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SHOPLIFTERS


SHOPLIFTERS (Manbiki Kazoku)


June, 6, 2018
Q&A guest: Director Hirokazu Kore-eda


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Kore-eda with his Palme d'Or, surely the closest anyone in the audience has ever been — or ever will be — to the prize.  ©Mance Thompson

Even the infrequent filmgoer in Japan knows that Hirokazu Kore-eda became the first Japanese director in 21 years to win the coveted Palme d’Or at the Cannes Film Festival on May 19, for his latest masterwork, Shoplifters

But the good news was quickly hijacked by right-wing Japanese commentators, who — without viewing the film, and perhaps without having a clue that the bulk of Japanese cinema does not treat the country’s social ills as if they are taboo subjects — immediately began condemning it for the damage it could cause to Japan’s international reputation. 

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©Mance Thompson

Soon, the headlines had politicized the win even further, suggesting that Prime Minister Abe’s reported failure to call Kore-eda with congratulations was surely proof that he disapproved of its empathetic portrait of a family living in poverty and shoplifting to get by.

The director attempted to set the record straight in a message posted to his website on June 6, protesting that “discourse surrounding this film has included both criticism and praise … [arrived at] by juxtaposing it against the values asserted by the current administration.” He went on to write: “A film is not a vehicle to accuse, or to relay a specific message. If we reduce a film to this, we lose all hope for cinema to ignite a richer conversation. I have never made a film to praise or to criticize something. That kind of filmmaking is nothing but propaganda.”

Of course it’s no secret that the auteur has always incorporated social issues into his work, particularly his documentaries. But he rarely foregrounds them in his narrative films, with the exceptions of his 2001 Distance and his 2004 Nobody Knows, both of which also earned acclaim at Cannes.

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©Mance Thompson

For those familiar with his oeuvre, Shoplifters can be seen as a continuation of Kore-eda’s concerns with the trials and tribulations of the “family” unit, and his ongoing exploration of the strength and fragility of bonds forged by choice, not blood. This was the overriding theme of his 2015 Cannes Jury Prizewinning Like Father, Like Son.

As with the writer-director’s previous domestic dramas, Shoplifters is a thoroughly engaging film, both gently comedic and heart-wrenchingly sad, and it features winning performances from a familiar — and much-loved — cast, including Kore-eda regulars Kirin Kiki and Lily Franky. It also features a breathtakingly brilliant turn by Sakura Ando, collaborating with him for the first time. (The only moment of the film that can possibly be interpreted as subversive is when Ando wears a t-shirt bearing the message Freedom is never voluntary. It must be demanded by the oppressed.) 

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Osamu and Shota case a supermarket before taking what they need.
© 2018 FUJI TELEVISION NETWORK/GAGA CORPORATION/AOI PRO. INC. ALL RIGHTS RESERVED.

It’s no surprise that the FCCJ screening of Shoplifters was one of the biggest draws in recent memory, although it’s a shame that the 80+ people on the waiting list could not be seated. After eight TV cameras and dozens of additional Japanese press members were accommodated, the filmmaker entered the thronged room carrying his Palm d’Or box, and despite being exhausted from 2 weeks of constant interviews and evident lack of sleep, answered questions with the same contemplative regard that marks all his work.

After obliging everyone by opening the box and showing his prize, Kore-eda recalled his Cannes experience, and his elation at the praise of the jurors for the film’s directing and acting. Addressing the elephant in the room, he then went on to say, “I’ve participated in many overseas film festivals since 2000, and there has been a lot of mention about the lack of criticism of Japanese society and politics [in the selected Japanese films]. I would say that this has to do with the distribution system in Japan. Oftentimes, the more major film companies will not handle films with heavy themes. This has resulted in the diminishing of the diversity and variety of Japanese films at festivals abroad.”

He admitted to being surprised about the approach taken by Japanese media: “I keep hearing that either I or my film is causing quite a stir. But I would put a positive spin on this. It’s a welcome thing, because it’s no longer just a film being released. It’s gone beyond those boundaries and will reach many more people. So it’s not such a bad thing.”

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©︎Koichi Mori

Indeed, no spin should be required. Shoplifters features one of the most endearing, close-knit families to hit Japanese screens since… the blue-collar family in the director's own Like Father, Like Son, which has so far been his biggest hit around the world. 

In this era of belt-tightening and widening income gaps, young Shota (Jyo Kairi) has been taught how to pinch the things they need but can’t afford by his father Osamu (Franky, channeling his lovable patriarch in Like Father, Like Son). “The stuff in stores doesn’t belong to anyone yet,” Osamu reassures him. The two work seamlessly together on the job, trading secret signals and celebrating with fist-bumps before bringing their booty back to the ramshackle dwelling they share with Nobuyo (Ando), Nobuyo’s sister Aki (Mayu Matsuoka), and granny Hatsue (Kiki), whose small pension payments supplement the income of the adults’ minimum-wage jobs. 

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The poster outside the screening room, noting the full house. ©Koichi Mori

Returning home one frigid night, Osamu rescues a tiny girl, Yuri (Miyu Sasaki), who is malnourished and too shy to speak. At first reluctant to shelter (and feed) yet another mouth, Nobuyo realizes that the child is being abused and decides to take her in. Despite Shota’s initial resentment of his new “sister,” and the occasional incident (a broken leg, a lost job, a death), the family lives happily together, taking trips to the beach, building a snowman, watching Osamu’s magic tricks. And then, a routline shoplifting spree triggers a startling outcome, and as hidden secrets are unraveled, threatens to undue the bonds uniting them.

Mentioning that Kore-eda has said his script was inspired by recent news stories, a journalist asked about the family who had stolen fishing rods (a similar event occurs in the film), and what kind of research had been conducted. “I read about the court case involving the family,” said the director. “They hadn’t pawned the rods for cash yet. They still had them, which was why they were caught. I imagined that the family must have loved fishing, and immediately had a clear image of a father and son fishing with stolen rods.” He laughed. “I apologize to all the fishing stores out there."

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Aki and Hatsue in the overcrowded central room of the house.
© 2018 FUJI TELEVISION NETWORK/GAGA CORPORATION/AOI PRO. INC. ALL RIGHTS RESERVED.

He continued, “The story isn’t based on one particular incident, but rather on various incidents involving families committing crimes. I wanted to depict a family or close-knit community that wasn’t bound by blood. The first thing that came to mind was a family bound by crime, such as by [real-life] cases of pension fraud in which families failed to report the death of parents, and fraudulently claimed the pension payments. I also wanted to depict a family or close-knit community that was bound not by kindness, but by money. I didn’t want to go too soft or easy on this.

“Another idea that made its way into the film came from research we did at a facility for abused children. There was one girl who came back from school with her [heavy backpack] and we asked what she was studying. She pulled out this Japanese picture book called ‘Swimmy,’ and started reading. The facility workers scolded her for taking up too much of our time, but she wouldn’t stop. She read all the way to the very end, and we all clapped, and she just beamed. I imagined that she probably wanted to read it to her parents, and that left a really deep impression on me. So I had the boy read ‘Swimmy’ in the film. 

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©Mance Thompson

A Japanese journalist asked whether Kore-eda could possibly have “targeted the film at Japanese politicians, due to its treatment of social problems” that are being overlooked. The director immediately responded, “Not in particular. I say No because I’ve felt this way since the days when I worked in TV. One of my coworkers told me, ‘When you make a film, target it toward one individual and keep that person firmly in mind. If you do that, you’ll be able to reach many people.’ I was in my 20s at the time, and I’ve continued to have this stance.”

