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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


  TEIA two1
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
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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.

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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.”

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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.”

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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.

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©SHINYA TSUKAMOTO/KAIJYU THEATER

Media Coverage

THE LOOK OF SILENCE


THE LOOK OF SILENCE


July 1, 2015
Q&A guest: Director Joshua Oppenheimer


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Joshua Oppenheimer

Speaking onscreen via the aptly named FaceTime, which leant him a physical presence that was as impressive as his eloquence, director Joshua Oppenheimer described his first meeting with Adi Rukun in 2003. Adi is the indelible hero of The Look of Silence, the exceedingly powerful companion piece to Oppenheimer’s Academy Award©-nominated The Act of Killing, the controversial 2013 juggernaut that swept over 50 major international awards and prompted a hand-wringing reconsideration of the very “rules” of documentary filmmaking.

“There was one victim of the [1960's Indonesian] genocide whose name was almost synonymous with the entire genocide,” Oppenheimer explained, “and that was Ramli. Unlike tens of thousands of others who had been taken away from political prisons, killed at rivers and left to drift out to sea, Ramli’s murder had witnesses… Talking about him became an act of resistance, in a place where people had been traumatized, but threatened into pretending that nothing had happened. Inevitably, I was introduced to Ramli’s family, and his mother wanted me to meet Adi right away. She said ‘he’s exactly like Ramli, his body language, his looks, his way of talking, they’re the same.’”

We first see Adi watching footage of his neighbors bragging about how they dragged Ramli to the Snake River, beat him, sliced him open, ripped off his penis and dumped him into the water to die. The boasts may sound just like those of the preening perpetrators in The Act of Killing, whom Oppenheimer had allowed to re-enact the massacres as if they were making a Hollywood horror movie. But with The Look of Silence, the emphasis shifts from the murderers to the Rukun family, standing in for the families of the million genocide victims.

This is the film that the director first set out to make 10 years ago, when he turned his lens on the taboo subject of the genocide, examining how the survivors and victims’ families continue to live side-by-side with the killers — who remain in control of the country to this day. But early in the 5-year filming process, at the urging of Adi and his family, Oppenheimer began to focus instead on the charismatic, sadistic Anwar Congo, who despite his crimes, remained a powerful, celebrated local leader. How, the family wanted to know, was he able to explain away his guilt, to demand that his grisly conquests were all in the name of ridding the country of communism?

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Oppenheimer spent over 10 years bringing both films to the screen.

Returning to Indonesia in 2011 to complete a follow-up before the release of The Act of Killing made it impossible to safely go back, Oppenheimer discovered that Adi had decided to confront his brother’s killers himself; motivated not by revenge but by the desperate need for closure. The director wasn’t easily convinced. As he told the FCCJ audience: “I realized we would fail to get the apology Adi wanted… In one hour with Adi, these men [would] not be willing to go to that place of guilt and [wouldn’t] admit that what they’ve done is wrong. But I also realized that if I do my job well and capture the shock, the shame, the fear of guilt, the panic, the anger, the threats or whatever comes next, then we can show how torn the society is, how urgently truth, reconciliation and some form of justice are needed, and we can inspire younger Indonesians to fight for that. So maybe we can succeed in a bigger way with the film, even if we fail in the individual confrontations.”

And so The Look of Silence found its voice.

A gentle, serenely composed optometrist, Adi is pure steel in his mission to face the aging leaders of the village death squads, to surmount the impenetrable walls of silence masking their past atrocities. Under the guise of testing their eyesight — a perfect metaphor for the myopia that afflicts his nation — Adi begins his questioning, quietly listens to the perpetrators’ justifications, politely presses them for more answers, and asks them to accept responsibility for their actions.

Amir Siahaan, who oversaw the 3-month-long slaughter of 500 “communists” at Snake River in Medan, tells his interlocutor: “America taught us to hate communists, so we should be rewarded with a trip to America [instead of accusations].” M.Y. Basrun, speaker of the national legislature for the past 40 years, insists: “The mass killings were the spontaneous action of the people. They hated communists.” When Adi persists in his probing, the former head of the Komando Aksi death squads resorts to threats: “Do you want the killings to happen again? Then stop.”

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Adi Rukun confronts one of the perpetrators in a scene from The Look of Silence.
© Final Cut for Real Aps, Anonymous, Piraya Film AS, and Making Movies Oy 2014

Adi does not flinch, even when one man tells him that all the killers drank the blood of their victims because otherwise they would go insane. “Human blood is salty and sweet,” he explains. In one of the film’s final — and most moving — scenes, the man’s daughter apologizes, visibly shaken by his confession. After a moment, Adi embraces her. But it is the only truly conciliatory note in the film. To be sure, Adi’s bravery stemmed partially from the security measures Oppenheimer’s crew took (“we had two getaway cars, and help from the British and American embassies if we needed to get out of the country quickly”). Adi also accepted that he and his family would necessarily have to move away from Medan once filming had finished. They are now resettled in a much safer community, surrounded by like-minded souls, and Oppenheimer reports that “The children are in much better schools, and the family is relieved to be living a life away from being threatened day to day, which is how they felt for the past 50 years.”

