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Café Elektric with piano and benshi accompaniment


CAFÉ ELEKTRIC


 NOVEMBER 7, 2014
Q&A guests: Austrian pianist Gerhard Gruber, benshi narrator Ichiro Kataoka
and film archivist Fumiko Tsuneishi


electric 
Gruber plays in the foreground as Kataoka narrates in the background.

FCCJ helped kick off the Silent Film Renaissance 2014 from Vienna: Treasures of Filmarchiv Austria series, running from November 11 – 16 at the National Film Center in Kyobashi, with a special screening of Gustav Ucicky’s 1927 film Café Elektric, accompanied by renowned pianist Gerhard Gruber and benshi narrator Ichiro Kataoka.

The Movie and Entertainment Committees cohosted the evening, which began with a cocktail party featuring a selection of Austrian wines. Once upon a time, silent films in Japan had live piano and benshi accompaniment. But unlike other nations, which quickly embraced talkies, Japan continued to feature benshi — the era’s real stars — even when it meant turning down the film’s own soundtrack. Not content to merely narrate the story and act out characters’ dialogue, many benshi became famous for providing their own unique interpretations of the action taking place on the screen.

 gruber  kataoka
Gruber (middle left) talks with new FCCJ fans, while Kataoka (right)
and NFC Director Hisashi Okajima chat with an overseas visitor.

The audience at FCCJ was treated to an unforgettable performance by two artists who are devoting their lives to keeping the theater’s bygone traditions alive. Gerhard Gruber is a composer and pianist who has accompanied some 400 silent films over the past 25 years, not only in his native Austria but around the world. For the last decade or so, he has worked with benshi narrators, including the legendary Midori Sawato. She is Ichiro Kataoka’s mentor, and he amused everyone by describing how he followed her around for a year before she finally accepted him as a student. Kataoka studied performance at Nihon University and is now the best-known benshi of his generation. In 2013, he and Gruber partnered to form the duo East Meets West, which accompanies silent film screenings throughout Europe.

Café Elektric is set against the backdrop of a fashionably naughty café in Vienna, which all its characters patronize, and features screen icon Marlene Dietrich in one of her earliest roles. The story is a familiar one, of a spoiled rich girl (Dietrich) who falls in with the wrong man, of a fallen woman who falls in with the right one, and of the vicissitudes of fortune. But with the exceptionally dynamic Kataoka narrating, and the dramatic Gruber ranging breathtakingly over the keyboard, the film became as electric as its café.

tsuneishi
Tsuneishi describes the loss of Japan's silent film heritage.

Summoning admirable stamina, the performers appeared at a brief Q&A session following the screening, to discuss their career choices and their collaboration. Gruber recalled a grim childhood in a Catholic boarding school, feeling that films became a “window to freedom.” He still feels emotional about it: “Just like you meet someone and you marry him or her, and you do not divorce, I have not. I still like my partner very, very much.” Although he has written basic scores for his partner, he essentially improvises each time he accompanies a film. “It should always feel fresh and new every time you watch it.”

Fumiko Tsuneishi, an archivist at Filmarchiv Austria and the curator of the series at the NFC, also joined Gruber and Kataoka to field audience questions. Prior to going to Vienna in 2006, she had spent seven years at the NFC and organized some of the first digital film restoration projects in Japan. She spoke about the substantial output of Austria’s film studios in their 1920s heyday, and the fact that a large percentage of films have survived (often overseas, where prints had been imported). “The loss of Japanese silent film is immense, really incredible,” she explained. “Most of them are lost, only 3 percent or so have survived. Very few Japanese films were exported abroad, so there is very little chance to find any [remaining] films somewhere else.”

Café Elektric is one of the 16 films being screened in the NFC silent film series, several of which also feature benshi and piano accompaniment. Along with several recently restored erotic shorts, other highlights include Der Rosenkavalier, Die Sklavenkönigin, Orlac's Hände, Die Freudlose Gasse and Romeo und Julia im Schnee, directed by Ernst Lubitsch in 1920 before he found fame in Hollywood.
  Photos by Koichi Mori.

 Cafe Elektric poster

FUKU-CHAN OF FUKUFUKU FLATS (Fukufukuso no Fukuchan)


FUKU-CHAN OF FUKUFUKU FLATS


 NOVEMBER 4, 2014
Q&A guests: Star Miyuki Oshima, director Yosuke Fujita and producer Adam Torel


oshima 
Comedienne Miyuki Oshima discusses her first leading role... as a man.

