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TEZUKA'S BARBARA


TEZUKA'S BARBARA (Barubora)


 November 17, 2020
Q&A guest: Director Macoto Tezka


FCCJ Barbara FCCJ-1
Unable to make the trip to Italy, Macoto Tezka received the Fantafestival award virtually. ©FCCJ

The day after Tezuka’s Barbara received the Golden Bat for Best Film at the 40th Fantafestival in Rome, Macoto Tezka appeared at FCCJ to discuss his prizewinning work.

“This is the first award given to the film, and I’m really happy that it comes from a fantastic film festival,” he told the audience following a sneak preview screening. “It has a lot of fantastical elements in it, so it brings me great joy that it’s been so wonderfully received by film enthusiasts who have an eye for such films.”

The Fantafestival jury had cited Tezuka’s Barbara for its “representation of an outside-the-box love story” and for “transcending the supernatural genre with great visual impact, in which the refined photography of the master, Christopher Doyle, excels.”

Barbara - Main 2019 Barbara Film Committee
Barbara (Fumi Nikaido) and her latest rescue, Mikura (Goro Inagaki). ©
2019 Barbara Film Committee

Admitted Tezka, “I have an affinity for Italy. I received an award for Hakuchi: The Innocent at the Venice Film Festival (in 1999), and have received many invitations from other Italian festivals since then. It’s also an honor for me because Italy has given us so many great filmmakers and such influential aesthetics. I’m overjoyed that my film’s aesthetics and beauty have been recognized.”

Tezuka’s Barbara is the second film he has based on an original manga by his father, Japanese comics godfather Osamu Tezuka (Astro Boy, Kimba the White Lion), but the first live-action adaptation. Planned in celebration of what would have been Tezuka’s 90th birthday, with support from producers in Japan, Germany and the UK, it refocuses the manga’s increasingly transgressive story on the love affair at its core, captured by Doyle (In the Mood for Love, They Say Nothing Stays the Same) in swooning retro-glam images, and driven by a jazzy soundtrack from frequent Tezka collaborator Ichiko Hashimoto.

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Mikura and a figment of his wayward imagination. ©2019 Barbara Film Committee

The elder Tezuka had serialized “Barbara,” a dark and sexually-charged tale about a famous author’s gradual descent into debauchery and eventual madness, from 1973-74. Loosely inspired by Offenbach’s The Tales of Hoffman, it was not only a satire on Japan’s literary and political establishments, but also a supernaturally-tinged exploration of the power of the authorial voice. 

Like the manga, Tezuka’s Barbara follows writer Yosuke Mikura (played by former SMAP superstar Goro Inagaki), who is at the pinnacle of success but whose crippling sexual perversions have rendered him creatively bankrupt. One night, he finds a young woman lying in a drunken stupor and, after she’s quoted French poetry to him, takes her home. Barbara (Fumi Nikaido) remains drunken and obnoxious, but her presence jolts him out of writer’s block and away from self-absorption. Once their relationship is consummated, however, harm begins to come to Mikura’s closest friends and his suspicion that she is a muse seems to be confirmed. And then she disappears.

Barbara - Main 2019 Barbara Film Committee
Mikura with his muse. ©2019 Barbara Film Committee

Why, Macoto Tezka was asked by one audience member, did he decide to update the story to the modern day? “Although it was written in the early 1970s, I had no intention of actually setting the story in the 70s,” he explained. “I felt it had a universal thread and wanted to place it in an unspecified time. The retro feeling of the manga is an important ingredient in the original, so I wanted to [maintain that]. What you see on the screen is contemporary Tokyo, but we’ve added the flavor of taking you back in time. The use of jazz music, which was prominent in the 1950s-60s, is an additional nuance that gives it a sense of déjà vu.”

Prodded for particulars about the autobiographical nature of the work, Tezka said, “We always hear that while he was writing this, my father was living through hard times as a [creator]. But of course, needless to say, artists always have a conflict in our hearts — that’s what it is to be a writer or an artist.

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©FCCJ

“The fact that the protagonist is a novelist comes naturally to me, since I was raised in that kind of environment, with people in that line of work very close to me. I think it was the same with my father — I don’t think he was trying to divulge his private life through his work. I think the profession of novelist is used as a metaphor. The conflict that we see is that of an artist who is bound by logic and words, but is also very aware of this world that is beyond logic or language.

“In psychology, this would be characterized as logos vs. eros. What you see in the film is a merging of the two. I took it as a challenge to include things that could be explained logically as well as to infuse the film with things that go beyond those boundaries.”

Tezka was asked “how faithful or how rebellious” he’d been with his father’s work. “I’ve read the manga tens of times, so it’s [part of me]. However, I didn’t want to be too attached to the original. There are many fantastical elements in the manga, and those are the ones I especially liked and wanted to include in the film. They were the scenes that were really joyful to make.

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One of the film's many fantastical scenes, with an unforgettable Eri Watanabe. ©2019 Barbara Film Committee

“The cast and crew were also fans of the manga, so that allowed me to not be too stubborn about my own vision for the film, since they had their own ideas about the work. I was like a spectator on set, watching how the actors created their characters and how the crew created the scenes. It was all very interesting, and all I had to do was bring all the elements together.”

