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I: DOCUMENTARY OF THE JOURNALIST


i: DOCUMENTARY OF THE JOURNALIST
(i -Shimbun Kisha Document-)


 November 12, 2019
Q&A guest: Director Tatsuya Mori and producer Mitsunobu Kawamura


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Director Tatsuya Mori . ©Koichi Mori

“In the political context of Japan today, the question really is, how much can a film accomplish?”

That was the Socratic response given by producer Mitsunobu Kawamura when he was asked why he had produced not one, but two films featuring the same woman in 2019.

The woman in question, crusading reporter Isoko Mochizuki, is the star of political thriller The Journalist — although she’s played by an actress and the role has been heavily fictionalized — and she is also the firecracker at the heart of i: Documentary of the Journalist, which follows the real-life Mochizuki so closely, she is barely absent from the screen.

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Mochizuki questions a government rep. ©Star Sands,Inc.

Kawamura, speaking to an overflow crowd at FCCJ following the screening of the documentary, admitted, “I hadn’t anticipated making both a documentary and a narrative film when we started. I think this is the first time in history that it’s been done. We actually had a different focus at first, but then a number of incidents took place in rapid succession that really should have brought down the Japanese government. The most film-worthy of these incidents was the rape case of Shiori Ito. But she was in a very difficult, delicate situation, and it was around that time that Ms. Mochizuki’s book ‘The Journalist’ came out, so we shifted our focus to her.”

Tatsuya Mori, the renowned director of such controversial films as A, A2, 311, Fake and now, i: Documentary of the Journalist, explained that he’d been working on his first narrative feature project when Kawamura hired him to direct a fictionalized version of Mochizuki’s book. When the producer then asked whether he could also direct a documentary about Mochizuki, Mori stepped down from the fiction feature to focus on the documentary.

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Kawamura (left) and Mori fielded a range of questions, many of them not what the producer, at least, was expecting. ©FCCJ

In June, The Journalist became a surprise hit in Japan. And less than a week before their appearance at FCCJ, Kawamura and Mori’s documentary won the Best Film Award in the Tokyo International Film Festival's Japanese Splash section, bringing them far greater instant attention than either had anticipated.

Although i: Documentary of the Journalist doesn’t mention Japan’s ranking on the 2019 World Press Freedom Index (it’s a very low 67; the US is at 48), its traditional media have earned increasing criticism for their herd mentality, for acting “more as stenographers than inquisitors,” as Motoko Rich recently put it in The New York Times, and for obediently following the dictates of their kisha clubs, which extend membership only to specific news organizations, allowing them exclusive rights to cover specific government offices with the expectation that questions will not be probing.

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Mori and Mochizuki chat during a break from filming, which took place from December 2018 until October. ©Star Sands,Inc.

That makes Mochizuki, a reporter for Tokyo’s largest regional paper, The Tokyo Shimbun, a notable exception. She has defied the dominant media culture and waged a lonely battle for the truth, becoming something of a press freedom folk hero for her prickly interactions with government officials, particularly at the Cabinet Office briefings that have helped make her (in)famous.

i: Documentary of the Journalist thrusts the viewer into Mochizuki’s daily life as she travels around Japan with her maroon roller luggage, chasing some of the biggest stories of the past year — from the ongoing disputes over US base re-siting in Henoko, Okinawa, to the initial dismissal of reporter Shiori Ito’s charge that she’d been sexually assaulted by a colleague with close ties to the Abe Cabinet, to the Morimoto Gakuen and Kake Gakuen school scandals implicating the prime minister and his wife — and relentlessly peppering officials with questions in her quest to get behind their smokescreens.

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©Koichi Mori

“What are you hiding?” she asks them. “It’s unethical to dodge scrutiny. You’re in charge, be responsible! What you’re doing is shameful.” It’s no wonder that, although her paper receives mostly supportive emails about her behaviour, there have also been death threats.

Mochizuki was publicly censured by the Cabinet Office earlier this year, and to the government’s surprise, hundreds of supporters turned up at the prime minister’s office, rallying on her behalf and pressing for greater transparency at the highest levels. “Isoko Mochizuki is me! Isoko Mochizuki is all of us! Fight for the truth!” roars the crowd in the film, as the journalist herself watches from the sidelines in amazement.

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There is an important message in the small ‘i’ of the film’s title, and it’s spelled out in text on the screen: “Don’t be ‘we.’ Be ‘I.’ First-person singular.” Mori was asked why he seems to be advocating for a more independent populace, when Japan is so famously consensus-minded.

He responded, “Human beings in the West as well as the East are group oriented. Because of groups, we have created wonderful cultures around the world. But there are side-effects: everyone moves in the same direction, like a school of fish. This leads humanity to make mistakes. ‘We’ is definitely important, but ‘I’ is also important. I believe that ‘I’ is too weak. I think we need to strengthen the ‘I’ in Japan.”

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Mochizuki at work in the Tokyo Shimbun newsroom. ©Star Sands,Inc.

Asked why Mochizuki seems to have a much stronger ‘I’ than ‘we,’ Kawamura purposely deployed two controversial Japanese expressions that have making headlines. “Ms. Mochizuki is really KY — kuuki yomenai,” he explained. “She’s oblivious to the surrounding atmosphere. And she doesn’t do sontaku — she doesn’t brown-nose (by anticipating and fulfilling superiors’ needs). In making this film, it occurred to me that the intense peer pressure that exists here is bringing Japan to a state of crisis, and really represents a danger to society.”

Have a century ago, esteemed journalist Edward R. Murrow warned, “A nation of sheep will beget a government of wolves.” As governments around the world continue oiling their misinformation machines, denying the public’s right to know, and waging war on the media’s “fake news,” Mori has understandably stepped up his advocacy of media’s all-important watchdog role. A professor of media literacy at Meiji University, he is also the author of over 30 best-selling books on social issues and the media, and winner of the Kodansha prize for nonfiction.

