about nihonshu overseas, Gauntner replied: “I’ve been talking about sake for so long, it’s kind of hard to surprise me anymore. I try to anticipate misconceptions and counteract them. However, many people have no idea how it’s made — some think it’s distilled. And many people think it should always be served hot. Those are deeply rooted misunderstandings.”

Kuji recalled that the biggest surprise for him, was discovering that Japanese living in the US were a major source of misleading information. “They would always say, ‘Wow, Kuji-san, your sake is fantastic! It’s nothing like the sake being sold here, which contains preservatives and tastes awful.’ It’s only the Japanese living overseas who think this. Huge mistake. There’s not a single brewery in Japan that would put preservatives in sake. We don’t need to. We heat it [pasteurize] during production, and then it doesn’t go bad.”

Whither sake’s fortunes in the future? Will the washoku-led boom help overseas sales? According to Kuji, there has been a boom in new Japanese restaurants abroad following the UNESCO registration, but they are being opened primarily by non-Japanese as business opportunities. “Still, it’s wonderful for our industry, since they all sell sake, and demand has risen.”

According to Gauntner, “If you look at sake’s popularity overseas, it’s been holding steady for the past decade or so, before the washoku registration, although that will help. But if you look at industry statistics, what’s really interesting is the premium sakes — honjozojunmaishu and the four ginjo types together — are growing fairly steadily, on average, about 10% a year. And that’s probably 35% of the market. The remaining 65% of the market, the futsushu, that’s been contracting for a while, but the rate of contraction is slowing down. But premium sake is really on the increase, in terms of production, consumption and popularity, so the future of sake is quite bright.”

kampai mance-32Kuji delivers the party's kampai.  ©Mance Thompson

However, when they were asked whether the industry is facing any major issues, several stumbling blocks emerged. Explained Kuji, “The biggest problem is the structure of the industry and government. The ministry that supervises all alcohol is not the Agriculture Ministry, but the National Tax Agency. Until recently, the taste and quality of sake was considered secondary; what was more important was that it was taxable. Obviously, the rice that sake is made from is under the Agriculture Ministry. They’re closely connected, but under two different [government offices]. I’ve been saying for years that Nihonshu should also be under the Agriculture Ministry, which would make it very easy for us brewers to own our own ricefields, so we can have better control of our products. At the moment, it’s difficult because of the supervisory agencies.”

kampai mance-14Gaunter and Haruo Matsuzaki, chairman of the Sake Export Association, discuss brands with FCCJ staff.  ©Mance Thompson

For Gauntner, the biggest problem is “Image. Looking at it from a consumer’s point of view, a lot of young people think that sake is what old people drink. The image is not sexy, not fashionable. The other thing is that it’s difficult to approach — there are different kinds, and it’s not as easy to comprehend as [other types of alcohol.]

The large crowd that attended the sake-tasting event prior to the screening clearly didn’t find sake unsexy or unfashionable. The kuramoto of Kampai! offered three varieties — Philip Harper’s Yanwari junmaishu (with a monkey basking in a hot spring, our vote for the best label ever), and Kuji’s Dai-Ginjo and the newly award-winning Honjinzo —which FCCJ’s chef paired perfectly with light snacks. As Gauntner and Kuji chatted with partygoers, there wasn’t a dissatisfied drinker in the room.

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            ©2015 Wagamama Media, LLC. All rights reserved.

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KAKO: MY SULLEN PAST


KAKO: MY SULLEN PAST (Fukigenna Kako)


 June 13, 2016
Q&A guests: Director Shiro Maeda and star Fumi Nikaido


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                                  Nikaido and Maeda light up the room.               ©Mance Thompson

It is perhaps inevitable that FCCJ audiences do not always fit the profile of the target demographics for every film we have the privilege of sneak previewing. In the case of Kako: My Sullen Past, that target demo most likely skews young, disaffected and familiar with the work of the film’s multi-award-winning creator, Shiro Maeda, the “lo-fi playwright for Japan’s lost generation.”

As Performing Arts Network Japan so strikingly describes his style, “Using what is known in Japanese as datsuryoku-kei, or a manner of speaking that is devoid of energy, Maeda has succeeded in capturing the values and lifestyles of a generation unfettered by the burden of finding meaning in life. [Maeda’s plots are] brimming with the delusions of his main characters and the small adventures they have in order to get by in life.”

A cult stage director whose work is not seen enough outside Japan, Maeda is also an accomplished novelist, winner of the vaunted Yukio Mishima Award for his Mermen in Summer Water in 2009, and began making waves in the film world with his adaptation of his Kishida Drama Award-winning play Isn't Anyone Alive? (2007) for director Gakuryu Ishii in 2012. Several cinema projects later, including his own writing-directing debut, The Extreme Sukiyaki (2013), Maeda returns with Kako: My Sullen Past.

The story of one fraught but transcendent summer in the life of Kako, a bored 18-year-old living above her family’s small restaurant in a forgotten pocket of Kita Shinagawa, the film demonstrates once again why this young writer-director is quickly becoming Japan’s answer to Spike Jonze (Being John Malkovich) and Michel Gondry (Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind), with a sprinkling of Charlie Kaufman (who wrote the scripts for both films).