Anticipating the next question, he continued, “I think for this film, I targeted it at the young girl who read us ‘Swimmy.’”

Referencing a particularly enchanting scene of togetherness, in which the family sits on the porch of their tiny home, eating watermelon and listening to the fireworks that they’re not able to see for all the tall buildings surrounding them, one attendee asked how important the physical dwelling was to the story. Kore-eda recalled Cannes Jury President Cate Blanchett’s speech before presenting him with the Palm d’Or, “in which she mentioned the ‘invisible people’ in the film. That was definitely a key motif. It’s about what we cannot hear and cannot see. There are scenes in which people aren’t able to see each other through the window or hear each other’s voices. The parts that are hidden and unseen, left to the audience’s imagination, were an important motif throughout the film.

Shoplifters.official. 2018 FUJI TELEVISION NETWORKGAGA CORPORATIONAOI PRO. INC. ALL RIGHTS RESERVED.-76394Nobuyo tells Yuri "people who love you hug, not hit."
© 2018 FUJI TELEVISION NETWORK/GAGA CORPORATION/AOI PRO. INC. ALL RIGHTS RESERVED.

“We were very lucky to be able to find that house, which we used for the location shots. I think it’s a big factor in the success of the film. My request was to find a single-story house surrounded by tall buildings, and my amazing crew found it. We actually shot some of the interiors on a set that reproduced interiors from the house. Thanks to the wonderful production design, even I can’t recall exactly which scenes we shot on location and which were on the set. It was really believable that these people were living together in this house, and I think it’s one of the main characters in the film.”

Hoping for a scoop, an entertainment reporter asked Kore-eda about the progress on his next film, rumored to star French icons Catherine Deneuve and Juliette Binoche. “We actually haven’t officially announced anything about the new project,” he responded, “so it’s puzzling how much information has been leaked, [including] cast names and how much they’re getting paid. I don’t know how much I can disclose, but I can say that the shoot is planned for the autumn in France, predominantly in France, with French actors and actresses. We’re planning an official announcement next month, and I’ll be going to Paris from June.” 

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©︎Koichi Mori

While the newly minted Cannes Palm d’Or winner heads off to direct his foreign-language debut, filmgoers in Tokyo will be treated to English-subtitled screenings starting from June 23 at Wald 9 Cinemas in Shinjuku. But overseas fans won’t have long to wait: Shoplifters has been sold to an astounding 149 countries, including North America, where the film's distributor, Magnolia, continues an impressive run (recent releases include RBG and Oscar nominees I Am Not Your Negro and The Square, which was last year’s Palme d’Or winner).

It is not difficult to imagine that Hirokazu Kore-eda, master of the delicately lyrical, understated humanist drama, will grace the Academy Awards stage in 2019. 

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©Mance Thompson

 

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© 2018 FUJI TELEVISION NETWORK/GAGA CORPORATION/AOI PRO. INC. ALL RIGHTS RESERVED.

Selected Media Exposure

Selected TV Exposure

  • 映画「万引き家族」で最高賞是枝裕和監督反響の大きさにぼやき

    201867日放送 5:43 - 5:45 フジテレビ

    めざましテレビ OH!めざめエンタ NOW

  • 是枝裕和監督次回作構想一部明らかに

    201867日放送 5:08 - 5:09NHK総合

    NHKニュースおはよう日本(ニュース)

  • 気になる次回作は

    201867日放送 4:20 - 4:21TBS

    はやドキ!はやドキ!エンタメ

THE MAN FROM THE SEA


THE MAN FROM THE SEA (Umi wo Kakeru Otoko)


May 23, 2018
Q&A guests: Director Koji Fukada and star Dean Fujioka


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 Dean Fujioka (left) and Koji Fukada (right) are sure to reach new audiences with their first collaboration.  ©Mance Thompson

Those who are familiar with writer-director Koji Fukada’s award-winning work, particularly his 2016 Harmonium, the Jury Prizewinner in the Cannes Un Certain Regard section, will find that his first international coproduction feels both more placid and yet politically charged.

Those familiar with the work of actor Dean Fujioka, a homegrown megastar with a fervid Asian following, may be surprised by his limited screen time in a film by a director whose leanings are resolutely arthouse, rather than commercial.

Yet both men have clearly benefitted from the collaboration, and Fujioka’s presence is sure to help The Man from the Sea reach a much-expanded audience.

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 All photos ©Mance Thompson, except bottom right:  ©FCCJ

Speaking briefly prior to FCCJ’s screening, Fukada promised, “It’s a much lighter film than my last one.” Indeed, while much of the story concerns the developing inter-relationships between its four central characters, it is set against the backdrop of real-life tragedy in the seaside town of Banda Aceh, Sumatra. An area once devastated by the 2004 Indian Ocean earthquake and tsunami, it inspired the director to craft a tale marked by parallels with Japan’s own triple disasters in March 2011.

Fukada explained, “The idea for the film came from a visit I made to Banda Aceh back in December 2011, to shoot a tsunami symposium. It was really interesting, because I discovered big differences in the way [Indonesians and Japanese] view life and death. That’s what stimulated me to consider shooting against that backdrop.”

Evoking both the splendor and the wrath of nature, infused with a palpable sense of loss and hope as well as an ineffable magic realism, The Man from the Sea contains documentary interview footage touching on the still-fresh memories of the tsunami as well as the area’s recent civil war, and further back, lingering recollections of the hardships of World War II.

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©Mance Thompson

But these scenes are interwoven with the burgeoning romances of the film’s Japanese and Indonesian protagonists — whose cross-border rapport makes it seem as if the usual barriers of nationality and language simply don’t exist. And then there is the sudden arrival of a mysterious visitor (a driving motif of both Harmonium and Fukada’s earlier Hospitalité), who shakes the equilibrium of the community.

As The Man from the Sea opens, we meet Japanese aid worker Takako (Mayu Tsuruta), who has settled in Banda Aceh, assisting in ongoing reforestation and other disaster recovery projects with her son Takashi (Taiga), while her husband remains in Yogyakarta. Both are fluent in Indonesian and completely comfortable in their adopted culture. On the day Takako’s niece Sachiko (Junko Abe) is scheduled to arrive on a visit from Japan, a man (Fujioka) is found lying on a beach, apparently stricken by amnesia, and Takako is called to help. He seems able to understand Japanese and Indonesian, but he cannot — or will not — speak. While his identity is being ascertained, she reluctantly agrees to let him stay at her house overnight.

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Fujioka as the mysterious, magical man from the sea.
©︎2018 "The Man from the Sea" FILM PARTNERS

Takako nicknames the stranger Laut, meaning “sea” in Indonesian, and he seems content to just... be. Smiling serenely, he sits by himself as life swirls around him. Takako, assisted by aspiring journalist Ilma (Sekar Sari), attemps to uncover who this enigmatic visitor is and where he came from, while Sachiko gets settled in and meets Takashi’s college friend Kris (Adipati Dolken). He helps her begin her own search for the beach her father so fondly remembered, where she hopes to scatter his ashes.

And then gradually, strange phenomena begin occurring in Laut’s presence. He seems to have the power to make dead fish jump, cold showers run warm, bubbles of water float, and the dead appear to loved ones. Is he really Naoki Kuroda, the missing tourist, as locals suspect? Or is he something altogether more ambiguous?

