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A VOICELESS CRY (Muon no Sakebi Goe)


A VOICELESS CRY


 March 30, 2016
Q&A guest: Director Masaki Haramura


The announcement for this sneak preview screening began, “You may not have heard of Michio Kimura, but after seeing A Voiceless Cry, his is a voice you will never forget.” As it transpired, no one in the audience had heard of Kimura before; but there was unanimous agreement afterward that his voice should be heard.

Admittedly, hearing his words read by the great Butoh dancer-actor Min Tanaka is one of the film’s highlights. During the Q&A session, director Masaki Haramura explained the serendipity that enabled his vocal presence: “Min Tanaka’s teacher, Tatsumi Hijikata, played the role of a farmer from the Edo period in Shunsuke Ogawa’s final film, The Sundial Carved with a Thousand Years of Notches,” he said. “Mr. Tanaka is himself a farmer, who has been living for decades in Yamanashi Prefecture in the belief that the roots of dance lie in the physical gestures that came out of the agricultural lifestyle. He was eager to go to Yamagata someday, and knowing that Michio Kimura was the man who brought Mr. Ogawa to Yamagata only enhanced his desire to go. When I asked him if he wanted to be a part of this film, he was so excited that he offered to read the entire narration. But we felt that would be too much.”

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Haramura has received multiple Kinema Junpo awards for his work.    ©Koichi Mori

Haramura then offered an eloquent summation of the symbiotic relationship of land to culture: “I believe that Mr. Kimura came to the arts through agriculture,” he said, “and Mr. Tanaka came to agriculture through the arts.”

An elegy for Japan’s agrarian past, when its villages were the lifeblood of the nation, A Voiceless Cry takes us deep inside the world of Michio Kimura, a celebrated poet who is the recipient of a handful of Japan’s most prestigious prizes, but also a rice farmer, an ardent antiwar activist, a devoted family man, a cancer survivor, a patriot and a rebel. Now in his 80th year, he continues to vigorously “cry out on behalf of voiceless farmers everywhere,” demonstrating a mastery of the agrarian idiom, penning powerful free-verse poetry that decries a vision of nation that does not pursue a peaceful future.

Born in the tiny community of Magino, Yamagata Prefecture, Kimura was initially driven to write by the loss of his father during World War II. After high school, he helped form the farmer-poet collective that published the Chikasui (Groundwater) anthology, which continued until 2014. When Japan’s rapid economic growth in the 1950s began draining farming villages for the cheap labor sources they provided, Kimura joined thousands of other farmers on the crews that built Tokyo’s highways and skyscrapers. For a decade, Kimura would spend half the year in construction, half in farming. But he learned that his heart belonged on the farm in Magino.

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Michio Kimura, man of many voices  ©2015 “A Voiceless Cry” Production Committee

A participant-witness to the most important protest movements of the past century, he rallied against the rice-reduction program, the Japan-U.S. Security Treaty, Narita Airport and the Agricultural Basic Act, which sought to implement Big Farming. During China’s Cultural Revolution, Kimura joined a work-study tour; in the 1970s, he went to Wake Island to recover the remains of his uncle and other Japanese soldiers who had died there of starvation. After documentarian Shinsuke Ogawa spent years filming the protest movements against Narita Airport’s construction, Kimura invited him to visit. Ogawa’s group then lived and farmed (and filmed) in Magino for the next 18 years, creating several masterpieces of village life, exploring the convergence of farming, modernization, state violence and rural resistance.

Not surprisingly, the first question asked during the Q&A following the screening of A Voiceless Cry concerned the looming passage of the Trans-Pacific Partnership deal in the Diet. The TPP free trade agreement will impact not only Japan’s 1.5 million farmers and agri-product makers, but also its manufacturers of textiles, industrial goods and automobiles.

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©Koichi Mori

The questioner, a Todai research fellow, began with a brief recap: “The Japanese government has asked all the prefectures to estimate how much money will be lost in agricultural production, and they’re estimating ¥130 - ¥210 billion [$1 - $2 billion] every year… Obviously, this will accelerate the depopulation of the countryside. I’m curious whether people are talking about this in the countryside. What does Kimura-san say about it? How did you decide to not talk about this in your documentary?”