Like The Act of Killing, which brought Oppenheimer in person to FCCJ in early 2014, this new film is absolutely essential viewing. More conventional, and thus more confrontational than the previous work, there is more of what one critic calls “the familiar embattled-interviewee choreography: the demands to stop filming, the shrill addresses to the director ‘Josh’ behind the camera, and the removal of the radio microphone.” Yet it is poignant, compassionate and deeply unsettling.

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With The Act of Killing and now the equally unshakeable The Look of Silence, Joshua Oppenheimer has shattered the deafening, 50-year silence in Indonesia. The film has won a raft of international awards since earning the Grand Jury Prize at the Venice Film Festival upon its world premiere. But its greater achievement is that it played across Indonesia on nearly 500 public screens, allowing thousands of Indonesians to share what they could not with the first film, which was never screened. “The first film made it impossible for people to continue not talking about the regime of corruption, fear and thuggery that the perpetrators had built,” Oppenheimer notes. “The second film makes it impossible to continue to ignore the abyss [that] divides people. And that opens the way for activism in the sense that, once people are talking about a problem, they’ll propose solutions for it. You can’t solve a problem that you can’t even talk about.”

Oppenheimer also stressed the importance of viewing the films not as doors to some other culture on the other side of the world, but as mirrors for our own. In pointed comments that we would display in 20-point boldface if it were possible, he cautioned: “If there are two key messages in these films, the first is that every perpetrator in history is a human being like us and we must contemplate ways to understand that we’re all closer to perpetrators than we like to think. The second message, which is particularly relevant to Japan at this moment, considering the proposed changes to the constitution, is that we can never run away from our past. It’s always with us. We are our pasts. It will damage our future if we cannot find the courage to… accept all the things that make us what we are, acknowledge the violence and terror, not make excuses for it, and not generate vicious patriotic rhetoric celebrating or justifying it. We need to take responsibility for what we are, so we can proceed wisely into the future.”

  Photos by Koichi Mori and FCCJ.

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© Final Cut for Real Aps, Anonymous, Piraya Film AS, and Making Movies Oy 2014

 

OKINAWA: THE AFTERBURN (Okinawa: Urizun no Ame)


OKINAWA: THE AFTERBURN


June 9, 2015
Q&A guest: Director John Junkerman


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Junkerman introduces the film.

At 6:00 pm, an hour earlier than the usual start of FCCJ screening events, writer-director John Junkerman reassured a surprisingly large audience, “I’ve been told that the film doesn’t feel as long as it actually is.” At 9:30 pm, as the hour-long Q&A session was winding down and hands were still going up, the true extent of his accomplishment became clear. Not only was there consensus that the film’s 148-minute length was warranted by the complexity of its subject, but with the exception of one vocal dissenter, praise was effusive for Junkerman’s even-handed illumination of the troubling history of occupation, human and civil rights violations, and dogged resistance in Okinawa — an ongoing flashpoint in US-Japan relations that is drawing even greater attention in this, the 70th anniversary year since the end of World War II.

The club’s screening of Okinawa: The Afterburn was held just days after Okinawa Gov. Takeshi Onaga’s return from a trip to Washington, DC, where the US departments of State and Defense confirmed their “unwavering commitment” to go forward with construction of the huge new Marine base in Henoko, despite convulsive and constant protests from Okinawans for over a decade, and just weeks ago, a crowd of some 35,000 protestors surrounding the Diet in Tokyo.

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Junkerman's history with Okinawa goes back to the mid-1970s.

Junkerman, Academy Award®-nominated director of Hellfire: A Journey from Hiroshima, among a slew of award-winning documentaries like Power and Terror: Noam Chomsky in Our Times and Japan’s Peace Constitution, opens his landmark new film with Adm. Matthew Perry, who arrives in the Ryukyu Kingdom in the 1850s and immediately sets about trying to claim it. Some 90 years later, his plans finally come to fruition: After the 84-day-long Battle of Okinawa, the bloodiest conflict of the Pacific War, has taken the lives of some 240,000 people, the US begins its occupation of Japan’s southernmost prefecture. The film makes it clear that, despite its reversion to Japan in 1972, the island is still occupied.

