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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.

                          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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“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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 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.

Media Coverage


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).

                                                                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

Media Coverage

TV Exposure



 May 23, 2016
Q&A guest: Director Hitomi Kuroki

When a popular actress moves into the director’s chair — as did Jodie Foster and Angelina Jolie — their efforts are sure to invite close scrutiny. If their films can also be labeled “female-centric,” which is not the case with either Foster or Jolie, then that scrutiny is liable to be closer still.

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Kuroki was happy to hear the film appeals to men, too.          ©Mance Thompson

It’s to be expected, then, that the critical gaze on Hitomi Kuroki, veteran star of stage, screen and television, could not be any more intense than it is for her directorial debut, Desperate Sunflowers. An adaptation of the best-selling novel Nasty Piece of Work, by Nozomi Katsura, the film tells the story of two cousins, polar opposites, who actively (and often humorously) maintain their distaste for each other into early middle age, clashing repeatedly before reaching a détente and finally, beginning to see eye to eye.

There are male supporting characters in the film, but the focus is firmly fixed on these two women — uptight lawyer Tetsuko (Yo Yoshida) and incorrigible con artist Natsuko (Yoshino Kimura) — and their overlapping lives. Yoshida and Kimura are perfectly matched in what is admittedly a clarion call to female comradeship and empowerment, a moving drama that is cleverly punctuated by unforgettably off-kilter comic moments and inspired staging.

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During the Q&A following the screening, Kuroki was poised and polished, but after the Japanese media glare that has dogged her since the project was first announced, she was clearly relieved to hear praise not only from the sizable Japanese press contingent lining the room, but also from several foreign viewers. One of them rhapsodized, “This movie was pitched as a film for women, but I just want to tell you, as one man, I really enjoyed it. It’s about the most interesting and well-done Japanese film that I’ve been able to relate to.”

(Later, in the bar, another male viewer said, “It’s a good thing it was dark in there — I almost started crying!”)

Sunflowers KM-1Kuroki was happy to hear the film appeals to men, too.          ©Koichi Mori

The most obvious question came first: What had prompted Kuroki to make the move from in front of the camera to behind it? She explained that she first intended only to act in the film, but “in the process of working with the scriptwriter, I realized that I knew the world of the novel better than anyone else. That’s when I started thinking that I should probably direct it myself.” The process of adaptation was apparently a collaborative one. “In my discussions with [screenwriter Masafumi Nishida],” she continued, “I put a lot of myself into it. The novel makes you feel very positive, and it has numerous messages, such as the importance of life and the importance of ties with other human beings. I wanted to convey those in the film. I wanted audiences to feel the same way I did after reading the book.”

To a follow-up question, she added, “I have no regrets about not appearing on screen in the film. I was excited to be able to embark on a new journey at this age.” (Kuroki, like her two leads, is over 40; but all are blessed with enviable genes.)

She knew it would be a challenge to be driving the project, but “once you’re on set, you’re so into it, you’re so absorbed in letting the actors know how to interpret the roles. You don’t really have time to worry about how to do it — I was just there, actually doing it and trying to do my best.”

Asked whether she now felt directing suited her better than acting, Kuroki responded, “That’s a difficult question. If I said ‘yes,’ I would be negating my 35-year career. But being behind the scenes and working on things one step at a time is a process that suits me well. It was a new discovery for me.”

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Kuroiki is now a double threat, as Hollywood is fond of saying.          ©Mance Thompson

Pressed to elaborate, the director said: “The starkest difference [between acting and directing] is that, when you embark on a film as an actress, you become a certain character, you become that woman. As a director, you stay yourself.” She gave all credit to her two leads, admitting that they must have found the shoot fairly exhausting. “Ms. Yoshida is a very versatile and receptive actress,” said Kuroki. “The role of Tetsuko is a very straining one, and I had to be very tough on her on set, so I think that was trying for her. Yet she had the flexibility to overcome all the hurdles I put in her way. As for Ms. Kimura, she was really the mood-maker on the set. Of course, the role demanded that of her. But it was very impressive that, in playing this lively character, no matter how tired she was, she was able to slip right back into such a sunny state. I think she was wonderful.”

