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CHILDREN OF IRON (Tetsu no Ko)


CHILDREN OF IRON


 February 8, 2016
Q&A guests: Director Koki Fukuyama and star Jyonmyon Pe


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Jyonmyon Pe and Koki Fukuyama share a laugh.  ©Mance Thompson

Koki Fukyama’s Children of Iron is that rare thing in Japan: a bittersweet coming-of-age drama that is powerful yet completely unsentimental, deceptively simple and infused with both humor and pathos. FCCJ’s audience immediately recognized its deeper import, however, and during the Q&A session following the screening, attempted to probe the director for his thoughts on the convulsive changes currently redefining the dynamics of Japanese families. But Fukuyama demonstrated the same restraint and reliance on brevity that his film (only 74 minutes long!) champions.

He was surprisingly open, however, about the source of the story, which is set against a backdrop of single parenting, midlife remarriage, domestic violence, school bullying and economic hardship in a blue-collar suburb north of Tokyo. It is Fukuyama’s own boyhood story, in fact, and it grew into a film only after his onetime stepsister found him online, some 35 years after they’d been separated. The grown-up Mariko recalled their childhood quite differently than he did — “In certain cases where I’d remembered helping her out, she said, No, she was helping me out. I realized that guys tend to cast themselves in a heroic role in our memories” — but Fukuyama took the rough outlines of their shared past and worked with a professional scriptwriter to polish it into Children of Iron.

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Fukuyama's own childhood inspired the story, which he decided to "soften," since the
reality was so harsh, and he didn't want to create a polemic.  ©Mance Thompson (left)

After winning acclaim for his short films and his first feature, Fukuyama was selected by the Skip City International D-Cinema Festival to receive funds for production of his second feature, with the stipulation that it take place in the festival’s home, Kawaguchi City. Children of Iron then became the opening film for the Skip City Festival in 2015.

The two protagonists of the film, Mariko (Mau) and her new stepbrother Rikutaro (Taishi Sato), are living near the iron mills of Kawaguchi, made famous in their heyday by the 1962 film Foundry Town (Kyupora no Aru Machi), starring Sayuri Yoshinaga, but now even less prosperous. Mariko’s unemployed father (Jyonmyon Pe) and Rikutaro’s bar-hostess mother (Tomoko Tabata) have just married, and the kids must now share both a room at home, as well as the same class at school. When their classmates bully them — “siblings the same age are weird!” — Mariko enlists Rikutaro’s support in a “Divorce Alliance” to force their parents apart. The alliance is draconian, with rule breakers to receive the death penalty.

The two set about sabotaging the new marriage: ruining mom’s curry while she’s at work, scaring dad into thinking the house is haunted, smearing lipstick on his collar… but their plots seem to produce the opposite effect. And before they realize it, Mariko and Rikutaro have become friends. Yet as suddenly as they’ve come together, the family begins to fall apart… and a lump of polished iron and a tube of lipstick assume talismanic import.

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Metropolis film critic Rob Schwartz probes the director
for details about the Rashomon-esque process of recalling the past.

Children of Iron depicts its struggling modern family mostly from the children’s point of view, finding an endearing balance between their often-grim reality and the magical coping mechanisms that comprise the process of growing up. Most of us had a favorite spot in childhood, a place we could go whenever we felt anxious or fearful. But few of us had a spot like Mariko’s — a magical tunnel to different lands, where she can make a wish and emerge at the other end in Candy Land or No Homework Land or No Mushrooms Land or even We Can Fly Land. When she allows Rikutaro to visit the tunnel with her, it is one of the film’s most enchanting, yet haunting, scenes.

“To me,” Fukuyama admitted during the Q&A session following the screening, “family is a very complicated thing. There is love, but there’s also hate. There’s both good and bad. Situations can be very harsh. But I didn’t want to vilify either of the parents, because I think the father and mother were doing their best. So I think this is a story about trying to survive and do one’s best in situations that you really can’t do anything about. That goes not only for the children, but the parents as well.”

