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 May 23, 2016
Q&A guest: Director Hitomi Kuroki

When a popular actress moves into the director’s chair — as did Jodie Foster and Angelina Jolie — their efforts are sure to invite close scrutiny. If their films can also be labeled “female-centric,” which is not the case with either Foster or Jolie, then that scrutiny is liable to be closer still.

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Kuroki was happy to hear the film appeals to men, too.          ©Mance Thompson

It’s to be expected, then, that the critical gaze on Hitomi Kuroki, veteran star of stage, screen and television, could not be any more intense than it is for her directorial debut, Desperate Sunflowers. An adaptation of the best-selling novel Nasty Piece of Work, by Nozomi Katsura, the film tells the story of two cousins, polar opposites, who actively (and often humorously) maintain their distaste for each other into early middle age, clashing repeatedly before reaching a détente and finally, beginning to see eye to eye.

There are male supporting characters in the film, but the focus is firmly fixed on these two women — uptight lawyer Tetsuko (Yo Yoshida) and incorrigible con artist Natsuko (Yoshino Kimura) — and their overlapping lives. Yoshida and Kimura are perfectly matched in what is admittedly a clarion call to female comradeship and empowerment, a moving drama that is cleverly punctuated by unforgettably off-kilter comic moments and inspired staging.

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During the Q&A following the screening, Kuroki was poised and polished, but after the Japanese media glare that has dogged her since the project was first announced, she was clearly relieved to hear praise not only from the sizable Japanese press contingent lining the room, but also from several foreign viewers. One of them rhapsodized, “This movie was pitched as a film for women, but I just want to tell you, as one man, I really enjoyed it. It’s about the most interesting and well-done Japanese film that I’ve been able to relate to.”

(Later, in the bar, another male viewer said, “It’s a good thing it was dark in there — I almost started crying!”)

Sunflowers KM-1Kuroki was happy to hear the film appeals to men, too.          ©Koichi Mori

The most obvious question came first: What had prompted Kuroki to make the move from in front of the camera to behind it? She explained that she first intended only to act in the film, but “in the process of working with the scriptwriter, I realized that I knew the world of the novel better than anyone else. That’s when I started thinking that I should probably direct it myself.” The process of adaptation was apparently a collaborative one. “In my discussions with [screenwriter Masafumi Nishida],” she continued, “I put a lot of myself into it. The novel makes you feel very positive, and it has numerous messages, such as the importance of life and the importance of ties with other human beings. I wanted to convey those in the film. I wanted audiences to feel the same way I did after reading the book.”

To a follow-up question, she added, “I have no regrets about not appearing on screen in the film. I was excited to be able to embark on a new journey at this age.” (Kuroki, like her two leads, is over 40; but all are blessed with enviable genes.)

She knew it would be a challenge to be driving the project, but “once you’re on set, you’re so into it, you’re so absorbed in letting the actors know how to interpret the roles. You don’t really have time to worry about how to do it — I was just there, actually doing it and trying to do my best.”

Asked whether she now felt directing suited her better than acting, Kuroki responded, “That’s a difficult question. If I said ‘yes,’ I would be negating my 35-year career. But being behind the scenes and working on things one step at a time is a process that suits me well. It was a new discovery for me.”

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Kuroiki is now a double threat, as Hollywood is fond of saying.          ©Mance Thompson

Pressed to elaborate, the director said: “The starkest difference [between acting and directing] is that, when you embark on a film as an actress, you become a certain character, you become that woman. As a director, you stay yourself.” She gave all credit to her two leads, admitting that they must have found the shoot fairly exhausting. “Ms. Yoshida is a very versatile and receptive actress,” said Kuroki. “The role of Tetsuko is a very straining one, and I had to be very tough on her on set, so I think that was trying for her. Yet she had the flexibility to overcome all the hurdles I put in her way. As for Ms. Kimura, she was really the mood-maker on the set. Of course, the role demanded that of her. But it was very impressive that, in playing this lively character, no matter how tired she was, she was able to slip right back into such a sunny state. I think she was wonderful.”