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Photos on left: ©Mance Thompson; on right: ©FCCJ

As the Q&A session got under way, Fukada elaborated on the process of bringing the film to fruition, seven years after he attended the disaster seminar in Banda Aceh: “The Indonesian visit also influenced another of my films, Au Revoir l’Eté. About a year after I completed that, I started discussing this project with a producer at Nikkatsu. But it’s really difficult if you try to make a project in Japan that isn’t based on another work. That’s why we had funding also from France and Indonesia (Japan’s Nikkatsu Corporation teamed up with France’s Commes des Cinemas and Indonesia’s Kaninga Pictures to coproduce), as well as creative input. It was a really rewarding project for me.”

Greeting the audience as if they were old friends (he had last visited FCCJ a full year ago, but his affability is a large part of his appeal), Fujioka said in American-inflected English, “I hope you liked the film, and have your own answers to this mysterious piece of work. I believe it’s not something that’s binary — it’s got an open ending that I think opens up a dialogue for viewers.”  

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Takashi and Sachiko take a taxi in Banda Aceh.  ©︎2018 "The Man from the Sea" FILM PARTNERS
 

Asked whether he had taken the role of Laut because he’d wanted to work with Fukada, or because he’d wanted to work in Indonesia, Fujioka immediately responded, “Both. My family is in Jakarta, and I always wanted to do something that’s related to my wife’s home country. I wanted to make something that, when my kids grow up, they’ll be proud of me, they’ll know why I’m missing this time with them now. When I pick projects, my criteria are whether the character, the story or the film will allow me to feel proud of myself as a good father.”

As for his director, Fujioka enthused, “Mr. Fukada’s script was great. It was original, it was really creative, it was eccentric, and you could call it unkind, in a way — it doesn’t end with easy [answers]. It doesn’t really emit any message or define how it should be interpreted.”

Although the film’s overarching meaning(s) can be considered ambiguous, Fukada does not shy from difficult themes. One of these is the fluid notion of national identity. The character of Takashi, for example, wrestles with his Japaneseness, since he considers himself to be essentially Indonesian; and the man from the sea, while he appears to be Japanese, is essentially a man without a country.

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Laut and Ilma help a girl with heat exhaustion. ©︎2018 "The Man from the Sea" FILM PARTNERS

Noting that he had also questioned such notions in films like his 2009 Hospitalité, one journalist asked the director to expand upon the theme. “Indeed, national identity is one theme of the film,” said Fukada. “I was intrigued when I realized during my visit to Banda Aceh that I had seen footage of the great tsunami of 2004 and yet, had considered it only as a [distant] news story among many others. Yet the way I perceived the 3/11 disasters here was different, and I had [distanced myself] by making a distinction between ‘here’ and ‘there.’ It made me want to depict this through characters that had Indonesian and Japanese national identities, and try to juxtapose those against Laut, who has no national identity at all, and thus give the audience the opportunity to think about identity.”

Pressing further on the same issue, another audience member asked the director why he’d felt a “narrative compulsion” to shoot the film abroad, and whether it would have been impossible to make it in Japan. “I don’t think it’s necessarily impossible to explore this theme in Japan,” Fukada answered. “For example, there’s work like Kenji Miyazawa’s ‘Matasaburo of the Wind’ (a short story in which village schoolchildren believe that a new transfer student is the embodiment of a legendary wind sprite) — so it’s a universal theme, in a way.” 

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As in his prior visit, Fujioka made all his responses in English. ©︎Mance Thompson

He continued, “But I found that when I placed the story in Indonesia, it was an even better match than I’d anticipated. I had discovered that Indonesians have a spiritual nature, and more of an acceptance of the supernatural. The man Nu, who appears in the documentary within the film, said that after he’d lost his wife and daughter in the disaster, his wife had forgiven him for remarrying, and his daughter had come to him in a dream and led him to where [her remains could be found]. He talked about it in a very natural way, not as if it were any kind of special experience for him.

“Also, when we were shooting on location, we always had ‘rain stoppers.’ These were people who offered prayers to stop the rain, whenever it looked like rain was imminent. All the Japanese crew found this unusual, but for the Indonesian crew, it was an everyday thing. I think it’s only normal that the people of Aceh would receive the character of Laut in a very natural way.” 

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©︎Mance Thompson

Recalling an interview he’d conducted with Fujioka when his I Am Ichihashi: Journal of a Murderer was coming out in 2013, a journalist said they’d spoken about the difficulty of preparing for a role when an actor feels he has nothing in common with the character. “For this film, then, how did you go about preparing to play a character who is basically unknowable?” he asked.

Responded Fujioka, “It was really difficult, because I understood from the script that this guy is not human. I had to lose the smell of any ethnicity or nationality. He’s basically like a plant, or an alien — I never had a concrete answer from Mr. Fukada — but he’s like nature itself. I had only a couple of lines to speak in a couple of different languages, so it was basically like a choreographed art installation. It was something equivalent to dancing or shooting an action film, although Laut wasn’t really active. It was a subtle way of moving my body. I remember that Mr. Fukada reminded me every single day to hunch over — he said my posture was too good to be Laut. I had to hunch over and keep that little smile, and that’s how I forged this art installation.”

DF-MFTSMance Thompson-34-2Fujioka brandishes the script, after reading his favorite line — which was dropped from the finished film.  ©︎Mance Thompson

Noting that they’d had a good rapport on set, and he had completely trusted Fukada, Fujioka said, “I think a complicated character is easier to act, in a way, because there are a lot of things you can bring out, you can dig deep into your soul and your memories and bring out emotions. But this time, since he’s not human, it was extremely difficult. …[But] we collaborated on this piece of work named Laut.”

It was only later, as photographers were assembling near the dais for a photo call, that Fujioka was asked about the blue notebook he was carrying. “This is the script,” he explained, opening it to the first page. “Mr. Fukada omitted the first line on page 1 of the script. I loved this line: ‘I’m satisfied with the universe, but I’m not satisfied with the world.’ I thought it was beautiful. I think it basically explains who Laut is and the theme of the film. So I brought the script today because I just thought it was such a pity that it wound up being dropped during post-production.”

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©2018 "The Man from the Sea" FILM PARTNERS 

Selected Media Exposure

BLOOD OF WOLVES


BLOOD OF WOLVES (Korou no Chi)


May 8, 2018
Q&A guests: Director Kazuya Shiraishi and novelist Yuko Yuzuki


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Shiraishi (left) and Yuzuki (right) recall the film's infamously gruesome pearl scene, which the director added himself.   ©Mance Thompson

Is The Blood of Wolves the first salvo in an electrifying new yakuza film franchise from Toei Studios? The film’s “planning producer,” Muneyuki Kii, dares to hope so. Its director, Kazuya Shiraishi, does too. And Yuko Yuzuki, the woman whose rough-and-tumble bestselling novel, Korou no Chi, reignited the studio’s  passion for jitsuroku eiga (actual record films), says, without hesitation, that Shiraishi’s the man if there are sequels in the offing.

Shiraishi and Yuzuki were at FCCJ to talk with the audience after our sneak peek of The Blood of Wolves. It marked the first time the Film Committee has hosted the author of the original novel on which a film is based, and the second time that Shiraishi has been on the dais. He was at FCCJ with four other directors to kick off the Nikkatsu Roman Porno reboot project in 2016, having directed Dawn of the Felines. It would go on to become the most successful of the five releases.

