Member Login

Member Login

Username
Password *

FC HEADER

SEKIGAHARA


SEKIGAHARA


August 8, 2017
Q&A guests: Director Masato Harada and star Takehiro Hira


sekigahara Mance-670
Although they're in the middle of shooting a new film together, Harada and Hira took time to field questions at FCCJ.   ©Mance Thompson

Mitsunari Ishida as a humane, love-struck champion of truth? Ieyasu Tokugawa as a bloated, nail-biting, self-serving opportunist? Leave it to master storyteller Masato Harada — returning to FCCJ for a record-breaking fifth time in 10 years — to delve into one of Japanese history’s watershed episodes, and to emerge with a powerful reinterpretation that completely overturns our conventional understanding of its key players, transforming their fateful conflict into a war between justice for the greater good and absolute power for the chosen few.

The battle of Sekigahara, fought on a single day in 1600, is considered a defining moment in Japan’s future. Lasting just six hours, with forces estimated to number over 150,000 (30,000 of whom would not survive) its outcome brought to an end the centuries-long Warring States period. By 1603, the victor was named shogun and ushered in the peace, stability and growth that would last throughout the 260 years of the Edo period.

For such a historically decisive battle, it’s surprising that Sekigahara has never been mounted on screen before. This may be partially due to budgeting and logistics constraints. In the past, Akira Kurosawa was able to rally 1,000 extras and 200 horses for his Palm d’Or-winning Kagemusha, with its climactic Battle of Nagashino. But he was infamous for cost overruns, and his later Ran, shot on a similar scale, was the most expensive film in Japanese history at the time. Amply aided by today’s CG wizardry, but on a far smaller budget than either Kurosawa or Hollywood would require, Masato Harada has managed to create battle scenes in Sekighara that deploy 500 extras and just 30 horses to convincingly epic-scale effect.

sekigahara Mance-5142   sekigahara Mance-4852

sekigahara Mance-5872   sekigahara Mance-6202
©Mance Thompson

The writer-director had been interested in adapting Ryotaro Shiba’s 3-volume, 1,500-page novel of the same name for 25 years, but recognized that he would have to become more experienced at directing action first. As his filmography grew, his approach to the Sekigahara story also evolved. Although he’d initially imagined different characters as the protagonists of the sprawling narrative, he eventually decided to put Mitsunari Ishida at the center of his film.

During the Q&A session after FCCJ's screening, Harada admitted that he had shared the commonly held view of Mitsunari, a “[historically sidelined] character” who is considered too much of a bureaucrat, and too inflexible in his pursuit of “justice.”  “Many people hated him, including me, until I turned 60,” he said. “But he created his motto One for all, all for one and his thinking process is really contemporary and up to date. We have much in common with him today.”

(It should be noted that One for all, all for one is the motto traditionally associated with the swashbuckling Three Musketeers, but Alexandre Dumas père’s novel was not published until 1844.)

Directing just his second jidaigeki period drama (after 2015’s Kakekomi), Harada populates Sekigahara with a teeming assortment of historic characters and enough political intrigue, Machiavellian maneuvering and exciting ninja action for an entire miniseries. But his focus is resolutely on the motives and strategies of the two men whose forces would meet for the final showdown in a foggy Gifu valley: Mitsunari and Ieyasu.

sekigahara main
©2017 “Sekigahara” Film Partners All Rights Reserved

Shortly after the film opens, Hideyoshi Toyotomi (Kenichi Takito), the samurai who had completed the unification process begun by Nobunaga Oda, is on his deathbed. His devoted acolyte, Mitsunari (Junichi Okada), vows to protect Hideyoshi’s 5-year-old heir until he is old enough to rule, but the cunning, power-hungry Ieyasu (Koji Yakusho, never better) has other ideas. Hideyoshi’s hold on western Japan has been weakened by a series of costly invasions of Korea, while Ieyasu has become the largest landowner in eastern Japan. With Hideyoshi gone, he begins consolidating his expanded power base, forging alliances with notable daimyo families and hatching plots with his servant-conspiracy partner to undermine Toyotomi clan rule.

Mitsunari cannot compete with Ieyasu’s record as a military general, but he won’t stand by as the older man gains dangerous ground. Stolid but determined to persist in his belief that justice alone can create a world without chaos, he enlists the help of Sakon Shima (Takehiro Hira, in a star-making performance), the “most honorable samurai in the land,” and the two set about rallying support. He also begins to rely on intelligence reports from the comely ninja Hatsume (Arimura), whom he had saved from death and soon falls in love with. But she goes on an errand for him just as Ieyasu is gathering his troops. Mitsunari’s Western Army outnumbers his rival’s Eastern Army and victory should be assured. But fate intervenes in unforeseen ways.

meeting
Hideyoshi holds a meeting of daimyos.  ©2017 “Sekigahara” Film Partners All Rights Reserved

Harada was asked about his increased focus on stories featuring “casts of thousands,” and he recalled, “The first time I dealt with many actors and characters was Jubaku: Spellbound in 1999. At that time, I thought I was able to handle them all just like Mr. Kurosawa did. I always wanted to make a film like Seven Samurai; I was really impressed by that kind of scale — 100 speaking roles and everybody feels real. [But it wasn’t until I’d made] Kakekomi and also The Emperor in August — a war film with 150 speaking parts — that Shochiku and Toho producers said ‘It’s about time for you to make Sekigahara.’

“I’d been training for that for the past 10 years. So the only problem I had was how to minimize the number of characters in Mr. Shiba’s book, because there are probably 500 speaking parts. Toho wanted me to do it in one piece, no longer than 2 hours 30 minutes. So I decided to concentrate on Mitsunari and his family drama.”

To the delight of viewers, much screen time is also devoted to the exceptionally valiant exploits of Mitsunari’s righthand warrior, Sakon Shima, played by Takehiro Hira. Harada had seen Hira on the 2016 NHK Taiga drama Sanada Maru, and been impressed with his “classiness.” He noted, “The casting of Sakon Shima was really difficult, because he’s such a well-known character, and everybody’s favorite. I totally didn’t understand Mitsunari’s notion of why he left the battle and didn’t stay to die there. That’s something against the samurai code. But Shima died beautifully, and he fought with his family. His wife participated in Sekigahara, too.”

hira
Hira as Sakon Shima.  ©2017 “Sekigahara” Film Partners All Rights Reserved

How did Hira transform himself into the far-older Shima, with his jagged facial scars, wild brows and heavy limp, but also with such gravitas and charisma? “Special effects,” he joked. “In comparison to [Harada’s] 25 years of preparation, I only had a few months to prepare for the role. But the director gave me a lot of hints as to how to approach the role, not so much from the text itself, but the external appearance. He gave me Shima’s characteristics early in the rehearsal period. It was my first time to play an older person, so it was a trial-and-error process at first. But somehow, it felt natural as the shoot continued.”

“When I started casting,” recalled Harada, “everybody suggested typecasting ideas for Shima: Koji Yakusho, Ken Watanabe, all the superstars. But I had Junichi Okada, who’s perfect for Mitsunari in terms of his size, his athleticism. So I needed challenging casting for Shima, a new star in the making for Japanese audiences to discover. Nobody believed that 41-year-old Takehiro Hira could play [60-year-old] Shima. That’s one of the reasons I cast him. I remembered that Tatsuya Nakadai played the ronin in Harakiri when he was 28, and his character was in his 50s. I thought, if Nakadai could do that, why couldn’t Takehiro? I met him, I liked him, and since he was educated [in the US], we had a lot in common.”

seki KM-249   seki KM-264
                         Making his first appearance at FCCJ, Hira looked at the famous blue banner and said, “I see this place all the time on TV.
I never thought I would be here. I’m really honored.”       
©Koichi Mori

A journalist asked about Harada’s female characters, who had impressed him with their strength. “Not just one or two of them, but all of them,” he said. “In comparison to some of the men, they seemed more active in a variety of ways, whether as fighters or advisers. Did that come from Shiba’s book?"

“In Shiba’s book, there are hints,” answered Harada. “Hanano [Shima’s wife] is mentioned, but I wanted to develop her character. I wanted to develop the female characters, along with Mitsunari's and Kobayakawa's. Filmmakers have forgotten how important females were in the 16th and 17th centuries. They were strong, and they’ve been neglected characters. As I researched, I discovered that Ieyasu actually used one of his concubines as an adviser, and Mitsunari had female warriors. So I wanted to depict those new facts.”

And then the kicker: “And always, my wife is stronger than me.”

seki KM-271
  Harada was appearing for the 5th time at FCCJ.  ©Koichi Mori

In response to a question about his editing, with cutting that feels “breathless” in the film, Harada explained that he places prime importance on pacing in his films. “The Emperor in August was about 1,600 cuts, and my earlier Rowing Through, based on David Halberstam’s book [about American rowers preparing for the 1984 Olympics] was about 1,800. Sekigahara has 2,615 shots. About 1,000 shots use CG, including creating the big belly for Ieyasu. Today’s technology made it possible for me to make this film.”

One of the biggest challenges for foreign audiences in particular, with so many characters and such rapid-fire editing, is that they must also grapple with subtitles and unfamiliar names. Said Harada, “I was a bit worried about the subtitles. The visuals are so fast, it might be difficult to read the dialog. I worked with James Yaegashi [his longtime subtitle collaborator] to shorten them as much as possible. This is the first time we had so much back and forth, probably 3 or 4 different drafts. I made them shorter, but they’re still long. It’s the minimum information needed.”

seki FCCJ-62
                                                                                                                       ©FCCJ

One audience member asked the question on many of our minds: what contemporary resonance did Harada find in the tale? He is known for his rare ability to fuse social criticism with world-class entertainment, in acclaimed films from Kamikaze Taxi to Bounce Ko Gals, Climber’s High and even Chronicle of My Mother. Sekigahara is no exception. He responded: “Mitsunari’s final line is ‘Where is justice today?’ If you see the political situation and how Japan is moving, in every which way, justice is lost. [Despite leaving the battle,] Mitsunari had principles that never wavered. In today’s Japan, we could use 10,000 Mitsunaris.”

sekigahara Koichi-035
Hira joins journalists and film aficionados in the bar after the event, clockwise from left, Aaron Gerow, Mark Schilling,
Mance Thompson, Rob Schwartz and Markus Nornes. ©Koichi Mori

Selected Press Coverage

OUT OF MY HAND


OUT OF MY HAND (Liberia no Shiroi Chi)


July 27, 2017
Q&A guest: Director Takeshi Fukunaga


Jul 27 Movie Out of My Hand Liberia no shiroi chi by Ayabe030Award-winning writer-director Takeshi Fukunaga   ©FCCJ

It is rare for Japanese feature-film directors to have international aspirations, and rarer still for them to seek opportunities directing overseas. The Film Committee is proud that several of our frequent guests do, in fact, fall into the latter category. With our screening of the beautiful, soulful film Out of My Hand, we have just welcomed another member of this tiny group of international adventurers: Takeshi Fukunaga. Not only is the Hokkaido native based in New York City, but his award-winning first feature was shot partially in Liberia.

