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THE LOOK OF SILENCE


THE LOOK OF SILENCE


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


TLOS josh hands
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?

  TLOS josh talks to audiences-3
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.”

TLOS
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.

  TLOS karen talks  to josh1

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.

TLOS POSTER s
© 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


okinawa john-p2
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.

  okinawa john-4s
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.”

okinawa john-b2 
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.

Pieta POSTER
©2015 “Pieta in the Toilet” Film Partners

Media Coverage

TV Exposure

日本テレビ [ZIP! SHOWBIZ TODAY] 「RADWIMPS野田洋次郎、英語で会見」

MISS HOKUSAI (Sarusuberi)


MISS HOKUSAI


May 7, 2015
Q&A guest: Director Keiichi Hara


May 07 15 Movie Miss Hokusai by Aoki 031
Hara lightens up under questioning.

Just two days before the hotly anticipated release of his latest film, Annecy-winning director Keiichi Hara (Colorful) thrilled FCCJ’s audience with a sneak peek of Miss Hokusai, which illuminates the extraordinary lives of iconic artist Katsushika Hokusai and his outspoken daughter O-Ei. Following a spate of recent discoveries, O-Ei is now recognized not only as an essential contributor to her father’s later — and most famous — work, but as a groundbreaking artist in her own right.

It was only the second time in the past decade that the Film Committee had screened an animated film (the other was Eric Khoo’s Tatsumi in 2013), which is admittedly inexplicable from both a creative and financial stance*, given that the anime industry accounts for 90% of all Japanese “content” sales overseas, regularly earns a bigger chunk of change at the domestic box office than all other films combined, and is propelled by some of the biggest names in the global pantheon.

  hokusai workplace
O-Ei (front) and Hokusai (middle) work amidst the detritus of leftovers and failed drawings.
© 2014-2015 Hinako Sugiura・MS.HS / Sarusuberi Film Partners

But one doesn’t have to be an anime aficionado to appreciate Hara’s enthralling vision of old Edo. Paying tribute to one of Japan’s greatest artists — and the assistant who, given different circumstances, might have one day surpassed him — he has literally animated the process of artistic creation in ways that are by turns lyrical, lush, magical, startling and sublime. (The FCCJ audience was split, however, on whether his use of heavy metal in the opening and closing scenes was poetic-license appropriate.)

Marking his first collaboration with the acclaimed animation house Production I.G (Ghost in the Shell, A Letter to Momo, Giovanni’s Island), working with the chief animator of Hayao Miyzaki’s The Wind Rises, Yoshimi Itazu, and celebrated background artist Hiroshi Ohno, Hara has adapted the beloved historical manga Sarusuberi (Crape Myrtle) by Edo Period expert Hinako Sugiura for Miss Hokusai.

May 07 15 Movie Miss Hokusai by Aoki 010Interpreter Don Brown, looking positively animated himself
(especially the Fuji-and-sakura shirt!) did the subtitles for the film.

During the Q&A session following the screening, Hara repeatedly gave props to the original author. “I did a lot of research, but the vast majority of it was Sugiura-san’s,” he said in response to a question about why the film seems so “modern” compared to our typical image of Edo Japan. “I was trying to recreate the world that Sugiura-san created in her comics, rather than one that resembles a typical jidaigeki period piece. I think people in the Edo Period lived a far freer, more relaxed and congenial lifestyle than we lead today. They had much more fun.”

Hara also noted that he’d chosen a “simple, realistic” style of animation to suit the story. He stressed that Sugiura’s women are not “living tragic lives, being persecuted by men. In Sugiura-san’s manga, they are full of life, and have the power to choose whichever man they want. Sugiura-san’s manga, as well as her essays and other works, showed an image of women that was very different from what we’d seen in period films and on TV.”