Miyuki Oshima dreams of winning a Japan Academy Award for Best Actor for her performance as the middle-aged male title character in cult comedy director Yosuke Fujita’s new film, and if anyone deserves it more than she does, let him come forward. Remember Jaye Davidson in Neil Jordan’s The Crying Game? Oshima is that good. Good enough to fool the Western journalists in the audience who had never seen the comedienne on TV, where her Morisanchu trio is ubiquitous. She’s already won a Best Actress trophy at Montreal’s Fantasia Film Festival for her gender-bending feat; if the Japanese media turnout at FCCJ is any indication, her role is already earning her enormous attention at home.

Looking like herself, ie., lovely and feminine, at the Q&A following the screening of the tongue-twisting Fuku-Chan, Oshima smiled happily as her director explained just how she came to play the unusual role: “The genesis of the project came from the idea of having Ms. Oshima play a man,” explained Fujita. “If she had said no, I really can’t think of any other actress or actor who would have been suitable.” Why? “It’s her face that attracted me. She has the kind of face the Japanese really love, a really familiar face. I think she has the perfect face for a comedy that people can relate to and enjoy … It is truly nostalgic [natsukashii]” He also admitted that he’d wanted a woman for the role, so Fuku-chan would be less lewd than if a man played him.

Oshima said she was surprised to hear that Fujita needed her face to bring Fuku-chan to life. “As a matter of fact,” she pointed out, “Yoshiyoshi Arakawa looks a lot like me, and I think he could’ve done it.” (She’s known for her self-deprecating humor.)

How did Oshima prepare for the role? “Even before we started shooting, I tried to do manly things,” she said. “I never took a bath, I just took showers; I didn’t have any massages or eat any organic food. I also stopped sleeping in bed and just slept on the floor.”

adam  fujita
Torel (left) helped Fujita complete his first feature-length film in six years.

Producer Adam Torel piped up: “Do men not take baths? I’ve done it. And had a massage. And eaten organic food.”

Oshima admitted she also took cues from Tora-san, the beloved (and very natsukashii) character in Yoji Yamada’s long-running series It’s Tough Being a Man. “It was the director’s suggestion that I watch him,” she said, “and I watched the whole series. It was very educational, in the sense that I wanted to know how to depict a very lovable character.”

Fuku-chan is also a very lovelorn character, after his junior high crush turns up at his rundown apartment building (that would be “Fukufuku Flats”) one day, two decades after being the agent of some painful bullying. Tatsuo Fukuda — “Fuku-chan” to his friends — has spent the years since then painting buildings by day and beautiful kites by night. But his greatest artistry is reserved for mediating disputes and helping those in need. The misfits in Fukfuku Flats keep his loneliness at bay, and his pal Shinmachi (Arakawa) tries to light a fire under his love life. But his timidity around women is downright unnatural until a budding photographer named Chiho (Asami Mizukawa) enters his life, and attempts to make amends for the past.

ThreeFujita, Oshima and Toel flank Fuku-chan.

Yosuke Fujita proved in 2008 that no one can make an audience love a loser the way he can. His Fine, Totally Fine (Zenzen Daijobu, starring the oddball Arakawa) was a deadpan delight about two sadsack best friends who woo the same klutzy girl, punctuated by outlandishly ghoulish pranks. It had a wildly successful ride on the international festival circuit, scooping up numerous awards and several foreign distribution deals.

The equally offbeat Fuku-Chan has also been rapturously received overseas ahead of its Japanese debut, disproving the old saw that comedy is the most difficult genre for crossing borders. Thanks to its pioneering coproduction scheme, it is also already set for release in half a dozen countries, an unprecedented feat for a small Japanese film without Kurosawa or Miike at the helm.

Marking the first-ever Japan-UK-Italy-Taiwan-Germany coproduction, Fuku-chan was backed from the script stage by veteran distributors of Asian film who are hoping to “change the entire playing field and help Japanese non-genre and independent films reach the largest international audience possible,” according to their press release. Producer Adam Torel, head of the UK’s largest contemporary Asian cinema distributor, Third Window Films, and a driving force behind the collaborative project, was asked about the difficulty in financing the film. “I think it can be hard for a midlevel-budget film, but obviously, having someone like Oshima-san attached, a star like that, it’s not quite as hard.”


Oshima Watanabe3Hirobumi Watanabe, director of the 2013 indie hit And the Mud Ship Sails Away, tells Oshima
that he's from her small hometown in Tochigi.