The West African country is not on too many Japanese filmmakers’ radars, but Fukunaga found his subject while working on a documentary. Speaking in English during the Q&A following the screening, he explained, “The documentary was about the lives of rubber plantation workers. I was really struck, first, at seeing the severe living and working conditions behind this daily product that we use, rubber; and also at seeing the strength and dignity of these workers, despite their severe situation.

“That really stuck with me for quite some time. Then when I was trying to come up with an idea for my first feature, I knew I always wanted to tell an immigrant’s story — being an immigrant myself in New York for the past 12 years. I thought by connecting those two worlds [Liberia and New York] into one film, I could make something meaningful.”

Asked how much of the film was drawn from his own, or others’, real-life experiences, Fukunaga replied, “I did a lot of library and online research about Liberian life in the U.S. I also did a lot of interviews with Liberians in New York, and the story definitely has parts that were inspired by real events or stories. But the connecting dots are fictional.”

liberia sub3
Bishop Blay as Cisco, in an astonishing film debut.  ©2017 nikonikofilm

After he’d spent about a year writing the script with American writer Donari Braxton, he returned to Africa in 2012 and worked with local writers on the nuances of dialogue, “to make it closer to reality.” Fukunaga and his brother-in-law, Ryo Murakami, a cinematographer, also worked with a local shoot coordinator and the government-supported Liberia Movie Union, to create just the second narrative feature ever shot in the country by a foreign crew.

Out of My Hand is directed by Fukunaga with remarkable restraint — and an admirable absence of melodrama or predictability. There is poetry in the film’s evocation of the daily life of the downtrodden, as well as in its luminous images, particularly in the documentary-style Liberian scenes shot by Murakami, who tragically died from malaria shortly after returning to New York.

The film begins in the predawn African darkness, with a light bobbing through the distant trees. Gradually, we make out the figure of Cisco (Bishop Blay, in a raw, commanding film debut), a rubber plantation worker who is tapping trees and then carrying the gooey stuff in buckets to the central depot. The labor is arduous, but Cisco has a loving wife, two small children and a group of friends who stick up for each other. Still, the work barely pays the bills. When his union calls a strike that soon proves disastrous, Cisco refuses to follow others back to the plantation. “What should we do?” he erupts in righteous anger. “Beg them to break our backs?” Beg them to treat us like dogs?”

Jul 27 Movie Out of My Hand Liberia no shiroi chi by Ayabe020

At church one Sunday, the preacher exhorts his flock to “wake up and go!” Cisco heeds the call to leave, knowing it’s probably his last chance to escape the vicious cycle and provide a better life for his family. Following his cousin Marvin (Rodney Rogers-Beckley) to New York City, he eventually finds a job as a taxi driver, a close-knit community of fellow Liberians, and a life that’s not so different from back home.

But then a ghost from the past rises up to haunt him: Jacob (David Roberts), a wheeler-dealer with a burning rage. Suddenly, everything we thought we knew about Cisco is called into question. Although details are slender, the two were fellow soldiers during the Second Liberian civil war (1999-2003), during which as many as 300,000 died, and both bear deep scars of atrocities committed. When Jacob sets Cisco up to take a fall, he may be the one person in New York who can unleash Cisco’s own demons.

Upon its completion in 2015, Out of My Hand was immediately heralded for its powerful and timely narrative. The film premiered at the Berlin International Film Festival, won the Best U.S. Fiction Award at the LA Film Festival and was nominated for the prestigious John Cassavetes Independent Spirit Award. It was also picked up for worldwide release by Ava DuVernay’s distribution company (she’s the director of Oscar-nominated films Selma and 13th, and she’s committed to finding wider audiences for minority-driven stories).

And yet, it would be two more years before Fukunaga was able to release the film in Japan. This is unusual, considering that he is Japanese and the film has a stellar, award-winning reputation. But while the cross-border flow of people around the world has been an increasing focus of global politics, it remains of marginal interest here. (Japan is notoriously backward-looking when it comes to the subject of immigration, with the government insisting that its 1 million-plus unskilled foreign laborers are “guest workers,” not immigrants, and keeping their doors to permanent residency closed. It also admits only a handful of refugees into the country each year.)

liberia main
©2017 nikonikofilm

Also seemingly of little interest to many Japanese is the American Dream, or the fact that over the past 6 months, America’s reputation as the land of milk and honey has been profoundly shaken. Nevertheless, Fukunaga hopes that Out of My Handis a way for people to relate to immigrants and to know more about these particular stories.”

He reminded the audience, “Distribution of any arthouse film is difficult, and if it’s about minorities and has no-name actors, it’s even more difficult. So I’m very grateful to Mr. Tsuda and Nikoniko Film for picking up the movie. If I thought only of the box office, then I wouldn’t have made a film about Liberian rubber plantation workers.”

An audience member asked why more Japanese directors aren’t making films about the immigrant experience. “There are many Japanese immigrants to the US, Central America and South America,” he said, “but I’ve never seen films about them. Why doesn’t it attract the interest of Japanese film companies or individuals? There’s many success stories and failure stories. I think they would be very interesting and educational.”

Jul 27 Movie Out of My Hand Liberia no shiroi chi by Ayabe007

After saying that he knew of several such films, including Vancouver Asahi, which we screened at FCCJ in 2014, Fukunaga replied, “I’m not sure, but if I had to guess, I would say that Japanese can be narrow[-minded]. If it’s a story about a Japanese person, they’re always living in Japan. People’s interests are not quite there; it doesn’t connect to the box office.”

Not surprisingly, Fukunaga’s Out of My Hand cast came in for high praise from the audience. David Roberts, who plays Jacob with a convincing Liberian lilt (his mother is from Sierra Leone), is a familiar face to fans of Orange Is the New Black. But Bishop Blay was a complete unknown. “All the actors in the Liberian section are nonprofessionals,” the director explained. “We did an open call for people with some acting experience or no acting experience. We saw hundreds of people and we found these amazing talents — as I believe you can recognize. Some of them were playing people like themselves, such as the pastor in the church scene. All his lines were his own words.”

Fukunaga did not mention that the real-life pastor is former warlord Joshua Milton Blahyi, better known by his nom de guerre, General Butt Naked. Infamous for his barbarity and ruthlessness — and for wearing nothing into battle but his shoes and guns during the First Liberian Civil War in the early 1990s — he is now a Christian minister preaching redemption and forgiveness.

liberia sub2Cisco waits for a fare in New York City.     ©2017 nikonikofilm

Another audience member wanted to know whether Jacob’s death in what seems to be a hit-and-run accident was meant as punishment for his past sins. Responded Fukunaga, “That was a creative decision that came after a long discussion with my cowriter. I didn’t mean it as a punishment for something he’d done in the past, but rather, I hinted that it might have been done on purpose. Or it could have been an unfortunate accident. But we wanted to push Cisco into a very difficult decision, so he would make some moral decisions.”

What those decisions are remain open to interpretation. “It might be ambiguous,” admitted Fukunaga, “but I tried to express the strength and dignity of this character, and that, at the end of the day, he has to do labor to move forward. I started the film that way, and the film ends that way.”

Jul 27 Movie Out of My Hand Liberia no shiroi chi by Ayabe035

Fukunaga recently spent nearly 5 months in Paris as part of the Cannes Film Festival Cinéfondation residency, where he worked on developing his second feature film, a present-day story of Japan's indigenous Ainu people called Iomante. It’s set to go into production next summer in Hokkaido. An audience member wanted to know if he thought the Japanese would be interested, given their past record. “I’m making this because I think it’s important,” responded Fukunaga. “I think I can put all I have into making it happen. I just have to find the right partners and get into a film festival [to make the film more marketable].”

If the FCCJ audience is any indication, Iomante is already hotly anticipated.

chirashi-visual omote
©2017 nikonikofilm

Photos: ©FCCJ unless indicated.

Selected Press Coverage

LOVE AND OTHER CULTS


LOVE AND OTHER CULTS (Kemono Michi)


July 3, 2017
Q&A guests: Director Eiji Uchida, producer Adam Torel and stars Sairi Ito and Kenta Suga


CultsMance Thompson-10
Kenta Suga gets guidance from his costar, Sairi Ito, before introducing himself in English, echoing, word for word, her earlier introduction:
“Hello, everyone. Thank you so much for coming over today. I’m very happy to be here.”      ©Mance Thompson

Fans of Japanese television and commercial cinema will be familiar with Kenta Suga and Sairi Ito, two young performers who began their careers in early childhood and have been accruing credits at an impressive pace.

By the age of 13, Suga had received a Rookie of the Year Award at the Japan Academy Prizes for the hit Always: Sunset on Third Street, and would go on to star in the enduringly popular series Kamen Rider in his late teens. Ito made waves on several popular TV shows before making her film debut in Takashi Miike’s big-ticket Lesson of Evil, helping her land roles in two box office smashes earlier this year, The Last Cop: The Movie and One Week Friends.

CultsKoichi Mori-62
Under the watchful eye of producer Adam Torel (left) and director Eiji Uchida.   ©Koichi Mori

But nothing will have prepared fans for their audacious performances in Love and Other Cults, playing their first dark, adult characters with remarkable energy and authenticity. Required to be both angelic and demonic, Suga and Ito demonstrate just how much emotional depth they can bring to their roles, allowing them not only to demonstrate their surprising range, but to effectively announce their coming of age in the industry.

Were they not just a little bit worried about trading in their “good-kid” reputations for something much more twisted?

Appearing at the Q&A session following FCCJ’s sneak preview, Ito enthused, “When I first read the script, I thought it was a very good, very interesting story. And it was really realistic. The role was something I thought I could pour myself into. So I said yes right away.”

CultsMance Thompson-42   CultsKoichi Mori-63
©Mance Thompson (left); ©Koichi Mori (right)

Agreed Suga, “I thought the script was super interesting, too. When I saw [the director’s 2016 film] Lowlife Life, I thought I’d like to work with Mr. Uchida, so I immediately said yes. This was the type of role that I’d not done before, so I thought it would be a good opportunity to grow as an actor, to stretch and maybe discover a new side of myself.

 “Meeting Mr. Uchida and Adam,” he admitted, “I was quite relieved to see they were more normal than I had envisioned [cue audience titters]. When I saw Lowlife Love, I was a little concerned about what kind of director Mr. Uchida would be. But he turned out to be a really charming man. I felt very safe going into the project.”

Ito added, “I had met Mr. Uchida and Adam before, and I didn’t have any qualms about working with them. And Adam, being the humorous, comedic character that he is, has helped me time and again.”

CultsMance Thompson-30   CultsFCCJ-27
©Mance Thompson (left); ©FCCJ (right)

The collaborators behind last year’s breakout hit Lowlife Love, writer-director Eiji Uchida and British producer Adam Torel, have returned to familiar territory with Love and Other Cults. But the films couldn’t be more different in style. A scabrous satire about the reprobates populating Japan’s indie film and straight-to-video porn scene, Lowlife Love looks as low-budget as its low-rent milieu; and its characters — most of whom are past their use-by dates and know it — move with fittingly enervated desperation.

