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SENNAN ASBESTOS DISASTER


SENNNAN ASBESTOS DISASTER
(Nipponkoku vs. Sennan Ishiwata mura)


Feb 13, 2018
Q&A guest: Director Kazuo Hara


Asbestos-KM-11
The legendary director turns his focus on multiple protagonists in his new masterwork. ©Koichi Mori

Environmental catastrophes have become the regular stuff of Hollywood blockbusters, as well as the focus of serious consideration in documentary films.

Kazuo Hara's Sennan Asbestos Disaster falls into the latter category, and although it has already received accolades on the international festival circuit - including the Best Asian Documentary Award upon its premiere at the 2017 Busan International Film Festival, and coveted Audience Awards at the Yamagata International Documentary Film Festival and Tokyo FILMeX International Film Festival - it deserves a wider audience.

Everyone now knows that asbestos is toxic, that countless millions around the world have been exposed to it, and that many have died from the lung cancers, mesotheliomas and respiratory ailments caused by significant exposure. 

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The legal team announces good news outside the Supreme Court of Japan. © Shissoh Production

But few realize that the deadly material has been banned outright in just 55 nations, not including China, Russia, India, Brazil, Canada (although a ban is expected this year) and the United States. In the US, up to 1% of a product may legally contain the harmful substance, thus continuing to endanger workers in such high-risk jobs as construction, firefighting and military service, among others.

Sennan Asbestos Disaster is one of the first films to closely chronicle the prolonged struggles of former asbestos workers and their families in Japan. Hara spent 8 years following them as they grappled with their ticking time-bomb diseases while awaiting the outcome of class-action lawsuits against the government for its culpability in their shortened lifespans.

A firebrand whose work often takes aim at the Powers That Be, Hara has been making what he calls "action documentaries" since 1972, collaborating closely with a forceful protagonist on each, and creating work that is both intensely personal and formally daring. Through these "characters with an edge," he has challenged traditional perceptions, confronted social injustices, shed light on issues too long in the dark, broken taboos and continually nudged viewers out of their comfort zones.

sennan sub 02Plaintiffs demonstrate outside the Ministry of Health. © Shissoh Production

In his first film, Goodbye CP (1972), his handicapped protagonist forced us to reconsider the relationship between the able-bodied and the disabled; in Extreme Private Eros: Love Song 1974, his protagonist was Hara's ex-wife, a crusading feminist, bisexual and mother of an interracial child with an American GI; in The Emperor's Naked Army Marches On (1987), his protagonist was a former soldier who relentlessly hounded his superior officers, demanding they be held accountable for their actions in World War II; in A Dedicated Life (1994), his protagonist was the controversial novelist and communist Mitsuharu Inoue.

With Sennan Asbestos Disaster, Hara has his first-ever group protagonist: the "normal people" who lived and worked in Osaka's Sennan district. Yet despite an expansive cast of characters and a nearly 4-hour running time, he manages to portray them as fully-rounded individuals, and to infuse their tragedy with gentle humor and a winningly empathetic warmth.

As helpful graphics inform us at the beginning of the film, Sennan was an erstwhile "asbestos village" that once hosted the largest number of asbestos factories in Japan. The district flourished from the late Meiji through the Showa periods (1868-1989), boasting over 200 processing plants at its peak, and lured thousands of uneducated job-seekers from the Japanese and Korean countrysides.

Although the Japanese government was well aware of the health hazards involved for many decades, it continued to prioritize economic development above human health long after other nations had ceased manufacturing the material, and neglected to implement either health regulations or countermeasures.

 sub 01
Plaintiff Miyoko Sato, whose husband, Kenichi, died from asbestos exposure. © Shissoh Production

In 2006, 31 Sennan plaintiffs filed suit against the government seeking compensation for irreversible damages to their health, and Hara began covering meetings of the Citizen's Group for Sennan Asbestos Damage, founded by Kazuyoshi Yuoka. Yuoka previously managed an asbestos factory started by his grandfather, and his own guilt motivates him to occasional extremes during the course of the trials.

One watches Sennan Asbestos Factory on the edge of the seat, with a mounting sense of despair as the government wages a war of attrition against the ailing plaintiffs. As the years stretch on — punctuated by minor victories in court, but no admission of responsibility nor compensation — many of the plaintiffs will gradually succumb, not surviving to see their own suits through. 

Eventually, the Supreme Court rules that the government must compensate the victims, but caps the liability period at 1971, although asbestos was used in Japan from 1900 - 2006 and the first dangers were recognized in 1957.  

Asbestos-KM-1   Asbestos-KM-5

Asbestos-KM-12   Asbestos-KM-14
Hara makes points from the dais. © Koichi Mori

During the Q&A session following the screening, an FCCJ member asked how they arrived at the year 1971 - was it because the workers themselves were expected to have known by then? 

