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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.

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