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VIGILANTE


VIGILANTE


November 14, 2017
Q&A guest: Director Yu Irie


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The director returns to darker territory with his latest film, a very personal project. ©FCCJ

 

With his breakout hit 8,000 Miles (SR Saitama no Rapper) in 2009, writer-director Yu Irie struck pay dirt in his rural Saitama hometown, using it as the backdrop for a bittersweet tale about the struggles of wannabe rap stars. Returning twice over the next few years to complete a trilogy, he won a devoted international following for his humorous, humanistic depictions of the strivers, outsiders and has-beens who populated his particular pocket of the prefecture.

But with his new film, Vigilante, Irie makes it clear that home is decidedly not where his heart is. Penning his first original screenplay since completing the trilogy, the young hitmaker has once again revisited his roots — but this time, he has found them rotten.

The pitch-black world of Vigilante is one in which ethics have been torn asunder and the ugliness of humanity is on full display. Exploring such hot-button social issues as child abuse, drug addiction, sexual aggression, crimes against foreigners, crimes by foreigners, and the inexorable decline of Japan’s countryside, Irie’s unsettling vision allows nary a sliver of light to pierce the darkness.

 

The film begins with a chase through the twilight, as three small boys are pursued by a frightening adult figure. On the day their mother dies, the young brothers have attempted to kill their tyrannical father, Takeo (Shun Sugata), a leader in the local community. The eldest, Ichiro, runs away after the incident, and does not return until Takeo has died, 30 years later. In adulthood, middle brother Jiro (Kosuke Suzuki, TV’s “Dr. X”) has become a city council member, while the youngest, Saburo (Kenta Kiritani, Close-Knit), makes ends meet by managing a deriheru ("delivery health") call-girl business for a volatile gangster (rapper Hannya).

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©Koichi Mori

After Takeo’s funeral, Ichiro (Nao Omori, Outrage Coda) suddenly reappears. He’s brought with him a notarized will, and declares that he will take possession of their father’s legacy. But Jiro needs to retain a large tract of nearby land for a megamall construction project that will ensure his political future. Ever the obedient civil servant, he must now choose between his family and his career prospects. As the brothers indulge in an increasingly violent tug-of-war, all hell breaks loose around them. A community of foreign workers clashes with an overzealous neighborhood watch group. Powerful politicians collude with organized criminals. Soon, tensions in the entire town begin to boil over.

In the Q&A session following FCCJ's screening, Irie was asked whether any of the film’s political intrigues had been influenced by actual events in the director’s hometown. He responded, “I want to make clear that it wasn’t my intent to depict Fukuya — this is set in a fictional town. If I don’t make this clear, I’ll never be able to go back." 

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Kiritani confronts local gangsters in the film. © 2017 VIGILANTE Film Partners

Irie laughed before continuing, “I left Fukuya when I was 19 to study filmmaking in Tokyo, so I didn’t really have a full understanding of the politics of regional cities. What did leave an impression on me was that there were always yakuza at our local festivals. It was only after I started making films, and I would return home [on visits], that I started to realize there were these issues involving immigrants, these ‘trainees’ from overseas, and also that there were vested interests involved in public projects.”

Was it necessary to shoot in Fukaya, if audiences are not meant to connect the screen’s fictions with the real setting? Said Irie, “There was this impetus to go back, because the themes were personal. I could have shot elsewhere, but I wanted to return and get the support of people living there.”

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Omori faces a bleak future.  © 2017 VIGILANTE Film Partners

Vigilante was filmed in the dead of winter and mostly at night, which undeniably helped strip the performances by its three main stars of any artifice. But Irie admitted that he’s a bit worried the actors are still upset about the filming conditions: “A lot of my films are set in winter, actually. I suppose it’s a season I like a lot. When the three brothers were fighting in the river, it contributed to some movie magic. It started snowing while we were filming, and it rarely snows there.”

The film’s low-budget aesthetic reminded one critic in the audience that — long before Irie helmed big-studio productions like his Memoirs of a Murderer (which spent 3 weeks at the top of Japan’s box office earlier this year) — he had felt trapped in the no-budget rut. In 2010, Irie had gone on record with complaints that independent directors couldn’t have sustainable careers, and couldn’t possibly afford to live in a city like Tokyo. The voluble rant went viral, prompting a dialogue across the industry that continues today. Asked whether he felt any differently now, Irie admitted, “I’ve shot quite a few commercial films now, so I’m able to live in Tokyo. I made those comments when I [wasn't yet 30] to bring attention to the plight of young directors in the film industry, and I don’t think that situation has changed much at all. People forget about these issues all too easily.” 

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©Koichi Mori (left), ©FCCJ (right)

What does he think might be done about the situation? “Toei Video, which is behind Vigilante, is really unique,” he responded. “They back original scripts, rather than just those based on novels or manga, and this opens a lot of doors for people who want to work on original material, as well as for indie filmmakers. I think there’s a lot of work to be done to solve the problem, but when it comes to the major studios, I’d like to see more of them embarking on original projects. I think it’s up to my generation now to make changes by writing original scripts and finding producers, or it will never change.”

A leading critic in the audience, noting that Vigilante has echoes of Yoichi Sai’s Blood and Bones, another work that features an overpowering father figure, asked how important the theme of family ties is to Irie’s own work. “I wasn’t directly influenced by the film,” said Irie, “although I like it a lot. I think its depiction of a towering, violent father is unparalleled in Japanese film. As for my own work, I’d avoided depicting blood ties in the past; but two years ago, I was filming a jidaigeki film set in the Edo period, and I had to do some genealogical research. That led me to research my own family tree, and if you go back 5 or 6 generations, you reach the Edo period. I started thinking about blood ties and what family means, and that influenced this film.”

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Suzuki (center) leads the neighborhood watch one fateful evening.  © 2017 VIGILANTE Film Partners

He later admitted that he’d been “heavily influenced” by the star of Blood and Bones, “Beat” Takeshi Kitano, who also directs “starkly, painfully violent” films. “Kitano’s films really show us what it is to hurt another, what pain really is,” he explained. “That’s a theme that I wanted to revisit, What does it mean to hurt someone? What is pain? Vigilante doesn’t speak just about physical pain, but also emotional and psychological pain. I regret avoiding this theme until now. I’m interested in seeing how younger audiences will react — especially audiences that are used to watching bubbly coming-of-age films.”