Responded Hara, "In this case, and many others, the court has tried to limit who will be compensated, and who not. I think this is an instance of pandering to authority, and trying to maintain the face of the government. At least that's my guess."

Another audience member followed up, saying that he appreciated the film's emotional journey, but that he wondered whether the director felt that judicial decisions and the power of the court should not be subjected to scrutiny by documentarians. Hara sought to disavow him of the notion, explaining, "In Japan, video cameras are not allowed inside the courtroom. It's very difficult to question the fundamental nature of the court [proceedings]. Now that I've finished the film, I realize that intentionally but subconsciously, I probably wanted to depict the Japanese people, the 'commoners,' their pride and their prejudices, and their achievements."

sub 03
Citizen's Group founder and activist Kazuyoshi Yuoka with plaintiff Kazuko Minami.  © Shissoh Production

Noting that the film's subjects had already watched the film "3 or 4 times" during a pre-release run in a theater in Sennan, he continued, "As you mentioned, I did put a lot of emotional weight on these commoners, and whether I could show their emotions interestingly, cinematically, was a bit of [a challenge] for me. You may have seen my film The Emperor's Naked Army Marches On, in which I depicted a man who attacked the emperor alone, a very strong-willed character. You could say that he's as far removed from the common people as you can get. That kind of strong character with an ego is 180 degrees opposite to the protagonists of this new film. I focused on creating an entertaining documentary despite their being so ordinary."

(Hara later added that Kenzo Okuzaki, the government combatant in The Emperor's Naked Army — like the other subjects of his previous documentaries - became famous because of his films. "Until his death," he said, "he was adamantly demanding that I make a sequel.")

Asbestos-KM-16
©Koichi Mori

Hara was asked about the stylistic differences between the two parts of the film, and if they were a result of the progress of the struggle or otherwise. "I've heard from viewers that the two halves give very different impressions," responded the director, "and they've suggested that I provoked things to happen in the second half. It's true that in my previous films, I have actively provoked my subjects. But not this time. This film is edited chronologically [and] because of the course of events, a certain energy arose that came to a head in the latter half of the struggle."

He pauses for effect. "It was as if the sky fell for me. I couldn't believe my ears. I was really angry to hear that. I'm very fond of these common people, but it's something they should never have said. I despise the very goodness of their nature." Another pause. "That is the message of the film."

And he means it, but has put it better previously. On the Japan premiere of Sennan Asbestos Disaster at the 2017 Yamagata International Documentary Film Festival, Hara declared, "With this work, what I wanted to say most was, 'People of Japan, faced with these authorities who do whatever they please, are you just going to sit back and accept it?'" 

sub 06
© Shissoh Production

One imagines that the message may be the same for his next film, about the Minamata mercury poisoning tragedy. "I've been documenting Minamata for the past 12 years," he told the audience, "and it's such a huge problem, it's been difficult for me to focus on one theme. But I'm determined to finish the film, one way or another, by the end of 2018."

To the applause that erupted, he immediately said, "Please don't clap, [it increases the pressure on me]. In the asbestos trials, Mr. Yuoka had very different opinions from the legal counsel on many occasions, but they managed to work together to the very end. When you go to Minamata, however, you see that the people who voice different opinions from the main group are being sidelined and bad-mouthed. There's a hatred in the air. Trying to make a film in that kind of atmosphere, I can only feel this negative energy. So even though you applaud me, and I know I must finish this film one way or another, I'm not feeling very optimistic."

Hara's latest masterwork is a harrowing exploration into the inhumanity of capitalism, colonialism and the state. There is no reason to worry that his next will not measure up. 

Asbestos-KM-18
Hara said he chose to include illustrations in the poster because it would feel more "familiar" to Japanese. ©Koichi Mori 

 

NVA omote
© Shissoh Production 

 

THE SCYTHIAN LAMB


THE SCYTHIAN LAMB (Hitsuji no Ki)


January 31, 2018
Q&A guests: Director Daihachi Yoshida and star Ryo Nishikido


 scythian lamb posterMance-14-a
Nishikido and Yoshida with 2 of the film's 8 main characters (right)   ©Mance Thompson

Who doesn't love being a witness to history - even if we don't realize it until after the fact?

The Film Committee found itself at the center of a historic turning point on January 31, when, following the jam-packed Q&A session for Daihachi Yoshida's new black dramedy The Scythian Lamb, Johnny & Associates officially announced that it was easing restrictions on the use of images on online media. 

As everyone in Japan knows, Johnny's is the largest and most successful management agency for male entertainers, with "boy band" acts like SMAP, Arashi, Hey! Say! JUMP, KinKi Kids, NEWS, Kanjani8 and KAT-TUN, and award-winning actors like Takuya Kimura, Kazunari Ninomiya and Junichi Okada. The agency has long wielded enormous cultural clout, and tightly controlled the use of its talents' images, which appear only in newspapers and magazines.