Indeed, Miss Hokusai often feels almost hyperrealistic in its breathtakingly colorful depiction of 1814 Asakusa-Tawaramachi, teeming with peasants, samurai, merchants, nobles, artisans, courtesans and not surprisingly, we soon find out, a slew of supernatural beings. A stone’s throw from Ryogoku Bridge, the eccentric Tetsuzo (aka Hokusai) spends each day creating paintings for clients around Japan, from an enormous Dharma that fills an entire hall to a tiny pair of sparrows on a grain of rice. A master of portraits, landscapes, still lifes and erotica, Tetsuzo’s skill fits any commission. O-Ei works at his side, assisting, cajoling and smoking her pipe. They neither clean nor cook, and when their discarded work and leftover food fills up their home-atelier, they simply move to another. Undeniably talented, as well as stubborn, short-tempered and uninterested in money, this father-daughter team may not always agree, but “with two brushes and four chopsticks,” they can get by.

hokusai darumaHokusai paints a pretty (big) picture.
© 2014-2015 Hinako Sugiura・MS.HS / Sarusuberi Film Partners

Hara deployed 3D computer graphics in creating the film, but noted, “I didn’t want the CG to take you out of the film. The basic process is the way it’s always been done in 2D animation… In particular, there’s one scene where O-Ei runs out of the inn, and the camera pans down to her feet, comes back up and swings around, facing her. Normally, that would be done by a CG and 2D animator working together. But I had one animator do the whole 40-second sequence. It took 3 months. But it’s the kind of amazing sequence that Japanese animators have the technique and skills to accomplish.”

Returning to Sugiura once again, the director explained, “In the manga, O-Ei is the central character [in certain scenes only], but I decided to make her the main protagonist of the film. [Like O-Ei,] Suguira had a soft side to her, but as a writer, she was also very strong and had an eccentric side.”

Far from being just the first film Hara has directed that features a female protagonist, Miss Hokusai also surrounded him with a non-traditional crew. “There are more and more women working in the anime industry, especially at Production I.G, which made this film,” he said. Besides Sugiura, “the screenwriter was a woman, the two producers were women, and some of the animators were women. So there wasn’t any gender gap on this film.”

May 07 15 Movie Miss Hokusai by Aoki 056  May 07 15 Movie Miss Hokusai by Aoki 052
Hara poses with the film's poster, and holds up his newly minted FCCJ Honorary Membership.

Although he directed his first live-action film, the biopic Dawn of a Filmmaker: The Keisuke Kinoshita Story, in 2013, it doesn’t look likely that Hara will be leaving animation behind. Along with all his past prizes, in 2015, he was awarded the Anime d’Or at the Tokyo Anime Award Festival for his achievements. Hara will be heading to Annecy, France once again in June, where Miss Hokusai is in festival competition, as well as Montreal in July, where it is the Opening Night film at Fantasia Film Festival. It was also presold across Europe, with releases planned in France, Belgium, the UK, Germany, Austria, Spain and Portugal, among other nations. Can the USA be far behind?

*So shoot me — I didn’t develop a taste for animation in my youth, and it’s easier to program live-action films when you’re fairly ignorant about the likes of Tezuka, Ishii, Anno, Mizushima, Nishio, Araki (but we have tried countless times to persuade the fellows at Studio Ghibli to join us at FCCJ, to no avail).
  Photos by FCCJ.

hokusai poster
© 2014-2015 Hinako Sugiura・MS.HS / Sarusuberi Film Partners

Media Coverage

KANZEON


KANZEON


April 22, 2015
Q&A guests: KanZeOn codirector Neil Cantwell, Musicity founder Nick Luscombe
and monk/DJ Akinobu Tatsumi


kanzeon-2
Ta2mi demonstrates his beat-boxing technique before the Q&A.

Kicking off our Q&A session following the screening of KanZeOn, Buddhist monk Akinobu Tatsumi (a/k/a Ta2mi) entered the room in full ceremonial garb and slowly approached the front, microphone pressed close to his mouth. The loudspeaker erupted with an extraordinarily percussive beat-boxing routine and the audience burst into delighted applause.

It was a visual-aural juxtaposition that could sum up Japan’s famed incongruities in a nutshell.

Some of these are evident in the gorgeously photographed film, which one audience member termed “exquisite and profound.” Enveloping viewers in the sights and sounds of a mostly ancient Japan, moving evocatively from forest to temple to mountaintop, celebrating the deep resonance of sound within the nation’s cultural identity — its songs, stories, rituals, performances, faiths and traditions — the documentary explores the mysterious bonds between the traditional and modern, between the spiritual and sensory.

kanzeon-1 
Luscombe and Cantwell talk about the special qualities
of sound as expressed in haiku poems.

Tatsumi, a Jodo Shinshu Buddhist monk from the countryside near Kumamoto, is one of the three musicians around whom KanZeOn is built, allowing them to guide the way through their words and performances. Shō player Eri Fujii and Akihiro Iitomi, an expert in the kotsuzumi drum and a Noh theater master are the film’s other guides.