Shiraishi has explored territory similar to The Blood of Wolves in his previous high-octane actioners The Devil’s Path (2013) and Twisted Justice (2016), both of which won numerous awards. But he hits a career high with his new film. The boisterous, brutal cinematic bombshell made its world premiere in Udine, Italy at the Far East Film Festival in April and has already been booked for extensive international festival play. Should it prove to be a commercial hit at home, there’s every chance that Toei will move forward with Yuzuki’s just-released Kyouken no me (literally Eye of the Mad Dog), the second in a planned trilogy.

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The tone was surprisingly light through most of the Q&A, a relief after the film's unrelenting intensity.   ©FCCJ

After a decade of churning out popular ninkyo eiga (chivalry films) starring kimono-clad yakuza heroes played by the likes of Ken Takakura and Koji Tsuruta, Toei shifted gears in the early 1970s and introduced what came to be called jitsuroku eiga, focusing on the true stories of postwar yakuza in what film historian Jasper Sharp calls “a world of craven thugs and corrupt law enforcers… when vaunted traditional codes of behavior have been revealed as shams.” Kinji Fukusaku’s epic Battles Without Honor and Humanity (1973), which was set in Hiroshima and starred Bunta Sugawara, was explosive, spawning four sequels, another three-part series and loads of imitators.

Toei makes no bones about its intention to recapture the invigorating jolt with which that classic franchise was met. “To make a film about the wild way of life of outlaws in the Showa period in the current Heisei era is an ambitious act,” read the production notes for The Blood of Wolves. “[It’s also] a challenge to Japan’s film industry, and to modern society itself.” 

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The studio describes that challenge this way: “[Wolves] depicts men who traverse the boundaries between trust and betrayal, violence and desire, and justice and atrocity. In their harsh and brutal realm of existence, pride means everything. The striking catharsis and violence delivered by these men… is little seen in modern-day Japanese entertainment due to the highly restrictive nature of domestic free-to-air television and the current family-centric film environment.”

Yuzuki has admitted that if it weren’t for Fukasaku’s films, her novel would not exist: “It's a world that women can't enter even if they try, which is the very reason why it impressed me.” But responding to a question about the influence of the series on her writing, which has earned her multiple awards and widespread acclaim for her hardboiled style and meticulous attention to procedural details, she told the FCCJ audience, “The way I see the Battles Without Honor and Humanity series is, they were set in Hiroshima in the chaotic postwar period, and they weren’t so much about yakuza, but about these people and their will to survive. They were ferocious, and desperate to survive. They would kill each other, they would [really get down and dirty]. That was what really attracted me to the series. I wonder how many people in Japan today have such a passionate will to live?"

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© 2018 THE BLOOD OF WOLVES Production Committee

Added the director, “Needless to say, I was a huge fan of Toei’s jitsuroku eiga, but that era has ended. It’s the type of genre that you can’t make in Japan today, so I hadn’t really given any thought to venturing into that realm myself. In the early days when I was an assistant director, there were still V-Cinema (straight-to-video) yakuza films, but I never thought I would have the opportunity to make a film like this. When they came to me with Ms. Yuzuki’s novel, it was something I hadn’t even dreamt of. I was overjoyed, and also intimidated. But I also had a certain confidence that perhaps I was the only director who was able to take on this project.”

Shiraishi’s confidence is well earned. Not only does he guide his actors to awards-worthy performances, particularly Koji Yakusho, who is electrifying as a corrupt police detective, he also directs with dizzying visual intensity. Jitsuroku eiga fans will be pleased to note the stylistic similarities in The Blood of Wolves: Shiraishi deploys Fukasaku-esque freeze frames, overtitles, narration, newspaper images and docu-style shaky cam to impressive effect.

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 ©FCCJ

 “These days,” said Shiraishi, “the only yakuza films we have like Battles Without Honor and Humanity are by Takeshi Kitano, the Outrage series. Many members of the cast in this film were first-time yakuza. But they really, really seemed to enjoy it. They really put their heart and souls in it.” (With a cast that includes Yoko Maki, Takuma Otoo, Taro Suruga, Tomoya Nakamura, Junko Abe, Shido Nakamura, Yutaka Takenouchi, Kenichi Takito, Kenichi Yajima, Tomorowo Taguchi, Pierre Taki, Renji Ishibashi and Yosuke Eguchi, it’s hard to imagine which are neophytes.)

As for Yakusho, “When I was first starting out, I loved the yakuza roles he did in [V-cinema films] like Drug Connection and Osaka Gokudo Senso: Shinoidare. He was so wonderful in those roles that I wanted to bring back the yakuza Yakusho. Although he plays a detective, he’s a thug detective. But I think he’s fantastic in this film.”  

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Yakusho goes ballistic, brilliantly. © 2018 THE BLOOD OF WOLVES Production Committee

The Blood of Wolves immerses us in the dog-eat-dog world of Hiroshima at a time when internecine battles between rival yakuza clans could engulf the city at any moment. Detective Shogo Ogami (Yakusho) seems to be the only one holding the place together, using collusion, theft, torture, arson —whatever it takes — to keep the gangs “neutered.” The maverick detective, volatile and unpredictable, has no qualms about bending the law if it will help rein in the gang warfare. Favoring wide-collared polka-dot shirts and sunglasses, and ravenous like the wolf of his name, Ogami is dogged by rumors that he’s in cahoots with the mob.

After a recent transfer from headquarters, rookie cop Shuichi Hioka (Tori Matsuzaka) has had just about enough of his new partner’s balls-out behavior. “What you’re doing is insane, Ogami! Police officers are supposed to uphold justice,” he yells in exasperation. “You wanna hear my idea of justice?” responds Ogami. “I ain’t got one.” But he later confesses he feels “like an acrobat on a tightrope: lean too far to the gangster side or the cop side, and you fall.” 

Hioka secretly records and writes copious notes on his partner’s shockingly unorthodox methods as they investigate the disappearance of a finance company employee, which seems to have kicked off the latest conflict. Scrambling to retain his own sense of honor and humanity (codes that once governed both cops and criminals), Hioka gradually finds himself in over his head, swept up by Ogami’s maelstrom of raw brutality, scrambling to halt the eye-for-an-eye clan vengeance. But just as Hioka is ready to present his evidence to Internal Affairs, the rogue detective disappears and the hounds of hell are unleashed… 

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Matsuzaka has an Ogami-like moment. © 2018 THE BLOOD OF WOLVES Production Committee

Noting that the film is “very exciting, but also very confusing” (a fair criticism, considering the intricately woven plot strands, complicated relationships between gangs, enormous cast of characters who appear fleetingly, and the frequent necessity for multiple English titles on screen at once) one FCCJ audience member asked for some elucidation of the film’s themes. Responded Shiraishi, “One very big theme is the notion of personal justice. This takes place in 1988, the final year of the Showa era, and these days we still speak of the ‘Showa Male.’ It was an era of many historical upheavals, such as World War II. The number of people who lived during those times has dwindled, and their way of life is also disappearing. I wanted to capture the Showa Male and the Showa way of life in this film.”

Said Yuzuki, “What I wanted to depict in the original novel was a universal theme: what human beings are like and how they live. Life, with all its trials and tribulations, still compels us to survive. It’s about survival.”  

