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KILLING


KILLING (Zan)


November 7, 2018
Q&A guest: Director Shinya Tsukamoto


FCCJ Killing-PosterFCCJ-0
Shinya Tsukamoto kicks off the screening series in FCCJ's new Marunouchi home.  ©FCCJ 

The Film Committee could not have imagined a better inaugural guest for FCCJ’s spacious new digs in Marunouchi: acclaimed writer-director-producer-cinematographer-editor-actor Shinya Tsukamoto.

Nearly three decades on from his 1989 cyberpunk masterpiece Tetsuo: The Iron Man, which hurtled him into international prominence, Tsukamoto has won dozens of awards but remains fiercely independent, creating high art on shoestring budgets, each film the impeccably crafted work of a singular visionary, from Tokyo Fist (1995), Bullet Ballet (1998) and A Snake of June (2002) to Kotoko (2011) and Fires on the Plain (2014, marking his last visit to FCCJ). 

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Mokunoshin, Ichisuke and Yu watch a sudden duel. ©SHINYA TSUKAMOTO/KAIJYU THEATER

An outspoken critic of the Abe Administration, the director continues his exploration of the moral implications of war in his new masterwork, Killing. Although it is his first jidaigeki period film, the parallels between his depiction of Japan’s bloody past and modern-day militarism cannot be ignored.

Killing is set in the mid-19th century, after 250 years of peace, a time when masterless samurai roam the countryside in search of work and sustenance. Young ronin Mokunoshin Tsuzuki (Sosuke Ikematsu, extraordinary in the role) is helping villagers prepare for the harvest, and has found a friend and sparring partner in Ichisuke (Ryusei Maeda), a farmer’s son. But word has spread about Commodore Perry’s demands and the black ships along the coast. As civil unrest builds in Edo, Mokunoshin knows that he must go there to “prove my worth.” Ichisuke’s sister Yu (Yu Aoi) silently watches the two men training, pining for Mokunoshin. “Will you die?” she later asks him. “No,” he answers, “I won’t.” 

Sosuke TsukamotoSHINYA TSUKAMOTOKAIJYU THEATER
Sawamura recruits the young ronin. ©SHINYA TSUKAMOTO/KAIJYU THEATER

When a more seasoned ronin, Jirozaemon Sawamura (Tsukamoto), observes the young man’s sword skills and tries to recruit him for an elite squad that will help “keep the peace” in the capital, Mokunoshin sees it as his duty to join him. But first, he must protect the farmers from a gang of brigands led by ruthless outlaw Sezaemon Genda (Tatsuya Nakamura). Despite promising “We only make trouble for people who deserve it,” they target the hot-headed Ichisuke. What starts as a bout of bullying soon escalates into an ongoing eruption of violence… and through it all, Mokunoshin cannot — or will not — raise his sword to kill.

Whether he is a “pacifist samurai,” as critics dubbed him following the world premiere of Killing in Competition at the Venice International Film Festival in August, remains ambiguous. Short, sharp and shocking though it is, the film is a complex creation, with layers that demand deeper contemplation. 

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Yu pines for Mokunoshin. His own intentions are never quite clear.
©SHINYA TSUKAMOTO/KAIJYU THEATER

As the director fielded wide-ranging questions following the FCCJ screening, the audience’s obvious enthusiasm for the film fueled Tsukamoto’s own passion for introspection — and gradually, the Q&A session grew nearly as long as Killing itself.

The emcee plunged right in, asking about the film’s seeming correlation between violence and sex. (Tsukamoto later tweeted that he “sat up straighter” when he heard it.) “Indeed, this is a very important factor in the film,” the director acknowledged. “Strangely enough, nobody has asked this question, so I’m very happy you did. Originally, we had a different version of the shooting script ready just before the shoot. That version focused on the samurai studying his sword, pondering the question of whether or not to kill. I thought something was lacking, so I reverted to an earlier version of the script that contained eroticism. Although one could question whether it’s appropriate to equate his dilemma of whether to kill with his sexual urge, I thought the story wouldn’t feel truthfully told without it.”

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The director discusses how painful even a small sword slash, like the one Sawamura sustains on his hand, can be. @Koichi Mori

Noting that the three key battles in the film take place offscreen, an audience member asked whether that was a conscious choice or due to budgetary restrictions. “Although we were on a shoestring budget, it wasn’t because of that, it was a very intentional choice,” the director responded. “I wanted to touch on two themes: I wanted the film to be the antithesis of the heroism that we’re used to seeing in samurai films, and I also wanted Yu to represent all the peasants, the people like us. During World War II, the government told us we were winning, and we were all overjoyed, shouting ‘Banzai!’ We didn’t know what was really happening, all the gruesome details of the reality on the battlefields, where the faces and psyches of Japanese soldiers were being shredded. We [were victims of propaganda and] had no way of knowing.

“I wanted to depict the lack of knowledge about what’s happening on the frontlines. It’s only when violence is on our doorstep that we become aware of it. When Yu says, ‘I want you to avenge [her brother’s] death,’ she can say it because she doesn’t know what really happens when someone is sliced open by the blade of a sword. We see the violence drawing closer throughout the film, and I think this echoes what’s happening in everyday Japan. The people who fought in or witnessed World War II are dying away, and we’re gradually losing our sense of danger. I think that’s why we seem to be inching our way toward war. That’s the kind of intent that went into the omission of the battle scenes.” 

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Super-interpreter Mihoko Imai reacts to Tsukamoto's compliment about her abilities: "Wow, you're so lively!" ©Koichi Mori

He later admitted, “I’m an ardent fan of jidaigeki films and have great respect for [the genre], especially Akira Kurosawa’s Seven Samurai, Yojimbo and Sanjuro. But I wanted to do something a little different this time around, and not focus on what we usually see, which is a kind of beauty of form… I didn’t want to glamorize the battle scenes, as you see done in other samurai films. I didn’t want to go too far, though. I didn’t want to make a jidaigeki film with no battle scenes, just as you wouldn’t want a Godzilla film in which Godzilla doesn’t appear.

“I was aware that, if you’re doing a jidaigeki, the audience expects sword fighting. So where I wanted to make the difference was how the story unfolds leading up to the battle scene. I had to find the balance between the archetypical samurai film and the atypical. The atypical portions should make you a bit uncomfortable and leave you with questions about [what it means].” 

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@FCCJ

Complimented on the film’s impressive performances, Tsukamoto was asked about his own, as the skilled swordsman Sawamura. How did he summon the heroic-but-murderous spirit needed? He responded, “My impression of the character when I was writing the script was quite different from my impression when I watched the film, which surprised me. We’re used to seeing samurai characters depicted as chivalrous and kind, and I wanted to pose a question about what they were really like. So you should see the antithesis of that in the film. But although I wrote him that way, when I saw him on film, he seemed very villainous, as if he were the cause of all the problems that occur.”

Another audience member complimented Tsukamoto on the “magnificent” sword-fighting scenes and the skill with which the actors wielded their swords, and asked how they’d prepared. “We had a tateshi, a sword-fighting action director, Mr. Tsujii, with whom I’d worked in the past, who gave us direction and advice,” the director responded. I wanted to ground the fighting sequences in reality, so I also sought the advice of a sensei at the Hokushin Ittoryu dojo about how to carry your body and how to sheathe and unsheathe the sword, as well as the principles behind the actions.

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Tsukamoto as Mifune as Sawamura. ©SHINYA TSUKAMOTO/KAIJYU THEATER

“Unfortunately, I sprained my lower back while we were shooting one of the sword fights, so for all the high aspirations I had for the battle scenes, I wasn’t able to do much myself… I’d hoped to be like Toshiro Mifune in Yojimbo, where he was slicing and dicing these 10 opponents. I noticed he always carried his back [at the same height] from the ground, which really impressed me. I was really disappointed that I couldn’t do that.”

He joked that he was a better editor than an actor, since he’d had to improve his own fight scenes in the editing room. “I think the reason the sword-fighting sequences look like they’re exquisitely done is because Mr. Ikematsu is so good. He didn’t have much [fighting] experience before, but he’s like a sponge, a very quick learner, and he has great physicality. He elevated the level of [those sequences].”

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@FCCJ

He elaborated, “What I wanted to do with Mr. Ikematsu was to transport a modern-day youth back to the Edo period, and bring a sense of reality and rawness to the story. This reflects my influences, including an early formative experience for me, watching Kon Ichikawa’s Matatabi [aka The Wanderers]. That film also had young actors in a period piece that feels very modern.”

Renowned Iranian filmmaker Amir Naderi was in the audience, and asked how Tsukamoto always manages to direct such “fresh” performances from his female characters, in a way “unlike any other Japanese director.” He answered, “The way I work with actresses depends on the film, of course, but I think you can get the sense in my films that I really respect women, who are amazing… As you know, Ms. Aoi is an accomplished and versatile actress, so I didn’t really have to direct her much. Usually, she can detect the through-line quite easily, but she seemed to find it difficult with my script. So she decided to go at the role from diverse directions, almost as if we see her maturing from 15 to 28 years old, coming of age. It’s wonderful how she did that, and I think she’s marvelous.”

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Naderi greets Tsukamoto after the screening.  ©Mance Thompson

Naderi had also asked about Tsukamoto’s unique use of sound, “which is almost like music in the film.” The director responded, “I’ve collaborated with the sound designer since A Snake in June, and I think the sound is as important as the visuals. I wanted to make something that you couldn’t just watch objectively; I wanted to make an experiential film. I wanted audiences to feel the presence of nature, since it surrounds the characters, as well as the presence of the blades. They’re very heavy, which you can feel through the sound design.”

He continued, “I used Chu Ichikawa’s music in the film. We’d been collaborators for 30 years, starting with Tetsuo. We shot the film, and just as we started editing, he succumbed to a long-term illness and died. I didn’t have a desire to go to anyone else; I wanted to use his music. It was a rushed shoot (just 3 weeks), but the editing process was lengthy. I used parts of compositions he’d done over the past 30 years. With his wife’s permission, I went to his home and looked for unfinished pieces. It was a mourning process for me. I could collaborate with Mr. Ichikawa, event though he’s up in heaven, and I was able to hear music I hadn’t heard before.”

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 @Mance Thompson

Calling Killing “one of the finest Japanese films of the past decade,” a critic asked whether Tsukamoto intended to make another trilogy, as he had with the Tetsuo films. “I had this idea of the ronin pondering [the moral implications of wielding] his sword 20 years ago,” said the director. “I was also entertaining the idea of having the protagonist duel with Zatoichi in part II. It would be wonderful to see Mr. Ikematsu doing battle with Zatoichi. I’m interested in the late Edo period, the Bakumatsu era. But there’s a jinx with films depicting that era, they’re usually not successful. I’d like to take up the challenge. I thought it would be interesting to have the guitarist Hotei portray (imperial loyalist) Ryoma Sakamoto, because he’s very, very tall and I think he would look good in hakama and boots, carrying a gun.”

Obviously relishing the image, he went on, “Of course I would then have to depict the Shinsengumi (who murdered Sakamoto), who were in reality a bunch of rowdy outlaw teenagers. Just talking about it makes me smile. I don’t want to strike out the possibility of doing that in the future. If saying it here helps to [get the project off the ground], all the better.”

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 ©Mance Thompson

Tsukamoto has had an active parallel career as an actor in a diversity of films by other filmmakers, including key roles in Martin Scorsese’s Silence and the Japanese blockbuster Shin Godzilla, both in 2016. He was asked whether his experience with Scorsese had left a lasting impact. “Of all the filmmakers alive today, Martin Scorsese is the one I respect the most, ever since I first saw Taxi Driver in high school,” he responded. “I play a Christian who dies for his beliefs in Silence, and I would say that my own religion is Scorsese. I think he’s influenced me in the way he leaves a lot of freedom for his actors. Although he’s so accomplished, he has a wonderful respect for his actors. I learned that from him, and I tried to do a little of that on this film.” 

Poster with twoSHINYA TSUKAMOTOKAIJYU THEATER
©SHINYA TSUKAMOTO/KAIJYU THEATER

Selected Media Exposure

TEN YEARS JAPAN


TEN YEARS JAPAN (Juu Nen)


October 16, 2018

Q&A guests: Directors Akiyo Fujimura, Chie Hayakawa
Kei Ishikawa, Yusuke Kinoshita and Megumi Tsuno


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All five directors appeared at FCCJ, uniting them in public for the first time since the omnibus film’s completion: (from left) Chie Hayakawa, 
Yusuke Kinoshita, Akiyo Fujimura, Megumi Tsuno and Kei Ishikawa. It was a fitting final Film Night at the club’s current facilities.
After 42 years, we’re moving to brand-new quarters at the end of the month.  ©Koichi Mori

The phrase “film franchise” invariably evokes mega-budget Hollywood series like Harry Potter, X-Men, even James Bond. So when producer Miyuki Takamatsu told the FCCJ audience that Ten Years Japan represented a new type of arthouse franchise, it gave them pause.

