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A WHALE OF A TALE


A WHALE OF A TALE
(Okujirasama: Futatsu no Seigi no Monogatari)


September 5, 2017
Q&A guests: Director Megumi Sasaki and researcher Jay Alabaster


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Director Megumi Sasaki returned for a third time to FCCJ, with researcher Jay Alabaster, her alter ego in the documentary.   ©FCCJ

There are few FCCJ members who don’t remember our overflow screening of Louis Psihoyos’ The Cove in 2009, the first Japan showing of the now-infamous documentary that depicted, in gruesome detail, the annual dolphin capture and slaughter in the tiny village of Taiji, Wakayama Prefecture. The film would go on to win the Oscar for Best Documentary, and to have an enormous impact on international public opinion regarding Japan, creating an Us vs. Them mentality, pitting environmentalists against traditionalists, and allowing no space for a dialogue to develop.

Encouraged by social media-savvy activists, protestors began pouring into Taiji every September during hunting season for the next 8 years. The swarming presence of angry outsiders, and their frequent verbal attacks on fishermen — who had been vilified in The Cove — compounded the travails of locals and exacerbated any chance for a rapport. With the rallying cry on both sides reduced to a too-simple pro- or anti-whaling stance, the situation soon devolved into cultural warfare.

Yet their efforts did not put an end to the dolphin cull — or to whaling, although most Japanese eat neither dolphin nor whale meat.

Onto this battleground stepped New York-based Megumi Sasaki, who followed the protests in Taiji for 6 years, and has created what is perhaps the first unbiased, nuanced portrait of the ongoing controversy. Rather than recreating the tense drama of The Cove to provide a Japan-defending “corrective,” she set about capturing the current reality on both sides of the yawning divide. Sasaki’s resulting A Whale of a Tale does not issue a call to action, but rather, to understanding.

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                                                                                                                                                            Both ©Koichi Mori

The film is quite different from Sasaki’s first two theatrical features, both of which she brought to FCCJ, the award-winning Herb & Dorothy (2008), about legendary New York art collectors Herb and Dorothy Vogel, and the follow-up, Herb & Dorothy 50X50 (2013). Drawing on her years as a news reporter and field producer for NHK and other Japanese broadcasters, Sasaki was able alight with confidence in Taiji, and to develop relationships of trust with both the fishermen and the activists. (Alabaster calls her "a force of nature" and lauds her interpersonal skills; Sasaki chalks it up to "a lot of shochu.")

In the Q&A following the screening of her documentary, Sasaki explained, “I saw The Cove in New York and I was really surprised at how it portrayed [Taiji]. It seemed to be extremely one-sided, without any understanding of Japanese ideas about nature and the relationship between people, nature and animals. Living in New York for almost 30 years, I always wondered why [the Japanese] always just show one side of issues. In the US, we always see both sides, whether it’s gun control or abortion or any other issue — except the whaling issue.

“When I saw The Cove, I felt like I needed to make a film. It stuck in my throat like a little fish bone, as the Japanese expression goes. Documentary can be very powerful and influential. It’s usually used to expose the wrongdoings of those in power: the government or the big corporations. But when the camera is pointed at the fishermen in a little village by a big Hollywood powerhouse, I didn’t feel that was fair at all. I thought their voices should be represented somehow. My intention was not to make a pro-whaling movie. Whether it’s right or wrong, I wanted to leave the answer to the audience."

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©A Whale of A Tale Project

A Whale of a Tale begins by reminding us of the salient facts — many of which have become lost in the constant scuffle between the fishermen and the activists. Organized whaling began in Taiji, south of Nara, in 1606. For the fishermen, hunting is thus not only a way of life, but their very identity. Catching whales, dolphins and other fish has supported generations of families and fueled the town’s economy for 400 years.

For the activists, on the other hand, whales and dolphins are not fish but intelligent mammals, and they equate hunting them with the slave trade, fox hunting or bullfighting — all cultural practices that have been abolished or mitigated in modern times. As the fall hunting season begins, we see activists and news crews pouring in from abroad, wielding binoculars and cameras (sometimes quite violently) as they livestream footage of “atrocities” committed in Taiji, overwhelming the locals and the town’s infrastructure. Vans of right-wingers harass them via loudspeakers while others look on in dismay.

The film introduces us to the local whalers and several of the global protesters who have returned each year, including Ric O’Barry, head of the Dolphin Project and outspoken “star” of The Cove. But Sasaki’s wisest decision is to focus the film on the activities of two mediators who provide illuminating perspectives: American journalist and researcher Jay Alabaster, who moved to Taiji in 2013 and has devoted years to befriending and earning the trust of locals; and Atsushi Nakahira, a nationalist who taught himself English so he could communicate with the protestors. An unexpected peacemaker, he eventually succeeds in bringing the two sides together for a public debate.

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©A Whale of A Tale Project

If A Whale of a Tale doesn’t quite turn us all into neutral observers, it moves us closer. Sasaki’s lasting achievement is that the film recasts the ugly ideological impasse as one of globalism vs. localism — something we can all understand, irrespective of background. Still, one of the documentary’s inescapable conclusions is that Japan would likely have banned whaling by now if foreign protests had not been so relentless and aggressive.

The film’s release couldn’t come at a better time: Just a week ago, as a new season was set to begin in Taiji, the Sea Shepherd anti-whaling group suddenly announced that it was suspending its protests against Japan after 12 years of disruptions, including those in Taiji.

But Sasaki pointed out that the protests had been decreasing already since 2015: “This is the third year in a row that we’ve seen very few protesters in Taiji,” she told the FCCJ crowd. “This is directly the result of local police efforts. They have been taking down passport numbers, and when the activists try to come back to Japan, they are refused entry. At least that’s what I heard. [We see this happening to Ric O’Barry in the film.] A lot of activists were there from the Dolphin Project and Sea Shepherd, but both groups have been having a hard time for the last few years. But it doesn’t mean that their activism has slowed down. They’ve had big demonstrations in front of Japanese embassies and consulates overseas, so they just changed their strategies.”

