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TIFF Collaboration and Special KAKEKOMI Screening


SPECIAL SCREENING of Kakekomi and
Q&A in collaboration with TIFF


 October 9, 2015
Q&A guests: Director Masato Harada, legendary actress Kirin Kiki,
Japan Now advisor Kohei Ando and TIFF Director General Yasushi Shiina


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Ando, Harada and Shiina listen as Kiki declares she just "tagged along with the director" for the event.

Anyone who has attended FCCJ’s screenings over the past eight years knows that our emphasis has been on introducing Japanese films and filmmakers to foreign audiences through the Tokyo-based journalists, critics, festival programmers and cinephiles who join us for our events. We were thus extremely gratified to hear that the 28th Tokyo International Film Festival (TIFF), running from October 22 - 31 in Roppongi and Shinjuku, would debut not one, but two new sections devoted to Japanese film: Japan Now and Japanese Classics.

When the full lineup was announced on September 29, the news was even better: three Japanese titles had made it into the main Competition section, and there were to be over 50 more English-subtitled films by a range of Japanese directors at the festival, from the likes of Akira Kurosawa and Kon Ichikawa (Classics) to Hirokazu Kore-eda and Sion Sono (Now) to Kohei Oguri and Koji Fukada (Competition), along with a 10-title tribute to Ken Takakura,

Perhaps most exciting of all, TIFF announced that it had selected Masato Harada as its inaugural Director in Focus, and unveiled what amounts to the first mini-retrospective of his work. Over a 30-year career, Harada has created a range of compelling films that are both social criticisms and world-class entertainments, and he is one of a small handful of Japanese who are comfortable directing overseas, as well.

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Ando and Harada share a laugh; Harada listens to Kiki describe his skill.

The Film Committee has had the honor of screening three of Harada’s recent films, and we were thrilled to be able to bring his early summer blockbuster, Kakekomi, to the club for an English-subbed encore.

Before the screening, we welcomed TIFF Director General Yasushi Shiina, TIFF Programming Advisor Kohei Ando, Harada and legendary actress Kirin Kiki — who won the Japan Academy Award for her titular role in Harada’s 2012 Chronicle of My Mother and also stars in Kakekomi — to discuss the festival’s new emphasis on local cinema.

Noting that there are over 500 Japanese films released every year in Japan, Shiina said, “This is my third year as the director of TIFF, and I’ve been wondering how best to introduce Japanese films and filmmakers to the world. We wanted to create a selection that would allow visitors to TIFF to see the full spectrum of films, to see what’s happening in the industry right now. We also wanted to focus on getting more recognition for Japanese filmmakers in overseas markets, and that’s why we created the two new sections, Japan Now and Japanese Classics. We look forward to welcoming audiences from as many countries as possible.”

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Kohei Ando, a filmmaker, producer and popular figure on the international film scene, was selected as the first programming advisor for the Japan Now section. He noted: “People often say that if you see three films from one country, you can learn a lot about that country. The concept of Japan Now is to help you learn more about Japan. We narrowed our selection to 11 films, one of which is a family story from maestro Yoji Yamada and another of which is from Hirokazu Kore-eda, also about a contemporary family. If you watch just these two films, you’ll have an understanding of the diversity of Japanese families today.”

“We decided to focus on Mr. Harada as the first Director in Focus,” Ando continued, “because we believe he deserves increased international recognition as a master filmmaker, and we also hope Japanese audiences will be reminded of his extraordinary talent.”

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Harada and Kiki have collaborated on only two films; here's hoping they double that number.

Harada said, “I’m not sure whether I belong to Japan Now or Japanese Classics (much laughter), but I’m honored to be selected and to show these five films. The last time I had a film shown at TIFF was in the Competition section 22 years ago, with Painted Desert. I’m very happy to bring my work to a festival in my own country, and I look forward to meeting audience members from all over the world.”

After joking that she had just “tagged along with Mr. Harada,” Kirin Kiki got more serious. “Mr. Harada is so enthusiastic about the works of other directors,” she said, “he’s always mentioning certain scenes in films by Kurosawa, Ozu and Kihachi Okamoto with such passion and enthusiasm, it’s one of his charms as a director. I see him trying to be an even better filmmaker than these masters, sometimes succeeding, sometimes not. But he’s very, very skilled, and… yahari, umai! (he’s wonderful!).”