Takamatsu, founder of the sales and distribution firm Free Stone Productions, decided to become a franchise player after seeing the angry, dystopian omnibus film Ten Years, in 2015. Co-directed by five young filmmakers in Hong Kong, it had been inspired by the Umbrella Movement that began shaking the colony in late 2014, and imagined an exceedingly bleak future under China’s tightening control.

Surprisingly, Ten Years went on to win Best Film at the HK Film Awards, causing China to black out the awards show and to ban the film. Nevertheless, it earned HK$6 million in covert, self-distributed screenings, and was seen around the world.

FCCJ Ten Years miyuki Mance ThompsonMiyuki Takamatsu, producer and "franchise" founder. @Mance Thompson

Along with that film’s international sales agent, Felix Tsang, and former Fox executive Lorraine Ma, Takamatsu discussed taking the concept regional. They formed a partnership called Ten Years Studio and in 2017, announced a trio of follow-on projects, with films to be made concurrently in Taiwan, Thailand and Japan.

Takamatsu then convinced Palm d’Or-winning auteur Hirokazu Kore-eda to sign on as executive producer of the Japanese version, which like its counterparts, is thematically and stylistically varied, as well as deeply thought-provoking. Ten Years Japan may lack the urgency and political spitfire of the original, but its quiet, contemplative approach does not mask its overall vision of hopelessness.

Speaking fluently in English and Japanese, Takamatsu told the FCCJ audience: “I think this is the first experience for the film industry around the world that a concept has been shared. Pick five directors, each of them makes a short film of less than 20 minutes, and freely expresses how their countries will be in 10 years. I think it was quite interesting to expand the concept to other countries, and after these first three, we are hoping to have Ten Years Korea, Ten Years India and more.”

FCCJ Ten Years Mance Thompson-11The directors were chosen for their visions, not their names. @Mance Thompson

Praising her fellow producers for Ten Years Japan, Eiko Mizuno Gray and Jason Gray of Loaded Films, who were also in the FCCJ audience, she explained: “We asked some 30 young filmmakers to submit a short synopsis and chose 12. We then discussed them with Mr. Kore-eda, and finally picked these five because their ideas and scripts were great, not because of their names or previous work. It was really important for Mr. Kore-eda and for us to take the time to discuss the scripts, and to mold the entire process to create one feature film.”

Kicking off the Q&A session following our sneak preview, a journalist noted that the molding process had yielded films of equally impressive quality, unlike the usual unevenness of most omnibus efforts. He wondered whether there had been any coordination or even collaboration between filmmakers during production to achieve such a uniform level of excellence.

Speaking for the group, Chie Hayakawa explained, “In August last year, all of us met and heard for the first time about each other’s projects. There was no coordination or even communication between us during the production process, so we heard each other’s concepts, and then we saw the completed films. That made it a really interesting experience.”

Although the five emerging filmmakers, appearing together for the first time in public since the completion of the film, received several specific questions, in the interests of fairness, here’s a brief rundown of the questions that were posed to all five. Responses appear in alphabetical order.

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Akiyo Fujiwara won the Skip City Award at the 2016 Skip City International D-Cinema Festival for her feature debut, Eriko, Pretended.
Left: ©Koichi Mori, Right: ©Mance Thompson

On how they selected their themes:
Akiyo Fujimura, director of The Air We Can't See, in which a disaster has driven the Japanese population deep underground, until one lonely girl finds a “place only kids can go”: “While I was thinking about my theme, I looked back on the past 10 years in Japan. What really stood out was the 2011 Fukushima disaster, and when that happened, there was a real fear of the air, which we can’t even see. I’d never imagined being afraid of the air, and it seemed a real likelihood that [a disaster like that suggested in the film] could happen within the next 10 years.”

Chie Hayakawa, director of Plan 75, in which longevity has become a liability in Japan, leading to a government-promulgated solution that targets the disenfranchised: “My theme was inspired by our aging society, and the sentiment behind it was my anger at the way the disabled and the poor, society’s weak, are treated. There’s not a lot of room for them these days, and that made me very angry and lead to this film.”

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Chie Hayakawa’s 2014 film Niagara won the Grand Prix at the Pia Film Festival as well as prizes from the
Vladivostok International Film Festival and the International Women’s Film Festival in Seoul
.
Left: ©Koichi Mori, Right: ©Mance Thompson

Kei Ishikawa, director of For Our Beautiful Country, in which an adman (Taiga, in a standout performance) begins to rethink his job when he has to promote Japan’s remilitarization: “What I wanted to express was the freedom of expression. There was a Japanese painter, Leonard Foujita, who became a wartime [propaganda] painter during WWII, and that made me try to imagine how creative artists can be co-opted into the vortex of politics and the State in times of war or tumult. I thought that what would be most likely, 10 years from now, would be universal conscription.”

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Kei Ishikawa’s feature debut, Gukoroku: Traces of Sin, premiered at the Venice International Film Festival in 2016 and
went on to domestic box office success.  Left: ©Koichi Mori, Right: ©Mance Thompson

Yusuke Kinoshita, director of Mischievous Alliance, in which children disrupt the 24/7 monitoring systems that control their every thought and deed, in order to rescue a dying horse: “When I received the offer to participate in the project, it was only 3 days after the birth of my son, and I decided to make the protagonist a 10-year-old boy. Since April this year, ethics was made a part of Japan’s compulsory education, and that made me think about what effect that would have 10 years from now. My own view is that it’s really difficult for children to learn ethics in a classroom setting. We can only find our own answers through action, and trial and error. I think that’s the way children should learn ethics. Neither teachers nor adults are perfect, so I feel dubious about our ability to teach through lecturing.”

Megumi Tsuno, director of Data, in which a young woman (rising star Hana Sugisaki) finds her mother’s digital inheritance card, and is able to connect with her past, which is a mixed blessing: “I know that the original Hong Kong version essentially focused on one political theme. But what I wanted to depict was the clear and present danger [of technology] that exists in our daily lives.”

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Yusuke Kinoshita’s feature debut, Water Flower, premiered at the Berlin International Film Festival.  ©Mance Thompson
 

On working with Kore-eda:
Akiyo Fujimura, director of The Air We Can't See: “I received advice from Mr. Kore-eda several times during both scriptwriting and editing. What made me especially happy is that he took the trouble to watch our previous films. He commended certain aspects that he liked, and gave me advice about how I could’ve improved it. That was a really good experience for me. He really respects the creative process and each director’s style. While following his advice, I realized it was steering me in the direction that I’d wanted to go in the first place.”

Chie Hayakawa, director of Plan 75: “He would always say to us ‘You are the directors,’ and I felt a real respect from him, that he was treating us as equals. He was never didactic in the way he related to us.”

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Megumi Tsuno joined Bun-Buku in 2015, under acclaimed directors Hirokazu Kore-eda and Miwa Nishikawa, and directed the
making-of documentary for Kore-eda’s The Third Murder©FCCJ

Kei Ishikawa, director of For Our Beautiful Country: “He gave us a lot of advice throughout the scriptwriting and editing process. But what really struck me was that, after I’d completed my film, he said that when he gave advice and a director came back without changing their script in certain ways he’d advised, he interpreted that as a sign that the director was principled. So he wouldn’t give the same advice twice. My discussions with him were very different from my experiences with other producers.”

Yusuke Kinoshita, director of Mischievous Alliance: “I received his feedback on three drafts of my screenplay. Naturally, since he is also a wonderful filmmaker in his own right, he gave me feedback not only on how he thought the audience would interpret the film, but also in terms of figuring out exactly what my own intentions were. When I first told him the synopsis, he asked me whether or not it had a happy ending. It really didn’t occur to me to look at it either as a happy or sad ending, and it was a challenge for me to figure out what I really wanted to say as a filmmaker.”

Megumi Tsuno, director of Data: “[As a staff member at Kore-eda’s own production company] I’ve had the fortunate experience of working with Mr. Kore-eda on set, and what always struck me is that he would continue writing and rewriting his scripts until just before shooting. Sometimes he would arrive on set and say, ‘I just thought of something in the taxi, so I’m going to change this part.’ I know it’s really daring for an inexperienced filmmaker like myself, but I’m afraid I did the same thing, and made changes until the last minute.” 

FCCJ Ten Years Koichi Mori-10 ©Koichi Mori

On whether they felt any constraints on their creative self-expression:
Akiyo Fujimura
, director of The Air We Can't See: “As a child, I didn’t enjoy studying. I was a film buff from my earliest years, and through cinema, I learned about the history of Japan and of the world. For instance, watching The Grave of the Fireflies taught me that war is something we should avoid at all costs. I think film can teach us about the world in the same way that school can, and it would be great if we could see films depicting more political and social issues. I hope I can continue incorporating them into my feature filmmaking.”

Chie Hayakawa, director of Plan 75: “Of course there isn’t any censorship in Japanese filmmaking, so we should be free to depict any theme we want. However, I do sense a kind of self-censorship when it comes to film companies and investors. They’ll say, ‘Well, that topic is hard to fund.’ I heard from the producers that this project was difficult in that sense. But it gave us a lot of confidence that it was a pan-Asian project, and that other filmmakers in other countries were also making films.”  

Kei Ishikawa, director of For Our Beautiful Country: “I don’t think Ten Years Japan is overtly political, at least not compared to the Hong Kong version. But perhaps this fact, that we five all drew the line, reflects the current state of our country. It’s unnatural, the way that [other filmmakers] are avoiding depictions of these issues. I think there could have been more [hard-hitting] films about the Fukushima disaster, but there does seem to be self-censorship surrounding this country. So against that backdrop, I think we should be grateful to be given this platform to freely create.”

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The omnibus directors applaud the audience following their first joint appearance. ©Koichi Mori

Yusuke Kinoshita, director of Mischievous Alliance: “I’m so grateful to the producers and to Mr. Kore-eda for offering this platform to create original scripts and original films. What instigated my film was the idea that I don’t think politics are separate from ourselves, they’re not ‘the other side.’ We have to consider ourselves part of politics, and when we do, that sentiment can change the system. I hope audiences who see my film will feel that way and help instigate change.” 

Megumi Tsuno, director of Data: “I realize the difficulties that result from trying to depict political issues in film, including funding difficulties. So I was really thankful to participate in this pan-Asian project, to have the opportunity to create my own original script, and to be able to make my film without any limitations. I think it’s quite a revolutionary platform, and I’m so grateful to be part of it. Going forward, what I really want to do is to depict human stories. So I think it’s inescapable that politics and society will appear in the background of my films.”

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The team with the Japanese poster for the film. @Mance Thompson

Ten Years Japan had its world premiere at the Busan Film Festival in October, where the three “franchise” films played together for the first time. Audience reactions were diverse, as they are for any omnibus project. But it’s clear that there is a future for this type of cinematic exploration, especially as the world continues its swing to the right.

TYJ poster 2018Ten Years JapanFilm Partners
©2018 “Ten Years Japan” Film Partners

Selected Media Exposure

ASIAN THREE-FOLD MIRROR PANEL AND SCREENING IN COLLABORATION WITH TIFF


ASIAN THREE-FOLD MIRROR PANEL AND SCREENING IN COLLABORATION WITH TIFF


October 3, 2018
Q&A guests: Directors Isao Yukisada and Daishi Matsunaga,
TIFF Director Takeo Hisamatsu, Japan Foundation President Hiroyasu Ando,
TIFF Japan Now advisor Kohei Ando


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Daishi Matsunaga and Isao Yukisada screened their Asian-shot films at FCCJ. ©Mance Thompson

The Film Committee’s annual event in conjunction with the Tokyo International Film Festival (TIFF) did not focus, as it has for the past decade, on the Japanese films in this year’s 31st edition. Instead, two of Japan’s most acclaimed directors, Isao Yukisada (Go, River’s Edge) and Daishi Matsunaga (Pieta in the Toilet, Hanalei Bay), joined us to discuss their participation in the omnibus film project Asian Three-Fold Mirror.

A coproduction between the Japan Foundation Asia Center and TIFF, Asian Three-Fold Mirror has twice brought together three young directors from Japan and other Asian countries to co-create omnibus films with a common theme. The first volume, Asian Three-Fold Mirror 2016: Reflections, which included Yukisada’s Pigeon, debuted at the 29th TIFF. On October 26, the second volume, Asian Three-Fold Mirror 2018: Journey, which includes Matsunaga’s Hekishu, will have its world premiere at the 31st TIFF.

Prior to the special screening of Pigeon and a sneak preview of Journey, the directors spoke briefly of their experiences working outside Japan. “I’ve been really influenced by Asian films,” said Yukisada. “In Malaysia, where I shot Pigeon, there’s a very famous director called Yasmin Ahmad, whose work really influenced me. Unfortunately, she passed away recently. But I wondered how my own filmmaking might change when combined with the atmosphere of Malaysian film. The tradition of filmmaking in each country should be enjoyed and appreciated, and I have very fond memories of my experience working with an international cast and crew in Malaysia.”  