Although it also concerns the lives of the marginalized and the frequently felonious, and is peppered with scenes of sudden violence and look-away debauchery, Love and Other Cults takes a far more candy-colored, zippily-edited approach to its many characters and subplots. It also boasts grade-A production values, along with the world-class turns of its talented leads, and is sure to reach a far wider audience.

Surprisingly, a “wider audience” is not always the target of Japanese filmmakers, most of whom are sadly content with hometown distribution and wouldn’t dream of working with a foreign producer. Never mind that Torel is also the founding CEO of Third Window Films, the UK's leading purveyor of Asian contemporary cinema, and has distributed nearly 90 titles by today’s leading Japanese directors; nor that he’s also produced films by Sion Sono (The Land of Hope) and Yosuke Fujita (Fuku-chan of Fukufuku Flats).

Even Uchida calls his films “domestic;” but his past festival record — and current filmmaking activities in the US — suggest otherwise.

CultsMance Thompson-52   CultsKoichi Mori-65

CultsMance Thompson-19   CultsMance Thompson-14
All ©Mance Thompson except top right, ©Koichi Mori

“In all honesty, I want to continue making domestic films like these,” he said, in response to a question about expanding his base. “But the more films I make in Japan, the poorer I become. There’s more money in the US. Being raised abroad myself [he spent his first 10 years in Brazil], it would be nice to be able to work in the US or Europe or China. That’s something I would like to do.”

Uchida’s characters, as Japan-specific as they may be, are plagued by the same needs and desires we all have: the restless search for identity, for a place to call home, for someone to love us just the way we are.

In Love and Other Cults, he focuses on deadbeat teens in a deadend town where “every day, someone breaks down… and someone is saved.” Suga plays Ryota, a delinquent who’s desperate to escape to Tokyo before it’s too late. Ito plays Ai (whose name means love), sent off at age 7 by her religious-nut mom to a cult at the base of Mt. Fuji, where she is worshipped as a goddess until the leader (TV talento Matthew Chozick) is arrested. Now a teen, Ai enrolls in Ryota’s school, and he falls for her instantly.

Love and other Cults s
Ai (center) prays with cult leader Lavi (TV star Matthew Chozick). What is in that pipe?   ©third window films

But thanks to the film’s frantically scrambled chronology, their stories diverge and we don’t learn until much later what happens to their initial rapport.

Jumping back and forth between the protagonists, we follow Ryota as he commits petty crimes with his wannabe-gangster pal Yuji (Kaito Yoshimura, en route to stardom) and the man-giant Kenta (Anthony, in a striking film debut), under the tutelage of local yakuza boss Kida (Denden). But as level-headed Ryota saves up for his getaway, Yuji grows increasingly unhinged and Kenta begins a sweet relationship with dive-photographer Reika (Hanae Kan). Soon, there must be blood — and it will arrive amid colorfully choreographed mayhem.

Meanwhile, Ai drops out of school and starts living with a loose-knit family of misfits and druggies, racing around town with a bosozoku bike gang, rocking a bleached-bonde ’do and an oversized purple tokkofuku (custom-appliquéd “special-attack uniform”), becoming the perfect yankii troublemaker. She’s then offered a new life with a “normal” family; but her chameleon-like need to fit in destroys her chances. Over the next several years, Ai dons and sheds multiple looks and personas, but eventually, her troubled journey takes her on dangerous detours… until college-student Ryota returns from Tokyo.

main
Misfits, outcasts, poseurs, wannabes in Love and Other Cults. ©third window films

Wildly imaginative as it is, the film’s marketing materials trumpet that it’s “based on a true story.” Asked about this, Uchida said, “Yes, it’s based on a true story, about a girl who also appears [in a different role] in the film. Her story was far harsher than in my script, and more telling about the rural landscape, so I softened it up a little.”

He continued, “In fact, the script originally had two stories, one about a nikkei-Brazilian boy, and one about this girl. But we decided to merge them together. When I came to Kyushu from Brazil in junior high, about 80% of the classroom were delinquents. So I based the role of Ryota on one of my classmates, who ultimately joined the yakuza.”

It turns out the director wasn’t the only one who grew up surrounded by wannabe gangsters: both Ito and Suga also hail from Nowheres-ville towns, and completely identified with their characters’ plights.

“My hometown has a lot of the same essence as the one in the film,” said Ito. “That’s why I felt there was so much reality in the script. The delinquents in my school talked the same way, too, always asking each other, ‘Which high school do you go to? Do you know such-and-such a senior?’ It really resonated with me.”

CultsFCCJ-63
©FCCJ

“Yeah, there were people like that in my class, too,” laughed Suga. “I also came from a rough area, and there were these guys who would have this presence about them, but also this certain freedom about them. Ryota is kind of an amalgam of these types of characters I knew.”

What about the marketing claim that there are actual delinquents playing themselves onscreen?

Uchida explained, “We did have actual delinquents in the film: the bosozoku riders. Sometimes, we’d get calls from the police asking us to stop the shoot, since they were worried about them appearing on screen. So it might be fun for viewers to try to spot who are the actual delinquents and who are actors.”

Added Torel, “We were shooting in Yamanashi, and to use the bikes wasn’t that easy. So a lot of the people in the film were real bikers, including the two who appear in the main marketing images. They own the bikes, and they’re now becoming quite famous since the photos have appeared everywhere.”

Impressed by their standout performances, a journalist asked the young stars about their biggest acting challenges. Responded Suga, “Ryota is a poker-face character, so one of the most difficult things was figuring out where to draw the line, how emotional to be, how much of his interior journey I should depict.”

CultsKoichi Mori-59   CultsMance Thompson-16
©Koichi Mori (left); ©Mance Thompson (right)

Commenting that Ai’s true emotions are also hidden, Ito added, “It was more difficult playing the scenes in which she’s enjoying herself, in contrast to the darker scenes. It was hard to express her purity, and it was hard to play this duality that she has.”

In both her angelic and her demonic personas, Ai essays an unforgettable body-swaying, hand-waving dance, something we understand to be akin to meditation and perhaps, forgiveness. An audience member suggested that Ai actually saves many of those she comes in contact with, even the male fans who follow her when she becomes an AV star. “Yes, I agree that she is a kind of savior,” said Uchida. “When I’ve shown my films in international festivals, I often get questions about the religious aspects, and whether I’m religious. [He’s not.] But I do think people need a belief structure. Being a kid in Brazil, which was a really Catholic society, there were a lot of pious believers there. I had real culture shock when I came to Japan, which doesn’t follow any religion. That may have had some influence on my depiction of Ai.”

CultsMance Thompson-37©Mance Thompson

Love and Other Cults world premiered at the Far East Film Festival in Udine, and will make its North American premiere at the New York Asian Film Festival, before moving on to the Fantasia Film Festival in Montreal. If it follows a similar trajectory as Uchida and Torel’s last collaboration — and there’s no reason it shouldn’t — it will soon be seen in dozens of territories, and later this year, be released on DVD by Third Window Films. Watch for it.

CultsMance Thompson-38Misfits, outsiders, poseurs... just kidding! The crowd in the bar, following the screening event.  ©Mance Thompson

kemono
©third window films

Selected Press Coverage

Selected TV Exposure

  • 日本テレビ ZIP!SHOWBIZ 24 獣道 日本外国特派員協会記者会見

MARRIAGE


MARRIAGE (Kekkon)


June 20, 2017
Q&A guests: Star Dean Fujioka and director Shinichi Nishitani


Dean and Nishitani Koichi Mori
Nishitani directed Fujioka playing that paragon of virtue, Godai-sama. This time out, he's an incorrigible scoundrel.    ©Koichi Mori

The flashbulb orgy was just a tad overwhelming as Dean Fujioka took his seat onstage following FCCJ’s screening of his new film, Marriage.

“I’m going blind,” he said in English, laughing happily. “You guys are amazing!”

The irony wasn’t lost on the large crowd, which was clearly thrilled to experience the megawatt voltage of Fujioka’s smile and his rockstar magnetism in person. Most of them were there because they’d already been mesmerized by the force of his NHK debut on the morning drama Here Comes Asa.

Playing the real-life father of Osaka commerce, Tomoatsu Godai, with an impossibly charming, breezy confidence, he had imbued the character with a buoyant optimism that seemed to dovetail perfectly with his own personality. Male viewers yearned for his let’s-change-the-world fighting spirit; females yearned for a man who would cherish and cheer them on, as Godai had done for Asa, the title character.

Over the course of its six-month run, the series became a cultural juggernaut and the “Godai-sama boom” continued unabated. Soon, Fujioka’s “reverse-import” status as Japan’s first Asia-wide star was firmly cemented. His presence drove Here Comes Asa to record-setting viewership, and Fujioka, to a stratospheric level of popularity.

marriage dean-046 FCCJ   marriage dean-051 FCCJ
                                                                                                                                                                                ©FCCJ

 The Fujioka supernova had first glowed in 2006 in Hong Kong and Taiwan, where he parlayed a successful (albeit unplanned) modeling career into a series of attention-grabbing roles in television and film. Impressively, he also added Cantonese and Mandarin to his fluent English, which he’d honed during college in Seattle.  

He signed on with Japan’s Amuse talent management company in 2011, and for the next few years, split his time his time between TV projects in Japan, Taiwan and North America — where he appeared in eight episodes of the 2014-2015 detective series The Pinkertons — as well as Japanese indies.

But it wasn’t until Here Comes Asa started in late 2015 that Fujioka became an overnight sensation in his homeland. The years at midlevel fame apparently helped him adapt to his newfound mega-celebrity with amiable equanimity.

Veteran NHK director Shinichi Nishitani was one of the helmers on Here Comes Asa, and during the Q&A session, he recalled being “blown away” by Fujioka’s charisma on their first meeting, becoming an instant fan. After working with him, he found him to be “an actor who can really immerse himself in a role and become the character, whereas many actors stay themselves. With Dean, he plunges into it with full commitment. I find that astonishing.”

marriage dean Koichi Mori   marriage nishitani-036 Koichi Mori  
                                       Marriage marks the third collaboration for Fujioka and Nishitani.  ©Koichi Mori 

While the asadora series was running, they made a TV movie together, Noisy Street, Silent Sea. With Fujioka’s meteoric rise, they were also able to fast-track a feature project. The resulting film, Marriage, is the long-awaited adaptation of a bestselling novel by Areno Inoue, about a marriage scammer. Nishitani cleverly cast Fujioka as the conscience-free conman, earning instant audience sympathy for a character who wouldn’t otherwise deserve it.

But both men deflected the suggestion that playing a scoundrel was meant to counteract the Godai-sama effect. Says Nishitani, “We wanted to widen the spectrum of his roles this time around. Of course he’d done I Am Ichihashi: Journal of a Murderer, which was quite a departure. But I wanted to show his utter charm, how he can sweep women off their feet and put a spell on the them.”

Fujioka added, again in English, “I did everything I could to convince myself that I was the person he wanted me to portray. After we finished shooting, during the editing process, Mr. Nishitani took a different approach, and I was surprised. But I’m happy with the outcome.”