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                                                                It's easy to imagine the fun on set.                                                 ©Mance Thompson

Despite its minimalist approach, a Maeda trademark, Kako is stuffed with oddball characters, zingy dialog, off-kilter line readings, outrageous twists and unexpected turns — a sort of lowball, screwball black comedy with scenes of haunting beauty: figures flying off rooftops in the darkness, boats gliding quietly across Tokyo Bay in the moonlight. And it features a cast of familiar faces that is sure to bring in viewers beyond Maeda’s devoted following: The legendary Kyoko Koizumi, the amazing Fumi Nikaido, the alluring Kengo Kora and many more.

Nikaido joined her director for the Q&A after the screening, and in inimitable style, greeted the crowd in English: “Hi, everyone. Thank you for coming today. I’m really happy to come back [to FCCJ] again. How do you feel about this movie?” She has been busy since her last visit, in 2014, with Koji Fukada’s Au Revoir l’Ete. Internationally acclaimed at the ripe old age of 16, when she won the Marcello Mastroianni Award at the 2011 Venice Film Festival for her role in Sion Sono’s Fukushima-themed Himizu, Nikaido has continued to stun audiences with her versatility and to work with high-profile directors on an array of acclaimed films, including Kazuyoshi Kumakiri’s My Man (2014), for which she won the Japan Academy Prize for Best Actress.

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                                                                                    ©Mance Thompson       

In Maeda’s film, she is convincingly pouty, jaded and desperate for adventure. It’s summer vacation, and Kako is staring sullenly out at the canal near her house, hoping to spot a crocodile that made off with a neighbor’s baby. “I can see the future,” she sighs heavily. “Nothing beyond the realm of imagination will happen, so what’s the point in experiencing anything?” Then one day, the future drops right into Kako’s lap, in the form of her long-dead Aunt Mikiko (Koizumi) — who, it turns out, is very much alive, having hidden for nearly 20 years following a suspect house explosion. Mikiko, a wisecracking eccentric, takes up residence in Kako’s room despite her niece’s protestations, and the two must find their way to a grudging détente. Before that can happen, there will be catfights, mysteries to solve involving anti-government plots, hints of international intrigue and a homemade bomb that goes awry.

Much of it is delicious, given the strengths of the script and the acting. The natural rapport between the two leads, according to Maeda, was the result of a few weeks of rehearsals before filming, but also, the “power of the actresses.”

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                                                                                         ©Mance Thompson

Asked why she chose the role, Nikaido said, “I’d always wanted to portray a mother-daughter relationship with Kyoko Koizumi. When I read the script, there were a lot of things that were familiar to me. I thought that acting in the film would allow me to face my own past in some way. I also had the sense that the film would turn into something really interesting, and I was eager to be part of it.”

One journalist lauded Nikaido’s ability to play such a bored character without making the character herself boring, to which she responded, “I think that’s due to the director, the wonderful script and the atmosphere on the set. If the set is fun, things get rolling and I can make my character interesting. Kako is bored, yes, but she’s a teenager and I think it’s the typical kind of frustration that teenagers feel.”

Asked about the kind of compromises he had to make in his dual writing-directing roles, Maeda said, “Compromise is essential in filmmaking. The problem is where to make those compromises. As a scriptwriter, I always write what I want to see and what I think is interesting, but I use the script only as a blueprint for the film. Then I listen to my cast and crew’s suggestions, and incorporate them.”

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                                                         Maeda gets serious as he discusses the troubling subject of terrorism in his film.                  ©Koichi Mori

“There isn’t much of a story,” admitted the director. “What I wanted to convey was the atmosphere of [Kako’s] summer days — sometimes boring, sometimes exciting, and sometimes, with the presence of death. That’s what was important to me. Time is like a river, constantly flowing, and we can see our past, present and future in that way. That’s what prompted me to write this, to try to express that thematically.”

The Q&A concluded with a question about the elephant in the room: “With what happened yesterday in Orlando,” said an American academic (referring to the mass nightclub slaughter by a single gunman),“I’m not sure what to think about the terrorism in your film. Can you talk a little about that?” Maeda had clearly been thinking about the connection himself. “That’s a really difficult question,"he began. "I think we all have the impulse toward violence within ourselves. It’s no use denying that, we all have it. The issue then becomes how to control it, how to channel it into a positive force. I think terrorists [like the Orlando attacker] aren’t so different from me or from you. We tend to label all criminals as crazy and inhuman. But I think they’re human, and they feel that they’ve been put into an untenable situation in which they feel it’s necessary to take action. We can’t change the human impulse toward violence, but we can change this situation.

“In my film, we can’t change the female characters’ urge to commit violence,” he continued, “but I think it’s important for us to think about why they want to do these things, and to ask, how is it related to all of us?”

kako MT-38                           The director joined journalists and others in the bar after the event.  ©Mance Thompson

 

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      ©2016 "Kako: My Sullen Past" Film Partners

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