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Clockwise from uppper left: TIFF Director Takeo Hisamatsu, Japan Foundation President Hiroyasu Ando,
TIFF Japan Now Programming Advisor Kohei Ando, Yukisada, Matsunaga. Top right ©Mance Thompson, Others ©FCCJ

Matsunaga agreed. “I worked with a crew from China, Indonesia, Myanmar and the UK on Hekishu, which was shot in Myanmar,” he said. “It was really a great experience, allowing me to learn a lot and grow as a director.”

Discussing the importance of this ongoing coproduction project for the film festival, TIFF Director Takeo Hisamatsu told the FCCJ audience, “TIFF has been focusing on Asia and other themes since my predecessor’s time. Of course we’re an international film festival, so we think it’s important for a number of reasons, including distance, to have a strong relationship and interactions with other countries in Asia. We would like to continue working with the Japan Foundation Asia Center to focus more attention on the region. We believe that Asian Three-Fold Mirror is a wonderful project, and we hope it will continue.”

Providing important context for the project, Japan Foundation President Hiroyasu Ando noted, “Fifty-three percent of the world’s population is in Asia, and the rapidly growing economies of the region are acting as an engine for the world economy. Most of the foreign tourists coming to Japan are Asian. For these and other reasons, we believe Asia will continue to be very important to Japan, and we are working to create a two-way cultural flow between Japan and the cultures of Asia.”

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The panel shares a laugh.  ©Koichi Mori
 

When queried specifically about the future of Asian Three-Fold Mirror, he responded, “The Japan Foundation would like to continue working with TIFF on cultural exchanges between Japan and Asian countries. Asia is a vast region, and we’re looking forward to hearing feedback from audiences at TIFF as well as around Asia, in regards to the direction of the next Asian Three-Fold Mirror project.”

Hisamatsu also spoke briefly about some of the other highlights at this year’s festival, which runs from October 25 – November 3. Among them is the addition of a Best Director prize in the Japanese Cinema Splash section, which is devoted to indie film and has nurtured the careers of such notable filmmakers are Rikiya Imaizumi, Daigo Matsui, Eiji Uchida and Hirobumi Watanabe.

Programming Advisor Kohei Ando also revealed some of the highlights of his Japan Now lineup. “There’s a global trend right now to reduce everything to a slogan, like ‘America First,’” he said. “With this year’s Japan Now, we want to do the opposite, and focus on films that highlight Japanese ambiguity. We are showcasing the work of internationally renowned actor Koji Yakusho, who’s famous for revealing the ambiguous natures of the diverse characters that he’s played. We’re starting with his starring role in The Eel, which won the Palm d’Or at the Cannes Film Festival 20 years ago, and showing a total of five films, including his latest, Blood of Wolves, in which he portrays a very ambiguous detective. Mr. Yakusho will be attending every screening for a Q&A session, along with the film’s directors. We are also showing nine other films that are among the best works of this past year.”

(Included in the Japan Now lineup is Yukisada’s River’s Edge. Not included, to Ando’s regret, is Matsunaga’s Hanalei Bay, the adaptation of a Haruki Murakami short story. The film opens just before TIFF and thus wasn’t available for festival screenings.)  

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©2018, ©2016 The Japan Foundation. All Rights Reserved.

Following the Asian Three-Fold Mirror screenings, Yukisada and Matsunaga returned to the dais and fielded a range of questions about their omnibus contributions.

Prompted for examples of differences in film production styles, Yukisada said, “In Malaysia, film shoots begin with a group photo, followed by a meal together. The Japanese crew members got really impatient about that, but it dawned on me that it was really Malaysian. They want to work together in harmony, so they take the time to share a meal and get to know each other before they start working. Unlike Japanese crews, Malaysians will never argue on set. They avoid conflict as much as possible. I think it encapsulates Malaysia, because it’s a nation where so many people from diverse cultures are living and working together. I really felt ashamed of our Japanese impatience, and I felt it was a great lesson.”

Matsunaga mentioned that he had shot Hanalei Bay in Hawaii before shooting in Myanmar, and noted that both places are far stricter about crews not working as long without a break as they do in Japan. “In Myanmar,” he said, “if you work over 12 hours, it becomes another day and you’re charged accordingly. That would be unthinkable in Japan. Even though Myanmar’s film industry is still developing, they’re already protecting casts and crews in this way. I felt the crew had great respect for my wishes, and would try their best to realize them. In my limited experience with Japanese crews, that’s not the case. Everyone seems to have their own ideas here, which they feel strongly about. It felt really liberating, working with the international crew in Myanmar.”

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Hiroki Hasegawa in Hekishu. ©2018 The Japan Foundation. All Rights Reserved

A journalist from Indonesia asked how it came about that popular Indonesian actor Nicholas Saputra appeared in all three of the Journey films. Matsunaga answered, “I had Skype meetings, as well as meeting in person with my fellow omnibus directors, Degena Yun [from Inner Mongolia, China] and Edwin [from Indonesia], and we decided that we should have a common theme that would unite our three films. We also decided, since Nicholas had already been cast to star in Edwin’s film, that we could give him small cameos in each of our films, as a way to further unite our work. Nicholas’ role in Edwin’s film is a rather mysterious Japanese-like man, and that inspired both me and Degena in our scripts.”

Matsunaga’s Hekishu is set in Yangon, Myanmar, which is experiencing rapid democratization and urban renewal, although the old cityscape is still prominent, especially around the city’s slow-moving circular railway. A Japanese businessman, Suzuki (Hiroki Hasegawa of Shin Godzilla) arrives to work on the implementation of a new rapid-transit system. Yet, after meeting a Burmese seamstress named Su Su (Nandar Myat Aung), he begins to question just how much progress is actually good for the residents, many of whom will be displaced by the upgrade.

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©Mance Thompson

"I wanted to show the existing railway, and capture it as it is, almost like a documentary,” recalled Matsunaga. “I started my career with documentaries, and that appealed to me. When I thought about who I should cast for the role of the businessman, I wanted an actor who wouldn’t draw too much attention to himself, to maintain this documentary feel. I thought of Mr. Hasegawa because he has a unique presence, but at the same time, I thought he would blend into the landscape of Myanmar.”

Asked how he had cast Nandar Myat Aung, who is a first-time actressl, Matsunaga said, “We had assistance from the Myanmar-based production company and held auditions with professionals. But I wanted someone who wouldn’t ‘act,’ since it would undermine Mr. Hasegawa’s naturalness. We found her at an art school [where she’s currently studying film].”

Yukisada’s Pigeon is set in Penang, Malaysia, which is home to many Japanese retirees. The story revolves around a lonely old man (acting legend Masahiko Tsugawa) who lives in a spacious house and keeps pigeons on the roof. After his greedy son (Masatoshi Nagase) visits and flies into a rage, the old man grows even closer to his empathetic caregiver, Yasmin (Sharifah Amani). With her help, he is finally able to visit the beach where his brothers were killed during WWII and to make peace with their spirits.  

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Sharifah Amani and Masahiko Tsugawa in Pigeon. ©2016 The Japan Foundation. All Rights Reserved

Yukisada was asked about working with Tsugawa, who died in early August. “When I heard about his death, it was really a shock for me, as well as for the people we worked with on the film,” he recalled. “He was famous for hating to work overseas, and it was an incredible honor that he agreed to accept the role and come to Malaysia. It was the only chance I’d had to work with him, and he was playing a role that was based on my own grandfather. His intensity intimidated the cast and crew at first, but they came to really love him. None of us will ever forget the experience of working with him.”

Yukisada also spoke about casting his actress. “Sharifah Amani had been acting in the films of Yasmin Ahmad, the director I respected so much, since she was a child. After I couldn’t find anyone appropriate during auditions, I contacted her and reached her when she was shopping in a department store. So I rushed to the store and met her in a coffee shop there. It was so surprising how generally cheerful she is, yet when she’s hurt or depressed, she cries like a small child. It’s really rare to find someone like that.”

A Malaysian journalist lauded Yukisada’ direction, saying that Pigeon felt “very much like a Malaysian, not a Japanese, film.” How, he wondered, did the director write such realistic interactions between the Malaysian characters and direct them to such authentic performances? 

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 ©Mance Thompson

“What a compliment! Thank you,” responded Yukisada. “I have to admit that it was Sharifah Amani and the other actress, whom she had recommended, who came up with ideas. I wrote the storyline, but the details, and their reactions, were devised by the two women. I’m sure that’s why you felt it was so authentic.”

He couldn’t resist adding, “Also, I must say that Malaysian actors are surprisingly good at pronouncing Japanese as if they understand every line. They all grow up watching Japanese animated shows like Captain Tsubasa, Dragon Ball and Sailor Moon. That’s where the line about Sailor Moon came from.

Asian Three-Fold Mirror 2016: Reflections is getting a theatrical release in Tokyo — after 2 years making the rounds of festivals and special events overseas — from October 12-18. Following its world premiere at TIFF, Asian Three-Fold Mirror 2018: Journey will also be theatrically released, from November 9 to 15.

Poster Visual Tokyo International Film Festival

Selected Media Exposure

PASSAGE OF LIFE


PASSAGE OF LIFE (Boku no Kaerubasho)


September 20, 2018
Q&A guests: Director Akio Fujimoto, producer Kazutaka Watanabe and star Khin Myat Thu


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From left, producer Kazutaka Watanabe, director Akio Fujimoto and star Thin Myat Thu. ©Koichi Mori

The line between fiction and reality is blurred in Akio Fujimoto’s debut feature, Passage of Life. A poignant family drama with an undercurrent of political urgency, the Japan-Myanmar coproduction won both the Spirit of Asia Award and the Best Asian Future Film Award at the 2017 Tokyo International Film Festival — the first time a Japanese director had been so honored.

It went on to screen around the world to critical accolades, winning awards in the Netherlands and Thailand (where it qualified as a Burmese film). Just last month, it also received a Special Recognition honor from Japan’s Education Ministry, meaning that it is recommended for school viewings. As the awards season looms, there is every expectation that Passage of Life will be on many year-end lists.

The domestic accolades are especially important, since there are surprisingly few contemporary Japanese fiction films that incorporate pressing social issues into their storylines, and fewer still that treat non-Japanese characters (who barely seem to exist on screen here) with understanding or real compassion. 

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©Mance Thompson

At the Q&A session that followed the FC’s sneak preview, producer Kazutaka Watanabe explained the film’s genesis, way back in 2013: “The idea [to depict Burmese immigrants] came from Yuki Kitagawa, who appears in the film as the Japanese man who’s helping the family, and who also became the film’s co-producer. We had no money, and I didn’t have any experience as a producer yet, but we decided to go ahead with the project. Most of the information about Myanmar online is about the military government and Aung San Suu Kyi, not about the daily lives of Burmese. We wanted to tell a story that Japanese audiences could empathize with, that could also be full of discoveries. So we put out a monthlong open call for writer-directors online, and had about 40 responses. Mr. Fujimoto was the only one who wrote an entire script in that month, and he was also one of the most passionate. We were really impressed that despite his limited knowledge of Myanmar, he was able to create a believable world.”

Fujimoto conducted his initial research in Takadanobaba, which has one of Tokyo’s largest Burmese populations, and decided to portray one of the hard-luck stories he’d heard. He didn’t realize that his script would have to be vetted with the Myanmar government, nor that a representative would be on set during the shoot there. But despite the censorship, the film’s family can be seen as a metaphor for every family that has and is still facing an uncertain future. 

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Kaung contemplates life in Myanmar.  ©E.x.N K.K

Passage of Life drops us without preamble into the lives of Issace (Issace) and Khin (Khin Myat Thu), who immigrated to Japan from Myanmar without visas, along with their two sons, Kaung (Kaung Myat Thu) and Htet (Htet Myat Naing). They were following in the footsteps of many others, who began coming here in the wake of the 8888 Uprising (1988 pro-democracy demonstrations) in Myanmar. (There is briefly-seen newsreel footage of brutal military clampdowns on protestors.)

Issace and Khin find illegal work in Tokyo and create a happy life with their boys — although Kaung, now 7, and Htet, 4, believe they are Japanese and have the attitudes to go with it (“Idiot!” yells Htet, nearly hitting his mother in one fit of pique).

After several years of residency, Issace learns it is possible to file an application for political refugee status, and during his interview with Immigration, explains they left their country because “it was no longer safe.” But the request is denied, as happens all too frequently here, and no clear explanation is given. Issace tried to reassure Khin, who is struggling with an unnamed illness, but she pleads with him to return to Myanmar before their re-application is rejected again. “Things have changed back home since we came,” she says hopefully. “No way,” he responds. “Things can’t be that different. There’s no way we could back.”

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Kaung gets lost enroute to the airport.  ©E.x.N

Then one night, Immigration shows up at the door and warns Issace to stop working. Khin says, “We can’t be safe, not even in our own home… coming here was a big mistake. I want a normal life.”

After a hospitalization and with options fast dwindling, Khin makes the choice to takes the boys to Yangon, where they will grapple with their loss of friends and Japanese identity — as well as their distance from Issace, who has stayed in Japan to continue working so he can send them money. But Skype calls are not the same as being there, and one day, Kaung packs his rucksack, grabs a toy gun and heads for the airport.