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Pe's biggest struggle? That curry with carrots.  ©Mance Thompson

From his hints about a father who was far more neglectful and abusive than the character onscreen, Fukuyama’s choice of actor Jyonmyon Pe is unexpected. A mainstay in many of the rough-and-tumble films of Sion Sono and other genre hits, as well as a regular on TV and stage, Pe is neither physically imposing nor particularly paternal-seeming. But he turns the father’s childishness into a malevolent force. “Because it was my first role playing a father,” Pe told FCCJ’s audience, “I was really nervous going into the project. I didn’t have that many conversations with the director, but I made some suggestions that he incorporated into the shooting process. I can’t say much about my approach to the character, but I can tell you about [my biggest challenge]. We were rehearsing the curry scene, and I discovered there were carrots in the curry. I hate carrots! But I didn’t want to let the child actors know that, even though we were doing one take after another.”

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Fukuyama added that Pe had been cast after read-throughs of an early script draft, which contained several scenes between the children and the father that had to be cut when the filming period was reduced to just eight days. “Since he knew more about the relationships from reading that script,” said the director, “it was really easy to direct him, because I didn’t have to explain so much.”

Japan is only beginning to confront many of the social issues that are depicted in Children of Iron, so although Fukuyama’s experiences took place decades ago, they feel completely of the moment. Unlike most local films about fissures in the family structure, in which divisions are inevitably resolved in a happy ending, this one doesn’t soft-pedal the future. It’s a welcome addition to the genre, and should be widely seen.

Photos by Mance Thompson and FCCJ.

tetsu poster
©2015 Skip City D-Cinema Festival

Media Coverage

 

THE ACTOR (Haiyu Kameoka Takuji)


THE ACTOR


 January 12, 2016
Q&A guest: Director Satoko Yokohama


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Satoko Yokohama finally returns with a new film. She's been much missed.

Satoko Yokohama’s first indie feature, German + Rain, earned her an immediate following on the international film festival circuit in 2007. She solidified her reputation as one of Japan’s most gifted young creators with her Bare Essence of Life (aka Ultra Miracle Love Story, 2008), which premiered at the Toronto Film Festival, traveled extensively overseas, and reaped multiple awards, including the Best Actor at the Mainichi Film Awards for its star, Kenichi Matsuyama.

And then, suddenly, 7 years went by without a new Yokohama feature, although she continued to be active as a director of short films, music and behind-the-scenes videos.  

News of her selection to represent Japan in the Winds of Asia Section at the 2015 Tokyo International Film Festival last October was met with great anticipation, and The Actor was an immediate favorite among festivalgoers upon its premiere.

Yokohama was on hand to discuss her new film with FCCJ’s audience prior to its late-January theatrical opening, and immediately established herself as one of the shyest, most modest guests to have graced our dais. This is all fine and good, of course, but the exuberance of her first two films, demonstrating a mastery of the offbeat, a wild but gentle sense of humor, an eye for the existential and an affection for outsiders, would seem to have suggested a writer-director of great confidence, brashness and perhaps, vanity.

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Ken Yasuda is unforgettable as the title character. At right, he convinces his director (Shota Sometani)
to use real booze when filming a bar scene, which leads to ever-deepening hilarity.

Instead, Yokohama resembles the diffident, everyman hero of The Actor, based on the Akutagawa Prize-nominated novel by Akito Inui. After focusing on larger-than-life protagonists in her earlier films, this one highlights the less-than-large life of a supporting actor, one Takuji Kameoka (played by busy TV thespian Ken Yasuda in an extraordinarily versatile performance). He’s the guy whose face you recognize, but whose name you can never remember. Always working — although not in parts he’d choose if he had a choice — Kameoka can disappear into a role so completely that he’s just perfect as the homeless man, the chimpira, the Edo-era thief (he’s already played seven of them this year). Beloved by directors and respected by his peers, he is cast as much for his humility and lack of ego as he is for his skill and professionalism.