As for working with screenwriter Hisako Kurosawa, “What I told her was that, although the manga comprises many themes and many characters, I wanted to trim it down to just the two main characters and not include any superfluous characters. Since the manga was written by a man and I’m also male, I wanted a female perspective. So I left her with a lot of freedom in writing the screenplay.”

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©FCCJ

One audience member, noting that Tezuka’s Barbara feels very international despite being so specifically Japanese, asked how the director had melded the two approaches. “Although the backdrop [of my father’s manga] is Japan,” Tezka responded, “it has a universality, an internationality to it. I had offers to develop it overseas, to create a film that was set elsewhere, including changing the setting to Prague. But I was more interested in setting it in Shinjuku, because I thought I would be able to shed light on aspects of the area that even the Japanese are unaware of.

“There are quintessentially Japanese facets to the story as well as to the behavior of the characters, and whatever I made was going to be quintessentially Japanese. But we used a [non-Japanese] cinematographer because I wanted to capture the wonderful, interesting aspects of Japan that we haven’t noticed.”

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Koichi Mori

With its story inspired by The Tales of Hoffman, and its references to the work of Nietzsche and Verlaine, a film historian asked, “Is it possible to make such a film in today’s Japan, given your strong artistic vision, without the support of German and UK distributors like Rapid Eye Movies and Third Window Films?

“I’m someone who thinks that even in Japanese filmmaking, we should be employing more international talent,” responded Tezka, “because in terms of mindset, technique and technology, things have gotten quite insular. Filmmakers have become complacent and smug. I think cinema is a very international thing, and it’s important to include diversity. When we look back at Japanese cultural history, we’ve always brought in and adopted various international elements.

“I think the support [of foreign distributors] in bringing Japanese [films] to an international audience, and to spreading awareness of what we do, is essential. In all my future work, I intend to continue teaming up with international talent to make Japanese films.”

Inevitably, Tezka was asked about the impact of Covid-19: “Considering the current situation, do you think the film takes on any new significance?”

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Tezka with his Italian award and the gorgeous Japanese poster. ©
FCCJ

He replied: “When I first considered adapting my father’s work, I saw the film as focusing on connections or relations, either between people or between people and the city. The prominent theme I wanted to depict was eroticism. It’s about two human beings coming together physically, through the flesh, rather than through words or logic.

“As the world tries to weather this pandemic, we see a rupture in human relations because we’re not allowed to touch each other. That makes this sense of human connection even more valuable. Because we’re living in a digital age, where people are increasingly communicating through digital networks, I wanted the film to depict a quiet, subtle resistance to where the world is headed.”

Tezukas Barbara  B1Poster 2019 Barbara Film Committee
©2019 Barbara Film Committee

Selected Media Exposure

A GIRL MISSING in Collaboration with TIFF


A GIRL MISSING IN COLLABORATION WITH TIFF


 October 19, 2020
Q&A guests: Director Koji Fukada, TIFF Festival Chairman Hiroyasu Ando
and TIFF Selection Committee member Kohei Ando


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Kohei Ando, Koji Fukada and Hiroyasu Ando. ©FCCJ

The Film Committee has been collaborating on annual special screening events with the Tokyo International Film Festival (TIFF) for a decade or more, but in this very challenging year, it feels more important than ever. TIFF announced last month that, barring catastrophe, it will hold a physical 33rd edition, with the implementation of strict health and safety measures, from October 31 – November 9 at theaters in Roppongi.

This in itself was a milestone, since many international festivals were forced to cancel due to the pandemic, and others were stymied by ongoing theater closures in their host cities. The most famous of canceled festivals was Cannes, which nevertheless announced a lineup of 'Cannes Premiere 2020' titles, a selection of films that it would have premiered at the festival, had one been held.

Among those titles was award-winning director Koji Fukada’s The Real Thing, a nearly 4-hour opus about a consummately dull salaryman whose life is overturned by an eccentric woman. Although Fukada was not able to appear in person, the film had its International premiere at the Pingyao Film Festival in mid-October, and will have its Japan premiere during TIFF, with the director and cast present.

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 ©Koichi Mori

Fukada has been named the Japan Now Director in Focus for this year’s TIFF, and he joined TIFF Chairman Hiroyasu Ando and Selection Committee member Kohei Ando at FCCJ to discuss some of the highlights of the 33rd edition.

“There was a lot of deliberation as to whether to hold the festival this year, and whether it should be in a physical form,” admitted the chairman. “But we ultimately came to the decision that we would hold it physically so that we could bring audiences back to the cinemas. We want them to once again experience the joy of watching films on the big screen and to find hope for the future.”

TIFF will be screening over 100 films, with 32 of them (10 from Japan, 10 from the US/Europe and 12 from Asia) selected to receive the 'Tokyo Premiere 2020' label, making them eligible for the single prize that will be bestowed on films this year, an Audience Award chosen by all viewers.

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 ©Koichi Mori

While conceding that there would be almost no foreign guests, from filmmaking teams to programmers to journalists (unless they are already in Japan), Ando emphasized that TIFF would be screening many world premieres as well as films drawn from the Berlin, Cannes and other festivals around the world, and that there would be virtual talks sessions with an array of international participants.

He also had this to say: “To represent what this year’s festival aims to achieve, we will be featuring the work of Koji Fukada in the Japan Now Section. We chose Mr. Fukada because he has been very active internationally, has made international co-productions and has an impressive filmography. Another reason that we hold him in high regard is that this year, he initiated the Mini-Theater Aid campaign in order to help support arthouse cinemas in Japan, who were struggling in the face of the pandemic.”

