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TALKING THE PICTURES


TALKING THE PICTURES
(Katsuben!)


 November 20, 2019
Q&A guests: Director Masayuki Suo and star Ryo Narita


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Newly minted movie star Ryo Narita assumes character as his director, Masayuki Suo, cracks up.  ©Koichi Mori

The Golden Age of Silent Cinema lasted longer in Japan than anywhere else, spanning roughly 45 years (1896-1939). While the transition to sound was all but complete in the West by 1930, and many Japanese films were full talkies by the mid-1930s, the transition was delayed here. Why? Not because technology was lagging, but because of the popularity of katsudo benshi live narrators.

At the height of their immense popularity, around 1927, there were 6,818 benshi actively performing in Japan, including 180 women. These performers would not only write complete scripts for each film, they would enact all of the roles and narrate the action. Many of them were bigger stars than the actors on screen, with devoted fan followings and salaries that reportedly rivaled the prime minister’s (!). Books have been written about their influence on early filmmaking styles, and a handful of modern practitioners have regularly traveled the world to bring the art to today’s filmgoers.

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©Koichi Mori

So it comes as a surprise that benshi have never been the subject of their own fiction film. Talking the Pictures now rectifies that, and it is likely to launch a mini-boom in live-narrated films. Directed by Masayuki Suo, creator of such indelible works as Sumo Do, Sumo Don’t (1992), Shall We Dance? (1996) and I Just Didn’t Do It (2007), the story takes place over a decade in the early Taisho era, when motion pictures were still accompanied by benshi and a small musical group, but talkies were beginning to encroach on their dominance.

Although the subject seems — and is — right up his alley, for the first time in his career, Suo did not originate the idea for his latest film. Speaking to the audience at the Q&A session following FCCJ’s sneak preview screening, the director gave full credit for that to Shojo Katashima, who’d been his assistant director on Lady Maiko (2014). “He brought his script to me, but he came to me for advice, not to ask me to direct,” he explained. “He just wanted my comments on the script. I found it especially interesting because it was about benshi and how they supported the silent film era for 30 years. Japanese have either forgotten about benshi or didn’t know they existed, so I liked that the script spotlighted the profession. I also liked that it was written in a way that suggested the silent film style, with [slapstick action] that would make the audience laugh.”

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 Ryo Narita studied with professional benshi for months to nail his performance in the film. ©Koichi Mori

Suo wasn’t the only one captivated by Katashima’s scenario. “Soon after I read it," he said, "my longtime producer, Shoji Masui, came to me with the exact same script and suggested that we should take on the project.”

From its opening frames, as children and weather disrupt the filming of a silent swashbuckler, to the hilarious bicycle chase in its final reel, Talking the Pictures enthusiastically proclaims its love for the movies. Endlessly inventive, populated with colorful characters and chockfull of clever period detail, it evokes the Taisho period through its production design as well as its (purposely) anachronistic storytelling, although it assiduously avoids becoming a melodrama like most of the films-within-the-film that its benshi stars narrate.

The story concerns young Shuntaro Someya (Ryo Narita), who has dreamed of being a benshi since childhood. Then he grows "as tall as a telephone pole" and falls in with a group of thieves who do their dirty work while he poses as a phony narrator, copycatting the styles of bygone benshi stars. By chance, Shuntaro escapes one day with a bundle of money and finds work at the small-town Aoki-kan, where audiences (and staff) have dwindled since the opening of a fancier rival theater nearby. It’s just the kind of place where he’ll be safe from the vicious head of the thieves (Takuma Otoo), who wants his cash back, and a police detective (Yutaka Takenouchi) who wants to punish the phony narrator for the “dishonor he’s brought to motion pictures.”

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Shuntaro escapes from the bad guy. ©2019 TALKING THE PICTURES Production

But when he gets his big break on stage one night, his pursuers discover his whereabouts. And then there’s the girl, Shuntaro’s childhood crush, Umeko (Yuina Kuroshima). The aspiring actress is in the Aoki-kan that night, recognizes the flourishes of his performance, and rushes to his rescue. But when (real-life film director) Buntaro Futagawa hires her for a role that will take her away to Kyoto, Umeko has to choose between a career and Shuntaro.
 
Team Suo favorites Naoto Takenaka and Eri Watanabe are slide-splitting as the owners of the ailing Aoki-kan, which is populated with some of the most uniquely endearing characters seen on Japanese screens since Suo’s 1996 hit. Masatoshi Nagase is the theater’s drunken former katsuben star, self-styled as the Poet of the Dark; Kengo Kora is the oily new star, too big for his own silk breeches; Fumiyo Kohinata is the unscrupulous owner of the rival theater and Mao Inoue is his seductive secret weapon for putting Aoki-kan out of business. Also making appearances are Sosuke Ikematsu as Futagawa, director of the classic silent tragedy Orochi (which plays under the film’s final credits), and Koji Yamamoto as Shozo Makino, another real-life director who is considered the father of Japanese film.

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©2019 TALKING THE PICTURES Production

But it is really Ryo Narita — whose presence on Japanese screens large and small has practically exploded since his first appearance just 4 years ago — who anchors Talking the Pictures, and with an exuberant, affable star turn that is sure to propel him even faster into the pantheon.

How did Suo find him? “I wasn’t really familiar with too many actors in the younger generation,” the director confessed. “I met a lot of young actors and actresses during the casting process, but the reason I ultimately cast Mr. Narita wasn’t his acting talent or his voice. It was because I liked him. [During casting] I said to myself, ‘I really like this young man,’ and that’s it.” (Cue appreciative laughter.)

He continued, “I think there are two reasons he’s so good in the film. First, as an actor, there’s a naturally good-humored, amiable side to him, and I knew that if I could bring that out in his performance, it would make Shuntaro a wonderful character. Secondly, he put everything into his training as a benshi. Exerting all that sweat and toil is a talent in itself, so I really [can’t take too much credit] for his amazing performance.”

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Shuntaro and his childhood love Umeko reunite for the first time in a decade. ©2019 TALKING THE PICTURES Production

Asked whether he had a natural aptitude for impressions, Narita told the FCCJ audience, “I think I probably do have a bit of natural talent. But it took me 7 months of training for 3 hours every day with a professional benshi to play this role. I didn’t even know there was such a profession, but when I saw what they did and how they did it, I realized it really fit my [natural physicality].

“The most amazing thing about benshi is that they actually take on three roles — that of scriptwriter, actor and narrator. The first time I performed, it felt really good. It really grew on me. After we wrapped, I had a yearning to continue, but I didn’t want to have to keep [training so hard].”

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Cops and robbers on the move. ©2019 TALKING THE PICTURES Production

In a discussion about the younger generation’s reduced attention spans and the trend toward interactive experiences, Suo was asked what he thought about the audience being encouraged to interact vocally with his film, a la Rocky Horror Picture Show. While the director grappled with the question, which was then rephrased to include the suggestion that he create a director’s cut and have Narita narrate all the roles, the actor warmed to the approach. “I’d love to do that, although I’m not sure my voice would hold out for 2 hours,” he enthused. But Suo, citing his age, remain unenchanted: “I’d rather have someone else make a film like that.”

In a film driven by a terrifically jazzy soundtrack, the theme song, which plays jauntily over the end credits, invites continued humming long after one leaves the theater. To the surprise of the audience, who imagined it was written expressely for Talking the Pictures, a film critic asked how an 1865 tune written for the American Civil War came to be used for the film. Responded Suo, “The song was actually sung by a big star in Japan in the Taisho era, if not the early Showa era, and became a massive hit. The title was ‘Tokyo Bushi’ and the lyrics were changed to focus on Tokyo. I wanted to use a song that was symbolic of the Taisho era, so we changed the lyrics again to focus on benshi.”

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Narita and Suo with the film's poster. ©︎FCCJ

At the end of the session, the audience was treated to a short live performance by Narita, who had to push himself way back from the microphone, since he’d learned to project his voice like a true benshi. Tilting his chin as he hit the lower registers, he recited lines by one of the many, many characters he’d voiced in Talking the Pictures, demonstrating his skill at raising goosebumps even when no action is taking place on the screen behind him.

 

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©2019 TALKING THE PICTURES Production

Selected Media Exposure

THE 47 RONIN IN DEBT


THE 47 RONIN IN DEBT
(Kessan! Chushingura)


 November 20, 2019
Q&A guest: Director Yoshihiro Nakamura


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Yoshihiro Nakamura’s new film has our favorite movie tagline of the year: “Revenge is... ultra-expensive!”  ©Koichi Mori

When we talk about the “cost” of revenge, we invariably refer only to its psychological and physical tolls. This instantly makes Yoshihiro Nakamura’s The 47 Ronin in Debt — a title to be read literally, not metaphorically — a groundbreaking addition to the category of jidaigeki period films about loyal samurai exacting retribution for offences against their masters.

The versatile writer-director of cult hits like Fish Story and The Foreign Duck, the Native Duck, and God in a Coin Locker, as well as commercial hits like Golden Slumber, A Boy and His Samurai, The Snow White Murder Case, Prophecy and The Magnificent Nine, Nakamura has taken a unique approach to adapting one of Japan’s most oft-told historical tales, “Chushingura.”

Although the tragic real-life incident has already been adapted to stage and screen hundreds of times, he has now boldly reinterpreted it not only as a comedy of sorts, but also as a fiduciary thriller. Surely both are firsts in the “Chushingura” canon.

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Shinichi Tsutsumi balances humor and pathos perfectly as Ako chief retainer Kuranosuke Oishi.
©2019 "The 47 Ronin In Debt" Film Partners

The idea came from Shochiku producer Fumitsugu Ikeda, with whom Nakamura had worked on 2016’s The Magnificent Nine, a samurai comedy that also has serious themes at its core.

As the director told FCCJ’s audience following a sneak peak of his new film, “It’s widely known that the story is a tragedy, but I wasn’t familiar with all the details. So I first spent about 3 or 4 months ingesting all the books and films about it. The more I read, the more I realized how difficult it would be to turn into a comedy. So I decided not to tackle the legend but to focus instead on the Ako Incident, basing the story on the actual account ledgers of the Ako clan, which were kept by the chief retainer, Kuranosuke Oishi.”

Nakamura had come across a 2012 nonfiction work by University of Tokyo historiographer Hirofumi Yamamoto, who analyzed period records pertaining to the 1701-1703 planning and execution of the revenge plot, and used them to reconstruct the timeline of events.

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 ©Koichi Mori

“Oishi kept track of the Ako accounts. During the [two-year period of planning for revenge], they spent ¥100 million on 113 items, all of which were in the balance sheets.” he explained. “The legends tell us that Oishi had a lot of foresight and was very strategic. But when you look at what actually happened and the balance sheets he left behind, you find a character who’s quite different, and that’s what we’ve brought to the screen.”

Nakamura’s approach admittedly favors a Japanese audience, who are overly familiar with the story and the dozens of main characters, and thus won’t find the film’s multiple monetary and name captions distracting. In a roundabout way, he was asked whether he might have worried it become one of those only-for-Japan titles.

“My previous films have been invited to international film festivals, and I’ve heard enthusiastic audiences laughing during screenings,” Nakamura began. “When I was editing, I would even intentionally leave some space in the films for [the anticipated] laughter. But with this film, we did not have an international audience in mind, because we knew it was so dense with information. It’s the first time I’ve approached a film this way.