Asked to explain the title, the director said, “I’ve had a long-time interest in neighborhood watch-type organizations, which are policing in an unofficial capacity. I’m personally quite scared of 'communities' and people who organize groups like that. What I wanted to depict was how the individual is swallowed up by the community, so the first title that came to mind was Vigilante.” 

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©Koichi Mori

He elaborated: “What I wanted to depict was not just person-to-person violence, but violence brought on by a certain economy or a community that swallows up the individual. I think it would be difficult for moviegoers to take home a positive message from the film. But I would like them to ponder the situation and imagine what they would do. I recently read a book by Mario Vargas Llosa in which he discusses the character of Emma Bovary, and he wrote, ‘Her death is our hope.’ He meant that such characters die for us, in our place, and we should derive a sense of relief. That really struck a bell with me, and I hope Vigilante’s viewers will feel the same.”

Although he will surely continue to write and direct entertaining stories about viral epidemics, bio-terror, serial murderers and spies (if his recent successes are any indication) the pared-down nastiness of Vigilante should reassure fans of Yu Irie that he does not intend to shy away from shocking visions, even in today’s shock-averse Japan.

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© 2017 VIGILANTE Film Partners 

Selected Press Coverage

 

PSYCHIC KUSUO (Saiki Kusuo no Sainan)


PSYCHIC KUSUO


October 19, 2017
Q&A guest: Director Yuichi Fukuda


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The director is like a character in one of his own films. ©Mance Thompson

Screening just its second-ever comedy in the past decade, the Film Committee welcomed ebullient director Yuichi Fukuda to a Q&A session that we imagined would focus on his astounding success in Japan and recently, in China — only to discover that he would rather talk about his love of 1970s American sketch comedy and his dream to work on the late-night TV show Saturday Night Live.

“I’ve liked slapstick and gags ever since I was a kid,” he told the FCCJ audience, “since my parents were huge comedy fans and instilled that in me. They would recommend that I watch shows like The Drifters and Oretachi Hyokin Zoku [with Beat Takeshi and Sanma Akashiya] and Owarai Star Tanjo, which my dad used to tell me to cut school early to come home and watch.

“When I was in grade school, I really loved the Zucker Brothers’ Airplane! and the Naked Gun series. They did this 6-episode TV series called Police Squad! that was the basis for Naked Gun, also starring Leslie Nielsen. It was very tongue-in-cheek, and I loved the gags. You would see Nielsen driving in his cop car and they would randomly superimpose these visuals on the rear window, like the Roman Coliseum, or there would a monkey sitting next to him. That kind of throwaway gag isn’t the sort of thing that was often seen in Japan. I wanted to bring an American sensibility to comedy.”

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                     Interpreter Mihoko Imai had difficulty keeping a straight face.   ©Mance Thompson

And that he did, although few realized it until Fukuda appeared at FCCJ. As recently as 2014, one could have imagined that Japan’s beloved gag-comedy king was stuck in a (comfortable) rut, having achieved unprecedented domestic success for his peculiar brand of retro humor. If he did not exactly invent the genre, Fukuda had nurtured it to a fine sheen of ridiculousness. His obsession with the sight gag, the inside joke, the exaggerated double-take, the off-kilter line reading, the non-sequitur and the 4th-wall-breaking meta-commentary has subtly shifted the tenor of the entire comedy industry.

In just over a decade, Fukuda has built an empire of amusement through his stage plays (including adaptations of Broadway hits like Spamalot), his TV series (like 33-Minute Detective and Kid’s Police), and his film adaptations of best-selling Japanese manga (like the HK: Forbidden Super Hero series, in which a high school boy dons women’s panties to gain superpowers).

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©Mance Thompson

And then the director’s Midas Touch led him to Gintama, the gag-manga property from Shueisha (51 million copies sold globally). Creating the first live-action version with his friend (and sometime co-writer) Shun Oguri as the silver-maned, nose-picking samurai hero Gintoki, Fukuda had a certified summer smash.

Gintama is currently 2017’s No. 1 live-action domestic film at the Japanese box office, at $40 million and counting.

Perhaps more significantly, the film got the largest-ever China opening for any Japanese film in history, when it opened on a record 12,000 screens in early September, handily dispatching the former title-holder, Makoto Shinkai’s global juggernaut, Your Name.

But it’s unlikely his newfound box-office clout will change Fukuda’s approach to supremely silly storytelling, both visual and verbal. If his latest film, Psychic Kusuo, is any guide, he continues to be devoted to lean budgets, retro special effects and casts filled with faces familiar from his other work.

Asked about the film’s enormous success and whether he hoped to repeat it with Psychic Kusuo, Fukuda said, “I’m honestly not that interested in box-office results, so I’m not sure how massive a hit Gintama was in China, although I do know it was successful in Japan. I would be happier if it were a hit in the US, honestly speaking, because I want to work there.”

He hastened to add, “I hope my work is universal, and I hope it caters to every nationality. But I’m always saying, ‘Can’t we please bring this to America?’ I believe all my work has been inspired by Western influences, like the Zucker Brothers and Monty Python, and pieces of them have been the basis of my Japanese comedies. I love Saturday Night Live, and it’s been my dream for a long time to live in New York and work as an SNL writer.”

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Teen heartthrob Kento Yamazaki.  ©SHUICHI ASO / SHUEISHA 2017 “Psychic Kusuo” FILM PARTNERS

But first, the prolific multi-hyphenate has new product to pitch, and that would be Psychic Kusuo. An adaptation of the popular gag manga series in Weekly Shonen Jump (5 million copies sold), it concerns a pink-haired teen with unimaginable psychic powers: telepathy, psychokinesis, X-ray vision, teleportation, clairvoyance, walking on air — you name it. Yet Saiki Kusuo (Kento Yamazaki) calls himself “the unluckiest guy in the world,” and longs to lead a normal life.

Saiki’s classmates at the PK Academy are all troublemakers, and he is forever having to secretly use his powers to sidestep all the trouble they cause. It’s the start of the annual school festival, and Saiki’s homeroom teacher warns that one more dangerous incident like last year, and the event will be canceled forever. The excitable red-haired Hairo (Hideyuki Kasahara) decides the class project will be an Exhibition of Interesting Rock Formations on Campus, just to be safe (although one class has cross-dressing waitresses, while another lets kids machine-gun their tentacled teacher, in a nod to Assassination Classroom).