But Kameoka’s heavy-lidded stare, sloped shoulders and smile-grimace say it all: he’s charming but harmless, never upstaging his fellow actors, never playing a leading role even in his own life. As he approaches middle age, he’s clearly given up on any dream of a big break. Then one fateful evening in Nagano, he falls in love with a winsome bartender Azumi (Kumiko Asou), who introduces him to the dubious joys of the local seaweed delicacy and encourages him to visit when he’s lonely. Back in Tokyo, world-famous arthouse director Alain Spesso (Ricardo Garcia), one of Kameoka’s favorites, invites him to audition for the leading role in his next film. The supporting actor is soon facing an existential midlife crisis.

The story may sound straightforward, but The Actor fairly crackles and pops, thanks to Yokohama’s flare for surrealistic touches, unusual imagery and offbeat musical selections. These all became the subject of questions from FCCJ’s audience, with the first, not surprisingly, concerning what changes she had made in adapting the original work to the screen. Focusing immediately on one of the most brilliant — and unexpected — scenes, in which Kameoka goes in to audition for Alain Spesso and is suddenly miming an astonishing performance, interacting with shadows that appear on the screen behind him, Yokohama admitted that, although the scene does appear in the novel, “I added quite a bit to it… it’s one of the scenes in which I took liberties.”

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The director ponders a question.

She also mentioned the film’s final scene, which is meant to take place in the Moroccan desert, but for financial reasons, was shot in Hamamatsu. “I didn’t want to exclude it, so I was quite adamant about it,” she said. She continued, “In the original novel, [Spesso] is a French director, but during the auditions, when we had a lot of different [nationalities] coming in, Ricardo Garcia came in and was very entertaining, in the respect that he was unpredictable. We didn’t quite know what he was going to do. Since he’s from Spain, we changed the storyline to make him Spanish.”

[An ongoing discussion later ensued in the bar, where audience members from Colombia, Argentina and Spain debated Garcia’s actual nationality, arguing that he had not been entirely convincing as a Spaniard.]

To a question about the film’s depiction of alcoholism— Kameoka spends his nights getting quite blotto with a variety of fellow low-achievers, and on one set, even convinces the director to use real alcohol in a bar scene, with hilarious results — Yokohama explained, “When you’re shooting a film in Japan, the set is usually very tense, very strained, and it’s taxing not just on the filmmakers but the actors as well. Because Kameoka is always on set, he needs a place to release all of his tension.”

She then addressed whether there was a veiled message here about Japan at large: “I think people taking to drink is a universal habit, not just in Japan but around the world. However, I would say that the Japanese probably drink more because we can’t be frank with each other. In my case, too, I drink to lubricate communication.”

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Yokohama poses with the poster for her third feature.

Yokohama lauded Ken Yasuda’s depiction of Kameoka, saying she cast him for his “lack of an aura” and his “unassuming character.” As for Kumiko Asou, whom the director also cast as the love interest in Bare Essence of Life, “Although she has a huge career, she’s very easy to work with and is very professional… Also, not only is the character meant to be beautiful, but also fragile after just going through a divorce. I thought Asou-san could depict both traits.”

Although she was prodded about the possibility of a deeper meaning for the film, based on its final scene in the desert of Hamamatsu, Yokohama demurred. “I think the final message is a universal message for all of us: You must live your life as you choose to, and carve your own path, rather than following a path chosen by someone else... The same can be said for filmmakers: You’re not there to make a film the way it’s written in the script exactly, since you don’t know what’s going to happen and you can’t foresee how it’s going to turn out. The key is to not be intimidated — just do your work, don’t worry too much and don’t be afraid.”

We hope Yokohama takes this advice and continues to forge her own unique creative path.
Photos by Koichi Mori and FCCJ.

actor poster
©2016 "ACTOR" Production Committee

Media Coverage

 

PERSONA NON GRATA (Sugihara Chiune)


PERSONA NON GRATA (Sugihara Chiune)


 December 3, 2015
Q&A guest: Director Cellin Gluck


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Making his third FCCJ appearance with his third film, Los Angeles-based Cellin Gluck
is one of the few Americans directing Japanese-produced films.