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                                                                                                                                                                           Both ©Koichi Mori

Joining Sasaki during the Q&A was Alabaster, the former Tokyo-based AP correspondent who was sent down to Taiji right after the release of The Cove and found his calling. He is now a Taiji-based PhD candidate at Arizona State University, and as we saw him doing in the film, he is continuing to help the fishermen boost their media literacy.

He emphasized, “Groups like Sea Shepherd are run like a business. They put their resources where they think they can get the most attention. So if they’re pulling out, then it’s because the attention they can get there has decreased a little.”

“We live in a world where people with access to the internet and social media have a louder voice,” said Sasaki. “We hear a voice, whether it’s right or wrong, and if it’s extreme, it reaches even further and sounds better to many people. But people with no access, like the fishermen in Taiji, their voice is diminished. We rarely hear from them. I think this is a very concerning issue.”

Alabaster interjected, “It starts with respect. Even if you disagree with someone, you can still respect them.”

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©A Whale of A Tale Project

Continued Sasaki, “The world is becoming very intolerant. People tend to be mean and vicious, and easily attack one another online. Digital media has a lot to do with that. Anybody can raise their voice anonymously and find an audience.”

Mentioning the scenes of Alabaster showing Taiji locals how to use Facebook and Twitter, a journalist asked him about his vision for giving a more balanced view of the issue. “It doesn’t come off as fair to me,” responded Alabaster. “The protesters are media professionals. They’re very good at what they do, they have a lot of experience. If you’re going to have a debate, I think something should be said on the Japanese side. I’m working now on something — hopefully we’ll have it soon — a way for the fishermen to express themselves in English, to say where they’re coming from. I don’t know if you’ve been on Facebook, but there’s a pocket of it that is filled with hatred and meanness. If we can have a little bit more exchange of opinions, an online Q&A in English or a weekly blog with the fishermen, it could really help, for a start.”

One journalist in the audience, impressed that a “rightwing activist” in the film was acting as a negotiator, wondered about the position of rightists in Taiji.

“Nakahira is very unique,” said Sasaki. “He was the only person trying to communicate with the Sea Shepherd members. I was hesitant to talk to him at first, since [the nationalists] could cause trouble. But when I approached him, he was very friendly, made a lot of sense and emphasized the importance of dialogue. I thought he could be a good voice. We rarely hear what nationalists think in the conventional media.”

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                                                                                              ©FCCJ

Sasaki admitted that although she had set out to give the fishermen a voice on the international stage, “as I continued my research, there were many questionable practices from the Japanese side, for example, the government presenting this issue as one of tradition and culture. I was first trying to portray the bigger whaling issues: what’s happening with whaling in the southern oceans and Japanese research whaling, which have been targets of fierce criticism by the international community. But I discovered that what’s happening in Taiji is much more interesting — issues of why we cannot understand each other, why we cannot communicate, why we cannot respect other cultures. So I expanded the film’s themes to reflect what’s happening in the world today.”
 
She also noted, “One thing I found out about the meaning of tradition is that it’s very different between Japan and the West. For Japanese, tradition is extremely important. They believe that whatever has continued for a long time has to continue in the future, too. Tradition is valued heavily in Japan. In the West, as Scott West of Sea Shepherd mentioned in the film, just because it’s continued for a long time doesn’t mean it’s good, like slavery. If it doesn’t fit in today’s society, it should be abolished. That’s the Western way of thinking.

“For the people in Taiji, living with whales and whaling is their identity. It’s not just about food or economic activities, it’s their identity and their pride. I don’t think either side is right or wrong, it’s just a different approach … As former Mayor Goro Shoji says in the film, ‘Taiji has been and will always be living with whales. Depending on the time, we might catch them and eat them as food, or transform the city as an academic center for whale and dolphin research.’”

To a question concerning high mercury levels in dolphin meat, which was a major point of contention in The Cove, which highlighted how children are served “toxic” meat in school lunches, Alabaster commented, “Things will work themselves out [between the town’s existing factions]. Parents obviously want their children to be healthy. But when you add this incredible element of pressure, when someone who doesn’t speak any Japanese comes in and starts hammering, then those conversations have stopped within the town. If you complain [about dolphin in school lunches], then you’ll be grouped with the foreigners.”

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                                                                                                                       ©FCCJ

Sasaki added, “They’ve done a lot of research into the health effects of mercury, and we touched on that just a little in the film, reporting that the levels there turned out to be 4 times higher than the Japanese average. But none of the [townspeople] have suffered any health effects. The mayor was ready to give up the tradition if their health was damaged. But there were no health effects found in the adults, apparently because of the selenium, which appears to detoxify the mercury. In The Cove, they say these mercury levels are hidden by a media conspiracy, but no, it’s open information.”

As A Whale of a Tale makes clear even in its clever title, whaling is an issue that has been increasingly misrepresented. “I think it’s an issue of globalism vs. localism, not Japan vs. the West,” said Sasaki. “Global standards and values are clashing with local traditions and values all over the world. In Japan, [whaling] is causing nationalist sentiments, even though not every Japanese supports whaling or dolphin hunting. Only 30 – 40 grams per person per year of whale meat is consumed. So if you say that eating whale is Japanese food culture, it’s not correct.”

Alabaster summarized the ongoing controversy in terms that many of his fellow Americans could relate to: “The efforts of the whaling industry to survive and make itself relevant in Japan have been greatly aided by the Sea Shepherd. Everyone has their motivations, but if you went to any little town in America and without speaking English, told them to stop using guns, you would get exactly the same reaction.”

But Sasaki admitted that she doesn’t think the issue will ever quite go away. “It’s no longer an environmental movement,” she said, “it’s now become an animal rights movement, which is way more powerful and active.”

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©A Whale of A Tale Project

Selected Press Coverage

 

 

SEKIGAHARA


SEKIGAHARA


August 8, 2017
Q&A guests: Director Masato Harada and star Takehiro Hira


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Although they're in the middle of shooting a new film together, Harada and Hira took time to field questions at FCCJ.   ©Mance Thompson

Mitsunari Ishida as a humane, love-struck champion of truth? Ieyasu Tokugawa as a bloated, nail-biting, self-serving opportunist? Leave it to master storyteller Masato Harada — returning to FCCJ for a record-breaking fifth time in 10 years — to delve into one of Japanese history’s watershed episodes, and to emerge with a powerful reinterpretation that completely overturns our conventional understanding of its key players, transforming their fateful conflict into a war between justice for the greater good and absolute power for the chosen few.