The Director in Focus retrospective will feature English-subtitled screenings of Harada’s Kamikaze Taxi (1994), Climber’s High (2008), Chronicle of My Mother (2012), Kakekomi (2015) and The Emperor in August (2015). How did Ando and Harada arrive at this selection? “It’s simple,” Harada explained. “These five films were all rejected by the Cannes Film Festival.”

Ando interjected, “It’s really Cannes’ loss — we beat them this year by bringing these five films to TIFF.”

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Later in the evening, following the screening of Kakekomi, Harada’s first-ever jidaigeki period piece, the director and his star appeared for a Q&A session that was one of the most relaxed and intimate we have ever hosted. Speaking in English throughout (except when making remarks directly to Kiki), Harada fielded questions on a range of subjects, beginning with the reception of his films overseas.

He noted that audiences in Canada and Malaysia had laughed wildly over Kakekomi’s honey enema scene, and applauded when one of the antagonists is killed, a real difference from the more reserved Japanese audiences. He then revealed that he thinks not only about how his films will be received internationally while he’s directing them, but that he even considers how certain lines of dialogue will play in the subtitles. For Kakekomi, he changed character names from the original source novel so they would be more easily rendered in the subtitles.

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Kiki stayed on for the Q&A after the screening, and kept everyone in stitches, including
interpreter Mihoko Imai.

Kiki mentioned that she and Harada had argued rather extensively about certain casting decisions, but that she feels “completely comfortable” working with him, and was pleased that he could quickly make decisions about suggestions she would make. Harada countered, “It’s true that everyone was afraid of Kiki-san on set, but with her, there’s never a dull moment. Even though she complained about the casting, she can really create an energized atmosphere. I highly respect when she makes suggestions. She can come up with fabulous creative ideas, although I’m not sure she would make a good casting director.”

Both director and star continued to affectionately thrust and parry. “I think he’s a masterful, masterful director,” said Kiki. “But I can’t help complaining a bit. I don’t want to compare his work with other auteurs, but it is definitely worthy of more international praise. However, I think he should be more relentless in his perfection of small details. And he needs to put more of himself into his films. When he’s finally able to do that, I think we’ll see something different. He’s a world-class director now, but if he makes an effort to do what I’m suggesting, he’ll be even greater.”

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Harada’s 23 films over the past 30 years have addressed a wide range of subjects — what he terms “Hawksian relationship dramas” in an “old-school style”— that are perhaps not as embraceable by younger generations as the more gonzo style of Japanese genre directors who have found overseas followings. But his work is ripe for rediscovery.

And fortunately, we can expect it to continue. Harada hinted that another collaboration with Kirin Kiki is sure to occur: “I have something in mind, which I can’t announce yet. It’s a historical piece and the character I have in mind for Kiki-san is someone that no one would ever imagine...”

Photos by Koichi Mori and FCCJ.

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©2015 Shochiku

Media Coverage

ARTIST OF FASTING (Danjiki Geinin)


ARTIST OF FASTING


 September 24, 2015
Q&A guests: Writer-director Masao Adachi, historian Inuhiko Yomota and poet Gozo Yoshimasu


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Three good friends; three comrades united in the belief that art is a form of protest.

It’s not often that the Film Committee is able to host what amounts to the Japanese premiere of a brand new work, but such was the case with our screening of Artist of Fasting. The FCCJ audience also had the privilege of welcoming not only the director, Masao Adachi — who had missed the world premiere in South Korea a few weeks earlier — but also two of his famous friends, poet Gozo Yoshimasu and cultural historian Inuhiko Yomota.

The Q&A session began with a riveting live performance of a poem by Yoshimasu that was an extension of one that is memorably performed in the film. The renowned poet noted that, “My participation and collaboration with Mr. Adachi was with the utmost respect for a filmmaker of our generation, one of the best filmmakers of our generation, and this allowed me to extend my poetry to the film.”

Commissioned and coproduced by the Asian Arts Theatre of Gwangju, South Korea, Adachi’s film had debuted at AAT to great acclaim on September 11. But as writer William Andrews explained on his blogsite: “Appropriately for a venue hosting an Adachi work, Gwangju was also the site of a notorious student uprising in May 1980 in which 600 people were killed by the army. Adachi famously has no passport and cannot travel abroad anymore. While Gwangju is much closer than Lebanon, he still [wasn’t] able to attend the screening in person.”