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©FCCJ

Despite the film’s impressive social-issue immediacy, the initial Q&A questions focused on the extraordinary performances of the two small boys. Noting that it was the one thing he had been asked everywhere he traveled with the film, Fujimoto said, “No matter what nationalities the audiences were, everyone seemed to empathize with Kaung and this family. That made me really happy.”

He continued, “The most difficult part was that this was not an actual family, so the challenge was how to make them as real as possible. Since the father is not the boys’ real father, we had to figure out how to build a loving relationship between them. Khin-san [Khin Myat Thu] is their real mother, but the father is a Myanmar-based [stranger]. It was very difficult for the boys to call him ‘Papa’ at first.”

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 Fujimoto laughs as Myat Thu recalls mock-fighting with her son. ©Koichi Mori

Myat Thu, who has lived in Japan for 18 years, and whose sons were raised here, signed on to portray the mother when her elder boy, Kaung, decided he wanted to be in the film. She recalled, “The most challenging part of the process for me was the scene in which Kaung and I had to have a fight. That never happens in real life, so we had to find a way to fight realistically, and that was difficult.”

To capture a high degree of authenticity from the children, Fujimoto decided to shoot lengthy takes without interruption, and then spent 2 years editing down the resulting tens of hours of footage. He was asked why he had adopted the film’s documentary-like shooting style. The director answered, “It’s difficult to lock down the camera when you’re shooting children, unless you direct them to move in a restricted way. We wanted to have them move freely, and to have the camera move freely along with them.”

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Mom and the two boys explore the forests outside Yangon.  ©E.x.N K.K

Fujimoto also said he had accepted a certain degree of improvisation from the children, as long as the meaning of the original dialogue did not change. “We were extremely lucky, because although the younger boy, Htet, couldn’t read the script, he didn’t veer too far from it. But there was a certain scene in which he cries profusely, and that wasn’t included in the original script. It was supposed to be a very heartwarming scene, but when I explained what was happening [in the story] before the camera rolled, he just burst into tears.

“The original plan had been to tell the story of the older brother, Kaung, and [his coming of age]. We shot in sequence, and I was quite happy with how things were going. But thanks to [Htet’s outburst], it created a sudden juxtaposition with the younger boy’s own growth, or coming of age.”

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 Watanabe and Fujimoto.  ©Koichi Mori

Asked what he thought the film’s main message is, producer Kazutaka Watanabe replied, “What I found most impressive is that we had a Japanese director who was able to empathize with Burmese children. I feel that’s a rarity here — most creators don’t seem to feel empathy for people from Southeast Asian, or any foreigner, for that matter. Of course immigrants coexist with us in Japan, you see them working in convenience stores and family restaurants. But there’s no empathy. If we manage to get the audience to empathize with characters like this, we can expose them to something different. Of the film’s many messages, I think that’s the most important.”

Another journalist asked the director why Passage of Life was vague about the reasons that Isaace’s application for refugee status had been rejected. “It was intentional not to include too much exposition, or to give the background for why they had come to Japan in the first place,” responded Fujimoto. “This was a point I thought a lot about, but I ultimately decided to pare down those details. I could have given some explanation of why the system in Japan is so complicated and so strict. But what I really wanted to do was to show to daily lives of these people from their viewpoint.”

He added, “I think it’s probably very difficult even for professionals working in the immigration field to explain the reasons for a rejection, and it’s also difficult to prove that you’re a refugee. It would make me very happy if the film instigates discussion among immigrants in Japan.”

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©Mance Thompson

There are an estimated 10,000 Burmese currently here on legal visas, although watchdog groups suggest there are many more undocumented immigrants (from many nations) than the government’s official count.

Last year, Japan granted refugee status to only 20 people, out of nearly 20,000 applicants (a sharp increase over the previous year’s applications). The year before, it approved just 28. The Justice Ministry started a stricter screening system in January this year to eliminate applicants believed to be purely job-seekers, and reported in late August that applications had plunged 35% in the first half of 2018 (22 applicants were approved).

But Japan has not officially adopted an immigration policy, and as security is beefed up ahead of the 2020 Tokyo Olympics, the government is cracking down on those working illegally while awaiting the outcome of their refugee applications, putting them in detention centers and creating the sense that every visa overstayer is a criminal.

In a perfect world, every Japanese would watch Passage to Life and help, somehow, to implement correctives.

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©E.x.N K.K

 

ASAKO I & II


ASAKO I & II (Netemo Sametemo)


August 29, 2018
Q&A guests: Director Ryusuke Hamaguchi and star Erika Karata


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Hamaguchi (left) and Karata. ©FCCJ

Doppelgängers are much in the news these days, thanks to the buzz surrounding the US documentary Three Identical Strangers, which lays bare a shocking tale of triplets separated at birth, reunited in adulthood through a fluke, and their heartbreaking search for answers.

Ryusuke Hamaguchi’s Asako I & II also features a mystery centered on a doppelgänger, but audiences should not expect any pat explanations. This “twin,” played impressively by Masahiro Higashide, is not the film’s protagonist. As the (English) title makes clear, that would be Asako herself — although those Roman numerals can be interpreted in a number of ways. 

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Karata and Higashide.
© 2018 NETEMO SAMETEMO FILM PARTNERS & COMME DES CINÉMAS

Hamaguchi made his name guiding unknown actresses to a shower of awards from overseas festivals for his 5-hour 17-minute revelation Happy Hour in 2015. If the selection of Asako I & II for the Official Competition at this year’s Cannes Film Festival is any indication, star Erika Karata may be poised for the same success. The film will shortly play at the Toronto, New York and San Sebastian film festivals, and its Japan release in 40+ theaters reflects Hamaguchi’s newfound reputation as an internationally acclaimed auteur.

The director and his leading lady, who marks her first major role with Asako I & II, appeared after FCCJ’s sneak preview screening and recalled their Cannes experience, the first red carpet for both. Said the director, with typical understatement, “I’m a cinephile, so to be on the other side of what I’d always watched was very exciting.” Karata was still palpably excited: “To be able to participate was such a surprise. I didn’t ever imagine I’d go there at such a young age and with my first lead role. I feel extremely lucky to have had such an experience. It was like a dream, just like the [Japanese] title of the film.”

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 ©FCCJ

Hamaguchi has already completed nine films in just over a decade — including a trilogy of documentaries centered around the Fukushima disaster — and has been a fixture on the festival circuit since his first release. But Asako I & II marks his first commercial release, and is also a Japan-France coproduction. Asked about the process of creation, he said, “I assume that not many people know the difference between working on an independent vs. a commercial film. The starkest difference is the scale and size of the budget. The level and quality, I’ll call it, and the goals of the producers are also different. But my producers were familiar with my earlier films, so we were able to work together in a flexible fashion. We were able to meld my style with a more commercial style.”

He continued, “The effect of it being a Japan-France coproduction is that it was easy to expand it into international territories, so there was no risk of having to recoup the budget in the Japanese market only. MK2 is handling international sales, and came onboard during the script stage. They’ve already sold the film in over 10 territories.”

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© 2018 NETEMO SAMETEMO FILM PARTNERS & COMME DES CINÉMAS

A journalist pointed out that Asako I & II is adapted from a bestseller by a female novelist (Akutagawa Prizewinner Tomoka Shibasaki, whose earlier novel “A Day on the Planet” also got the cinematic treatment), and that Hamaguchi had also cowritten the script with a female writer, Sachiko Tanaka. “Did you have to adjust your own perspective?” he was asked. Responded Hamaguchi, “They brought a lot to the story in terms of a female perspective. But you don’t have to be a woman to understand Asako’s actions. And you don’t have to be a female to shoot a story like this. Ms. Karata was able to embody the character of Asako. She had extreme focus in playing the role, and I just let her lead me — all the way to Cannes.”

(In a similar vein, it’s worthwhile to note that Guardian film critic Peter Bradshaw suggested that the film is a reversal of traditional roles: “You’ve got a woman who falls for a guy’s looks, not ‘personality.’ Asako I & II is about the female gaze, and male beauty.”)

The bulk of the evening’s questions focused on the doppelgänger in the room — the two characters played by Higashide, and their relationships with Asako.

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 ©Koichi Mori

In the film, Osaka college student Asako (Karata) first sees Baku (Higashide) at a photography exhibit, and smiles to herself about his uncombed mop of hair, his flip-flops and coveralls. But shortly after leaving the museum, she turns to find him just feet away, and they exchange names. Then, as firecrackers literally go off behind them, they kiss deeply. A few days later, they relate their meet-cute story to disbelieving friends at an izakaya. “It’s fate,” says Baku. Asako’s BFF Haruyo (Sairi Ito, in a standout performance) immediately warns her, “He’s a heartbreaker — I know he’s gonna make you cry.” And indeed, Haruyo is right. The happy couple has only 6 months together before Baku disappears one day while out shopping for shoes.

Inconsolable, Asako finally moves to Tokyo and takes a barista job. Sometime later, she comes face to face with Baku again, although she gradually accepts that he is actually who he says he is: Ryohei Maruko (also played by Higashide), a straight-laced marketing executive for a sake company near her café. Confused by Asako’s sudden advances, followed by a sudden chill when she realizes her mistake, Ryohei falls as hard for Asako as she fell for Baku. A serious, reliable type — the polar opposite of her ex — he gradually wins her trust, and they’re brought firmly together by the shock of the 2011 Tohoku earthquake. But whether it’s really love is a mystery, even to Asako. Although their lives fall into a comfortable pattern, her secret obsession with Baku keeps getting in the way. And then, 5 years later, Asako is confronted with the ghost of her past, and makes an astounding choice.

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Karata and Hamaguchi react to a question.  ©Koichi Mori

A member of the FCCJ audience wondered about the motivations of Baku, whom he called “emotionless,” and how much the film differs from the novel. Admitted Hamaguchi, “I stayed true to the novel, but I’ve received quite a lot of questions about Baku during my overseas travels to show the film. That made me realize how indispensable he is to the story arc. As to what motivates him, that’s not depicted in the novel, nor is it explained why he leaves Asako. Since he’s a character that can’t be explained by emotional impulse or motivation, he becomes a wonderful catalyst in the story arc. And it allows for a wonderful departure from realism.”

Asked about the experience of acting opposite not just one, but two Higashides, Karata said, “He plays two very different characters, and he was very different on set, too. When he played Baku, he felt like a fragile, ephemeral character. I felt like I was with him but not really with him at all. When he played Ryohei, I felt enveloped by the love he had for the character of Asako, like I was floating in this bubble of love that he’d created. He helped me a lot in playing my character.”

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Asako shares a laugh with friends. 
© 2018 NETEMO SAMETEMO FILM PARTNERS & COMME DES CINÉMAS

She also mentioned that she’d read the original novel several times and kept notes on lines of dialogue that she especially liked. For a certain scene, in which she falls asleep and is awoken with a kiss, it “allowed me to feel like I was in the same state of mind as Asako was in the novel. The way Higashide-san kissed me [as Baku] was quite different from the way he’d kissed me as Ryohei. I had this sense of, ‘Who is this man? He’s so different.’ That’s exactly the way it was depicted in the novel. It’s a [pivotal moment] that is very disconcerting to her.”

Although the film was overshadowed by the eventual Palm d’Or winner, Hirokazu Kore-eda’s Shoplifters (see the June blog), Asako I & II is perhaps the more universal story of the two. An enigmatic meditation on first love, and the staggering power it exerts over our ability to move on with our lives once it ends, it is sure to prompt many audience members to revisit their idealized memories of youth.

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Hamaguchi and Karata relax at the end of the session. ©FCCJ

  

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© 2018 NETEMO SAMETEMO FILM PARTNERS & COMME DES CINÉMAS

Selected Media Exposure

THE TRIAL


THE TRIAL (Shinpan)


June 25, 2018
Q&A guests: Director John Williams and stars Tsutomu Niwa and Rina Tsuneishi


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Williams, flanked by Niwa (left) and Tsuneishi (right).  ©Mance Thompson

The innocent man wrongly accused, fighting for the elusive truth that will free him: it’s a familiar theme in literature and film, and it seems unlikely to ever wear out its welcome.

It’s somewhat surprising, then, that Franz Kafka’s great existential nightmare, “The Trial” (“Der Process”) has been filmed only twice before. The first time was in 1963 by Orson Welles, who set his expressionist interpretation against the backdrop of the Cold War; the second was in 1993 by David Jones, who returned the story to its Prague roots, giving it a less overtly contemporary subtext.

John Williams, a Welshman who has made his home in Japan for several decades, has now transplanted the tale to Tokyo, and the great accomplishment of his adaptation is that it seems both absurd and yet frighteningly plausible.

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John Williams. ©Mance Thompson

Williams’ day job is teaching literature and film at Sophia University, and his earlier Japanese-language films reflect his fluency with richly layered texts. In 2016, he found inspiration for a radical reimagining of Shakespeare’s “The Tempest,” set entirely on Sado island (and aptly named Sado Tempest), fusing Noh theater, taiko drumming, Japanese rock and time travel. His 2006 Starfish Hotel (taglined Welcome to the Darkland, and perhaps inspired by both “Alice in Wonderland” and Haruki Murakami), was a supernaturally tinged tale of a salaryman searching for his missing wife with the help of a man-size rabbit.