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Yamazaki and Hashimoto.  ©SHUICHI ASO / SHUEISHA 2017 “Psychic Kusuo” FILM PARTNERS

But the black-caped Dark Reunion choose the festival to reappear and issue a dragon-ball challenge to Shun (Ryo Yoshizawa), who’s suffering from chuunibyou syndrome (in his case, he’s a wannabe manga hero). Even worse, the most popular girl in school, Kokomi (Kanna Hashimoto), starts stalking Saiki and very nearly reveals his superpowers. Bombarded with such potentially disastrous situations, it’s no wonder that the young lad starts to panic a little — even if his expression never changes and his hands never, ever come out of his pockets.

Asked whether Saiki’s desire to be normal represented typical Japanese youth, the director responded with a laugh, “Usually, if you have superpowers, you would want to use them or weaponize them. But this particular character is the exact reverse. That’s why I found it so interesting — he’s like the antithesis of the superhero — and that’s why I wanted to make it into a film.”

The casting, as with all Fukuda’s films, is sure to draw in a huge youth crowd. How does he manage to get all the hottest stars? “The casting, I’ll be frank about this, is all done by my wife,” Fukuda said. “She constantly tells me who I should get for all the roles, and I tell the producers, who are very nice, and always cast as my wife wishes. So I do what my wife says, because otherwise, I’ll ultimately regret it. When I’m shooting and I haven’t listened to her advice, I always discover that the actor’s not right for the part. So I’ll tell her and she’ll say, ‘See what happens when you don’t listen to me?’ I’ve found that it’s better to listen.

“For Gintama, 80 percent of the casting was done by my wife. She’s the one who told me to cast Kento Yamazaki for Psychic Kusuo. She noticed him long before he became so popular in shojo (female) manga adaptations. I didn’t know who he was, but I followed her advice.”

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©Mance Thompson

On a roll, relishing the truth, he confessed, “I would go so far as to say that a lot of my work is led by my wife. She often advises me on which projects to do or not to do, like a manager. But she’s never been part of the industry, she’s just a regular homemaker.”

A beat.

“I say ‘homemaker’ but she doesn’t clean, cook or do the laundry,” he laughed. “But she’s a genius wife and I’m like her marionette. I just listen to what she says.”

His wife isn’t the only helping hand in the family. Explained Fukuda, “I went into my eldest son’s room looking for something, and found 5 volumes of the Disastrous Life of Saiki Kusuo manga. My son only ever read One Piece, but there were these 5 volumes. I started reading and found it to be really funny and compelling. And I could tell from the visuals that Kento Yamazaki would be perfect for the part.”

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©Mance Thompson

As knowledgeable as he is about American TV, Fukuda did not grow up in the US, and when a prominent entertainment journalist drew clever connections between scenes in the film and the actions of Wile E. Coyote and Road Runner, and between a character played by the great comic actor Murotsuyoshi and Gene Wilder, circa Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, the director said he was pleased, but did not have such homages in mind.

After being told by one attendee that Psychic Kusuo might be considered a bit over the top in the West, Fukuda said, “I think there are two types of comedy, the first being a straightforward ‘well-made’ comedy and the other being slapstick. Billy Wilder’s films were ‘well-made’ comedies, and certain prestigious directors have followed in his footsteps in Japan, such as Koki Mitani. I’m on the other end of the spectrum, and there aren't many who do gag comedy in Japan. Since I was heavily influenced by American comedies, my films have a strong parody aspect. For some reason, we don’t we do much parody in Japan, either.”

But he also insisted that the Japanese audience is “literate” in both types of comedy, and that he doesn’t “look down on or over-explain or dumb down my comedy for the audience. I trust them to get it.”

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Fukuda has fun in the FCCJ photo gallery. ©Mance Thompson

For the past decade or so, every project Fukuda has touched has turned to gold. Big studios line up to work with him, while eminent actors gamely deliver his brilliantly inane dialog and tackle his inspired physical gags. And his legion of followers? They’re the all-important youth demographic (and the millions who never quite grew up). They clearly can’t get enough of him.

In short, no one has his finger on the Cool Japan comedy zeitgeist quite like Fukuda. It seems impossible that he won’t get a shot at US glory. But in the meantime, he is remaking a US romantic comedy hit and will soon begin adapting the popular “Saint Young Men” manga.

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©SHUICHI ASO / SHUEISHA 2017 “Psychic Kusuo” FILM PARTNERS

Press Coverage

RADIANCE (Hikari)


RADIANCE Special Screening and TIFF Panel


October 3, 2017

Guests: Director Naomi Kawase, TIFF Festival Director Takeo Hisamatsu
and Japan Now advisor Kohei Ando
 


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Ando, Kawase and Hisamatsu react to a pointed question during the Japan Now session.    ©Mance Thompson

Making her first appearance at FCCJ in 10 years (but not for our lack of trying), Cannes Film Festival favorite Naomi Kawase laughed with delight when a journalist asked her, “What’s your impression of the last 29 installments of the Tokyo International Film Festival? And please, do be frank.”

Kawase was at FCCJ to talk about her participation in this year’s festival, where she will deliver a Master Class and field questions following a screening of her Palm d’Or nominee, Radiance. Everyone knew TIFF wasn’t her usual stomping grounds. After the laughter died down, the room held its breath.

“Something unattainable,” she began, then paused. “Since I was born and raised in Nara, I always had the impression that Tokyo was so filled with bright lights and so unattainable to me. It seemed so distant and so inaccessible. TIFF is one of the major international film festivals, and it seemed out of reach. But being able to participate in Japan Now this year, and hearing about all the other films that are being shown, I’m starting to feel it’s more accessible.”

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Kawase is the only Japanese filmmaker selected for Cannes seven times. This will be her first film in TIFF.      ©FCCJ

TIFF’s Japan Now Programming Advisor Kohei Ando was sitting next to Kawase, and hastened to follow up. “TIFF has always tried to include the brilliant films of master directors like Hirokazu Kore-eda and Ms. Kawase in the past,” he explained, “but because of the timing of the festival, late in the year, they always appeared at Cannes and other earlier festivals. This is why we created Japan Now: to showcase their work each year, without [worrying about] a world premiere.”