Because Johnny's actors headline many of the films the FC screens, we had tried numerous times in the past decade to bring Johnny's talent to FCCJ, with no success. When the agency agreed to allow Ryo Nishikido, the star of The Scythian Lamb, to appear at the Q&A following our screening — with photo-taking by journalists allowed — we knew it was a minor triumph.

The icing on the cake was to learn that Johnny's had chosen FCCJ for its watershed moment. Not only had photos of Nishikido been allowed online for the first time — resulting in an ever-expanding flurry of postings — Johnny's then announced that images from all press conferences, interviews and stage greetings involving its stars would now be allowed on news sites online (although limited to 3 images for each site). 

scythian lamb twoKM-3-2-aAn unexpectedly delightful pairing of talent.               ©Koichi Mori

Ryo Nishikido handled his history-making appearance with exceptional poise, greeting the audience with a thoughtfully considered statement in fluent English. After thanking everyone for being there, he said: "This movie made me think about how I would act if someone I didn't know anything about joined my community. Then I realized that it's not just entertaining, but it also reflects social aspects. So I hope this film can give people a chance to think about issues such as depopulation and immigration."

Already a hit on the international festival circuit, and winner of the prestigious Kim Jiseok Award at the 2017 Busan International Film Festival, The Scythian Lamb is arguably Yoshida's most compassionate work yet. While his previous six films (including The Kirishima Thing, Pale Moon and A Beautiful Star) have also been darkly strange dramedies with social relevance, the messages here — not only about rural revitalization through immigration, but also tolerance, forgiveness, friendship and second chances — seem essential for today's Japan. 

Ever spent a few hours in one of Japan's small towns and wondered just what it would take to liven it up a little? What if the government had a secret plan for repopulating such towns, and what if you were in charge of helping newcomers make themselves at home?

hitsuji zMikako Ichikawa helps children bury a favorite pet.  
©2018 "The Scythian Lamb" Film Partners  
©Tatsuhiko Yamagami, Mikio Igarashi/KODANSHA

That's the position Hajime Tsukisue (Nishikido) finds himself in as The Scythian Lamb opens. Tsukisue is a city functionary in (fictional) Uobuka, a down-at-its-heels harbor town somewhere Out There, and he's been assigned to acclimate six strangers - four men, two women - as they arrive a few days apart via planes and trains, all a little dazed.

A model official, Tsukisue goes about the job with friendly efficiency, welcoming each arrival with helpful local factoids. "It's a nice place," he tells them. "Nice people, great seafood." A faded sign proclaims Uobuka: Full of Life, Cheer and Comfort

scythian lamb NishikidoFCCJ-2-a
Nishikido turned the star wattage way down to play Tsukisue.    ©FCCJ

When he asks his first new charge where he's come from, the answer is so odd, he doesn't pose the question again. Tsukisue isn't the curious type, and besides, he's just discovered that his high-school crush, Aya (Fumino Kimura), is back from the big city. It's only later that he learns they're part of a program to release convicted felons who are considered low risk back into society. His boss warns him to breathe a word to no one, since the ex-cons must remain in town for 10 years in exchange for early parole. Feigning broad-mindedness and citing Japan's strict privacy laws as an excuse for the secrecy, he nevertheless warns, "Keep them apart, so they don't conspire." 

Gradually, the newcomers settle in and assimilate into the community. There's Hiroki Fukumoto (Shingo Mizusawa), a timid type who starts apprenticing to a barber; Katsumi Ono (Min Tanaka), a silent type with a bad scar over his eye, who starts working in a dry cleaning shop; Reiko Ota (Yuka), a sexy type who becomes a caregiver in the senior day-care home that Tsukisue's dad frequents; Kiyomi Kurimoto (Mikako Ichikawa), who has a penchant for burying dead birds and fish, and whose methodical work as a janitor leaves something to be desired; Katushi Sugiyama (Kazuki Kitamura), a boisterous fisherman and photographer who is definitely up to something; and the youngest, Ichiro Miyakoshi (Ryuhei Matsuda), who happily becomes a deliveryman and begins taking guitar lessons from Aya after Tsukisue introduces him.

And then one day, a body washes up in Uobuka harbor, and foul play is suspected….

Nishikido has been honing his acting chops primarily on TV since 2003, but his past as a singer-dancer in idol bands Kanjani8 and NEWS informs many of his roles. Surprisingly, he is utterly convincing as Tsukisue, the boring-but-nice city functionary. There is underlying charm, but not for a moment does his character seem anything other than a small-town salaryman. His authenticity anchors the film in a believable reality, even as events begin spiraling out of control.  

hitsuji no ki
©2018 "The Scythian Lamb" Film Partners  ©Tatsuhiko Yamagami, Mikio Igarashi/KODANSHA

Asked how he tamped down his innate effervescence, Nishikido replied, "Acting in a film is solitary work, and I don't feel the need to bring my 'idol' presence into it. I think for everyone there are parts of your life that are more glamorous than others. There are moments where I'm just at home, watching TV, forgetting to eat. The glamour is just one part of my life. I didn't consciously suppress it, but I brought out my darker, flatter side."