In Marriage, Fujioka’s lothario is not a hero, far from it: he separates his victims from their savings accounts and redefines their notions of romantic bliss. But he’s also not quite a villain, not even in the women’s eyes. There is apparently a dark secret in his past, and this is at the root of his fraudulent schemes.

Marriage-sub-1 2017 Marriage Film Partners
                 Kenji puts a spell on Ruriko, before she's wise to his ways.   ©2017 "Marriage" Film Partners

Kenji Urumi (Fujioka) is perpetually polished and happily married to Hatsune (Shihori Kanjiya). He just happens to make his living from con games, slipping in and out of whatever skin suits his latest conquest, with marriage as the bait. For avid reader Asami (Eriko Nakamura), he is a popular web novelist with 500,000 followers; for classy magazine editor Mana (Wakana Matsumoto), he is a budding restaurateur who can also tickle the piano keys with just the right seductive pizzazz; for Hatoko (Tamae Ando), who despairs of the future as she stamps marriage license applications at a city office, he is a suave wine connoisseur.   

Then there’s Ruriko (Shuko), Kenji’s partner in crime, a former target who realizes she can keep him close only by sharing in the spoils of his misadventures. She provides him with a “never-ending supply” of lonely hearts in need of love. Until one day, he meets his match in Yasue (Hisako Manda), who digs into his past and reveals the ugly truth.

Although saying more would spoil the film, there is an unexpected outcome that differs substantially from the original novel. Discussing that during the Q&A session, Fujioka said, “I think it was really effective that Mr. Nishitani decided to bookend the film with the traditional lullaby Hamabe no uta. It evokes something that should be there, and is not — something that Kenji should have had, that would allow him to have [healthy] relationships with women, but that’s been ruined.”

Marriage-sub-6 2017 Marriage Film Partners
                             Hatoko meets and falls for Kenji at a wine tasting.    ©2017 "Marriage" Film Partners

Addressing the director, a foreign journalist commented, “The British psychoanalyst Christopher Bollas has said that we get married in order to escape growing up. Can you tell us your thoughts on how you tried to show the institution of marriage in this film?”

Nishitani initially answered, “I would say that we portrayed it as something that soothes you.” But after further prompting by the emcee and Dean, he admitted, “I’ve arrived at this answer after experiencing multiple marriages.”

“Pretty convincing, right?” laughed Fujioka. “Home is where the heart is!”

marriage 56 Mance Thompson
                                                           Fujioka reacts to Nishitani's description of marriage based on "multiple" experiences with it.   ©Mance Thompson

A female journalist asked Fujioka about the process of making his character empathetic. “Being an actor is a lot like being a conman,” he said, responding in Japanese because the question was in Japanese. “You have to do what the character calls for or you can’t be an actor. But the professions are polar opposites. For the conman, it’s all about his own ego — he breaks the law and the consequences are quite tragic.

“But it’s interesting,” he continued, “because Kenji’s ability to please women is what makes him such a good conman, and makes the film so compelling. To make a woman happy, [Kenji knows] you have to like her. You have to feel that you like her. It’s about having curiosity. ‘What is she thinking? What does she want to do? What does she really want?’ And it’s about making the other person comfortable, putting her at ease.”

Another audience member asked the star about the scene in which he’s playing the piano. Despite being an accomplished musician, he admitted, “It was technically challenging. It’s the first time I’d played the piano while saying my lines and also reacting to the actress’ lines. It was like we were doing a musical, and it took a lot of concentration.”

marriage poster-69 Mance Thompson
                                                                                                                                            ©Mance Thompson

Returning later to the subject of music, Fujioka was queried about the film’s theme song, Permanent Vacation, which he wrote and performed. “I knew right away that I wanted to start the song with the line asa ga kita, or here comes asa, since the director and I met on the NHK drama. So it begins, When morning comes, we still don’t know where we’re headed. I wanted to convey this sense of being lost, of not knowing where to go. I wrote the rest of the lyrics during the shoot, and didn’t start writing the music until we’d finished shooting.

“The lyrics are a kind of soliloquy, a confession,” he concluded, “because we only tell Kenji’s story from the perspective of these women that he’s swindled. So it’s a glimpse into his heart and mind, and that’s how we ended the film.”

The actor doesn’t need to worry that this rogue turn will diminish his female following. Coincidentally, he is currently starring in Amazon Prime’s hit Happy Marriage!?, and fans can find comfort as his character continues to evolve from a “tyrannical-devoted-sadistic-charming” husband (as per Wikipedia) into someone more closely mirroring Dean Fujioka himself.

Marriage poster 2017 Marriage Film Partners
                            ©2017 "Marriage" Film Partners

Press Coverage

TV Exposure

  • フジテレビ みんなのニュース 映画「結婚」外国人特派員協会記者会見
  • 日本テレビ ZIP!SHOWBIZ 24 結婚 外国人特派員協会記者会見
  • 日本テレビ スッキリ!! スッタメ!! ディーン・フジオカ 主演最新作「結婚」

LEAR ON THE SHORE


LEAR ON THE SHORE (Umibe no Lear)


May 31, 2017
Q&A guests: Screen legend Tatsuya Nakadai and director Masahiro Kobayashi


lear99 mance
Nakadai and Kobayashi collaborate on film No. 3, and no water bottles were thrown during the Q&A (as they are in the film).    ©Mance Thompson

Just how young is Tatsuya Nakadai? Younger than any of us.

Eager to get the show on the road, Japan’s greatest living actor strode energetically into FCCJ’s packed screening room without waiting for the emcee to announce him, and seemed almost oblivious to the flashbulb onslaught, if not the sustained applause.

Without meaning to, Nakadai had perfectly evoked the character he plays in his new film, Lear on the Shore, a once-bright star of screen and stage who has just escaped from the luxury nursing home where his ungrateful daughter (Mieko Harada) and son-in-law Yukio (Hiroshi Abe) have stashed him, after forcing him to leave them everything in his will. Tugging a carry-on bag behind him, he strides purposefully along a deserted beach at dawn, unsure where he’s come from or where he’s going… but determined to find an audience that appreciates his talents. (The actual bag showed up at the photocall following the Q&A session, provoking much mirth.)

The great actor reunited with singular director Masahiro Kobayashi for the film, marking their third collaboration after Haru’s Journey (2010) and Japan's Tragedy (2013). In Lear, Nakadai stars as the majestically barefoot, silk pajama-clad Chokitsu Kuwabatake, who has dementia and only fleetingly recalls his daughter’s betrayal. But a thespian to the core, he can still recite great chunks of dialog from heralded performances.

lear56 mance   lear20 mance
                     Despite the film's many tragic undertones, there was ample laughter during the Q&A.  
©Mance Thompson

Nakadai had famously played the mad daimyo Hidetora Ichimonji, loosely based on Shakespeare’s King Lear, in Akira Kurosawa’s acclaimed Ran (1985). Befitting Kobayashi’s preference for arthouse pacing, the auteur’s new tragicomedy is as stripped down as Kurosawa’s melodrama is supercharged. Yet the success of both films pivots on a towering performance by the celebrated star — and age has only burnished his brilliance.

On the dais, Nakadai said, “I am very old, in the final stages of my life. As you’ve just seen, the film depicts an actor named Chokitsu. There are indeed similarities between this role and myself. We are both 84 years old, we are both so-called stars, so I thought perhaps Mr. Kobayashi was making a documentary about me — although I didn’t hear that directly from him.”

Kobayashi admitted, “I had Mr. Nakadai in mind when I wrote the script for this film, and I wanted to bring him the project and pull him in. In order to pull him in, I wanted to surprise him. And to do that, I had to figure out what kind of story to concoct. Shakespeare was a playwright, and he would write certain roles for certain actors in his troupe, and I think that kind of style suits me, as well.”

lear32 mance  lear15 mance  lear84 mance
                                                                                                                                                 
©Mance Thompson

He continued, “Before becoming a film director, I was a screenwriter for a little more than a decade. I was always careful about writing something that actors would want to do. In order to do that, you have to imagine situations and what they would say, and write a character in which they can evoke their own sentiments. If an actor is allowed to play a part like that, they can reveal their true selves and I presume that’s quite an enjoyable process.”

Speaking about Kurosawa’s Ran, Roger Ebert once noted that there strong parallels between daimyo rulers and filmmakers, since both must “enforce their vision in a world seething with jealousy, finance, intrigue, vanity and greed.” In Lear on the Shore, how much of Chokitsu is Nakadai and how much Kobayashi? When the film’s fallen actor assures us that he “only wanted to please everyone” and later laments, “You claw your way to the top, then tumble down the other side,” do the lines not borrow sentiments from both men?

While striding along that beach at daybreak, Chokitsu runs into a forlorn young woman and takes her for an assistant. “Are you my accomplice?” he jokes, but she is not amused. This, it turns out, is his younger daughter Nobuko (Haru Kuroki), sent packing by Chokitsu when she became pregnant years earlier. She has returned home for reasons that only become clear much later, and her father’s failure to recognize her is another crushing blow. “I was the only one who loved you,” she wails, but Chokitsu sees only an actress playing Lear’s beloved youngest, Cordelia, and happily plays along, before turning to take his bows.

1 2017 Lear on the Shore Film Committee
                   
©2017 "Lear on the Shore" Film Committee

The interactions between Nakadai and Kuroki — the National Living Treasure and the young sparkplug who won Best Actress at the Berlin Film Festival for Yoji Yamada’s The Little House — are at the heart of the film, and one marvels at the level of craft.

A British journalist asked Nakadai what the Lear character actually means to him, and why he’d never played the role on stage. “It’s always been my wish, for many years now, that I could someday do a full production of King Lear on the stage,” answered Nakadai. “Akira Kurosawa’s Ran was a Japanese adaptation of the play, and has a different perspective from Shakespeare’s original, in that the protagonist, Hidetora, comes into conflict with his sons. Mr. Kurosawa himself said, ‘This is a god’s-eye portrayal of humans, and how they’ll keep on fighting. War will never end, so long as humankind is on this earth.’’

He paused. “I’ve been wondering myself, just how much Mr. Kobayashi was inspired by King Lear, and how much he put into the film.” And he turned, eyebrow cocked in that familiar way, to his director.

lear41 mance   lear020 FCCJ
                           
©Mance Thompson (left), FCCJ (right)

Responded Kobayashi: “When I was young, there was this shingeki acting style [new drama style, based on Western realism], and Mr. Nakadai is of that school. What they did was import the works of Shakespeare and other foreign playwrights, and translate them into Japanese for their productions. Honestly speaking, it doesn’t really suit my taste. What I wanted to do was not a costume play of King Lear [like Kurosawa’s Ran], but rather, to depict what would happen if a Japanese were to play King Lear. What would that look like? How would that actor prepare for the role? Very much in the vein of Al Pacino’s Looking for Richard, I didn’t want to depict Lear himself, but to depict the life of an actor, and of acting.”