Ando and Kawase were joined on the dais by TIFF Festival Director Takeo Hisamatsu, taking over the reigns of the venerable festival from Yasushi Shiina for TIFF's 30th anniversary edition. The Film Committee has been cohosting events with TIFF for nearly a decade, and this year’s panel began with Hisamatsu, who provided an overview of festival highlights. Hisamatsu is a veteran of four decades in the industry, a producer of many award-winning titles, and a former top executive at Shochiku and Warner Bros. Pictures Japan. He has been busy expanding the diversity of programming, as well as lining up some tasty treats to celebrate the past, present and future of TIFF. He quickly mentioned several: the Midnight Film Festival (10 filmmakers addressing 6 different themes on 6 screens, running all night), Cinema Arena 30 (outdoor screenings of 28 vintage films, with bountiful food carts and blankets), the Godzilla Cinema Concerts (the original 1954 film accompanied by live orchestra), and the annual Special Night Event at Kabukiza (Ebizo Ichikawa preforming live plus the digitally remastered classic, The Gate of Hell).

Hisamatsu then elaborated, “Especially worth noting is the Japan Now section, which we consider to be especially important because it introduces the world to contemporary Japanese cinema. This is the third edition of the section, and all the films in the lineup, including Ms. Kawase’s Radiance, are sure to be entering the [year-end] awards race. In the past two years, Japan Now has featured a special Director in Focus. This year, we are instead highlighting four actresses, the Muses of Japanese Cinema, chosen because they have so inspired directors: Sakura Ando, Yu Aoi, Hikari Mitsushima and Aoi Miyazaki. I hope you will enjoy the outstanding films at the 30th TIFF.”

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Hisamatsu is helming his first TIFF (©FCCJ).  Ando returns for his third outstanding Japan Now program.  ©Mance Thompson

Japan Now’s Kohei Ando followed up with a description of the section’s bountiful offerings, ranging from Hirokazu Kore-eda’s acclaimed The Third Murder to a new masterwork from veteran arthouse maestro Nobuhiko Obayashi, Hanagatami. The section will showcase not only films starring the four muses, but also by four female directors. He enthused, “We will be showing two films for each of the four actresses, all of which have marked important turning points in their careers, and we’ll be holding special talk events with the actresses and directors after the screenings.”

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©Mance Thompson (left), ©Koichi Mori (right)

Ando proceeded to unveil an impressive roster of further guests: Along with Kawase, Kore-eda and Obayashi, directors Shunji Iwai (Hana and Alice), Momoko Ando (0.5mm), Lee Sang-il (Rage), Yang Yonghi (Our Homeland), Kei Ishikawa (Traces of Sin), Shinji Aoyama (Eureka), Masaaki Yuasa (The Night Is Short, Walk on Girl), Daihachi Yoshida (A Beautiful Star) and Michio Koshikawa (Life and Death on the Shore) will appear, as will Hanagatami star Takako Tokiwa.

Asked to divulge details about her Master Class, Kawase said, “First of all, I would like to congratulate [TIFF] on its 30th anniversary, because that’s a major accomplishment. I’m organizing the Nara International Film Festival in my hometown, which will turn five next year. So I really recognize what an immense feat it is to keep a film festival running. I think it’s a lot like life and like filmmaking in many respects, because we have to overcome so many hurdles to survive. Festivals are such hard work, so once again, congratulations to TIFF.

“I do not separate my life from my filmmaking,” she continued. “Filmmaking is my life. So in my TIFF Master Class, I would like to touch on a few examples of what emerging filmmakers might do to fuse their lives with their filmmaking. That will probably be my theme.”

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The panelists share another moment of mirth.  ©Mance Thompson

Kawase fondly recalled her earliest festival experiences and concluded, “Festivals are wonderful, because they are platforms for people from many nationalities who bring their films, come together, communicate, and take that back to their homelands. Then they come together again at a different festival. They help us overcome cultural differences and they motivate me as a filmmaker.”

The evening continued with a special screening of Kawase’s Radiance, her fifth film in the Cannes official competition and winner of the Ecumenical Jury Prize, before the writer-director returned for a vastly satisfying Q&A session — with the types of questions one might expect from a European arthouse audience. (Bravo, FCCJ Film Night regulars!)

Radiance is a luminous meditation on loss and salvation, and on the power of art to transform our lives. “Nothing is more beautiful than what disappears before our eyes,” says one of Kawase’s characters, and the line serves both as a metaphor for the film’s story and for cinema itself.

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©2017 “RADIANCE” FILM PARTNERS/KINOSHITA、COMME DES CINEMAS、KUMIE

Misako Ozaki (Ayame Misaki) writes audio commentary for visually impaired filmgoers, and as Radiance opens, her words are the subject of scrutiny from a focus group following a test screening session. The participants offer specific suggestions for improving her script, which is too wordy by far. Only one of them is downright rude about it. “It’s intrusive,” he barks, suggesting she’s robbing them of their own imaginations, and questions her competence. He is Masaya Nakamori (Masatoshi Nagase) a famed photographer who has slowly been losing his sight. Fate will continue to bring the two together, and despite his abrasiveness, Misako will soon find that Nakamori is a kindred spirit.

Both are lost souls — she, since the disappearance of her father and the progression of her mother’s dementia; he, as he loses his calling and his ex-wife prepares to remarry. Nakamori’s photographs, taken on an ancient Rolleiflex, entrance Misako, particularly one of the sun setting behind the mountains. It will eventually solve a mystery from her past. As both emerge, tentatively, from the limbos in which they’ve been living, they learn to see the world through each other’s eyes. In Kawase’s images, it is radiant.

Kawase was asked first how she came up with such an unusual setting for her film. “We had to make an audio guide for An/Sweet Bean, my last film,” she responded, and that’s how I first discovered it. When they showed me the dialog list for the guide, I was very moved by the words. Cinema is essentially visual, but for someone who is visually impaired, words are needed. The way they used the words, the way they described the scenes, were so beautiful. I had the idea that, if I had a protagonist who was doing this kind of work, I could express my love for cinema.”