"It was necessary for him to be a regular guy on screen," Yoshida concurred. "But not only that, he also had to have a presence that attracts you. Watching his previous work, I found him to be 'normal' but also attractive. You can't take your eyes off of him. He was just what I needed for this part."

Mentioning that Nishikido's character would probably be played by a young Tom Hanks if the film had been made in America, one FCCJ member asked the actor whether he had drawn from any foreign actors in approaching the character, and whether he had any designs on Hollywood. "I can't think of anyone I drew from in particular, but I learned a lot from the director, and I've learned a lot cumulatively from the 'role models' I've found while watching films. If I were to mention favorites, they would be Jake Gyllenhaal, Russell Crowe and Denzel Washington. I've watched their films over and over, so I may be unintentionally imitating them. As for career aspirations, if there was an opportunity for me in Hollywood, I would very much like to have it. But I was very nervous speaking in English tonight, so I need to work on that." 

scythian lamb yoshidaFCCJ-a
Yoshida has created his most compassionate film yet.    ©FCCJ

Asked how he had juggled so many different genres ("comedy, yakuza gangster, even a tokusatsu monster film!"), characters and story strands, the director explained: "I tend to be really greedy in my filmmaking. I want to depict as many different emotions as possible, which makes my films very difficult to promote. But film should reflect the reality of our everyday lives, and the characters shouldn't be stereotyped or simplified. I think it's feasible to create such stories if you have enough time, and I always try to do so."

The next question concerned Yoshida's approach to keeping the film from being either lurid or conventional. "The film has a more subdued tone than the original work [the manga series Hitsuji no Ki, by Tatsuhiko Yamagami and Mikio Igarashi], which is more chaotic and sensational. But I wanted my characters to be more realistic, and to express their inner conflicts and the clashes between them in a more restrained way. So we decided to avoid creating in-your-face violence."

Striving to deliver on Yoshida's earlier invitation to ask "fresh, unexpected questions," one journalist inquired about the garage band in the film, a noisy trio composed of Tsukisue, Aya and their fellow high-school classmate on drums. "It's not in the original," said Yoshida. "But I had to think about how young people in rural areas spend their time. In my own case, I always played music with my friends. I thought it was a good way to bring these three together, since it was over a decade since they graduated from high school. Also, the emotion is coming from Aya, on guitar, and Tsukisue is supporting her on bass. That [relationship] is what I wanted to depict." 

hitsuji z3
              Kazuki Kitamura (left) tries to lure Min Tanaka back into a life of crime.
 ©2018 "The Scythian Lamb" Film Partners  ©Tatsuhiko Yamagami, Mikio Igarashi/KODANSHA

Nishikido added: "I usually play guitar, not bass, but the music was really edgy and I quite liked it. Also, I think the bass allows you to look at your band members while you're playing, and I watched Aya closely." He quickly clarified, "My character was watching Aya closely."

Surprisingly, no one asked about the film's title. While it opens with lines from an eponymous poem, it is only later, when one of the transplanted characters finds a plate bearing an image of the Vegetable Lamb of Tartary (below), that the meaning begins to dawn on us.

And yet, even then it's open to multiple interpretations — just like the best films should be. 

hitsuji no ki poster
©2018 "The Scythian Lamb" Film Partners  
©Tatsuhiko Yamagami, Mikio Igarashi/KODANSHA
 

Selected Media Exposure

 

TV Exposure

  • テレビ東京 ワールドビジネスサテライト WBS News:「羊の木」 海外メディアに試写
  • テレビ東京 一夜づけ (エンタメ情報):2月3日に公開される映画「羊の木」の告知。
  • TBS はやドキ! スポーツ紙 まるごとチェック:錦戸亮さんが映画「羊の木」の外国特派員協会の記者会見を行い、英語で語った。
  • 日本テレビ Oha!4 NEWS LIVE スポタメ:錦戸亮 英語でスピーチ
  • 日本テレビ ZIP! SHOWBIZ 24:21:00 関ジャニ錦戸 英語で記者会見
  • フジテレビ めざましテレビ エンタみたもん勝ち:海外メディアも注目 錦戸亮(33)主演映画を英語でPR
  • フジテレビ めざましどようび コレぐぅー Movie:今週未公開作品の期待度ランキング

  • 日本テレビ スッキリ クイズッス:あさって公開!錦戸亮主演 映画「羊の木」
  • 日本テレビ news every. TIME4:関ジャニ∞錦戸 英語であいさつ 

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