Fujita concurred: “The film production scene in Japan right now is very polarized. It’s either films with big budgets coming from TV stations, or small independent films with budgets of around ¥1 to ¥2 million. Midsize films like this one are very hard to make these days, so I’m very grateful that all these international parties came onboard to make this work.”

Torel added, “It was done to create a [coproduction] formula … so people on both sides could see — the Japanese producers would realize that it could be done, and distributors overseas would realize that non-genre Japanese films could be released overseas.”

Time will tell whether the formula helps revive a seriously flagging indie film scene in Japan. Meanwhile, we’ll soon have a chance to see whether Miyuki Oshima can make history at the Japan Academy Awards. Nominations for Best Actor (and other categories) are due out in January.
  Photos by Koichi Mori and FCCJ.

 fukuchan
©2014 'fukufukuso no fukuchan' film committee

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NUCLEAR NATION II (Futaba kara Toku Hanarete Dainibu)


NUCLEAR NATION II


 OCTOBER 14, 2014
Q&A guests: Futaba Mayor Shiro Izawa and documentary director Atsushi Funahashi


NNII-1  NNII-2
Mayor Izawa                                                                   Funahashi

The nuclear disaster arising out of 3/11 has inspired hundreds of documentaries, but the first to receive international acclaim was Atsushi Funahashi’s 2012 Nuclear Nation, about the exile of 1,415 residents from the area housing the crippled Fukushima Daiichi plant. Premiering at the Berlin Film Festival less than a year after the meltdowns, it provided an extremely intimate look at an unconscionable situation, following the fates of evacuees from Futaba Machi, who had been forced to move 250 km away to an abandoned high school in Saitama.

Highlighting the inhumane conditions, the ongoing agonies, the unanswered questions about the true costs of nuclear energy and capitalism — and introducing us to feisty Futaba Mayor Katsutaka Idogawa, a cheerleader for nuclear power who was now regretting his support — the film quietly earned our moral outrage, as the government and TEPCO continued to ignore demands for empathy and the information vacuum gradually sucked all hope from the survivors.

Nuclear Nation ended in December 2011 with over 600 residents still at the school, but Funahashi never stopped shooting. After cutting down over 400 hours of footage, he has now created the second chapter in the refugees’ grim ordeal.

Izawafunahashi
Funahashi has pledged to continue following the fate of Futaba indefinitely.

Nuclear Nation II begins at New Year’s 2012, and brings us forward to this past March, when the school is once again abandoned. In this chapter, there are no more bands coming to cheer up the evacuees, no more truckloads of fresh produce, no more visits from the emperor and empress, no more “Gambare Futaba Machi!!” banners. But there are still the annual observances of prayer marking 3/11, the brief visits to crumbling homes in the exclusion zone (96% of the town is deemed uninhabitable), men shuffling into meetings they don’t want to attend, officials dodging questions.

There is also increasing desperation, bickering over differing levels of resident compensation, and a new mayor: After Idogawa’s vocal complaints and refusal to attend one-way meetings have earned him infamy, the town council summarily ejects him in early 2013. His replacement, Mayor Shiro Izawa, is less outspoken, but equally opposed to the co-opting of Futaba as a dumping ground for irradiated soil and other nuclear debris. We see the reactions of townspeople when Environment Minister Nobuteru Ishihara makes his notorious remark that, “At the end of the day, it all boils down to kaneme (the amount of money they can get in compensation for their land).”

Although it is not included in the film, it was widely reported in September that Izawa and Fukushima Gov. Yuhei Sato had met with Prime Minister Abe to accept the government’s proposal.

Fortunately, the mayor was on hand after FCCJ’s sneak preview of Nuclear Nation II to set the record straight:  “While it’s true that the governor did make the decision to accept plans to build temporary storage for nuclear waste,” Izawa said, choosing his words carefully, “the town of Futaba is still discussing the issue. So contrary to what the Japanese media has reported, we have not totally accepted the construction of these sites.”

Funahashi immediately added: “What’s being forgotten is the landowners’ [rights] to decide whether to sell or lease their land. The central and prefectural governments are going over their heads and accepting the facilities…and creating a context in which people are being forced to sell their land, even if it’s against their will.”

Three and a half years after the triple disaster, close to 100,000 people still live in temporary facilities in Iwate, Miyagi and Fukushima prefectures due to construction delays on permanent housing.  To a question about matching them up with suitable housing from the 8 million vacant residences throughout Japan, Izawa said, “For these people, everyday life is linked to a sense of community. They have their family, friends and relatives; they share an environment, share a history, and that’s what makes a town…I think it’s important to give them back the community they had, and not just let it collapse.” Funahashi added, “I see it as a kind of human rights violation to force people to live in temporary housing.” Earlier, he had mentioned, “The role of my film is to show they have lost something kaneme can never compensate.”

