THE RED TURTLE (Red Turtle: Aru shima no monogatari)
August 31, 2016
Q&A guest: Director Michael Dudok de Wit
Michael Dudok de Wit ©Koichi Mori
Imagine that you are an animator of short films — a very, very good animator, an award-winning animator, but nevertheless, a short-form animator — and out of the blue one day, you receive an email from Studio Ghibli.
The email asks you two questions: Would you allow us to distribute your Oscar-winning Father and Daughter in Japan? And would you be interested in working with Studio Ghibli on your first-ever feature film?
London-based Dutch animator Michael Dudok de Wit laughs when he recalls that magical moment in November 2006, when his life changed: “It was a shock when it all started …[the email explained]: ‘You would team up with Wild Bunch in Paris, and you would write the film.’ I had two simultaneous reactions: The first one was ‘Yes!!’ And the second one was, ‘Hang on.’ I wrote back and asked, ‘Could you please explain? I want to make sure that I understood your email properly.”
© 2016 Studio Ghibli - Wild Bunch - Why Not Productions - Arte France Cinéma - CN4 Productions - Belvision - Nippon Television Network - Dentsu - Hakuhodo DYMP - Walt Disney Japan - Mitsubishi – Toho
The director then met right away with the heads of Wild Bunch in London, and, “My first question was, ‘This is unbelievable. Tell me, is there’s something I’ve not been told yet?’ They said, ‘No, no, this is really genuine. They want to know if you have a story. We aren’t promising that we will make the film, but we’ll have a go. It’s new for [Ghibli], it’s new for you to make a feature film, so let’s take it step by step.’ Straight away, I started writing the synopsis.”
As far as fantastical genesis stories go, it’s a suitably Ghibli-esque one.
Dudok de Wit shared that anecdote and many others with FCCJ’s audience during a lengthy Q&A session following a sneak preview screening of his first feature, The Red Turtle — which also became Studio Ghibli’s first international coproduction, in collaboration with France’s Wild Bunch and Why Not Productions. Watching proudly from the audience, and later responding to a question, was legendary Studio Ghibli producer Toshio Suzuki.
Suzuki responds, essentially putting the kibosh on the
Ghibli-collaboration fantasies of animators everywhere. ©Koichi Mori
Since it was the question on everyone’s mind at FCCJ, and is surely foremost on the minds of those reading this blog, we’ll cut to the chase:
Suzuki was asked whether The Red Turtle was to be the first of many international projects to come from Studio Ghibli. He responded: “I think Michael is a very special case. In my line of work, I meet many different people and I often becomes friends with them. But as one of the producers of the film, what got me started on this was falling in love with Michael’s short film, Father and Daughter, and simply being curious: What would a feature film by this director look like? That was the impetus for the film, and if you’re asking if this project will be a catalyst for future collaborations with foreign filmmakers, I would have to say, it simply depends on whether I encounter a similar situation like that again.”
In the ensuing decade since Dudok de Wit received his life-altering email, many things changed, not least the makeup of Studio Ghibli itself, after anime titan Hayao Miyazaki retired from long-form filmmaking in 2014, and Suzuki stepped down from producing in 2015. But in May 2016, The Red Turtle premiered at the 2016 Cannes Film Festival, winning the Un Certain Regard Special Prize and a slew of rapturous reviews. As Indiewire raved: “It showcases the best ways in which Studio Ghibli productions maintain a certain elegant simplicity that points to deeper truths. This is a quiet little masterpiece of images, each one rich with meaning, that collectively speak to a universal process.”
Photo left ©Koichi Mori; right, FCCJ
Throughout the Q&A session, Dudok de Wit stressed just how universal the process of creation had been: “For a feature film, you want to make sure your [choices as director] work for other people as well. So I was very sensitive to how [Studio Ghibli and Wild Bunch] reacted during the development process. After that, we became a team: the animators arrived and the background artists arrived, and we were dozens of people in the same building, making the film.” Over the three years of production, the director constantly encouraged feedback from his team, as well as reading nonverbal signals and body language — something he emphasized every animator does.