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©Koichi Mori

He recalled that when he’d approached the Aum Shinrikyo cult to request their permission to shoot the documentary A,which would earn him international acclaim upon its release in 1988, he was surprised to discover that no one else had bothered to even ask.

“OK, so here’s the quiz,” he told the audience. “Does that make me special? No, not at all. What I’m doing is what everybody should be doing. I only appear to be special because of the deteriorating standards of others. Ms. Mochizuki is the same. If she doesn’t get an answer the first time she asks a question, she asks again. If she still doesn’t get an answer, she goes and conducts firsthand research. She’s doing the job of a journalist. She only appears to be special because of the sinking standards of those around her.”

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©Koichi Mori

He continued, “The Japanese media is in terrible shape these days, but is that because they’re wrong-headed or weak? The media and Japanese society function together, and reflect upon each other. The reason the media is weak is because the public is weak. We elect third-class politicians because we are third-class citizens. We’ve got to find a way out of this dynamic, this mutual reinforcement. We’ve got to find a way to improve the situation overall.”

Asked whether Mochizuki’s example might inspire others, the director said, “It’s difficult. But as long as people have the feeling that the status quo is not desirable, there’s a possibility of change, whether they see these two films or not, whether they’re directly influenced by Ms. Mochizuki or not. As long as there’s a sense that things cannot continue the way they are now, it’s possible. There are many people in the media who are working very hard and have a strong sense of responsibility. If those people act on their sense of responsibility, then there’s a possibility for dramatic change to take place within the media.”

He waited a beat before adding, “Or alternatively, if 10 million people watch this film, then society will change overnight.”

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The filmmakers with the Japanese poster for the documentary. ©︎FCCJ

Kawamura was slightly more upbeat, despite rumors that the Japanese Agency for Cultural Affairs had pulled promised funding from another film he produced in 2019, Miyamoto, as punishment for his focus on Mochizuki. “Portraying a woman who fights on a daily basis at the prime minister’s office gave me great encouragement and strength in the course of making the film,” he told the audience. “I think [her approach] is something that’s very much needed… As a producer, my takeaway is that there’s nothing to be afraid of. It appears that there’s social pressure and that there’s a formidable force acting against us, but in fact, that’s a phantom. There’s no real danger in doing what we’re doing.”

As soon as Mori finishes adjusting the English subtitles to accommodate his final cut (he re-edited the film slightly after the TIFF world premiere, re-recording his narration in a more “relaxed way,” making the animation more “fantastic,” and changing the placement of the music), i: Documentary of the Journalist will begin making its international festival rounds. The good news for Japan-based viewers is that Shibuya’s Eurospace theater intends to screen the English-subtitled version.

Let the 10-million-viewers challenge commence.

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©Star Sands,Inc.

Selected Media Exposure

TORA-SAN, WISH YOU WERE HERE and Q&A in collaboration with TIFF


TORA-SAN, WISH YOU WERE HERE
(Otoko wa Tsuraiyo Okaeri Tora-san)


 October 3, 2019
Q&A guests: TIFF Opening Film Director Yoji Yamada,
TIFF Festival Director Takeo Hisamatsu and Japan Now Programming Advisor Kohei Ando


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Legendary writer-director Yoji Yamada plans to keep making films for another dozen years.  ©︎Koichi Mori

The hottest cinema ticket in Japan this year is sure to be for the 32nd Tokyo International Film Festival Opening Film. Eschewing its long-held tradition of selecting foreign titles for the honor, TIFF has hewed closer to home, where audiences across the country have been eagerly awaiting the release of the 50th title in the legendary Otoko wa Tsurai yo (It's Tough Being a Man) series.

That title — Tora-san, Wish You Were Here, from veteran helmer Yoji Yamada — will open TIFF 32 on October 28, and although the film’s beloved star will not be there (he died in 1996), legions of multi-generational fans will.

The Oscar-nominated director (for The Twilight Samurai in 2002) launched the series with Tora-san, Our Lovable Tramp in 1969, when Japan was experiencing dizzying growth and audiences were nostalgic for simpler times. It proved so popular that Shochiku went on to release two Tora-san films each year until 1989, one in summer and one for the New Year’s holiday season. Eventually, 49 films hit theaters over a 28-year period, setting a world record. All but two of them were directed by Yamada and all starred Kiyoshi Atsumi as “Tora, the free-spirited fool,” a boisterous, penniless salesman who travels through a rapidly-modernizing Japan, falling in unrequited love and dispensing unwanted advice. The last entry was 22 years ago, shortly after Atsumi’s untimely death.

The 50th title has been completed in time to celebrate the 50th anniversary of this remarkable achievement. But this isn’t simply a commercial ploy for closure. With Tora-san, Wish You Were Here, Yamada has done something truly groundbreaking: the film recaptures the spirit of the “lovable vagabond” through innovative technology that seamlessly interweaves new footage with 4K digitally restored footage featuring its late star. Rather than feeling like he’s been digitally inserted into scenes, Tora-san comes vibrantly, startlingly alive, and reminds us all how much he’s been missed. (For those who haven’t followed the series, it also serves as a fitting introduction, with actors literally aging 50 years on screen.)

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Yamada shares a laugh with his old friends Ando, left, and Hisamatsu.  ©Koichi Mori

Following a very special sneak preview of Tora-san, Wish You Were Here with English subtitles at Shochiku, Yamada joined TIFF Festival Director Takeo Hisamatsu and Japan Now Programming Advisor Kohei Ando at FCCJ for a brief rundown of this year's festival, and a rewarding Q&A session focused on his new landmark film.

At the packed session, which included many foreign fans — one of whom had flown in for two days from France just to cover the event — Yamada was asked about the biggest challenge of sustaining a series for 50 years. He responded, “Audiences always come to see a new Tora-san film because they want to see him again and spend time with him, so you can’t betray their expectations, and that’s [not easy].”