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Shochiku is cleverly billing the film as “budget attainment entertainment.” ©2019 "The 47 Ronin In Debt" Film Partners

“We were invited to the Tokyo International Film Festival last month, so we had to subtitle it. When I did a screen check of the subtitled version, I realized how challenging it would be for international audiences to watch it. So I must thank you for [taking up the challenge] of watching it tonight.”

Asked why he’d chosen the unconventionally jazzy soundtrack rather than a more traditional score, the director said, “This was my plan from the beginning. There were jidaigeki TV shows back in the 70s that used this kind of music and to my ears, it’s a good fit.”

The music certainly emphasizes the film’s comedy elements, which arise primarily from the relentless focus on finances. While the many previous screen iterations of “Chushingura” (directed by the likes of Shozo Makino, Kenji Mizoguchi, Kon Ichikawa and Kinji Fukasaku), have been all about the samurai code of honor, loyalty and self-sacrifice, Nakamura’s is all about the money.

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©Koichi Mori

The screen is sometimes awash with captions detailing the Ako clan’s expenditures for everything from actual salaries, uniform costs and travel expenses to a night out in the pleasure district for 20 rowdy warriors. These have been helpfully/humorously converted into today’s equivalents in yen (and in subtitles, dollars) based on the cost of a single bowl of soba noodles ($4.40).

How did Nakamura decide on that unit, one audience member wanted to know. “We considered many items,” he responded, “including the price of a bowl of rice or a per diem paid to carpenters. But we ultimately decided on soba. The Edo period lasted for 260 years, and the price of a bowl of soba was the only item that remained unchanged in that time.”

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Even a bowl of noodles is pricey when there are too many mouths to feed. ©2019 "The 47 Ronin In Debt" Film Partners

The 47 Ronin in Debt opens when Ako Lord Asano (Sadawo Abe) is at the height of a rather overzealous anti-corruption crusade. In 1701, he draws his sword on Lord Kira rather than pay him the expected bribe, and this results in his forced seppuku. Asano’s righthand man, Kuranosuke (a very good Shinichi Tsutsumi), is left to organize revenge with the fallen lord’s other devoted retainers. But the Ako must immediately surrender their castle, thus ending their tidy allowances and bringing their once-proud clan to the verge of bankruptcy. Kuranosuke’s immediate concern instead becomes to maintain solvency. There is just $877,000 in the treasury, and with 50 members of the clan plus their families, servants and his own concubines, the chief retainer soon realizes that his abacus-wielding accountants are mightier than any warrior.

Without them, attempts to win the shogun’s support for a restoration of the clan’s holdings cannot be properly financed, nor can anything else be accomplished. Yet as the days stretch into months and plans for vengeance remain just that, the samurai prove they will be spendthrifts. As the coffers are further drained and insolvency begins to engulf the Ako, Kuranosuke sees no other choice but to embrace the plan to assassinate Kira… if only they can afford the weapons and battle outfits to do it right.

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©Koichi Mori

Nakamura’s financial approach to the fateful years leading to the Ako’s revenge allows him not only to bring a fresh perspective to the tragedy and find a way into the comedy; it also adds a greater sheen of contemporary relevance. But the director declined to take the bait when questioned about the correlation, as a journalist noted Japan now “has the world’s highest debt.”

Said Nakamura, “It isn’t an intentional commentary on present-day Japan.” But he did note, “Back in the Genroku Era, it was the townspeople who put pressure on the Ako samurai to take revenge. And it was a time when the shogun, Tokugawa Tsunayoshi, was enacting onerous political policies.”

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Nakamura, in a happi coat similar to the Ako clan's firemen finery, with the Japanese poster. ©︎FCCJ

Nakamura had mentioned that they’d needed to costume 130 samurai for the film, prompting a journalist to see the Ako clan’s struggles as a metaphor for the act of filmmaking. Was that why, she wondered, there were almost no horses in the film?

“Horses are so expensive!” Nakamura laughed, admitting they’d had the budget for just a single steed. “I think you’re right that we can draw comparisons. In such a scenario, I suppose I would be the Sugaya Hannojo character (played by Satoshi Tsumabuki, he’s an aggressive type who constantly pushes his fellow samurai to attack). The producer would be Oishi Kuranosuke. When the assistant director would ask whether I needed a horse in a certain scene and I said Yes, the producer would later go to him and be very angry.”

But the producer is sure to forget all about that once the film debuts in Japanese theaters. It’s one of the two most hotly anticipated releases of late 2019 and is expected to finish in the year’s top 10 at the box office.

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©2019 "The 47 Ronin In Debt" Film Partners

I: DOCUMENTARY OF THE JOURNALIST


i: DOCUMENTARY OF THE JOURNALIST
(i -Shimbun Kisha Document-)


 November 12, 2019
Q&A guest: Director Tatsuya Mori and producer Mitsunobu Kawamura


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Director Tatsuya Mori . ©Koichi Mori

“In the political context of Japan today, the question really is, how much can a film accomplish?”

That was the Socratic response given by producer Mitsunobu Kawamura when he was asked why he had produced not one, but two films featuring the same woman in 2019.

The woman in question, crusading reporter Isoko Mochizuki, is the star of political thriller The Journalist — although she’s played by an actress and the role has been heavily fictionalized — and she is also the firecracker at the heart of i: Documentary of the Journalist, which follows the real-life Mochizuki so closely, she is barely absent from the screen.

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Mochizuki questions a government rep. ©Star Sands,Inc.

Kawamura, speaking to an overflow crowd at FCCJ following the screening of the documentary, admitted, “I hadn’t anticipated making both a documentary and a narrative film when we started. I think this is the first time in history that it’s been done. We actually had a different focus at first, but then a number of incidents took place in rapid succession that really should have brought down the Japanese government. The most film-worthy of these incidents was the rape case of Shiori Ito. But she was in a very difficult, delicate situation, and it was around that time that Ms. Mochizuki’s book ‘The Journalist’ came out, so we shifted our focus to her.”

Tatsuya Mori, the renowned director of such controversial films as A, A2, 311, Fake and now, i: Documentary of the Journalist, explained that he’d been working on his first narrative feature project when Kawamura hired him to direct a fictionalized version of Mochizuki’s book. When the producer then asked whether he could also direct a documentary about Mochizuki, Mori stepped down from the fiction feature to focus on the documentary.

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Kawamura (left) and Mori fielded a range of questions, many of them not what the producer, at least, was expecting. ©FCCJ

In June, The Journalist became a surprise hit in Japan. And less than a week before their appearance at FCCJ, Kawamura and Mori’s documentary won the Best Film Award in the Tokyo International Film Festival's Japanese Splash section, bringing them far greater instant attention than either had anticipated.

Although i: Documentary of the Journalist doesn’t mention Japan’s ranking on the 2019 World Press Freedom Index (it’s a very low 67; the US is at 48), its traditional media have earned increasing criticism for their herd mentality, for acting “more as stenographers than inquisitors,” as Motoko Rich recently put it in The New York Times, and for obediently following the dictates of their kisha clubs, which extend membership only to specific news organizations, allowing them exclusive rights to cover specific government offices with the expectation that questions will not be probing.

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Mori and Mochizuki chat during a break from filming, which took place from December 2018 until October. ©Star Sands,Inc.

That makes Mochizuki, a reporter for Tokyo’s largest regional paper, The Tokyo Shimbun, a notable exception. She has defied the dominant media culture and waged a lonely battle for the truth, becoming something of a press freedom folk hero for her prickly interactions with government officials, particularly at the Cabinet Office briefings that have helped make her (in)famous.

i: Documentary of the Journalist thrusts the viewer into Mochizuki’s daily life as she travels around Japan with her maroon roller luggage, chasing some of the biggest stories of the past year — from the ongoing disputes over US base re-siting in Henoko, Okinawa, to the initial dismissal of reporter Shiori Ito’s charge that she’d been sexually assaulted by a colleague with close ties to the Abe Cabinet, to the Morimoto Gakuen and Kake Gakuen school scandals implicating the prime minister and his wife — and relentlessly peppering officials with questions in her quest to get behind their smokescreens.

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©Koichi Mori

“What are you hiding?” she asks them. “It’s unethical to dodge scrutiny. You’re in charge, be responsible! What you’re doing is shameful.” It’s no wonder that, although her paper receives mostly supportive emails about her behaviour, there have also been death threats.

Mochizuki was publicly censured by the Cabinet Office earlier this year, and to the government’s surprise, hundreds of supporters turned up at the prime minister’s office, rallying on her behalf and pressing for greater transparency at the highest levels. “Isoko Mochizuki is me! Isoko Mochizuki is all of us! Fight for the truth!” roars the crowd in the film, as the journalist herself watches from the sidelines in amazement.

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There is an important message in the small ‘i’ of the film’s title, and it’s spelled out in text on the screen: “Don’t be ‘we.’ Be ‘I.’ First-person singular.” Mori was asked why he seems to be advocating for a more independent populace, when Japan is so famously consensus-minded.

He responded, “Human beings in the West as well as the East are group oriented. Because of groups, we have created wonderful cultures around the world. But there are side-effects: everyone moves in the same direction, like a school of fish. This leads humanity to make mistakes. ‘We’ is definitely important, but ‘I’ is also important. I believe that ‘I’ is too weak. I think we need to strengthen the ‘I’ in Japan.”

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Mochizuki at work in the Tokyo Shimbun newsroom. ©Star Sands,Inc.

Asked why Mochizuki seems to have a much stronger ‘I’ than ‘we,’ Kawamura purposely deployed two controversial Japanese expressions that have making headlines. “Ms. Mochizuki is really KY — kuuki yomenai,” he explained. “She’s oblivious to the surrounding atmosphere. And she doesn’t do sontaku — she doesn’t brown-nose (by anticipating and fulfilling superiors’ needs). In making this film, it occurred to me that the intense peer pressure that exists here is bringing Japan to a state of crisis, and really represents a danger to society.”

Have a century ago, esteemed journalist Edward R. Murrow warned, “A nation of sheep will beget a government of wolves.” As governments around the world continue oiling their misinformation machines, denying the public’s right to know, and waging war on the media’s “fake news,” Mori has understandably stepped up his advocacy of media’s all-important watchdog role. A professor of media literacy at Meiji University, he is also the author of over 30 best-selling books on social issues and the media, and winner of the Kodansha prize for nonfiction.

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©Koichi Mori

He recalled that when he’d approached the Aum Shinrikyo cult to request their permission to shoot the documentary A,which would earn him international acclaim upon its release in 1988, he was surprised to discover that no one else had bothered to even ask.

“OK, so here’s the quiz,” he told the audience. “Does that make me special? No, not at all. What I’m doing is what everybody should be doing. I only appear to be special because of the deteriorating standards of others. Ms. Mochizuki is the same. If she doesn’t get an answer the first time she asks a question, she asks again. If she still doesn’t get an answer, she goes and conducts firsthand research. She’s doing the job of a journalist. She only appears to be special because of the sinking standards of those around her.”

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©Koichi Mori

He continued, “The Japanese media is in terrible shape these days, but is that because they’re wrong-headed or weak? The media and Japanese society function together, and reflect upon each other. The reason the media is weak is because the public is weak. We elect third-class politicians because we are third-class citizens. We’ve got to find a way out of this dynamic, this mutual reinforcement. We’ve got to find a way to improve the situation overall.”

Asked whether Mochizuki’s example might inspire others, the director said, “It’s difficult. But as long as people have the feeling that the status quo is not desirable, there’s a possibility of change, whether they see these two films or not, whether they’re directly influenced by Ms. Mochizuki or not. As long as there’s a sense that things cannot continue the way they are now, it’s possible. There are many people in the media who are working very hard and have a strong sense of responsibility. If those people act on their sense of responsibility, then there’s a possibility for dramatic change to take place within the media.”