One journalist remarked immediately on the film’s similarities with Ghibli releases. Responded Dudok de Wit: “I don’t think there’s a typical Ghibli aesthetic. I think there’s a [Hayao] Miyazaki aesthetic and a [Isao] Takahata aesthetic. There’s a sensitivity and a maturity about the films that is very obvious, but it was never the idea to make a film that looks like a Ghibli film. From the beginning, [Takahata, who is credited as the film’s artistic producer, and Suzuki] said, ‘We like Father and Daughter a lot, we feel like it’s a Japanese film,’ which is a huge compliment. I would not have been good at imitating their style. I find it extraordinary to make a haiku-style film like Takahata’s My Neighbors the Yamadas. We could never do that in the West.”
He continued, “What we do have in common is a certain sensitivity. We have a respect for nature and a deep, positive respect for human nature. To be honest, I felt it clicked between us. There was a sort of natural chemistry between us.”
That chemistry translates onscreen into a perfect synthesis of animation sensibilities. The Red Turtle is an expressionistic ode to human resilience, to family bonds, to the search for happiness and to the very cycle of life. Stripping existence to its most basic elements, the breathtakingly visual film follows a man who washes ashore on a deserted island following a ferocious storm, eventually builds a raft to escape and is prevented from leaving by an enormous red turtle. One morning, he awakens to find that a woman has become a castaway with him on the island, and after a courtship of sorts, the two have a child.
As their odyssey continues, Dudok de Wit’s hand-drawn charcoal backgrounds and the artisanal quality of his digital animation imbues his allegorical tale with a delicate, painterly beauty. While uniquely the director’s, The Red Turtle warmly evokes Ghibli, especially in its Greek chorus of sand crabs who are the man’s only friends at first, and the unmistakable message that man can only survive if we learn to coexist with nature.
(Variety called the film “a fable so simple, so pure, it feels as if it has existed for hundreds of years.” In fact, although the titular turtle was Dudok de Wit’s idea, the story has faint echoes of the Japanese myth of Urashima Taro, which also features a turtle and a lost soul).
When one journalist lauded the director for “creating a world within the film, a world that we come away remembering vividly, as we do with Ghibli films,” Dudok de Wit reassured him that animators “usually do far more research than spectators realize, taking thousands and thousands of photographs, because that’s our job. And it’s a joy. I went to La Digue, one of the Seychelles islands, particularly because it has ancient granite rocks. I thought they were very beautiful, very sensual.” He also mentioned that he’d purposely chosen something different from one palm tree with a coconut, as deserted islands always are in the castaway clichés. He found his inspiration in a famed bamboo grove near Kyoto and a wild bamboo forest in Kyushu, as well as another in France.
To a question concerning his choice to make the film dialogue free, Dudok de Wit said, “There were a few moments, later in the story, where I felt it was essential to have a few sentences, both for the clarity of the story, and to enhance the humanity of the characters … But new arrivals on the film team would say, ‘I like the story a lot, but the voices are a bit odd.’ [With writer Pascale Ferran,] we kept working on the lines, and in the end, we kept just a few … Then one day I got a call from Studio Ghibli, saying, ‘We looked at the animatic [storyboard] and looked at the words the characters are saying. We discussed it, and we feel that the film actually doesn’t need dialogue.’ I defended my idea that we occasionally needed it for clarity, but in the end, they said ‘We think the film will survive without dialogue and will actually be stronger.’ At that point, I felt a huge relief. I thought, ‘If they feel it works without dialogue, I’m really interested in this challenge.’”
He then discovered a way to bring the characters more alive without having them speak: “We got voice actors in, and we asked them to breathe through the whole film. To my pleasant surprise, the breathing not only created a stronger empathy for the characters, but the sound of breathing was more expressive than I’d anticipated. We don’t need to hear words, but the fact that we hear them breathe brings them closer to us.”