Said Haramura, an award-winning documentarian, “I’ve been working with farming communities for over 30 years as a filmmaker,” he began, “but I’m not a journalist or a scholar, so I don’t feel that I’m in a position to respond directly to [the TPP issue]. I can tell you that Mr. Kimura, although he does have an opinion about TPP, is not involved in social activism directed at TPP.” Explaining that he wanted only to document Kimura’s past and his present activities without injecting his own anti-TPP stance into the story, the director continued, “Of course Mr. Kimura is also against the TPP, and I would say that across the country, people working in the primary sector [agriculture, forestry, fishing, mining] are 90 percent opposed to TPP.”

But he cautioned, “Aside from talking about the importance of agriculture, I think we should be more critical of what TPP does to regional economies. The sustainability of regional economies is critical for Japan’s future.”

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The villagers of Magino protesting in the 1970s. ©2015 “A Voiceless Cry” Production Committee

Another question, from a Yamagata native who said he was struck by the “spiritual richness” of the farmers’ lives, concerned whether Yamagata is different from other prefectures. The director replied: “The area where Mr. Kimura lives is a village where, when the government started its policy in 1970 of gentan — essentially subsidizing farmers for not farming — the locals decided to have alternative means of employment, like working for the agricultural cooperative or the village office… On the surface, it may seem that there is no culture in this hamlet, and when I started the film, I didn’t know what the other villagers were doing. But after meeting and talking with about 30 of Mr. Kimura’s neighbors, gradually I discovered all the treasures of history that they’ve continued to preserve. I feel that, in every place you go in Japan, the more you talk to the locals, the more you realize how these regional communities are thriving, each in their own way.”

“Although he’s an intellectual,” Haramura said in closing, “[Michio Kimura] always says that he’s been writing poetry with his body, not his brain,” “If you read his work from the time he was a teenager until his 80s, the 60 years of history represents not just his own life experiences, but the history of postwar Japan, seen through the eyes of a villager. That was one of the strongest motivations for me to make this film. I feel that the values of Japan’s villages reflect not only our postwar past, but also our future.”

A veritable primer on rice farming, as well as a richly illustrated archival history of Japan’s destructive agrarian policies and the carving out of its villages, A Voiceless Cry is essential viewing for all those who make Japan their home, or their subject.

Photos by Koichi Mori.

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©2015 “A Voiceless Cry” Production Committee

LOWLIFE LOVE (Gesu no Ai)


LOWLIFE LOVE


 March 17, 2016
Q&A guests: Director Eiji Uchida, producer Adam Torel and star Kiyohiko Shibukawa


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The official signing ceremony for submission to the OED.  ©Mance Thompson

For over 1,000 years, the word “gesu” has represented those of the very lowest social rank in Japan, but in this single expression, the stench of scummy, slummy, vulgar, reprobate behavior is also emitted.

Like many other Japanese expressions — mono no aware, umami and omotenashi come to mind — gesu has a level of specificity that cannot easily be communicated in English. Recognizing that its English equivalent, lowlife, falls short, the filmmakers behind Lowlife Love publicly signed a submission to include the Japanese word in the venerable Oxford English Dictionary following their sneak preview event at FCCJ. A calculated publicity stunt? Sure. But why not? It’s no worse than having Sadako throwing out the first ball.

The film’s director, Eiji Uchida, British producer Adam Torel and star Kiyohiko Shibukawa tried to effect serious expressions as the press snapped their OED “signing ceremony,” but they were clearly having too much fun. Their Q&A session had just proven that, despite the lowlifes populating their film, they themselves were class acts.

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Torel, Shibukawa, Uchida  ©Mance Thompson

Uchida based his script on some of the more extreme incidents he had himself experienced and witnessed over a decade in the industry (he’d started his film career as an assistant director to Kitano "Beat" Takeshi). When he was approached by Torel, who had produced Sion Sono’s Land of Hope and Yosuke Fujita’s Fukuchan of Fukufuku Flats, Uchida suggested a blackly comic exposé of Japan’s no-budget film industry, focused around the Shimokitazawa area of Tokyo, perhaps as an act of personal exorcism. The film was shot, as the producer admitted, “for a bit less than $50,000, which is why we shot in my apartment, [Uchida’s] office, the place I always drink, and had a crew of about nine… and we didn’t sleep. But we did pay everyone, so don’t worry.”