Arguably the most radical filmmaker in Japanese history, Adachi launched his career in politicized pink films in the 1960s, collaborated with the likes of Nagisa Oshima and Koji Wakamatsu and achieved global renown for such works as AKA: Serial Killer in 1969 before he chose to focus on the fight for Palestinian independence. From the early 1970s, he spent 28 years in Lebanon as a member of Fusako Shigenobu’s Japanese Red Army, culminating in a 3-year term in the notorious Roumieh Prison and deportation back to Japan in 2000.

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Yoshimasu and Yomota watched the film for the first time with FCCJ's audience.

Artist of Fasting is just the second film Adachi has made since his return. A loose adaptation of Franz Kafka’s 1922 short story Ein Hungerkünstler (A Hunger Artist) about “the last remaining means of resistance: fasting,” the director proves his youthful instincts for provocation and transgression have not dimmed.

In the beautifully lensed (by renowned cinematographer Yutaka Yamazaki) and impressively designed (by legendary photographer Nobuyoshi Araki) Artist of Fasting, a nameless man in white appears from nowhere and sits down on a busy shopping street. A boy soon asks, “Mister, what are you doing?” Receiving no answer, he takes a photo and uploads it to the internet. The sitting man’s unearned celebrity grows, and his silence is interpreted differently by every passerby and onlooker that begins to gather. People bring cash (later grabbed by the yakuza) and food (which the homeless descend upon). The Street Performers’ Association force him to join them; monks begin to pray at his side, seeking answers; suicidal youths feel soothed in his presence; the press wants to know if he’s a victim of Abenomics. Eventually, the man is caged and given an army guard.

In inimitable Adachi style, the tale unfolds around the faster’s “performance,” but also comprises abrupt avant-garde interludes (scenes of Imperial Japanese and ISIS torture), as well as archival footage of victims of aggression (Ainu, Auschwitz). There are rapes, murders, necrophilia, group seppuku, nude dancing, enormous phalluses, feces eating. In short, Artist of Fasting encompasses every conceivable ill of modern society.

Asked why he’d chosen the story, Adachi explained: “Among the many works of Kafka that are open to interpretation, I like A Hunger Artist very much because it’s a satirical, humorous tale that reminds me of rakugo. Of course it’s not an easy kind of humor, and we can’t just laugh it away. But facing the situation in 2015 today, I felt that it was the type of story that could be made into a film, and that I could [be the one] to do it. I had a lot of fun making it.”

Yoshimasu noted that, “Kafka was in a sanatorium, dying of TB, when he was editing this story. And I feel as if, in an invisible way, Kafka’s spirit was in this film.”

Agreeing with one audience member that the film has no easy interpretation, Yomota likened its protagonist to the subject of Beatles song Fool on the Hill, and its black humor to Monty Python’s. But he also expressed his gratitude to Adachi for shining a spotlight on serious issues. “In Tokyo exhibitions in the

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previous century,” he said, “there was something called the Humanity Pavilion. Like in a zoo, they exhibited Japanese ethnic minorities, such as Ainu and Okinawans, and they were regarded as barbarians, uncivilized, who had to be naturalized to become real Japanese. It’s a scandal, and it’s a great thing that Adachi has now depicted this case in our contemporary context. It’s important to remember that, 100 years ago, the Japanese government’s cultural policy was to treat racial minorities like animals in a zoo.”

Over the past decade — but particularly over the four years since the triple tragedies on March 11, 2011 — the boundaries between art and social activism have collapsed in Japan. Today’s artists are expected to be more politically active, and artist-activists have been emboldened to take a stand and join (or lead) the ongoing public protests for the first time since the 1960s. 

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Masao Adachi has been an activist-artist for over 50 years.

Asked whether he sees the position of the artist as freer today than in the past, Adachi answered, “People say that history always repeats, but my feeling is that it will never be as bad as in the past. There are, of course, unbelievable things happening today. But I do think they all happen so we can keep going forward. As you know, I’ve been on business overseas for a long time [his preferred euphemism for time spent in Lebanon], and I do believe that revolution and cinema are one and the same. [scattered applause] That means that the work of the artist and the terrorist are one and the same, and we still have a lot to do.”

Yomota summarized succinctly: “The journalist-Hollywood filmmaker Samuel Fuller told me that optimism always defeats pessimism.”

Photos by FCCJ.

Artist of Fasting
©2015 A Fasting Artist Production Committee

 

Media Coverage

CHIGASAKI STORY (Sanpaku Yokka 5-ji no Kane)


CHIGASAKI STORY


 September 17, 2015
Q&A guests: Director Takuya Misawa and producer-star Kiki Sugino


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The producer and director share one of many laughs during the Q&A session.