He waited a beat before adding, “Or alternatively, if 10 million people watch this film, then society will change overnight.”

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The filmmakers with the Japanese poster for the documentary. ©︎FCCJ

Kawamura was slightly more upbeat, despite rumors that the Japanese Agency for Cultural Affairs had pulled promised funding from another film he produced in 2019, Miyamoto, as punishment for his focus on Mochizuki. “Portraying a woman who fights on a daily basis at the prime minister’s office gave me great encouragement and strength in the course of making the film,” he told the audience. “I think [her approach] is something that’s very much needed… As a producer, my takeaway is that there’s nothing to be afraid of. It appears that there’s social pressure and that there’s a formidable force acting against us, but in fact, that’s a phantom. There’s no real danger in doing what we’re doing.”

As soon as Mori finishes adjusting the English subtitles to accommodate his final cut (he re-edited the film slightly after the TIFF world premiere, re-recording his narration in a more “relaxed way,” making the animation more “fantastic,” and changing the placement of the music), i: Documentary of the Journalist will begin making its international festival rounds. The good news for Japan-based viewers is that Shibuya’s Eurospace theater intends to screen the English-subtitled version.

Let the 10-million-viewers challenge commence.

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©Star Sands,Inc.

Selected Media Exposure

TORA-SAN, WISH YOU WERE HERE and Q&A in collaboration with TIFF


TORA-SAN, WISH YOU WERE HERE
(Otoko wa Tsuraiyo Okaeri Tora-san)


 October 3, 2019
Q&A guests: TIFF Opening Film Director Yoji Yamada,
TIFF Festival Director Takeo Hisamatsu and Japan Now Programming Advisor Kohei Ando


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Legendary writer-director Yoji Yamada plans to keep making films for another dozen years.  ©︎Koichi Mori

The hottest cinema ticket in Japan this year is sure to be for the 32nd Tokyo International Film Festival Opening Film. Eschewing its long-held tradition of selecting foreign titles for the honor, TIFF has hewed closer to home, where audiences across the country have been eagerly awaiting the release of the 50th title in the legendary Otoko wa Tsurai yo (It's Tough Being a Man) series.

That title — Tora-san, Wish You Were Here, from veteran helmer Yoji Yamada — will open TIFF 32 on October 28, and although the film’s beloved star will not be there (he died in 1996), legions of multi-generational fans will.

The Oscar-nominated director (for The Twilight Samurai in 2002) launched the series with Tora-san, Our Lovable Tramp in 1969, when Japan was experiencing dizzying growth and audiences were nostalgic for simpler times. It proved so popular that Shochiku went on to release two Tora-san films each year until 1989, one in summer and one for the New Year’s holiday season. Eventually, 49 films hit theaters over a 28-year period, setting a world record. All but two of them were directed by Yamada and all starred Kiyoshi Atsumi as “Tora, the free-spirited fool,” a boisterous, penniless salesman who travels through a rapidly-modernizing Japan, falling in unrequited love and dispensing unwanted advice. The last entry was 22 years ago, shortly after Atsumi’s untimely death.

The 50th title has been completed in time to celebrate the 50th anniversary of this remarkable achievement. But this isn’t simply a commercial ploy for closure. With Tora-san, Wish You Were Here, Yamada has done something truly groundbreaking: the film recaptures the spirit of the “lovable vagabond” through innovative technology that seamlessly interweaves new footage with 4K digitally restored footage featuring its late star. Rather than feeling like he’s been digitally inserted into scenes, Tora-san comes vibrantly, startlingly alive, and reminds us all how much he’s been missed. (For those who haven’t followed the series, it also serves as a fitting introduction, with actors literally aging 50 years on screen.)

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Yamada shares a laugh with his old friends Ando, left, and Hisamatsu.  ©Koichi Mori

Following a very special sneak preview of Tora-san, Wish You Were Here with English subtitles at Shochiku, Yamada joined TIFF Festival Director Takeo Hisamatsu and Japan Now Programming Advisor Kohei Ando at FCCJ for a brief rundown of this year's festival, and a rewarding Q&A session focused on his new landmark film.

At the packed session, which included many foreign fans — one of whom had flown in for two days from France just to cover the event — Yamada was asked about the biggest challenge of sustaining a series for 50 years. He responded, “Audiences always come to see a new Tora-san film because they want to see him again and spend time with him, so you can’t betray their expectations, and that’s [not easy].”

And then, sounding like another famous Shochiku director (Yasujiro Ozu, who likened himself to being a tofu maker), he sketched a metaphor: “I think my job as a director, especially with this series, is a lot like being a restaurant cook, trying to anticipate what the customers want to eat. You want them to say, ‘Oh, this is exactly what I felt like eating.’ You don’t want them to leave disappointed, the same way you don’t want the audience to leave disappointed. You want them to say, ‘This is exactly the kind of film I was hoping for!’”

The master chef also spoke, with several emotional pauses, about his star: “The most difficult film to make was the 48th film. By that time, Atsumi-san had become quite sick. We knew that he might have only two or three years left. So we were in a quandary about whether we should continue to shoot. We had to keep his physical condition in mind while writing the script.” (At Atsumi’s wake, Yamada would apologize for pushing his star so relentlessly; but one imagines Tora-san was a sustaining force for the actor.)

On a brighter note, he said, “It’s been 20 years since Atsumi-san died, but if he were still here and saw the film, I think he would be surprised. I have the same sense of surprise myself. In the very first Tora-san film, there’s a scene where Tora’s little sister Sakura, played by Chieko Baisho, is being proposed to by the man she later marries. Baisho-san was 25 years old at the time, and she’s 75 now. [In the new film] the other cast members have also aged, but Tora-san has stayed the same. In a sense, he’s like Chaplin’s Little Tramp or Marilyn Monroe.” 

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The iconic traveling salesman returns.  ©2019 Shochiku., Ltd.                                                    © 2019 TIFF

Asked how it felt to be selected for the TIFF opening slot, Yamada chose his words carefully. “There are numerous film festivals around the world, and needless to say, TIFF is the one that represents Japan. I think it’s very important for TIFF to have a certain character, a theme that differentiates it, something that people can’t find in any other festival. I hope that TIFF continues to work towards that goal so that it becomes a truly unique festival in the world.”

In fact, TIFF is differentiating itself this year by further intensifying its focus on Japanese offerings. Takeo Hisamatsu, in his third year as festival director, told the FCCJ audience, “As you know, the 32nd TIFF is being held in the first year of Japan’s new Reiwa Era. Next month, many guests will be coming from around the world for the ascension of the new emperor. We’re in the midst of the Rugby World Cup right now, and next year, we’ll host the Tokyo Olympics and Paralympics Games. So Japan is in the global spotlight, and there’s no better time than the present to showcase wonderful films from Japan in this year’s TIFF.

“I feel almost a sense of fate that we’re able to present Yoji Yamada’s Tora-san, Wish You Were Here as the TIFF Opening Film, since I’ve been watching all the Tora-san films as they were released and I have a warm spot in my heart for the series. Also, being a former Shochiku employee myself, I’ve had the great pleasure of working with Yamada-san and the opportunity of visiting the set as they were shooting the films."

Kohei Ando, TIFF’s Japan Now programmer since the section was created six years ago, was also excited about Yamada’s inclusion. “The Japan Now section’s mission is to showcase recent Japanese films that reflect the present state of this country, its aesthetics, its culture and philosophy,” he explained. “In that sense, showcasing a film like Tora-san, Wish You Were Here as the Opening Film of the festival is very much in line with this purpose, as it’s one of the most prominent and noteworthy titles to open this year. I have a twinge of regret about not being able to show this wonderful film in the Japan Now section, but it gives me great satisfaction that we’re able to present it as the Opening Film.”

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Yamada and his Tora-san family.
©2019 Shochiku., Ltd.

Among the 14 films in the Japan Now section will be a selection of works by another legendary filmmaker, Nobuhiko Obayashi, of House fame. “As many of you probably know,” said Ando, “Mr. Obayashi was diagnosed with cancer three years ago. Nevertheless, two years ago he shot a wonderful film called Hanagatami. And despite his ongoing battle with the disease, he has now shot yet another, Labyrinth of Cinema, and it’s another marvelous piece of work.”

Aging, disease, death: the Q&A session couldn’t avoid these topics. But the multigenerational audience didn’t seem to mind. After all, these are essential components of Tora-san, Wish You Were Here.

The series resumes on the sixth anniversary of the death of Mitsuo Suwa’s wife, and the family has gathered at a memorial service behind Kurumaya, the traditional confectionery store on the approach to Taishakuten Temple in Shibamata, which has now been reborn as a modern café. Tora’s sister Sakura and her husband Hiroshi still live in the quarters at the back, which have remain unchanged. 

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Mitsuo, Izumi, Sakura and Hiroshi recall the old days.
©2019 Shochiku., Ltd.

After the service, conversation inevitably turns to lively reminiscences of the past (beautifully illustrated with “flashbacks” from earlier films in the series), especially the many times that Torajiro, the black sheep of the Kuruma family, brought his latest unrequited love interest back with him, sending the house into an uproar.

Tora’s now-40ish nephew, Mitsuo (Hidetaka Yoshioka), has recently left his office job to become a novelist. At a book signing, he runs into his first love, Izumi (Kumiko Goto), who moved away to Europe as a teen and now works there as a UNHCR diplomat. Both have since married and had children, but as they talk, the years begin to melt away. Mitsuo takes Izumi to a small jazz bar, owned by the still-gorgeous Lily (Ruriko Asaoka), Tora’s greatest love.

The two women last saw each other over 20 years ago on Amami Oshima, and Lily finally reveals why she and Tora never married. Later, they go to visit Sakura and Hiroshi, and it gets late, so Izumi sleeps on the second floor, with plans for Mitsuo to drive her to a reunion with her father the next day. And so a new chapter begins…

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Lily tells Izumi what happened.
©2019 Shochiku., Ltd.

“I have made dozens and dozens of films over the course of more than half a century,” Yamada told the audience. “But making this newest film in the Tora-san series, I wasn't sure just what I was embarking on. Throughout production, I was a bit anxious about it, but I was [looking forward to seeing] what it would ultimately become. When I viewed the completed film, I realized that it really took 50 years to make. Without my longevity, I wouldn’t have been able to make it.” 

A young foreign journalist praised the film and queried, “I think it’s quite a feat to direct a film this good at the age of 88. If you were to direct another, what would you want it to be?”

“When I think about my age, it fills me with anxiety,” the director admitted. “I sometimes feel I shouldn’t have this luxury of making films. But Clint Eastwood is still making films (at 89), so I suppose I should follow suit. Portuguese director Manoel de Oliveira and Japanese director Kaneto Shindo both shot films until the age of 100, so I think there’s still hope for me.” 

Interjected Ando, to audience delight, “Yamada-san is just like Tora-san: he simply doesn’t age.” 

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Yamada charmed the audience with his candor and enviable energy.  ©Koichi Mori

Another foreign journalist, professing herself a fan of the series, asked what criteria Yamada had used to select the actresses who played Tora-san’s love interests, the so-called “Madonnas,” and why he hadn’t selected Momoe Yamaguchi, one of her favorite actresses.

Yamada responded, “First, I thought about what kind of actress he would fall in love with. Tora-san could really fall in love with just about any type of woman. Selecting the Madonnas for each film was an enjoyable process. Of course I also considered approaching Ms. Yamaguchi, but she’d already retired from acting, so that unfortunately couldn’t happen.”

