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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.

Official arrest order
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.”

Official Popetier
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.) 

Shoplifters.official. 2018 FUJI TELEVISION NETWORKGAGA CORPORATIONAOI PRO. INC. ALL RIGHTS RESERVED.-7639
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

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