Kuroki was drawn not only by the book’s themes, but also its contrasting characters: Tetsuko is a shining law student, becomes a lawyer at a small firm, marries at 28 and has what seems the perfect life…yet underneath her always-professional demeanor, she feels empty and isolated. Natsuko, on the other hand, hasn’t changed from that childhood morning when she ripped apart Tetsuko’s matching sunflower dress with malicious glee. “I don’t wanna be like anyone else!” she wails. “I’d rather die.” In adulthood, Natsuko’s still setting her own rules, now brasher, brassier and more abrasive than ever. Yet we gradually discover that she’s been used and callously discarded, as so many women are. Eventually, the distance between the cousin’s outlooks on life narrows significantly, and they band together to save one of their own.

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Tetuko (left) and Matsuko have trouble seeing eye to eye on just about everything.
                                                          ©2016 "Desperate Sunflowers" Film Partners

Kuroki noted that she’d been especially “meticulous” in her direction of two pivotal scenes, one a raucous, rollicking cat fight between Tetsuko and Natsuko that marks a turning point in their relationship; the other a tender, introspective exchange between Tetsuko and her older-but-wiser colleague, Miyuki (a touching Eiko Nagashima).

Will she direct again? With a laugh, Kuroki mentioned that she’d had a bit of trouble readjusting to being an actress after taking 8 months off to shoot and complete Desperate Sunflowers. “When I came back on set, whenever someone called out ‘director!’ I would whip around to respond, without thinking.”

sunflowers m-56Kuroki brandishes her FCCJ honorary membership card.          ©Mance Thompson

Kuroki is not ignorant of the fact that very few women sit in the director’s chair — and even fewer do so in the midst of a successful acting career. This is not a Japanese phenomena; there is clear and consistent resistance worldwide to women of power on film sets. According to two recently reported surveys, only 21% of the directors in Europe are female, and they’re given much smaller budgets than their male counterparts (84% of financing goes to films directed by men). In the US, the facts are even more dire: female filmmakers clock in at an abysmal 9% of the industry (although they account for 28% of indie film directors).

Desperate Sunflowers marks a bold and assured directorial debut. If there’s any justice, Hitomi Kuroki will be able to make her own decision about which path she follows, or whether she wants to change it up and follow both paths.

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The newly minted director with the poster for her film.
                         ©Mance Thompson

Photos by FCCJ except where noted.

sunflowers poster-s
          ©2016 "Desperate Sunflowers" Film Partners


Media Coverage


TV Exposure




GIVE ME THE SUN (Taiyo ga Hoshii)

 May 6, 2016
Q&A guests: Director Zhongyi Ban and narrator Roger Pulvers

For over 20 years, journalist-cum-filmmaker Zhongyi Ban has relentlessly documented the forgotten women who were forced into sexual servitude by the Japanese army during World War II. Returning to his homeland each year from Japan, where’s he been resident since the early 1990s, Ban tracked down over 80 women, recorded their stories, viewed the scars of the atrocities inflicted on them, and even collected money from sympathetic Japanese to cover their medical and other costs.

guang-gmts045Ban is a veteran journalist focusing on Sino-Japan issues.

After several books and prior films on the issue, he has now completed Give Me the Sun, the most comprehensive and compelling portrait of Chinese comfort women yet. Presenting a specially edited version of the film, with English subtitles and narration, at FCCJ, Ban noted, “This film was made with the support of individuals in Japan. Some 730 people contributed to its production, including Roger Pulvers and John Junkerman [both present on the dais]. It took a year and a half to complete, and we’ve been screening the [longer, Japanese version] at least once a week around the country since then — in halls, not yet in theaters — due to the enthusiasm of people to show the film.” He did admit, however, that, “There are a lot of people who disagree with films like this, so it’s quite possible that, down the road, we may receive some backlash from them. So we’re vigilant.”

Pulvers, a noted author, playwright and screenwriter who narrated the film, commented, “My role in this has been very small over these past many years, but it’s been an honor to play even a small part in [Ban’s] immense contribution to history, journalism and the art of film. I think one of the old ladies in the film said something very telling when she remarked that the Chinese government doesn’t want this story to get out either. When you have the collusion — whether it’s a coincidence or not, I don’t know — of the two most powerful countries in Asia, and you have somebody with the courage of [Ban], I am just awed and impressed.”

Junkerman (left) and Pulvers (right) have worked with Ban on his previous films.

Ban’s mission to locate and document the women began after Japan’s first conference on war reparations in 1992 revealed just how widespread the comfort station practice had been. But as late as 1996, only one Chinese comfort woman had publicly identified herself, due to their fear of what Ban terms “political harassment” and of being charged with “enemy collaboration.”