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Kawase returned to field questions after the screening of her latest Cannes Palm d'Or nominee.  ©Koichi Mori (left), ©Mance Thompson (right)

Pointing out that Misako asks a film director in Radiance whether one of his characters is simply a projection of himself, one audience member asked, “Is this film itself a projection of yourself?” Answered Kawase, “After An/Sweet Bean was a commercial success, I was having a hard time figuring out what I really wanted to depict in my next film. I finally felt that I wanted to depict film itself as the core theme, because filmmaking is so intertwined with the way I live. In depicting my love for cinema, I’ve been able to project myself into the film.”

Asked about the “themes of disability and decrepitude” in her last two films, and how she sees the relation of art to physical breakdown, Kawase said, “I think creators, including filmmakers, are always looking for what’s missing within ourselves. By doing this, we come to realizations that help us grow. For me, being able to make films has enriched my life immensely. Films generally tend to shine a light on things that are to be celebrated or glorified, but I want to shine a light on people who aren’t usually depicted, and on that which is still in the dark or unknowable.”

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Ando, Kawase and Hisamatsu with the TIFF poster, featuring images shot by Mika Ninagawa.  ©Mance Thompson

Another audience member asked about the recurring image of a woman lost in the forest in several of her films, including Radiance, and the role of nature. “I think of nature and the natural landscape as a protagonist in my films. I believe there is nature, and within it, there is mankind. That’s how I see the world, and that’s the approach I take to my filmmaking. I think the natural landscape is sometimes more eloquent than words.”

Discussing her two leads, Kawase said, “I’d worked with Mr. Nagase on An/Sweet Bean, and when we took the film to Cannes, we talked about doing another film together. He’s a photographer in his own right, and I knew he could bring a realism to the role of a photographer losing his sight. I had him live in the apartment in Nara for a while before we shot there, and he wore goggles that impaired his sight. As for Ms. Misaki, I found her to be a very strong-willed, determined woman, especially on hearing about her suffering related to the [1995 Kobe] Earthquake.”

But after an audience member commented that she’d found Misaki to be “perhaps too young to portray the emotional depth” required of the character, Kawase admitted that had been her intention in casting her. “I felt she needed a little more depth, she wasn’t quite there yet,” said the director. “What you’re seeing in the scene with the audio guide [focus group] is based on a guide script that I had Ms. Misaki actually write herself, and her tears are real tears. I wanted to depict a girl who has a limited perspective and is thinking only about herself at first.”

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©Mance Thompson

A professional photographer wondered how Nagase’s character could have let go of his Leica camera in one pivotal scene, since they’re so expensive, and it's clear that the character cannot possibly live without it. “The idea behind that,” explained Kawase, “is that if you rid yourself of that which is most valuable to you, you make room for something even more valuable to come in.”

Finally, she was asked about her new film, currently in production in Nara and tentatively titled Vision. It stars Nagase again, as well as the celebrated French actress Juliette Binoche, making her first film in Japan. “It’s so exciting,” said Kawase, in English. “Working with Juliette is wonderful. She’s an amazing actress and has exceeded my expectations. One of the most wonderful things about her is her ability to improvise. She gives so much more than the script provides. She spends days and days trying to inhabit the character. She’s playing a woman named Jean, and she [created a backstory] about what her parents were like, where she studied, why she came to Japan. I always ask my actors to inhabit the location where their character lives prior to shooting, but I didn’t have to ask Juliette. She’d already done her homework. I felt like, finally I’ve met a [complete] actress.”

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Kawase with Ando and renowned film critic Reiko Kitagawa.  ©Koichi Mori

And then she raised goosebumps around the room, sharing a bittersweet memory from this year’s Cannes: “At the closing ceremony, Juliette was the presenter of the Palm d’Or. As Mr. [Pedro] Almodovar [who was head of the jury] was about to speak, she stopped him and said, ‘Cinema is light.’ She said ‘light’ in every language that she knew, including 'lumiere,' so I erroneously thought, ‘Maybe I’m going to win the Palm for my film!’ To be able to talk with her in Nara, just three months later, about how cinema is light and love, is quite miraculous to me.”

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ERNESTO


ERNESTO


September 19, 2017
Q&A guests: Director Junji Sakamoto and star Joe Odagiri


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Writer-director Junji Sakamoto and his star, Joe Odagiri, crack up during the photo call.    ©Mance Thompson

At least three generations of Japanese have grown up wearing t-shirts emblazoned with the iconic image of Ernesto “Che” Guevara, the Argentinian physician, author and Marxist revolutionary. But few of them know about Guevara’s controversial exploits, and fewer still know that a Japanese-Bolivian fought with him — and died, as did Che, in a CIA-assisted ambush in Bolivia — 50 years ago this October.

Junji Sakamoto’s new film, Ernesto, pays tribute to that man, Freddy Maemura Hurtado, a second-generation immigrant who became radicalized while in Cuba pursuing medical studies. Inspired by “The Samurai of the Revolution,” a novelized biography penned by Maemura’s sister Mary, Sakamoto has created a work that is at once Cold War history, coming-of-age story, compelling relationship drama and cautionary tale.

The project began when Sakamoto (The Projects, The Human Trust) came across the story of Maemura Hurtado, and was deeply impressed that he had followed his convictions so completely throughout his (tragically short) life. Realizing that he would do best to coproduce the film with a Cuban production company, thus gaining access to the island’s locations and local talent pool, he set about putting together the first Japan-Cuba coproduction since 1969 (not counting one documentary). Almost entirely in Spanish, the film is perfectly timed to mark the anniversaries of Che’s and Freddy’s deaths.

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Sakamoto's films frequently feature scenes in languages other than Japanese, but this is the first
that is almost completely in another language.      ©Mance Thompson, ©FCCJ (top right)

Ernesto opens with a historic 1959 scene, shot in Hiroshima. Just months after the Cuban Revolution resulted in the ousting of US-backed dictator Fulgencio Batista, Che Guevara (dead ringer Juan Miguel Valero Acosta) visits Japan in his role as a trade diplomat for the new communist government. Without notifying his hosts at the Foreign Ministry, he goes to the Hiroshima Peace Memorial Park to pay his respects. Then he turns to a Japanese journalist (Kento Nagayama) who has followed him there. “Why aren’t you angry at the Americans?” he demands. “They have done such a horrendous thing to you.” It is a question that hangs heavily over the entire film.