Kohei Ando (no relation), TIFF’s Japan Now programmer since the section was created 7 years ago and one of the members of TIFF’s new Selection Committee, shared his enthusiasm, while also invoking last year’s Japan Now Director in Focus: “Allow me to (first) quote from a great filmmaker that we recently lost, Nobuhiko Obayashi: ‘Films cannot change the past, but they do have the power to change the future.’

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 ©FCCJ

“Mr. Fukada is a filmmaker who gives us deep insight into today’s Japan, and into the human condition, while urging us to contemplate the absurdities of society. We’re facing a very tumultuous year with the coronavirus pandemic; but with the perceptive work that Mr. Fukada has been producing, we look forward to seeing his vision of the future in the future.”

Asked how he felt about the Japan Now retrospective, which will showcase four of his feature films, including Cannes Jury Prizewinner Harmonium (2016) and a range of shorts from 2006-2020, Fukada had this to say: “It’s a real honor to be chosen as the Japan Now Director in Focus, and I thank the Tokyo International Film Festival for their brave decision.

“Exactly 10 years ago, I received the first major award of my career at TIFF and that was the springboard to launching my films into many other international film festivals, allowing us to secure distribution and reach overseas audiences as well as those in Japan. So this feels like a turning point, and I’ll take it as a sign of encouragement to continue making films."

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 ©Koichi Mori

The first question from the assembled press was an obvious one: “Why did you call your selection a ‘brave decision?’”

Fukada laughed. “I chose the word because, first and foremost, I’m a rather young director and I don’t have that many films in my filmography yet. Also, I don’t make commercial films. I do think one of the functions of a film festival, perhaps its ‘social responsibility,’ is to shine a spotlight on filmmakers whom we haven’t [passed judgment on] yet, to highlight a particular artistic vision or a type of auteurism. In terms of fulfilling that responsibility, I appreciate TIFF’s bravery.”

Although this was not mentioned, Fukada plays a uniquely activist role in the Japanese film industry, and the Mini-Theater Aid crowdfunding campaign is just one manifestation of it. In 2012, he was one of the founders of the Independent Cinema Guild, a support group for all practitioners in the field — from filmmakers and festival organizers to cinema owners and film critics — to correct the “serious imbalance in the diversity of films being produced in this country” and to stop the “cultural impoverishment,” as well as actual impoverishment, of indie filmmakers who work with insanely low budgets.

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 ©Koichi Mori

In 2019, when issues of sexual and power harassment in the film industry started making headlines, Fukada spoke out in support of public dialogue, and he has stayed in the headlines with his candid criticisms of an industry that is built on constant manga, novel and TV-show adaptations, and his pleas for more government subsidies to support culture. Just last month, in an interview with AFP, he said, “It's difficult to produce non-commercial films in Japan, where a lot of importance is given to their marketability… At this rate, Japanese cinema is going to go down the drain.”

Asked whether he thought there would be significant changes in the industry as a result of Covid-19, Fukada said that there was now “an extra layer of security precautions that have to be implemented on set. We were probably not taking stringent enough precautions prior to the pandemic, because we work within very small budgets and that limits the amount of time we have on set. Now that we have to fight the pandemic, it means we need a larger budget to increase the manpower required on set. We need to create a support system within the industry, and hopefully, be able to rely on some government funding to do so.”

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 ©Koichi Mori

Outside of the Japan Now section, TIFF will be showing over 3 dozen more Japanese titles, including many animated films, remastered classics, upcoming commercial releases and new work by emerging directors. Kohei Ando recommended several Japanese titles before commenting, “The European and Asian films in in this year’s Tokyo Premiere 2020 selection focus heavily on race, immigration, minority and gender issues. I wish that more Japanese filmmakers would delve into societal themes — but this does not apply to Mr. Fukada’s work, of course.”

TIFF’s chairman noted that there was likely to be much discussion of such issues during the nightly Asia Lounge Conversation Series, a new initiative proposed (and sometimes moderated) by Palme d’Or winner Hirokazu Kore-eda. “Although it will be online only,” explained Ando, “we will be pairing up various filmmakers and film industry leaders from throughout Asia, with prominent Japanese industry figures.”

TIFF 2020 poster
©Tokyo International Film Festival

Following the panel, the audience was treated to a special screening of Fukada’s award-winning 2019 film, A Girl Missing, and a Q&A session with Fukada that lasted another 50 minutes. There were questions on topics ranging from cinematography, casting and poster art to the state of indie film industry in general — and the director would have welcomed many more if closing time hadn't arrived.

a-girl-missing photo-2 2019 YOKOGAO FILM PARTNERS  COMME DES CINEMASTsutsui (front) and Ichikawa (back) in an image from A Girl Missing.
©2019 YOKOGAO FILM PARTNERS & COMME DES CINEMAS

For the film, Fukada reunited with the inimitable star of his Cannes award-winner Harmonium, Mariko Tsutsui, for a layered story about a woman whose kindness is ruthlessly crushed following a scandal in which she’s an innocent bystander. Tsutsui brilliantly plays Ichiko, a devoted home hospice nurse to the cancer-stricken matriarch of the Oishi family, and surrogate mother to her two granddaughters, Motoko (Mikako Ichikawa, equally superb) and Saki, whom she helps study for their exams. Ichiko is preparing to marry again, to a doctor whose young son clearly adores her. All is well until Saki goes missing and Ichiko’s nephew is implicated in the crime. At Motoko’s urging, she says nothing about the connection to the police. But before the guilt can start consuming her, her relationship to the culprit goes public and the press makes her life a living hell.