The battle of Sekigahara, fought on a single day in 1600, is considered a defining moment in Japan’s future. Lasting just six hours, with forces estimated to number over 150,000 (30,000 of whom would not survive) its outcome brought to an end the centuries-long Warring States period. By 1603, the victor was named shogun and ushered in the peace, stability and growth that would last throughout the 260 years of the Edo period.

For such a historically decisive battle, it’s surprising that Sekigahara has never been mounted on screen before. This may be partially due to budgeting and logistics constraints. In the past, Akira Kurosawa was able to rally 1,000 extras and 200 horses for his Palm d’Or-winning Kagemusha, with its climactic Battle of Nagashino. But he was infamous for cost overruns, and his later Ran, shot on a similar scale, was the most expensive film in Japanese history at the time. Amply aided by today’s CG wizardry, but on a far smaller budget than either Kurosawa or Hollywood would require, Masato Harada has managed to create battle scenes in Sekighara that deploy 500 extras and just 30 horses to convincingly epic-scale effect.

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©Mance Thompson

The writer-director had been interested in adapting Ryotaro Shiba’s 3-volume, 1,500-page novel of the same name for 25 years, but recognized that he would have to become more experienced at directing action first. As his filmography grew, his approach to the Sekigahara story also evolved. Although he’d initially imagined different characters as the protagonists of the sprawling narrative, he eventually decided to put Mitsunari Ishida at the center of his film.

During the Q&A session after FCCJ's screening, Harada admitted that he had shared the commonly held view of Mitsunari, a “[historically sidelined] character” who is considered too much of a bureaucrat, and too inflexible in his pursuit of “justice.”  “Many people hated him, including me, until I turned 60,” he said. “But he created his motto One for all, all for one and his thinking process is really contemporary and up to date. We have much in common with him today.”

(It should be noted that One for all, all for one is the motto traditionally associated with the swashbuckling Three Musketeers, but Alexandre Dumas père’s novel was not published until 1844.)

Directing just his second jidaigeki period drama (after 2015’s Kakekomi), Harada populates Sekigahara with a teeming assortment of historic characters and enough political intrigue, Machiavellian maneuvering and exciting ninja action for an entire miniseries. But his focus is resolutely on the motives and strategies of the two men whose forces would meet for the final showdown in a foggy Gifu valley: Mitsunari and Ieyasu.

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©2017 “Sekigahara” Film Partners All Rights Reserved

Shortly after the film opens, Hideyoshi Toyotomi (Kenichi Takito), the samurai who had completed the unification process begun by Nobunaga Oda, is on his deathbed. His devoted acolyte, Mitsunari (Junichi Okada), vows to protect Hideyoshi’s 5-year-old heir until he is old enough to rule, but the cunning, power-hungry Ieyasu (Koji Yakusho, never better) has other ideas. Hideyoshi’s hold on western Japan has been weakened by a series of costly invasions of Korea, while Ieyasu has become the largest landowner in eastern Japan. With Hideyoshi gone, he begins consolidating his expanded power base, forging alliances with notable daimyo families and hatching plots with his servant-conspiracy partner to undermine Toyotomi clan rule.

Mitsunari cannot compete with Ieyasu’s record as a military general, but he won’t stand by as the older man gains dangerous ground. Stolid but determined to persist in his belief that justice alone can create a world without chaos, he enlists the help of Sakon Shima (Takehiro Hira, in a star-making performance), the “most honorable samurai in the land,” and the two set about rallying support. He also begins to rely on intelligence reports from the comely ninja Hatsume (Arimura), whom he had saved from death and soon falls in love with. But she goes on an errand for him just as Ieyasu is gathering his troops. Mitsunari’s Western Army outnumbers his rival’s Eastern Army and victory should be assured. But fate intervenes in unforeseen ways.

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Hideyoshi holds a meeting of daimyos.  ©2017 “Sekigahara” Film Partners All Rights Reserved

Harada was asked about his increased focus on stories featuring “casts of thousands,” and he recalled, “The first time I dealt with many actors and characters was Jubaku: Spellbound in 1999. At that time, I thought I was able to handle them all just like Mr. Kurosawa did. I always wanted to make a film like Seven Samurai; I was really impressed by that kind of scale — 100 speaking roles and everybody feels real. [But it wasn’t until I’d made] Kakekomi and also The Emperor in August — a war film with 150 speaking parts — that Shochiku and Toho producers said ‘It’s about time for you to make Sekigahara.’

“I’d been training for that for the past 10 years. So the only problem I had was how to minimize the number of characters in Mr. Shiba’s book, because there are probably 500 speaking parts. Toho wanted me to do it in one piece, no longer than 2 hours 30 minutes. So I decided to concentrate on Mitsunari and his family drama.”

To the delight of viewers, much screen time is also devoted to the exceptionally valiant exploits of Mitsunari’s righthand warrior, Sakon Shima, played by Takehiro Hira. Harada had seen Hira on the 2016 NHK Taiga drama Sanada Maru, and been impressed with his “classiness.” He noted, “The casting of Sakon Shima was really difficult, because he’s such a well-known character, and everybody’s favorite. I totally didn’t understand Mitsunari’s notion of why he left the battle and didn’t stay to die there. That’s something against the samurai code. But Shima died beautifully, and he fought with his family. His wife participated in Sekigahara, too.”

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Hira as Sakon Shima.  ©2017 “Sekigahara” Film Partners All Rights Reserved

How did Hira transform himself into the far-older Shima, with his jagged facial scars, wild brows and heavy limp, but also with such gravitas and charisma? “Special effects,” he joked. “In comparison to [Harada’s] 25 years of preparation, I only had a few months to prepare for the role. But the director gave me a lot of hints as to how to approach the role, not so much from the text itself, but the external appearance. He gave me Shima’s characteristics early in the rehearsal period. It was my first time to play an older person, so it was a trial-and-error process at first. But somehow, it felt natural as the shoot continued.”