During the Q&A session after the FCCJ screening, Sakamoto was first asked whether that visit had taken place, and why he’d included it in the film. “It’s a fact that Che Guevara visited Hiroshima and laid flowers at the Peace Memorial cenotaph,” responded the director. “It’s also a fact that Freddy went to Cuba for his medical studies, and not long after, the Cuban Missile Crisis began. I wanted to juxtapose these two events, and through them, to pose questions about nuclear warfare.”

He continued, “During the missile crisis, Che was probably the only one who had been to Hiroshima and had memories of what nuclear warfare could do. That must have been at the back of his mind.”

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Che and Freddy in Cuba.  ©2017 “ERNESTO” FILM PARTNERS

Following up, another audience member asked about the lines (quoted above) that Che speaks to the journalist, and how Sakamoto had balanced fact with fictional elements in the film. “That line actually came from the journalist who covered the event, who had been with Che Guevara on that day," responded the director. "All the lines in that scene are factual, and came from the journalist, who was the only one to cover his visit, since no one really knew who he was at the time. He has since passed away, but he made detailed notes about the visit. His family was kind enough to share them with me.”

Sakamoto went on, “I don’t think films should fictionalize events; they must be grounded in reality. We did a lot of interviews and research. I did take liberties as long as they were fact-based. Sometimes it’s necessary to take liberties in order to better depict the atmosphere or the spirit of the historical [time].”

Considering today’s constant North Korean missile "tests" and Donald Trump's chest-beating, did Sakamoto intend to play up the looming danger of war by delving into the complicated Cold War-era proxy wars in his screenplay?

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Odagiri spent 4 months mastering his Spanish lines, as well as the correct body language.  ©Mance Thompson

“The approach I took was to tell the story of one individual,” said Sakamoto. “There are, of course, Hollywood movies like 13 Days, that depict the Cuban Missile Crisis. But I wanted to depict this medical student who arrived in Cuba and experienced the crisis, but wasn’t ‘in the know.’ The students weren’t given a lot of information, and they were later angry that the US and Soviet Union had negotiated without [Cuban] involvement.”

Ernesto’s “one individual,” Freddy Maemura Hurtado, was born in Trinidad, Bolivia to a well-to-do Japanese father from Kagoshima Prefecture and a Bolivian mother, and he was determined from childhood to become a doctor so he could treat the poor. In 1962, Maemura (Joe Odagiri, nearly unrecognizable as a very studious young man) arrives in Fidel Castro’s Cuba to study not only medicine but also the “spirit of liberty and equality.” Yet classes are soon disrupted by the US naval blockade, and the school becomes a barracks for anti-aircraft artillery troops for the duration of the Cuban Missile Crisis. Maemura and his classmates are given the choice of enlisting in the fight against America’s presence, and the young physician’s radicalization begins.

Missile Crisis averted, Maemura continues his studies against the backdrop of the escalating Cold War, and is soon skillful enough to become a lab assistant. He shares his salary with Luisa, a fellow student whom his friend has impregnated but refused to help support, and life seems good. But when civil war breaks out in Bolivia following a US-backed military coup in 1964, he decides to slip back home and join Che Guevara’s revolutionary army there. He visits Che, a fellow physician-turned-rebel, to tell him that he is following Castro’s advice to “follow my heart” about becoming a fighter, rather than a doctor. The guerrilla commander bestows the nom de guerre "Ernesto Medico" on him. Two years later, their fates are forever entwined when deep-jungle ambushes by CIA-backed Bolivian troops capture the men and they are killed within weeks of each other.

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Freddy listens to Castro speak at his medical school.   ©2017 “ERNESTO” FILM PARTNERS

Odagiri (Bright Future, Over the Fence) disappears completely into the role of Freddy, aided by convincing makeup, and delivers a slow-burn, career-best performance. One of Japan’s tiny handful of truly international stars, he is surely the only Japanese actor who has tackled roles in every major language but Italian. Here, he speaks entirely in Bolivian-accented Spanish.

Admitting it was one of his most challenging to date, the actor responded to a question about preparing for the role: “Thank you for that question. I’d wanted to have a drink before this press conference, but I refrained. I’m so glad I did, because I’m so ready to give a very serious answer. The way I approached the Spanish was not just to memorize the lines, but to be able to act in Spanish. For that, I sought the help of my [mostly Cuban] costars. I had three or four very kind costars who spent hours and hours with me, helping me mold this character.

“They each had their own visions of what Freddy would talk like in certain scenes, and they would read the dialogue for me. So I would ask them, ‘In this situation, how would he say this line?’ They showed me many possibilities, a full range of tones, and I then discussed different approaches to each scene with the director. With foreign languages, there are issues with [pronunciation], where to take a breath and the rhythm of the speech. It was all really complicated, and I’m so thankful to my costars, who I heavily relied on. Without their help, I wouldn’t have been able to make this character so well-defined.”

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©FCCJ

Pointing out that Odagiri’s first lead, in Kiyoshi Kurosawa's Bright Future, ends with a scene in which aimless young men sporting matching Che Guevara t-shirts kick garbage along a Tokyo street, an audience member asked about the actor’s personal connection to Che. “I hadn’t thought about that last scene, thank you for reminding me,” Odagiri laughed. “When I decided to take this role, I told my circle of friends about it and they all said, ‘Are you playing Che?’ They probably didn’t think it was such an outrageous idea. One reason might be that I usually grow a beard and have unkempt hair. I do actually have a Che Guevara poster on my wall, and I have Che t-shirts, as well.”

Sakamoto had high praise for the film’s Cuban producers. “When we took this project to them,” he explained, “they said yes right away. We asked if there was any sensitivity with [a Japanese production] depicting this time period on film — since there are no Cuban films depicting this decade — and they kindly took it on as their own project, as well.”

For all its heavy political overtones, the director made it clear that the theme is one of commitment and optimism: “The name of the film, Ernesto, is not just Che Guevara’s name, it also has a meaning: someone who is very earnest… someone who has a goal and is adamant about obtaining it. I think that's an important message. Whether you’re involved in political activities or just going about your day-to-day life, it’s important to have a goal, and to have unwavering faith as you strive to achieve it.”