In one of the film’s many touching flashbacks, a teenaged Mitsuo asks his uncle what life is for, and Tora answers, “There are times in life when a man is glad to be alive. That’s what we live for.” When an audience member asked Yamada whether he’d had times like that, the director grew serious. “To be honest, we live in a world where not everything is happy. There are situations both at home and abroad that we cannot be happy about. I hope there comes a time when I’m thankful to have lived this long so I could see it.”

The French journalist who had specially flown in for the event asked the director why trains and train stations played such an important role in all the Tora-san films, and why, in this one, a pivotal scene is set in an airport instead. Said Yamada, “Tora-san is a traveling salesman, always on the move. He can’t drive, so he has to take the train. But he doesn’t take the shinkansen, it’s too fast for him. He enjoys going from town to town on these slower trains. He enjoys drinking his sake and making friends on these train rides. And he’s never disappointed that he doesn’t arrive earlier. The way he's sees it is, ‘Why would I pay extra to arrive at my next destination any earlier?’ His sense of time is different from Mitsuo and Izumi’s, and that’s why you see them at the airport.

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©︎FCCJ

“But there is one other time in the series where you do see an airport: that’s when Tora-san is going to Okinawa. He’s afraid of flying, so his family members have a hard time convincing him to get on the plane. Ultimately, he boards the plane only because an attractive flight attendant comes along and tells him it's safe.”

For those longing to revisit these and other earlier episodes, Shochiku is releasing 4K digital restorations of all 49 previous films on Blu-ray, culminating in the nationwide release of Tora-san, Wish You Were Here on December 27.

If you're lucky, you'll catch the film earlier at TIFF, which will be screening 170 films from past and present, and holding a variety of related events, from October 28 – November 5 in Roppongi, Hibiya and elsewhere in Tokyo.

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©2019 Shochiku., Ltd. 

Selected Media Exposure

Selected TV Exposure

・ めざましテレビ 2019年10月4日(金)05:25~08:00 フジテレビ 

Selected Printed Media Exposure

Nikkan Sports
・Sports Hochi
・Daily Sports
・Chunichi Sports
 

WORDS CAN'T GO THERE


WORDS CAN'T GO THERE (Kaizan Take No Oto)


 September 26, 2019
Q&A session with David Neptune and John Kaizan Neptune
and a very special musical performance by
John Kaizan Neptune, David Neptune, Hitoshi Hamada and Christopher Hardy


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The Neptunes: fellow artists and snake hunters. ©︎FCCJ

It’s an old saw, that artists are incapable of expressing themselves through language alone. When words aren’t enough, they pick up the tools of their trade… and speak volumes.

In David Neptune’s penetrating, lyrical Words Can’t Go There, a renowned musician does exactly that.

Starting off modestly, as befits its subject’s humble approach to his musical prowess, the camera follows a man in jeans as he arrives by truck, enters a bamboo forest, digs, chops and emerges with a small stalk. “I like to think of music as a bridge that can take you to a nameless, timeless place,” the man says, in voiceover, placing the stalk in his truck. “Words can’t go there.”

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Hitoshi Hamada on vibraphone, John Kaizan Neptune on shakuhachi, David Neptune on take-da
and Christopher Hardy on percussion, a special live performance.
©Koichi Mori

A haunting tune of indefinable subtly and mystery fills the soundtrack. And suddenly, the camera lifts up and over the forest, taking flight as if the music has set it free.

Neptune’s film is, at heart, the story of a California surfer turned master of the shakuhachi (Japanese flute). But like all good stories about artists, it illuminates more than the process of creation.

Joining a select few films made by offspring about a famous parent, Words Can’t Go There was made by David about his father, John Kaizan Neptune, the most acclaimed non-Japanese practitioner of the shakuhachi, who has lived in Japan nearly half a century, recorded several dozen albums ranging from jazz, classical and traditional Japanese to world fusion, and performed across the globe.

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Director David Neptune ©Koichi Mori

Every member of FCCJ’s sneak preview audience had heard of John, but few of us knew his backstory, nor the particulars of his arduous journey to prominence. The documentary rectifies that, and our screening was followed by an extraordinary live musical performance, with John on shakuhachi, Hitoshi Hamada on vibraphone, Christopher Hardy on an array of percussion instruments, and David joining in for the final tune on the bamboo take-da drum, which his father had invented.

Neptune elder and younger then joined us for the Q&A session, which began with what felt like a rite of passage: “It was very interesting to work with David, because he has so much more expertise in [filmmaking] than I do,” said John about the filming process. “That was a real eye-opener. Early on, we were friends as well as parents, going surfing or hiking or hunting for frogs together. Later, when he started working with film, he became a fellow artist, as well as someone who was fun to hunt for snakes with. So it was a nice transition, that we could (now) relate to the difficulty of making it as an artist.”

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John Kaizan Neptune in concert. 2019 ©️ Ocean Mountain, LLC

The documentary traces those difficulties, but it isn’t until late in the film that the personal tolls really come into focus. Words Can’t Go There touches, quite movingly, on the sacrifices made by John’s wife and children while he was on the road half of every year, and on his own emotional distance.

A friend from Chiba, longtime FCCJ member John Harris, couldn’t resist asking, “Was it difficult to get Diane (Neptune) to participate? Some of the footage is really heartrending.”

Chuckling a little in discomfort, David replied, “It wasn’t hard to get her to participate. But it was probably my most difficult experience, asking her questions about her and my dad’s relationship. What child wants to ask their parents about what led to a divorce? She didn’t oppose being interviewed, but I think she was surprised by some of the probing questions that I asked.”

He went on to explain, “It wasn’t something I’d foreseen when I started the process. I thought, ‘Oh, I’m so impressed with my dad, with what he’s done, and I want to tell that story.’ But as I got into it and starting swimming upstream, I started finding all kinds of stuff that I felt I was obligated to explore. And that’s also thanks to the great people I worked with, like my cinematographer, Bennett (Cerf), who always prodded me to keep asking my parents more and more painful questions; and to (producers) Chiaki (Yanagimoto) and Mike (McNamara), who supported me throughout the process.”

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Neptune crafting a shakuhachi in his workshop. 2019 ©️ Ocean Mountain, LLC

The film traces John’s improbable journey from California to Chiba through a treasure trove of early photos and footage, as well as through interviews and performances with fellow musicians Kojiro Umezaki, Kifu Mitsuhashi, Kaaraikkudi R. Mani, Ghatam Giridar Udupa, Taizan Ohashi and Shinichiro Makihara. Family members recall that he had always driven himself hard. An early interest in the trumpet, inspired by his jazz trombonist father, gave way to an obsession with surfing, which led him to improve the surfboard by crafting his own, and finally, to enrolling in college in Hawaii so he could catch the best waves. While there, he took an Introduction to World Music class on a whim, and discovered the shakuhachi. It was love at first note.

In 1973, John moved to Kyoto to begin a rigid apprenticeship with grandmaster Genzan Miyoshi. A fellow student recalls that he would record their teacher’s playing on cassette, then “practice each phrase 500 times, 10 hours a day.” He was promoted to master in record speed, took the shihan name “Kaizan” (“ocean mountain”) and fled for the relatively free environs of Tokyo, where he could “do his own thing.”

That thing soon made him famous: John found his metier in the pioneering fusion of shakuhachi with jazz. Over the next decade, he appeared on innumerable TV shows, composed 80 pieces, released 10 albums in a variety of genres, and in 1980 — just 7 years after committing himself to a shakuhachi career — became the first-ever non-Japanese playing a traditional instrument to win Best Record at the annual Japan Record Awards.

John’s improvisations expanded the possibilities of the shakuhachi (“He’s someone who changed the game,” enthuses shakuhachi player Kojiro Umezaki, who performs regularly with the Silk Road Ensemble, in the film). Even as traditionalists criticized the achievement, John’s impact became increasingly global. As he’d done with surfboards, in his pursuit of the “perfect sound,” he also began crafting his own flutes, innovating them to create sounds never heard before, resulting in what aficionados dubbed the “turbo shakuhachi” for its large bores, and earning a reputation as the best tuner in the world.

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 ©Koichi Mori

Asked whether other musicians do the same thing, John told the audience, “Players don’t make their own shakuhachi, but you have to play quite well to be able to make one because you’re shaping the bore to create the sound. If you can’t play well, you don’t know if it’s you or the instrument when you’re trying to improve the resonance. But the reason for my start and my struggle with it was that no matter how much money I paid, I couldn’t find an instrument I was happy with.”

The film makes clear that most traditional instrument players in Japan belong to a certain “scene,” aka, a rigidly defined hierarchy of student and teacher that perpetuates certain schools or styles. Neptune has never followed that path. As a fellow musician notes, “John belongs everywhere, and yet nowhere.”

“Where do you think you belong?” he was asked at FCCJ. “No matter what kind of music you make or the communication you have with an audience, whether I’m playing solo or particularly when I’m working with other musicians, there’s a connection,” he said. “We share this love of music.”

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David explains the three stages of the filmmaking process. ©Koichi Mori

David has a global following for his comedy shorts on YouTube and Facebook, has won awards for a short horror film and has worked in a wide range of film industry positions, from interpreter to producer. But he had never made a documentary, and Words Can’t Go There marks his feature debut.

Asked how he knew when he’d completed the film, the director responded, “There were [essentially] three stages to making the film, which took 5 years. We shot about 500-600 hours of footage, enough for three different films, and there were probably three completely different films during the editing process.

“The first stage was me following my dad around with the camera, learning the process of documentary filmmaking. I followed him to schools in the Tohoku area, which was tough on me. It was hard to curb my own expectations, so the first stage was the reality shock of that. I felt destroyed. I was completely disappointed in myself.

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 ©Koichi Mori

“The second stage was when I finally put footage together from that 3-week trip and started showing a sample to people in LA. I was fortunate enough to put this great team together and we went back to Japan and filmed with Bennett. Then I thought, 'Now I’ve got a film.' I was feeling really good. Little did I know that I was still 3 years away from finishing.

“Then I asked my dad to send me some of the old VHS tapes that we had in our house in Kamogawa. He sent me a box with 56 tapes, and that wasn’t even half of them. They were all moldy from sitting in a humid closet in the countryside of Japan. But we found a guy who could actually clean and digitize them, then it took weeks to watch them. That was a huge thing that shifted the direction of the film, since I realized that we could illustrate things like the foreigner as a bear in the circus idea.”

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 ©Koichi Mori

What about that image of the lonely bear? “The lonely part comes with the daily practice and the composing and the working on flutes,” said John. “Those are solo activities. But when I perform the composition or sell the flute, then there’s the communication… the music brings us together.”

Despite his renown and dizzying performance schedule, Neptune does not have a fulltime manager and continues to do his own scheduling. “There was a period when I took any job I could get,” he explained. “The bottom line is, music is fantastic but music business is not so fantastic. If you’re doing a party for a big company, they’re not coming to listen to music. You’d prefer that they listened, but when they’re not, we do our own thing on stage and have a good time. But I ask for a lot more money than if someone asks me to play for a school and says, ‘We’d love for you to come and play for the kids, but we don’t have a big budget.’ That’s why I never lasted very long with a manager. Their primary focus is to promote you and to make money. I decide how much I ask for each individual job. The music business isn’t interesting, but the music itself makes up for it.”