Once again not waiting (this time for the interpreter to translate Kobayashi’s remarks), Nakadai said, “I see. I didn’t know that. I didn’t ask about that when we were on the set.”

lear95 mance

lear100 mance             Kobayashi's revelation about the film's final scene came as a surprise to his star.  ©Mance Thompson

And he went on, “To speak about Mr. Kobayashi’s work, [after this third collaboration] I think there’s a connecting thread between these three films. Although he hasn’t said it to me directly, they’re all about aging and about whether you’re able to say, when you have death staring at you, ‘I have lived this life to the fullest.’ I presume that’s the common thread he’s after. But on set, I just follow his orders.”

Kobayashi was asked about his unusual shooting style, especially his choices of camera angles and long takes. “It’s a difficult question to answer concisely,” the director responded, “but I would say that a lot of thought went into what you see on the screen. It was intentional, for the first half, to have many long shots. What I was aiming at was to find a way to bring both comedy and pathos into the scenes. I think the long shots, with a tiny person in a vast landscape, are much funnier.

“The second half was also intentional,” he added. “But despite going into the shoot with a meticulous plan and storyboards, you have to look at your actor, see what kind of acting he’s doing and decide which approach would best reflect his acting.”

"Mr. Kobayashi does long, long takes,” confirmed Nakadai. “There was a lot of dialogue that I had to remember. For Japan’s Tragedy, he kept the camera on my back for 20 minutes without cutting. That was one single cut. I was shocked by that. But I was quite satisfied when I saw the finished film, and I finally understood what he was getting at.”

A foreign journalist asked about the film's unusual setting. “I’ve seen Lear done in the park, but I’ve never seen it on the beach,” he said. “Was that freeing for you?”

lear108 mance
                     Chokitsu's very suitcase is reunited with Nakadai during the photocall.  
©Mance Thompson

Nakadai laughed. “No, actually. The background doesn’t have much to do with the acting. Whether you’re acting on stage or on a set or on a beach on the Noto Peninsula, like this time, it doesn’t affect the acting approach. But I’m not a good swimmer. I can’t swim. So [for the final scene], we had to rehearse the night before shooting. Mr. Kobayashi had asked me, ‘Can you bear to be underwater for 10 seconds?’ I said, ‘Well, I don’t know how to swim.’ And he said, ‘We’ll have to rehearse.’ We were in an onsen town, so we went to the bath together and rehearsed." He noticed the audience tittering and stopped. "I’m sorry to crush your imagination. I apologize.”

He continued, “But I think Ms. Kuroki had the conscience to [pull me out of the water] a little faster than planned, because she was worried about me."

Kobayashi interjected, “In fact, I decided to wait more than 10 seconds. Ms. Kuroki was ready to jump into the frame but I tugged at her hand and told her to wait a few more seconds.”

Nakadai shot him a look and then laughed appreciatively. “What a cunning director you are!”

And then he leapt to his feet to instigate the photocall.

Lear Poster 2
©2017 "Lear on the Shore" Film Committee

Press Coverage

TATARA SAMURAI


TATARA SAMURAI


May 15, 2017
Q&A guests: Director Yoshinari Nishikori and star Naoki Kobayashi


two KM
                       Naoki Kobayashi and Yoshinari Nishikori were all smiles on the dais.    ©Koichi Mori

Writer-director Yoshinari Nishikori is a history buff. Nothing excites him like discovering little-known or forgotten facts about bygone Japan — especially those that relate to Shimane, his home prefecture — and bringing his discoveries to the big screen. Four of his films have been shot in Shimane, and his latest, the gorgeously cinematic parable Tatara Samurai, is no exception.

The director’s first jidaigeki period piece, it is set in a small village in ancient Izumo that is renowned for its steelmaking prowess. Using a secret method to forge the purest steel known to man, the blacksmiths of Tatara have become legendary. Their fame attracts warriors from across the land during the 16th-century Warring States period, lured by the promise of indomitable katana swords. But it also attracts the unwanted attentions of rival clans, and of merchants bent on procuring steel for the latest weaponry: firearms.

Gosuke (Sho Aoyagi) has been groomed from youth to become the next Murage (master blacksmith) after his father and grandfather. But he dreams of leaving home to become a samurai under Oda Nobunaga, and one day, he siezes his opportunity. On the road, he meets the merchant Yohei (Takashi Sasano), who helps him join Oda’s army. But Gosuke proves to be no soldier, and returns home resigned to his fate. When Yohei later arrives to ply guns over blades, there is little resistance from the villagers, except for Gosuke’s childhood friend Shimpei (Naoki Kobayashi), who senses the merchant’s true motives but is branded a traitor and banished. It isn’t until the Izumo lord, Shinnosuke (Akira), falls victim to the senseless violence that accompanied the armaments, that Gosuke begins to understand the true essence of the Bushido spirit.

steel
Aoyagi at the tatara oven. ©2017 Tatara Samurai Production Partnership

Appearing for the second time at FCCJ after his 2013 Konshin (also set in Shimane and also starring Aoyagi), the irrepressible Nishikori discussed the impetus for the film: “Japanese people think they know their history, but I discovered they didn’t know the story of tatara-buki and the swords that were made in Shimane,” he said. “The tatara [smelting] technique is better at producing steel for swords than today’s state-of-the-art machines.”

The 1,300-year tradition of passing down tatara-buki through the generations had been halted after World War II, the director explained, before being resumed under the auspices of the government. In 1977, the Agency for Cultural Affairs and the Japanese Society for the Preservation of Japanese Art Swords (Nittoho), built the Nittoho Tatara foundry in Shimane with Hitachi Works to provide the steel necessary for the continued production of Japanese swords. It operates only between late January and early February, but creates the purest, most refined form of steel available anywhere — attracting customers from around the world, including Stephen Spielberg, for its sought-after blades.

“Hitachi’s employees carry on this legacy,” said Nishikori, “and [tatara-buki] is still a secret technique.”

 tatara samurai-mance-352   nishikiori-KM 1961
                     Nishikiori explains the finer points of steelmaking.   ©Mance Thompson, Koichi Mori

But Nishikori wasn’t inspired to make Tatara Samurai just because he was intrigued with the ancient craft. In the production notes, he had called Tatara village “a microcosm of the unresolved problems and suffering that exists across the contemporary world today. The secretive craftsmanship of the tatara-buki and the power-wielding ability of the swords it creates is [similar to] the issues behind global oil demand today. In the film, the village is determined to use arms in order to fend off an impending attack – leading to a critical situation.”

The film’s allegorical wrapping is difficult to miss, but viewers will find themselves, first and foremost, immersed in its historical accuracies. Among its many impressive features is a fully operational Sengoku-era tatara, and there are dazzling scenes of steelmaking that feel imbued with documentary-level exactitude. Because it is crafted with such loving attention to detailed authenticity, one audience member admitted being confused about whether Tatara Samurai was or was not based on true events.

“There are almost no historical records from the Sengoku period,” explained Nishikori. “What we see of this period in films and read in novels is basically fiction. So we based the film on the supposition that this type of thing probably happened, that the people in power were trying to get their hands on the tamahagane steel [used to forge the samurai blades].

Naoki Kobayashi-FCCJ   tatara samurai-mance-59
                   Kobayashi answered in English, and then translated himself. 
©FCCJ, Mance Thompson

He continued, “The people who made this steel were very, very rich and there was a lot of abundance in the region. Through the research we did for the film, we discovered that there was a lot of international trade going on, and there were a lot of foreigners visiting this area. So that’s how we constructed the story. Because it was such a rich region and there was a lot of money, Izumo had ties to the people in power, and was under the warlords’ protection.”

Nishikori was asked about Tatara village itself, and explained that “The village is not real, [but a set]. It was all built for the film, except for the shrine, which is about 1,500 years old. We had a lot of help from the local carpenters in Izumo, the miyadaiku craftsmen who do a lot of restoration work on the Izumo Shrine [Japan’s oldest]. They have a specialized technique that allows them to build without using any nails.”

Nishikori was accompanied by one of the film’s stars, Naoki Kobayashi, a member of the Exile theatrical troupe and leader of the J-pop supergroup Sandaime J Soul Brothers. Although he’s been dancing and acting for a decade, Tatara Samurai marks Kobayashi’s film debut.

 naoki rain
        Kobayashi demonstrates his fighting skills in the penultimate batte. 
©2017 Tatara Samurai Production Partnership

During the Q&A session, he immediately charmed the audience with his English skills (apparently perfected over just a single year of study) and his relaxed manner — a far cry from his stoic character in the film. Asked whether he got to use one of the state-of-the-art katana, he said, “I wanted to use a real sword, but this is a movie, right? Of course it was an imitation. But I trained with a real sword to get the sense of being a samurai.” (He then plunged amiably into the Japanese version of his response, prompting a spate of Japanese-press headlines about his “self-translation” capabilities.)

Kobayashi was asked whether his dancing had helped him prepare for his demanding role as Shimpei, the devoted friend and sparring partner of Gosuke who is banished from the village when he dares to challenge the gun merchants’ motives. “Since I’m a dancer, that experience was the best way [for me] to understand the lives of the characters,” he responded. “I like expressing myself through dancing, without any words. Acting uses words, so it’s difficult for me. But using my body is close to acting. My character’s main scenes are fighting scenes, so expressing myself using my body was easy.”

gun
             The villagers opt for modern armaments, bringing about a crisis.  ©2017 Tatara Samurai Production Partnership

Another FCCJ viewer asked about the beautiful dance performed by a miko shrine maiden in the film, wondering if it had been influenced in any way by Exile style. Nishikori verified that it is one of many miko-mai that are still performed at shrines throughout Japan. This one was inspired, he said, by “Izumo no Okuni, the woman who started the kabuki tradition. She was said to have been raised in an iron-making house in Shimane and gone to Kyoto, where the tradition took root.”

While lauding the film’s authenticity, one audience member said he couldn’t help noticing an absence of blood. “It’s grounded in reality,” said Nishikori. “It was intentional to show as little blood as possible. We’re used to seeing blood spurting out as samurai are cut or split open. But in reality, that isn’t real. The blade is so sharp that the blood doesn’t spurt out [like that]. Before Kurosawa started showing blood spurting, Japanese jidaigeki weren’t like that.”

tatara samura-mance-i85
                                                                                             
©Mance Thompson

“Also,” he added, “we wanted to make a film that’s accessible to children, so the whole family could go and see it.”
 
Tatara Samurai was shot on 35 mm film, not on the currently preferred digital format, to better capture Shimane’s magnificent scenery and the excitement of swordfights choreographed by famed stuntman Yoshio Iizuka. While limited theaters across Japan will project it in digital 4K resolution, even in its 2K condensed form, the film has the look and epic sweep of the sumptuous cinematic feasts once served up by the major studios. That this independent production achieves such a level of artistry has already earned it international awards, including one for Best Artistic Contribution at the 2016 Montreal World Film Festival.