At least four ambassadors were in attendance for FCCJ’s packed sneak preview screening of Persona Non Grata, the first-ever biopic of the “Japanese Schindler,” Chiune Sugihara. A diplomat who defied orders and thus saved some 6,000 Jewish lives in the early years of World War II, Sugihara’s name was submitted by Japan this past September as a candidate for UNESCO’s Memory of the World Register.

But the film proves to be timely for other reasons as well, evoking echoes of the current Syrian refugee crisis and the disheartening UNHCR report that found 1 in every 122 humans is now either a refugee, internally displaced or seeking asylum.

As one FCCJ audience member pointed out, “I think there are many Sugiharas in Europe at the moment, since there are 12 million refugees in the Middle East.”

Gluck admitted that the film’s release had been timed to coincide with the 70th anniversary of the end of WWII this year, not with “the unfortunate incidents that are taking place in Europe. [That’s] really synchronicity. But because of what’s going on, I would hope that it would cause people to think about it — ‘we’ve made this mistake before, let’s not do it again’— and to think about how they might make a difference.”

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The film attracted a huge turnout, and heavy praise for Gluck during the Q&A.

Another audience member noted that, although Japan had retroactively honored Sugihara in 2000, it had continued to deny nearly all applications for political refugee status. “Japan has a bad record for accepting refugees,” she said. “Do you think this film might inspire Japan to take a more respectable, honorable role in terms of refugees?”

“I’m not in any position to lecture the Japanese government,” answered Gluck. “But it’s not only the government. The Japanese take to change slowly, and in a big, homogenous nation, it’s almost understandable. I think the Japanese are willing to take in outsiders — most of us here are outsiders, but we’ve been welcomed. If this film will inspire people to accept the opportunities [to embrace diversity], then I’ve accomplished what I would like to accomplish.”

Gluck shot Persona Non Grata with a mostly Polish crew, almost entirely in Poland — which stands in beautifully and convincingly for at least 8 other world locations — with Japanese stars and well-known Polish and international actors (Borys Szyc, Agnieszka Grochowska, Michał Żurawski, Cezary Łukaszewicz) thanks to the great Andrzej Wajda’s casting director, achieving an authenticity that a Japanese production crew could never have recreated. The director gave ample credit to Nippon Television, the film’s producer, and talked at length about the team’s attempts to “balance the history lesson with the drama… and to treat our characterization of Sugihara with respect for a gentleman who didn’t beat his chest [for attention] and try to show him as a human being, not a superhero.”

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 Making one of many notable points.

Much of the world now knows Chiune Sugihara as the “Japanese Schindler,” after Oskar Schindler, the German industrialist who saved close to 1,200 Jews during the Holocaust by hiring them to work at his factories. But very few know Sugihara’s backstory, and it is impressively limned in the film. Skilfully avoiding the detail-overkill of many biopics, Persona Non Grata introduces us to the young diplomat before his fateful posting as Japanese consul in Kaunas, Lithuania just as war was breaking out in Europe. 

After studying in Harbin and developing fluency in several languages, Sugihara had built a vast espionage network in Manchuria and provided critical intelligence to his superiors in the Foreign Ministry. But in 1937, he was declared “persona non grata” by Russia and forbidden entry to the country, as punishment for his negotiations in Japan’s acquisition of a highly strategic branch of the North Manchurian Railroad (which was later used to solidify the puppet state of Manchukuo).

Barred from Soviet territories, Sugihara (Toshiaki Karasawa) thus arrives in Kaunas in August 1939, just days before the German Army advances into Poland, inciting World War II. The diplomat hires Polish spy Pesch (Szyc) as his driver, and the two men gather intelligence on the actions of Russia and the Nazis, the latter of whom Japan had allied itself with. By July 1940, as the Nazis approach Lithuania’s border, hordes of Jewish refugees have begun camping out in front of the Japanese Consulate, desperately hoping for visas to safety. But transit visas can only be issued to those with legitimate visas onward from Japan, and the means to provide for themselves throughout the journey.