“When I started casting,” recalled Harada, “everybody suggested typecasting ideas for Shima: Koji Yakusho, Ken Watanabe, all the superstars. But I had Junichi Okada, who’s perfect for Mitsunari in terms of his size, his athleticism. So I needed challenging casting for Shima, a new star in the making for Japanese audiences to discover. Nobody believed that 41-year-old Takehiro Hira could play [60-year-old] Shima. That’s one of the reasons I cast him. I remembered that Tatsuya Nakadai played the ronin in Harakiri when he was 28, and his character was in his 50s. I thought, if Nakadai could do that, why couldn’t Takehiro? I met him, I liked him, and since he was educated [in the US], we had a lot in common.”

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                         Making his first appearance at FCCJ, Hira looked at the famous blue banner and said, “I see this place all the time on TV.
I never thought I would be here. I’m really honored.”       
©Koichi Mori

A journalist asked about Harada’s female characters, who had impressed him with their strength. “Not just one or two of them, but all of them,” he said. “In comparison to some of the men, they seemed more active in a variety of ways, whether as fighters or advisers. Did that come from Shiba’s book?"

“In Shiba’s book, there are hints,” answered Harada. “Hanano [Shima’s wife] is mentioned, but I wanted to develop her character. I wanted to develop the female characters, along with Mitsunari's and Kobayakawa's. Filmmakers have forgotten how important females were in the 16th and 17th centuries. They were strong, and they’ve been neglected characters. As I researched, I discovered that Ieyasu actually used one of his concubines as an adviser, and Mitsunari had female warriors. So I wanted to depict those new facts.”

And then the kicker: “And always, my wife is stronger than me.”

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  Harada was appearing for the 5th time at FCCJ.  ©Koichi Mori

In response to a question about his editing, with cutting that feels “breathless” in the film, Harada explained that he places prime importance on pacing in his films. “The Emperor in August was about 1,600 cuts, and my earlier Rowing Through, based on David Halberstam’s book [about American rowers preparing for the 1984 Olympics] was about 1,800. Sekigahara has 2,615 shots. About 1,000 shots use CG, including creating the big belly for Ieyasu. Today’s technology made it possible for me to make this film.”

One of the biggest challenges for foreign audiences in particular, with so many characters and such rapid-fire editing, is that they must also grapple with subtitles and unfamiliar names. Said Harada, “I was a bit worried about the subtitles. The visuals are so fast, it might be difficult to read the dialog. I worked with James Yaegashi [his longtime subtitle collaborator] to shorten them as much as possible. This is the first time we had so much back and forth, probably 3 or 4 different drafts. I made them shorter, but they’re still long. It’s the minimum information needed.”

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                                                                                                                       ©FCCJ

One audience member asked the question on many of our minds: what contemporary resonance did Harada find in the tale? He is known for his rare ability to fuse social criticism with world-class entertainment, in acclaimed films from Kamikaze Taxi to Bounce Ko Gals, Climber’s High and even Chronicle of My Mother. Sekigahara is no exception. He responded: “Mitsunari’s final line is ‘Where is justice today?’ If you see the political situation and how Japan is moving, in every which way, justice is lost. [Despite leaving the battle,] Mitsunari had principles that never wavered. In today’s Japan, we could use 10,000 Mitsunaris.”

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Hira joins journalists and film aficionados in the bar after the event, clockwise from left, Aaron Gerow, Mark Schilling,
Mance Thompson, Rob Schwartz and Markus Nornes. ©Koichi Mori

Selected Press Coverage

OUT OF MY HAND


OUT OF MY HAND (Liberia no Shiroi Chi)


July 27, 2017
Q&A guest: Director Takeshi Fukunaga


Jul 27 Movie Out of My Hand Liberia no shiroi chi by Ayabe030Award-winning writer-director Takeshi Fukunaga   ©FCCJ

It is rare for Japanese feature-film directors to have international aspirations, and rarer still for them to seek opportunities directing overseas. The Film Committee is proud that several of our frequent guests do, in fact, fall into the latter category. With our screening of the beautiful, soulful film Out of My Hand, we have just welcomed another member of this tiny group of international adventurers: Takeshi Fukunaga. Not only is the Hokkaido native based in New York City, but his award-winning first feature was shot partially in Liberia.

The West African country is not on too many Japanese filmmakers’ radars, but Fukunaga found his subject while working on a documentary. Speaking in English during the Q&A following the screening, he explained, “The documentary was about the lives of rubber plantation workers. I was really struck, first, at seeing the severe living and working conditions behind this daily product that we use, rubber; and also at seeing the strength and dignity of these workers, despite their severe situation.

“That really stuck with me for quite some time. Then when I was trying to come up with an idea for my first feature, I knew I always wanted to tell an immigrant’s story — being an immigrant myself in New York for the past 12 years. I thought by connecting those two worlds [Liberia and New York] into one film, I could make something meaningful.”

Asked how much of the film was drawn from his own, or others’, real-life experiences, Fukunaga replied, “I did a lot of library and online research about Liberian life in the U.S. I also did a lot of interviews with Liberians in New York, and the story definitely has parts that were inspired by real events or stories. But the connecting dots are fictional.”

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Bishop Blay as Cisco, in an astonishing film debut.  ©2017 nikonikofilm

After he’d spent about a year writing the script with American writer Donari Braxton, he returned to Africa in 2012 and worked with local writers on the nuances of dialogue, “to make it closer to reality.” Fukunaga and his brother-in-law, Ryo Murakami, a cinematographer, also worked with a local shoot coordinator and the government-supported Liberia Movie Union, to create just the second narrative feature ever shot in the country by a foreign crew.

Out of My Hand is directed by Fukunaga with remarkable restraint — and an admirable absence of melodrama or predictability. There is poetry in the film’s evocation of the daily life of the downtrodden, as well as in its luminous images, particularly in the documentary-style Liberian scenes shot by Murakami, who tragically died from malaria shortly after returning to New York.