Izumo is the birthplace of many vaunted Japanese traditions, including kabuki, sumo (which Nishikori celebrated in his earlier film, Konshin) and even sake. Tatara Samurai has not been made to promote the prefecture, but audiences may find it impossible to resist booking a Shimane visit as soon as they’ve seen the film’s stunning visuals.

after bunch KM                  Nishikori and Kobayashi joined attendees in the bar after the screening event.  ©Koichi Mori

 

Poster
©2017 Tatara Samurai Production Partnership

Press Coverage

YAEKO'S HUM


YAEKO'S HUM (Yaeko no Humming)


May 15, 2017
Q&A guests: Director Kiyoshi Sasabe and stars Takeshi Masu and Yoko Takahashi

 


3-yaeko3-mance
                       Masu, Takahashi and Sasabe     ©Mance Thompson

Like all fast-graying societies, Japan has not dodged the healthcare bullet. Current estimates put the number of dementia sufferers in the country at 4.6 million, but with 65-and-overs expected to account for over 30% of the population by 2025, that is sure to surge. 

While the government has championed community-wide caregiving, the burden of funding and implementing much-needed initiatives has fallen on NGOs and NPOs at the local level. Yet even with neighborhood watch networks, innovative daycare centers and millions of trained volunteer caregivers, there are simply not enough people involved.

Taking his inspiration from a true story, writer-director-producer Kiyoshi Sasabe means his new film as a wake-up call — a poignant argument against the outsourcing of Alzheimer’s care. “Kindness is the best medicine,” says one of its protagonists, and Yaeko’s Hum amply demonstrates the resulting improvements in quality of life and dignity.

s-yaeko31-mance   s-yaeko35-mance
                     The writer-director often tackles pressing social issues, but this time, it was more personal.  
©Mance Thompson

The film follows the broad outlines of the memoir of the same name by Nobutaka Minami, an educator who not only devoted himself selflessly to the care of his wife after she developed early-onset Alzheimer’s, but did so while concurrently undergoing a series of debilitating cancer operations himself. Sasabe first read the book 8 years ago, and was immediately interested in adapting it.

During the Q&A session following FCCJ’s sneak preview screening, one audience member praised Sasabe’s gifts as a “master tearjerker,” but asked why the film hadn’t been made by a major studio, given the seemingly made-for-mainstream-audiences approach to the subject. The director responded, “I wrote a script 8 years ago and initially planned to make it with a studio. But it’s about an elderly couple, about sickness and caregiving, and that does not sit well with younger audiences. So every major studio and TV station that I went to said no to the project.”

But traveling the Japanese festival circuit with other films, Sasabe was often asked why there were no more films for mature audiences, and gradually realized that Yaeko’s Hum could appeal to older fans.

t-yaeko9-mance   t-yaeko43-mance
                   Yoko Takahashi, an accomplished novelist, returns to the screen after a 28-year hiatus. 
©Mance Thompson

His commitment deepened further when the story took a personal turn. “I lost my mother two years ago, and before she passed away, she suffered dementia herself for 3 or 4 years,” he explained. “My younger sister took care of her, and it was a very challenging time. Whenever I talk with my contemporaries, the topic always seems to come around to ‘What do we do about our aging, ailing parents?’ I think this is a film that Japanese society needs. So I ultimately decided that I would raise the funds and make it independently.”

Sasabe had explored the theme before, in his Japan Academy-Prizewinning Half a Confession (2004) — although that work was equally concerned with the issue of euthanasia, when a husband is arrested for killing his Alzheimer’s-afflicted wife at her request. He had also, as an assistant director, worked on Solitude Point (1998), a story of the enduring love between a Japanese Alzheimer's sufferer and her Korean War-veteran husband.

With Yaeko’s Hum, Sasabe focuses on a relationship that would seem far too good to be true. Except that it really happened.

m-Yaeko047-FCCJ   m-Yaeko050-FCCJ
                   Masu, accustomed to supporting roles, is perfectly cast as the uber-devoted husband.  ©Mance Thompson

The film opens after Yaeko’s death, as Seigo Ishizaki (Takeshi Masu), a retired principal and school board director, addresses an avid crowd. "I cared for my wife for 12 years,” he tells them. “We’d been married for 38 years, so that amounts to the last third of our life together. I watched her gradually lose her memory… but then it struck me… my wife was just taking her time saying goodbye.” As Ishizaki speaks, his memories come alive in a series of flashbacks, beginning with the first signs of the disease in 1989.

As Yaeko’s illness progresses, it soon takes a tremendous toll on the family, yet Ishizaki remains impossibly patient as his wife reverts to childhood. Yaeko (Yoko Takahashi) was once a music teacher, and she retains her love of song; since she cannot remember the words now, she must hum them. When she hears her favorite songs by Shinji Tanimura, her smile always returns. But these are not easy years, and the film doesn’t gloss over the difficulties of home care — the diapers, the mood changes, the tantrums, the disappearance of romance from the couple’s relationship. Yet with the support of the couple’s two daughters, and eventually the entire town, Ishizaki tends to Yaeko’s needs, protects her dignity and extends her life as he bids her a “long farewell.”

Looking far younger than she does onscreen (and younger than she deserves to), Yoko Takahashi thrilled several members of FCCJ’s audience who remembered her early career burning up the screen as the sexy star of such films as Koichi Saito’s Journey into Solitude, Kei Kumai’s Sandakan 8 and Shuji Terayama’s Farewell to the Ark. But Takahashi left the film world to write fulltime. With a successful, ongoing career as a novelist, what was it about this role that enticed her back to acting after a 28-year break?

p-Yaeko110-FCCJ
                                       ©FCCJ

“It’s like getting back on a bicycle,” she told the audience. “Once you learn, you never forget how to ride. It didn’t seem like a long hiatus to me. But when the director asked me to play the role, I did have to think twice. I didn’t have a lot of lines, and I would have to play this person who’s ailing. So I hesitated. With the issue of dementia, you often hear about people becoming increasingly irritable, about them wandering and essentially becoming troublemakers. But Mr. Sasabe wanted me to make Yaeko charming [too], and that’s what really attracted me to the role.” A beat. “But it was a lot easier to play her when she’s aggressive.”

Takeshi Masu, a familiar face from literally dozens of supporting roles on stage, screen and TV for the past 35 years, marks a deeply moving debut in the lead here. Without his convincing portrayal, a fine balance of tender sentiment and gentle exasperation, the film would have collapsed under its own best intentions.

Asked how he prepared to become a saint, Masu admitted, “To tell you the truth, I couldn’t figure out how to approach the role because it was so starkly different from my past roles. But when I went on the set, Yoko-san was there as Yaeko, being really charming, and that helped me want to help her, to be as kind to her as possible.”

Takahashi mentioned that she had prepared for the role by meeting the author of the memoir, Yaeko’s widower, as well as by watching an NHK documentary on the couple.

Because there are flashbacks to the way back, as well as to the more recent past, Takahashi and Masu frequently found themselves tasked with playing their characters at different ages, even on the same shooting day. Masu spoke about the physical challenges of the role: “I played someone who starts at 40 and ages up to 80, so I would have to carefully gauge how slowly to walk or to speak for each scene, so that it would all seem seamless when edited together.”

p-yaeko53-mance
                                                                                             
©Mance Thompson

One foreign audience member mentioned her mother’s dementia and her own surprise at discovering, after moving her mother into a Japanese nursing home, that no one goes to visit their family members. Another viewer discussed how many people in Japan are now dying alone with no chance to be supported by the community, and asked the director whether he would consider making a “more realistic” film about someone who doesn’t have a family or a support system.

“I didn’t want to depict the harsh reality of caregiving,” said Sasabe. “There are so many documentaries about that out there. I wanted to make a film about loving Yaeko, and how love prevails. I wanted it to be a pure love story about this elderly couple, represented by the line, ‘There are limits to anger, but kindness is limitless.’”

He continued, “I want you to see this film as a sort of fantasy. I wanted to depict [the husband] as a kind of superhero. It’s about dreams and about hope.”

Sasabe shot Yaeko’s Hum in the small castle town of Hagi, facing the Sea of Japan, where he has set four previous films. It afforded him not only gorgeous views, but also immense support from the city and its citizens. He hails from nearby Shimonoseki, and in an echo of his film’s message, having a local network has clearly been essential to him.

yaeko poster
©2017 Team “Yaeko’s Hum”

Press Coverage

 

STAR SAND


STAR SAND (Star Sand – Hoshizuna Monogatari)


April 10, 2017
Q&A guests: Director Roger Pulvers, stars Lisa Oda and Shinnosuke Mitsushima


Star Sand-KM-70
                       The emerging director and his two rising stars.     ©Koichi Mori

In a prolific career that has taken him from the US to Russia to Poland to Japan and beyond, American-bred Australian Roger Pulvers has been known primarily as an award-winning author, translator, journalist, playwright, theater director and educator. Despite having famously served as Nagisa Oshima’s assistant on Merry Christmas, Mr. Lawrence (1983), and as co-writer of Takashi Koizumi’s Best Wishes for Tomorrow (2008), he has notched most of his achievements in realms other than film.

But he has just added another feather to his cap: film director.

A familiar figure at FCCJ, Pulvers sneak-previewed his directorial debut, Star Sand, ahead of the world premiere on April 22 at the Okinawa International Movie Festival. When he was asked what took him so long to helm his own production, Pulvers laughed, “I would have liked to make a movie a long time ago. I had a plan in 1990, but the asset bubble burst and I couldn’t.”

Star Sand-FCCJ-049   Star Sand-FCCJ-048

Star Sand-KM-51   Star Sand-KM-54
                                                                Oda and Mitsushima both lauded Pulvers' directorial skills.    Above: ©FCCJ  Below: ©Koichi Mori

He recalled how he’d visited Hatomajima in 1977, first encountering the sparkly star sands (tiny, star-shaped marine protozoa), and hearing that the island had escaped the ravages of war. Some years later, he began thinking about “making a movie about a deserter, making a hero out of a deserter. I think that in times of intense warfare, it is heroic not to fight.” With the 2003 invasion of Iraq, “I remembered Vietnam, and I was very angry. So I wrote ‘Star Sand.’”

The film is based on that story (later a novel in both English and Japanese), an Okinawa-set mystery tale with a powerful message about compassion and quiet acts of heroism during wartime. Calling in favors from his nearly five decades in Japan, Pulvers was able to cast A-list actors like Shinobu Terajima, Renji Ishibashi and Mako Midori, and to shoot on location in Iejima with veteran cinematographer Shinji Ogawa and art director Koichi Kanekatsu (it was the first production ever permitted on the island, which had been destroyed by bombing in 1945). The film’s haunting theme song was written by Oscar-winner Ryuichi Sakamoto, an old friend from Merry Christmas days (which also deals with a friendship between soldiers from opposing sides).

Star Sand-KM-top
                                                                                                                                              ©Koichi Mori

Star Sand jumps nimbly between three distinctly different eras — April 1945, 1958 and 2016 — although its primary action takes place during the horrific Battle of Okinawa on a tiny speck of land remote from the main theater of action. Nevertheless, its inhabitants have all been touched, some in more disastrous ways than others, by the Pacific War. Sixteen-year-old Hiromi (Oda) has recently arrived on the island, while her father goes to work in a Nagasaki factory and her Japanese-American mother stays in Los Angeles. Out hunting for star sand one day, she comes upon two men in a cave. One is Takayasu, a Japanese deserter (Mitsushima); the other is an ailing American deserter named Bob (Brandon McClelland). Hiromi helps nurse Bob back to health, and brings food to the two men, who pledge never to commit an act of violence again. All is well until Takayasu’s brother, a fanatical soldier (Takahiro Miura), discovers the trio and vows to kill them all. Eventually, three of the four people in the cave will perish; we do not learn their identities until a modern-day university student in Tokyo reads a diary discovered in the cave in 1958, and goes on a quest to uncover the startling secret.