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Gluck poses with the poster for the international market.

After receiving a firm “No” to his cable to Tokyo, Sugihara decides he must take matters into his own hands. Abetted by Pesch and several other brave men of conscience, including acting Dutch Consul Jan Zwartendijk (Wenanty Nosul), Sughiara begins writing out visas via Japan to the Dutch Caribbean island of Curaçao. Between July 18 and August 28, he issues over 2,000 of them and saves the lives of at least triple that many Jews.

In a 1983 memoir, Sugihara wrote, “I could have refused to issue [the visas], but would that, in the end, have truly been in Japan’s national interest? I came to the conclusion, after racking my brain, that the spirit of humane and charitable action takes precedence above all else.”

The Japanese government didn’t really come around to his way of thinking until well after Sugihara’s death in 1986. Is there a place for the brave individual in Japan, committing a selfless act against injustice and intolerance in the face of certain dismissal or worse? That question is at the heart of Persona Non Grata, a must-see film for all those who ever wondered what gave Chiune Sugihara the courage to defy orders, or who need reminding that we all, each of us, can do the right thing.
Photos by Koichi Mori and FCCJ.

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©2015 "PERSONA NON GRATA" FILM PARTNERS

 

LAST KNIGHTS


LAST KNIGHTS


 November 2, 2015
Q&A guest: Director Kazuaki Kiriya


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Kiriya's new film is in independent production, with Hollywood stars and an international
 cast and crew — a trend he sees as positive for the industry.     Photos ©Mance Thompson

Fans of Kazuaki Kiriya’s first two epic adventure stories, both innovative special-effects extravaganzas — Casshern (2004), in which a reincarnated warrior saves the world from genetically modified human mutants, and Goemon (2009), a ninja thriller based on the Japanese folk hero who resembles Robin Hood — probably weren’t surprised when they heard that his new film is a take on the legendary revenge tale Chushingura, aka 47 Ronin. But for the first time in his career, the idea didn’t originate with Kiriya himself.

His Last Knights marks several other significant milestones in the director’s career. Not only is it his debut English-language film, it is also the first time he didn’t shoot on a digital backlot in Japan. Even more impressively, it stars no less than Morgan Freeman and Clive Owen as the two leads, with a wealth of award-winning actors in supporting roles. The number of Japanese directors who have helmed big-budget English-language films featuring Hollywood stars can be counted on just about two fingers — and both of them made J-horror remakes.

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The emcee was happy to leave the floor to the locquacious director.
Photo ©Mance Thompson

During a thoroughly candid Q&A session following a sneak preview screening of Last Knights — candor is clearly one of Kiriya’s defining traits, along with charm, self-reflection and occasional self-deprecation — he recalled receiving the script (by Canadian Michael Konyves) from producer Jim Thompson in 2009, and wanting to make it immediately. “But unfortunately,” he said, “there was another project in development called 47 Ronin, with Keanu Reeves. So the studios rejected this film and that left us the independent route. So we went around the world to get financing for the film, and that took us two or three years before we could go into production.”

The unlikely hero was Owen, the Oscar-nominated British star who’s been carving out a new audience (pun intended) with his TV hit The Knick. “Clive helped us get financing. He was the first on board,” Kiriya said. “I sent him the script, he liked it and he saw my film [Goemon]. After two weeks, I got a call from him and he said he was in. Then he waited [for production to start for] three years. He’s a cool guy.”