After playing at major film festivals around the globe for the past 10 months, scooping up the Best Screenplay Award in the Future Forward Section of the Beijing Film Festival, and earning accolades for being such a congenial homage to Yasujiro Ozu, Chigasaki Story finally arrived at FCCJ for a sneak preview ahead of its theatrical debut in Tokyo over the weekend.

Our announcement had trumpeted: “There’s nothing like an effervescent comedy of manners to cure the late-summer blahs… Inspired both visually and musically by Yasujiro Ozu (with a little Woody Allen thrown in), the tale is infused with light, bright sentiments and low-key mellow-drama, anchored by a charming young cast.”

We also mentioned that Chigasaki Story is set in the beautiful 115-year-old Chigasaki Inn near Shonan Beach, the actual retreat where Ozu wrote some of his greatest works, including Late Spring (1949), Early Summer (1951) and the masterpiece Tokyo Story (1953). And we highlighted the director’s use of frames-within-frames and “pillow shot” interludes eliding time, favorite Ozu devices.

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Misawa had assisted Sugino on two prior films, the extent of his apprenticeship before taking the directorial reigns himself.

So there were some surprises in store during the Q&A session after the screening, when first-time feature director Takuya Misawa was asked whether he’d planned to pay homage to the classic master from the beginning. “We didn’t actually set out to make a story about the Chigasaki Inn,” he admitted. “That only came about later in the production process. The original script stipulated ‘an inn’ for the location, and it wasn’t until we went location hunting and found the Chigasaki Inn, which luckily gave us the okay to shoot, that we made changes to the script so it was set there.”

Then came the kicker: “I wasn’t necessarily trying to pay homage to Ozu while we were shooting. But during the editing process, I started feeling that it seemed a bit like an Ozu film. So I made some changes to certain scenes to improve [the similarities], but without deconstructing what I set out to do. Some of the ‘pillow’ scenic shots were filmed during post-production.”

A young Japanese man in the audience noted that he found the film to be more like an Eric Rohmer or a Woody Allen work, and Misawa was pleased: “One of my favorite directors is Woody Allen, especially the way his characters aren’t quite what they seem.”

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Misawa gave his producer one of the juiciest roles in the film,
and she nailed it. Bottom photo ©Mance Thompson

While the maturity of his vision belies his age and experience — Misawa is still a student at the Japan Institute of the Moving Image, the film school begun by Shohei Imamura — Chigasaki Story does focus almost exclusively on the under-30 set. Innkeeper Risa, who’s inherited a traditional guesthouse from her parents, is hosting a group of archaeology students led by Prof. Kondo, and awaiting the arrival of her former airline colleagues Karin (a terrific Ena Koshino) and Maki (a deliciously uptight Sugino). They’re coming to attend Risa’s wedding party, which is being held several weeks after the actual wedding in Hawaii. Risa’s staff includes the shy student Tomoharu, who immediately attracts the attentions of the flirty, long-legged Karin. Tomoharu is also the object of fellow student Ayako’s secret affections, and he ping-pongs between the two women without noticing their increasing jealousy. Maki begins her own seduction of Prof. Kondo, with whom she had studied eight years earlier, but the professor has someone else in mind. The friendships, feuds and flirtations, fueled by drink, finally erupt on the eve of Risa’s Hawaiian-themed wedding party.

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As critic Derek Elley earlier noted, “This type of film is much more difficult to pull off than it seems, but Misawa shows a remarkable assurance in both writing and direction, helped by an expertly picked cast.” He was also helped by Wa Entertainment, a boutique production-distribution company that hired him as an intern in 2012. He served as Sugino’s producing assistant on the Koji Fukada comedy Au Revoir l’Ete (which we screened at FCCJ in January 2014), and then served as her assistant director when she made her Indonesia-set film Taksu last year.

Even in Japan’s independent film community, a chance like that given to Misawa is exceedingly uncommon. As Sugino explained, “I’ve been working as a producer, as well as acting, since I was 25, and I often met with cynical comments and attitudes from people in the industry. So I really wanted to break through that wall. Because I think, if there’s something you want to do, why not do it? Why not take on the challenge? I really relish working with young people who have the passion and the energy to do that.”