Kuroki was drawn not only by the book’s themes, but also its contrasting characters: Tetsuko is a shining law student, becomes a lawyer at a small firm, marries at 28 and has what seems the perfect life…yet underneath her always-professional demeanor, she feels empty and isolated. Natsuko, on the other hand, hasn’t changed from that childhood morning when she ripped apart Tetsuko’s matching sunflower dress with malicious glee. “I don’t wanna be like anyone else!” she wails. “I’d rather die.” In adulthood, Natsuko’s still setting her own rules, now brasher, brassier and more abrasive than ever. Yet we gradually discover that she’s been used and callously discarded, as so many women are. Eventually, the distance between the cousin’s outlooks on life narrows significantly, and they band together to save one of their own.

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Tetuko (left) and Matsuko have trouble seeing eye to eye on just about everything.
                                                          ©2016 "Desperate Sunflowers" Film Partners

Kuroki noted that she’d been especially “meticulous” in her direction of two pivotal scenes, one a raucous, rollicking cat fight between Tetsuko and Natsuko that marks a turning point in their relationship; the other a tender, introspective exchange between Tetsuko and her older-but-wiser colleague, Miyuki (a touching Eiko Nagashima).

Will she direct again? With a laugh, Kuroki mentioned that she’d had a bit of trouble readjusting to being an actress after taking 8 months off to shoot and complete Desperate Sunflowers. “When I came back on set, whenever someone called out ‘director!’ I would whip around to respond, without thinking.”

sunflowers m-56Kuroki brandishes her FCCJ honorary membership card.          ©Mance Thompson

Kuroki is not ignorant of the fact that very few women sit in the director’s chair — and even fewer do so in the midst of a successful acting career. This is not a Japanese phenomena; there is clear and consistent resistance worldwide to women of power on film sets. According to two recently reported surveys, only 21% of the directors in Europe are female, and they’re given much smaller budgets than their male counterparts (84% of financing goes to films directed by men). In the US, the facts are even more dire: female filmmakers clock in at an abysmal 9% of the industry (although they account for 28% of indie film directors).

Desperate Sunflowers marks a bold and assured directorial debut. If there’s any justice, Hitomi Kuroki will be able to make her own decision about which path she follows, or whether she wants to change it up and follow both paths.

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The newly minted director with the poster for her film.
                         ©Mance Thompson

Photos by FCCJ except where noted.

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          ©2016 "Desperate Sunflowers" Film Partners


Media Coverage


TV Exposure




GIVE ME THE SUN (Taiyo ga Hoshii)

 May 6, 2016
Q&A guests: Director Zhongyi Ban and narrator Roger Pulvers

For over 20 years, journalist-cum-filmmaker Zhongyi Ban has relentlessly documented the forgotten women who were forced into sexual servitude by the Japanese army during World War II. Returning to his homeland each year from Japan, where’s he been resident since the early 1990s, Ban tracked down over 80 women, recorded their stories, viewed the scars of the atrocities inflicted on them, and even collected money from sympathetic Japanese to cover their medical and other costs.

guang-gmts045Ban is a veteran journalist focusing on Sino-Japan issues.

After several books and prior films on the issue, he has now completed Give Me the Sun, the most comprehensive and compelling portrait of Chinese comfort women yet. Presenting a specially edited version of the film, with English subtitles and narration, at FCCJ, Ban noted, “This film was made with the support of individuals in Japan. Some 730 people contributed to its production, including Roger Pulvers and John Junkerman [both present on the dais]. It took a year and a half to complete, and we’ve been screening the [longer, Japanese version] at least once a week around the country since then — in halls, not yet in theaters — due to the enthusiasm of people to show the film.” He did admit, however, that, “There are a lot of people who disagree with films like this, so it’s quite possible that, down the road, we may receive some backlash from them. So we’re vigilant.”

Pulvers, a noted author, playwright and screenwriter who narrated the film, commented, “My role in this has been very small over these past many years, but it’s been an honor to play even a small part in [Ban’s] immense contribution to history, journalism and the art of film. I think one of the old ladies in the film said something very telling when she remarked that the Chinese government doesn’t want this story to get out either. When you have the collusion — whether it’s a coincidence or not, I don’t know — of the two most powerful countries in Asia, and you have somebody with the courage of [Ban], I am just awed and impressed.”

Junkerman (left) and Pulvers (right) have worked with Ban on his previous films.

Ban’s mission to locate and document the women began after Japan’s first conference on war reparations in 1992 revealed just how widespread the comfort station practice had been. But as late as 1996, only one Chinese comfort woman had publicly identified herself, due to their fear of what Ban terms “political harassment” and of being charged with “enemy collaboration.”