Shiraishi and YuzukiKoichi Mori
©Koichi Mori

Another journalist sought clarification: do they think that survival is more difficult in 2018 than it was in 1988? “I think it’s rather more difficult to get by in 2018,” said Shiraishi, “because we’re not allowed to express ourselves or speak our minds. It’s a little more suffocating now than it was in 1988. But that was the time just before the Anti-Organized Crime Law kicked in, so for the yakuza, it was a time when it became increasingly difficult to do business and get by. But it was a time when the yakuza were active, and had more power than the police. So it’s easier to depict the life-and-death [struggle] during that period.”

Explained Yuzuki, “I set the story in Showa 63 [1988] because there were still various ties between the yakuza and the police. There was a gray zone, so I could depict the kinds of clashes and connections they had. Right now, I think everything is much more black and white. So it makes the era of the story easier to depict. Going back to the theme of pain and suffering we encounter in life, those are timeless things. Because of various economic factors and war, they haven’t changed in 20 years. Even if this story is set in the late 1980s, the audience can still relate.”

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 ©FCCJ

Pointing out that in Battles Without Honor and Humanity, Hiroshima’s position as the site of the atomic bombing “loomed large,” one audience member inquired what the writer and director thought it represented in The Blood of Wolves. Responded Yuzuki, “Before I started writing the book, I went to Hiroshima to do some research. What really struck me was the power of the Hiroshima dialect. It’s very powerful. While I was in town, I went to the Hiroshima Peace Memorial Museum and saw the absolute destruction that was wrought on Hiroshima. When I left the museum, the was sun shining and people were walking along the street, smiling and laughing, and it struck me how much determination it took to get us here, to this age. And I decided that I had to set the novel there, and include the Hiroshima dialect.”

Shiraishi smiled. “I remember watching the Battles Without Honor and Humanity series when I was a teen, and I assumed all yakuza spoke in the Hiroshima dialect. When the screenplay was written and we showed it to all our actors, I didn’t have to explain, they all understood what we wanted to do. I think that’s due to the wonderful films that Toei made in the past; they’ve been a guiding light for us. Under the influence of all those films, I thought Hiroshima must be filled with yakuza, but at the risk of angering Hiroshima citizens, I’ll just say that I found it to be a wonderful town.” 

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 ©FCCJ

 Asked whether she felt her gender had “delivered a revitalizing jolt to the genre,” as has been widely hyped, Yuzuki said, “As a writer, I’m not all that aware of gender. But what I often find gender-specific in Japan is the way that [friendships are formed.] Women seek friends who share the same values, while men, even if their values are 90% different, if there’s one thing that they can share, they can see eye to eye. That’s what I find really appealing about the male world. That’s the kind of relationship I wanted to depict, and I wanted to make the male characters as masculine as possible.”

Shiraishi’s Twisted Justice screenwriter, Junya Ikegami, adapted Yuzuki’s book for the film, and the author admitted, “There were a few scenes that the director played around with. One scene was the pearl scene, which wasn’t in the novel. Also, the line that [actor] Renji Ishibashi says, ‘Coinkydoink, coincidence, cli—’ [she stops before uttering the full, potentially offensive, word], was not included in the novel. I really thought the director outdid me on those types of things.” She laughed, “I’ll try harder next time.” 

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 ©Mance Thompson

Shiraishi said, “I mentioned that there are very few yakuza films out there besides the Outrage series, and those films were hits. Without Ms. Yuzuki writing the novel, there wasn’t much opportunity for Toei to venture back into the yakuza genre. If this film becomes a hit, hopefully, if Ms. Yuzuki wants me to direct the sequel, I’d be more than happy to take on that role.” Here, Yuzuki interjected, “Soshiso ai!” a passionate expression that we’ll interpret to mean “You know I would!” 

Shiraishi continued, “The [cigarette] lighter that ultimately went to Tori Matsuzaka in the film — he actually took that home with him. He said, ‘I’m gonna keep this until the next time we meet.’ So if there’s another project with this series, I would be more than happy to take up the challenge.”

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 ©FCCJ



blood of wolves  2018 THE BLOOD OF WOLVES Production Committee
© 2018 THE BLOOD OF WOLVES Production Committee 

Selected Media Exposure

OH LUCY!


OH LUCY!


April 26, 2018
Q&A guests: Director Atsuko Hirayanagi and star Shinobu Terajima


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Both Shinobu Terajima (left) and writer-director Atsuko Hirayanagi (right) have been critically lauded for the film.   ©FCCJ

Atsuko Hirayanagi has set a high bar for herself. Her first feature, the Japan-US coproduction Oh Lucy!, premiered at the Cannes Film Festival in mid-2017, finished the year with Independent Spirit Awards nominations for Best First Feature and Best Actress (for Shinobu Terajima’s beautifully calibrated performance), and earned rapturous critical praise during its recent rollouts in the US, France and elsewhere.

A poignant character study that deep-dives into the lonely life of a protagonist whose type is rarely depicted on screen, Oh Lucy! is an off-kilter culture-clash comedy combined with a deeply moving drama. Upon its world premiere at Cannes, Variety called it “a chocolate truffle with an arsenic core,” and Hirayanagi’s greatest accomplishment is that the film’s bittersweet aftertaste is pleasantly light and lingering.

Appearing for the Q&A session following FCCJ’s sneak preview screening, the writer-director and her star admitted they are curious about audience reactions on the film’s home turf. Said Hirayanagi, “I’m grateful that Oh Lucy! is opening in Japan, and I’m extremely curious about how the Japanese audience is going to react, and how they’ll feel about this film. Being here is kind of surreal, and at the same time, a dream come true.” 

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Terajima and Hirayanagi get a laugh out of costar Josh Hartnett's video message (left ©FCCJ, right ©Edwin Karmiol).

Terajima, who was making her third visit to FCCJ (after sneak peaks of Vibrator and Koji Wakamatsu’s Caterpillar, which won her the Silver Bear for Best Actress at the 2010 Berlin International Film Festival), began on a serious note: “I’m very pleased that I could be here tonight on this very special occasion.” Then she smiled her inimitable smile before continuing, “Today is my wedding anniversary. I’ve been married 11 years, and I’m so happy that I could be here.” (To her credit, it wasn't at all clear whether she was being gracious or slightly facetious.)

There were more punchlines to come when Terajima's costar, Josh Hartnett (Black Hawk Down, Penny Dreadful), dropped in to chat about his experiences by video. About his director, he said, “Atsuko Hirayanagi is one of the most quietly hilarious people I’ve ever met. [Guffaws ensued on the dais.] I spent a lot of time with Atsuko on the press tour, and everyone I introduced her to thinks she is genuinely one of the funniest people around. She’s a joy to work with, and a lovely human being. I’m very proud of her for making this film, and grateful to her for letting me be a part of it.”

As for Terajima, he ribbed, “Shinobu claims that she doesn’t speak English, but that is not true. [More guffaws.] She didn’t let on that she could understand everything I was saying until deep into production, so she made me feel at a disadvantage, and quite uncomfortable, [but] in a good way.” He then lowered his voice, whispering conspiratorially about how she would disappear to play Candy Crush before certain scenes. “In my opinion, it was the best way to prepare for work that I’ve ever seen.” After apologizing for asking so many questions on set, he said, “I hope it didn’t affect anyone negatively, including you, Shinobu. Thank you for your patience.”

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Acclaimed actor Koji Yakusho, left, with Hartnett and Terajima. ©OH LUCY,LLC All Rights Reserved.

He went on to laud the cast for being so “well prepared and artistically inspired,” but mock-warned, “The next time we all work together, you’re going to do it here, on my turf.”

