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A SAMURAI CHRONICLE (Higurashi no Ki)


 A SAMURAI CHRONICLE


 SEPTEMBER 18, 2014
Q&A guests: Director Takashi Koizumi, star Koji Yakusho, special advisor Teruyo Nogami


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Nogami, Yakusho and Koizumi share a laugh.

FCCJ’s audience had a special treat awaiting them after the sneak preview of A Samurai Chronicle, when Akira Kurosawa’s principal assistant for half a century, Teruyo Nogami, joined the film’s director and star for the lively Q&A session. Although the questions focused primarily on the new film, the 87-year-old leavened the proceedings considerably whenever she joined in to reminisce about the old days. “I was very fortunate to work with Kurosawa-san for a long time, from Rashomon onward,” she noted, “and whenever I see one of his films today, I realize that he was an incredible director, far better than I imagined at the time. I really regret that I didn’t realize it earlier.”

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Yakusho, Koizumi

Nogami was in attendance as a special advisor, a “dai sempei,” according to the director, who was also a longtime assistant to Akira Kurosawa and had made his own debut directing the master’s unfilmed screenplay, After the Rain (2000). She had visited the set during production, and felt Kurosawa’s spirit present, sometimes shouting “Hey, Koizumi!”

A film of autumnal magnificence, both in its stunning scenery and its sublime performances, A Samurai Chronicle was adapted by Koizumi from the Naoki Prize-winning novel by Rin Hamuro. Set at the end of the Edo period, it follows a samurai’s final three years before he must keep his promise to commit harakiri, the punishment for a crime he committed seven years before the tale begins. The 10-year delay is so Shukoku Toda (Yakusho) can complete a genealogical chronicle detailing the domain’s history.

Into his life as a simple country squire comes Shozaburo Danno (Junichi Okada), who has been sent by the prime minister to keep watch over the samurai. Toda’s love for his family and commitment to the community, especially the area’s downtrodden peasants, is unusual and Danno soon comes to suspect that this honorable man could not possibly have murdered someone in a fit of jealous rage. He sets out to investigate the truth, but finds something even more incriminating: a document that could unravel the domain’s entire chain of command.

A jidaigeki (period drama) in the traditional mold, the film was well received at FCCJ and inspired discussion of its meaning for contemporary theatergoers. In light of the political climate in Japan, and the film’s story of the manipulation of history through the chronicle of the title, Koizumi was asked whether he had intended audiences to draw any parallels. “There is no political message,” the director answered. “These events actually happened, and I tried be as accurate as possible in their depiction. At the same time, I hope the audience gets something out of the story, and I welcome personal interpretations about what is being explored.

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Yakusho joins Team Kurosawa.

Yakusho, generously making his third appearance at FCCJ in the last four years, was questioned several times about his plans to appear in more international films, considering his English-language successes Memoirs of a Geisha (2005) and Babel (2006) and his continued popularity in global hits like Takashi Miike’s hits 13 Assassins (2010) and Hara Kiri: Death of a Samurai (2011). “If I could speak English better, it’s possible that I might be working more in America,” Yakusho said. “But I’m grateful to be able to keep working in Japanese film, and I’ll continue to focus on doing my best possible work, and hope the films will be seen by as many people as possible. I hope the rest of the world can also see how good Japanese films can be.”

Chances are we can expect Yakusho to work with Koizumi again: both the star and his director expressed an interest in another collaboration, although Yakusho did mention he was a little worried about the high average age of Koizumi’s crew, which is peopled with veterans of Kurosawa’s shoots. If anything, age proved to be an asset on A Samurai Chronicle — at least behind the camera. In front of it, youthful megastar Junichi Okada and Maki Horikita essay impressive turns, and their love story is sure to draw the younger generation (most of whom think “Kurosawa” refers to Kiyoshi) to the theater.

 — Photos by Koichi Mori and FCCJ.