And then, sounding like another famous Shochiku director (Yasujiro Ozu, who likened himself to being a tofu maker), he sketched a metaphor: “I think my job as a director, especially with this series, is a lot like being a restaurant cook, trying to anticipate what the customers want to eat. You want them to say, ‘Oh, this is exactly what I felt like eating.’ You don’t want them to leave disappointed, the same way you don’t want the audience to leave disappointed. You want them to say, ‘This is exactly the kind of film I was hoping for!’”

The master chef also spoke, with several emotional pauses, about his star: “The most difficult film to make was the 48th film. By that time, Atsumi-san had become quite sick. We knew that he might have only two or three years left. So we were in a quandary about whether we should continue to shoot. We had to keep his physical condition in mind while writing the script.” (At Atsumi’s wake, Yamada would apologize for pushing his star so relentlessly; but one imagines Tora-san was a sustaining force for the actor.)

On a brighter note, he said, “It’s been 20 years since Atsumi-san died, but if he were still here and saw the film, I think he would be surprised. I have the same sense of surprise myself. In the very first Tora-san film, there’s a scene where Tora’s little sister Sakura, played by Chieko Baisho, is being proposed to by the man she later marries. Baisho-san was 25 years old at the time, and she’s 75 now. [In the new film] the other cast members have also aged, but Tora-san has stayed the same. In a sense, he’s like Chaplin’s Little Tramp or Marilyn Monroe.” 

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The iconic traveling salesman returns.  ©2019 Shochiku., Ltd.                                                    © 2019 TIFF

Asked how it felt to be selected for the TIFF opening slot, Yamada chose his words carefully. “There are numerous film festivals around the world, and needless to say, TIFF is the one that represents Japan. I think it’s very important for TIFF to have a certain character, a theme that differentiates it, something that people can’t find in any other festival. I hope that TIFF continues to work towards that goal so that it becomes a truly unique festival in the world.”

In fact, TIFF is differentiating itself this year by further intensifying its focus on Japanese offerings. Takeo Hisamatsu, in his third year as festival director, told the FCCJ audience, “As you know, the 32nd TIFF is being held in the first year of Japan’s new Reiwa Era. Next month, many guests will be coming from around the world for the ascension of the new emperor. We’re in the midst of the Rugby World Cup right now, and next year, we’ll host the Tokyo Olympics and Paralympics Games. So Japan is in the global spotlight, and there’s no better time than the present to showcase wonderful films from Japan in this year’s TIFF.

“I feel almost a sense of fate that we’re able to present Yoji Yamada’s Tora-san, Wish You Were Here as the TIFF Opening Film, since I’ve been watching all the Tora-san films as they were released and I have a warm spot in my heart for the series. Also, being a former Shochiku employee myself, I’ve had the great pleasure of working with Yamada-san and the opportunity of visiting the set as they were shooting the films."

Kohei Ando, TIFF’s Japan Now programmer since the section was created six years ago, was also excited about Yamada’s inclusion. “The Japan Now section’s mission is to showcase recent Japanese films that reflect the present state of this country, its aesthetics, its culture and philosophy,” he explained. “In that sense, showcasing a film like Tora-san, Wish You Were Here as the Opening Film of the festival is very much in line with this purpose, as it’s one of the most prominent and noteworthy titles to open this year. I have a twinge of regret about not being able to show this wonderful film in the Japan Now section, but it gives me great satisfaction that we’re able to present it as the Opening Film.”

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Yamada and his Tora-san family.
©2019 Shochiku., Ltd.

Among the 14 films in the Japan Now section will be a selection of works by another legendary filmmaker, Nobuhiko Obayashi, of House fame. “As many of you probably know,” said Ando, “Mr. Obayashi was diagnosed with cancer three years ago. Nevertheless, two years ago he shot a wonderful film called Hanagatami. And despite his ongoing battle with the disease, he has now shot yet another, Labyrinth of Cinema, and it’s another marvelous piece of work.”

Aging, disease, death: the Q&A session couldn’t avoid these topics. But the multigenerational audience didn’t seem to mind. After all, these are essential components of Tora-san, Wish You Were Here.

The series resumes on the sixth anniversary of the death of Mitsuo Suwa’s wife, and the family has gathered at a memorial service behind Kurumaya, the traditional confectionery store on the approach to Taishakuten Temple in Shibamata, which has now been reborn as a modern café. Tora’s sister Sakura and her husband Hiroshi still live in the quarters at the back, which have remain unchanged. 

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Mitsuo, Izumi, Sakura and Hiroshi recall the old days.
©2019 Shochiku., Ltd.

After the service, conversation inevitably turns to lively reminiscences of the past (beautifully illustrated with “flashbacks” from earlier films in the series), especially the many times that Torajiro, the black sheep of the Kuruma family, brought his latest unrequited love interest back with him, sending the house into an uproar.

Tora’s now-40ish nephew, Mitsuo (Hidetaka Yoshioka), has recently left his office job to become a novelist. At a book signing, he runs into his first love, Izumi (Kumiko Goto), who moved away to Europe as a teen and now works there as a UNHCR diplomat. Both have since married and had children, but as they talk, the years begin to melt away. Mitsuo takes Izumi to a small jazz bar, owned by the still-gorgeous Lily (Ruriko Asaoka), Tora’s greatest love.

The two women last saw each other over 20 years ago on Amami Oshima, and Lily finally reveals why she and Tora never married. Later, they go to visit Sakura and Hiroshi, and it gets late, so Izumi sleeps on the second floor, with plans for Mitsuo to drive her to a reunion with her father the next day. And so a new chapter begins…

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Lily tells Izumi what happened.
©2019 Shochiku., Ltd.

“I have made dozens and dozens of films over the course of more than half a century,” Yamada told the audience. “But making this newest film in the Tora-san series, I wasn't sure just what I was embarking on. Throughout production, I was a bit anxious about it, but I was [looking forward to seeing] what it would ultimately become. When I viewed the completed film, I realized that it really took 50 years to make. Without my longevity, I wouldn’t have been able to make it.” 

A young foreign journalist praised the film and queried, “I think it’s quite a feat to direct a film this good at the age of 88. If you were to direct another, what would you want it to be?”