While Izawa labors to make the voices of Futaba’s refugees heard above the din of nuclear dialogue, former Mayor Idogawa is now running for governor of Fukushima. The gubernatorial election is October 26, so we’ll know within weeks whether he’s been given a second chance to do right by his constituents. Meanwhile, Atsushi Funahashi continues to document this ongoing tragedy, and we should expect Nuclear Nation III to include Futaba’s reactions to the controversial rebooting of Japan’s nuclear program.

 Photos by Koichi Mori and FCCJ.

 NNII poster
©2014 Documentary Japan

 

Media Coverage

HARMONICS MINYOUNG (Minyon Baion no Hosoku)

 


HARMONICS MINYOUNG


 OCTOBER 8, 2014
Q&A guest: Writer-director Writer-director Shoichiro Sasaki


minyoung1
Sasaki (r.) with his producers, Tetsujiro Yamagami and Takahide Harada.

For 20 years, legendary NHK director Shoichiro Sasaki was entirely absent from the public stage, apparently retired from a career that marked him as one of Japan’s most prolific and poetic creators, with a body of internationally award-winning work that inspired such leading lights as Cannes favorites Hirokazu Kore-eda and Naomi Kawase, and Venice regular Shinya Tsukamoto.

Sasaki has now broken his silence, and fans will be thrilled that his first-ever theatrical release (the film is debuting on October 11 at the vaunted arthouse theater Iwanami Hall) is over 2 hours long. Harmonics Minyoung is an inventive, experimental quasi-documentary that moves constantly between Japanese, Korean and English as well as the language of song. The complexity of its structure obfuscates its strong antiwar message until the final act, but it gradually becomes clear that the story is near to the director’s heart. As it turns out, the film’s period scenes, depicting a family’s life in Tokyo during World War II, are based on Sasaki's actual experiences as a youth in wartime.

minyoung2
The director waxes eloquent on Mozart.

During his Q&A session at FCCJ, Sasaki expressed fears about the film’s public reception, reminding everyone that for two decades, he’s been known only as a “former TV director.” He recalled the recent cast and crew screening, at which he stood on the stage and apologized for putting them all through so much trouble. “I’d been thinking about what a ‘film director’ is,” he explained. “Is he a great artist? No. A craftsman? Maybe. A shyster? I finally realized that he’s a guy who causes problems for everyone involved, in order to complete his film.”

As in Sasaki’s previous productions, Harmonics Minyoung is cast with nonprofessionals. The ebullient heroine, Minyoung, is from Seoul, but met Sasaki in 2004 when she was attending Waseda. The director asked her parents for their permission before signing their daughter on to play the character of university student Minyoung, who is writing and illustrating a novel called “The Laws of Harmonics.” She is obsessed with Mozart’s music (as is Sasaki) and, for some reason, with a photograph depicting her grandmother's Japanese friend Sueko. Driven by her curiosity about Sueko, Minyoung journeys to Tokyo. Here, she meets a street child, Yu, as well as reuniting with a friend who is now a freelance journalist covering the dark side of society, and is constantly being pursued by strange men in trenchcoats. When Minyoung suddenly becomes Sueko in the film-within-a-film, she is actually portraying Sasaki’s own mother, to whom Harmonics Minyoung is dedicated. The journalist is his father — in reality, as here, murdered for expressing critical views of the military — and the street child, Sasaki himself.

Sasaki originally planned to use only Mozart’s Jupiter Symphony (No. 41) in the film, since it’s “overflowing with hope,” and chose the Czech Philharmonic because they have “the best string section in the world.” But after production ended, he felt something was missing, and decided to delay editing until he finally had a breakthrough: “One day, I heard the old [Civil War] song ‘Marching Through Georgia’ — which was the first American song heard by the Japanese, when Admiral Perry came to Japan — and I [realized I needed a musical counterpoint]. After that, I selected 12 songs to use in the film, even though I didn’t tell producer [Takahide] Harada.”

Sasaki is now 78, and eager to plan his next outing as film director. Considering his enviable energy and the widespread support from a creative community that never forgot him, his second career may be just as laudable as his first.

 — Photos by Koichi Mori.

minyoung

©2014 Siglo/Sasaki Films

 

Media Coverage

 

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


MC higurashi1
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.”

MC higurashi2
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.

MC higurashi3
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

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