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Kaizan plays near his home in Chiba.
 2019 ©️ Ocean Mountain, LLC

And what of teaching, the mainstay for most professional musicians? “When I started becoming a professional, one of the things I did was teach,” John admitted. “When I got busy performing, I couldn’t always make time for teaching regularly. I decided not to teach when I moved to Kamogawa about 35, 40 years ago.” David interjected, “He doesn’t really like teaching.” John nodded, “Yeah. It’s a wonderful thing, and in Japanese society, the sensei is right up there. I do seminars and workshops at special events.”

John Kaizan Neptune’s example and his enthusiasm continues to inspire musicians of every age, both at home and abroad. If you don’t have to chance to see him on stage, then do not miss this beautiful film about being an artist, a parent and a legacy.

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Father and son rock the take-da together. ©︎FCCJ

 

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2019 ©️ Ocean Mountain, LLC

Selected Media Exposure

THEY SAY NOTHING STAYS THE SAME


THEY SAY NOTHING STAYS THE SAME (Aru Sendou no Hanashi)


 September 9, 2019
Q&A guest: Director Joe Odagiri


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Emerging director Joe Odagiri. Remember the name. ©Koichi Mori

Film history is littered with forgotten titles by actors who always wanted to direct. Joe Odagiri’s visually and aurally stunning They Say Nothing Stays the Same is destined for a much kinder fate.

Appearing before a packed room at FCCJ the day after his return from the Venice Film Festival, which had hosted the world premiere, Odagiri told the crowd, “We received very warm applause, much more than I’d imagined, [which made me] very happy. But it made me feel a little uncomfortable, too, since this isn’t a film that should get such warm applause.” (He’s being humble.)

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©Koichi Mori

Reminded that he’d planned to study directing in California as a young man (where he wound up in acting classes after an admissions mistake), so it had taken him quite a while to get around to his feature-directing debut, he explained, “Working as an actor, I felt I would be taking advantage of my position if I directed a film. I didn’t think other directors would take kindly to it, and I thought audiences would look at the film through the filter of ‘presenting a film by the actor Joe Odagiri.’”

So what changed his mind, nearly 20 years after acting had made him a star? Odagiri turned unexpectedly confessional: “I don’t want to go into detail,” he began, “but I had a physical exam a while back, and the results weren’t very good. I may have overreacted, but I started thinking about what I should be doing in the time I might have left. I’d always wanted to make a film, but a strange kind of pride had prevented me. I felt that in my remaining time, I ought to do this."

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Odagiri on location with his masterful director of photography, Christopher Doyle.
 ©2019 “THEY SAY NOTHING STAYS THE SAME” Film Partners

“This” was also prompted by Odagiri’s encounter with legendary cinematographer Christopher Doyle (In the Mood for Love, The Limits of Control), who co-directed a film that Odagiri starred in, The White Girl (2017). Renowned for his prodigious artistry (as well as for his drinking), Doyle told the actor that if he made his own film, he’d like to shoot it.

“Chris Doyle’s role was incredibly important,” Odagiri concurred, when a film critic praised the film’s magnificent visuals. “I relied on him completely. He was able to realize everything that I imagined, and bring it all to the screen. He told me to concentrate on directing the actors and conceiving the composition of the shots, and leave the rest to him. Chris gave me 100% support throughout the filming, and 100% of my vision for the film was realized.”

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The director with Masatoshi Nagase, who plays a key role in the film.
©2019 “THEY SAY NOTHING STAYS THE SAME” Film Partners

When the interpreter had finished translating his remarks, he added: “One more thing: Chris isn’t just an old drunk.”

Odagiri wrote and refined his script over several years; and if audiences expect something dynamically, radically contemporary, they will be surprised to discover They Say Nothing Stays the Same feels more like the measured, stately work of a classic auteur.

Set on a fog-covered river and a rocky shore somewhere in Japan’s past, it tells the story of a lonely old boatman, Toichi (Akira Emoto, in his first leading role in over a decade), who ferries villagers and visitors to a town on the other side of the river. His only real relationship is with Genzo (Nijiro Murakami), a young neighbor who seems friendly and helpful. Upstream, a large bridge is being constructed and Toichi will soon be able to retire. He has mixed feelings about that, but his past is such a mystery, we don’t know what prompted him to be there in the first place. He is wracked by self-doubts and haunted by nightmares, but he does not miss a day of work and does not complain.

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The boatman's home on the river.
 ©2019 “THEY SAY NOTHING STAYS THE SAME” Film Partners

Then one day, he rescues a half-dead young girl from the water and gives her a place to stay. Fu (Ririka Kawashima, otherworldly in her major film debut) is as reticent as her host, but gradually, a friendship begins to grow. There are rumors about her own past — is she the kidnapped daughter of a murdered family several villages away or someone/something else? — but no one comes to claim her. As the days melt into months, nothing seems to change; but of course, nothing ever stays quite the same.

Set in early Meiji Japan but timeless in its concerns — the sacrifices made in the name of progress, the loss of cherished traditions and the natural environment, the human costs of capitalism — Odagiri’s debut is astonishing in its storytelling mastery and its stunning visuals, a tribute not only to his impressive skill at guiding actors to rich performances (especially Emoto, who is deeply moving, as is Masatoshi Nagase, who plays a hunter), but also to his ability at selecting the perfect collaborators.

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Emoto is deeply moving (and convincing) as the old boatman.
©2019 “THEY SAY NOTHING STAYS THE SAME” Film Partners

First among these, of course, is Doyle, whose camera captures a Japan that is at once achingly beautiful, steeped in lore but rushing headlong toward modernization. Shot in a splendidly scenic mountain valley in sunshine, rain and snow, with nearly constant mist rising from the boatman’s river, Doyle’s images are never less than captivating. Academy Award-winning costume designer Emi Wada (Ran, Samurai Marathon) and Armenian jazz musician Tigran Hamasyan, composing his first film score, also provide superlative support.

One of the other delights of They Say Nothing Stays the Same is the many cameo appearances, some as brief as a single line during a boat ride, by familiar faces: Tadanobu Asano, Yu Aoi, Isao Hashizume, Tsuyoshi Ihara, Jun Murakami, Takashi Sasano, Mitsuko Kusabue and Haruomi Hosono. When asked about his direction of Emoto, who is notoriously prickly, Odagiri responded, “Many veterans appeared in the film, and I decided that I wouldn’t give acting direction to any of them. What actors do is think about their roles, and how they can make them deeper and more resonant. I have a great deal of trust in the actors I asked to be in the film, and for me to tell them what they ought to do seemed superfluous. I understand actors, so it’s easier for me to direct than it is for [directors who haven’t acted].”

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©FCCJ

This begged a question about his own role in the film, which was behind the camera only. Asked whether he had considered acting in the film, and whether he’d consider doing so on his next directorial effort, Odagiri admitted, “Memorizing lines is such a hassle. To take time away from directing in order to memorize lines was something I didn’t want to do. I didn’t feel like I had the time to spare, and I think that will be the case in the future, as well.”

One FCCJ audience member, praising the film’s rhythm and pacing, asked Odagiri whether he had consciously chosen a cinematic style more akin with the past, or whether he’d had something else in mind. The director responded, “The film is set in Meiji Japan, about 150 years ago, and the rhythm of life was much different than it is today. It was a much more natural pace than today, when we live at such a hurried pace we tend to lose sight of things. As a result, people were in touch with themselves and the natural world. I’m hoping the audience will recognize that we’ve lost something in the name of convenience.”

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The mysterious Fu, played unforgettably by Ririka Kawashima.
 ©2019 “THEY SAY NOTHING STAYS THE SAME” Film Partners

Another audience member praised the film’s music and sound design. Odagiri explained that he’d been a musician and composer since an early age. “As a director, I’m probably focused on sound and music more than most directors. I was particular about creating the sound design for 5.1 surround sound, and using sound effectively with that system. To really appreciate this film, you have to see it in a theater with surround sound. I guess it will be available online, but since most homes don’t have 5.1 systems, don’t waste your time watching it online.”

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Odagiri laughs at a question about why he doesn't appear in the film himself. ©︎FCCJ

Queried, rather inexplicably, about his definition of happiness, Odagiri made the question matter without missing a beat: “The theme of the film is individual happiness. One of the messages I incorporated is, despite the period of the story or what environment you’ve been placed in, if you’re able to live a life you believe in, then that’s a form of happiness.”

Perfectly timed for the dawning of the Reiwa Era, in which you’d be hard-pressed to find anyone who doesn’t long for a less frantic pace of life, Joe Odagiri’s elegant, elegiac They Say Nothing Stays the Same is a welcome — and welcoming — respite from the s***storm outside. Do not miss it.

(Overseas audiences will also have the chance to experience its embrace, as festival dates are sure to be plentiful.)

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The writer-director with the poster for his film.  ©︎FCCJ

 

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©2019 “THEY SAY NOTHING STAYS THE SAME” Film Partners

Selected Media Exposure

WE ARE LITTLE ZOMBIES


WE ARE LITTLE ZOMBIES


 June 5, 2019
Q&A guests: Director Makoto Nagahisa and producer Shinichi Takahashi


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Producer Shinichi Takahashi (left) and writer-director Makoto Nagahisa brought some friends to the screening. ©FCCJ

Blame it on the braids, the ready grin, the boyish mien. One could be forgiven for imagining that filmmaker Makoto Nagahisa identifies overly much with the protagonists of We Are Little Zombies, who are all of 13 years old.

There’s also the energized exuberance of his award-winning debut feature, which is exhilarating and mind-bending in equal measure, and seems to explode from the consciousness of a young person not yet bogged down with the wearisome woes of adulthood.

Belying his appearance and his demonstrated brilliance with visceral imagery, however, Nagahisa is in fact a thoroughly mature professional.

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Nagahisa fields wide-ranging questions. ©Koichi Mori and ©︎FCCJ (right)

Appearing at the Q&A following our screening of We Are Little Zombies, he responded to questions in a measured, thoughtful manner, underscoring the level of care and compassion that are crucial underpinnings to the film’s success, along with its stylistic inventiveness.

Although one critic called the writer-director a “mad scientist” (a compliment), We Are Little Zombies is in reality the work of a serious-minded (and seriously imaginative) auteur, a longtime Dentsu ad planner who in 2017 became the first Japanese to win the Sundance Short Film Grand Jury Prize, for And So We Put Goldfish in the Pool.

Producer Shinichi Takahashi told the FCCJ audience that his company, venerable Nikkatsu Corp., had immediately recognized Nagahisa’s talent and begun talking with him shortly after Sundance about plans for his first feature. “He promised to come up with ideas for five or six stories during his paternity leave, so we could choose one to produce,” he recalled. “But when his leave ended, he came to us with a full script.

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Hikari (Keita Ninomiya) at his parents' funeral.
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“During development, he’d wondered if it might be difficult to do a story about 13-year-olds, since it might not do so well at the box office. But when he came to us with the script, I realized that was really the story he wanted to tell.”

We Are Little Zombies is a tragicomic exploration into parental neglect, loss, grief, alienation, media manipulation, personal growth and other capital-T themes. It is also the most manically inventive, colorfully chaotic, whacked-out, surrealistic, joyously vibrant film you will see this year, if not this decade.

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©FCCJ

Taking his cue from his juvenile protagonists, Nagahisa has adopted the style of a Super Nintendo RPG game, with characters each having to overcome various challenges before moving on to the next stage of their lives.

If the resulting candy-colored, eye-popping pastiche of madcap mayhem seems devoid of emotional depth for most of its running time, it is precisely because the director is echoing the children’s own emotional voids. But as it nears the finish line, Zombies sparks to poignant life, presenting its characters, as well as audiences, with an unexpected — but well-earned — catharsis.