MC chronicle poster

Media Coverage

TOKYO TRIBE


 TOKYO TRIBE


 August 7, 2014
Q&A guests: Director Shion Sono and stars Ryohei Suzuki, Young Dais and Nana Seino


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A zany FCCJ team celebrates a zany Q&A.

Studies have shown that only a handful of Japanese directors are known by name overseas. Right near the top of that short list is Sion Sono, the one-man cinematic cyclone whose every work, even after a prolific career spanning 25 years, still feels iconoclastic. Provocateur, impish maestro of naughtiness, winner of countless festival awards, discoverer of new talent — he guided Shota Sometani and Fumi Nikaido to the Marcello Mastroianni Prize for Acting in Himizu — reaper of box-office coin (2010’s Cold Fish was a surprise international hit), Sono is the creator of both high-minded fare like the Fukushima-themed The Land of Hope (2012) and low-brow celebrations of B-movie outrageousness like Why Don't You Play in Hell? (2013).

The Movie Committee had attempted to lure the director in for a sneak preview event since his much-admired Love Exposure in 2009, but each new release found him already deep in production on the next, too busy to make an appearance. On our seventh attempt, we hit the jackpot: Tokyo Tribe proved to be our lucky number. Sono’s frenetic live-action adaptation of Santa Inoue’s mega-bestselling manga series “Tokyo Tribe2,” the film is the world’s first rap musical and marks the screen debuts of hip-hop artists from seemingly every Japanese prefecture.

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Sono speaks

Sono brought with him his three young stars, Ryohei Suzuki (Gatchaman, Hentai Kamen: Forbidden Superhero, NHK’s Hanako to An), Young Dais, a popular recording artist, and Nana Seino (Wood Job!) — who obliged the director’s request to demonstrate her panties-flashing backflip for the FCCJ audience. Suzuki and Young Dais impressed the audience (and their director) with verbal gymnastics: both had gone to high school in the US, so answered questions in fluent English and then translated themselves into Japanese.

During the Q&A, Sono described how he was brought into the project by his frequent producer, Yoshinori Chiba, who “plotted and schemed” to get it made. The manga adaptation process began with only a few rap songs, but eventually grew into a full-blown musical after Sono held nationwide auditions to select hip-hop artists and gave them suggestions for lyrics to be adapted. Without the rapping, he said, the film would have been “an orthodox coming-of-age story.”

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Seino, Young Dais and Suzuki.

Young Dais and Suzuki both lauded the director for encouraging interaction, a process that Suzuki likened to “a battle” of creativity. “I needed to bring more than he expected to the set,” he said, “and we had to always be ready for changes and new scenes all the time. That was a real thrill.” Young Dais added that acting was a big adjustment for him, but toward the end of shooting, he was comfortable enough to make suggestions to Sono, “and he would listen and say, ‘yeah, let’s try that,’ and he was really encouraging to me. But he’s really a crazy guy.”

Seino discussed how she’d always heard that Sono was a “scary, demanding director,” but found him to be very supportive on set. She leaned forward and directed her final remarks to Sono: “I love you, desu,” she said, to which her director replied, “Me, too.”

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Seino strikes a pose after her backflip.

Like the manga, Tokyo Tribe opens five years after the Shibuya riots, with Tokyo divided into territories run by 23 rival tribes — the Shibuya Saru, Shinjuku Hands, Kabukicho GiraGira Girls, Bukuro Wu-Ronz and my personal favorite, Nerimuthafuckaz — each with their own colorful approach to fashion and the new lingua franca, rap. Crossing territorial lines in this Blade Runneresque Tokyo results in ballistically choreographed, action-packed rumbles — just as it did in the New York of West Side Story, another obvious influence on the director.

The FCCJ audience was clearly enthusiastic about what one attendee called “two hours of constant, ass-kicking fun:” a constant visual assault of candy-colored neon, lewd graffiti, black leather thongs, flying kickboxers, a Kano sister, a sadistic midget, severed fingers in cigar boxes, human furnishings, penis jokes and a growl-rapping Riki Takeuchi, all directed with the deliciously delirious excess that has made the madcap-genius director (almost) a global household name. The international rollout of Tokyo Tribe, which begins with the Toronto Film Festival, where the film opens the Midnight Madness section, is sure to further Sion Sono’s renown.