A master of the family-crisis genre, Fukada ratchets up the suspense and the ambiguities in A Girl Missing, creating a double-strand narrative of incredible chronological complexity that rewards viewer vigilance and packs a deep emotional punch.

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“I offered Ms. Tsutsui the part even before I started writing the script, and she accepted,” the director explained. “It was wonderful for me because I know that she’s extremely skilled and there’s nothing she can't do, so I wrote it [without compromises].”

One audience member, a professed fan of Fukada’s work, apologized for “being rude” but noted that she’d found the character of Ichiko to be “even more repulsive than the criminal in Harmonium. I was fascinated with her but I didn’t like her at all.”

Fukada nodded. “People often come to me and say they can’t empathize with this or that character of mine. I wonder whether it’s really necessary to be able to empathize? As someone who’s been an ardent filmgoer for years, I must say that I’ve never made the protagonist’s likability a factor in my decision about whether or not I like a film.

“Actually, I’m more excited by a character that I can’t understand or can’t relate to. I think a character we can’t understand reflects reality more closely than otherwise. I think it’s hard to really understand someone else. You can guess, but you can never really know — not even with yourself.”

A Japanese film critic, noting that the film had opened in August in France, where it had become a big hit and played in more theaters than Takeshi Kitano’s films ever did (Kitano was once hugely popular there), asked why the reception had been so different from at home.

Nodded Fukada, “It opened in 119 theaters and expanded to 200 theaters, becoming what they called a ‘smash hit.’ I think that is probably at least partially the result of the pandemic, since not too many films were opening. But my previous film, Harmonium, actually drew a much larger crowd in France than in Japan. It’s not that my name is better known in France, so they’re not coming to see it because it’s a ‘Fukada film.’ I’m not a commercially successful director like Mr. Kitano or Mr. Kore-eda, I don’t make entertainment pieces, my films are rather dark. But I think the cultural backdrop allows for more cinematic diversity there.”

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The North American and Japanese film posters. ©2020 Film Movement; © 2019 YOKOGAO FILM PARTNERS & COMME DES CINEMAS

Marveling that children are taught about cinema from an early age in France — “they’re even shown Yasujiro Ozu films in grade school!” — Fukada continued, “They grow up watching films, and they have a wider range of tastes when it comes to art and cinema. It also allows for diversity and openness toward different cultures. I think this is something Japan could benefit from doing. Perhaps we should start including film education in our classrooms. If we do that now, more people in this country might come to see my films 20 years from now.”

Fukada was asked why the Japanese and English titles were so very different. “I had decided on the Japanese title, Yokogao (meaning profile), early on,” he responded, “because I thought Mariko Tsutsui’s profile was really striking. It was also a good metaphor for the story, because we can only see one side of ourselves (the front). My international sales company, MK2, came up with the English title, which is quite nice because it has a double meaning. They wanted it to sound like a suspense film, which it is, and also to indicate that the girl who’s missing is the protagonist herself. The French title is L’Infermiere, meaning caregiver. So the titles are all different and so are the posters.”

a-girl-missing photo-1Ichiko is confronted by a rabid press. ©2019 YOKOGAO FILM PARTNERS & COMME DES CINEMAS

Taking the French theme even further, another critic asked about Fukada’s experience getting funding in Japan vs. in France (the National Centre for Cinema and the Moving Image or CNC supported both A Girl Missing and Harmonium). Admitting that he could address the subject for the next 2 hours, the director said, “I would say that independent filmmakers in Japan are in dire straits in three respects: first, they don’t receive the same level of funding, in terms of either the budget or the percentage of government subsidies that go to culture and film. The arts subsidies from Bunkacho (the Agency for Cultural Affairs) are ¥200 million, while in Korea, KOFIC contributes ¥4 billion and in France, CNC contributes ¥8 billion. Japanese are getting only 1/9 of what Korean filmmakers get, and 1/8 of what French filmmakers can expect. In the US, where there aren’t a lot of government subsidies, at least there’s a lot of private financing from individuals and companies.

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©Koichi Mori

“Second, in Japan, about 80% of box office revenues go to big studios and corporations, because it’s still legal here for them to also own the distribution chains.

“Third, what also helps filmmakers in France and Korea is that a tax is imposed on each ticket sale — in France 10%, Korea 3% — and that tax money is pooled and redistributed to the film industry. The CNC and Korea’s KOFIC push for the further development of film culture as well as diversity in filmmaking. Here, there’s simply no systematic way that the industry is able to come together, regardless of whether they’re major studios or indie filmmakers.”

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 But despite the depressing state of the industry, the delays in shooting his new script, and major lifestyle changes imposed by Covid, Fukada’s mood was upbeat. After all, the Tokyo International Film Festival will be holding a physical edition, and Fukada will be appearing for live Q&As after each of his films is screened, along with key cast members.

There is also this to look forward to: Mariko Tsutsui has been nominated as Best Actress for her exception performance in A Girl Missing at the 14th Asian Film Awards, and the winners will be announced on October 28.