In fact, Oh Lucy! does spend substantial time on Hartnett’s turf. Hirayanagi herself is based in the US, after growing up in Japan, going to the US as a high-school exchange student, and then graduating from New York University’s Tisch School of the Arts in Singapore. Her thesis film was a short version of Oh Lucy!, which went on to win nearly 40 awards around the globe, including prizes at the Cannes, Sundance, Toronto and SXSW film festivals. Although she was courted to direct other projects, she decided to first explore Lucy’s story further, and with initial funding from Sundance and Japan’s NHK, went on to craft the feature version.

As the film opens, chain-smoking office lady Setsuko (Terajima) is clearly stuck in a rut, both professionally and in her seemingly non-existent personal life. En route to work one morning, a man on her crowded platform whispers “Goodbye” in her ear before leaping in front of the train. If that’s not enough to shake her up, a fellow OL is retiring, and she may be the closest thing to an office ally that Setsuko has. When her niece Mika (Shioli Kutsuna) begs her to fill in at her pricey English classes (reimbursing her directly for the fees), it seems to be just the diversion Setsuko needs. 

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The veteran actress and the first-time feature director.    ©FCCJ

Her unorthodox instructor, John (Hartnett), greets her with a warm embrace — “I’m a hugger, what can I say?” — has her don a curly blonde wig and pick her new name out of a box. Setsuko becomes “Lucy” and is encouraged to be “lazy and relaxed” when she speaks American English (a ping pong ball apparently helps). The new identity unleashes her inner she-vamp, empowering her to say all the things she’s pent up, some of which she instantly regrets. But it also rekindles the flames of hope in her heart. She’s immediately smitten with John, and thus aggravated when the red-wigged, widowed “Tom” (the great Koji Yakusho), joins the class and she no longer has the teacher’s hugs all to herself.

Then John suddenly disappears and Setsuko, nearly inconsolable, discovers that he’s left for Southern California with Mika. Desperate to see him again, she takes off in hot pursuit with her estranged sister, Ayako (Kaho Minami), in tow. Their first surprise, after realizing that California isn’t all beaches and glorious sunsets, is that John is no longer the Charisma Man he was in Tokyo, and Mika has fled. They coerce him into chauffeuring their search for her, and Setsuko/Lucy seizes one last chance at midlife liberation. 

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 Ayako (Kaho Minami) joins Setsuko in America, where Hartnett becomes
the bickering sisters' chauffeur.  ©OH LUCY,LLC All Rights Reserved.

Praising Terajima for her ability to play both “lifeless” (in Japan) and “full of life” (in California), a journalist asked how she’d mentally prepared for the difference. “Was it a geographic thing?” he asked. Explained the actress, “We shot all of the Japan scenes before we left for the states, so the geography did rub off on the character. The vastness of America, where you can walk a long way without ever bumping into someone, really elevates your spirit. I think the way I played the role was affected by that. We didn’t change my makeup, but even the director said I looked more beautiful in America. So I think the environment freed both Setsuko’s, and my, spirit. It was a really fun shoot to do.”

Hirayanagi was asked about her own relationship to America, since the film “presents America as a liberating space, but also rather twisted, dangerous and cruel.” The director began, “I’m not sure which part is twisted… I think American people are more present and speak to you as a person, rather than what your title may represent.” Switching back to the film, she then said, “So it was freeing for Setsuko, and not being labeled as an office lady or single or a chain smoker was freeing. No one knew who she was, so she could create something that she wants to be. I think that’s where the magic, the empowerment, of being in the states comes from. It freed her up and let her find the part of herself that she didn’t know existed.”

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  Top left ©Edwin Karmiol, bottom left ©Pierre Boutier, right two ©FCCJ.

To a question about the superb casting, Hirayanagi immediately responded, “Shinobu-san was a no-brainer. “The producers sent me a list of actresses because I’m away from Japan, so they thought I wouldn’t know actresses in her age group. But I saw her name and I knew she would be perfect. I knew her from Vibrator, one of the great Japanese films, and she was phenomenal. So we sent her the script and the short, we talked and she said ‘Yes.’”

Was she influenced to cast Koji Yakusho by his charming role in Shall We Dance? one attendee wondered. Although his role in Oh Lucy! is a small one, it is absolutely essential to the film, particularly in its closing moments. “Of course I know Shall We Dance? and there are similar threads in both films; but there were a lot of coincidences that came together and resulted in our casting him. We had him in mind from the beginning, but we weren’t sure how to approach him. I finally decided there could be no harm in asking him. He’s extremely versatile, and being able to cast him was like a dream. They say ‘shoot for the stars’ in English, and that’s what we did. And we got the stars.”

A film academic asked whether either Hirayanagi or Terajima had been challenged by differences in acting or shooting styles between the US and Japan. Said the director, “I think the main issue for Japanese actors is coverage, since we have more coverage if you try to shoot in so-called American style. I was in constant negotiations between my [cinematographer], who’s based in Hollywood and wants to take pictures as beautiful as possible, and my Japanese actors, who were getting tired from doing so many takes of the same scene. I wound up shooting Shinobu-san first, then Josh, since he’s used to it and gets warmed up after more takes.”

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Terajima and Hirayanagi react to Hartnett's video message.   ©FCCJ

Said Terajima, “I underwent very harsh training with Koji Wakamatsu, who made super-indie films and would go straight into shooting without any run-throughs. With Oh Lucy!, we did the same shots over and over again, and it was just as exhausting as Wakamatsu-san’s style. As for acting styles, I really don’t think it comes down to nationalities, but because Atsuko-san has a black belt in karate, I think she really knows how to read people. She’s able to meticulously gauge how and to what degree she should direct [each actor], so she can achieve the results she wants.”

Terajima then shared her experience at her first awards ceremony in Los Angeles: “I was really busy at the time of the Independent Spirit Awards, and could only fly over for 1.5 days. The Independent Spirits aren’t as well known in Japan as the Oscars, and I was curious what it would be like. But being there, you really feel like America is the country of cinema. You feel that everyone’s so passionate about the film industry. I got to meet [eventual Best Actress winner] Frances McDormand, and she’d seen Oh Lucy! and told me it was a wonderful film. Without going, you don’t realize the extent of the passion for film, so it was a really rewarding experience.”

Added Hirayanagi, “By the way, Frances McDormand was very, very complimentary about Shinobu-san’s performance. She’s not going to say it herself, so I have to add this fact.”

And it is, indeed, a fact.

OH LUCY PosterOH LUCYLLC All Rights Reserved
©OH LUCY,LLC All Rights Reserved 

Selected Media Exposure

SAMURAI AND IDIOTS


Samurai and Idiots – The Olympus Affair
(Samurai to Orokamono — Olympus Jiken no Zembo)


April 4, 2018
Q&A guests: Hyoe Yamamoto and documentary cast members
Yoshimasa Yamaguchi, Jonathan Soble and Waku Miller


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Director Hyoe Yamamoto (2nd from right) and eyewitnesses to history (from left) Miller, Yamaguchi and Soble.  ©FCCJ

On April 19, 2012, corporate whistleblower Michael Woodford appeared at FCCJ, just a day before his former employer’s annual shareholders meeting. “The Olympus scandal would have been a wonderful opportunity to really get it right,” he told an enormous crowd of reporters. “All they’ve done is make it worse. Olympus may get away with it, and the institutional shareholders, after sweating tomorrow, may be fine with it. But the damage is done. Would you invest in Japan? Do you believe in the integrity of company accounts?”