Lowlife Love, which drew SRO crowds at its international premiere at the Rotterdam Film Festival in January, and heads to festivals in Taiwan and Italy next month, focuses on Japan’s lowest rung of filmmakers: those who work for nothing, pay nothing to their cast and crew, exploit every possible angle to get their films made (legal and otherwise), and always plead “artistic integrity” as their excuse for failure. Why do they do it? The film makes it clear that love of cinema is one driver; the other is burning ambition. When one considers that there were close to 600 Japanese films released in theaters in 2015, that ambition is perhaps not misplaced — although theatrical release does not equal sustainable incomes for the industry’s bottom-feeders. They’re forced to get other jobs or to churn out porn to survive between “real” gigs, helping sustain the shockingly misogynistic subculture that is the milieu plumbed in Lowlife Love.

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Uchida is an ex-journalist and film industry veteran, unintentionally rocking an Osamu Tezuka look.   ©Mance Thompson

Asked during the Q&A whether he was skewering or exploiting that subculture, the writer-director answered: “The portrayal of women and the perception of misogyny was something that the producer pointed out to me during filming,” said Uchida. “But the reality of the Japanese entertainment industry, and not just the film industry, is that the female talents are placed in a very weak position. The reality is much harsher than in the film.” Added Torel: “It’s a very gesu world in Japan, in the film industry and especially the independent film industry, maybe more than anywhere else. It’s slightly exaggerated in the film, but compared to the West, it’s still behind the times here.”

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Shibukawa is an indie favorite, long overdue for a big-budget, leading-man role.  ©Mance Thompson

In the film, struggling director Tetsuo (Shibukawa) still nurses dreams of success, although in the years since an early indie hit, he’s succeeded only in making himself one of the most hated guys around. (“I’m not unemployed — I’m a film director!” he protests, when his mother complains about supporting him.) His past record still attracts ambitious youngsters to his “acting” courses, and one day, he meets two new students whose talents are ripe for exploitation: Minami, a naïve wannabe actress with serious chops, and Ken, a writer with a brilliant script. Tetsuo enlists the help of an unsavory producer (played with panache by Denden), but their efforts to get a film made are undercut by the desperate, unrelenting degeneracy of their world.

Is it a world that extends beyond the no-budget scene? In a recent Japan Times article about the entertainment industry travails of SMAP and Becky, Mark Schilling called Lowlife Love “required viewing” and wrote, “[it] confirms what I have known for years: Japanese show business can be brutal to the weak or clueless. They end up used and discarded, like so many human Kleenexes.”

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Torel's producing slate is all over the stylistic map, but he and Uchida are already in preproducion on Animal Trail©Mance Thompson

During the Q&A, Uchida referenced the problems caused by Japan’s all-powerful talent agencies, which control not only the careers but also the lives of their stars. He mentioned that just that morning, he’d been admonished by a talent manager for contacting an actor directly. “So often, projects are developed here without any regard whatsoever for what’s needed,” said the director. “I really hope a time will come when Japanese actors can make their own decisions about what projects they want to be involved in.”

Indie stalwart Shibukawa, who won Best Actor awards last year for his role as an indie filmmaker in Obon Brothers (a director who is as sweet and selfless as his Lowlife character is slimy), admitted he’d been contacted directly by Uchida about the script. “He was so passionate about it,” he said, “I decided right away that I wanted to be in the film, even before reading the script.” A regular in roles for Takashi Miike, Gakuryu Ishii and Toshiaki Toyoda, Shibukawa has appeared in over 60 films, but remains woefully underrepresented in big-budget releases (he does have a brief but indelible role in Miike’s upcoming Terra Formars).


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That OED submission for gesu. Stay tuned.   ©Mance Thompson

Naturally, the trio was queried about their own lowlife experiences in the industry, but their stories were disappointingly tame, compared to those in their film. Recalled Uchida: “This happened when I just started making films. We had a wrap party, and about 30 of us piled into a room. When it was over, the producer was nowhere to be found, and I got stuck with the bill. That’s not an uncommon occurrence.” Said Torel: “There’s a producer I know, who shall remain nameless, who spends all his time looking for actresses on Facebook, and telling them that if they meet him for drinks, they have a good chance of being in a big director’s film. And he takes them out every night, to very dodgy places. He’s not a nice guy.”