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©FCCJ

Selected Media Exposure

AINU MOSIR


AINU MOSIR


 October 8, 2020
Q&A guests: Director Takeshi Fukunaga and actor Debo Akiba


FCCJ Ainu Mosir FCCJ-7Debo Akiba joins director Takeshi Fukunaga from Hokkaido, via the magic of Zoom.  ©FCCJ

Like many nations with colonial pasts, Japan once deployed a policy of forced assimilation, economic and social discrimination, even family separation against its indigenous Ainu people — almost completely erasing their culture and identity. In the 19th-20th centuries, the government denied them the right to speak their language (it has been classified as critically endangered by UNESCO), as well as their right to hunt and gather.

Only with the 2019 passage of the Ainu Policy Promotion Act, the first recognizing them as an indigenous people, were the Ainu extended the right to “live with pride in their ethnicity” and to be afforded equal treatment.

Takeshi Fukunaga’s beautifully crafted second feature, Ainu Mosir, thus arrives at an auspicious juncture. Five years in the making and already the recipient of several major international festival awards, it portrays, in the guise of a gentle coming-of-age tale, the ongoing challenges facing the natives who call Hokkaido’s Akan Ainu Kotan home.

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Fukunaga smiles at Debo, on a screen to his left. ©Koichi Mori

Fukunaga first appeared at FCCJ in 2017 with his debut feature Out of My Hand, which he had shot partially in Liberia and in New York City, the director’s adopted home for 16 years. With Ainu Mosir, the Hokkaido native once again demonstrates that he is uniquely positioned to tell stories about outsiders that are also universally human stories.

The film focuses on Kanto (Kanto Shimokura) a sensitive 14 year old who lives in Akan Kotan, a UNESCO World Heritage site. His mother runs one of Akan’s craft shops and takes part in the nightly performances of Ainu music and dance “traditions,” which are accompanied by flashing lights and videos.

Akan is “too tiny, it’s not normal and they make you do Ainu stuff,” complains Kanto, who would rather sing “Johnny B. Goode” in his middle-school rock band. But like the other students, he is deeply conflicted about his sense of identity.

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©AINU MOSIR LLC/Booster Project

When a family friend named Debo (Debo Akibe) takes him under his wing, it’s clear Kanto has yet to come to terms with the loss of his father a year earlier. Debo teaches him the ways of their ancestors, shows him the path to the other side of the world where the dead live, and asks him to help raise a bear cub he’s keeping.

What Kanto doesn’t realize is that the bear is to be sacrificed in the ancient religious rite known as iomante, to thank the kamui gods for the gifts they have bestowed upon humans. But the controversial ritual has not been observed since 1975 in Akan (although the last one in Hokkaido was performed in 1990), and the villagers are at first opposed due to the impact it would have on tourism. “People won’t accept it!” protests one. “No one else needs to understand,” says Debo. “This is about us.”

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©
AINU MOSIR LLC/Booster Project

As Kanto grapples with his shifting sense of morality and takes his first tentative steps toward manhood, Ainu Mosir remains gently non-judgmental, fully immersing viewers in the quotidian sounds and sights of this colorful indigenous community, engrossing the viewer in this young man's journey toward understanding and acceptance.

Appearing after FCCJ’s screening, Fukunaga told the audience that his intention was always to work with a (primarily) non-professional cast of locals.

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Koichi Mori

 “Being from Hokkaido myself, I realized after I’d left that I hadn't had a chance to learn about the indigenous Ainu people,” he explained. “Only after moving to the states did I recognize that I wanted to make a film about them. However, as a Japanese, or what the Ainu people call ‘Wajin,’ I knew I had to be very careful about depicting them, since I wanted to stay away from anything contrived or romanticized, as often occurs.

“I did write dialogue, but I didn’t want [the cast] to memorize it, I wanted them to express things in their own words, in a way that was close to their own stories. I tried to create an environment in which each of the cast members felt free to act in a natural way. I didn’t direct them as much as I would had they been professional actors.”

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Debo Akibe, who joined Fukunaga via Zoom from Akan, was one of the exceptions to the “non-professional” rule, having appeared in such films as Lee Sang-il’s 2013 hit Unforgiven, alongside Ken Watanabe and Koichi Sato. In fact, one imagines that Akibe is the exception to quite a few rules. His character in Ainu Mosir is both frightening and admirable, yet his doting tutelage of young Kota makes him an endearing father figure at the same time that he is a formidable defender of the Ainu tradition.

“How close are you to the amazing character you play?” he was asked. “There are similarities,” Akibe admitted,” but I don’t think I have as much perseverance and I’m more short-tempered. I wouldn’t have the patience to teach that young man so [wisely] and gently, as my character does in the film.”

That “young man,” Kanto Shimokura, also came in for his share of praise. Discussing the casting, Fukunaga explained, “We’d already decided that we were going to shoot in Akan, so our choices were quite limited. We needed to select someone who was in junior high school or below (Akan does not have a high school, so students must go elsewhere) or a much older man. The woman who plays Kanto’s mother in the film is his actual mother, and she was really cooperative, and introduced us to all the townspeople. Through discussions with her, I met Kanto early on. I knew he had a special presence, a special sensitivity about him.