— Photos by FCCJ.

tokyo-tribe-poster
© 2014 NIKKATSU

Media Coverage

2014年8月8日
・『PON!エンタメよーいPON!』 日本テレビ
・『スッキリ!!エンタメまるごとクイズッス』 日本テレビ
・『ZIP!SHOWBIZ TODAY』 日本テレビ

2014年8月12日
・『PON! 毎日が緊急企画!ちょっとおトーク』 日本テレビ

 


 THE END OF THE SPECIAL TIME WE WERE ALLOWED


 July 24, 2014
Q&A guest: Director Shingo Ota


Shingo Ota
Shingo Ota

July’s second screening about youth in imperiled situations, The End of the Special Time We Were Allowed is perhaps the first-ever film made by a young director about a friend’s suicide, completed as he continued to grapple with his own imagined role in it.

But the story hadn’t begun that way.

Shingo Ota was a high school friend of Sota Masuda, a talented young singer-songwriter who dropped out when he won a major competition and headed off to Tokyo to become famous. When his major-label debut falls through, Masuda gradually turns to drugs to blunt the pain of his loneliness and despair. After a brush with death by overdose, he returns, defeated, to his Nagano hometown. There, his friends rally round him, and some of his youthful confidence and energy returns. Ota —who had studied film at Waseda — is recruited to make the documentary about Masuda’s comeback.

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Ota and interpreter Mihoko Imai listen to the reminder
of the film's theatrical opening in Tokyo.

Unfortunately, Masuda’s optimism dims and he kills himself in the midst of the project, leaving a note for Ota: “Be sure to finish the film,” it says. “And try to give it a happy ending.”

Ota was devastated and angry, a feeling that he translates into fictional bookending scenes which drew some criticism from FCCJ’s audience for their violence.  But Masuda’s note definitely proved helpful: “I was determined to finish the film,” Ota said during the Q&A, “so I think I would’ve finished it whether Sota left the note or not. But it helped his family understand what he wanted, and they agreed that I should continue.”

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Ota and producer Yutaka Tsuchiya (in hat) join audience members
in the Main Bar after the screening.

As for the fictional violence, Ota explained that he wanted to draw a stark comparison between the type of suicide that occurs when someone is suddenly overwhelmed by hopelessness, and Masuda’s choice of death, “which was planned, carefully and deliberately. I wanted to use [the bullying scene of a suicide victim] to find a way of portraying this difference. The [female character] who killed herself did so without thinking. This type of suicide we can prevent. We need to give them the opportunity to rethink their choices." 

With so many Japanese youth making the same choice, The End of the Special Time We Were Allowed opens a much-needed crack into their world. More than just a record of a life cut tragically short, is a tremendously personal, poignant and finally, revelatory inquiry into the increasingly low expectations of today’s youth.

— Photos by Koichi Mori and FCCJ.

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©Midnight Call Productions

 

Media Coverage

 

A CLASS OF THEIR OWN


 A CLASS OF THEIR OWN


 July 15, 2014
Q&A guest: Director Haryun Kim


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Haryun Kim

Growing up in Seoul, Haryun Kim always felt a kinship with outsiders, and after working for an NGO post-college, completed her first film, Voice of Migrant Workers (2002). It wasn’t until she’d moved to London to study Social Anthropology at the School of Oriental and African Studies that she understood: she herself was a “person on the move,” in a world that is increasingly filled with “migrants.” The plight of the growing underclass became her subject. “I want to tell sincere human stories,” she says, “that champion the voices of those who would otherwise never be heard.”