With the active support of the Japanese government, America has continued to treat Okinawa as the spoils of war — its “keystone in the Pacific.” Today, the US military occupies nearly 20 percent of the island, accounting for 75 percent of its military presence in Japan. As Junkerman noted during the Q&A, “That’s just 0.6 percent of the entire territory Japan, and that’s an unfair burden, a tremendously large burden. The only way, I think, of explaining that is to understand that Okinawans are [considered] second-class citizens. They don’t have the same status as mainland Japan.”

okinawa yamagami-3Producer-collaborator Yamagami has a 30-year friendship with Junkerman
and has produced 5 films about Okinawa.

Junkerman lived on Okinawa in the mid-1970s, and was struck by “the pervasive and abiding rejection of war among the Okinawa people, and by how incongruous and violent the American military presence on the island was. Over the decades that followed, it troubled me that Okinawa was forced to continue to endure this incompatibility. This is largely a consequence of the ignorance of the American public, and I felt a responsibility to make a film that would penetrate, if only in a small way, this shroud of apathy.”

Junkerman and his close collaborator, Tetsujiro Yamagami, the founding president of social-issues film company Siglo and the producer of five previous films about Okinawa, attempt to pierce the shroud through interviews with American, Japanese and Okinawan survivors of the Battle of Okinawa, tracing its fraught legacy. The director makes crucial use of footage shot by the US during the course of the war; but his trademark approach is to allow eyewitnesses to relate history as they lived it, and Okinawa: The Afterburn features several revelatory accounts. Issues of wartime guilt are movingly recalled by such survivors as Hajime Kondo, who admits that the Japanese sense of superiority over the Ryukyuan people accounted for some of the war’s worst atrocities: “We committed many abuses here in Okinawa,” he laments. Others recall the Chibichiri-gama mass suicide-murders, the 140 comfort stations staffed with “pigua” (comfort women), and the students who were forced by Japanese troops to throw bombs underneath US tanks.

Although there have been frequent problems with the US presence over the years, from dangerous helicopter crashes to water supplies poisoned by jet fuel, opposition to US bases expanded most dramatically after the 1995 rape of a 12-year old girl by three American servicemen. One of them is interviewed to devastating effect in the film, and his chilling testimony is just one of the many reasons that Okinawa: The Afterburn is a must-see work. “To interview the perpetrator was something that we debated long and hard,” said Junkerman, “but we felt the need to convey to our audience the true nature of that rape, and to do so, we needed to hear both sides.”

Junkerman is aware that there is a sense of fatigue in Japan, where Okinawa is the subject of fairly constant TV documentaries, and said that he and Yamagami knew they must “do something that those films don’t do — break through the barrier of people who think they’ve seen enough of Okinawa and know the subject. There is a lot that isn’t expressed. We didn’t concentrate on recent developments… we felt that the historical context was neglected, and once one has a better grasp of the historical roots, then one understands why the problems exist. And we also understand why they’re so tenacious and difficult to solve.”

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Junkerman hopes to screen the film across America.

Yamagami was queried about his selection of an American director to revisit an essentially Japanese history. “I don’t really think of John as being a foreigner,” he admitted. “We’ve known each other for over 30 years and worked together on several films. For me, the key to a successful collaboration is to have a relationship of trust.”

In a “response to the film” printed in the press notes, historian John Dower notes: “No place in the world surpasses Okinawa as a symbol of the bitter legacies of war since World War II. And no voices are more eloquent in calling for peace and equality than the voices of the people of Okinawa…despite the oppression and discrimination we encounter [in the film], the voices we hear are so dignified and articulate that one emerges not just with understanding and admiration, but also with hope.”

Indeed, Junkerman reminded the FCCJ audience that the report commissioned by Okinawa Gov. Onaga to review “the process of decision-making that went into moving ahead with the Henoko base,” is due next month, and “there are a lot of political questions concerning the previous governor’s approval, after he had been voted out of office, but before his successor took over, of four permits that were crucial to building the base at Henoko. That seems to me to be a violation of democratic process and democratic rights. As a lot more people are becoming aware of that, it’s becoming less possible for people in Japan to look the other way.”

  Photos by Koichi Mori and FCCJ.

okinawa-poster
©2015 SIGLO

Media Coverage

PIETA IN THE TOILET (Toire no Pieta)


PIETA IN THE TOILET


May 27, 2015
Q&A guests: Director Daishi Matsunaga, stars Yojiro Noda and Hana Sugisaki


three on stage
The talented trio faces the press.

For a film programmer, there is nothing quite so satisfying as being able to contribute, however insignificantly, to the launch of an independent film that deserves to be seen and celebrated far more widely than its modest budget may allow. Such was the case with FCCJ’s screening of Pietà in the Toilet, the feature-fiction debut of award-winning documentary director Daishi Matsunaga (Pyuupiru, Gospel).