In Samurai and Idiots — The Olympus Affair, Woodford and other eyewitnesses demystify one of the biggest corporate governance debacles in postwar Japan (it was neither the first nor the last). An engrossing case study of a documentary, it is finally being released in Japan some 3 years after its heralded UK premiere, and some 5 years after Olympus was fined ¥700 million ($6 million) and its three top executives plead guilty to massive accounting fraud.

Watching it all unfold, as director Hyoe Yamamoto forensically peels back layers of the onion to reveal more rot within, is jaw-dropping stuff. 

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At top, Yamamoto and Soble  ©FCCJ; bottom, Miller and Yamaguchi.  ©Koichi Mori

But for the large contingent of financial and cultural reporters in FCCJ’s sneak preview audience, many buffeted by today’s impediments to truth-telling — from internet trolling to state secrets laws to presidential tweets — it was also a reminder that their work is absolutely essential. Samurai and Idiots is not just a dissection of corporate governance gone wrong, it is also a celebration of the courage and perseverance of journalists and others who support whistleblowers, sometimes at great personal risk.

In October 2011, Woodford had become the first non-Japanese appointed CEO of the multibillion-dollar optical firm, having "exceeded expectations" as Olympus president and COO for the prior six months. Just two weeks later, he was at the center of a widening uproar, having gone public when the board ousted him rather than answer his questions about $1.7 billion in fees that Olympus paid to and for what he termed “Mickey Mouse” companies (some with ties to organized crime), apparently to hide old losses.

Woodford had been tipped off by a series of articles written by Yoshimasa Yamaguchi in the bravely independent news magazine Facta. Woodford gave his own inside scoop to reporter Jonathan Soble, then at the Financial Times, the same day he was fired; and while Japan’s press toed the Olympus line (the foreign CEO had “failed to overcome cultural differences and communications difficulties” and “ignored the hierarchy”), the truth began exploding across global business pages.

Tracing the unfolding mystery from its beginnings, and presenting pithy data with a streamlined digestibility, Samurai and Idiots reveals that Woodford sparked an East-West cultural showdown that grew increasingly polarizing, and continued to be vilified, even after the corporate malefactors were finally arrested. 

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Michael Woodford gives his side of the story. ©Team Okuyama / Uzumasa

At the lengthy Q&A session after the FCCJ's sneak preview screening — which evolved into a master class in corporate governance, whistleblowing and deteriorating employee trust in today’s Japan — director Hyoe Yamamoto recalled, “One of our first major hurdles was how [to cover so many] technicalities and present this as a very simple story, so that people who may not have knowledge of how the financial world works will understand exactly what happened … We had a lot of discussions about where to take the film, and there were a lot of angles we could have covered. I felt my job as a storyteller was to make it as accessible to as many audiences as possible. It presents so many aspects of the ‘culture clash’ and what’s going on in the world right now.”

Yamamoto was joined on the dais by journalists Yoshimasa Yamaguchi and Jonathan Soble, and by Waku Miller, a longtime friend and adviser of Woodford — all of whom are expert talking heads in the film. They were asked what has changed in the years since the scandal broke.

“It’s said that the Olympus scandal was one impetus for new corporate governance rules that came into effect a couple of years ago in Japan,” responded Soble. “It’s probably worth noting that, on paper, Olympus had great corporate governance. The [new 2015] rules stated that you have to have independent directors on your board, but Olympus actually had that. In some ways, it’s a reminder that on paper, it can only go so far. Toshiba, which got into trouble recently for [hiding its profit-padding], on paper also had great corporate governance. There’s a debate right now in Japan about whether the new rules are good or bad, whether they go far enough or not, and that’s all very healthy. But I think it’s a reminder that the Olympus story is about how the rot inside a company goes beyond what you can do with rules on paper.” 

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Facta editor-in-chief Shigeo Abe, says, "Things haven't changed much since the feudal era... 
Anachronistic practices are preventing needed reform."  ©Team Okuyama / Uzumasa

The director concurred, adding, “I couldn’t put it in the film, but there was a lot of struggle between Olympus and the auditing company, Azusa, which [had pointed] out a lot of questionable dealings. After Azusa asked too many questions, Olympus switched to Ernst and Young [instead]. I’m assuming it was clear that shady deals were going on, and the auditors had to point them out. But obviously, Olympus decided to switch auditors at a curious [juncture].”

Yamaguchi cautioned, “If we start talking about the auditing, we’ll be here until tomorrow morning.” Waiting for the audience laughter to die down, he added, “Let me reassure you that the government is taking this seriously. The individuals in the industry, the CPAs and others in auditing firms, have a strong sense of urgency about the way they operate. But organizationally, we face what you’d have to characterize as systemic rot.”

Said Yamamoto, “All these rules and other systems were in place, but no one took a stand except Michael Woodford. I think that’s the important point. This could have been stopped. I can see this happening all across the board in Japanese society, and this is something we really need to confront and recognize. It’s happening everywhere, even now.”

But recognition doesn’t always lead to change. As Yamaguchi told the audience, “Seven years [after I wrote the initial articles], we find that Olympus has continued to engage in all sorts of shenanigans, including fraud in China and the employment of representatives of organized crime groups to facilitate that fraud, as proven by investigations conducted by multiple legal offices. So has Olympus changed? I would conclude No. The faces have changed in management, but the mindset has not. It makes me want to go after them with an endoscope [a reference to one of Olympus’ key products], to see what’s going on inside.” 

Samurai FCCJ--021Yamamoto marks his feature debut with Samurai and Idiots, which was produced by
Japan, France, Germany, Sweden and Denmark. ©Koichi Mori

Mentioning that Woodford had certain “luxuries” as the CEO that lower-ranking employees would not have had if they had blown the whistle, Soble said, “The idea that whistleblowers need some kind of protection is spreading. You see a lot of cases in Japan right now. A lot of the business news has been taken up with falsification of product quality data at companies like Mitsubishi Materials and Kobe Steel. A lot of that is coming from whistleblowers. Whether they’re doing that because they feel more protected, or whether it’s because the relationship between Japanese employees and their companies is changing and they don’t feel the loyalty that they used to, there are more people coming to authorities and speaking out than there used to be. Olympus was definitely a catalyst in that.”

Queried about the mainstream Japanese press’ toeing of the Olympus line on the Woodford story, playing it as an East-West showdown, Yamaguchi noted, “I never regarded this as a clash of cultures, but when I first started working on the story, I didn’t know about the hiding of losses that was underneath it. As I learned more about the accounting fraud that had occurred, I began to see it as a characteristically Japanese reaction — the notion of moving losses off the balance sheet to hide them was something we could regard as a cultural issue.”

Said Soble, “It’s important to remember that it was Olympus that initially framed it as a cultural clash in the announcement about Woodford’s firing. They didn’t say he was fired because he asked questions about some dodgy acquisitions; they said he was fired because he wasn’t fitting in. The Japanese media basically took that and ran with it.” 

The director expanded, “Playing up Michael as a very aggressive guy who didn’t understand the culture was just total nonsense… This was just a cover story, and after Woodford went to the Financial Times and it was known around the world, I think that became very clear, even to the Japanese press. You see in the press conferences with the executives in the film, the Japanese press were asking very tough questions and turning pretty nasty, but the executives weren’t giving any answers. Seeing those interactions, it becomes obvious that this is a case where these guys… no one in their right mind would say the things they were saying in a public forum, when this is a listed company that has access to public funds. But I was in the court when [former Olympus Chair] Mr. Kikukawa testified, and he [was convinced] that the firing of Woodford had nothing to do with [the financial issues].”  