Misawa described being given just three requirements for his script — summer holiday, beach, students gathering — and Sugino interjected, “ This all started because we [Wa Entertainment] really wanted to do something for him. We provided the framing for the project, but as the executive producer, I wanted him to bring as much of himself into the film as possible, to give it his own flair.”

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Wa Entertainment head Sousuke Ono (in red tie) and Chigasaki actress Juri Fukushima
(to his left) join Sugino and others in the bar following the event. ©Mance Thompson

After an audience member praised him for the film’s dialogue, Misawa admitted that he’s always eavesdropping on conversations in family restaurants, since they’re a good source of chit-chat, and he paid tribute to the improvisatory skills of his actors, hinting that several of the scenes were heavily ad libbed.
 
As for the catchy score, he explained: “The music came about during post-production. I did try matching the visuals with classical music, but I ultimately chose to use jazz, which Woody Allen does. He uses ragtime, which arrived early in jazz history. It came on the scene around the time that the Chigasaki Inn started business, and I thought that was relevant, as well.”

After what will surely be a successful theatrical run for Chigasaki Story, Misawa’s next milestone will be film school graduation next spring, but he is already working on several new scripts. It’s not often that a first feature feels like a mid-career high mark, and we can’t wait to see what he directs next.

As for Sugino, who has won Best Actress awards in Japan and a 2014 Rising Director Award at the Busan Film Festival, as well as been the focus of special sections devoted to her work at the 2011 Tokyo International Film Festival and the 2013 Taipei Film Festival, she is eager to continue having it all. She has finished six projects in the past 18 months, including acting in upcoming films from Kiyoshi Sasabe and Ronan Girre. “I really don’t have a favorite genre,” say Sugino. “I want to try all types of films and roles, whether they be quiet and nice, or angry and hysterical. And I want to work with people from many other countries as well.” International directors, take note!

  Photos by Mance Thompson and FCCJ.

Chigasaki poster
©2015 wa entertainment, inc.

Media Coverage

THE EMPEROR IN AUGUST (Nihon no Ichiban Nagai Hi)


THE EMPEROR IN AUGUST


 August 3, 2015
Q&A guests: Director Masato Harada and star Koji Yakusho


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Koji Yakusho and Masato Harada each mark their fourth appearance at FCCJ,
as well as their 20th year working together. The award-winning team behind 2012’s
Chronicle of My Mother, they first collaborated on the unforgettable Kamikaze Taxi in 1995.

FCCJ’s SRO audience wasted no time in drawing connections between the subject matter of Masato Harada’s new film The Emperor in August, which recounts the four months leading up to Emperor Hirohito’s historic broadcast announcing Japan’s surrender on Aug. 15, 1945, and the current state of affairs in Japan.

In the lengthy and occasionally allegorical Q&A session following the screening, Harada and his star, Koji Yakusho, chose their words carefully, but did not mince them.  

Queried about the film’s focus on the indecisiveness of Prime Minister Suzuki’s cabinet (which stalled so long over the language of surrender following the Potsdam Declaration, that it prompted the US to drop bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki), Harada noted: “If we look at the Abe administration dealing with issues like the new national stadium, it can seem that indecisiveness is a national trait.”

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Harada's research into the film's events made him an expert. He insists that he is neither rightwing nor leftwing. "I am impartial."

Yakusho, responding to a question about the film’s appeal overseas, said: “This is a film about how Japan ended the war. But it has a simple message that we can all understand: It is easy to start a war, but it is very, very difficult to end one.”

Harada emphasized, “I do want people outside Japan to see the film… I’m sure many of you have read Herbert Bix’s Hirohito and the Making of Modern Japan, but unfortunately, it distorts the emperor’s image based on leftist ideology. I’m not a rightist, but I do think facts should not be overruled by ideology.” (Bix’s 2001 Pulitzer Prize-winning work found Hirohito complicit in Japan’s “fever of territorial expansion and war,” and inflamed an ongoing debate about the extent to which he had ruled or simply reigned.)

Harada was asked what he thinks of the imperial system in general. “At the time of the war,” he responded, “the emperor was considered the head of the house, the head of the family, and I feel this type of thinking was able to save Japan and end the war. If a politician like Prince Konoe or General Tojo had [tried to issue] the decision, Japan would not have survived.”

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Yakusho stressed the ambivalence his character felt: "If you don't feel it too, then I've failed as an actor."