No argument here, ahem. Owen is absolutely electrifying in Last Knights, which transplants the 47 ronin to a European-ish setting during the Middle Ages, focusing on feudal warriors who seek to avenge the loss of their master at the hands of a sadistic minister. Owen is Commander Raiden, head of a band of elite soldiers and surrogate son to Bartok (Freeman), the lord of a vassal kingdom. For his services and devotion, Bartok names Raiden his heir and gives him a cherished sword. But when Bartok refuses to pay a bribe to a greedy minister and speaks openly (and eloquently, as only Freeman can) about the corruption of the empire, he is sentenced to death, with Raiden forced to be his executioner. Bartok's estate is divided and the clan disbanded as Raiden nurses his despair with alcohol, falling so low he even sells Bartok’s sword for more drink. After a year, Raiden’s men and his wife will have nothing more to do with him. Yet the evil minister still suspects the men will attempt to exact vengeance… and with good reason.

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Last Knights was sold to 30 territories, but Japan wasn’t one
 of them. Kiriya is working with Gaga on the nationwide release.

Loyalty, honor and payback are familiar themes in Japanese films, but Last Knights doesn’t exactly go where it’s expected to go, and the sword-fighting scenes, which don’t occur until quite late (by Hollywood standards), are not the point. This is a more contemplative, more realistic approach than the Keanu Reeves version, shot on stunning locations throughout the Czech Republic, in mostly natural lighting, by the great Mexican cinematographer Antonio Riestra. Chambara fanboys may be disappointed, but patient viewers will be amply rewarded.

“This movie is not about the battles,” Kiriya emphasized. “It’s about the conflict between the world of material[ism] and the world of the soul, the spirit. That argument is valid is this world today. Everybody worships materials and things, but does that make us happy? I know it’s a cliché, idealistic notion, but it’s a huge question that we’re hearing more now.”

Speaking of the film’s “mix of peoples,” as one audience member put it (critics dubbed it “a veritable Middle Ages melting pot”), Kiriya explained, “Originally, the script was written to be played by Japanese actors, and it was set in Japan. Like Memoirs of a Geisha, with an Asian cast, shot in Asia but all in English. But I was thinking about doing it more like Akira Kurosawa’s Ran, which is Shakespeare transplanted to Japan. Then I decided, let’s forget the race issue, let’s just find the best actors from all over the world. That’s what I told my casting agent, and we got actors from 17 countries. I was very lucky to get these actors.” (At which point, Kiriya ticked off many of their names, with exclamations like “wow!” and “I mean, come on,” punctuating each.)

“I’m hoping that this will become a trend,” continued Kiriya, “to open the doors to actors from Asia, the Middle East, to break the typecasting. That was my intention.”

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Kiriya with the Japanese poster, adorned with raves
from a range ofJapanese stars.
Photo ©Mance Thompson

It wasn’t just the film’s cast that hailed from far and wide; after the 50-day shoot in Europe ended, Kiriya presided over a truly global post-production process. His Oscar-winning editor, Mark Sanger (Gravity), “happened to be in London, and I happened to be in Tokyo,” laughed Kiriya. “But we just communicated on Skype and we edited online. I think it’s a beautiful thing that’s happening in the film world — we can collaborate [through the internet] in the true sense… We had the orchestra in Moscow, I was in LA with the musical team, and we connected through the internet in real time. They played, we gave them notes right there, [the score] was recorded and it was done. The CGI was done mostly in Korea, but also in India and Louisiana, everything was done online.”

But Kiriya lamented the “unforgiving” nature of today’s film industry, where studio budgets have now ballooned to $300 million on a regular basis (Kiriya’s was closer to $22 million), and many directors have fled to the greener pastures of television production. “It’s becoming very, very unforgiving. [Films have] to be in a specified style, fit a certain format, a certain taste, a certain genre. Even in the ’80s, we never saw what we’re seeing today. It’s very difficult, especially for small, independent filmmakers. They make great, small films but you can’t watch them — the theaters are all closing, because even for promotion, you need a lot of money. Everything’s become about the business model, not art. It’s the battle of the business models.”

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Kiriya chats about the industry with critics from Twitch Film,
the Japan Times and Metropolis.