Pulvers brought along his two young stars, Lisa Oda and Shinnosuke Mitsushima, both of whom are on the cusp of major career recognition, to the FCCJ event.

star sand-s
                      © 2017 The STAR SAND Team

A popular model since 2012, Oda made her memorable film debut just a year ago, playing a young woman who holds the key to a grisly crime in Keishi Ohtomo’s The Top Secret: Murder in Mind. Although she has also been appearing for the past two seasons as Sena, the pirate girl, in NHK’s television drama Moribito: Guardian of the Spirit, Oda’s acting resume is extremely slender for one so poised. She is not only the protagonist of Star Sand and its emotional center; she also delivers nearly half her lines in English.

Greeting the audience in English prior to the Q&A session, Oda was clearly nervous in front of her first crowd of international critics. “I was delighted to be offered the part of Hiromi, and couldn’t believe my good luck,” she told the audience. “Actually, I was so nervous because I have not had much acting experience. Also, I really didn't know about the wartime history of Japan. The biggest problem was how to be Hiromi with the right emotional responses. It wasn’t easy, but thanks to guidance from everybody, I was able to [play the role]. I'm grateful for the chance to be part of Star Sand.

Mitsushima proved to be as loquacious in person as his Star Sand character is reticent. “Good evening, everyone,” he introduced himself, also in English. “I’m from Okinawa, and I’m very honored to join this film and to be here tonight.” Switching to Japanese, he continued, “When I met Roger, he showed me a photo of an island, and I knew right away that it was Iejima, where I spent a lot of time [visiting] in my childhood. Being from Okinawa, you hear a lot more war stories and wartime experiences, and we see people who still have bullets in their bodies and older people who have lost limbs. The war is part of our being. So I worried about taking the role, since it would mean that I would have to face my identity as an Okinawan and shoulder the sentiments of my ancestors. Also, my grandfather is an American, so I would not have been born if it weren’t for World War II. But I was taken with Roger’s passion. Without him, it wouldn’t have been possible.”

 Star Sand-FCCJ-058   Star Sand-FCCJ-037
                                                    Both
©FCCJ

Pulvers returned his stars’ compliments: “I knew from the very beginning that if I didn’t get Lisa to play Hiromi, no one else could,” he said. “I think there are many among you tonight who will agree that she’s quite miraculous. As for that guy over there [indicating Mitsushima], that Okinawan-American, I thought there wouldn’t be a chance to get him in my movie. But when he saw that photo of Iejima and recognized it immediately, I put my dibs on him. It’s probably the first time a director’s gotten an actor just by showing one photograph.”

Asked how they prepared for their roles, Oda said, “I wouldn't be so pompous as to call my preparation for this role an ‘approach,’ but I will say that the first thing I did was to work with the director on improving my English pronunciation.”

Mitsushima, who’s been acting on stage and screen since 2010, and will appear in five other high-profile films this year (including titles by Takashi Miike, Yoshihiro Nakamura and Hirokazu Kore-eda), mentioned that the rehearsal period had been very helpful. “The character I play doesn’t have a lot of lines, and he’s the symbol of how Roger sees the Japanese — the conflicts, the strengths, the love for their families. I could prepare for that on my own physically, but I wouldn’t have been able to capture the essence of the character without having many, many discussions with the director. He knows twice as much as [the younger actors] do about Japan and Japanese history.”

Star Sand-KM-83-2
               An Okinawa representative invites Pulvers to return soon and make a sequel.                      ©Koichi Mori

He continued, “I decided to not take too cerebral an approach, but just to feel it emotionally, to bring back my childhood memories of spending time in caves. As [the character] says, ‘The world may be at war, but you’re able to breathe when you’re in this cave.’ We actually shot in one of the caves where people hid during the war, and you could feel this intangible power. I would get goosebumps every time we went in. Brandon and Miura-san and I would offer incense and prayers to the deceased each time, to help us connect with that generation.”

Pulvers was asked why he cast himself — in a very small role in the film’s closing minutes — in his own film. “I didn’t want to!” he lamented. “I’ve known [actress] Mako Midori forever; we’re the same age, and I had to play her son! But my producers put pressure on me, probably because they didn’t have money to audition someone else. So the biggest ham actor comes out at the very end.”

Star Sand will be opening in Okinawa before its Tokyo run begins in August, during the annual period of war remembrance, and Pulvers is sure to feature even more prominently in media analyses about the escalation of tensions in Asia. By bravely recasting war’s so-called cowards as the real heroes — the “true messengers of peace,” as he puts it, Pulvers’ first film is a poignant reminder that, even in periods of hatred and brutality, there is also the chance for hope.

Poster-E-s
© 2017 The STAR SAND Team

Press Coverage

 

DON’T BLINK - ROBERT FRANK


DON’T BLINK - ROBERT FRANK (Don't Blink - Robert Frank no Utsushita Jidai)


March 24, 2017
Q&A guest: Director Laura Israel


DB-KM-00009   DB-KM-00007
                       Laura Israel, Frank's editor, archivist and now, cinematic biographer.   ©Koichi Mori

Before she found the perfect title for her documentary, Laura Israel had planned to call it Robert Frank, You Got Eyes. As she explained to FCCJ’s Q&A audience, “Jack Kerouac wrote that in the forward to ‘The Americans.’ We always knew it was a working title, and I was never really happy with it because I felt it was too old and over-used already. But Robert came up with the title. He was answering a journalist who asked him, ‘What would you tell young photographers?’ He said, ‘Keep your eyes open. Don’t blink.’”

Heads nodded approvingly around the room, not only because many of those present were photographers themselves, but also because the words seemed positively Frankian: deceptively simple, enduringly deep.

The Swiss-born New Yorker revolutionized the art of photography and independent film in the 1950s, with work that was personal, impulsive and (purposely) imperfect. In his 60-year career, he has documented the Beats, Welsh coal miners, Peruvian Indians, the Rolling Stones (infamously) and of course, the Americans.

DB-FCCJ-00001   DB-FCCJ-00007
                  
©FCCJ

Frank first came to fame in 1958 with the French publication of his seminal book “The Americans,” which was the result of a 9-month, 10,000-mile, 30-state journey through his adopted country (funded by a Guggenheim Foundation fellowship). Culled from 767 rolls of film and 27,000 images, the book’s racially-charged depictions of America’s downtrodden, lonely and marginalized, were haunting and controversial. One critic dubbed Frank’s work a “sad poem for sick people,” while another slammed the “meaningless blur, grainy, muddy exposure, drunken horizons and general sloppiness.” But “The Americans” is now considered the most influential photo book of the 20th century.

Frank’s sympathies have always been with “people who struggle,” and he has portrayed them with unfailing empathy, as well as unblinking honesty. Yet he has not been a willing subject himself. In one scene is Israel’s film, we see him, circa 1988, staring into a video lens. “I hate these f***ing interviews,” he complains to his interlocutor, getting increasingly irritated. Finally he growls, “I can’t stand to be pinned in front of a camera, because I do that to people. I don’t want it to be done to me!” And he gets up and walks out of frame.

But Don’t Blink presents a different side of Robert Frank. A sprightly 90 years old when the film was made, and a little more relaxed in front of the camera than he was in the 1980s, the irascible, reclusive subject of Israel’s immersive documentary reveals he has a surprisingly sanguine character.

4sub DontBlink RobertFrank RobertFrank byLisaRinzler
Photo of Robert Frank by Lisa Rinzler, copyright Assemblage Films LLC

It helps that the woman behind the camera is his long-time collaborator. Israel has been his editor and archivist-preservationist for nearly 30 years, and their intimacy has allowed her to tap into a staggering wealth of archival images and footage, as well as to capture Frank in a variety of settings over three years, from his New York loft to his isolated cabin in Nova Scotia.

Asked how the project came about, Israel explained, “I went with my first film [Windfall, 2009] to the International Documentary Festival Amsterdam, and [took part] in the mentoring program there. I met with a writer, Tue Steen Müller. He was kind of a gruff, older guy and had a lot of personality, like Robert Frank. He wasn’t particularly happy with my film [which looks at a small town’s troubles with wind turbines]. I was intimidated, so I told him, ‘I thought we would get along, because I work with Robert Frank.’ He lunged over the table at me and said, ‘That’s your next film! You’re doing a film about Robert Frank!’”

5sub DontBlink RobertFrank Robert Frank byLisaRinzler
Photo of Robert Frank by Lisa Rinzler, copyright Assemblage Films LLC

Despite Israel’s resistance, and initially, that of Frank, the project took off just days after she mentioned it to him. And did he demand any changes, once the film was finished? “No changes,” Israel told the FCCJ crowd. “He said, ‘I really like the music, and you made the photographs come to life.’”

Don’t Blink is like a visual game of free association that pays tribute to Frank’s own style, cut together as if it were one of the restless artist’s frequent road trips, with rapid-fire montages of his photographic and film work, from his fashion-snapping years with Harper’s Bazaar and his freelance photojournalism, to his handmade-style films and his friendships with Jack Kerouac, Allen Ginsberg and other assorted counterculture artists, as well as with the everyday people who continue to fascinate him.

Israel discussed the accomplishment of putting the documentary together. A veteran editor herself, she said, “I worked with an editor, which I would recommend to any filmmaker. It was a lot of footage, and Robert gave us access to all of his work, and he’s very prolific. We set up an editing room with all his books, all his photos, all his films, and we surrounded ourselves with Robert Frank for a year and a half. It was wonderful. But when we see the film now, we look at each other and say, ‘Whew. I’m glad we don’t have to do that again!’”

DB-KM-00020   DB-KM-00001
                         ©Koichi Mori

One journalist asked about the impact of the 9/11 terrorist attack on Frank’s life and work, and why it wasn’t included in the film. “Robert wasn’t in New York around 9/11,” responded Israel. “He was in Nova Scotia, and he returned immediately. He brought back that beautiful film about the guy who delivers papers [Paper Route, 2002; excerpted in Don’t Blink]. I had been there on the Lower East Side on 9/11, and that film means so much to me. After 9/11, seeing that simplicity and beauty and that kind of life really helped me. It was very cathartic to work on that film, editing with Robert.”

It turned out that Frank wasn’t the only fan of the film’s soundtrack. With each subsequent audience question, the filmmaker was praised for her musical choices. Asked how she managed to afford so many well-known names, Israel explained, “I worked with a wonderful music producer, Hal Willner, and his associate, Rachel Fox. After Hal saw the first 30 minutes of the film, he was very excited and said, ‘Okay, I’ll call up Bob Dylan’s manager.’” And I was like, ‘Okay, go ahead and do that and we’ll see how that goes.’ [laughs] He called me the next week and said, ‘Bob Dylan said yes.’ After we got Bob Dylan, it seemed that all the musicians, either by design or by pure luck, had a connection to Robert Frank. This was the rare project where you call and ask someone for a favor, and they thank you for calling and asking them to help.