The film begins in the predawn African darkness, with a light bobbing through the distant trees. Gradually, we make out the figure of Cisco (Bishop Blay, in a raw, commanding film debut), a rubber plantation worker who is tapping trees and then carrying the gooey stuff in buckets to the central depot. The labor is arduous, but Cisco has a loving wife, two small children and a group of friends who stick up for each other. Still, the work barely pays the bills. When his union calls a strike that soon proves disastrous, Cisco refuses to follow others back to the plantation. “What should we do?” he erupts in righteous anger. “Beg them to break our backs?” Beg them to treat us like dogs?”

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At church one Sunday, the preacher exhorts his flock to “wake up and go!” Cisco heeds the call to leave, knowing it’s probably his last chance to escape the vicious cycle and provide a better life for his family. Following his cousin Marvin (Rodney Rogers-Beckley) to New York City, he eventually finds a job as a taxi driver, a close-knit community of fellow Liberians, and a life that’s not so different from back home.

But then a ghost from the past rises up to haunt him: Jacob (David Roberts), a wheeler-dealer with a burning rage. Suddenly, everything we thought we knew about Cisco is called into question. Although details are slender, the two were fellow soldiers during the Second Liberian civil war (1999-2003), during which as many as 300,000 died, and both bear deep scars of atrocities committed. When Jacob sets Cisco up to take a fall, he may be the one person in New York who can unleash Cisco’s own demons.

Upon its completion in 2015, Out of My Hand was immediately heralded for its powerful and timely narrative. The film premiered at the Berlin International Film Festival, won the Best U.S. Fiction Award at the LA Film Festival and was nominated for the prestigious John Cassavetes Independent Spirit Award. It was also picked up for worldwide release by Ava DuVernay’s distribution company (she’s the director of Oscar-nominated films Selma and 13th, and she’s committed to finding wider audiences for minority-driven stories).

And yet, it would be two more years before Fukunaga was able to release the film in Japan. This is unusual, considering that he is Japanese and the film has a stellar, award-winning reputation. But while the cross-border flow of people around the world has been an increasing focus of global politics, it remains of marginal interest here. (Japan is notoriously backward-looking when it comes to the subject of immigration, with the government insisting that its 1 million-plus unskilled foreign laborers are “guest workers,” not immigrants, and keeping their doors to permanent residency closed. It also admits only a handful of refugees into the country each year.)

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©2017 nikonikofilm

Also seemingly of little interest to many Japanese is the American Dream, or the fact that over the past 6 months, America’s reputation as the land of milk and honey has been profoundly shaken. Nevertheless, Fukunaga hopes that Out of My Handis a way for people to relate to immigrants and to know more about these particular stories.”

He reminded the audience, “Distribution of any arthouse film is difficult, and if it’s about minorities and has no-name actors, it’s even more difficult. So I’m very grateful to Mr. Tsuda and Nikoniko Film for picking up the movie. If I thought only of the box office, then I wouldn’t have made a film about Liberian rubber plantation workers.”

An audience member asked why more Japanese directors aren’t making films about the immigrant experience. “There are many Japanese immigrants to the US, Central America and South America,” he said, “but I’ve never seen films about them. Why doesn’t it attract the interest of Japanese film companies or individuals? There’s many success stories and failure stories. I think they would be very interesting and educational.”

Jul 27 Movie Out of My Hand Liberia no shiroi chi by Ayabe007

After saying that he knew of several such films, including Vancouver Asahi, which we screened at FCCJ in 2014, Fukunaga replied, “I’m not sure, but if I had to guess, I would say that Japanese can be narrow[-minded]. If it’s a story about a Japanese person, they’re always living in Japan. People’s interests are not quite there; it doesn’t connect to the box office.”

Not surprisingly, Fukunaga’s Out of My Hand cast came in for high praise from the audience. David Roberts, who plays Jacob with a convincing Liberian lilt (his mother is from Sierra Leone), is a familiar face to fans of Orange Is the New Black. But Bishop Blay was a complete unknown. “All the actors in the Liberian section are nonprofessionals,” the director explained. “We did an open call for people with some acting experience or no acting experience. We saw hundreds of people and we found these amazing talents — as I believe you can recognize. Some of them were playing people like themselves, such as the pastor in the church scene. All his lines were his own words.”

Fukunaga did not mention that the real-life pastor is former warlord Joshua Milton Blahyi, better known by his nom de guerre, General Butt Naked. Infamous for his barbarity and ruthlessness — and for wearing nothing into battle but his shoes and guns during the First Liberian Civil War in the early 1990s — he is now a Christian minister preaching redemption and forgiveness.

liberia sub2Cisco waits for a fare in New York City.     ©2017 nikonikofilm

Another audience member wanted to know whether Jacob’s death in what seems to be a hit-and-run accident was meant as punishment for his past sins. Responded Fukunaga, “That was a creative decision that came after a long discussion with my cowriter. I didn’t mean it as a punishment for something he’d done in the past, but rather, I hinted that it might have been done on purpose. Or it could have been an unfortunate accident. But we wanted to push Cisco into a very difficult decision, so he would make some moral decisions.”

What those decisions are remain open to interpretation. “It might be ambiguous,” admitted Fukunaga, “but I tried to express the strength and dignity of this character, and that, at the end of the day, he has to do labor to move forward. I started the film that way, and the film ends that way.”

Jul 27 Movie Out of My Hand Liberia no shiroi chi by Ayabe035

Fukunaga recently spent nearly 5 months in Paris as part of the Cannes Film Festival Cinéfondation residency, where he worked on developing his second feature film, a present-day story of Japan's indigenous Ainu people called Iomante. It’s set to go into production next summer in Hokkaido. An audience member wanted to know if he thought the Japanese would be interested, given their past record. “I’m making this because I think it’s important,” responded Fukunaga. “I think I can put all I have into making it happen. I just have to find the right partners and get into a film festival [to make the film more marketable].”

If the FCCJ audience is any indication, Iomante is already hotly anticipated.

chirashi-visual omote
©2017 nikonikofilm

Photos: ©FCCJ unless indicated.