Freddy Maemura’s remains, which were missing until 1999, are now laid to rest alongside Guevara’s in Santa Clara, Cuba. Ernesto ends with footage of Maemura family members visiting the site, to thank Freddy for “inspiring millions of revolutionary doctors with your dream,” and becoming a role model for succeeding generations.

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A WHALE OF A TALE


A WHALE OF A TALE
(Okujirasama: Futatsu no Seigi no Monogatari)


September 5, 2017
Q&A guests: Director Megumi Sasaki and researcher Jay Alabaster


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Director Megumi Sasaki returned for a third time to FCCJ, with researcher Jay Alabaster, her alter ego in the documentary.   ©FCCJ

There are few FCCJ members who don’t remember our overflow screening of Louis Psihoyos’ The Cove in 2009, the first Japan showing of the now-infamous documentary that depicted, in gruesome detail, the annual dolphin capture and slaughter in the tiny village of Taiji, Wakayama Prefecture. The film would go on to win the Oscar for Best Documentary, and to have an enormous impact on international public opinion regarding Japan, creating an Us vs. Them mentality, pitting environmentalists against traditionalists, and allowing no space for a dialogue to develop.

Encouraged by social media-savvy activists, protestors began pouring into Taiji every September during hunting season for the next 8 years. The swarming presence of angry outsiders, and their frequent verbal attacks on fishermen — who had been vilified in The Cove — compounded the travails of locals and exacerbated any chance for a rapport. With the rallying cry on both sides reduced to a too-simple pro- or anti-whaling stance, the situation soon devolved into cultural warfare.

Yet their efforts did not put an end to the dolphin cull — or to whaling, although most Japanese eat neither dolphin nor whale meat.

Onto this battleground stepped New York-based Megumi Sasaki, who followed the protests in Taiji for 6 years, and has created what is perhaps the first unbiased, nuanced portrait of the ongoing controversy. Rather than recreating the tense drama of The Cove to provide a Japan-defending “corrective,” she set about capturing the current reality on both sides of the yawning divide. Sasaki’s resulting A Whale of a Tale does not issue a call to action, but rather, to understanding.

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                                                                                                                                                            Both ©Koichi Mori

The film is quite different from Sasaki’s first two theatrical features, both of which she brought to FCCJ, the award-winning Herb & Dorothy (2008), about legendary New York art collectors Herb and Dorothy Vogel, and the follow-up, Herb & Dorothy 50X50 (2013). Drawing on her years as a news reporter and field producer for NHK and other Japanese broadcasters, Sasaki was able alight with confidence in Taiji, and to develop relationships of trust with both the fishermen and the activists. (Alabaster calls her "a force of nature" and lauds her interpersonal skills; Sasaki chalks it up to "a lot of shochu.")

In the Q&A following the screening of her documentary, Sasaki explained, “I saw The Cove in New York and I was really surprised at how it portrayed [Taiji]. It seemed to be extremely one-sided, without any understanding of Japanese ideas about nature and the relationship between people, nature and animals. Living in New York for almost 30 years, I always wondered why [the Japanese] always just show one side of issues. In the US, we always see both sides, whether it’s gun control or abortion or any other issue — except the whaling issue.

“When I saw The Cove, I felt like I needed to make a film. It stuck in my throat like a little fish bone, as the Japanese expression goes. Documentary can be very powerful and influential. It’s usually used to expose the wrongdoings of those in power: the government or the big corporations. But when the camera is pointed at the fishermen in a little village by a big Hollywood powerhouse, I didn’t feel that was fair at all. I thought their voices should be represented somehow. My intention was not to make a pro-whaling movie. Whether it’s right or wrong, I wanted to leave the answer to the audience."

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©A Whale of A Tale Project

A Whale of a Tale begins by reminding us of the salient facts — many of which have become lost in the constant scuffle between the fishermen and the activists. Organized whaling began in Taiji, south of Nara, in 1606. For the fishermen, hunting is thus not only a way of life, but their very identity. Catching whales, dolphins and other fish has supported generations of families and fueled the town’s economy for 400 years.

For the activists, on the other hand, whales and dolphins are not fish but intelligent mammals, and they equate hunting them with the slave trade, fox hunting or bullfighting — all cultural practices that have been abolished or mitigated in modern times. As the fall hunting season begins, we see activists and news crews pouring in from abroad, wielding binoculars and cameras (sometimes quite violently) as they livestream footage of “atrocities” committed in Taiji, overwhelming the locals and the town’s infrastructure. Vans of right-wingers harass them via loudspeakers while others look on in dismay.

The film introduces us to the local whalers and several of the global protesters who have returned each year, including Ric O’Barry, head of the Dolphin Project and outspoken “star” of The Cove. But Sasaki’s wisest decision is to focus the film on the activities of two mediators who provide illuminating perspectives: American journalist and researcher Jay Alabaster, who moved to Taiji in 2013 and has devoted years to befriending and earning the trust of locals; and Atsushi Nakahira, a nationalist who taught himself English so he could communicate with the protestors. An unexpected peacemaker, he eventually succeeds in bringing the two sides together for a public debate.

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©A Whale of A Tale Project

If A Whale of a Tale doesn’t quite turn us all into neutral observers, it moves us closer. Sasaki’s lasting achievement is that the film recasts the ugly ideological impasse as one of globalism vs. localism — something we can all understand, irrespective of background. Still, one of the documentary’s inescapable conclusions is that Japan would likely have banned whaling by now if foreign protests had not been so relentless and aggressive.

The film’s release couldn’t come at a better time: Just a week ago, as a new season was set to begin in Taiji, the Sea Shepherd anti-whaling group suddenly announced that it was suspending its protests against Japan after 12 years of disruptions, including those in Taiji.

But Sasaki pointed out that the protests had been decreasing already since 2015: “This is the third year in a row that we’ve seen very few protesters in Taiji,” she told the FCCJ crowd. “This is directly the result of local police efforts. They have been taking down passport numbers, and when the activists try to come back to Japan, they are refused entry. At least that’s what I heard. [We see this happening to Ric O’Barry in the film.] A lot of activists were there from the Dolphin Project and Sea Shepherd, but both groups have been having a hard time for the last few years. But it doesn’t mean that their activism has slowed down. They’ve had big demonstrations in front of Japanese embassies and consulates overseas, so they just changed their strategies.”