To a question about differences between the original 47 Ronin story and Last Knights, Kiriya responded: “I fought really hard to keep the essence… at some point, I was going to make Morgan Freeman commit harakiri [as per the original], but at the last minute, we changed it. It’s like, harakiri is already a stereotype, a Japanese thing, like Mount Fuji, sakura, sushi, sumo, harakiri, right? I didn’t want to go there.” While the audience laughed, Kiriya hesitated, and then explained that his grandfather had committed suicide after the war, and that it was personal to him. “I just didn’t want it to be that kitsch Japanese thing. [Harakiri] is a sacred act, it’s called ‘self-deciding’ in Japanese. So I had Clive Owen kill him instead, since they’re like father and son. I’m proud of that scene. I think it was a good choice.”

Spoiler alert
As for the ending — which does not, like the original tale, feature a mass suicide, but is seemingly unclear about the fate of Raiden — Kiriya said, “Again, we needed to transcend that Japanese thing, that stereotype, of the spirit of the samurai. But to me, the samurai spirit [exists] in Europe, in America, in Africa, China, everywhere. What did I mean by the ending? I want audiences to decide.”
Photos by Koichi Mori where uncredited.

LastKnights poster 
©2015 Luka Productions

©2015 Shochiku

Media Coverage

 

ANOHITO: THE ONE


ANOHITO: THE ONE


 October 19, 2015
Q&A guests: Director Ichiro Yamamoto, producer Nozomu Enoki
and actor-distributor Hiroyuki Ono


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Two salarymen producers and a theatrical producer formed the creative team for an extraordinarily
unusual film. Ono, Enoki and Yamamoto obviously enjoyed the process.

In his introduction before the screening of his beautiful and enigmatic Anohito: The One, Ichiro Yamamoto said that he had shown the film three times before, and that he had not received any comments at all from his audiences. So he wanted everyone to feel no pressure; he would understand if FCCJ’s audience didn’t have any feedback for him.

The remarks were so unexpected, and his delivery so comical, that the audience giggled — but Yamamoto was not exaggerating. At least not overly.

After a long career as a self-described Shochiku “salaryman,” working on productions for such illustrious directors as Nagisa Oshima and Seijun Suzuki, and producing award-winning work by Yoji Yamada and Hou Hsiao-Hsien, Yamamoto makes his own feature debut with Anohito: The One, and “strange” is an appropriate tag for the film’s many bewitchments.

A beautiful tribute to the heyday of Japan’s studio system, it also underscores how little has changed in Japanese society in the intervening years. As critic Tony Rayns has put it, “Anohito is a unique film which offers a subtly disquieting vision of the present through the mirror of the past.”

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Yamamoto reveals the many secrets hidden in plain sight in the film.

The director himself only half-jokingly describes it as “a sci-fi film produced and cast in 1944, imagining a future Japan 69 years later in 2013, where the Second World War still rages on.” Looking very much like a 1944 film, with its luminous black-and-white cinematography and its aspect ratio of 1.33:1, it nevertheless feels utterly modern in its concerns and sensibilities.

It is a seriously serious film, the outgrowth of a lifetime of cinephilia on Yamamoto’s part, and it grows ever more profound and endlessly multilayered upon a serious discussion of its attributes.

Fortunately, the FCCJ audience was in the mood for just such a discussion.  But the evening was heavily punctuated with laughter, too, as questions ranged from the film’s antiwar messages and its unusual provenance, to the many octopus images, the enumerations of the number 8, the frequent appearance of shogi pieces and the reflections of water in every single shot.
 
The script is attributed to the famed Buraiha writer Sakunosuke Oda, and had been completed in 1944 for director Yuzo Kawashima but then lost, Yamamoto explained, until its 2012 discovery in a library in Osaka. After he’d read it and returned to Tokyo, he said, “I immediately asked my boss if we could make the film. And my boss immediately said No.” Shortly afterward, he continued, “I got an email from my department saying I had 5 days off, since I had worked in Shochiku for 20 years. I also had 5 days off for summer vacation. So I thought, if I can make the film myself with my savings of ¥20,000 a month for 20 years — that’s ¥5 million — I should. So I decided to get a producer. [a beat] It was the first time I noticed that the producer is so important.”