“When I think about my age, it fills me with anxiety,” the director admitted. “I sometimes feel I shouldn’t have this luxury of making films. But Clint Eastwood is still making films (at 89), so I suppose I should follow suit. Portuguese director Manoel de Oliveira and Japanese director Kaneto Shindo both shot films until the age of 100, so I think there’s still hope for me.” 

Interjected Ando, to audience delight, “Yamada-san is just like Tora-san: he simply doesn’t age.” 

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Yamada charmed the audience with his candor and enviable energy.  ©Koichi Mori

Another foreign journalist, professing herself a fan of the series, asked what criteria Yamada had used to select the actresses who played Tora-san’s love interests, the so-called “Madonnas,” and why he hadn’t selected Momoe Yamaguchi, one of her favorite actresses.

Yamada responded, “First, I thought about what kind of actress he would fall in love with. Tora-san could really fall in love with just about any type of woman. Selecting the Madonnas for each film was an enjoyable process. Of course I also considered approaching Ms. Yamaguchi, but she’d already retired from acting, so that unfortunately couldn’t happen.”

In one of the film’s many touching flashbacks, a teenaged Mitsuo asks his uncle what life is for, and Tora answers, “There are times in life when a man is glad to be alive. That’s what we live for.” When an audience member asked Yamada whether he’d had times like that, the director grew serious. “To be honest, we live in a world where not everything is happy. There are situations both at home and abroad that we cannot be happy about. I hope there comes a time when I’m thankful to have lived this long so I could see it.”

The French journalist who had specially flown in for the event asked the director why trains and train stations played such an important role in all the Tora-san films, and why, in this one, a pivotal scene is set in an airport instead. Said Yamada, “Tora-san is a traveling salesman, always on the move. He can’t drive, so he has to take the train. But he doesn’t take the shinkansen, it’s too fast for him. He enjoys going from town to town on these slower trains. He enjoys drinking his sake and making friends on these train rides. And he’s never disappointed that he doesn’t arrive earlier. The way he's sees it is, ‘Why would I pay extra to arrive at my next destination any earlier?’ His sense of time is different from Mitsuo and Izumi’s, and that’s why you see them at the airport.

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©︎FCCJ

“But there is one other time in the series where you do see an airport: that’s when Tora-san is going to Okinawa. He’s afraid of flying, so his family members have a hard time convincing him to get on the plane. Ultimately, he boards the plane only because an attractive flight attendant comes along and tells him it's safe.”

For those longing to revisit these and other earlier episodes, Shochiku is releasing 4K digital restorations of all 49 previous films on Blu-ray, culminating in the nationwide release of Tora-san, Wish You Were Here on December 27.

If you're lucky, you'll catch the film earlier at TIFF, which will be screening 170 films from past and present, and holding a variety of related events, from October 28 – November 5 in Roppongi, Hibiya and elsewhere in Tokyo.

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©2019 Shochiku., Ltd. 

Selected Media Exposure

Selected TV Exposure

・ めざましテレビ 2019年10月4日(金)05:25~08:00 フジテレビ 

Selected Printed Media Exposure

Nikkan Sports
・Sports Hochi
・Daily Sports
・Chunichi Sports
 

WORDS CAN'T GO THERE


WORDS CAN'T GO THERE (Kaizan Take No Oto)


 September 26, 2019
Q&A session with David Neptune and John Kaizan Neptune
and a very special musical performance by
John Kaizan Neptune, David Neptune, Hitoshi Hamada and Christopher Hardy


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The Neptunes: fellow artists and snake hunters. ©︎FCCJ

It’s an old saw, that artists are incapable of expressing themselves through language alone. When words aren’t enough, they pick up the tools of their trade… and speak volumes.

In David Neptune’s penetrating, lyrical Words Can’t Go There, a renowned musician does exactly that.

Starting off modestly, as befits its subject’s humble approach to his musical prowess, the camera follows a man in jeans as he arrives by truck, enters a bamboo forest, digs, chops and emerges with a small stalk. “I like to think of music as a bridge that can take you to a nameless, timeless place,” the man says, in voiceover, placing the stalk in his truck. “Words can’t go there.”

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Hitoshi Hamada on vibraphone, John Kaizan Neptune on shakuhachi, David Neptune on take-da
and Christopher Hardy on percussion, a special live performance.
©Koichi Mori

A haunting tune of indefinable subtly and mystery fills the soundtrack. And suddenly, the camera lifts up and over the forest, taking flight as if the music has set it free.

Neptune’s film is, at heart, the story of a California surfer turned master of the shakuhachi (Japanese flute). But like all good stories about artists, it illuminates more than the process of creation.

Joining a select few films made by offspring about a famous parent, Words Can’t Go There was made by David about his father, John Kaizan Neptune, the most acclaimed non-Japanese practitioner of the shakuhachi, who has lived in Japan nearly half a century, recorded several dozen albums ranging from jazz, classical and traditional Japanese to world fusion, and performed across the globe.

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Director David Neptune ©Koichi Mori

Every member of FCCJ’s sneak preview audience had heard of John, but few of us knew his backstory, nor the particulars of his arduous journey to prominence. The documentary rectifies that, and our screening was followed by an extraordinary live musical performance, with John on shakuhachi, Hitoshi Hamada on vibraphone, Christopher Hardy on an array of percussion instruments, and David joining in for the final tune on the bamboo take-da drum, which his father had invented.

Neptune elder and younger then joined us for the Q&A session, which began with what felt like a rite of passage: “It was very interesting to work with David, because he has so much more expertise in [filmmaking] than I do,” said John about the filming process. “That was a real eye-opener. Early on, we were friends as well as parents, going surfing or hiking or hunting for frogs together. Later, when he started working with film, he became a fellow artist, as well as someone who was fun to hunt for snakes with. So it was a nice transition, that we could (now) relate to the difficulty of making it as an artist.”