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                                                                                                                                                                           Both ©Koichi Mori

Joining Sasaki during the Q&A was Alabaster, the former Tokyo-based AP correspondent who was sent down to Taiji right after the release of The Cove and found his calling. He is now a Taiji-based PhD candidate at Arizona State University, and as we saw him doing in the film, he is continuing to help the fishermen boost their media literacy.

He emphasized, “Groups like Sea Shepherd are run like a business. They put their resources where they think they can get the most attention. So if they’re pulling out, then it’s because the attention they can get there has decreased a little.”

“We live in a world where people with access to the internet and social media have a louder voice,” said Sasaki. “We hear a voice, whether it’s right or wrong, and if it’s extreme, it reaches even further and sounds better to many people. But people with no access, like the fishermen in Taiji, their voice is diminished. We rarely hear from them. I think this is a very concerning issue.”

Alabaster interjected, “It starts with respect. Even if you disagree with someone, you can still respect them.”

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©A Whale of A Tale Project

Continued Sasaki, “The world is becoming very intolerant. People tend to be mean and vicious, and easily attack one another online. Digital media has a lot to do with that. Anybody can raise their voice anonymously and find an audience.”

Mentioning the scenes of Alabaster showing Taiji locals how to use Facebook and Twitter, a journalist asked him about his vision for giving a more balanced view of the issue. “It doesn’t come off as fair to me,” responded Alabaster. “The protesters are media professionals. They’re very good at what they do, they have a lot of experience. If you’re going to have a debate, I think something should be said on the Japanese side. I’m working now on something — hopefully we’ll have it soon — a way for the fishermen to express themselves in English, to say where they’re coming from. I don’t know if you’ve been on Facebook, but there’s a pocket of it that is filled with hatred and meanness. If we can have a little bit more exchange of opinions, an online Q&A in English or a weekly blog with the fishermen, it could really help, for a start.”

One journalist in the audience, impressed that a “rightwing activist” in the film was acting as a negotiator, wondered about the position of rightists in Taiji.

“Nakahira is very unique,” said Sasaki. “He was the only person trying to communicate with the Sea Shepherd members. I was hesitant to talk to him at first, since [the nationalists] could cause trouble. But when I approached him, he was very friendly, made a lot of sense and emphasized the importance of dialogue. I thought he could be a good voice. We rarely hear what nationalists think in the conventional media.”

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Sasaki admitted that although she had set out to give the fishermen a voice on the international stage, “as I continued my research, there were many questionable practices from the Japanese side, for example, the government presenting this issue as one of tradition and culture. I was first trying to portray the bigger whaling issues: what’s happening with whaling in the southern oceans and Japanese research whaling, which have been targets of fierce criticism by the international community. But I discovered that what’s happening in Taiji is much more interesting — issues of why we cannot understand each other, why we cannot communicate, why we cannot respect other cultures. So I expanded the film’s themes to reflect what’s happening in the world today.”
 
She also noted, “One thing I found out about the meaning of tradition is that it’s very different between Japan and the West. For Japanese, tradition is extremely important. They believe that whatever has continued for a long time has to continue in the future, too. Tradition is valued heavily in Japan. In the West, as Scott West of Sea Shepherd mentioned in the film, just because it’s continued for a long time doesn’t mean it’s good, like slavery. If it doesn’t fit in today’s society, it should be abolished. That’s the Western way of thinking.

“For the people in Taiji, living with whales and whaling is their identity. It’s not just about food or economic activities, it’s their identity and their pride. I don’t think either side is right or wrong, it’s just a different approach … As former Mayor Goro Shoji says in the film, ‘Taiji has been and will always be living with whales. Depending on the time, we might catch them and eat them as food, or transform the city as an academic center for whale and dolphin research.’”

To a question concerning high mercury levels in dolphin meat, which was a major point of contention in The Cove, which highlighted how children are served “toxic” meat in school lunches, Alabaster commented, “Things will work themselves out [between the town’s existing factions]. Parents obviously want their children to be healthy. But when you add this incredible element of pressure, when someone who doesn’t speak any Japanese comes in and starts hammering, then those conversations have stopped within the town. If you complain [about dolphin in school lunches], then you’ll be grouped with the foreigners.”

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                                                                                                                       ©FCCJ

Sasaki added, “They’ve done a lot of research into the health effects of mercury, and we touched on that just a little in the film, reporting that the levels there turned out to be 4 times higher than the Japanese average. But none of the [townspeople] have suffered any health effects. The mayor was ready to give up the tradition if their health was damaged. But there were no health effects found in the adults, apparently because of the selenium, which appears to detoxify the mercury. In The Cove, they say these mercury levels are hidden by a media conspiracy, but no, it’s open information.”

As A Whale of a Tale makes clear even in its clever title, whaling is an issue that has been increasingly misrepresented. “I think it’s an issue of globalism vs. localism, not Japan vs. the West,” said Sasaki. “Global standards and values are clashing with local traditions and values all over the world. In Japan, [whaling] is causing nationalist sentiments, even though not every Japanese supports whaling or dolphin hunting. Only 30 – 40 grams per person per year of whale meat is consumed. So if you say that eating whale is Japanese food culture, it’s not correct.”

Alabaster summarized the ongoing controversy in terms that many of his fellow Americans could relate to: “The efforts of the whaling industry to survive and make itself relevant in Japan have been greatly aided by the Sea Shepherd. Everyone has their motivations, but if you went to any little town in America and without speaking English, told them to stop using guns, you would get exactly the same reaction.”

But Sasaki admitted that she doesn’t think the issue will ever quite go away. “It’s no longer an environmental movement,” she said, “it’s now become an animal rights movement, which is way more powerful and active.”

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©A Whale of A Tale Project

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SEKIGAHARA


SEKIGAHARA


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


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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.

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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.

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©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.

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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.”

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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.”

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                         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.”

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  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.”

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                                                                                                                       ©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.”

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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.”

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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?”

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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.)

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©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.”

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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.”

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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.

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©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


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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.

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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.”

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©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.”

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©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.

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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.

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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.

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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.”

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©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.”

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©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.”

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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

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©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.

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 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.”

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                                       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.

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                 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.”

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                             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!”

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                                                           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.”

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                                                                                                                                            ©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

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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


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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.

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                     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.”

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©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.

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©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.”

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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?”

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                     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

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