The writer-director has previously discussed The Trial as a reflection of Japan’s current political climate, citing the government’s attempts to “clamp down on divergent voices and opinions, actively muzzling the media and passing laws that threaten journalists’ freedom. People who want to see [the film] as a satire about Japanese bureaucracy can read it that way too, but it is also a film about the education system or about the problems of a society where people mostly sleep their way through the systems that govern their lives and are persuaded by the government and by TV and by the media not to think too much and not too think too deeply. I worry that democracy is being slowly whittled away by something far more insidious than the Japanese government, and that ‘something’ is so subtle it is almost invisible most of the time.”

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Niwa, left ©FCCJ; Tsuneishi ©Mance Thompson

Appearing at FCCJ with the two stars of The Trial, Williams explained, “Originally I was going to shoot a lot of the film in a very unreal space in a very unreal way. But I realized that I wanted to make a film about contemporary Japan, and I was really only using ‘The Trial’ as a commentary on contemporary Japan. Therefore, to make a surreal version of it would blunt the impact of what I was trying to say. Part of what I was trying to explore was the creeping sense of things becoming unfamiliar and strange in the world of Japan today, and the only way to do that was to find concrete examples in the real world, but shoot it in a real world that is somehow defamiliarized.”

Indeed, the “real world” of the film is completely recognizable, yet austere, washed of intense colors and depopulated. It opens in a nondescript apartment block, where Yosuke Kimura (Tsutomu Niwa), a banker, has awoken on the morning of his 30th birthday to find two men at the foot of his bed, announcing he is under arrest. When he demands to see the warrant, they admit they haven’t been entrusted with it, but will instead be his “angels.” Kimura has no idea what the charge is, and when the official warrant arrives later by special delivery, it stipulates no crime. His comely next-door neighbor, Mari Suzuki (Rino Tsuneishi) has just dropped by to say the angels questioned her about him, and she urges Kimura to confess. He assures her he is innocent. She finds his apartment a bit too tidy, but he does seem mild mannered… surely he’s no criminal. 

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Yosuke Kimura (Niwa) awakens to an existential nightmare in John Williams' The Trial. ©Carl Vanassche

Kimura is summoned to a court date by the National Security Council Court Office, but with the wrong address and no time. When he manages to arrive, he finds a ridiculous scene: the apparent chief clerk sits at a desk in a school gymnasium, as a woman hangs underwear on a laundry line strung behind him. When Kimura dares to suggest that things are simply not right in “this farce you call a court,” the hearing is halted and he is ordered to return later. On his next court date, he finds a roomful of fellow offenders, some of whom have awaited trial “for an eternity” and urge him not to be rash.

Mari offers to give him an alibi, but flees when he tries to kiss her. The court laundry lady (Shizuko Kawakami), a self-professed legal expert, seductively suggests, “We could add testimony to your file to help you. We could lose some of the incriminating testimony.” But whenever Kimura accepts help, or engages in harmless flirtations, he looks even guiltier. Eventually, even his lawyer despairs. “You need to control your lust,” he shouts. “Your sloth, your avarice, your pride, your sexual deviance! How can I defend such a monster?” Wherever Kimura turns, people seem to know about his trial — worse, they all believe he’s culpable and will face a terrible punishment in the end.

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The back of the Japanese flier for the film is a clever
approximation of Kimura's court summons.  ©︎Carl Vanassche

In the park one day, he finds a puppeteer putting on a show with the Crow Man, the “only law,” who “comes out of the darkness” to rule over the world, finding all the “bad, rude, greedy, lazy” people… the criminals.” As the children in the circle around the puppeteer giggle, he turns to Kimura, and advises him to simply accept the inevitable: “Haven’t you heard that Truth is dead? Everything is just a big show nowadays.”

The Trial is rife with such pointed criticisms, and Williams’ actors were asked whether they had hesitated to take part in what could possibly be considered a seditious work.

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Photo left ©Mance Thompson; right ©FCCJ

Niwa, who appeared in the director’s previous three films and assumes his first leading role with The Trial, responded in English, “We first collaborated together on his first film, Firefly Dreams. We’ve worked closely since then for [almost] 20 years, so I didn’t hesitate to put my trust in him. I understand his style, and what he envisions for his films. But it was hard to prepare for this role. I couldn’t define a thruline for the character. It was a struggle for me. I knew he was just passive, but it would have been boring if I was acting only passively. What finally clicked for me in finding the character was the death of my father-in-law. I realized that the character represented the entire life of a person. As I took care of my father-in-law and watched him fight to live on, his struggle was the same as this character’s.”

Tsuneishi also professed full faith in her director: “I personally agreed with [Williams’] commitment to depicting what he wanted to depict, and it’s up to each individual viewer to interpret the film in their own way. I thought it was a good opportunity to participate in the film, because by portraying these problems, it can instigate discussion.”

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Court is in session. ©Carl Vanassche

Pressed further about the overall message, Williams replied, “I don’t want to be too specific about what political meanings I intended, because I do want it to have multiple interpretations, and I did want to be true to Kafka’s existential novel. I hope it’s a film not just about politics. As Tsutomu said, each one of us has to make sense of our own lives. I suppose something that really stuck in my head was, about three years ago at Sophia University, while we were doing a critical thinking exercise about a piece of literature, one of my students asked, ‘What is the answer to this?’ I said, ‘Well, I don’t have an answer. It’s literature. What does it mean to you?’ She said, ‘No, the teachers in our schools have a book which gave all the answers for each piece of literature. I want an answer. I want you, as a teacher, to tell me what it is.’ I began to feel that a lot of young people were in a similar mind frame, that there’s a right answer and it’s going to be given to you by somebody else. So partly, this film is a critique of that — who thinks our thoughts for us? I suppose that’s both a philosophical and a political question.”

Thanking Williams warmly for “another head-scratching film,” one attendee asked whether the #MeToo movement, with “men seeing women as sexual objects or feeling that they’re guilty without being charged,” had had any impact on his approach. The director explained that the shoot had actually taken place in February 2017, and the movement “really kicked off slightly after that. Of course I was thinking a lot and talking a lot with the actors about the sexual politics of it. I could see the potential for Kimura being a kind of James Bond character who goes through a load of women who all appear to be in love with him. In the book, a couple of the women characters are like victims, and I wanted to strengthen some of them, give them an empowerment — but a false empowerment. Last year I spent time back in Britain, and when I came back I was really shocked at how different the gender politics are here, how women are not respected. I was trying to say something about that.”

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©Mance Thompson

Asked to clarify whether the focus on women trying to seduce Kimura was present in the original novel, Williams responded, “It is in the original novel. The women all claim that there’s a special aura he has because he’s [been] accused, and there’s a lot of sex and sexual behavior in the novel. But I wanted to try to suggest that women in Japanese society are trapped in this role where they have to use their sexuality because they’re deprived of real power. I was trying to suggest that these characters are all in a state of false consciousness about how to use power in society. My wife told me that I wasn’t successful in doing that [laughter]. But the intention was to preserve the thing in the novel about sex is power, but to try to depict four different types of women who are all using their sexuality, but not in a way that is actually genuine. I talked a lot to the actresses about this because I was aware that this is a kind of dangerous area.”

Said Tsuneishi, “I think the female allure or attraction depends on the woman and the power that she has. Whether it applies only to Japanese women, I don’t think that’s necessarily the case. As for the four women in the film, they each use their own approach to seducing Kimura. I agree with what [Williams] said, but when it comes to my own role, although Mari wants to figure out how to use her sexuality as a means of power, I don’t think necessarily all women are like that. One thing that isn’t depicted in the film is that Mari is actually a virgin, so she’s actually very timid and she craves physical contact, but she’s too shy. She wants to break out of the box she’s confined in.”

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The Crow Man delivers a frightening message. ©Carl Vanassche

She continued, “As for the depiction of women and how they’re perceived, I think this is something that is true of other countries as well as Japan. I get very aggravated at times by how women are perceived. But I thought that if the director wanted to create an opportunity for discussion, there was no reason not to participate. The script was written in English and translated, but the director was very inclusive and we discussed how to re-translate certain words and phrases. He was very considerate in that way.”

As for Niwa, whose character is chided by a priest for “looking for help in all the wrong places,” he said, “For Yosuke Kimura, all four women helped him, and he wanted their help. They’re the keys to saving him, and saving his life.” He laughed bitterly. “But they didn’t save him.”  

Official Poster
©Carl Vanassche

Selected Media Exposure

SHOPLIFTERS


SHOPLIFTERS (Manbiki Kazoku)


June, 6, 2018
Q&A guest: Director Hirokazu Kore-eda


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Kore-eda with his Palme d'Or, surely the closest anyone in the audience has ever been — or ever will be — to the prize.  ©Mance Thompson

Even the infrequent filmgoer in Japan knows that Hirokazu Kore-eda became the first Japanese director in 21 years to win the coveted Palme d’Or at the Cannes Film Festival on May 19, for his latest masterwork, Shoplifters

But the good news was quickly hijacked by right-wing Japanese commentators, who — without viewing the film, and perhaps without having a clue that the bulk of Japanese cinema does not treat the country’s social ills as if they are taboo subjects — immediately began condemning it for the damage it could cause to Japan’s international reputation. 

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©Mance Thompson

Soon, the headlines had politicized the win even further, suggesting that Prime Minister Abe’s reported failure to call Kore-eda with congratulations was surely proof that he disapproved of its empathetic portrait of a family living in poverty and shoplifting to get by.

The director attempted to set the record straight in a message posted to his website on June 6, protesting that “discourse surrounding this film has included both criticism and praise … [arrived at] by juxtaposing it against the values asserted by the current administration.” He went on to write: “A film is not a vehicle to accuse, or to relay a specific message. If we reduce a film to this, we lose all hope for cinema to ignite a richer conversation. I have never made a film to praise or to criticize something. That kind of filmmaking is nothing but propaganda.”

Of course it’s no secret that the auteur has always incorporated social issues into his work, particularly his documentaries. But he rarely foregrounds them in his narrative films, with the exceptions of his 2001 Distance and his 2004 Nobody Knows, both of which also earned acclaim at Cannes.

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©Mance Thompson

For those familiar with his oeuvre, Shoplifters can be seen as a continuation of Kore-eda’s concerns with the trials and tribulations of the “family” unit, and his ongoing exploration of the strength and fragility of bonds forged by choice, not blood. This was the overriding theme of his 2015 Cannes Jury Prizewinning Like Father, Like Son.

As with the writer-director’s previous domestic dramas, Shoplifters is a thoroughly engaging film, both gently comedic and heart-wrenchingly sad, and it features winning performances from a familiar — and much-loved — cast, including Kore-eda regulars Kirin Kiki and Lily Franky. It also features a breathtakingly brilliant turn by Sakura Ando, collaborating with him for the first time. (The only moment of the film that can possibly be interpreted as subversive is when Ando wears a t-shirt bearing the message Freedom is never voluntary. It must be demanded by the oppressed.) 

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Osamu and Shota case a supermarket before taking what they need.
© 2018 FUJI TELEVISION NETWORK/GAGA CORPORATION/AOI PRO. INC. ALL RIGHTS RESERVED.

It’s no surprise that the FCCJ screening of Shoplifters was one of the biggest draws in recent memory, although it’s a shame that the 80+ people on the waiting list could not be seated. After eight TV cameras and dozens of additional Japanese press members were accommodated, the filmmaker entered the thronged room carrying his Palm d’Or box, and despite being exhausted from 2 weeks of constant interviews and evident lack of sleep, answered questions with the same contemplative regard that marks all his work.

After obliging everyone by opening the box and showing his prize, Kore-eda recalled his Cannes experience, and his elation at the praise of the jurors for the film’s directing and acting. Addressing the elephant in the room, he then went on to say, “I’ve participated in many overseas film festivals since 2000, and there has been a lot of mention about the lack of criticism of Japanese society and politics [in the selected Japanese films]. I would say that this has to do with the distribution system in Japan. Oftentimes, the more major film companies will not handle films with heavy themes. This has resulted in the diminishing of the diversity and variety of Japanese films at festivals abroad.”

He admitted to being surprised about the approach taken by Japanese media: “I keep hearing that either I or my film is causing quite a stir. But I would put a positive spin on this. It’s a welcome thing, because it’s no longer just a film being released. It’s gone beyond those boundaries and will reach many more people. So it’s not such a bad thing.”

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©︎Koichi Mori

Indeed, no spin should be required. Shoplifters features one of the most endearing, close-knit families to hit Japanese screens since… the blue-collar family in the director's own Like Father, Like Son, which has so far been his biggest hit around the world. 

In this era of belt-tightening and widening income gaps, young Shota (Jyo Kairi) has been taught how to pinch the things they need but can’t afford by his father Osamu (Franky, channeling his lovable patriarch in Like Father, Like Son). “The stuff in stores doesn’t belong to anyone yet,” Osamu reassures him. The two work seamlessly together on the job, trading secret signals and celebrating with fist-bumps before bringing their booty back to the ramshackle dwelling they share with Nobuyo (Ando), Nobuyo’s sister Aki (Mayu Matsuoka), and granny Hatsue (Kiki), whose small pension payments supplement the income of the adults’ minimum-wage jobs. 