Give Me the Sun (a reference to the squalid, dark conditions in which the women were held) introduces us to a group of seven aging Chinese women whose bodies and minds were irrevocably scarred by the unspeakable brutality they suffered during World War II, when they were often gang-raped for months until their families could ransom them. Some were lured into sexual slavery by locals working for the Japanese Army, who promised them work in factories or hospitals; others were simply abducted and enslaved in the nearest comfort stations.

Chinese scholars have estimated that close to 100,000 women were forcibly taken from their homes during the war, although lack of official documentation has made it difficult for historians to reach an agreement on the exact figure.  The women in Ban’s film were among the measly one-quarter of such victims who actually survived the war. Give Me the Sun retraces the contentious history of the issue and strengthens the women’s heart-breaking accusations by including interviews with a handful of former Japanese soldiers, from an infantryman to a company commander, as well as Chinese recruiters and Japanese comfort women.

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guang-gmts-KM-3728   guang-gmts-KM-3785
                                                                                                                                                            ©Koichi Mori

But Ban admitted that this third film on the issue was prompted mostly by “former Osaka Mayor Toru Hashimoto’s declaration, right here at the Foreign Correspondents’ Club [in May 2013], when he essentially denied the existence of comfort women, calling them prostitutes, as well as the bashing of the Asahi newspaper for their reporting on the comfort women issue. This brought the issue to the attention of the Japanese public, but most of the attention was paid to the South Korean comfort women. Far less is known about the Chinese victims of sexual violence, so I wanted to get exposure for those women. I put out a call for support to make the film, and I immediately got it from people of conscience and justice-seekers in Japan.”

South Korean comfort women have been increasingly in the headlines since December 2015, when Japan agreed to set up a fund to indirectly compensate the victims, but only if there is no further mention of the issue. The “diplomatic deceit,” as one critic termed it, has resulted in continued and widespread protests — as well as to Japan’s nonpayment until certain conditions are met.

Chinese comfort women have been largely ignored in the ongoing war reparations dialogue, primarily due, says one scholar, to China’s ongoing “censorship, dictatorship and disregard for human rights,” and the postwar government’s priority to reconcile with Japan at the expense of all else.

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                                                                                                                                          ©Koichi Mori (left)

Ban visited one of the shared care-homes for comfort women in South Korea, and was impressed by the level of physical, psychological and financial support they received. “In China, on the other hand, these women are living in deep poverty, without any support whatsoever from the government or from Chinese society. Of course China is not a democracy, so it’s not easy for the public to take action.”

To a question concerning the differing circumstances between the South Korean and Chinese victims, Ban noted that, since Korea had been a Japanese colony, “Korean women were seized or recruited and sent to various parts of Asia where Japanese troops were stationed. They were put into established comfort stations, where they were treated as objects and sexually violated.” Of the 80 women Ban had tracked down in China, including 20 Koreans who had been held captive on the border with Russia, “[typically], Japanese troops stationed out in the provinces would seize women from nearby and put them into rooms where they were kept as sexual slaves. Almost none of them had experience in a comfort station. So we can’t really call them ‘comfort women,’ but rather, they were sexual slaves.”

Ban with the English poster for his film.

In 1996, lawsuits for reparations were filed in Japan by four of the women in Give Me the Sun, and in 1998, by 10 more, with the aid of Japanese lawyers. All the suits were dismissed or lost in 2000. “Why did I lose the lawsuit? Where is the truth?” wails one of the victims. “Why doesn’t the Japanese government apologize and compensate?” In the film’s closing moments, shortly before she dies, she vows to become a demon, so she can continue her fight for justice.

“Many of them have died, and others are in the last years of their lives,” Ban emphasized. “But it’s not too late to wish that they could receive better treatment during their final years… They’re desperately poor and desperately need assistance for their medical care. But if they were given a big chunk of money, they wouldn’t know what to do with it. That’s not what they’re after. They’re after a sincere, heartfelt apology.”

Ban remains hopeful that there can be “an investigation into the historical reality of the comfort women situation, and research and education on the issue.” His heroic devotion has earned many admirers, as well as detractors. “Ban has told me over the years that he has enemies on both sides,” said Pulvers, “— that the Chinese and the Japanese are against him in many ways. But I firmly believe that the day will come that he will be rewarded by both sides, given honors by both sides, for this most remarkable work.”

Photos by FCCJ except where noted.

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Human-hans/ Ban Zhongyi ©2016

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