Dudok de Wit embellishes his autograph with a quick sketch of the titular turtle. ©Koichi Mori
All of Dudok de Wit’s short films, including the Oscar-nominated The Monk and the Fish (1994), a playfully absurd comedy, and his achingly poignant Oscar winner Father and Daughter (2000), are driven by music, with no dialogue at all. Asked whether a future film might include lines, the director said, “There are many, many short films with no dialogue. That’s very common. They don’t need the spoken language, the film language is already strong enough. In this film, the [main character] doesn’t need to speak aloud to himself; he’s not like Tom Hanks. I would be open to using dialogue [in future]. I’ve used dialogue in many of the commercials I’ve made.”
The Red Turtle is coming soon to screens around the world, since most territories have been sold. It has opened in France, Belgium and the French-speaking part of Switzerland, and Sony Pictures Classics will be releasing the film later this year in North America. It’s sure to attract animation and art-film lovers everywhere, as well as making all the animation award shortlists at the end of this year. But will it lead to more magical emails from Studio Ghibli, winging their way across cyberspace to transform the lives of other animators…? Only time will tell.
© 2016 Studio Ghibli - Wild Bunch - Why Not Productions -
Arte France Cinéma - CN4 Productions - Belvision -
Nippon Television Network - Dentsu - Hakuhodo DYMP -
Walt Disney Japan - Mitsubishi – Toho
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NIKKATSU ROMAN PORNO REBOOT PROJECT
August 24, 2016
Q&A guests: Reboot directors Hideo Nakata, Akihiko Shiota, Kazuya Shiraishi, Sion Sono and Isao Yukisada
The 5 reboot directors together for the first time ever: from left, Shiota, Shiraishi, Sono, Nakata, Yukisada. ©Mance Thompson
Perhaps we’ll never know exactly how Nikkatsu arrived at its short list of candidates to revive the studio’s acclaimed Roman Porno series for a new generation of fans, but they clearly didn’t just flip coins. The five singular directors who eventually made the cut — Hideo Nakata, Akihiko Shiota, Kazuya Shiraishi, Sion Sono and Isao Yukisada (alphabetically) — couldn’t be more different in style and substance, so perhaps Nikkatsu was simply trying to cover all the bases of audience appeal. While the five have each had commercial success and been hailed internationally, the similarities essentially end there.
Marking the 45th anniversary of the softcore porn that put Japanese cine-erotica on the world map, Nikkatsu chose the helmers, none of whom had previously made a Roman Porno (although several have made non-Nikkatsu softcore, or assisted porn maestros early in their careers), to create completely original 70- to 80-minute features for theatrical release and broadcast via SKY PerfecTV, as well as international festival play.
The five directors were given very limited budgets and required to shoot their films within one week, just as Roman Pornos had been made in their 1970s-80s heyday. Nikkatsu’s unique concept then, as now, was to require only that there be a sex scene every 10 minutes or so, but otherwise to allow complete freedom in the choice of stories and styles.
The reboot, according to the studio, “revives [Nikkatsu’s] function as a sandbox for playful experimentation with the aim of attaining new forms of cinematic expression.”
The venerable Nikkatsu Studio was facing bankruptcy in 1971 when it decided to shift production from action and gangster films to mid-length “romantic pornography,” or story-driven tales with copious sex. Tremendously popular with audiences and critics alike, the series stretched to nearly 1,100 titles before competition from straight-to-video adult films put an end to it in 1988. Acclaimed directors like Shinji Somai (Sailor Suit and Machine Gun), Kichitaro Negishi (Villon’s Wife) and Shusuke Kaneko (Death Note) all worked for Nikkatsu at the start of their careers. Others, like Tatsumi Kumashiro, Noboru Tanaka and Masaru Konuma, became masters of the genre, admired overseas as well as at home.
Nikkatsu President Naoki Sato makes opening remarks. ©Koichi Mori
At the landmark FCCJ event, which brought together the reboot directors for the first — and likely, last — time, Nikkatsu unveiled exclusive behind-the-scenes footage from the five new Roman Pornos, clips that underscored for the SRO audience just how different the five directors’ approaches are, and thus how different their films are going to be. This is an important distinction, since Roman Porno was never a genre, but a brand. Within the brand, a wealth of genres were represented, from thrillers to period pictures to coming-of-age stories to mysteries.