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John Kaizan Neptune in concert. 2019 ©️ Ocean Mountain, LLC

The documentary traces those difficulties, but it isn’t until late in the film that the personal tolls really come into focus. Words Can’t Go There touches, quite movingly, on the sacrifices made by John’s wife and children while he was on the road half of every year, and on his own emotional distance.

A friend from Chiba, longtime FCCJ member John Harris, couldn’t resist asking, “Was it difficult to get Diane (Neptune) to participate? Some of the footage is really heartrending.”

Chuckling a little in discomfort, David replied, “It wasn’t hard to get her to participate. But it was probably my most difficult experience, asking her questions about her and my dad’s relationship. What child wants to ask their parents about what led to a divorce? She didn’t oppose being interviewed, but I think she was surprised by some of the probing questions that I asked.”

He went on to explain, “It wasn’t something I’d foreseen when I started the process. I thought, ‘Oh, I’m so impressed with my dad, with what he’s done, and I want to tell that story.’ But as I got into it and starting swimming upstream, I started finding all kinds of stuff that I felt I was obligated to explore. And that’s also thanks to the great people I worked with, like my cinematographer, Bennett (Cerf), who always prodded me to keep asking my parents more and more painful questions; and to (producers) Chiaki (Yanagimoto) and Mike (McNamara), who supported me throughout the process.”

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Neptune crafting a shakuhachi in his workshop. 2019 ©️ Ocean Mountain, LLC

The film traces John’s improbable journey from California to Chiba through a treasure trove of early photos and footage, as well as through interviews and performances with fellow musicians Kojiro Umezaki, Kifu Mitsuhashi, Kaaraikkudi R. Mani, Ghatam Giridar Udupa, Taizan Ohashi and Shinichiro Makihara. Family members recall that he had always driven himself hard. An early interest in the trumpet, inspired by his jazz trombonist father, gave way to an obsession with surfing, which led him to improve the surfboard by crafting his own, and finally, to enrolling in college in Hawaii so he could catch the best waves. While there, he took an Introduction to World Music class on a whim, and discovered the shakuhachi. It was love at first note.

In 1973, John moved to Kyoto to begin a rigid apprenticeship with grandmaster Genzan Miyoshi. A fellow student recalls that he would record their teacher’s playing on cassette, then “practice each phrase 500 times, 10 hours a day.” He was promoted to master in record speed, took the shihan name “Kaizan” (“ocean mountain”) and fled for the relatively free environs of Tokyo, where he could “do his own thing.”

That thing soon made him famous: John found his metier in the pioneering fusion of shakuhachi with jazz. Over the next decade, he appeared on innumerable TV shows, composed 80 pieces, released 10 albums in a variety of genres, and in 1980 — just 7 years after committing himself to a shakuhachi career — became the first-ever non-Japanese playing a traditional instrument to win Best Record at the annual Japan Record Awards.

John’s improvisations expanded the possibilities of the shakuhachi (“He’s someone who changed the game,” enthuses shakuhachi player Kojiro Umezaki, who performs regularly with the Silk Road Ensemble, in the film). Even as traditionalists criticized the achievement, John’s impact became increasingly global. As he’d done with surfboards, in his pursuit of the “perfect sound,” he also began crafting his own flutes, innovating them to create sounds never heard before, resulting in what aficionados dubbed the “turbo shakuhachi” for its large bores, and earning a reputation as the best tuner in the world.

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 ©Koichi Mori

Asked whether other musicians do the same thing, John told the audience, “Players don’t make their own shakuhachi, but you have to play quite well to be able to make one because you’re shaping the bore to create the sound. If you can’t play well, you don’t know if it’s you or the instrument when you’re trying to improve the resonance. But the reason for my start and my struggle with it was that no matter how much money I paid, I couldn’t find an instrument I was happy with.”

The film makes clear that most traditional instrument players in Japan belong to a certain “scene,” aka, a rigidly defined hierarchy of student and teacher that perpetuates certain schools or styles. Neptune has never followed that path. As a fellow musician notes, “John belongs everywhere, and yet nowhere.”

“Where do you think you belong?” he was asked at FCCJ. “No matter what kind of music you make or the communication you have with an audience, whether I’m playing solo or particularly when I’m working with other musicians, there’s a connection,” he said. “We share this love of music.”

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David explains the three stages of the filmmaking process. ©Koichi Mori

David has a global following for his comedy shorts on YouTube and Facebook, has won awards for a short horror film and has worked in a wide range of film industry positions, from interpreter to producer. But he had never made a documentary, and Words Can’t Go There marks his feature debut.

Asked how he knew when he’d completed the film, the director responded, “There were [essentially] three stages to making the film, which took 5 years. We shot about 500-600 hours of footage, enough for three different films, and there were probably three completely different films during the editing process.

“The first stage was me following my dad around with the camera, learning the process of documentary filmmaking. I followed him to schools in the Tohoku area, which was tough on me. It was hard to curb my own expectations, so the first stage was the reality shock of that. I felt destroyed. I was completely disappointed in myself.

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 ©Koichi Mori

“The second stage was when I finally put footage together from that 3-week trip and started showing a sample to people in LA. I was fortunate enough to put this great team together and we went back to Japan and filmed with Bennett. Then I thought, 'Now I’ve got a film.' I was feeling really good. Little did I know that I was still 3 years away from finishing.

“Then I asked my dad to send me some of the old VHS tapes that we had in our house in Kamogawa. He sent me a box with 56 tapes, and that wasn’t even half of them. They were all moldy from sitting in a humid closet in the countryside of Japan. But we found a guy who could actually clean and digitize them, then it took weeks to watch them. That was a huge thing that shifted the direction of the film, since I realized that we could illustrate things like the foreigner as a bear in the circus idea.”

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 ©Koichi Mori

What about that image of the lonely bear? “The lonely part comes with the daily practice and the composing and the working on flutes,” said John. “Those are solo activities. But when I perform the composition or sell the flute, then there’s the communication… the music brings us together.”