DB-FCCJ-00009
Israel with the film's Japanese poster.  ©FCCJ

“Let me give a few examples: Charles Mingus — someone told us ‘Sue Mingus [his widow] never gives his music to any film. You’ll never get that music. Never, ever.’ Then we found out that Robert actually introduced her to Mingus, and he was at the wedding and everything. So she said yes right away. Yo La Tengo — I didn’t know until later that they had done a song called ‘Pablo and Andrea’ [the names of Frank’s two children, who died tragically young], and that they had gone to school with them [at the school featured in Conversations in Vermont, 1969]. Tom Waits — we found out that he was very excited about the one song we used. So we said, ‘We’ll use two, then.’ And the Kills — I really love the song ‘The Way New York Used to Be,’ and we approached Alison Mosshart, and she said ‘I would do anything for Robert Frank. I would never say no to Robert Frank.’ So all these things fell together.”

The ranks of Robert Frank fans are bound to swell after the Japanese release of Don’t Blink, although he has long had a devoted following here. Impressive not only for its historical immersiveness, the film also delivers positive messages about aging and creativity. Frank has continued to create at an exhaustive pace, embracing work for its energizing and its healing properties, and is still finding new stories to tell about his fellow outsider Americans. “These are good people,” he says, “these marginal people who live at the edge. They interest me.” And then he snaps another shot to add to his one-of-a-kind collection.

POSTER
Photo of Robert Frank by Lisa Rinzler, copyright Assemblage Films LLC

Press Coverage

SNOW WOMAN


SNOW WOMAN (Yuki Onna)


February 23, 2017
Q&A guests: Director-star Kiki Sugino and star Munetaka Aoki


snow FCCJ-054
Sugino and Aoki are infinitely warmer in person than in their hauntingly frosty film.    ©FCCJ
 

The chilly relationship they depict onscreen is clearly all an act; indie film queen Kiki Sugino and her costar Munetaka Aoki seemed like the oldest of friends during the Q&A session following FCCJ's sneak preview of their film Snow Woman. Trading compliments, laughing frequently, they were relaxed and loquacious, the polar opposites of the characters they play.

After the first three questions had gone to the director, Aoki even felt comfortable enough to break in and say, “I want to answer a question now.” Asked about his (fairly erotic) love scene with Sugino, and his experiences working with a female helmer, the popular actor (Rurouni Kenshin, A Woman Wavering in the Rain, NHK’s Chikaemon) answered by first demonstrating his impressive English skills: “When I got this offer, I was really excited,” he said, “because [Sugino] is really talented as an actress and a producer, and I really wanted to work with her.” Switching into Japanese, he continued, “As an actor, you always want to be inspired by your director, and that goes for male directors and directors who are younger than you. I was able to throw myself into the world of Snow Woman, but I don’t think it was because Ms. Sugino is female. I enjoyed it immensely. As for the love scene, yes, it was the first time I had a love scene with my director, and it was very interesting.”  

snow KM-720
                       The costars introduced the film before the screening.   ©Koichi Mori

Sugino was marking her third visit to FCCJ, but her first as a director — she had joined us as producer-star of Koji Fukada’s Au revoir l’éte in 2014, and as producer-star of Takuya Misawa’s Chigasaki Story in 2015. A veteran of just 10 years in the film industry, she has been active on both sides of the camera — and internationally — since producing the award-winning Hospitalité, also from Fukada, in 2009. She made her own directorial debut with a pair of disparate features in 2014, one an adaptation of a popular manga (Kyoto Elegy); the other based on an original story about a Japanese couple visiting Indonesia (Taksu). It won her the Rising Director Award at the Busan Film Festival.

Snow Woman, which Sugino also co-wrote and shot in her home prefecture of Hiroshima, earned a Competition berth at the 2016 Tokyo International Film Festival, and accolades like this from Variety: “[I]n her most accomplished film yet, Sugino finds the icy heart of an ancient, oft-repeated story, and makes it her enigmatic own.”

snow FCCJ-017   snow FCCJ-036
Sugino directed, cowrote and starred in her third feature, her first period piece.   ©FCCJ

That story is the ghostly “Woman of the Snow,” from Lafcadio Hearn’s 1904 anthology “Kwaidan: Stories and Studies of Strange Things;” and although it may seem overly familiar to the Japanese (and fans of Masaki Kobayashi’s 1965 Kwaidan), Sugino’s gorgeously lensed reinterpretation offers a suitably modern approach. Make that modernist. It is set in a timeless era when mountaineers sleep in huts under straw mats while factory workers engage in the production of electrical goods; when girls sing in haunting unison as they carry bowls of plums on their heads, where news seems to travel only by grapevine, not by internet.

“It takes place in the present,” explained Sugino, “but in a parallel present. You see influences from the Taisho and early Showa eras in the set design and the costumes. When you go back to the original story, you don’t know if it takes place 1,000 years ago, 100 years ago or now. The essence of the story transcends time. The snow woman as a being really is science fiction, so she can’t be constrained to any period.” She mentioned that the plum-carrying girls are actually engaging in a traditional coming-of-age ritual, but that the song was specially written for the film. “It’s a symbolic moment in the film. The girls [are crossing a river], which is a symbol of the in-between from childhood to adulthood, just as the boat is symbolic of being in between two worlds [the netherworld and the real world].”

snow KM-756   snow KM-761
Aoki had a superlative 2016, and heads to a 3-month run on the stage in 2017.  ©Kochi Mori
 

The stylized, elliptical Snow Woman is daringly short on dialog and long on such metaphors. The average multiplex-goer may be disappointed with its lack of transparency, but there are scenes of such trancelike beauty and mesmerizing mystery, the arthouse viewer will look past the film’s many riddles, and succumb to its stately pace and poetic power.

One snowy night deep in the mountains, a young hunter named Minokichi (Aoki) awakens to see a beautiful yuki onna hovering over his mentor, Mosaku (Shiro Sano), literally stealing his breath away. “Should you tell anyone,” she warns the hunter, “I will take your life.” Minokichi’s encounter is so surreal, he does not dare to believe it occurred. A year later, he meets and marries a beautiful lass from another village, an outsider named Yuki (Sugino). She bears him a daughter, Ume, and they live a happy, if frugal, existence. But as the years pass, there are several more mysterious deaths, and the villagers begin pointing fingers in Yuki’s direction. Minokichi remains mum, yet his doubts begin to grow. It isn’t until Ume blossoms into a radiant young lady (emerging star Mayu Yamaguchi) and befriends the village leader’s son that his troubles really begin.

snow stillmain
Minokichi and Yuki in the woods.  ©Snow Woman Film Partners

Lauding the director’s aesthetic mastery of the medium, one journalist asked Sugino about her inspirations. “I’ve really been inspired by Daiei movies, which I love, especially the work of Kenji Mizoguchi and Yasuzo Masumura,” she enthused. “For this film, I drew a lot of inspiration from Kozaburo Yoshimura and Yasujiro Ozu, especially Ozu's use of color in Floating Clouds. They inspired me to become a filmmaker, and I think you can feel their spirit in this film, in its depiction of the traversing between the netherworld and the [real world]. I suppose some people were hoping for more of a contemporary take on this folklore story, but I think it blends aspects of classic and contemporary cinema.”

snow KM-741   snow FCCJ-073
                                                                                                                                                                               Left:
©Kochi Mori, Right: ©FCCJ

Discussing the impetus for her adaptation, Sugino explained: “I read [Hearn’s] book about 4 years ago. He was born in Greece, then lived in Ireland and the US, working as a journalist, and ultimately, came to Japan and naturalized as a Japanese. Through his work, he wanted to convey the spirit and virtues of Japan to both the Japanese and non-Japanese. I think he also wanted to convey the spirit of coexistence [even] with something you can’t quite grasp or someone that is different from you. Considering the intolerance toward immigrants in Europe and the radical philosophies developing in the US, I think it is so important to keep in mind that coexistence is one of the cornerstones for building the future. I think [Hearn’s] story reflects this ideal, and that’s why I felt there was a lot of meaning in making it into a film in this day and age.”

Asked about the earlier adaptation by Masaki Kobayashi, Sugino said, “I love Kobayashi’s Snow Woman, which is faithful to the short story. “But I wanted to take a different approach. I didn’t want to copy his work, and we had budget limitations [that Kobayashi didn’t have]. So the question was, what type of point of view do I imbue the film with, how do I bring a new twist to it? That’s where the daughter comes in, the daughter of Yuki and Minokichi, a half-breed between a human and non-human. I think [her existence] also makes it relevant to this day and age.”

snow KM-796
Emerging star Mayu Yamaguchi plays the "halfbreed" daughter of Sugino and Aoki.  ©Kochi Mori
 

Commenting on assembling her cast and crew, Sugino said, “I was able to assemble my favorite actors and actresses for this film. I had Mr. Aoki in mind from the very beginning. I hadn’t even completed the script when I went to him with the story, and it was like a dream, being able to work with him. I don’t think I’m someone with special leadership skills, but I feel strongly that I have more passion than other people. When I want to do something, I find a way to do it, I find a way to tell people that I want to involve them in my project. I think maybe I’m more persistent than others. I don’t know if I have the technique to convey what I want, but I have passion and I put it in a straightforward way, albeit clumsily at times.”

snow KM-805
Aoki brandishes his new Honorary FCCJ Membership card after the event.  ©Kochi Mori

She concluded, “I really enjoyed the process of making this film, because all the actors, not only Mr. Aoki, were so committed to it, and we were able to collaborate a great deal.”

“What choice do you have,” laughed Aoki, “when the Snow Woman looks into your eyes and warns you that she’ll kill you? You just have to put everything you’ve got into the film.”

On a more serious note, he added, “Ms. Sugino's personality attracts a lot of people. She has this power.”

Countered Sugino, “Mr. Aoki is only saying such kind words because we’re in front of the press.”

But Aoki got in the last word: “She really is the Snow Woman. We shot this film last year and it was a very warm winter, but whenever she came on set, it would snow. The cast and crew started wondering about her. But it made us all believe that it was going to be a wonderful creation and a wonderful film.”

yukionna rgb w1000
©Snow Woman Film Partners

Coverage

Page 1 of 2

Recent posts

SEKIGAHARA

00:00 Wednesday, August 09, 2017

OUT OF MY HAND

15:14 Friday, July 28, 2017

LOVE AND OTHER CULTS

12:31 Thursday, July 06, 2017

MARRIAGE

00:00 Friday, June 23, 2017

LEAR ON THE SHORE

20:56 Friday, June 02, 2017

TATARA SAMURAI

00:00 Tuesday, May 16, 2017

YAEKO'S HUM

00:00 Thursday, April 27, 2017

STAR SAND

00:00 Friday, April 14, 2017

DON’T BLINK - ROBERT FRANK

12:07 Saturday, March 25, 2017

SNOW WOMAN

00:00 Sunday, February 26, 2017
  • Go to top