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The Little Zombies in their performance wear, assembled at a garbage dump.
©2019“WE ARE LITTLE ZOMBIES”FILM PARTNERS

The film’s four protagonists meet for the first time at a crematorium. Hikari (Keita Ninomiya, who played the architect’s son in Like Father, Like Son), Ikuko (Sena Nakajima), Ishi (Satoshi Mizuno) and Takemura (Mondo Okumura) have all lost their parents at the same time. As they swap stories, they discover something else in common: they feel nothing at all for their parents, nor for most adults, except disdain. “Reality is too stupid to cry over,” says Hikari. Unable to grieve, unwilling to follow society’s absurd prescripts, they begin skipping school and hanging out together. Like so many of today’s plugged-in tweens, they have no dreams, no energy to move forward, no future.

Then one day, they find inspiration in a “garbage band” at a homeless encampment, where the members channel their misfortunes into music. The kids decide to form their own retro-chiptune band to try to retrieve their emotions, and dub themselves the Little Zombies. After creating costumes and instruments with stuff on hand, they find an online influencer (a hilarious Sosuke Ikematsu), have him shoot a music video and upload it. Overnight, they become viral sensations, and their mistrust of adults is amply rewarded (there are satirical cameos by Kuranosuke Sasaki, Youki Kudoh, Jun Murakami, Shiro Sano, Rinko Kikuchi and Masatoshi Nagase).

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©Koichi Mori

Nagahisa told the audience he was first inspired to write the film by a mysterious story out of Russia in 2016 dubbed the “Blue Whale Challenge,” an SNS phenomenon that reportedly targeted young gamers with a series of innocuous tasks that eventually led to a final challenge requiring players to commit suicide.

“This was making headlines around the world, and I was really shocked to hear it,” Nagahisa recalled. He’d been an avid gamer himself as a youth, especially when he was “in the throes of despair, since it made life a little easier. I could lose myself in games, and detach myself from reality. It was a filter for going through hardship.”

He apologized that the film “doesn’t have any real zombies.” But responding to a question about the metaphorical meaning of the title, he explained, “It’s a representation of the ways in which we’re incapable of communicating anymore, and it reflects the real world in the divide between adults and children.”

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Ikuko (Sena Nakajima) with her parents (Masatoshi Nagase, Rinko Kikuchi) before they die.
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Praised for the film’s music, which Nagahisa himself composed (with the exception of the 1967 Zombies tune “This Will Be Our Year”) the director admitted, “Originally, I wanted to be a musician. I find that playing an instrument really helps give shape to certain internalized emotions and brings them to life. The music in the film is as important as the dialogue. Music is an artform that is more powerful than visuals. It instantly and directly reaches [the viewers'] heart. This was really my attempt to create a 120-minute opera.”

One audience member asked about the film’s references to writers Albert Camus and Franz Kafka. Said Nagahisa, “I studied French literature in college and was really into surrealism. I find a certain beauty in the juxtaposition of A and Z, rather than A and B. I think that absurdity should be accepted, and when it comes to dealing with the absurdities of life, surrealism is a tool and an approach that allows me to overcome them.

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Takahashi  ©︎Koichi Mori

“That’s why I’ve layered the images in the film the way I have. The story is about how the protagonists deal with the absurdities of their lives and with events that have no rational explanation, and it’s only natural that I would draw from Camus’ and Kafka’s works.”

As for those layers, the director was asked just how many cuts the film has. “There are 1,800 cuts, or about 180 scenes in 2 hours, so I apologize if I wore you out.”

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(Want to play Spot the References? Told that Zombies has a Juzo Itami (The Funeral, Tampopo) vibe, Nagahisa expressed enthusiasm for the work of Nagisa Oshima, Takeshi Kitano, Luis Buñuel, Michael Haneke and Richard Linklater, films like Kazuhiko Hasegawa’s The Youth Killer and La Jetée, and “films from the 70s and 80s, especially ATG films.”)

Another audience member, suggesting that the Zombies’ concerns seem specifically Japanese, asked about the film’s international reception (a foreign festival favorite, it won the 2019 Sundance World Cinema Special Jury Award for Originality, as well as a Special Mention in the Generation section of the 2019 Berlin International Film Festival).

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Sosuke Ikematsu (center) is a social influencer-cum-Zombies manager.
 ©︎2019“WE ARE LITTLE ZOMBIES”FILM PARTNERS

“I want to avoid generalizations about how audiences react overseas vs. Japan,” Nagahisa began, “but it seems that more Japanese understand this emotionless state of the kids and can empathize with it, having been accused themselves of being the same way when they were young. With international audiences, [discussions] have focused on the character arcs of the kids as they learn to feel emotions again. Also, there have been comments about how cool [the Little Zombies band] is, that it’s a survival strategy. Instead of succumbing to the depths of despair, they developed a tactic to forge their own path.”

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Takahashi and Nagahisa strike a pose familiar to all Japanese film fans. ©FCCJ

His producer nodded. “When he won the Short Film Grand Jury Prize at Sundance,” Takahashi recalled, “the reaction from Americans had been ‘This is our story, too.’ So we knew that Mr. Nagahisa’s themes have a certain universality, and the way he depicts the distance between children and adults also feels universal. [On this film] it was important to us to be protective of his visual sensitivity and to encourage his creative vision throughout the process. After the latest Sundance award, he’s received a lot of interest from studios and big-name producers, and [he’s considering several projects].”

Nagahisa hastened to add, “I didn’t make this film to win awards or praise. I made it because I truly, truly believed in it. And I made it as if my life depended on it.”

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©2019“WE ARE LITTLE ZOMBIES”FILM PARTNERS

Selected Media Exposure

JESUS


JESUS (Boku wa Iesusama ga Kirai)


 May 8, 2019
Q&A guests: Director Hiroshi Okuyama and actors Chad Mullane and Hinako Saeki
 


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The "Godlike" director (left) with two of his stars. ©FCCJ

Japan comes in for a fair share of head-scratching over its “English” retitling of foreign films (personal favorites: New York Style Happy Therapy for Anger Management; Wild Speed for The Fast and the Furious).

But what happens when a director must decide on the English name of a film that is rather colorfully titled (read: potentially offensive) in Japanese? That was the dilemma facing Hiroshi Okuyama in 2018.

As the young filmmaker explained during the Q&A session following FCCJ's screening of his heralded feature debut, Jesus, “I had originally thought about calling it I Hate Jesus, a direct transliteration of the Japanese. But when it was selected for the San Sebastian International Film Festival, I was asked to reconsider. I got advice from a lot of people, and I realized that it was drastically different from the nuance of the Japanese title [Boku wa Iesusama ga Kirai].

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Chad Mullane, playing the eponymous character, triggers giggles. ©Koichi Mori

“First of all, boku is not the same as I. And Iesusama, or Jesus-sama, is very respectful, which is also not translatable. So the title I Hate Jesus sounded too rock-n-roll, according to some people. Also, I think there’s a different approach to titling films in Japan. With international films, it seems they [often] hone it down to a single word, which leaves the director’s intention up to the audience’s imagination. With Japanese titles, there’s a lot of explaining beforehand. So those differences in approach resulted in the difference between the Japanese and English titles of this film.”

We’ll never know whether his choice had an impact on the film’s fate, but Jesus propelled Okuyama to the New Directors Award at San Sebastian, making him the youngest recipient of the prize and making the film an instant Must Watch. It went on to garner further awards and acclaim at other international festivals, assuring that the emerging writer-director-cinematographer-editor will be on every programmers’ radar with his follow-up effort.

Asked whether he felt the festivals had been a good way to foment interest, Okuyama demurred, saying he didn't yet have enough experience to know. But he added, “As an independent filmmaker... you really have to think about how to commercialize your film, how to get as many people as possible to see it. I think entering international film festivals is one way to do that, and it’s better to do it than not to do it.” 

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Saeki, Okuyama, Mullane ©︎FCCJ

He recalled, “I didn’t have any qualms about having a religious figure like Jesus in my film when it came to Japanese audiences. But when it came to the audiences at San Sebastian, the anxiety set in. There’s this huge statue of Jesus Christ above the town, and I was really worried at first. But ultimately, the audience seemed to receive the film very well. They were able to read enough meaning into the film that they could understand the Jesus figure as both a symbol of the protagonist’s belief and as his imaginary friend.”

Suffused with a nostalgic glow and told entirely through the eyes of its 11-year-old protagonist Yura, Jesus is so gentle, so modest, that the international accolades may seem excessive on first viewing. But the story sticks long after one leaves the theater. 

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Yura in his new smalltown classroom. ©︎2019 Heikai Sengen

As the film opens, Yura (Yura Sato) and his parents are leaving Tokyo for a snowy town in Gunma following his grandfather’s death. Moving in temporarily with his grandmother Fumi (Akko Tadano), the introverted young boy attempts to fit into his new environment. Arriving at his new school, he is surprised when his classmates run off to “worship” after roll call. A helpful teacher loans him a bible and escorts him to the chapel, where a sermon is delivered, a prayer recited and hymns sung.

Completely unfamiliar with the Christian catechism, Yura proves to be a fast learner. One morning during the Lord’s Prayer, Jesus himself (Chad Mullane) appears before him — apparently invisible to everyone else — and silently communicates “Ask and ye shall receive.” So Yura begins to ask, and when his wishes are granted, to have faith in His power.

By divine intervention, he even becomes best friends with the most popular boy in the school, Kazuma (Riki Okuma), who loves soccer and has a gorgeous, giggly mom (Hinako Saeki).

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Kazuma and Yura ©2019 Heikai Sengen

Everything is wonderful until tragedy strikes, and Yura is faced with a full-blown crisis of faith.

Jesus is filled with delightful surprises and oddball moments and its snowy setting is shot with breathtaking beauty (by Okuyama himself, who also edited the film). There is also an autobiographical dimension to the story (an important dedication appears in the end credits that suddenly puts things into perspective).

Prompted to tell the audience more about that, Okuyama explained, “I did have the experience of losing a friend when I was just about the same age as Yura, in 5th grade. I remember the teacher coming to me and saying, ‘Let’s pray together.’ I was really puzzled by that, to tell you the truth. So I always had in mind that, if I were to make a film based on my own experience, this was one of the things I wanted to depict.”

While the film is anchored in reality, Okuyama’s singular approach to depicting Jesus elevates it to art.

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Mullane indicates where he will be taking confessions. ©Koichi Mori

Mullane, who appeared at FCCJ in full Christlike regalia, from the robes of flax to the crown of thorns, stayed in character throughout the Q&A session, regularly cracking up the Japanese press. Although he’d had no lines in the film, his silent antics therein — from ascending upward with arms spread to hanging out with Yura as he takes a bath — spoke reams about the character. Mullane, an Australian-born comedian who’s a member of the Yoshimoto comedy empire, was no less goofy in person.

“Hello,” he introduced himself to FCCJ’s crowd in Japanese. “I am Jesus Christ. I have come from Gotanda, my second hometown, by train, where everyone was praying to me. I would like to extend an offer to hear your confessions tonight. If you’re interested in confessing, please see me later.”

When Okuyama was asked about the subtitles, which were done by Mullane, the director responded, “I didn’t give him much guidance. But one thing that really impressed me was how meticulous he was regarding which Christian denomination the [characters] were members of, since that would affect the sacred verses they were reciting. I think that was one of the reasons it was so well received among international audiences.” 

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Yura celebrates Christmas with Kazuma and his mother.  ©︎2019 Heikai Sengen

Mullane chimed in: “Apparently we had a barter agreement. If I wanted to appear in the film, I had to do the subtitles.”