Despite his renown and dizzying performance schedule, Neptune does not have a fulltime manager and continues to do his own scheduling. “There was a period when I took any job I could get,” he explained. “The bottom line is, music is fantastic but music business is not so fantastic. If you’re doing a party for a big company, they’re not coming to listen to music. You’d prefer that they listened, but when they’re not, we do our own thing on stage and have a good time. But I ask for a lot more money than if someone asks me to play for a school and says, ‘We’d love for you to come and play for the kids, but we don’t have a big budget.’ That’s why I never lasted very long with a manager. Their primary focus is to promote you and to make money. I decide how much I ask for each individual job. The music business isn’t interesting, but the music itself makes up for it.”

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Kaizan plays near his home in Chiba.
 2019 ©️ Ocean Mountain, LLC

And what of teaching, the mainstay for most professional musicians? “When I started becoming a professional, one of the things I did was teach,” John admitted. “When I got busy performing, I couldn’t always make time for teaching regularly. I decided not to teach when I moved to Kamogawa about 35, 40 years ago.” David interjected, “He doesn’t really like teaching.” John nodded, “Yeah. It’s a wonderful thing, and in Japanese society, the sensei is right up there. I do seminars and workshops at special events.”

John Kaizan Neptune’s example and his enthusiasm continues to inspire musicians of every age, both at home and abroad. If you don’t have to chance to see him on stage, then do not miss this beautiful film about being an artist, a parent and a legacy.

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Father and son rock the take-da together. ©︎FCCJ

 

WCGT-1G 2019Ocean Mountain LLC
2019 ©️ Ocean Mountain, LLC

Selected Media Exposure

THEY SAY NOTHING STAYS THE SAME


THEY SAY NOTHING STAYS THE SAME (Aru Sendou no Hanashi)


 September 9, 2019
Q&A guest: Director Joe Odagiri


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Emerging director Joe Odagiri. Remember the name. ©Koichi Mori

Film history is littered with forgotten titles by actors who always wanted to direct. Joe Odagiri’s visually and aurally stunning They Say Nothing Stays the Same is destined for a much kinder fate.

Appearing before a packed room at FCCJ the day after his return from the Venice Film Festival, which had hosted the world premiere, Odagiri told the crowd, “We received very warm applause, much more than I’d imagined, [which made me] very happy. But it made me feel a little uncomfortable, too, since this isn’t a film that should get such warm applause.” (He’s being humble.)

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©Koichi Mori

Reminded that he’d planned to study directing in California as a young man (where he wound up in acting classes after an admissions mistake), so it had taken him quite a while to get around to his feature-directing debut, he explained, “Working as an actor, I felt I would be taking advantage of my position if I directed a film. I didn’t think other directors would take kindly to it, and I thought audiences would look at the film through the filter of ‘presenting a film by the actor Joe Odagiri.’”

So what changed his mind, nearly 20 years after acting had made him a star? Odagiri turned unexpectedly confessional: “I don’t want to go into detail,” he began, “but I had a physical exam a while back, and the results weren’t very good. I may have overreacted, but I started thinking about what I should be doing in the time I might have left. I’d always wanted to make a film, but a strange kind of pride had prevented me. I felt that in my remaining time, I ought to do this."

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Odagiri on location with his masterful director of photography, Christopher Doyle.
 ©2019 “THEY SAY NOTHING STAYS THE SAME” Film Partners

“This” was also prompted by Odagiri’s encounter with legendary cinematographer Christopher Doyle (In the Mood for Love, The Limits of Control), who co-directed a film that Odagiri starred in, The White Girl (2017). Renowned for his prodigious artistry (as well as for his drinking), Doyle told the actor that if he made his own film, he’d like to shoot it.

“Chris Doyle’s role was incredibly important,” Odagiri concurred, when a film critic praised the film’s magnificent visuals. “I relied on him completely. He was able to realize everything that I imagined, and bring it all to the screen. He told me to concentrate on directing the actors and conceiving the composition of the shots, and leave the rest to him. Chris gave me 100% support throughout the filming, and 100% of my vision for the film was realized.”

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The director with Masatoshi Nagase, who plays a key role in the film.
©2019 “THEY SAY NOTHING STAYS THE SAME” Film Partners

When the interpreter had finished translating his remarks, he added: “One more thing: Chris isn’t just an old drunk.”

Odagiri wrote and refined his script over several years; and if audiences expect something dynamically, radically contemporary, they will be surprised to discover They Say Nothing Stays the Same feels more like the measured, stately work of a classic auteur.

Set on a fog-covered river and a rocky shore somewhere in Japan’s past, it tells the story of a lonely old boatman, Toichi (Akira Emoto, in his first leading role in over a decade), who ferries villagers and visitors to a town on the other side of the river. His only real relationship is with Genzo (Nijiro Murakami), a young neighbor who seems friendly and helpful. Upstream, a large bridge is being constructed and Toichi will soon be able to retire. He has mixed feelings about that, but his past is such a mystery, we don’t know what prompted him to be there in the first place. He is wracked by self-doubts and haunted by nightmares, but he does not miss a day of work and does not complain.

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The boatman's home on the river.
 ©2019 “THEY SAY NOTHING STAYS THE SAME” Film Partners

Then one day, he rescues a half-dead young girl from the water and gives her a place to stay. Fu (Ririka Kawashima, otherworldly in her major film debut) is as reticent as her host, but gradually, a friendship begins to grow. There are rumors about her own past — is she the kidnapped daughter of a murdered family several villages away or someone/something else? — but no one comes to claim her. As the days melt into months, nothing seems to change; but of course, nothing ever stays quite the same.

Set in early Meiji Japan but timeless in its concerns — the sacrifices made in the name of progress, the loss of cherished traditions and the natural environment, the human costs of capitalism — Odagiri’s debut is astonishing in its storytelling mastery and its stunning visuals, a tribute not only to his impressive skill at guiding actors to rich performances (especially Emoto, who is deeply moving, as is Masatoshi Nagase, who plays a hunter), but also to his ability at selecting the perfect collaborators.

