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ERNESTO


ERNESTO


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


Sakamoto OdagiriMance Thompson copy
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.

Odagiri-2Mance Thompson   Sakamoto-3Mance Thompson

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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.”

Sakamoto Odagiri posterFCCJ
©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.

poster2017 ERNESTO FILM PARTNERS
  ©2017 “ERNESTO” FILM PARTNERS

Selected Press Coverage

Selected TV Exposure

  • 日本テレビ ZIP!SHOWBIZ TODAY オダギリジョー 異国の地で悪戦苦闘

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.”

Jay AlabasterKoichi Mori-13   Megumi SasakiKoichi Mori-22  
                                                                                                                                                                           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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                                                                                              ©FCCJ

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.”

Megumi and JayFCCJ-2
                                                                                                                       ©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.”

 okjrsm poster
©A Whale of A Tale Project

Selected Press Coverage

 

 

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