FCCJ President James Simms praised The Emperor in August for its “richly detailed characters and its ambivalence,” and drew laughter for his comment about the “absurdity of people trying to do a coup on bicycles” (as the rebel soldiers attempt in the film). But he also voiced a commonly held view by the international community regarding Japanese resistance to critical self-evaluation at this time of year: “I’ve been here for about 20 years,” said Simms, “and it’s always kind of heavy to be here in August, because it seems like a lot of the television dramas and documentaries and movies are sort of one-sided. Japan is always a victim. We don’t see multiple viewpoints, just Japan the victim and not, for lack of a better word, a perpetrator. Higaisha, kagaisha. In your view, how do you see Japan in August?”

Harada agreed. “I feel the war should never be portrayed from the standpoint of the victim only. There should be a balance with the wartime atrocities.” He recalled that he grew up watching American films, and “until I was about 10 years old, I was always on the side of the Allies. After that, I started learning Japanese history.”

He continued, “There’s a scene in the film, where the emperor is walking in the garden, lamenting how the war has been going on for 15 years, as long as the Onin War. But actually, 15 years prior to this is when the Manchurian Incident occurred, when Japan began invading China. Maybe the connotation is that the war of aggression should end.”

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Both men fielded a series of tough questions — and some lightweight ones — with candor and wit.

Harada also mentioned a 1937 journal entry penned by Yasujiro Ozu, a director he greatly admires, concerning his experiences on the Chinese front. “He wrote that all the Japanese soldiers heading to the frontlines always smelled of alcohol. Just 2 weeks after he wrote that, the Nanjing Massacre occurred.”

In earlier remarks, Harada said that one of his impetuses for making the film was personal. “In 1945, my father was 19 and he was stationed at Chiran, at the southern tip of Kyushu, the kamikaze airbase. He was only digging trenches, but if the war had continued, I think he would’ve been one of the casualties. So for many years, I’ve thought that the emperor’s Imperial Decision saved my father.”

Renowned for the exhaustive research he conducts before writing his scripts, as well as for the English fluency he developed during 20 years spent in the UK and US, the director adapted Kazutoshi Hando’s nonfiction novels Nihon no Ichiban Nagai Hi (Japan’s Longest Day, 1965, 1980) and the followup Seidan: Tenno to Suzuki Kantaro (Imperial Decision: The Emperor and Kantaro Suzuki, 1985), both of which were based on extensive eyewitness interviews, for The Emperor in August.

 “In 1967, when Okamato Kihachi adapted Mr. Hando’s first novel into the film Japan’s Longest Day,” said Harada, “it was prohibited to show the emperor’s face. So the actor portraying [Hirohito] had to be shot from behind, or in long shots. It was difficult, therefore, to depict the nuances of what was going on in his mind. In the 21st century, Issey Ogata portrayed the emperor in Alexander Sokurov’s The Sun, and we saw him in closeups for the first time. I realized that we could finally portray the emperor as the protagonist of a film like Japan’s Longest Day.”

“I drew heavily from Mr. Hando’s novel Seidan for The Emperor in August,” he continued, “because it depicted the events of the final four months of the war, not just the final day, and explained why he was not able to issue an Imperial Decision [to prevent the war from continuing] earlier. By combining both books, we’re able to understand why it took so long for the decision to be reached.”

Yakusho was asked about his preparations for his role. “I’ve been acting for many, many years now and I’m not sure about my ‘process,’ he said. “But whenever I work with Mr. Harada, he sends a lot of research materials, and I always begin by reading them all.”

In The Emperor in August, Yakusho plays Korechika Anami, the man who led Japan’s War Ministry in the final months of World War II, a warrior who wants to lead his troops to the bitter end, but who also reports directly to his sovereign, as he makes clear in the film. His devotion leads him to support the cause of peace.

“I’m aware that there are different interpretations of Minister Anami’s character and role,” said Yakusho, “but as far as I’m concerned, once the emperor made his decision, [Anami] gave up on pursuing a decisive battle at home. But he was also aware that the younger officers were planning a coup, and he was caught between those officers and the emperor, a very difficult position. I wanted to portray that dilemma. When I look back on that period now, especially after the bombs were dropped, I’m grateful that the emperor, Prime Minister Suzuki and Minister Anami worked together and were able to end the war.”

Harada affirmed, “My belief is that if Mr. Anami had resigned, the Cabinet would have fallen apart and led to the decisive battle at home. I really wanted to show the ambivalence that Mr. Anami felt.”

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The director and star pose with the Japanese and English-language posters.