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The poster outside the screening room, noting the full house. ©Koichi Mori

Returning home one frigid night, Osamu rescues a tiny girl, Yuri (Miyu Sasaki), who is malnourished and too shy to speak. At first reluctant to shelter (and feed) yet another mouth, Nobuyo realizes that the child is being abused and decides to take her in. Despite Shota’s initial resentment of his new “sister,” and the occasional incident (a broken leg, a lost job, a death), the family lives happily together, taking trips to the beach, building a snowman, watching Osamu’s magic tricks. And then, a routline shoplifting spree triggers a startling outcome, and as hidden secrets are unraveled, threatens to undue the bonds uniting them.

Mentioning that Kore-eda has said his script was inspired by recent news stories, a journalist asked about the family who had stolen fishing rods (a similar event occurs in the film), and what kind of research had been conducted. “I read about the court case involving the family,” said the director. “They hadn’t pawned the rods for cash yet. They still had them, which was why they were caught. I imagined that the family must have loved fishing, and immediately had a clear image of a father and son fishing with stolen rods.” He laughed. “I apologize to all the fishing stores out there."

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Aki and Hatsue in the overcrowded central room of the house.
© 2018 FUJI TELEVISION NETWORK/GAGA CORPORATION/AOI PRO. INC. ALL RIGHTS RESERVED.

He continued, “The story isn’t based on one particular incident, but rather on various incidents involving families committing crimes. I wanted to depict a family or close-knit community that wasn’t bound by blood. The first thing that came to mind was a family bound by crime, such as by [real-life] cases of pension fraud in which families failed to report the death of parents, and fraudulently claimed the pension payments. I also wanted to depict a family or close-knit community that was bound not by kindness, but by money. I didn’t want to go too soft or easy on this.

“Another idea that made its way into the film came from research we did at a facility for abused children. There was one girl who came back from school with her [heavy backpack] and we asked what she was studying. She pulled out this Japanese picture book called ‘Swimmy,’ and started reading. The facility workers scolded her for taking up too much of our time, but she wouldn’t stop. She read all the way to the very end, and we all clapped, and she just beamed. I imagined that she probably wanted to read it to her parents, and that left a really deep impression on me. So I had the boy read ‘Swimmy’ in the film. 

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©Mance Thompson

A Japanese journalist asked whether Kore-eda could possibly have “targeted the film at Japanese politicians, due to its treatment of social problems” that are being overlooked. The director immediately responded, “Not in particular. I say No because I’ve felt this way since the days when I worked in TV. One of my coworkers told me, ‘When you make a film, target it toward one individual and keep that person firmly in mind. If you do that, you’ll be able to reach many people.’ I was in my 20s at the time, and I’ve continued to have this stance.”

Anticipating the next question, he continued, “I think for this film, I targeted it at the young girl who read us ‘Swimmy.’”

Referencing a particularly enchanting scene of togetherness, in which the family sits on the porch of their tiny home, eating watermelon and listening to the fireworks that they’re not able to see for all the tall buildings surrounding them, one attendee asked how important the physical dwelling was to the story. Kore-eda recalled Cannes Jury President Cate Blanchett’s speech before presenting him with the Palm d’Or, “in which she mentioned the ‘invisible people’ in the film. That was definitely a key motif. It’s about what we cannot hear and cannot see. There are scenes in which people aren’t able to see each other through the window or hear each other’s voices. The parts that are hidden and unseen, left to the audience’s imagination, were an important motif throughout the film.

Shoplifters.official. 2018 FUJI TELEVISION NETWORKGAGA CORPORATIONAOI PRO. INC. ALL RIGHTS RESERVED.-76394Nobuyo tells Yuri "people who love you hug, not hit."
© 2018 FUJI TELEVISION NETWORK/GAGA CORPORATION/AOI PRO. INC. ALL RIGHTS RESERVED.

“We were very lucky to be able to find that house, which we used for the location shots. I think it’s a big factor in the success of the film. My request was to find a single-story house surrounded by tall buildings, and my amazing crew found it. We actually shot some of the interiors on a set that reproduced interiors from the house. Thanks to the wonderful production design, even I can’t recall exactly which scenes we shot on location and which were on the set. It was really believable that these people were living together in this house, and I think it’s one of the main characters in the film.”

Hoping for a scoop, an entertainment reporter asked Kore-eda about the progress on his next film, rumored to star French icons Catherine Deneuve and Juliette Binoche. “We actually haven’t officially announced anything about the new project,” he responded, “so it’s puzzling how much information has been leaked, [including] cast names and how much they’re getting paid. I don’t know how much I can disclose, but I can say that the shoot is planned for the autumn in France, predominantly in France, with French actors and actresses. We’re planning an official announcement next month, and I’ll be going to Paris from June.” 

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©︎Koichi Mori

While the newly minted Cannes Palm d’Or winner heads off to direct his foreign-language debut, filmgoers in Tokyo will be treated to English-subtitled screenings starting from June 23 at Wald 9 Cinemas in Shinjuku. But overseas fans won’t have long to wait: Shoplifters has been sold to an astounding 149 countries, including North America, where the film's distributor, Magnolia, continues an impressive run (recent releases include RBG and Oscar nominees I Am Not Your Negro and The Square, which was last year’s Palme d’Or winner).

It is not difficult to imagine that Hirokazu Kore-eda, master of the delicately lyrical, understated humanist drama, will grace the Academy Awards stage in 2019. 

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©Mance Thompson

 

Poster 2018 FUJI TELEVISION NETWORKGAGA CORPORATIONAOI PRO. INC. ALL RIGHTS RESERVED.2
© 2018 FUJI TELEVISION NETWORK/GAGA CORPORATION/AOI PRO. INC. ALL RIGHTS RESERVED.

Selected Media Exposure

Selected TV Exposure

  • 映画「万引き家族」で最高賞是枝裕和監督反響の大きさにぼやき

    201867日放送 5:43 - 5:45 フジテレビ

    めざましテレビ OH!めざめエンタ NOW

  • 是枝裕和監督次回作構想一部明らかに

    201867日放送 5:08 - 5:09NHK総合

    NHKニュースおはよう日本(ニュース)

  • 気になる次回作は

    201867日放送 4:20 - 4:21TBS

    はやドキ!はやドキ!エンタメ

THE MAN FROM THE SEA


THE MAN FROM THE SEA (Umi wo Kakeru Otoko)


May 23, 2018
Q&A guests: Director Koji Fukada and star Dean Fujioka


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 Dean Fujioka (left) and Koji Fukada (right) are sure to reach new audiences with their first collaboration.  ©Mance Thompson

Those who are familiar with writer-director Koji Fukada’s award-winning work, particularly his 2016 Harmonium, the Jury Prizewinner in the Cannes Un Certain Regard section, will find that his first international coproduction feels both more placid and yet politically charged.

Those familiar with the work of actor Dean Fujioka, a homegrown megastar with a fervid Asian following, may be surprised by his limited screen time in a film by a director whose leanings are resolutely arthouse, rather than commercial.

Yet both men have clearly benefitted from the collaboration, and Fujioka’s presence is sure to help The Man from the Sea reach a much-expanded audience.

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 All photos ©Mance Thompson, except bottom right:  ©FCCJ

Speaking briefly prior to FCCJ’s screening, Fukada promised, “It’s a much lighter film than my last one.” Indeed, while much of the story concerns the developing inter-relationships between its four central characters, it is set against the backdrop of real-life tragedy in the seaside town of Banda Aceh, Sumatra. An area once devastated by the 2004 Indian Ocean earthquake and tsunami, it inspired the director to craft a tale marked by parallels with Japan’s own triple disasters in March 2011.

Fukada explained, “The idea for the film came from a visit I made to Banda Aceh back in December 2011, to shoot a tsunami symposium. It was really interesting, because I discovered big differences in the way [Indonesians and Japanese] view life and death. That’s what stimulated me to consider shooting against that backdrop.”

Evoking both the splendor and the wrath of nature, infused with a palpable sense of loss and hope as well as an ineffable magic realism, The Man from the Sea contains documentary interview footage touching on the still-fresh memories of the tsunami as well as the area’s recent civil war, and further back, lingering recollections of the hardships of World War II.

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©Mance Thompson

But these scenes are interwoven with the burgeoning romances of the film’s Japanese and Indonesian protagonists — whose cross-border rapport makes it seem as if the usual barriers of nationality and language simply don’t exist. And then there is the sudden arrival of a mysterious visitor (a driving motif of both Harmonium and Fukada’s earlier Hospitalité), who shakes the equilibrium of the community.

As The Man from the Sea opens, we meet Japanese aid worker Takako (Mayu Tsuruta), who has settled in Banda Aceh, assisting in ongoing reforestation and other disaster recovery projects with her son Takashi (Taiga), while her husband remains in Yogyakarta. Both are fluent in Indonesian and completely comfortable in their adopted culture. On the day Takako’s niece Sachiko (Junko Abe) is scheduled to arrive on a visit from Japan, a man (Fujioka) is found lying on a beach, apparently stricken by amnesia, and Takako is called to help. He seems able to understand Japanese and Indonesian, but he cannot — or will not — speak. While his identity is being ascertained, she reluctantly agrees to let him stay at her house overnight.

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Fujioka as the mysterious, magical man from the sea.
©︎2018 "The Man from the Sea" FILM PARTNERS

Takako nicknames the stranger Laut, meaning “sea” in Indonesian, and he seems content to just... be. Smiling serenely, he sits by himself as life swirls around him. Takako, assisted by aspiring journalist Ilma (Sekar Sari), attemps to uncover who this enigmatic visitor is and where he came from, while Sachiko gets settled in and meets Takashi’s college friend Kris (Adipati Dolken). He helps her begin her own search for the beach her father so fondly remembered, where she hopes to scatter his ashes.

And then gradually, strange phenomena begin occurring in Laut’s presence. He seems to have the power to make dead fish jump, cold showers run warm, bubbles of water float, and the dead appear to loved ones. Is he really Naoki Kuroda, the missing tourist, as locals suspect? Or is he something altogether more ambiguous?

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Photos on left: ©Mance Thompson; on right: ©FCCJ

As the Q&A session got under way, Fukada elaborated on the process of bringing the film to fruition, seven years after he attended the disaster seminar in Banda Aceh: “The Indonesian visit also influenced another of my films, Au Revoir l’Eté. About a year after I completed that, I started discussing this project with a producer at Nikkatsu. But it’s really difficult if you try to make a project in Japan that isn’t based on another work. That’s why we had funding also from France and Indonesia (Japan’s Nikkatsu Corporation teamed up with France’s Commes des Cinemas and Indonesia’s Kaninga Pictures to coproduce), as well as creative input. It was a really rewarding project for me.”

Greeting the audience as if they were old friends (he had last visited FCCJ a full year ago, but his affability is a large part of his appeal), Fujioka said in American-inflected English, “I hope you liked the film, and have your own answers to this mysterious piece of work. I believe it’s not something that’s binary — it’s got an open ending that I think opens up a dialogue for viewers.”  

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Takashi and Sachiko take a taxi in Banda Aceh.  ©︎2018 "The Man from the Sea" FILM PARTNERS
 

Asked whether he had taken the role of Laut because he’d wanted to work with Fukada, or because he’d wanted to work in Indonesia, Fujioka immediately responded, “Both. My family is in Jakarta, and I always wanted to do something that’s related to my wife’s home country. I wanted to make something that, when my kids grow up, they’ll be proud of me, they’ll know why I’m missing this time with them now. When I pick projects, my criteria are whether the character, the story or the film will allow me to feel proud of myself as a good father.”

As for his director, Fujioka enthused, “Mr. Fukada’s script was great. It was original, it was really creative, it was eccentric, and you could call it unkind, in a way — it doesn’t end with easy [answers]. It doesn’t really emit any message or define how it should be interpreted.”

Although the film’s overarching meaning(s) can be considered ambiguous, Fukada does not shy from difficult themes. One of these is the fluid notion of national identity. The character of Takashi, for example, wrestles with his Japaneseness, since he considers himself to be essentially Indonesian; and the man from the sea, while he appears to be Japanese, is essentially a man without a country.

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Laut and Ilma help a girl with heat exhaustion. ©︎2018 "The Man from the Sea" FILM PARTNERS

Noting that he had also questioned such notions in films like his 2009 Hospitalité, one journalist asked the director to expand upon the theme. “Indeed, national identity is one theme of the film,” said Fukada. “I was intrigued when I realized during my visit to Banda Aceh that I had seen footage of the great tsunami of 2004 and yet, had considered it only as a [distant] news story among many others. Yet the way I perceived the 3/11 disasters here was different, and I had [distanced myself] by making a distinction between ‘here’ and ‘there.’ It made me want to depict this through characters that had Indonesian and Japanese national identities, and try to juxtapose those against Laut, who has no national identity at all, and thus give the audience the opportunity to think about identity.”