Shibukawa remembered, “There was an actor on a shoot who was way more powerful than the director. His character was supposed to be killed by me, very quickly. But he just wouldn’t die. He kept insisting that he wouldn’t die that easily.” [Those who attended our January screening of The Actor will recognize this very scene from the film.]

Photos by Mance Thompson and Koichi Mori.

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Kanji Furutachi (in mask) drops by to say howdy. He plays a far more successful director
than Shibukawa in the film, and the two have an epic fistfight.  ©Koichi Mori



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©2016 Three Window Films

Media Coverage

 

WHILE THE WOMEN ARE SLEEPING (Onna ga Nemuru Toki)


WHILE THE WOMEN ARE SLEEPING


 February 24, 2016
Q&A guests: Producer Yukie Kito and stars Shioli Kutsuna,
Sayuri Oyamada, Makiko Watanabe


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The female stars had a lot to say about working with Wang on his first Japanese production.

As its title suggests, the male gaze is strong in Wayne Wang’s While the Women Are Sleeping, a moody, mysterious meditation on voyeurism, obsession and the painful act of creating. A cross between Nabokov’s Lolita and François Ozon’s Swimming Pool, it is both hypnotizing and unnerving, with an ending that invites a range of interpretations.

The Hong Kong-born American director, acclaimed for such films as Smoke, Joy Luck Club and Maid in Manhattan, marks his first-ever Japanese production with an adaptation of the eponymous short story by Spanish novelist Javier Marías. Working with producer Yukie Kito, his collaborator on two previous titles, Wang attracted a stellar cast to the project, including Hidetoshi Nishijima and “Beat” Takeshi Kitano, playing his first lead role for another director in 12 years.

Just 10 days after the world premiere at the Berlin Film Festival, Kito brought the three non-male stars of the film to FCCJ, and presided over a post-screening Q&A session that she dubbed While the Women Are Talking. The session was in English, allowing ample time for each of the four to respond to a range of questions.

Highlights of the session are below, but first, a brief recap of the story:

Novelist Kenji Shimizu (Nishijima) has a bad case of writer’s block. His wife, Aya (Oyamada) is a successful editor who sympathizes, but she’s also given him an ultimatum: write or get a real job. On a one-week vacation together in Izu, Kenji hangs out in their beautiful seaside hotel while Aya assists a client staying nearby. At the pool on Day 1, Kenji’s attention is drawn to a beefy older man, Sahara (Takeshi), and a comely young lass, Miki (Kutsuna), obviously intimate, but surely not father and daughter.

Kenji can’t sleep; neither can Sahara. Late the next night, they meet by chance at the pool, and Sahara admits he’s been shooting Miki as she sleeps for the past 10 years — and then, overwriting the footage. “I want to have a record of her last day,” he says. But he’s certain that she will betray him, and “I’d rather kill her than let my love die!”

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Clockwise from top left: Kutsuna, Oyamada, Kito (©Mance Thompson), Watanabe

 Growing evermore intrigued, Kenji finds himself following the couple into town, then peeping into their room and by Day 4, actually entering it. The odd owner of a rundown restaurant where they tryst (Lily Franky) hints about dark dealings in Sahara and Miki’s past, feeding Kenji’s obsession further. Then one night, Miki comes to him, and shortly after, disappears. Aya has apparently taken up with her client, or perhaps she’s succumbing to Sahara’s seductions. By Day 5, the only thing that is clear is that either Kenji is losing his mind, or the world around him has gone mad.

Question: How did the project come about? Did Wayne read the story, acquire the rights and come to you with the idea of relocating the story to Japan?

Yukie Kito: First he was thinking of doing the film as written, which is, set in Spain and written in English. But as he was developing it, he decided that he wanted to make a film in Asia. So he came to me and I said, “If there’s any Japanese element, I could be helpful. Otherwise, there’s no point in having me.” And he said he wanted to make a film with one Japanese couple. We started that way, and then he said he wanted to make it completely in Japan. So I said, “There’s only one actor we can go to: Beat Takeshi.” Knowing the chances were quite slim, we tried, it worked and here we are.

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Q: Great movie. What actually happened, and is that girl dead? I’d just like some clarification. We have a missing person, presumed dead. I’d like to know who it is.