When The Emperor in August begins in April 1945, the Japanese military had already been in control of domestic and foreign policy for a decade, and the Japanese people were uncertain about the war’s outcome —the government had strictly censored and rewritten the news since 1938. The military’s strategy was to continue pushing for the decisive battle (Kantai Kessen) by drawing the US fleet into a titanic fight at sea, somewhere off Japan’s southern coast. There were still 270,000 Japanese soldiers on various war fronts, and the concept of surrender was not in their vocabulary.

Once the Allies have broadcast the Potsdam Declaration in July, demanding unconditional surrender, the Imperial Cabinet convenes to begin an endless debate: Do we follow Emperor Hirohito’s inclination to accept the declaration or do we practice mokusatsu (kill it with silence)? Would the Potsdam accord preserve kokutai (national polity), or would Hirohito be subjugated to the Supreme Commander of the Occupation forces… or worse, be help accountable for the war?

Anami argues for the long-planned decisive battle, which would allow his troops to die with honor; but he knows it will also cost untold civilian lives. After endless Imperial War Council debates over wording, Hirohito informs his ministers that Japan must accept defeat, and lays plans to announce the war’s end to his people in a historic radio broadcast at noon on August 15. But when word of the recording leaks to the army, a group of young firebrand officers moves forward with plans for a violent coup.

It is the next 20 hours that prove decisive for the fate of Japan, and which provide the most tense, thrilling and indelible moments in The Emperor in August. As the clock ticks toward Hirohito’s historic address, as the Cabinet resigns itself to ritual suicide, as the military rebels storm the Imperial Palace, the full absurdity and futility of war are revealed.

Nobody shoots a group of older men sitting around arguing with as much visual interest, dramatic intensity and individual specificity as Harada, nor recreates period Tokyo with such astonishing beauty and terror. He also draws exceptional performances from his veteran actors, and portrays an impossible — and impossibly complex — situation with remarkable clarity, as well as an admixture of regret and admiration.

The film is sure to be a major box-office draw in Japan during the 70th anniversary of World War II’s end in August, and beyond.

  Photos by Mance Thompson, Koichi Mori and FCCJ.

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©2015 “The Emperor in August” Film Partners

Media Coverage

TV Exposure

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日本テレビ [ZIP! SHOWBIZ 24] :戦争を始めるのは簡単、だが終わらせるのは本当に難しい
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日本テレビ [ZIP! チェックボックス]:役所広司が、日本外国特派員協会で会見
  • NHK総合 [NHKニュース おはよう日本(ニュース)] :戦争にピリオドを打った大臣の苦悩

FIRES ON THE PLAIN (Nobi)


FIRES ON THE PLAIN


July 14, 2015
Q&A guests: Director Shinya Tsukamoto and actor Yusaku Mori


nobi tsukamoto hat  nobi yusaku smile
Shinya Tsukamoto and Yusaku Mori respond to some surprising questions.

Leave it to the indefatigable Pio d’Emilia, longstanding FCCJ member and longtime friend of iconoclastic director Shinya Tsukamoto, to pose the one question that everyone was asking themselves, but would never, ever want to answer: “Is there any situation where you would eat human flesh?”

D’Emilia had just watched the director’s graphic, harrowing new adaptation of the semi-autobiographical war novel Nobi by Shohei Ooka, about a Japanese soldier's gruesome ordeals in the Philippines during the closing days of World War II, where starvation was a far greater killer of men than enemy bullets and bombs. Tsukamoto’s Fires on the Plain highlights the surreal carnage, the chaos and the cannibalism, only slightly exceeding Kon Ichikawa’s 1959 adaptation in its brutality and savagery. A perfect reinterpretation for our time, it is an intensely visceral reminder of the utter obscenity of war: Kill or be killed, eat or be eaten.

nobi three 
Tsukamoto describes his 30-year journey to bring Ooka's novel to the screen.

But the director was quick to explain, “In the original book, the author deals with cannibalism as a central issue… but the choice, the moral dilemma of whether or not to eat human flesh, is not a focus of this film. It’s not depicted in great detail. And the reason is that when I heard accounts from soldiers who fought in the Philippines [during extensive interviews he conducted a decade ago], I realized they didn’t have any capacity to think about their actions. They were so pressed, so desperate, that they were unable to address this moral dilemma. The soldiers stranded in the Philippines started by eating water buffaloes, then they would go into the villages and ransack houses for food… eventually, they went into the mountains and ate whatever they could find. When they found maggots eating the flesh of the wounded, they would eat the maggots. Human flesh would be attached to those maggots… Given their situation, I could contemplate eating human flesh, particularly if a fellow soldier was already dead and doing so could allow me to stay alive.”