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Emoto is deeply moving (and convincing) as the old boatman.
©2019 “THEY SAY NOTHING STAYS THE SAME” Film Partners

First among these, of course, is Doyle, whose camera captures a Japan that is at once achingly beautiful, steeped in lore but rushing headlong toward modernization. Shot in a splendidly scenic mountain valley in sunshine, rain and snow, with nearly constant mist rising from the boatman’s river, Doyle’s images are never less than captivating. Academy Award-winning costume designer Emi Wada (Ran, Samurai Marathon) and Armenian jazz musician Tigran Hamasyan, composing his first film score, also provide superlative support.

One of the other delights of They Say Nothing Stays the Same is the many cameo appearances, some as brief as a single line during a boat ride, by familiar faces: Tadanobu Asano, Yu Aoi, Isao Hashizume, Tsuyoshi Ihara, Jun Murakami, Takashi Sasano, Mitsuko Kusabue and Haruomi Hosono. When asked about his direction of Emoto, who is notoriously prickly, Odagiri responded, “Many veterans appeared in the film, and I decided that I wouldn’t give acting direction to any of them. What actors do is think about their roles, and how they can make them deeper and more resonant. I have a great deal of trust in the actors I asked to be in the film, and for me to tell them what they ought to do seemed superfluous. I understand actors, so it’s easier for me to direct than it is for [directors who haven’t acted].”

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©FCCJ

This begged a question about his own role in the film, which was behind the camera only. Asked whether he had considered acting in the film, and whether he’d consider doing so on his next directorial effort, Odagiri admitted, “Memorizing lines is such a hassle. To take time away from directing in order to memorize lines was something I didn’t want to do. I didn’t feel like I had the time to spare, and I think that will be the case in the future, as well.”

One FCCJ audience member, praising the film’s rhythm and pacing, asked Odagiri whether he had consciously chosen a cinematic style more akin with the past, or whether he’d had something else in mind. The director responded, “The film is set in Meiji Japan, about 150 years ago, and the rhythm of life was much different than it is today. It was a much more natural pace than today, when we live at such a hurried pace we tend to lose sight of things. As a result, people were in touch with themselves and the natural world. I’m hoping the audience will recognize that we’ve lost something in the name of convenience.”

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The mysterious Fu, played unforgettably by Ririka Kawashima.
 ©2019 “THEY SAY NOTHING STAYS THE SAME” Film Partners

Another audience member praised the film’s music and sound design. Odagiri explained that he’d been a musician and composer since an early age. “As a director, I’m probably focused on sound and music more than most directors. I was particular about creating the sound design for 5.1 surround sound, and using sound effectively with that system. To really appreciate this film, you have to see it in a theater with surround sound. I guess it will be available online, but since most homes don’t have 5.1 systems, don’t waste your time watching it online.”

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Odagiri laughs at a question about why he doesn't appear in the film himself. ©︎FCCJ

Queried, rather inexplicably, about his definition of happiness, Odagiri made the question matter without missing a beat: “The theme of the film is individual happiness. One of the messages I incorporated is, despite the period of the story or what environment you’ve been placed in, if you’re able to live a life you believe in, then that’s a form of happiness.”

Perfectly timed for the dawning of the Reiwa Era, in which you’d be hard-pressed to find anyone who doesn’t long for a less frantic pace of life, Joe Odagiri’s elegant, elegiac They Say Nothing Stays the Same is a welcome — and welcoming — respite from the s***storm outside. Do not miss it.

(Overseas audiences will also have the chance to experience its embrace, as festival dates are sure to be plentiful.)

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The writer-director with the poster for his film.  ©︎FCCJ

 

NOTHING STAYS THE SAME2019 THEY SAY NOTHING STAYS THE SAME Film Partners
©2019 “THEY SAY NOTHING STAYS THE SAME” Film Partners

Selected Media Exposure

5 MILLION DOLLAR LIFE

'Five Million Dollar Life': Assessing the value of a single life


5 MILLION DOLLAR LIFE (Gooku Yen no Jinsei)


 June 19, 2019
Q&A guests: Director Sungho Moon and star Ayumu Mochizuki


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Star Ayumu Mochizuki (left) and director Sungho Moon compare notes on Mochizuki's resemblance to the protagonist. ©FCCJ

Several months back, one of the producers of 5 Million Dollar Life expressed surprise when FCCJ’s Film Committee approached him about screening the film. “Are you sure that international audiences would be interested?” he asked, doubtful. “We thought it was purely for domestic appetites.”

We assured him that he was wrong. And naturally, we were right.

The film had its world premiere at the Shanghai International Film Festival on June 17, where it was met with great fanfare; its North American premiere is on July 11, in competition at the New York Asian Film Festival; and European festivals are locking in dates.

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©Koichi Mori

Most importantly for FCCJ, 5 Million Dollar Life prompted an enthusiastic Q&A session that could have continued long past its time limit, proving that the film strikes a chord with Japanese and foreign audience members alike.

5 Million Dollar Life encompasses an unusual range of social issues, some of them seen rarely on Japanese screens (and certainly not all together in a single film) — broken families, social media bullying, teen suicide, day-labor exploitation, homelessness, the underage sex industry, telephone scams, debt-prompted suicide, murder scene cleanups, even Fukushima’s toxic waste disposal — yet it manages to stay positive, to locate a delicate tonal balance between earnestness, laughter and tears.

In this era of copycat filmmaking in Japan, with its surfeit of franchised mainstream releases and its dearth of original stories, there’s nothing quite as exciting as a work that takes both its protagonist and its audience on a completely unexpected journey; nothing quite as heartening as the discovery of a fresh directorial voice, and of a young actor who has come of age and is apparently game for anything.

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Mirai (Mochizuki) may dress brightly, but his life is clouded by dark thoughts.
© 2019 "FIVE MILLION DOLLAR LIFE" Film Partners

As the film opens, it is the 11th anniversary of Mirai Takatsuki’s recovery from a near-fatal disease. Members of the local community, who together contributed the staggering sum of 500 million yen ($5 million), to pay for his open-heart surgery as a child, have gathered at his mom’s house to watch the annual televised tribute to the lad.