Shioli Kutsuna (the missing girl): It may be disappointing, but there are no right answers to how you read this film. As Wayne was continually saying, he did not want to push people to read the film in only one way. I think how you read it depends on you.  

Q: So are you dead, or not?

Kutsuna: Personally, I don’t even think Sahara and Miki exist. At the time, I didn’t think that… but I don’t want to push my personal opinion on you.

Kito: As Wayne and Takeshi-san have been saying in interviews, there are multiple ways to interpret this film. When I was making the film, I thought she was dead. Now I don’t think so.

Sayuri Oyamada (the novelist’s wife): My personal opinion is that she’s still alive. But it’s up to the audience.

Makiko Watanabe (the novelist’s wife’s friend, who works at the seaside hotel): I want to say that it’s up to your imagination. But as a hotel employee, I cannot divulge too much about our guests.

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Kutsuna grew up in Australia, but started her career in Japan ©Mance Thompson

Q: When it’s a film made by a Hong Kong-born American director, based on a short story by a Spanish writer, set in Japan, it begs the question: Do you think there’s anything in the story that resonates as Japanese, or is this a case of plonking a story down in Japan that doesn’t really fit?

Kito: When I started working on this project, it was completely Spanish. Screenwriter Mami Sunada changed it into Japanese. While we were going back and forth, I realized Wayne has real respect for Japan, not superficially, but emotionally. I think he really respected the writer. But I can’t see it objectively, to be honest. I wonder whether the actors felt the screenplay seemed a little foreign, or if it felt Japanese when they first read it?

Kutsuna: I didn’t think it felt too foreign. I heard that Wayne included specific things to make it feel more Japanese, like the scene where Sahara shaves the hair on the back of Miki’s neck. For Western cultures, that might not be sexy, but for Japanese, due to the geisha culture, it is.

Oyamada: I think it had a Japanese feeling. The Japanese actors and actresses understood the story, and even though the original is Spanish, the script was in Japanese. Acting is always the same, coming from inside of us, from emotions.

Watanabe: I can’t compare the Japanese and Spanish scripts; I only saw the Japanese one, and I had to believe in it. The shooting location was Japan, the actors were Japanese. All those elements made it Japanese. If there are any Spanish elements, they come from human nature.

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Oyamada has worked with Japan's leading auteurs, but is now based in New York.     (right photo: ©Mance Thompson)

Q: How does a non-Japanese-speaking director get the proper line reading? Even if you hire the best actors, you can’t tell. How did it work? Tell me a little about Wayne Wang’s style.

Kutsuna: I was wondering how the communication between us would be. We were all able to do it smoothly. We all speak English, so I guess it was comfortable for him to be working with actors who understood English. Before I went to set, I asked Yukie-san what Wayne was looking for in a good take. She told me that he can sense takes that are good. He really communicates, and he pushes your creativity past your limits. He was very patient and very cooperative with the actors. Language wasn’t the most important tool for us to communicate.

Kito: Takeshi-san doesn’t speak English, but he understands it well. He’s as charming on set as you imagine, and he would say interesting things in English to make us laugh. As a producer, I had to sign off on language, while Wayne watched the emotions of the performance. If someone skipped a line, it was my job to catch that, so it was a collaboration.

Oyamada: I met Wayne for the first time in Los Angeles, and we talked about the script and my character a lot. Also, on the set, we talked about story and character. It had a really good effect on me. Because the Japanese film industry is often so rushed, that we can’t talk. I could talk a lot with him, and everyone knows he’s a great, great director, not a typical Hollywood director at all, so artistic. I really treasured this experience.

Watanabe: My scenes were short. I’m really envious that these two spent so much time with him. During the costume fitting, I was talking with him about my character. Even though my English isn’t so great, within 5 minutes, I thought, this will be fine. I’m always desperate to have this type of communication with my directors. But language isn’t as important as being able to agree on things. We had a lot of bilingual crew members, and everyone was working extra hard to bring Wayne’s vision to fruition. It was a really special set.

makiko mance 41Veteran actress Watanabe has a devoted overseas fanbase.  ©Mance Thompson

Q: Javier Marias is very knowledgeable about cinema, a famous and prominent film critic. He’s not particularly happy with previous adaptations of his work. Was he involved in the creation of the film, and did you get any feedback afterward?