But he also stressed, “We should never again allow a situation to occur in which people would have to face such a quandary. We have to do whatever we can to stop Japan’s slide toward militarization.”

Young actor Yusaku Mori, who makes his acting debut in the film, struggled to answer d’Emilia’s pointed question as well, providing his response in both flawless English (he had trained to be a translator at the University of Sunderland), as well as in Japanese. “I guess never. Never,” he said. “I think there might be a situation where I might eat human meat, but I never want to do this.”

nobi tsukamoto hand
Tsukamoto's crew had to build a lifesize truck out of cardboard.

Considering the current political and cultural climate in Japan, and the ultra-rightists’ success in preventing the Japanese from seeing Angelina Jolie’s Unbroken — which was falsely rumoured to contain scenes of cannibalism and has effectively been barred from release here — it is especially gratifying that Ooka’s bleak, nightmarish vision of hell-on-earth is being retold by one of Japan’s own, boldly defying the revisionism of the white-washers and providing a timely corrective to all the mythologizing versions that routinely draw audiences, such as 2013’s Abe-endorsed Eien no Zero (The Eternal Zero), which became one of the top-10 grossing Japanese films of all time.

The fiercely independent Tsukamoto was prompted to make the film by the Abe Administration’s inexorable moves to expand the role of the military. “When I first started thinking about [adapting Ooka’s novel] 30 years ago,” he explained, “it was in the context of the Showa period in which I’d grown up, when people generally believed that war was something evil. So I conceived of it as having a universal message that was widely shared, that war should never be repeated. But as the decades passed, it has become a very different thing. Now, there’s a sense in which war could occur in the near future, that Japan is moving steadily in the direction of repeating the errors of the past. The possibility of another war is a very real one.”

nobi yusaku
Mori found his calling through an open audition.

Photographed in lush color where Ichikawa’s earlier film was in black and white, Tsukamoto’s Fires on the Plains captures the stunning beauty of the Philippines (and its stand-ins, Hawaii and Okinawa), contrasting the verdant forests, the flowers dripping with dew, the stunning sunsets with the hallucinatory desperation of its solitary protagonist, the filthy, isolated Pvt. Tamura (played by Tsukamoto himself). Already half-dead from TB and starvation when his regiment succumbs to the inevitable, Tamura desperately clings to his last shreds of humanity in a world gone mad around him, as he stumbles, inexorably, to the very edge of the spiritual abyss.

For anyone who has followed Tsukamoto’s career, this grisly, gripping anti-war story seems the perfect subject for him to wrap his dark creative brilliance around. World premiering in fall 2014 at the Venice Film Festival, it has gone on to widespread acclaim at 27 other international festivals, an accomplishment that is all the more staggering when one understands just how limited the film’s budget was. To get it made, Tsukamoto’s crew also acted as extras, and most of those involved — as is often the case with the director’s films, as well as many films in Japan — were volunteers, paid primarily in daily bento and the certainty that they were contributing to a worthy cause.

nobi afterAfter the screening and Q&A, Tsukamoto relaxeswith Japanese-film
aficionados Mark Schilling and Markus Nornes in the bar.

“One of the essential aspects of the film was to capture the splendor of the Philippines, and this presented a great challenge” from a budgetary standpoint, Tsukamoto told the FCCJ audience. “I had a small crew, and I shot the jungle scenes there myself, as well as acting in them. But most of the film was shot back in Japan, with a large number of volunteers… We purchased one army uniform and then made 50 copies of them ourselves. We purchased one gun and then made 20 replicas. In the scene with a jeep and a truck, we actually had to create the large truck from cardboard boxes.”

A tribute to Tsukamoto’s unfailing ability to work cinematic magic with little more than inspiration and commitment, as well as a powerful call to the nearly-lost cause of peace, Fires on the Plains is absolutely essential viewing — not only for those too young to remember Kon Ichikawa’s film, but for everyone who believes that Japan can best honor its Pacific War veterans, in this 70th anniversary year of WWII’s end, by refusing to turn away from the truth of their experiences.

  Photos by Koichi Mori and FCCJ.

nobi poster
©SHINYA TSUKAMOTO/KAIJYU THEATER

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