Protested Okuyama, “Let me set the story straight: we cast Chad before long before thinking about subtitling the film. It was only later that I discovered Chad also did subtitles. There was no barter.”

When Okuyama was asked about the subtitles, which were done by Mullane, the director responded, “I didn’t give him much guidance. But one thing that really impressed me was how meticulous he was regarding which Christian denomination the [characters] were members of, since that would affect the sacred verses they were reciting. I think that was one of the reasons it was so well received among international audiences.”

“There are many truths,” quipped Mullane.

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Saeki  ©︎Koichi Mori

Asked about casting Hinako Saeki, known for her roles in horror films, as Kazuma’s mother, Okuyama said, “I’d seen her in films in the past, and I felt she had the qualities I was looking for, especially for the final scene. It’s a devastating scene, and she had to be as devastating as she was in it, because that’s the completion of the protagonist’s character arc, where he parts way with Jesus. So it had to be a strong moment and she had to be a strong character.”

Recalled Saeki, “The first time I read the script, I was thoroughly impressed. I actually cried three times while reading it. I honestly didn’t know why the director came to me for the role, but I was so honored and so happy to be part of the film.”

And the casting of the eponymous role? “I had Chad in mind from the get-go,” Okuyama said. “I’d already decided on him even before I had the script. I only had the [plot outline], so I couldn’t even give a script to him. I’d seen him on TV, and what I liked about him is that he sometimes has this expression that makes him look like a few screws are loose.”

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©Koichi Mori

Before Mullane could fashion a retort, he was asked whether he’s Christian himself. “I died and was resurrected, so I suppose I must be a Buddhist,” he responded, coyly.

Did he have any fears or trepidation about taking the role, portraying a Christ figure the likes of which the world has not seen? “I was a bit worried about being a punchline,” admitted Mullane. “But referring to the bathtub scene, it wasn’t me who parted the waters. And [referring to a scene of sumo wrestling] sumo is almost a religious sport in Japan. I do think the director was the most God-like figure on the set.”

Okuyama was asked about his relationship to faith today, so many years after it had been shaken. “I do believe in Jesus Christ and I do believe in Christianity,” he said. “Why did I then make a film called I Hate Jesus Christ? I had an interesting experience at the Macao International Film Festival. There was an audience member who was Christian but very excited about the film, so I asked him what he thought about that title. He said he thought that hating something means that you believe in it. So I realized that’s [the way I feel], and I do believe.”

In a film of only 76 minutes, Hiroshi Okuyama has created a world that feels not only true to life, but also otherworldly.

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Yura and the school minister.  ©︎2019 Heikai Sengen

When a journalist asked about the opening scene, in which an old man pokes holes in shoji screens, he replied, “My grandmother told me that my own grandfather [did that]. When we got to the set and I saw the shoji, I started wondering why he did it. I thought perhaps he was trying to imagine this other world that he was about to enter, and I thought it was a good metaphor for religion: that people are peering into a world that is beyond them or is on the other side.”

He added, “I think it’s important for film to leave a little room for interpretation and not to explain everything. So I intentionally left room in this film. If audiences are able to derive their own meanings from it, that will make it a more personal film for each of them.”

“Notice that the director also leaves room for interpretation with his eloquent answers,” cracked Chad Mullane, suitably claiming the final word.

And with that, audience members moved to the other side, ie., to the club restaurant, which was finally open in the late evenings.

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©︎2019 Heikai Sengen

Selected Media Exposure

TV Exposure

  • 日本テレビ 【Oha!4】<スポタメ>映画「僕はイエス様が嫌い」奥山監督考えるきっかけを…

KINGDOM


KINGDOM


April 16, 2019
Q&A guest: Director Shinsuke Sato


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Shinsuke Sato  ©Koichi Mori

It’s the type of question that every filmmaker secretly longs to hear.

It came to Shinsuke Sato following FCCJ’s sneak preview of his hotly-anticipated period epic, Kingdom. “A lot of live-action adaptations of manga are a disappointment,” an American film critic told him. “But yours are always so good. What’s the secret sauce? What makes your adaptations so great?”

Forever humble, the director responded, “There’s no secret sauce. When you have a script for an adaptation, you want to make it into a film that is good as a film. I don’t feel the pressure of having to conform to the original work or to adhere to it as closely as possible. I approach manga adaptations the same way I approach an original story.

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“There are certain details I can imagine some might pay attention to. For example, this manga has x number of fans and they are expecting x type of work, and therefore we have to meet their expectations. I don’t have that in mind. Instead, I think about what would ideally be a good film, sometimes drawing on my own experiences as a moviegoer. I start from scratch, in a sense, even if it’s based on a manga.”

Then, warming to the question, Sato delivered a few of the ingredients, if not the entire recipe. “When I do a manga adaptation, there are always two basic things that I want to accomplish,” he admitted. First, for fans of the original work, I want to surprise them. I want the film to exceed their expectations by a mile. I want them to say, ‘Wow. I didn’t expect this!’ I want to give them the type of entertainment that only cinema can give. I want them to understand why it was necessary to bring that work to the screen.

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©︎Yasuhisa Hara/Shueisha  ©︎KINGDOM Film Partners 2019

“Second, I want to entertain audience members who are not familiar with the original manga, and make it accessible even if they don’t know what the story is. In order to accomplish these two objectives, you have to always be thinking about the essence of what is fun and entertaining. That’s what I do.”

And that’s what he has done now for nearly 20 years, helming one blockbuster action hit after another, many of them also international award-winners. Heralded for his mastery of CG effects in bringing fantastical worlds to life, Sato’s major works include the Gantz series (2011), the Library Wars series (2013 - 15), Death Note: Light Up the New World (2016), Inuyashiki (2018) and Bleach (2018).

Kingdom is not only certain to bring him another box-office success; there will surely be a sequel. Any doubters need only examine its pedigree. 

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Kento Yamazaki as Shin. ©︎Yasuhisa Hara/Shueisha  ©︎KINGDOM Film Partners 2019

Kingdom is the first live-action adaptation of the bestselling manga series by Yasuhisa Hara, which started running in Shueisha's Weekly Young Jump in 2006, won the Tezuka Osamu Cultural Prize in 2013, and has now been collected into 53 volumes and sold an eye-popping 38 million copies.

To the eternal bemusement of non-Japanese, the series presents a fictionalized account of China’s Warring States period, which ended in 221 BC when Ying Zheng, king of Qin, succeeded in conquering six rival states and unifying China. In Hara’s manga, however, all the names of the characters — many of whom are based on actual historical figures — have Japanese names and speak in Japanese. The same is true of the film, so Ying Zheng becomes Eisei; his trusted general, Li Xin, is Shin; and his half-brother Zhao Chengjiao is Seikyou.

Kingdom achieves a widescreen grandeur and heroic scale that are rare in Japan, partially due to the film’s budget (small by Hollywood’s standards; bountiful by Japan’s) and its three-week shoot on a massive open set in Zhejiang, China. Last year at this time, it was temporary home to a handful of Japan’s leading young actors, 700 crew from Japan and China, close to 100 horses and some 10,000 extras.

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Ryo Yoshizawa as Eisei. ©︎Yasuhisa Hara/Shueisha  ©︎KINGDOM Film Partners 2019

Sato had first come to FCCJ in 2016 with his superlative zombie flick I Am a Hero, a film that benefitted greatly from its extensive location shooting in South Korea, about which the director and his star, Yo Oizumi, had shared both hilarious and heartwarming anecdotes.

Asked why he’d been inspired to shoot in China, Sato responded, “The film’s story takes place in ancient China, so it was only natural to shoot there. That’s what I’d envisioned from the moment the project started. I really wanted to see what it would be like to collaborate with a Chinese crew. Having had the experience of shooting in Korea, I had a lot of fond memories of all the sweat and toil we put into the production, and that influenced my desire to shoot in China.

“The collaboration in China was in much the same spirit as it had been in Korea. We had core crew members who were Japanese, but we also had a large local crew. There was some trepidation, because there are differences in customs and practices, and of course there was the language barrier. We were worried about how it would turn out, because we had massive scenes to shoot and limited financial resources. But when we arrived, we discovered how robust China’s film industry has become. The crew were really skilled, and we enjoyed very effective collaboration through all the filmmaking processes. The Chinese crew put a lot of attention into details, and we really appreciated that.”

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©Koichi Mori

But the shoot wasn’t without its challenges. Asked about the best and worst of these, Sato recalled, “We had crew members in Shanghai and Beijing. The studio lot was a 5-hour drive from Shanghai, so it was quite arduous logistically, and there was a lot of communication that couldn’t take place in person. For example, we had a vendor in Beijing for all the costumes, and although we rented a lot of them, we also had to make many of them. So there was a lot of back-and-forth communications about the details. There were difficulties because what we wanted to do was often different from the style in which they were used to making costumes. It took a lot of time and effort to get all the nuances across.

“But what made a great impression on me was that they were really diligent and stuck with us until the very end. There were certain details that we wanted to fix or change, and with a Japanese production we might not have been able to do that. With this company, they responded to all our requests, and what they produced was very nicely done.”

As with all of Sato’s work, costumes are absolutely crucial to the creation of his colorful characters and his imaginative worlds. Kingdom is no exception.

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Masami Nagasawa as Youtanwa. ©︎Yasuhisa Hara/Shueisha  ©︎KINGDOM Film Partners 2019

Set in approximately 245 BC, during China’s Spring-Autumn Warring States period (770 BC-221 BC) in the state of Qin (present-day Shaanxi province), it tells the tale of two young war orphans, Shin (Kento Yamazaki), who dreams of becoming the greatest general under the heavens, and Hyou (Ryo Yoshizawa), who just wants to win against Shin in their daily sparring matches. They’re separated in their teens, when an emissary from the king takes Hyou away to work in the palace. Shin continues to train alone and dream big. Then one day, Hyou suddenly returns.

He bears an urgent message, leading Shin to a surprising encounter with King Eisei (also Yoshizawa), who dreams of uniting all seven of the Warring States under a single banner. But Eisei’s half-brother Seikyou (Kanata Hongo) has led a successful coup, and before unification, Eisei must first amass enough allies to help him reclaim the throne. Shin signs up, but the challenge is staggering: Seikyou has 80,000 soldiers at his beck and call, and Eisei’s forces barely number 3,000.

6-Kingdom poster Yasuhisa HaraShueisha  KINGDOM Film Partners 2019
Kanata Hongo as Seikyou. ©︎Yasuhisa Hara/Shueisha  ©︎KINGDOM Film Partners 2019

Praised by another film critic for his direction of the film’s many action scenes, Sato said, “I relied on crew members that I’ve worked with for a long time, all the way back to Princess Blade [in 2001]. We had all this experience of creating action sequences together, and that formed the basis of the film. We had a lot of discussion and debate about each sequence, and one of the things we did was to shoot video of all the action scenes in an empty room before going on to the set, because there’s a lot of drama in those scenes, too. We shot footage like an indie film, cut it together and discussed what we needed to change. So there was one extra step in the process.”

The director admitted that he couldn’t take credit for the casting of megastar Kento Yamazaki (best known overseas for playing Josuke in JoJo's Bizarre Adventure: Diamond is Unbreakable). Asked why he’d been selected to play Shin, Sato explained, “The producer had already made the decision to cast him before I joined the project. It was like: ‘Kingdom, with Kento Yamazaki.’ Mr. Yamazaki has played a variety of roles in the past, but this was quite a departure from his previous films. I think it was a challenging and difficult process for him, but he is very savvy and smart, a really passionate actor. We discussed his approach to the character a lot, but what he created made it seem that he was accustomed to roles like this, and it fit him really well.”

