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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

 

NOTHING STAYS THE SAME2019 THEY SAY NOTHING STAYS THE SAME Film Partners
©2019 “THEY SAY NOTHING STAYS THE SAME” Film Partners

Selected Media Exposure

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