Selected Press Coverage

LOVE AND OTHER CULTS


LOVE AND OTHER CULTS (Kemono Michi)


July 3, 2017
Q&A guests: Director Eiji Uchida, producer Adam Torel and stars Sairi Ito and Kenta Suga


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Kenta Suga gets guidance from his costar, Sairi Ito, before introducing himself in English, echoing, word for word, her earlier introduction:
“Hello, everyone. Thank you so much for coming over today. I’m very happy to be here.”      ©Mance Thompson

Fans of Japanese television and commercial cinema will be familiar with Kenta Suga and Sairi Ito, two young performers who began their careers in early childhood and have been accruing credits at an impressive pace.

By the age of 13, Suga had received a Rookie of the Year Award at the Japan Academy Prizes for the hit Always: Sunset on Third Street, and would go on to star in the enduringly popular series Kamen Rider in his late teens. Ito made waves on several popular TV shows before making her film debut in Takashi Miike’s big-ticket Lesson of Evil, helping her land roles in two box office smashes earlier this year, The Last Cop: The Movie and One Week Friends.

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Under the watchful eye of producer Adam Torel (left) and director Eiji Uchida.   ©Koichi Mori

But nothing will have prepared fans for their audacious performances in Love and Other Cults, playing their first dark, adult characters with remarkable energy and authenticity. Required to be both angelic and demonic, Suga and Ito demonstrate just how much emotional depth they can bring to their roles, allowing them not only to demonstrate their surprising range, but to effectively announce their coming of age in the industry.

Were they not just a little bit worried about trading in their “good-kid” reputations for something much more twisted?

Appearing at the Q&A session following FCCJ’s sneak preview, Ito enthused, “When I first read the script, I thought it was a very good, very interesting story. And it was really realistic. The role was something I thought I could pour myself into. So I said yes right away.”

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©Mance Thompson (left); ©Koichi Mori (right)

Agreed Suga, “I thought the script was super interesting, too. When I saw [the director’s 2016 film] Lowlife Life, I thought I’d like to work with Mr. Uchida, so I immediately said yes. This was the type of role that I’d not done before, so I thought it would be a good opportunity to grow as an actor, to stretch and maybe discover a new side of myself.

 “Meeting Mr. Uchida and Adam,” he admitted, “I was quite relieved to see they were more normal than I had envisioned [cue audience titters]. When I saw Lowlife Love, I was a little concerned about what kind of director Mr. Uchida would be. But he turned out to be a really charming man. I felt very safe going into the project.”

Ito added, “I had met Mr. Uchida and Adam before, and I didn’t have any qualms about working with them. And Adam, being the humorous, comedic character that he is, has helped me time and again.”

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©Mance Thompson (left); ©FCCJ (right)

The collaborators behind last year’s breakout hit Lowlife Love, writer-director Eiji Uchida and British producer Adam Torel, have returned to familiar territory with Love and Other Cults. But the films couldn’t be more different in style. A scabrous satire about the reprobates populating Japan’s indie film and straight-to-video porn scene, Lowlife Love looks as low-budget as its low-rent milieu; and its characters — most of whom are past their use-by dates and know it — move with fittingly enervated desperation.

Although it also concerns the lives of the marginalized and the frequently felonious, and is peppered with scenes of sudden violence and look-away debauchery, Love and Other Cults takes a far more candy-colored, zippily-edited approach to its many characters and subplots. It also boasts grade-A production values, along with the world-class turns of its talented leads, and is sure to reach a far wider audience.

Surprisingly, a “wider audience” is not always the target of Japanese filmmakers, most of whom are sadly content with hometown distribution and wouldn’t dream of working with a foreign producer. Never mind that Torel is also the founding CEO of Third Window Films, the UK's leading purveyor of Asian contemporary cinema, and has distributed nearly 90 titles by today’s leading Japanese directors; nor that he’s also produced films by Sion Sono (The Land of Hope) and Yosuke Fujita (Fuku-chan of Fukufuku Flats).

Even Uchida calls his films “domestic;” but his past festival record — and current filmmaking activities in the US — suggest otherwise.

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All ©Mance Thompson except top right, ©Koichi Mori

“In all honesty, I want to continue making domestic films like these,” he said, in response to a question about expanding his base. “But the more films I make in Japan, the poorer I become. There’s more money in the US. Being raised abroad myself [he spent his first 10 years in Brazil], it would be nice to be able to work in the US or Europe or China. That’s something I would like to do.”

Uchida’s characters, as Japan-specific as they may be, are plagued by the same needs and desires we all have: the restless search for identity, for a place to call home, for someone to love us just the way we are.

In Love and Other Cults, he focuses on deadbeat teens in a deadend town where “every day, someone breaks down… and someone is saved.” Suga plays Ryota, a delinquent who’s desperate to escape to Tokyo before it’s too late. Ito plays Ai (whose name means love), sent off at age 7 by her religious-nut mom to a cult at the base of Mt. Fuji, where she is worshipped as a goddess until the leader (TV talento Matthew Chozick) is arrested. Now a teen, Ai enrolls in Ryota’s school, and he falls for her instantly.

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Ai (center) prays with cult leader Lavi (TV star Matthew Chozick). What is in that pipe?   ©third window films

But thanks to the film’s frantically scrambled chronology, their stories diverge and we don’t learn until much later what happens to their initial rapport.

Jumping back and forth between the protagonists, we follow Ryota as he commits petty crimes with his wannabe-gangster pal Yuji (Kaito Yoshimura, en route to stardom) and the man-giant Kenta (Anthony, in a striking film debut), under the tutelage of local yakuza boss Kida (Denden). But as level-headed Ryota saves up for his getaway, Yuji grows increasingly unhinged and Kenta begins a sweet relationship with dive-photographer Reika (Hanae Kan). Soon, there must be blood — and it will arrive amid colorfully choreographed mayhem.

Meanwhile, Ai drops out of school and starts living with a loose-knit family of misfits and druggies, racing around town with a bosozoku bike gang, rocking a bleached-bonde ’do and an oversized purple tokkofuku (custom-appliquéd “special-attack uniform”), becoming the perfect yankii troublemaker. She’s then offered a new life with a “normal” family; but her chameleon-like need to fit in destroys her chances. Over the next several years, Ai dons and sheds multiple looks and personas, but eventually, her troubled journey takes her on dangerous detours… until college-student Ryota returns from Tokyo.