In opening remarks from Nikkatsu President Naoki Sato, he explained that the brand had originally attracted an abundance of talented young creators because, “They were able to use Roman Porno as a springboard to convey their own message, whether it be about a social issue or about an idol… The films were made by a respected studio and they received a seal of approval from Eirin [the ratings agency akin to the MPAA]. So while they included sex scenes, they were all distributed to theaters for general audiences.”
Nikkatsu President Naoki Sato ©FCCJ
Nikkatsu was inspired to start considering the reboot following the ecstatic reception, particularly by Millennials and females, of a Roman Porno Best Hits package that made the rounds internationally several years back. Said Sato, “As a business, we’re happy that the Japanese film industry is robust, but in this day and age, it’s questionable whether filmmakers really have creative freedom. So we thought it might be interesting to see if we could bring back the same freedom of expression to our reboot productions.”
And so, businesslike, the studio selected directors who have built enviable fan bases alternating between studio and indie films. Hideo Nakata, of course, is considered the father of J-horror, having unleashed Ringu (1998) and Dark Water (2002) upon the world, following up with a fistful of chillers like his latest, Ghost Theater. Akihiko Shiota is known for his offbeat takes on the coming-of-age drama, as in his award-winning Harmful Insect (2002), but he’s also made such domestic blockbusters as Yomigaeri (2003) and Dororo (2007). The youngest of the bunch, Kazuya Shiraishi, has brought an unsettling sensibility to his three dark, moody features, Lost Paradise in Tokyo (2010), Devil’s Path (2013) and this year’s delirious corrupt-cop thriller, Twisted Justice. Sion Sono has courted controversy even while sweeping up awards overseas for his prolific, often outrageous output, from Love Exposure (2009) and Cold Fish (2010) to Tokyo Tribe (2014), although his latest, Whispering Star, is placidity personified. Isao Yukisada, a stylish master of high-gloss commercial features concerned with memory and identity, had a megahit with Go (2001), broke all box office records with Crying Out Love in the Center of the World (2004), and just had another hit with this year’s Pink and Gray.
From top left, Nakata, Shiota, Shiraishi (©Koichi Mori), Sion Sono (©Mance Thompson), Isao Yukisada (©FCCJ)
The first batch of Roman Porno titles, being rolled out in Tokyo from mid-October through February 2017, is sure to represent a dazzling diversity of approaches; but none of them will be a woman-centric approach. Why is it, one must ask (especially when one is female), that Nikkatsu did not select a woman from among the star directors it has supported, including Naoko Ogigami, Mipo Oh, Yuki Tanada and Satoko Yokohama? Surely this was an unforgiveable oversight?*
During the Q&A session, the selected directors first responded to questions about their inspirations. Hideo Nakata is the only one of the five who actually worked on Roman Porno films before, serving in his youth as an assistant director for Masaru Konuma. (In 2000, he made the marvelously titled documentary about him, Sadistic and Masochistic, a reference to Konuma’s S&M work). Nakata’s own Roman Porno debut is called White Lily, and it highlights a lesbian relationship. Recalled the director: “When Nikkatsu approached me about the project, I thought about two films that Konuma-san made, Lesbian World and the sequel. In the sex scenes [of my film], I was inspired by what I learned from him.”
Nakata is the only director with a Roman Porno history. ©Mance Thompson
Akihiko Shiota released a straight-to-video pink film at the start of his career, and studied screenwriting under Atsushi Yamatoya, who wrote many screenplays for Roman Porno films (as well as for Seijun Suzuki). Shiota’s Roman Porno, Wet Woman in the Wind, pays homage to both Yamatoya and to Tatsumi Kumashiro’s 1973 film, Lovers Are Wet. “These two filmmakers have been very important to me,” said Shiota. “I think they were both able to make amazing works of art from adult films, and I hope to follow in their footsteps.”