Pressing further on the same issue, another audience member asked the director why he’d felt a “narrative compulsion” to shoot the film abroad, and whether it would have been impossible to make it in Japan. “I don’t think it’s necessarily impossible to explore this theme in Japan,” Fukada answered. “For example, there’s work like Kenji Miyazawa’s ‘Matasaburo of the Wind’ (a short story in which village schoolchildren believe that a new transfer student is the embodiment of a legendary wind sprite) — so it’s a universal theme, in a way.” 

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As in his prior visit, Fujioka made all his responses in English. ©︎Mance Thompson

He continued, “But I found that when I placed the story in Indonesia, it was an even better match than I’d anticipated. I had discovered that Indonesians have a spiritual nature, and more of an acceptance of the supernatural. The man Nu, who appears in the documentary within the film, said that after he’d lost his wife and daughter in the disaster, his wife had forgiven him for remarrying, and his daughter had come to him in a dream and led him to where [her remains could be found]. He talked about it in a very natural way, not as if it were any kind of special experience for him.

“Also, when we were shooting on location, we always had ‘rain stoppers.’ These were people who offered prayers to stop the rain, whenever it looked like rain was imminent. All the Japanese crew found this unusual, but for the Indonesian crew, it was an everyday thing. I think it’s only normal that the people of Aceh would receive the character of Laut in a very natural way.” 

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©︎Mance Thompson

Recalling an interview he’d conducted with Fujioka when his I Am Ichihashi: Journal of a Murderer was coming out in 2013, a journalist said they’d spoken about the difficulty of preparing for a role when an actor feels he has nothing in common with the character. “For this film, then, how did you go about preparing to play a character who is basically unknowable?” he asked.

Responded Fujioka, “It was really difficult, because I understood from the script that this guy is not human. I had to lose the smell of any ethnicity or nationality. He’s basically like a plant, or an alien — I never had a concrete answer from Mr. Fukada — but he’s like nature itself. I had only a couple of lines to speak in a couple of different languages, so it was basically like a choreographed art installation. It was something equivalent to dancing or shooting an action film, although Laut wasn’t really active. It was a subtle way of moving my body. I remember that Mr. Fukada reminded me every single day to hunch over — he said my posture was too good to be Laut. I had to hunch over and keep that little smile, and that’s how I forged this art installation.”

DF-MFTSMance Thompson-34-2Fujioka brandishes the script, after reading his favorite line — which was dropped from the finished film.  ©︎Mance Thompson

Noting that they’d had a good rapport on set, and he had completely trusted Fukada, Fujioka said, “I think a complicated character is easier to act, in a way, because there are a lot of things you can bring out, you can dig deep into your soul and your memories and bring out emotions. But this time, since he’s not human, it was extremely difficult. …[But] we collaborated on this piece of work named Laut.”

It was only later, as photographers were assembling near the dais for a photo call, that Fujioka was asked about the blue notebook he was carrying. “This is the script,” he explained, opening it to the first page. “Mr. Fukada omitted the first line on page 1 of the script. I loved this line: ‘I’m satisfied with the universe, but I’m not satisfied with the world.’ I thought it was beautiful. I think it basically explains who Laut is and the theme of the film. So I brought the script today because I just thought it was such a pity that it wound up being dropped during post-production.”

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©2018 "The Man from the Sea" FILM PARTNERS 

Selected Media Exposure

BLOOD OF WOLVES


BLOOD OF WOLVES (Korou no Chi)


May 8, 2018
Q&A guests: Director Kazuya Shiraishi and novelist Yuko Yuzuki


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Shiraishi (left) and Yuzuki (right) recall the film's infamously gruesome pearl scene, which the director added himself.   ©Mance Thompson

Is The Blood of Wolves the first salvo in an electrifying new yakuza film franchise from Toei Studios? The film’s “planning producer,” Muneyuki Kii, dares to hope so. Its director, Kazuya Shiraishi, does too. And Yuko Yuzuki, the woman whose rough-and-tumble bestselling novel, Korou no Chi, reignited the studio’s  passion for jitsuroku eiga (actual record films), says, without hesitation, that Shiraishi’s the man if there are sequels in the offing.

Shiraishi and Yuzuki were at FCCJ to talk with the audience after our sneak peek of The Blood of Wolves. It marked the first time the Film Committee has hosted the author of the original novel on which a film is based, and the second time that Shiraishi has been on the dais. He was at FCCJ with four other directors to kick off the Nikkatsu Roman Porno reboot project in 2016, having directed Dawn of the Felines. It would go on to become the most successful of the five releases.

Shiraishi has explored territory similar to The Blood of Wolves in his previous high-octane actioners The Devil’s Path (2013) and Twisted Justice (2016), both of which won numerous awards. But he hits a career high with his new film. The boisterous, brutal cinematic bombshell made its world premiere in Udine, Italy at the Far East Film Festival in April and has already been booked for extensive international festival play. Should it prove to be a commercial hit at home, there’s every chance that Toei will move forward with Yuzuki’s just-released Kyouken no me (literally Eye of the Mad Dog), the second in a planned trilogy.

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The tone was surprisingly light through most of the Q&A, a relief after the film's unrelenting intensity.   ©FCCJ

After a decade of churning out popular ninkyo eiga (chivalry films) starring kimono-clad yakuza heroes played by the likes of Ken Takakura and Koji Tsuruta, Toei shifted gears in the early 1970s and introduced what came to be called jitsuroku eiga, focusing on the true stories of postwar yakuza in what film historian Jasper Sharp calls “a world of craven thugs and corrupt law enforcers… when vaunted traditional codes of behavior have been revealed as shams.” Kinji Fukusaku’s epic Battles Without Honor and Humanity (1973), which was set in Hiroshima and starred Bunta Sugawara, was explosive, spawning four sequels, another three-part series and loads of imitators.

Toei makes no bones about its intention to recapture the invigorating jolt with which that classic franchise was met. “To make a film about the wild way of life of outlaws in the Showa period in the current Heisei era is an ambitious act,” read the production notes for The Blood of Wolves. “[It’s also] a challenge to Japan’s film industry, and to modern society itself.” 

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©FCCJ

The studio describes that challenge this way: “[Wolves] depicts men who traverse the boundaries between trust and betrayal, violence and desire, and justice and atrocity. In their harsh and brutal realm of existence, pride means everything. The striking catharsis and violence delivered by these men… is little seen in modern-day Japanese entertainment due to the highly restrictive nature of domestic free-to-air television and the current family-centric film environment.”

Yuzuki has admitted that if it weren’t for Fukasaku’s films, her novel would not exist: “It's a world that women can't enter even if they try, which is the very reason why it impressed me.” But responding to a question about the influence of the series on her writing, which has earned her multiple awards and widespread acclaim for her hardboiled style and meticulous attention to procedural details, she told the FCCJ audience, “The way I see the Battles Without Honor and Humanity series is, they were set in Hiroshima in the chaotic postwar period, and they weren’t so much about yakuza, but about these people and their will to survive. They were ferocious, and desperate to survive. They would kill each other, they would [really get down and dirty]. That was what really attracted me to the series. I wonder how many people in Japan today have such a passionate will to live?"

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© 2018 THE BLOOD OF WOLVES Production Committee

Added the director, “Needless to say, I was a huge fan of Toei’s jitsuroku eiga, but that era has ended. It’s the type of genre that you can’t make in Japan today, so I hadn’t really given any thought to venturing into that realm myself. In the early days when I was an assistant director, there were still V-Cinema (straight-to-video) yakuza films, but I never thought I would have the opportunity to make a film like this. When they came to me with Ms. Yuzuki’s novel, it was something I hadn’t even dreamt of. I was overjoyed, and also intimidated. But I also had a certain confidence that perhaps I was the only director who was able to take on this project.”

Shiraishi’s confidence is well earned. Not only does he guide his actors to awards-worthy performances, particularly Koji Yakusho, who is electrifying as a corrupt police detective, he also directs with dizzying visual intensity. Jitsuroku eiga fans will be pleased to note the stylistic similarities in The Blood of Wolves: Shiraishi deploys Fukasaku-esque freeze frames, overtitles, narration, newspaper images and docu-style shaky cam to impressive effect.

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 ©FCCJ

 “These days,” said Shiraishi, “the only yakuza films we have like Battles Without Honor and Humanity are by Takeshi Kitano, the Outrage series. Many members of the cast in this film were first-time yakuza. But they really, really seemed to enjoy it. They really put their heart and souls in it.” (With a cast that includes Yoko Maki, Takuma Otoo, Taro Suruga, Tomoya Nakamura, Junko Abe, Shido Nakamura, Yutaka Takenouchi, Kenichi Takito, Kenichi Yajima, Tomorowo Taguchi, Pierre Taki, Renji Ishibashi and Yosuke Eguchi, it’s hard to imagine which are neophytes.)

As for Yakusho, “When I was first starting out, I loved the yakuza roles he did in [V-cinema films] like Drug Connection and Osaka Gokudo Senso: Shinoidare. He was so wonderful in those roles that I wanted to bring back the yakuza Yakusho. Although he plays a detective, he’s a thug detective. But I think he’s fantastic in this film.”  

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Yakusho goes ballistic, brilliantly. © 2018 THE BLOOD OF WOLVES Production Committee

The Blood of Wolves immerses us in the dog-eat-dog world of Hiroshima at a time when internecine battles between rival yakuza clans could engulf the city at any moment. Detective Shogo Ogami (Yakusho) seems to be the only one holding the place together, using collusion, theft, torture, arson —whatever it takes — to keep the gangs “neutered.” The maverick detective, volatile and unpredictable, has no qualms about bending the law if it will help rein in the gang warfare. Favoring wide-collared polka-dot shirts and sunglasses, and ravenous like the wolf of his name, Ogami is dogged by rumors that he’s in cahoots with the mob.

After a recent transfer from headquarters, rookie cop Shuichi Hioka (Tori Matsuzaka) has had just about enough of his new partner’s balls-out behavior. “What you’re doing is insane, Ogami! Police officers are supposed to uphold justice,” he yells in exasperation. “You wanna hear my idea of justice?” responds Ogami. “I ain’t got one.” But he later confesses he feels “like an acrobat on a tightrope: lean too far to the gangster side or the cop side, and you fall.” 

Hioka secretly records and writes copious notes on his partner’s shockingly unorthodox methods as they investigate the disappearance of a finance company employee, which seems to have kicked off the latest conflict. Scrambling to retain his own sense of honor and humanity (codes that once governed both cops and criminals), Hioka gradually finds himself in over his head, swept up by Ogami’s maelstrom of raw brutality, scrambling to halt the eye-for-an-eye clan vengeance. But just as Hioka is ready to present his evidence to Internal Affairs, the rogue detective disappears and the hounds of hell are unleashed… 

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Matsuzaka has an Ogami-like moment. © 2018 THE BLOOD OF WOLVES Production Committee

Noting that the film is “very exciting, but also very confusing” (a fair criticism, considering the intricately woven plot strands, complicated relationships between gangs, enormous cast of characters who appear fleetingly, and the frequent necessity for multiple English titles on screen at once) one FCCJ audience member asked for some elucidation of the film’s themes. Responded Shiraishi, “One very big theme is the notion of personal justice. This takes place in 1988, the final year of the Showa era, and these days we still speak of the ‘Showa Male.’ It was an era of many historical upheavals, such as World War II. The number of people who lived during those times has dwindled, and their way of life is also disappearing. I wanted to capture the Showa Male and the Showa way of life in this film.”

Said Yuzuki, “What I wanted to depict in the original novel was a universal theme: what human beings are like and how they live. Life, with all its trials and tribulations, still compels us to survive. It’s about survival.”  

Shiraishi and YuzukiKoichi Mori
©Koichi Mori

Another journalist sought clarification: do they think that survival is more difficult in 2018 than it was in 1988? “I think it’s rather more difficult to get by in 2018,” said Shiraishi, “because we’re not allowed to express ourselves or speak our minds. It’s a little more suffocating now than it was in 1988. But that was the time just before the Anti-Organized Crime Law kicked in, so for the yakuza, it was a time when it became increasingly difficult to do business and get by. But it was a time when the yakuza were active, and had more power than the police. So it’s easier to depict the life-and-death [struggle] during that period.”

Explained Yuzuki, “I set the story in Showa 63 [1988] because there were still various ties between the yakuza and the police. There was a gray zone, so I could depict the kinds of clashes and connections they had. Right now, I think everything is much more black and white. So it makes the era of the story easier to depict. Going back to the theme of pain and suffering we encounter in life, those are timeless things. Because of various economic factors and war, they haven’t changed in 20 years. Even if this story is set in the late 1980s, the audience can still relate.”