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©AINU MOSIR LLC/Booster Project

“When we rewrote the script and made [the character] younger, we immediately cast Kanto. It was an easy choice because we’d already built a relationship with him through preparations for the shoot. He’s actually very interested in acting, so I think it was a good decision.”

Asked about his experience working with Shimokura, Akibe recalled, “The first scene we did in front of the camera, I was really surprised at what he delivered. With every scene from them on, he completely understood what he had to do and he didn’t second-guess himself at all. I don't know how many conversations he had with the director, but his presence went beyond acting.

“I wanted to make sure that my own performance didn’t feel actorly. I wanted to show something that didn’t look like acting. I was able to do that because of Kanto’s wonderful performance — as well as Mr. Fukunaga’s wonderful directing.”

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©AINU MOSIR LLC/Booster Project

The film’s credits note that no animals were harmed in its making, and in fact, it depicts iomante only through a scratchy VHS tape that Kanto has found in his father’s things. Fukunaga and Akibe were asked how they had morally positioned themselves concerning the townspeople’s struggle to decide whether to resurrect the ancient ritual.

Said Fukunaga, “Debo-san gave me a lot of advice about this. Among the Ainu, some are opposed to resurrecting the ritual, and of course, some are not. They all have their own reasons for it. I couldn’t think of any other motif that captures the spiritually and culture of the Ainu so completely as iomante, and that’s why I chose to depict it.

“This is not a documentary, so what you see in the town meeting is fictional. But those who spoke out against it are actually opposed to it in real life, and the same goes for those who support it in the film. I don’t think I’m in a position to have my own opinion on this, but I wanted to depict the [town’s divide].”

秋辺デボAINU MOSIR LLCBooster Project
©AINU MOSIR LLC/Booster Project

Akibe was candid: “That scene, in which the townspeople are deliberating whether or not to go forward with iomante, had no dialogue written for it, so what you see is an impromptu enactment of what it would be like. As for my own sentiments, I was surprised to discover that so many people were against the revival of the ritual.

“To tell you the truth, 10 years ago I had a little cub that I called ‘Chibi,’ or ‘Little One’ [just as my character does in the film], and I was raising it to ultimately kill him. But everyone was against it and I couldn’t find one person to join me. My wife told me that if I killed and ate him, she would leave me. So I had no choice but to give up on the idea.

“When it comes to issues like tradition and culture, through the process of participating in this film, I came to discover just how personally people in Akan take iomante, and how much they value life. I realized that reviving tradition is sometimes not the completely the righteous thing to do."

Ainu mosir 3AINU MOSIR LLCBooster Project
©AINU MOSIR LLC/Booster Project

 A Canadian cultural historian, noting that she shows Inuit and Mohawk films in her classes, said, “We have a similar colonization history, where filmmakers stole the stories of the native people, and now the native people are telling the stories themselves. I wonder if Mr. Akibe could talk about the decision to accept Mr. Fukunaga into the community and the relationship you had with him.”

Akibe broke into a wide smile on the Zoom screen. “The first time I met him,” he said, “my impression was, ‘Ohhhh, this is going to be complicated.’ After we had talked about the kind of film he wanted to make, and heard that he wanted to depict the iomante ritual, we knew it would be difficult. But he was very passionate about it, and he was able to convince me to believe in it, to want to help him. I felt that if a director was that serious about a film, then it would a success.”

He continued, “Throughout these 160 years, the Ainu and indigenous peoples around the world have been through dire straits as the colonists stripped them of their culture and their language. Of course it’s understandable that there are many indigenous people today who are still suspicious of the colonists and remain very resentful.

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©FCCJ

“But across these past few decades, I’ve seen that kind of sentiment gradually wane, and everyone now seems to accept the notion of thriving together.* I did make one special request of the director. I wanted him to make sure that the revival of the tradition would not be depicted as any sort of revenge of the Ainu against the non-indigenous people.”

Indeed, one of the film’s many strengths is Takeshi Fukunaga’s restrained, non-judgmental depiction of cultural practices that are unfamiliar to most. Ainu Mosir should help to change that, as should the new National Ainu Museum and Park, which opened in July in Shiraoi, Hokkaido, with the mission of reviving and developing Ainu culture.

Viewers in the U.S. will also have a chance to see the film, after the just-announced acquisition by Ava DuVernay’s Array Releasing, which focuses on stories by and about minorities. They also distributed Fukunaga’s Out of My Hand, and will play this theatrically in select cities in November before debuting on Netflix.

AINUMOSIR posterAINU MOSIR LLCBooster Project
©AINU MOSIR LLC/Booster Project

Selected Media Exposure

THE ASADAS


THE ASADAS (Asadake!)


 September 30, 2020
Q&A guests: Director Ryota Nakano and photographer Masashi Asada


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Masashi Asada (left) and director Ryota Nakano pose with the medallion for their film's international premiere.  
©Koichi Mori

It’s the rare Japanese director who can balance humor and pathos with the dexterity demonstrated by Ryota Nakano. After just four feature films, he has established a familiar voice and a favorite subject: the family, as it faces dark days. Yet there is always brightness in the gloom, and scenes of gentle humor are punctuated by endearingly quirky details.