Kito: He asked for a DVD, I sent it to him and it’s on the way. Actually, he wrote [the short story on which the film is based] 20 years ago, and I heard that he felt kind of detached from the material for a while. But when the film got into Berlin, he started to pay a little more attention and he asked for a DVD. So I was happy. Hopefully, he’ll like it.

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©Mance Thompson

Q: I was very impressed by the performances of all the cast members, they were great. It’s a powerful cast. How and why did you assemble them?

Kito: We were looking for new talent, and Wayne and I met so many young actresses. Then I heard that Shioli wanted to meet us, and I told him “She’s too experienced. I know she’s young, but we’re looking for new talent.” [Japanese-Australian Kutsuna has already won three newcomer awards, and appeared in many films.] But it was suggested that they meet for tea, and since she speaks English, I thought it would be good for Wayne to meet her. She came on her day off from a shoot in Wakayama, and I thought immediately, “Oh my god, she’s Miki.” And Wayne felt the same. We also met so many actresses for the part of Aya, and had a hard time. I knew Sayuri, and reached out to her in New York [where the actress has been based since 2010]. She said, “I’m going to LA next weekend,” and Wayne was going to be there, so they could meet. That’s how we cast her. I met Makiko in Hong Kong a few years ago, when she won Best Supporting Actress at the Asian Film Awards [for Capturing Dad], and I was looking for a chance to work with her. I went to her, begged her, and she said OK.

When Wayne was thinking of making the film into an Asian story with the younger couple being Japanese, I said, “I can think of only one actor for the part of Kenji: Hidetoshi Nishijima.” Wayne said, “Oh, let’s go with him!” I said, “You don’t know him! How can you just decide like that?” He said, “I know him from the film Cut.” So I introduced them and they completely hit it off. Nishijima-san even went to Hong Kong to spend some time with Wayne and they created the character of Kenji together. I started worrying about what would happen if I couldn’t raise financing. But fortunately, all the detailed conversation wasn’t wasted.

[As for Beat Takeshi], there was only one person we could think of who would make even Javier Marias happy. Takeshi-san is so respected in Europe, and Javier Marias said yes to him. So we went to Takeshi-san, thinking it wouldn’t happen. But miraculously, the timing and material were right.

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©Mance Thompson

Q: Congratulations on a great film. It’s the second time I’ve seen it, since I watched it in Berlin a few days ago. What was the biggest challenge for the actresses? Sexuality in Japanese cinema is often a taboo; was that a challenge for you?

Kutsuna: When I was having tea with Wayne, as Yukie-san mentioned, and I started thinking that I might have a chance to do the role, all I could think about was, “Wow, I need to lose weight.” [Sahara and Miki] are a very odd couple. Being Takeshi-san’s girlfriend, with our ages so far apart, I thought I had to have a good relationship with him and communicate as much as possible on set so that we appeared comfortable with each other. But Takeshi-san does not really speak much on set. The first scene we did together, which wasn’t actually in the final film, was a scene where we were trying to catch butterflies with these nets. It was a strange, unusual scene. We weren’t talking, but he was apparently catching a lot of bugs in his childhood, and he was very good at it. He caught a lot of butterflies. Afterward, I felt comfortable around him, and allowed him to take our scenes wherever they had to go. I built a relationship with Takeshi-san and felt confident, and in a way, kind of vulnerable, because Miki is at the stage where she wants her own freedom after being with this man who has locked her up in cages and taught her only his world.

Oyamada: As you know, I’m an actress, so I just do [explicit scenes] with passion. When I first met Wayne, we talked a lot about the sexuality, and he asked me whether I could get nude in front of the camera. So I said, “Okay.” But we talked a lot about those scenes. I trusted him. Also, I’ve worked with Nishijima-san [with whom she has several love scenes] for a long time, and we have mutual friends. I was so relaxed in front of him, and in front of the camera. So I just did it.

Photos by Mance Thompson and FCCJ.

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©2016 wtwas production committee

Media Coverage

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.”

coi5mt
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.”

coi26mt©Mance Thompson

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


actor QA 7   actor QA 3
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.

   actor kameoka   actor at a bar
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.”

actor QA 2   actor QA 8
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

 

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