Kazuya Shiraishi-7FCCJ
 ©FCCJ

Pointing out that in Battles Without Honor and Humanity, Hiroshima’s position as the site of the atomic bombing “loomed large,” one audience member inquired what the writer and director thought it represented in The Blood of Wolves. Responded Yuzuki, “Before I started writing the book, I went to Hiroshima to do some research. What really struck me was the power of the Hiroshima dialect. It’s very powerful. While I was in town, I went to the Hiroshima Peace Memorial Museum and saw the absolute destruction that was wrought on Hiroshima. When I left the museum, the was sun shining and people were walking along the street, smiling and laughing, and it struck me how much determination it took to get us here, to this age. And I decided that I had to set the novel there, and include the Hiroshima dialect.”

Shiraishi smiled. “I remember watching the Battles Without Honor and Humanity series when I was a teen, and I assumed all yakuza spoke in the Hiroshima dialect. When the screenplay was written and we showed it to all our actors, I didn’t have to explain, they all understood what we wanted to do. I think that’s due to the wonderful films that Toei made in the past; they’ve been a guiding light for us. Under the influence of all those films, I thought Hiroshima must be filled with yakuza, but at the risk of angering Hiroshima citizens, I’ll just say that I found it to be a wonderful town.” 

Yuko Yuzuki-1FCCJ
 ©FCCJ

 Asked whether she felt her gender had “delivered a revitalizing jolt to the genre,” as has been widely hyped, Yuzuki said, “As a writer, I’m not all that aware of gender. But what I often find gender-specific in Japan is the way that [friendships are formed.] Women seek friends who share the same values, while men, even if their values are 90% different, if there’s one thing that they can share, they can see eye to eye. That’s what I find really appealing about the male world. That’s the kind of relationship I wanted to depict, and I wanted to make the male characters as masculine as possible.”

Shiraishi’s Twisted Justice screenwriter, Junya Ikegami, adapted Yuzuki’s book for the film, and the author admitted, “There were a few scenes that the director played around with. One scene was the pearl scene, which wasn’t in the novel. Also, the line that [actor] Renji Ishibashi says, ‘Coinkydoink, coincidence, cli—’ [she stops before uttering the full, potentially offensive, word], was not included in the novel. I really thought the director outdid me on those types of things.” She laughed, “I’ll try harder next time.” 

Kazuya Shiraishi-2Mance Thompson  Kazuya Shiraishi-1Mance Thompson
 ©Mance Thompson

Shiraishi said, “I mentioned that there are very few yakuza films out there besides the Outrage series, and those films were hits. Without Ms. Yuzuki writing the novel, there wasn’t much opportunity for Toei to venture back into the yakuza genre. If this film becomes a hit, hopefully, if Ms. Yuzuki wants me to direct the sequel, I’d be more than happy to take on that role.” Here, Yuzuki interjected, “Soshiso ai!” a passionate expression that we’ll interpret to mean “You know I would!” 

Shiraishi continued, “The [cigarette] lighter that ultimately went to Tori Matsuzaka in the film — he actually took that home with him. He said, ‘I’m gonna keep this until the next time we meet.’ So if there’s another project with this series, I would be more than happy to take up the challenge.”

poster Shiraishi and Yuzuki-12FCCJ
 ©FCCJ



blood of wolves  2018 THE BLOOD OF WOLVES Production Committee
© 2018 THE BLOOD OF WOLVES Production Committee 

Selected Media Exposure

OH LUCY!


OH LUCY!


April 26, 2018
Q&A guests: Director Atsuko Hirayanagi and star Shinobu Terajima


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Both Shinobu Terajima (left) and writer-director Atsuko Hirayanagi (right) have been critically lauded for the film.   ©FCCJ

Atsuko Hirayanagi has set a high bar for herself. Her first feature, the Japan-US coproduction Oh Lucy!, premiered at the Cannes Film Festival in mid-2017, finished the year with Independent Spirit Awards nominations for Best First Feature and Best Actress (for Shinobu Terajima’s beautifully calibrated performance), and earned rapturous critical praise during its recent rollouts in the US, France and elsewhere.

A poignant character study that deep-dives into the lonely life of a protagonist whose type is rarely depicted on screen, Oh Lucy! is an off-kilter culture-clash comedy combined with a deeply moving drama. Upon its world premiere at Cannes, Variety called it “a chocolate truffle with an arsenic core,” and Hirayanagi’s greatest accomplishment is that the film’s bittersweet aftertaste is pleasantly light and lingering.

Appearing for the Q&A session following FCCJ’s sneak preview screening, the writer-director and her star admitted they are curious about audience reactions on the film’s home turf. Said Hirayanagi, “I’m grateful that Oh Lucy! is opening in Japan, and I’m extremely curious about how the Japanese audience is going to react, and how they’ll feel about this film. Being here is kind of surreal, and at the same time, a dream come true.” 

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Terajima and Hirayanagi get a laugh out of costar Josh Hartnett's video message (left ©FCCJ, right ©Edwin Karmiol).

Terajima, who was making her third visit to FCCJ (after sneak peaks of Vibrator and Koji Wakamatsu’s Caterpillar, which won her the Silver Bear for Best Actress at the 2010 Berlin International Film Festival), began on a serious note: “I’m very pleased that I could be here tonight on this very special occasion.” Then she smiled her inimitable smile before continuing, “Today is my wedding anniversary. I’ve been married 11 years, and I’m so happy that I could be here.” (To her credit, it wasn't at all clear whether she was being gracious or slightly facetious.)

There were more punchlines to come when Terajima's costar, Josh Hartnett (Black Hawk Down, Penny Dreadful), dropped in to chat about his experiences by video. About his director, he said, “Atsuko Hirayanagi is one of the most quietly hilarious people I’ve ever met. [Guffaws ensued on the dais.] I spent a lot of time with Atsuko on the press tour, and everyone I introduced her to thinks she is genuinely one of the funniest people around. She’s a joy to work with, and a lovely human being. I’m very proud of her for making this film, and grateful to her for letting me be a part of it.”

As for Terajima, he ribbed, “Shinobu claims that she doesn’t speak English, but that is not true. [More guffaws.] She didn’t let on that she could understand everything I was saying until deep into production, so she made me feel at a disadvantage, and quite uncomfortable, [but] in a good way.” He then lowered his voice, whispering conspiratorially about how she would disappear to play Candy Crush before certain scenes. “In my opinion, it was the best way to prepare for work that I’ve ever seen.” After apologizing for asking so many questions on set, he said, “I hope it didn’t affect anyone negatively, including you, Shinobu. Thank you for your patience.”

OH LUCY OH LUCYLLC All Rights Reserved.
Acclaimed actor Koji Yakusho, left, with Hartnett and Terajima. ©OH LUCY,LLC All Rights Reserved.

He went on to laud the cast for being so “well prepared and artistically inspired,” but mock-warned, “The next time we all work together, you’re going to do it here, on my turf.”

In fact, Oh Lucy! does spend substantial time on Hartnett’s turf. Hirayanagi herself is based in the US, after growing up in Japan, going to the US as a high-school exchange student, and then graduating from New York University’s Tisch School of the Arts in Singapore. Her thesis film was a short version of Oh Lucy!, which went on to win nearly 40 awards around the globe, including prizes at the Cannes, Sundance, Toronto and SXSW film festivals. Although she was courted to direct other projects, she decided to first explore Lucy’s story further, and with initial funding from Sundance and Japan’s NHK, went on to craft the feature version.

As the film opens, chain-smoking office lady Setsuko (Terajima) is clearly stuck in a rut, both professionally and in her seemingly non-existent personal life. En route to work one morning, a man on her crowded platform whispers “Goodbye” in her ear before leaping in front of the train. If that’s not enough to shake her up, a fellow OL is retiring, and she may be the closest thing to an office ally that Setsuko has. When her niece Mika (Shioli Kutsuna) begs her to fill in at her pricey English classes (reimbursing her directly for the fees), it seems to be just the diversion Setsuko needs. 

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The veteran actress and the first-time feature director.    ©FCCJ

Her unorthodox instructor, John (Hartnett), greets her with a warm embrace — “I’m a hugger, what can I say?” — has her don a curly blonde wig and pick her new name out of a box. Setsuko becomes “Lucy” and is encouraged to be “lazy and relaxed” when she speaks American English (a ping pong ball apparently helps). The new identity unleashes her inner she-vamp, empowering her to say all the things she’s pent up, some of which she instantly regrets. But it also rekindles the flames of hope in her heart. She’s immediately smitten with John, and thus aggravated when the red-wigged, widowed “Tom” (the great Koji Yakusho), joins the class and she no longer has the teacher’s hugs all to herself.

Then John suddenly disappears and Setsuko, nearly inconsolable, discovers that he’s left for Southern California with Mika. Desperate to see him again, she takes off in hot pursuit with her estranged sister, Ayako (Kaho Minami), in tow. Their first surprise, after realizing that California isn’t all beaches and glorious sunsets, is that John is no longer the Charisma Man he was in Tokyo, and Mika has fled. They coerce him into chauffeuring their search for her, and Setsuko/Lucy seizes one last chance at midlife liberation. 

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 Ayako (Kaho Minami) joins Setsuko in America, where Hartnett becomes
the bickering sisters' chauffeur.  ©OH LUCY,LLC All Rights Reserved.

Praising Terajima for her ability to play both “lifeless” (in Japan) and “full of life” (in California), a journalist asked how she’d mentally prepared for the difference. “Was it a geographic thing?” he asked. Explained the actress, “We shot all of the Japan scenes before we left for the states, so the geography did rub off on the character. The vastness of America, where you can walk a long way without ever bumping into someone, really elevates your spirit. I think the way I played the role was affected by that. We didn’t change my makeup, but even the director said I looked more beautiful in America. So I think the environment freed both Setsuko’s, and my, spirit. It was a really fun shoot to do.”

Hirayanagi was asked about her own relationship to America, since the film “presents America as a liberating space, but also rather twisted, dangerous and cruel.” The director began, “I’m not sure which part is twisted… I think American people are more present and speak to you as a person, rather than what your title may represent.” Switching back to the film, she then said, “So it was freeing for Setsuko, and not being labeled as an office lady or single or a chain smoker was freeing. No one knew who she was, so she could create something that she wants to be. I think that’s where the magic, the empowerment, of being in the states comes from. It freed her up and let her find the part of herself that she didn’t know existed.”

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  Top left ©Edwin Karmiol, bottom left ©Pierre Boutier, right two ©FCCJ.

To a question about the superb casting, Hirayanagi immediately responded, “Shinobu-san was a no-brainer. “The producers sent me a list of actresses because I’m away from Japan, so they thought I wouldn’t know actresses in her age group. But I saw her name and I knew she would be perfect. I knew her from Vibrator, one of the great Japanese films, and she was phenomenal. So we sent her the script and the short, we talked and she said ‘Yes.’”

Was she influenced to cast Koji Yakusho by his charming role in Shall We Dance? one attendee wondered. Although his role in Oh Lucy! is a small one, it is absolutely essential to the film, particularly in its closing moments. “Of course I know Shall We Dance? and there are similar threads in both films; but there were a lot of coincidences that came together and resulted in our casting him. We had him in mind from the beginning, but we weren’t sure how to approach him. I finally decided there could be no harm in asking him. He’s extremely versatile, and being able to cast him was like a dream. They say ‘shoot for the stars’ in English, and that’s what we did. And we got the stars.”

A film academic asked whether either Hirayanagi or Terajima had been challenged by differences in acting or shooting styles between the US and Japan. Said the director, “I think the main issue for Japanese actors is coverage, since we have more coverage if you try to shoot in so-called American style. I was in constant negotiations between my [cinematographer], who’s based in Hollywood and wants to take pictures as beautiful as possible, and my Japanese actors, who were getting tired from doing so many takes of the same scene. I wound up shooting Shinobu-san first, then Josh, since he’s used to it and gets warmed up after more takes.”

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Terajima and Hirayanagi react to Hartnett's video message.   ©FCCJ

Said Terajima, “I underwent very harsh training with Koji Wakamatsu, who made super-indie films and would go straight into shooting without any run-throughs. With Oh Lucy!, we did the same shots over and over again, and it was just as exhausting as Wakamatsu-san’s style. As for acting styles, I really don’t think it comes down to nationalities, but because Atsuko-san has a black belt in karate, I think she really knows how to read people. She’s able to meticulously gauge how and to what degree she should direct [each actor], so she can achieve the results she wants.”

Terajima then shared her experience at her first awards ceremony in Los Angeles: “I was really busy at the time of the Independent Spirit Awards, and could only fly over for 1.5 days. The Independent Spirits aren’t as well known in Japan as the Oscars, and I was curious what it would be like. But being there, you really feel like America is the country of cinema. You feel that everyone’s so passionate about the film industry. I got to meet [eventual Best Actress winner] Frances McDormand, and she’d seen Oh Lucy! and told me it was a wonderful film. Without going, you don’t realize the extent of the passion for film, so it was a really rewarding experience.”

Added Hirayanagi, “By the way, Frances McDormand was very, very complimentary about Shinobu-san’s performance. She’s not going to say it herself, so I have to add this fact.”

And it is, indeed, a fact.

OH LUCY PosterOH LUCYLLC All Rights Reserved
©OH LUCY,LLC All Rights Reserved 

Selected Media Exposure

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