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Jonathan Soble scooped the scandal in the Financial Times. ©Koichi Mori

One longtime FCCJ member argued that tobashi, the deferring of losses, should not be considered cultural, since “it’s a normal accounting practice” on a worldwide basis. “After the bubble collapsed,” he said, “tobashi was taken for granted, because otherwise a lot of companies in Japan would have gone bankrupt... so what is the cultural dimension?”

The director recalled, “I asked the same question to Jonathan [Soble], because apparently, tobashi was a word used outside of Japan as well. I asked if there was something specifically Japanese about the concept, and his answer was that it was something that could be done in a similar way, on the books, in other countries.”

Added Soble, “The Japanese term caught on, but it doesn’t mean it’s a particularly Japanese thing. And it’s true, it was perfectly legal for the first decade or so after the bubble burst. If it hadn’t been, if companies had been forced to admit all their losses, you would have had all these companies, employing tens of thousands of people on paper, that would’ve been bankrupt. You would’ve had a whole lot of unnecessary economic and social disruption in Japan. So the government essentially allowed a long time for companies to defer losses, using various techniques to get them off their balance sheet, so it didn’t show up. Many companies, not just Olympus, did this. You had whole departments in respectable investment banks in Japan dedicated to helping them come up with methods to keep these losses off the books.”

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 ©Koichi Mori

He continued, “But you can’t do that forever, and eventually the government said, ‘We’re going to tighten the rules.’ It went from perfectly legal to frowned upon to illegal but not enforced to ‘We have to stop this.’ Most companies took those 10 years to put their houses in order. Olympus failed to do that. It’s a bigger story than this, but these are the bones of the story.”

Said Yamaguchi, “I don’t want to stretch things out, but I would insist that the urge to hide the shame of having incurred losses is, to a certain extent, a characteristically Japanese trait. When we look into the cottage industry that’s taken shape here, an industry of experts who are prepared, for a fee, to help company’s hide losses, we find that a lot of the experts are non-Japanese. Olympus received a lot of assistance from a European investment bank. So to that extent, I would agree with you that this is not confined to Japan.”

Miller interjected, “I would like to argue that there was a tremendously cultural dimension to what happened at Olympus. At the end of the day, there was no magic. The balance sheet remained balanced… and you had three presidents in a row who would have been incredibly ashamed and embarrassed to have incurred such huge losses on ill-conceived financial speculation, but who were much less embarrassed or ashamed to have recorded grossly inflated goodwill in connection with stupid acquisitions. This is something that would never have occurred in America, because these transgressions are equally silly. Only in Japan would you look at one as being more grievous than the other. It’s very much a cultural problem.”

Soble agreed. “The idea that you can get away with that rests on the idea that your shareholders will never come down hard on you for overpaying for an acquisition. This is probably more true in Japan than in other countries. There’s an economic argument for not bankrupting companies, but these guys weren’t motivated by big economic calculus, they were motivated by the internal pressure to make sure that [a former] president isn’t embarrassed because of decisions he took. Those motivations are probably stronger in Japan.”

Samurai KM--9139
Articles by independent journalist Yoshimasa Yamaguchi first prompted Woodford to
ask the financial questions that lead to his firing. ©Koichi Mori

Another longtime FCCJ member, referencing Nissan CEO Carlos Ghosn’s firing of Nissan employees, “using gaiatsu, or foreign pressure, to cover up the embarrassment,” asked what might have happened if Woodford had not decided to “air his company’s dirty laundry” in public. Explained Soble, “Initially, to the extent that Olympus wanted to use Michael as an outsider, even though he’d worked for the company for 20 years, it was on the operations side. Olympus had to restructure. And Michael, in Europe, was known as a cost-cutter, kind of like how Carlos Ghosn was known as a cost-cutter. So the idea was that you bring in the European and have him do things that, for social reasons, would be difficult for a Japanese CEO, to cut jobs and cut costs. The idea was to have him do that, but to keep the past losses out of sight. Which is a pretty risky decision.”

Miller clarified, “I want everyone to go home with an accurate understanding of Michael’s stance. Long before he became president of Olympus, I argued with him many times about the massive employment in Olympus’ camera operations, for example. I said, ‘Don’t you have to get rid of those people?’ And Michael always said, “No! You don’t cut jobs. My job is to save jobs and protect lives.’ He’d been saying this to me for the past 15 years. After he was named president, of course he looked for places to get rid of people who were making huge salaries for doing very little. But that was not the people who were generating value in the trenches. He was always dedicated to preserving those jobs.” 

Samurai KM--9217
Waku Miller is a longtime friend and advisor of Woodfords's, and now his de facto
representative in Japan. ©Koichi Mori

Asked whether lax oversight by shareholders had been a major factor in the crisis, Soble said, “You can disguise a big loss on an investment you made 20 years ago as a foolish and massively overpaid acquisition you made yesterday only if you can be confident that your shareholders aren’t going to question you or punish you for it. That worked at Olympus until the press got hold of it and it all came out.”

But Yamaguchi noted, “I perceive some gradual changes for the better. Just today, I read a story about a metals processing firm that had moved to name a new president. One of their largest shareholders actually came out and objected, and blocked the proposed change. This would have been unheard of several years ago. Nomura Asset Management is moving a lot of money and becoming something of an activist shareholder too. These are small steps, but they’re significant.”

The director, asked why the documentary doesn’t present Olympus’ side of the story, responded, “We approached their lawyers, but access was denied. We knew, going in, that it was going to be very difficult to have any access. My job as a filmmaker was to figure out how to present this in a somewhat comprehensive manner without having that perspective. Japanese investors and distributors pointed out that we don’t have a movie without that perspective, without new revelations, whether [former Olympus chair] Mr. Kikukawa’s testimony or other people involved. I felt it was worth telling without having that perspective, that there was so much we could present that was more relevant to what was going on and is still going on.”   

Samurai KM--9127
Executive Producer Kazuyoshi Okuyama explains the documentary's genesis. ©Koichi Mori

Explaining why the Japanese release had been delayed, Yamamoto said, “We finished the film in 2015 and were looking for a distributor, but we knew not many would be willing to put it in theaters. Olympus are big advertisers in many major media outlets. It took a long time, but Uzumasa stepped in with an offer and that was really a lucky break for us. I made this especially for the Japanese audience, and I’m happy we’ve been given this opportunity.”

In the night’s most unexpected line of questioning, a film historian in the audience asked about the involvement of Kazuyoshi Okuyama, one of the film’s executive producers. Okuyama, he said, “had his own unceremonious removal from his company, Shochiku, and [I’m wondering if] perhaps he felt something sympathetic with Mr. Woodford.”

To his surprise, Okuyama was in the audience and willingly took the microphone: “Absolutely,” he concurred. “When I read Michael’s book, I saw compelling parallels between his experience and mine. [But] the most compelling aspect for me was the story’s universal message, a message about the struggle between the organization and the individual; the inevitable conflicts that arise between them in any society. That’s what grabbed me about the story, originally, the common ground between what happened at Olympus and what happened at Shochiku.”

The finished documentary refrains from mentioning Shochiku, the kabuki and film production behemoth. But as Yamamoto put it, “I think we shared the mutual goal of telling a universal story with universal themes. And I think that’s what we’ve done.”  

Poster Samurai and Idiot Team Okuyama  Uzumasa
©Team Okuyama / Uzumasa 

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