Inspired by the final story idea of Japan’s great God of Comics, Osamu Tezuka (Astro Boy, Kimba the White Lion), who jotted the outlines of Pietà down on his last diary page before dying of stomach cancer in 1989, Matsunaga has created a big-screen treatment that is by turns distressing, blackly humorous and uplifting — a poignant consideration of life under the looming hand of death. Nearly as impressively, he has directed a handful of major movie stars (Lily Franky, Rie Miyazawa, Shinobu Otake) with the assurance of a seasoned pro, and guided two unknowns in the lead roles who achieve an onscreen chemistry that is a real rarity.

  hana smiles  noda speaks  daishi speaks
Hana Sugisaki, Yojiro Noda and Daishi Matsunaga discuss the close collaboration that went into making the movie.

Making his acting debut, real-life rock star Yojiro Noda (Radwimps) is perfectly cast as a lost young man who is rescued from his ennui and emptiness by Hana Sugisaki, a teen actress whose slim TV and film credits could not possibly predict the sheer bravado of her revelatory performance in Pietà. Just 16 years old during filming, Sugisaki delivers a truly star-making turn.

In Matsunaga’s adaptation of Tezuka’s story fragment, Noda plays young cancer patient Hiroshi Sonoda, who receives a fatal cancer diagnosis and decides to die without a fight. Once a promising art student, he’d quit painting after an unhappy love affair, and he’s been washing windows ever since. But after fainting on the job, he finds himself in the hospital, where he meets two people who will shake him out of his stupor: Toru Yokota (Franky), a long-term cancer patient who gets his kicks from photographing nurses and nubile visitors; and Mai (Sugisaki), a schoolgirl with serious attitude and a death wish. Hiroshi, weakened by chemotherapy and growing superstitious in the way of many victims of hopeless situations, begins to think he can survive if only he makes someone happy — and Mai, precocious, tortured and desperately lonely, is his willing target. As a chaste love affair blooms, Hiroshi is inspired to pick up his brush. With Yokota’s help, he begins painting the pietà on the walls of his toilet, a final act of defiance and redemption.

daishiMatsunaga's facility with actors might be a result of his own experiences:
he began his film career as one of the Waterboys.

When queried about how he managed to snag such a big-name cast, as well as how he found his leads, Matsunaga explained that he and his producers (Shinji Ogawa of BridgeHead and Morio Amagi of CineBazar) had wanted someone who was a creative artist for the character of Hiroshi. Eventually, they decided to reach out to singers, and Matsunaga felt an instant rapport with Noda. “As I listened to his lyrics and songs… I found him to be very sexy and intriguing, and his songs expressed something similar to the worldview that I hoped to capture.” Conveniently, Noda also wrote and performed the theme song for the film.

hana speakHana, a rising star, skipped her school trip to be at the FCCJ screening.

As for the “equally important” role of Mai, Matsunaga “held auditions for a full year, and from the beginning, Hana Sugisaki was very impressive. I narrowed it down to 5 -10 actresses, and asked Yojiro to come in and read against them. When I saw how he and Hana played off each other, and changed each other, I was convinced to cast her.”

Sugisaki surprised the FCCJ audience by being as demure and soft-spoken during the Q&A session as her character is bold and outspoken in the film. She discussed the audition and rehearsal processes, the difficulty of “capturing Mai,” and the frustrating process of building confidence. “I think I was able to do this because I trusted [the director and my costar],” she said. After a particularly lengthy series of takes one day, “Matsunaga-san came to me and said ‘You finally captured Mai,’ and from then on, I was able to interact with Yojiro as if he was Hiroshi and I was Mai. The character stayed inside me for a full month after filming was done.”

noda laughsYojiro rocks the audience with his superb English,

Noda also surprised the FCCJ audience — and the sizable contingent of Japanese press, most of whom were there because of the Radwimps singer-songwriter’s enormous popularity — by speaking in fluent American English: “Thank you for inviting us here tonight, we’re very pleased to be here. It’s been 10 years since Daishi Matsunaga [heard] this story, and it’s been a long way here. This was my very first acting experience, and it was awesome to work with these incredible talents. I was very honored. I hope you enjoyed the film, and if you did, please help spread the Pietà world to other audiences. Thank you.” (Noda lived in the US for 4 years as a youth, and says he maintains his English through producing work with non-Japanese singers and touring abroad with his band.)

three laugh 
The photo call turns a bit giggly.

Fans of Osamu Tezuka, many of whom have waited 25 years to see his final story come to life, and fans of exceptional new acting and filmmaking talent: Pietà in the Toilet is for you. You’ll be seeing a lot more of Daishi Matsunaga, Yojiro Noda and Hana Sugisaki in the future; this is where it all began.

  Photos by FCCJ.

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