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Sato with the posters for the film. ©FCCJ

With such an enormous cast, the leads aren’t the only roles to savor. There is also Masami Nagasawa as Youtanwa, the high-kicking chieftan of the mountain tribe; Tak Sakaguchi as Saji, an exceedingly cruel mercenary; Masahiro Takashima as Eisei’s righthand man Shobunkun; and Takao Osawa, making his return to film after a 3-year absence, as the greatest general under the heavens, Ouki.

How did Sato lure Osawa back to the cinema when he’d gone on public record as having lost his acting mojo? “General Ouki is a really popular character with fans, and I can imagine there was a lot of discussion about who was going to play the role,” said Sato. “So a lot of thought went into the casting choice, as well as into the visual design. A lot of effort of went into the makeup, the beard, the armor. Because he’s such an overwhelmingly powerful character in the manga, we thought it would be quite a feat for us to ground him in reality. I think we did a pretty good job of that, and I think Mr. Osawa delivered the vibrancy of the character that fans expect.”

Whether Kingdom’s realm will now expand to encompass the entire globe is yet unkown; but at least it will be coming to fans old and new in the US, where Funimation will be releasing the film later this year.

Kingdom poster Yasuhisa HaraShueisha  KINGDOM Film Partners 2019
©︎Yasuhisa Hara/Shueisha  ©︎KINGDOM Film Partners 2019

Selected Media Exposure

SHUSENJO


SHUSENJO: THE MAIN BATTLEGROUND OF THE COMFORT WOMEN ISSUE (Shusenjo) 


April 4, 2019
Q&A guest: Director Miki Dezaki


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If you have even a casual interest in Asia, Miki Dezaki's Shusenjo should not be missed.  ©FCCJ

The FCCJ has hosted many a press conference devoted to what is perhaps the most incendiary flashpoint in Japan’s postwar relations with Korea and China. Since the early 1990s (at least since 1991, when Hak Sun Kim became the first Korean to testify about it), the comfort woman issue has spiraled into a seemingly insurmountable impediment to improving ties in the region.

The internet has encouraged a proliferation of counterproductive arguments and counterarguments about the treatment of these women, casting doubt on “the truth” and creating an increasingly bifurcated divide. One side supports the victims, who have given moving accounts of the outrages perpetrated against them; the other side insists the women were well-paid prostitutes and the Japanese government was not complicit in “creating a massive, organized rape system,” as has been charged. 

ShusenjoFCCJ-2-010   ShusenjoFCCJ-2-037   ShusenjoFCCJ-2-027
©FCCJ

Surprisingly, until Miki Dezaki’s Shusenjo: The Main Battleground of the Comfort Women Issue, there has not been a feature documentary that thoroughly investigates the facts, figures, opinions and distortions of both sides. For this reason alone — and there are many, many others — the film is absolutely essential viewing.

Appearing at the jam-packed Q&A session following FCCJ’s screening, the director told the audience: “I always get the question ‘Why did you make this film?’ And one of the reasons why is that I thought a 2-hour film could flesh out or give context to this issue that the media aren’t able to do in the short time they have to report on it … I thought maybe there needed to be a more comprehensive introduction to the issue, to remind ourselves how we got here.”

Unless you’re a member of a neo-nationalist group with ties to Japan or a devoted fan of Japan-focused YouTube videos, you’ve probably never heard of Dezaki, aka Medama Sensei. In 2012, the Japanese-American teacher (as well as former Buddhist monk and graduate of Sophia’s Global Studies Graduate Program) raised uyoku (far-right) ire by posting a short video called “Racism in Japan,” in which he discussed zainichi Koreans and burakumin outcasts. It led to relentless online attacks by Japanese neo-nationalists, ongoing harassment, even death threats.

Shusenjo MainNo Man Producions LLC
The placement of comfort women statues in California has aggravated
tensions even further.  
©No Man Producions LLC.

Realizing that deeper issues were at play, Dezaki eventually decided to meet the challenge head-on.

He spent the next several years conducting the type of balanced, in-depth reporting that was once the purview of the news media. On his own dime, he criss-crossed the globe, meeting with a wide-ranging group of experts and eyewitnesses, amassing footage from milestone events dating back to before WWII, even conducting man-on-the-street-style interviews. Then he edited it all into a comprehensive, comprehensible whole.

Shusenjo does a remarkable job of exploring, explaining and de-sensationalizing this most contentious of disputes in Asia, this “gross human rights violation” that has also impacted the lives of women in China, Taiwan, the Philippines, Indonesia, Burma, Malaysia, East Timor and Micronesia. 

Shusenjo Sub3No Man Producions LLC
Tokyo's Yasukuni Shrine, where war dead are enshrined.  ©No Man Producions LLC.

Dezaki casts himself as the lead inquisitor and seeker of understanding in the film, and patiently counters arguments on both sides of the ideological divide. Shusenjo probes a range of crucial questions: Were all comfort women “sexual slaves?” What does “coercive recruiting” really mean? Does the often-inconsistent testimony of the elderly victims even matter? Does Japan have a legal responsibility to apologize? Are the Chinese paying for those comfort women statues in California? Where the hell is the smoking gun? Why are venerable newspapers like the Japan Times “redefining” their vocabulary around the issue? And what does it all have to do with Shinzo Abe’s march to remilitarize Japan?

Shusenjo lays out a complicated timeline of acceptance of facts and increasingly aggressive denials, with unexpected confessions and revelations that allow Dezaki to deconstruct the dominant narratives and uncover the hidden intentions of both supporters and detractors. Few, it turns out, are innocent of fanning the flames of outrage.

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©FCCJ

The filmmaker was asked whether his opinion had changed during the process of making the documentary. Dezaki nodded. “I think I was like every other American who’s read about this issue in the newspaper. It’s taken as fact in America that there were 200,000 women, and they were sex slaves who’d been forcibly recruited. I had no information to rebut that, so I took that as fact at first. Through research and interviews — I actually interviewed more people on the conservative side first — I started to question a lot of things that I thought I knew.

“I didn’t have anything to rebut them with, either. I had this constant going back-and-forth as I was making the film. That was emotionally difficult because, as human beings, we want to have an idea of what’s right. We don’t want to waver and be in the middle. I wanted the audience to feel that as they watched the film. There were times I was challenged and re-challenged on a lot of issues. I had debates and discussions with my co-producer and associate producers, and I didn’t come to my conclusions until the editing stage of the film.” 

Shusenjo Sub4No Man Producions LLC
Young supporters of the comfort women in Korea.  ©No Man Producions LLC.

Among the many interviewees who appear in the film, familiar names to those who follow the issue, are Yoshiko Sakurai, Mio Sugita, Yoshiaki Yoshimi, Koichi Nakano, Kent Gilbert, Tony Marano, Nobukatsu Fujioka, Mina Watanabe, Setsu Kobayashi, Hirofumi Hayashi. Still, one attendee was critical about the “lack of balance” between the film’s talking heads. “You interviewed a lot of scholars who support the comfort women,” he said, “but you didn’t interview many on the other side. Obviously, you knew Prof. Ikuhiko Hata. Did he decline to be interviewed? Do you know Tsutomu Nishioka, a leading professor? I spoke to him and he said that you never approached him.”

(Hata is a historian and retired professor of international relations who has written about the comfort women. Nishioka is a Korean studies professor at International Christian University who has also written extensively about comfort women.)

Responded Dezaki, “One of the first persons we wanted for the film was Professor Hata. The problem was that he asked us first to interview Prof. [Etsuro] Totsuka and Prof. [Yoshiaki] Yoshimi, so that he could respond to them. So once we did that, we went back to him. He said, ‘Please write a proposal.’ So we wrote a proposal for him. I talked with him on the phone once after that. He said, ‘Call back.’ I called back and his wife answered. She said, ‘Please call back in the evening.’ As an American, I don’t think it’s polite to call people in the evening about work. So I called back the next day, and he was very upset that I didn’t call him in the evening. Because of that, he didn’t want to be interviewed.

ShusenjoKoichi Mori-4-48
©Koichi Mori

“As for Tsutomu Nishioka, I was planning on interviewing him towards the end. But when I was reading the materials he’d written online, I noticed that a lot of things he said were very similar to many of the things that had already by said by many of the people I’d interviewed before. I didn’t feel like I needed that footage again.”

Shusenjo had its world premiere, aptly, at the 2018 Busan International Film Festival. Asked how it was received in South Korea, Dezaki said, “The response was interesting. I do criticize the comfort women supporters to some extent [in the film]. I don’t think they felt totally comfortable with the film. But one of the comments I got, from a young Korean woman, was that she was surprised so many Japanese people supported the comfort women. For her, this was a kind of Japan-Korea battle, but [now] she realized it was more of a human rights issue. I think that shows how biased the media are not only in Japan but also in Korea on this issue.” 

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 ©Koichi Mori

Calling the film “powerful and important,” another attendee asked where Dezaki had procured the rare historical footage of Korean comfort women that is used sparingly in the film. Said the director, “I got it from my South Korean associate producer, who got it from Korea’s MBC Broadcasting. I didn’t use too many testimonies in the film [because] there are many films already with extensive footage of the comfort women’s testimonies.”

The Glendale and San Francisco statue-placement disputes are included in the film, and Dezaki was asked what he thought the US position was. He responded, “I don’t think they necessarily care about this issue that much, but they know it’s a big sticking point between the two allies, [so] whatever they can do to bring the allies closer. With the [2015 agreement between Japan and South Korea], I think they felt it was finally something that could be resolved. Prior to that, they had the House Resolution 121 that was demanding that Japan apologize for this. The [2015] agreement was kind of a shock to a lot of people in Korea who support the comfort women. The American government sort of flipped on this issue and I think it’s probably because they don’t care much about it.”

“What do you think it would take for the Japanese government to do to satisfy those Koreans who are most invested in the issue?” asked another audience member. Said Dezaki, “I really don’t want to speak for them, but what I oftentimes hear from them is that they would like this to be taught in schools and they would like a Diet resolution passed, similar to what [then-President] Reagan did. It seems that they don’t care about the [reparations] money so much, from what I understand. I think for them it’s more about passing on that history.”

ShusenjoFCCJ-P-087
©FCCJ

Dezaki was asked why he’d relied on his “own research and analysis, rather than interviews,” in the section of Shusenjo that explores the position of the Abe Administration vis-à-vis the comfort women. Admitting that he had used the narration mainly to pick up the flagging pace, the director answered: “This is a film on the comfort women issue, but in the opening, I ask why the revisionists, or the so-called denialists, want to censor or silence the issue. That’s the overarching theme of the film. What led me there was realizing that there was this connection. The question for me was why do they care about this so much? Why was the Japanese government sending an amicus brief for the Glendale statue trial? That’s a pretty big thing for a government to do for a small trial. I went down that path and tried to find the answer.”

Finally, the filmmaker was asked whether the government had asked for a special viewing of the film. “I would love for the Abe Administration to see the film, that would be great” said Dezaki. “I don’t know if they want to. I can’t go into too much detail, since I don’t want to get anyone in trouble, but when I was in Europe showing the film at a private [university] screening, the Japanese consulate in that city contacted the professor and said, ‘Why are you showing this film? Please come to the consulate to talk about this.’ So I guess it’s on their radar to some extent.”

Shusenjo No Man Producions LLC
©No Man Producions LLC.

Selected Media Exposure

 

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