After studying documentary at the National Film and TV School, Kim relocated with her family to Guanzhou, China in 2008 and was immediately struck by the contrast between the lives of the city’s many migrant workers and the gleaming metropolis they were building.  She soon discovered that the children of these workers were excluded from free public education without a local hukou household registration, forcing them to attend pricey informal private schools called minban — unregulated enterprises that fill the gap in the market. There are no guidelines governing the teaching standards or facilities at these schools.

The nation’s economic boom has created a constant stream of job-seekers to its cities, bringing with them more than 20 million children — worse, Beijing recently started shutting down minban over safety concerns, leaving migrant children with no schooling and no alternatives.

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Haryun Kim

Kim spent a year befriending and earning the trust of the children and teachers in one minban, creating a breathtakingly intimate portrait of their lives for A Class of Their Own. “I was like a piece of furniture in the room,” she told FCCJ’s audience during the Q&A. She spent several months getting to school earlier and leaving it later than anyone, and gradually selected her three main subjects. For different reasons, each of them leaves school by the end of the film.

A short version of Kim’s film debuted in an “impossible time slot” at the Asian Side of the Doc Festival in Chengdu last year, after unknown forces attempted to bar it from being shown at all. “There were Chinese people in the audience,” says Kim, “and they were shocked that migrant workers are such second-class citizens. They were also surprised that a foreigner was able to gain such access to their lives.”

Look for A Class of Their Own on the international festival circuit later this year.

— Photos by FCCJ.

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©Summer Lotus Films

UZUMASA LIMELIGHT (Uzumasa Raimuraito)


 UZUMASA LIMELIGHT


 June 16, 2014
Q&A guests: Director Ken Ochiai and Stars Seizo Fukumoto and Chihiro Yamamoto


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Chihiro Yamamoto, Seizo Fukumoto, Ken Ochiai

They call him the Man Who Died 50,000 Deaths, but legendary chambara actor Seizo Fukumoto revealed the truth to the FCCJ audience: “It’s an exaggeration. I’ve probably been killed only 20,000 times.” Cue an eruption of laughter. Unlike the taciturn, aging stuntman he portrays in the crowd-pleasing Uzumasa Limelight, Fukumoto proved to be a loquacious guest.

In Ken Ochiai’s film, as in life, the 71-year-old veteran plays a kirare-yaku, a sword-fighting extra who has plied his artistry in Japan’s once-predominant samurai film and TV industry for over 50 years. When the hero slices him with a sword, as will inevitably happen, Fukumoto’s eyes and mouth fly open in a deadly grimace, his back arches in a gravity-defying arc, and finally, he thuds heavily to the ground. This death is his trademark move, and it helped make him an industry favorite at Kyoto’s Uzumasa Studios, once the Hollywood of Japan.

But the rapidly dwindling production of jidaigeki samurai dramas has threatened the livelihood of everyone at the studios, and this is essentially the story of Uzumasa Limelight, which pays richly deserved homage to the stunt performers of yore and features many familiar faces from the much-loved genre. Both Ochiai and wushu junior world champion Chihiro Yamamoto — who makes an extraordinary acting debut in the film at age 17 — told the FCCJ audience they recalled their grandparents watching the long-running Mito Komon TV series when they were growing up.

uzumasalime The director and stars recieve their FCCJ honorary membership cards

But it wasn’t until Ochiai went to the US to study film at the University of Southern California that he realized how essential jidaigeki are to the world’s perception — and appreciation — of Japanese film.  Ochiai’s experience in the US, along with that of his LA-based producer, Ko Mori, and his American cinematographer contribute to the film’s successful combination of Japanese tradition and international sensibility.

The astonishing, real-life skills of Uzumasa Limelight’s two leads is worth the price of admission alone, but there is much else to admire, from the stunning art direction to the evocative soundtrack. An elegy for Japan’s once-plentiful period films and the unsung heroes of the genre, it is also a timely reminder that every generation stands on the shoulders of giants.

— Photos by FCCJ.

uzumasa flier©ELEVEN ARTS/ TOTTEMO BENRI

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