In his much-heralded feature debut, Capturing Dad (2012), the titular patriarch has just died, yet one remembers most the moments of mirth, like the payoff to a slow-building punchline about a young boy’s obsession with a tuna fish. Admittedly, Nakano’s next two releases, both enormous hits in Japan, elicited more tears than laughter —in Her Love Boils Bathwater (2016), a matriarch who runs a bathhouse is dying of cancer, and in A Long Goodbye (2019), an aging father is spiraling into Alzheimer’s.

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©Koichi Mori

But his playful, poignant new The Asadas rediscovers the joyous, slightly off-kilter tone of Capturing Dad, even with a second half that is set in the aftermath of the 2011 Tohoku earthquake and tsunami. The film is a reminder that, should the trend continue, Nakano may become this generation’s answer to the legendary Yoji Yamada, whose prodigious output (nearly 90 films and counting) has been almost entirely devoted to comedies centered on the family unit.

Appearing at the Q&A session following FCCJ's screening, Nakano explained how he’d become involved in the project, the first he’s made based on real-life characters. Indie producer Shinji Ogawa (Piéta in the Toilet, River’s Edge) had optioned the underlying rights in 2012, and approached Nakano after seeing Capturing Dad. Recalled the director, “He showed me this amazing photobook of all the Asada family members in cosplay, and said he wanted me to make a film about them. My first reaction was, ‘What a bizarre family!’ But I thought there must be some really interesting drama behind the impulse to dress up and pose for all those photos.

“As a filmmaker,” he continued, “I also always felt I had a responsibility to make a film about the 3/11 Tohoku disaster, and I had so far been unable to do that. When I met Mr. Asada and his very unique family, I finally felt that I could depict the disaster in a way that was true to my vision.

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©Koichi Mori

“From the beginning of the project, we knew we wanted to have a happy ending. I felt it might be difficult to end in an upbeat way, considering that we were depicting the aftermath of 3/11. But after I’d gone to the stricken areas and interviewed survivors, I realized that they were much more forward-looking than we’d expected. So we felt it would be acceptable to end on a hopeful note.”

After some 18 drafts of the script, and dozens of interviews with various Asadas and other real-life people who would be depicted in the film, Nakano was ready for the casting process. With the actual Masashi Asada sitting next to him on stage, he told the FCCJ audience, “Needless to say, the most important role to cast at first was Masashi Asada. As I got to know him, I realized that he can be quite a slacker, quite laid back; but he’s also really affable, and has a way of winning people over, making it very difficult to dislike him.

asadas main  2020 The ASADASFilm Partners
© 
2020 “The ASADAS”Film Partners

“We had to figure out the best person to play that kind of character. When it comes to (Kazunari) Ninomiya, he can seem quite detached at first, but he’s a real people person. He has this genuine quality, like Mr. Asada, that attracts people to him.”

Ninomiya is one of Japan’s hugest movie (and pop) stars (Letters from Iwo Jima, Nagasaki: Memories of My Son), and his casting enabled Ogawa and Nakano to attract another huge star, Satoshi Tsumabuki (Waterboys, Traces of Sin), to play Masashi’s older brother, as well as a big-name supporting cast.

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©Koichi Mori

The film was inspired by Masashi Asada’s exploits, and while judiciously skirting hagiography, Nakano’s script allows Ninomiya to express Masashi’s reckless, free-spirited character in ways that are as irritating as they are charming.

Admitted the real-life Masashi, “I still have trouble believing that my photobook has been made into a film, and that Mr. Ninomiya is playing me. I’m very honored by that.”

Whether or not you’re familiar with that photobook — which immortalizes the Asada family in a series of hilarious, inventive photographs taken by Masashi — you will be enchanted by this foursome and its unusual dynamic. Here’s a family that plays together, stays together, talks about their hopes and fears together, and occasionally, dresses up in silly costumes together.

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©FCCJ

In The Asadas, Masashi (Ninomiya) is given his first camera by his photo-nut father (Mitsuru Hirata) at age 12, and decides he will grow up to be a photographer. When he’s close to flunking out of art school, he’s assigned to take the one photo he would take if he knew it would be his last. Masashi decides to recreate a childhood incident in which the entire family, including his elder brother Yukihiro (Tsumabuki) and mom (a marvelous Jun Fubuki) are in the hospital together. The Asadas have so much fun with the reenactment that Masashi begins shooting them in a range of cosplay getups: as firefighters, racecar drivers, superheroes, ramen chefs, rockband members, politicians and more.

But no Tokyo publisher will touch his “family photos” at first, and Masashi has to rely on childhood crush Wakana (Haru Kuroki) for support. After his fortunes finally begin to turn — in a twist that is stranger than fiction — he starts receiving requests to take family photos from across Japan. When the Fukushima disasters occur, he rushes to the devastated area to check on one of the families he had shot, and winds up staying on in a pivotal role.

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©Koichi Mori

With spirited recreations from Masashi’s bestselling photobooks (there have been several more since the first in 2008) and a cast working in top form, The Asadas pays tribute not only to the significance of family ties but also to the power of the photograph. As Masashi puts it, “a single photo can make memories tangible and sometimes, it can even give us the strength to live on.”

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©Koichi Mori

Asked how he’d engendered such a close-knit vibe from the actors, Nakano responded, “I decided to start the film shoot with the recreation of the Asada family photo album. We shot about 15 photos over the course of two days, working morning to sunset, with constant costume changes. The actors were laughing a lot and by the end of those two days, they’d become a family because they’d worked through the process together. That had been exactly my intention by starting production that way.”