Directed by Neil Cantwell and Tim Grabham, both British, the film's belated first screenings were held in Kagoshima and Kumamoto last week. While living in Fukuoka for two years as an exchange student, as Cantwell explained during the Q&A session, “I developed an interest in Japanese religion and prepared to do the Shikoku 88-temple pilgrimage… But I’m a musician, and actually, the most progress I made with Japanese language and understanding Japanese culture came from playing with people. You can communicate through music when you don’t speak much of the language.” Cantwell gigged with Tatsumi, performed on the same concert bill with Fujii, and studied for six months with Iitomi.

Back in the UK and talking with Grabham about making a film together in Japan, the three musicians became obvious choices. “Religion was playing an important part in their lives, but in a different way for each of them,” said Cantwell. “And that’s where the film came from.” It took five years to complete, since it was entirely self-funded. But it has been screened continuously around the world since its premiere in 2011.

KanZeOn enlightens without explaining, and mesmerizes without demanding full understanding. Still, it was not surprising that one member of the audience questioned the lack of narration. Said Cantwell, “Ultimately, our decision not to include narration came from a worry I had about appropriating Japanese culture and doing something that would be disrespectful. That informed the decision to, as much as possible, just present these performances and the thoughts and feelings of these people that we were making the film with. It was very much a collaborative experience.”

kanzeon-4Tatsumi selected at type of shishiodoshi (scare the deer) as his favorite sound:
when water, in a bamboo rocker arm, hits the rock below in Japanese gardens.

Tatsumi noted that the collaboration had been “very exciting for me. I’m happy that so many people could be united by the film, and that I could meet so many new people through the process.” He also thanked his mother, who used to work at Yamaha and made sure he got an electric keyboard as a boy, and his father for allowing him to continue a music career in tandem with his religious work.

Joining Cantwell and Tatsumi for the Q&A was Nick Luscombe, who is launching a project with Cantwell to create a crowd-sourced “self-portrait” of Japan. A radio broadcaster for BBC Radio 3 as well as a musician, Luscombe is the founder of Musicity, a web app (soon to be an iPhone or Android app) that allows travelers to go to specific locations around the world, and listen to music there that was created by commissioned artists in response to an aspect of the location that inspires them.

Building on that idea, Luscombe and Cantwell are now compiling a prototype version of a sound map for the Japan Sound Portrait, using scenes from KanZeOn and a first round of public submissions. They’re encouraging people from all over the country to contribute 17-second audio/video clips (reflecting the 17 syllables of haiku, which often rely on sounds for their impact) celebrating the sounds they cherish. They envision going beyond just creating a sound map, and foresee a film version as well as an immersive virtual reality environment in which certain locations will be explorable online via 360-degree, 3-D footage (technology coming this year from Oculus Rift and Sony Morpheus).

“The idea is to get as many people as possible to contribute to this project,” Luscombe told the audience. It’s very simple to do, just email the tracks [see how below] and we’ll get them online. It’s a long-term project, and we’re hoping that it develops over the next five years. We’re asking people to record whatever sounds they can — anything that’s interesting.”

Just in the past week, the two have received a slew of submissions, some of which may not necessarily qualify as “interesting.” “Someone sent in the sound of their car’s engine,” laughed Cantwell, “and it’s a German car.”

kanzeon-3Luscombe, Tatsumi, Cantwell and Emiko Odera, who was the translator for the film crew.

Luscombe continued: “There are so many sounds that are endangered because of the way that technology moves so quickly here. For example, the sound that you push to cross the road, that’s going to change sometime soon.” He agreed with a suggestion from the audience, that the posts be time-tagged as well as place-tagged online, to demonstrate the evolution of sounds in the same location, even over just five years.

Added Cantwell: “We really want to make a sonic world. You can combine elements of a documentary film with elements of computer games, and we can begin to manipulate these environments that we capture in a way that would say more, perhaps, about the character of sound and why people in Japan seem to care more about the texture of sound that in other parts of the world.”

Asked why they didn’t plan to create a global sound portrait, Luscombe laughed and said they might. But: “There’s just so much more going on here, sonically. People comment on it quite a lot. It’s a really rich resource of sound. It’s a great place to start.”

For more on the Japan Sound Portrait: http://japansoundportrait.tumblr.com/
To submit clips: This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.

  Photos by Koichi Mori and FCCJ.

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