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IMG 0790Enoki discusses the contributions of Shochiku's
Uzumasa Studio to the film's look and feel.

Yamamoto turned to his fellow Shochiku producer, Nozomu Enoki, because “he’s the strangest guy in Shochiku,” and enlisted the support of actor-playwright-producer-author-Charlie Chaplin specialist Hiroyuki Ono, “the strangest guy in Kyoto,” for the cast.

Enoki stressed, “Five million yen is quite a small budget for making a film, maybe 1% of our typical production budget. But I was working at Shochiku’s Kyoto studio and … with the help of the veteran crew members there, I thought we could get this made.”

The film looks remarkably sumptuous, given its pricetag — its most expensive shot, Yamamoto revealed, was a CG octopus-shaped battlefield scar on one of the characters — and evokes nostalgia for the artistry of yesteryear not only in its cinematography, but in its mise-en-scene and its many musical interludes, which may or may not be propaganda songs of the day. Enoki explained that the Kyoto Uzumasa Studio “has a long tradition of making samurai films, and we have a lot of props that we were able to use in the film. Mr. Yamamoto’s intention was to conflate the styles of Shochiku’s Ofuna Studio period and the Uzumasa Studio films, and our creative team understood that.”

IMG 0813   IMG 0851
Ono talked with passion but no crab bubbles — you'll have to see the film to get the significance.

On the surface, Anohito: The One tells the story of four young soldiers working menial jobs so they can raise the orphaned son of their commanding officer (“Little Commanding Officer,” they call the boy) in a forgotten town populated by the war’s leftovers: women, children, lonely old men. The women are constant targets for the local matchmaker, and are often reminded that life is more difficult for them. The soldiers seem to be speaking dialogue that they’ve heard elsewhere, such as their chant, “Cheer up and brighten up! Sprout out and grow!” After hearing unpleasant news about the war on the radio one day, they leave the boy with an aging cook, and go off to work in munitions factories, promising to be home for new year’s. The cook invites the woman next door to move in, then disappears himself, leaving a message for “The One…”

Who is “The One?” For Yamamoto, he is unequivocally the boy, given the absence of any ancestral photos in the family home and the fact that he does nothing, while all the other characters wait on him. “I doubt his father exists, and my conclusion is that the boy is deceiving people. This means that he is manipulating the whole town to go out and support the war.”

Oct 19 2015 Movie Anohito by Iori070Stepping out from behind the scenes for well-deserved applause.

For Ono, who brought in key cast members from his Tottemo Benri theatrical company and enacted a role himself, there are other possible interpretations of Oda’s script. “At first glance, it may seem like a warmongering film — let’s get back into the military factories — but we get a strange feeling when reading it, as if Mr. Oda was trying to hide an antiwar message.” He went on to explain that the boy’s name is “Kamiya Shoichi: ‘Kami’ is, of course, ‘god’ in Japan. ‘Sho’ is for ‘Showa,’ the name of the era of Emperor Hirohito, and ‘ichi’ means ‘the first.’ So perhaps the boy is a metaphor for Emperor Hirohito. It’s one of the interpretations, anyway. We don’t know what Mr. Oda intended.”

As Enoki wrote in the film’s production notes: “There is a strange ineffable force, almost like atmospheric pressure, that controls these people. We wanted to investigate ‘The One’ who was somehow applying this pressure, for surely we still feel the overbearing presence of ‘The One’ to this very day.”

The film is making its international debut in the Youth on the March competition at the 22nd Minsk International Film Festival, Listapad, to be held in the capital of Belarus during the first week of November. The festival is renowned for its cinema-as-art bent, but audiences are in for a rare treat with this One.
 Photos by Koichi Mori and FCCJ.

THE ONE POSTER
©2015 Yamamoto Konchu

 

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