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Misfits, outcasts, poseurs, wannabes in Love and Other Cults. ©third window films

Wildly imaginative as it is, the film’s marketing materials trumpet that it’s “based on a true story.” Asked about this, Uchida said, “Yes, it’s based on a true story, about a girl who also appears [in a different role] in the film. Her story was far harsher than in my script, and more telling about the rural landscape, so I softened it up a little.”

He continued, “In fact, the script originally had two stories, one about a nikkei-Brazilian boy, and one about this girl. But we decided to merge them together. When I came to Kyushu from Brazil in junior high, about 80% of the classroom were delinquents. So I based the role of Ryota on one of my classmates, who ultimately joined the yakuza.”

It turns out the director wasn’t the only one who grew up surrounded by wannabe gangsters: both Ito and Suga also hail from Nowheres-ville towns, and completely identified with their characters’ plights.

“My hometown has a lot of the same essence as the one in the film,” said Ito. “That’s why I felt there was so much reality in the script. The delinquents in my school talked the same way, too, always asking each other, ‘Which high school do you go to? Do you know such-and-such a senior?’ It really resonated with me.”

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©FCCJ

“Yeah, there were people like that in my class, too,” laughed Suga. “I also came from a rough area, and there were these guys who would have this presence about them, but also this certain freedom about them. Ryota is kind of an amalgam of these types of characters I knew.”

What about the marketing claim that there are actual delinquents playing themselves onscreen?

Uchida explained, “We did have actual delinquents in the film: the bosozoku riders. Sometimes, we’d get calls from the police asking us to stop the shoot, since they were worried about them appearing on screen. So it might be fun for viewers to try to spot who are the actual delinquents and who are actors.”

Added Torel, “We were shooting in Yamanashi, and to use the bikes wasn’t that easy. So a lot of the people in the film were real bikers, including the two who appear in the main marketing images. They own the bikes, and they’re now becoming quite famous since the photos have appeared everywhere.”

Impressed by their standout performances, a journalist asked the young stars about their biggest acting challenges. Responded Suga, “Ryota is a poker-face character, so one of the most difficult things was figuring out where to draw the line, how emotional to be, how much of his interior journey I should depict.”

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©Koichi Mori (left); ©Mance Thompson (right)

Commenting that Ai’s true emotions are also hidden, Ito added, “It was more difficult playing the scenes in which she’s enjoying herself, in contrast to the darker scenes. It was hard to express her purity, and it was hard to play this duality that she has.”

In both her angelic and her demonic personas, Ai essays an unforgettable body-swaying, hand-waving dance, something we understand to be akin to meditation and perhaps, forgiveness. An audience member suggested that Ai actually saves many of those she comes in contact with, even the male fans who follow her when she becomes an AV star. “Yes, I agree that she is a kind of savior,” said Uchida. “When I’ve shown my films in international festivals, I often get questions about the religious aspects, and whether I’m religious. [He’s not.] But I do think people need a belief structure. Being a kid in Brazil, which was a really Catholic society, there were a lot of pious believers there. I had real culture shock when I came to Japan, which doesn’t follow any religion. That may have had some influence on my depiction of Ai.”

CultsMance Thompson-37©Mance Thompson

Love and Other Cults world premiered at the Far East Film Festival in Udine, and will make its North American premiere at the New York Asian Film Festival, before moving on to the Fantasia Film Festival in Montreal. If it follows a similar trajectory as Uchida and Torel’s last collaboration — and there’s no reason it shouldn’t — it will soon be seen in dozens of territories, and later this year, be released on DVD by Third Window Films. Watch for it.

CultsMance Thompson-38Misfits, outsiders, poseurs... just kidding! The crowd in the bar, following the screening event.  ©Mance Thompson

kemono
©third window films

Selected Press Coverage

Selected TV Exposure

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MARRIAGE


MARRIAGE (Kekkon)


June 20, 2017
Q&A guests: Star Dean Fujioka and director Shinichi Nishitani


Dean and Nishitani Koichi Mori
Nishitani directed Fujioka playing that paragon of virtue, Godai-sama. This time out, he's an incorrigible scoundrel.    ©Koichi Mori

The flashbulb orgy was just a tad overwhelming as Dean Fujioka took his seat onstage following FCCJ’s screening of his new film, Marriage.

“I’m going blind,” he said in English, laughing happily. “You guys are amazing!”

The irony wasn’t lost on the large crowd, which was clearly thrilled to experience the megawatt voltage of Fujioka’s smile and his rockstar magnetism in person. Most of them were there because they’d already been mesmerized by the force of his NHK debut on the morning drama Here Comes Asa.

Playing the real-life father of Osaka commerce, Tomoatsu Godai, with an impossibly charming, breezy confidence, he had imbued the character with a buoyant optimism that seemed to dovetail perfectly with his own personality. Male viewers yearned for his let’s-change-the-world fighting spirit; females yearned for a man who would cherish and cheer them on, as Godai had done for Asa, the title character.

Over the course of its six-month run, the series became a cultural juggernaut and the “Godai-sama boom” continued unabated. Soon, Fujioka’s “reverse-import” status as Japan’s first Asia-wide star was firmly cemented. His presence drove Here Comes Asa to record-setting viewership, and Fujioka, to a stratospheric level of popularity.

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                                                                                                                                                                                ©FCCJ

 The Fujioka supernova had first glowed in 2006 in Hong Kong and Taiwan, where he parlayed a successful (albeit unplanned) modeling career into a series of attention-grabbing roles in television and film. Impressively, he also added Cantonese and Mandarin to his fluent English, which he’d honed during college in Seattle.  

He signed on with Japan’s Amuse talent management company in 2011, and for the next few years, split his time his time between TV projects in Japan, Taiwan and North America — where he appeared in eight episodes of the 2014-2015 detective series The Pinkertons — as well as Japanese indies.

But it wasn’t until Here Comes Asa started in late 2015 that Fujioka became an overnight sensation in his homeland. The years at midlevel fame apparently helped him adapt to his newfound mega-celebrity with amiable equanimity.