Mirai (Ayumu Mochizuki), who is now a diffident high schooler, has increasing difficulties living up to everyone’s expectations. All the media attention amplifies his self-doubt, and the online attention is even worse: “You’d be better off quitting… a life like that,” a stranger snipes on SNS. Mirai types back, “I’ll die, then. Just watch me.” But before he can seriously contemplate his next step, another stranger cautions he has no right to kill himself until he’s paid everyone back for their generosity.

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And so, Mirai sets out to earn $5 million. When construction work barely covers enough for daily meals, he moves on to more lucrative employ, some of it questionable, some of it downright illegal. Along the way, he learns a thing or two about the world and himself, and just what the value of life really is — and a journey that began with familiar echoes of the teen suicide/coming-of-age/road movie genres has grown into something far more poignant.

The unique twists and turns of 5 Million Dollar Life hoist it way above the average offering; but so does the infectiously charismatic performance of its young star, who has quietly built a resume of spot-on portrayals since earning accolades for his striking debut in 2015, as a junior high student who is killed by classmates in Solomon’s Perjury I and II.

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Mirai with one of his rescuers, a shady man played by Ryu Morioka.
© 2019 "FIVE MILLION DOLLAR LIFE" Film Partners

Mochizuki is such a natural for the role of Mirai, it comes as a surprise that it had not been written with him expressly in mind. During the Q&A session after our screening, director Sungho Moon told the audience, “He was just the perfect actor for the role. Everyone asks whether we [rewrote the script after casting him], but we didn’t have to. I’m really thankful we found him.”

The young actor beamed. Did he feel a kinship with the character? He agreed, “There are similarities, but we’re completely different people. There were a lot of aspects to him that I could empathize with. For example, since I’m an actor, I have to deal with the pressure of being out there and having people see me. The source of the pressure comes from a different place, but in that sense, I think we’re really similar.”

Asked what had drawn him to such an unusual story for his first feature, Moon admitted that he hadn’t planned on it being his debut, but he “doesn’t have any regrets” about getting the chance to make it. That chance was given to him when he and Naomi Hiruta, a veteran stage and TV scriptwriter, won the grand prize in the New Cinema Project. The initiative, backed by entertainment giants Amuse and Gyao, aims to bring greater originality back to Japan’s movie screens by supporting emerging talent who want to tell original stories.

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A Hiroshima native, Moon had studied filmmaking in college in Korea before launching a career as a commercials director in Japan. In 2013, he was selected for the prestigious New Directions in Japanese Cinema project and directed the short 35mm film Michizure, giving him a powerful calling card in the industry. But Japan favors adaptations of existing properties, predominantly bestselling novels or manga. Luckily for us, Moon had other things in mind.

As the film explains, the average Japanese worker earns ¥230 million ($2.3 million) from birth to death, and the average lifetime expenditure is ¥210 million ($2.1 million) — meaning people devote just about their entire life earnings to live, and then they die.

How, then, did Moon and Hiruta arrive at ¥500 million ($5 million) for Mirai’s burden? “We looked at real-life cases of heart transplant surgeries and fundraising drives,” the director explained, “and the amounts raised were usually between $1 and $3 million. I made it $5 million for impact. Also, if it was an amount that was too close to reality, [we felt] it might conjure up traumatic memories for those who have actually gone through the surgery. So we fictionalized it.” 

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One of Mirai's many jobs, at Shared Sleep House TT Bears, with a customer.
 © 2019 "FIVE MILLION DOLLAR LIFE" Film Partners

Given the film’s cynical attitude toward certain events, Moon was asked whether he’d intended a strong criticism of certain aspects of society. He replied, “Because this wasn’t based on another work, we did have a discussion about whether the protagonist should be male or female. But we decided that if she were female, it would have been a story you’ve seen: a girl prostituting herself in order to survive. Also, we drew a clear line about Mirai not committing any crimes himself in the film. Of course, the protagonist is essentially on the brink of life and death, so he takes on jobs that are also on the brink, that are risky.”

Somewhat like Blanche DuBois, Mirai has always relied on the kindness of strangers. At some point during his journey, he meets a pimp who teaches him a few things about self-worth, and later saves him from life-threatening danger. When Mirai asks why he’s been so kind to him, the pimp tells him that Mirai is the type of person who deserves it. One audience member was impressed with the concept and wondered where it came from. Moon admitted, “Ms. Hiruta firmly believes it. However, I don’t think it’s so binary; you can’t split people into just two types, those who deserve kindness and those who don’t. There are still times when you want to be nice to people who don’t necessarily deserve it.”

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Mochizuki was asked whether he’d done any firsthand research on the many odd jobs that his character takes in the film, particularly the unsavory ones. “I did quite a lot of research on the jobs depicted,” he responded, “but I was under 18, so I never experienced any of them, or went to places [like the Shared Sleep House].”

Was he worried about taking a role that had so many risqué aspects? He smiled and nodded. “My mother is very strict. So my only real worry was What is she going to think when she sees the film?” And what did she think? “She hasn’t seen it yet.”

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Before running away from home, Mirai tells the TV interview crew that he plans to study medicine, so he can save children in return for being saved himself. “Is Mirai going to become a doctor in the end?” asked an audience member. “I don’t think so,” said Mochizuki. “He probably can’t become a doctor.”

So what will he be instead? “I think that he’ll finally start doing things that he’d always wanted to do, or had chosen not to do, before [his journey]. At least that’s how I felt after watching the film myself.”

And what, he was asked, are Mochizuki’s own plans for the future? “I recently had the opportunity to act in (popular TV show) Mr. Hiiragi’s Homeroom, and I was really inspired by my costar, Masaki Suda. Because of him, I would like to play a teacher someday… but not one who is sick.”

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© 2019 "FIVE MILLION DOLLAR LIFE" Film Partners

Selected Media Exposure

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