Give Me the Sun (a reference to the squalid, dark conditions in which the women were held) introduces us to a group of seven aging Chinese women whose bodies and minds were irrevocably scarred by the unspeakable brutality they suffered during World War II, when they were often gang-raped for months until their families could ransom them. Some were lured into sexual slavery by locals working for the Japanese Army, who promised them work in factories or hospitals; others were simply abducted and enslaved in the nearest comfort stations.

Chinese scholars have estimated that close to 100,000 women were forcibly taken from their homes during the war, although lack of official documentation has made it difficult for historians to reach an agreement on the exact figure.  The women in Ban’s film were among the measly one-quarter of such victims who actually survived the war. Give Me the Sun retraces the contentious history of the issue and strengthens the women’s heart-breaking accusations by including interviews with a handful of former Japanese soldiers, from an infantryman to a company commander, as well as Chinese recruiters and Japanese comfort women.

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But Ban admitted that this third film on the issue was prompted mostly by “former Osaka Mayor Toru Hashimoto’s declaration, right here at the Foreign Correspondents’ Club [in May 2013], when he essentially denied the existence of comfort women, calling them prostitutes, as well as the bashing of the Asahi newspaper for their reporting on the comfort women issue. This brought the issue to the attention of the Japanese public, but most of the attention was paid to the South Korean comfort women. Far less is known about the Chinese victims of sexual violence, so I wanted to get exposure for those women. I put out a call for support to make the film, and I immediately got it from people of conscience and justice-seekers in Japan.”

South Korean comfort women have been increasingly in the headlines since December 2015, when Japan agreed to set up a fund to indirectly compensate the victims, but only if there is no further mention of the issue. The “diplomatic deceit,” as one critic termed it, has resulted in continued and widespread protests — as well as to Japan’s nonpayment until certain conditions are met.

Chinese comfort women have been largely ignored in the ongoing war reparations dialogue, primarily due, says one scholar, to China’s ongoing “censorship, dictatorship and disregard for human rights,” and the postwar government’s priority to reconcile with Japan at the expense of all else.

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Ban visited one of the shared care-homes for comfort women in South Korea, and was impressed by the level of physical, psychological and financial support they received. “In China, on the other hand, these women are living in deep poverty, without any support whatsoever from the government or from Chinese society. Of course China is not a democracy, so it’s not easy for the public to take action.”

To a question concerning the differing circumstances between the South Korean and Chinese victims, Ban noted that, since Korea had been a Japanese colony, “Korean women were seized or recruited and sent to various parts of Asia where Japanese troops were stationed. They were put into established comfort stations, where they were treated as objects and sexually violated.” Of the 80 women Ban had tracked down in China, including 20 Koreans who had been held captive on the border with Russia, “[typically], Japanese troops stationed out in the provinces would seize women from nearby and put them into rooms where they were kept as sexual slaves. Almost none of them had experience in a comfort station. So we can’t really call them ‘comfort women,’ but rather, they were sexual slaves.”

Ban with the English poster for his film.

In 1996, lawsuits for reparations were filed in Japan by four of the women in Give Me the Sun, and in 1998, by 10 more, with the aid of Japanese lawyers. All the suits were dismissed or lost in 2000. “Why did I lose the lawsuit? Where is the truth?” wails one of the victims. “Why doesn’t the Japanese government apologize and compensate?” In the film’s closing moments, shortly before she dies, she vows to become a demon, so she can continue her fight for justice.

“Many of them have died, and others are in the last years of their lives,” Ban emphasized. “But it’s not too late to wish that they could receive better treatment during their final years… They’re desperately poor and desperately need assistance for their medical care. But if they were given a big chunk of money, they wouldn’t know what to do with it. That’s not what they’re after. They’re after a sincere, heartfelt apology.”

Ban remains hopeful that there can be “an investigation into the historical reality of the comfort women situation, and research and education on the issue.” His heroic devotion has earned many admirers, as well as detractors. “Ban has told me over the years that he has enemies on both sides,” said Pulvers, “— that the Chinese and the Japanese are against him in many ways. But I firmly believe that the day will come that he will be rewarded by both sides, given honors by both sides, for this most remarkable work.”

Photos by FCCJ except where noted.

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Human-hans/ Ban Zhongyi ©2016

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