Veteran NHK director Shinichi Nishitani was one of the helmers on Here Comes Asa, and during the Q&A session, he recalled being “blown away” by Fujioka’s charisma on their first meeting, becoming an instant fan. After working with him, he found him to be “an actor who can really immerse himself in a role and become the character, whereas many actors stay themselves. With Dean, he plunges into it with full commitment. I find that astonishing.”

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                                       Marriage marks the third collaboration for Fujioka and Nishitani.  ©Koichi Mori 

While the asadora series was running, they made a TV movie together, Noisy Street, Silent Sea. With Fujioka’s meteoric rise, they were also able to fast-track a feature project. The resulting film, Marriage, is the long-awaited adaptation of a bestselling novel by Areno Inoue, about a marriage scammer. Nishitani cleverly cast Fujioka as the conscience-free conman, earning instant audience sympathy for a character who wouldn’t otherwise deserve it.

But both men deflected the suggestion that playing a scoundrel was meant to counteract the Godai-sama effect. Says Nishitani, “We wanted to widen the spectrum of his roles this time around. Of course he’d done I Am Ichihashi: Journal of a Murderer, which was quite a departure. But I wanted to show his utter charm, how he can sweep women off their feet and put a spell on the them.”

Fujioka added, again in English, “I did everything I could to convince myself that I was the person he wanted me to portray. After we finished shooting, during the editing process, Mr. Nishitani took a different approach, and I was surprised. But I’m happy with the outcome.”

In Marriage, Fujioka’s lothario is not a hero, far from it: he separates his victims from their savings accounts and redefines their notions of romantic bliss. But he’s also not quite a villain, not even in the women’s eyes. There is apparently a dark secret in his past, and this is at the root of his fraudulent schemes.

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                 Kenji puts a spell on Ruriko, before she's wise to his ways.   ©2017 "Marriage" Film Partners

Kenji Urumi (Fujioka) is perpetually polished and happily married to Hatsune (Shihori Kanjiya). He just happens to make his living from con games, slipping in and out of whatever skin suits his latest conquest, with marriage as the bait. For avid reader Asami (Eriko Nakamura), he is a popular web novelist with 500,000 followers; for classy magazine editor Mana (Wakana Matsumoto), he is a budding restaurateur who can also tickle the piano keys with just the right seductive pizzazz; for Hatoko (Tamae Ando), who despairs of the future as she stamps marriage license applications at a city office, he is a suave wine connoisseur.   

Then there’s Ruriko (Shuko), Kenji’s partner in crime, a former target who realizes she can keep him close only by sharing in the spoils of his misadventures. She provides him with a “never-ending supply” of lonely hearts in need of love. Until one day, he meets his match in Yasue (Hisako Manda), who digs into his past and reveals the ugly truth.

Although saying more would spoil the film, there is an unexpected outcome that differs substantially from the original novel. Discussing that during the Q&A session, Fujioka said, “I think it was really effective that Mr. Nishitani decided to bookend the film with the traditional lullaby Hamabe no uta. It evokes something that should be there, and is not — something that Kenji should have had, that would allow him to have [healthy] relationships with women, but that’s been ruined.”

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                             Hatoko meets and falls for Kenji at a wine tasting.    ©2017 "Marriage" Film Partners

Addressing the director, a foreign journalist commented, “The British psychoanalyst Christopher Bollas has said that we get married in order to escape growing up. Can you tell us your thoughts on how you tried to show the institution of marriage in this film?”

Nishitani initially answered, “I would say that we portrayed it as something that soothes you.” But after further prompting by the emcee and Dean, he admitted, “I’ve arrived at this answer after experiencing multiple marriages.”

“Pretty convincing, right?” laughed Fujioka. “Home is where the heart is!”

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                                                           Fujioka reacts to Nishitani's description of marriage based on "multiple" experiences with it.   ©Mance Thompson

A female journalist asked Fujioka about the process of making his character empathetic. “Being an actor is a lot like being a conman,” he said, responding in Japanese because the question was in Japanese. “You have to do what the character calls for or you can’t be an actor. But the professions are polar opposites. For the conman, it’s all about his own ego — he breaks the law and the consequences are quite tragic.

“But it’s interesting,” he continued, “because Kenji’s ability to please women is what makes him such a good conman, and makes the film so compelling. To make a woman happy, [Kenji knows] you have to like her. You have to feel that you like her. It’s about having curiosity. ‘What is she thinking? What does she want to do? What does she really want?’ And it’s about making the other person comfortable, putting her at ease.”

Another audience member asked the star about the scene in which he’s playing the piano. Despite being an accomplished musician, he admitted, “It was technically challenging. It’s the first time I’d played the piano while saying my lines and also reacting to the actress’ lines. It was like we were doing a musical, and it took a lot of concentration.”

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                                                                                                                                            ©Mance Thompson

Returning later to the subject of music, Fujioka was queried about the film’s theme song, Permanent Vacation, which he wrote and performed. “I knew right away that I wanted to start the song with the line asa ga kita, or here comes asa, since the director and I met on the NHK drama. So it begins, When morning comes, we still don’t know where we’re headed. I wanted to convey this sense of being lost, of not knowing where to go. I wrote the rest of the lyrics during the shoot, and didn’t start writing the music until we’d finished shooting.

“The lyrics are a kind of soliloquy, a confession,” he concluded, “because we only tell Kenji’s story from the perspective of these women that he’s swindled. So it’s a glimpse into his heart and mind, and that’s how we ended the film.”

The actor doesn’t need to worry that this rogue turn will diminish his female following. Coincidentally, he is currently starring in Amazon Prime’s hit Happy Marriage!?, and fans can find comfort as his character continues to evolve from a “tyrannical-devoted-sadistic-charming” husband (as per Wikipedia) into someone more closely mirroring Dean Fujioka himself.

Marriage poster 2017 Marriage Film Partners
                            ©2017 "Marriage" Film Partners

Press Coverage

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00:00 Thursday, October 05, 2017

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00:00 Friday, September 08, 2017

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15:14 Friday, July 28, 2017

LOVE AND OTHER CULTS

12:31 Thursday, July 06, 2017

MARRIAGE

00:00 Friday, June 23, 2017
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