Kazuya Shiraishi served as an assistant director on several of Koji Wakamatsu’s pink films, including Asunaki Machikado (1997) and Perfect Education 6 (2004). But he’s drawn most of his influence from Noboru Tanaka. While his Roman Porno film, Dawn of the Felines, was inspired, at least in the broad strokes of its storyline, by Tanaka’s 1972 Night of the Felines, Shiraishi noted that his first film, Lost Paradise in Tokyo, was far more heavily indebted to him.
Sion Sono has repeatedly pushed the envelope of Eirin respectability in his films, but he has released just one porn film: Aru Hisokanaru Tsubotachi (2000). His Roman Porno is called Antiporno, but it is not, as per certain online descriptions, a satire of the porn industry. “In this day and age, I don’t think there’s any necessity to shoot porn films,” said Sono of the work. “When Nikkatsu asked me about the project at first, I said ‘No.’” But when they let me call it Antiporno, I said ‘Yes.’ I decided to consider what it means to consume female nudity today, as well as to consider women’s rights and freedoms. You’ll be seeing those themes in my film.”
Isao Yukisada’s Roman Porno film, Aroused by Gymnopédies, is also not inspired by any of the earlier Nikkatsu films or directors. But he was listening to Erik Satie’s Gymnopédies piano pieces while writing the film, and decided that he should use it in the film, despite it being a little too well known. “I must say,” he said, “I was delighted when Nikkatsu came to me, because I never thought I would have this opportunity. From an early age, I was always going to see Roman Porno films in the theaters, and I especially admired Tatsumi Kumashiro’s work. When I decided to become a director, I went to Nikkatsu in the hopes of becoming an assistant director on Roman Porno — but they weren’t making them any longer! So I’m really glad to have been part of this.”
Asked whether they had a particular audience in mind when making their films, the directors all turned immediately to the question of gender.
Shiota, whose film had world premiered at the Locarno Film Festival and received an award, said that he’d been struck by how female audiences responded. “It received attention from women in their 20s and up to their 60s,” he said, “and I discovered happily that women also want to see this kind of film.”
Said Shiraishi, “I often went to Eurospace to watch Nikkatsu Roman Porno retrospectives, and I realized that female audiences were increasing over time. I think it’s very freeing for a director to make a film left to his own devices, as long as he has a sex scene every 10 minutes, and I hope that my film is one that females can also empathize with.”
Nakata recalled that his Sadistic and Masochistic played at theaters running Roman Porno events particularly aimed at female audiences, and they would be packed. “In this day and age,” he said, “I’m not sure what the situation is. But we had two female producers working with us… and I did have the younger female audience in mind.”
Yukisada said he wound up having to write two scripts for the project, since Nikkatsu wasn’t happy with the first one, which “was about my own sexual awakening as a boy, and there was a bit of scatology in there. I thought it was beautiful, but no one else did.” For the second script, he hired a female scriptwriter (perhaps the first in Roman Porno history), and “it really caters to the female audience.”
Admitted Sono, “In recent years, I’ve been harboring this anger toward the nation and other issues. I think my film is really about anger, especially aggravation and anger toward myself. You really don’t have to come see my film. I didn’t have any particular audience in mind.”
Each of the directors also responded to a question about creative freedom in the industry as a whole, transforming the Q&A into a mini-Master Class in filmmaking.
Said Shiota: “I think all directors know that it’s a given that there really isn’t any freedom in the film industry. A film never goes the way you envision it — you may not always get the casting right and the script may change. You won’t have a choice about where and when to shoot it… and we also had restrictions imposed on us by the Roman Porno quota of sex scenes. But these restrictions provide a springboard for filmmakers’ creativity… That’s the history of B pictures, working with low budgets and other restrictions. I think what Nikkatsu is doing right now is giving directors the opportunity to create their own projects, as long as they abide by the restrictions. It’s a wonderful opportunity and that’s why I think the project is so great.”
Shiraishi lamented, “Right now in the Japanese film industry, it’s all about commercial success. Commercial success is all about whether the original novel or original manga has sold tens of thousands of copies, and about who’s in the cast. I don’t think that’s all that films are about. It’s important to bring originality to film projects.”
From top left: Nakata (@Koichi Mori), Shiota (©Mance Thompson), Shiraishi, Sion Sono (©Koichi Mori), Isao Yukisada (©FCCJ)
Sono, partially reversing his earlier statement questioning the need for porn, noted, “This was really a meaningful experience for me. I was able to do it my way, and for that, I’m really grateful to Nikkatsu.”
But Nakata sounded a note of caution: “I must say, if you were able to have anything you desired, life would be boring. The same is true of filmmaking. If you have no time restrictions, no financial restrictions, no schedule restrictions, it would be quite boring. Within certain parameters, comes creativity. Speaking about the current Japanese film industry, the bigger the studio is, the more difficult it is for executives to say ‘yes’ to a film. Of course a film has to make money, that’s what Hollywood says: if the film won’t make money, don't make it. In that sense, Japan is becoming a mini-Hollywood. But there are also a lot of people making films very freely in America, and I really envy that.”
Reminding the audience that Nikkatsu had turned down his first script, Yukisada said, “I think there’s a bit of studio distrust of filmmakers. And maybe that’s because the studios think we’re trying to arm-wrestle them, to trick them into making films our way. Whenever I make a commercial film, I feel this watchful eye, and I get paranoid. It’s senseless. I wish we could understand each other better. But on the other hand, when a studio says you can do whatever you want, that’s a lot of pressure, too. This experience with Nikkatsu, with restrictions, was an extraordinary experience, actually. My regular crew worked with me and we were surprised at how speedily and efficiently it all went.”
Nikkatsu's inaugural Roman Porno reboot directors obviously enjoyed the experience. Will audiences respond? ©Mance Thompson
Following the Q&A, a good portion of the audience stayed on for the special screening of The World of Geisha (Yojohan fusuma no urabari), a 1973 masterwork from Tatsumi Kumashiro that was adapted from the erotic novel by Kafu Nagai, and features big names like Junko Miyashita, Hideaki Esumi, Moeko Ezawa and Naomi Oka. The most highly acclaimed director of the early Roman Porno era, Kumashiro made films that were box-office successes and regularly appeared on the yearly Best Ten lists. Nevertheless, according to film scholar Kyoko Hirano, “Kumashiro's Roman Porno films were revolutionary in terms of his unique narrative style, usage of songs, disjunctive editing of auditory and visual images, and subversive ideological stance.”
Set in 1918 against the backdrop of the rice riots rocking Japan — with abrupt inserts reminding us also of the Korean uprisings and Russia's October Revolution — The World of Geisha is unabashedly political, as well as sumptuously beautiful, emotionally engrossing, sexy and often downright hilarious. Kafu Nagai’s original lines are sprinkled throughout, providing helpful context for the milieu, such as: “A quick snack outside the home now and then spices up the menu. Wives should understand and not get jealous.” The film’s opening love-making session lasts for over a third of the total running time, interspersed with subplots involving other geisha and their clients, and the film often features Kumashiro’s trademark “indictment of the hypocrisy of censorship” — black placards blocking certain naughty bits, and clever use of “xxx” in the Japanese titles appearing onscreen.
Nakata, a true cinephile, stayed afterward to chat with foreign viewers
about the Roger Corman-like impressario of Roman Porno. ©Koichi Mori
Those of you reading from overseas, take note: Shiota’s Wet Woman in the Wind will next be seen at Paris’ L’Etrange Film Festival in September, along with Sono’s Antiporno, which will also be showing at Spain’s Sitges Fantastic Film Festival in October. Korea’s Busan Film Festival has announced the inclusion of three of the films: Nakata’s White Lily, Shiota’s Wet Woman in the Wind and Yukisada’s Aroused by Gymnopédies.
*There was no chance to ask this during the Q&A, but off stage, I spoke with producer Saori Nishio, one of two female producers on the reboot project. The explanation turned out to be both simple and stunning: timing. They had planned to include a female director, said Nishio, but each of their candidates had either just gotten pregnant, just given birth or was pregnant when the project was beginning. One hopes a hormone hurricane won’t interrupt attempts to include a female director in the next batch of films.
- Nikkatsu newkkatsu : entretien avec 5 réalisateurs de Roman Porno