Explained Masashi Asada, “The family photos you see in the film are nearly identical to the ones I shot with my own family. The first one we recreated was the firefighters photo, and we were able to shoot it at the exact same fire station, with the same fire engine and uniforms.”

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©Koichi Mori

And what was it like shooting actors rather than real people? Admitted Asada, “Professionals make me a lot more nervous than amateurs, because I’m much more used to the latter and it’s easier for me to coax people who are quite shy. [As for Ninomiya], watching him up close on set, I found his method of easing himself into a scene without seeming to prepare quite surprising. But when we were recreating the family photos, he was attuned to the tiniest details. He really has an eye for things.”

“Did the experience make you want to start directing films yourself?” he was asked. Asada laughed. “This was the first time I’d been involved on a movie set, and I hadn’t realized just how many people are involved in the process. When I shoot my own photos, I don’t even have 10 people there. On this set, there were more than 10 times that many people, and it was quite amazing to see the director bringing them all together. I realized that it was something I would never be able to do. In short, I don’t think I’ll be making a film in the future.”

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©Koichi Mori

Asada was asked about his greatest influence, and immediately responded, “Shoji Ueda. He was a photographer based in Tottori, where the huge sand dunes are located, and he would shoot his family against the backdrop of the dunes. The photography scene was centered in Tokyo, but he stayed in Tottori and developed such a distinct style that he became internationally known for what we call ‘Ueda-cho’ (Ueda-style) photography. I respect him not only for his work but for his way of life.”

He paused before adding, “And I hope that my work might someday become internationally famous and lead to the coinage ‘Asada-cho.’”

Without missing a beat, the director chimed in, “And I, too, hope to be known internationally for ‘Nakano-cho’ films.”

Nakano is no stranger to non-Japanese audiences, having first traveled widely with Capturing Dad. His new film will make its international premiere in competition at the Warsaw International Film Festival in mid-October, before going to the Busan International Film Festival and elsewhere.

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©FCCJ

“It was my intent from the beginning to make this film not just for Japanese audiences,” he said. “Because it’s a film about family, and about the 3/11 disaster, I believe that it will also strike a chord with international audiences.

“I would go so far as to say that tonight’s screening, with an audience of people from so many different countries, feels like attending a small international film festival. So this is the de facto international debut of the film, and I’m very eager to know what you thought of it.”

Not surprisingly, the applause was spontaneous and substantial. It's surely a sign of things to come.

asadas  2020 The ASADASFilm Partners

© 2020 “The ASADAS”Film Partners

Selected Media Exposure

SOIRÉE


SOIRÉE


 August 19, 2020
Q&A guests: Director 
Bunji Sotoyama and stars Nijiro Murakami and Haruka Imou


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Director Bunji Sotoyama and stars Nijiro Murakami and Haruka Imou. ©FCCJ

In the future, Bunji Sotoyama’s visually and emotionally rewarding Soirée may be remembered as a film of important firsts. The first release of the freshly minted production company Shinsekai, it also marks the cultural moment when we all discovered Haruka Imou.

But for now, still on the cusp of stardom, it was not Ms. Imou’s presence that brought a huge contingent of still photographers and nine TV cameras to the Q&A session following our screening — it was the film’s producers, Kosuke Toyohara and Kyoko Koizumi, two of Japan’s most popular and prolific actors. 

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Citing the careers of John Cassavetes, Clint Eastwood, Jodie Foster and Juzo Itami,
producer KosukeToyohara reassured journalists that he would continue to act,
as well as produce and direct. 
©FCCJ

Gamely agreeing to comment briefly about the genesis of the project — but humbly standing off to the side of the stage as he did so — Toyohara recalled, “Two years ago, we met with Mr. Sotoyama about making a film together in Wakayama, and [decided to] establish a company together, Shinsekai (‘new world’). We wanted to protect the uniqueness [of his script] and the freedom of the filmmaking. This wasn’t only because it was our first project as a production company, but because we felt these are values that should be highly prized in filmmaking, and in culture in general. We also wanted to protect Mr. Sotoyama’s artistry without diluting the [weightiness] of the project.”

The audience immediately understood that Toyohara was referring to the film’s backdrop of power and sexual abuse, issues that have begun popping up more frequently in Japanese narrative films, but have rarely been handled with the same level of empathy and discernment that they are in Soirée

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©
Koichi Mori

Sotoyama, who reportedly spent some 10 months working on the script with the producers, recalled, “They encouraged me to question exactly what I wanted to say with my work, and finally, we were able to arrive on the same page. One message I wanted to make clear is that we are not born to be hurt. That leads to the theme of Japan’s unforgiving, non-inclusive society, which is forcing people to suffocate. Unfortunately, I don’t have any answers, but I think what I can do as a filmmaker is to continue making films about this.”

The two young protagonists of Soirée do indeed seem to be slowly suffocating. Sharing attributes with many of today’s disaffected youth, they are immeasurably lonely, alienated, unable to overcome their crippling self-doubt. Shota (Nijiro Murakami, Still the Water, Destruction Babies, The Gun) has come to Tokyo to pursue his dreams of being an actor, but when we first meet him, he is instead skimming an innocent victim in an “ore-ore” fiscal scam. He may be a skillful conman, but in his acting class, he’s also the target of a cruel verbal outburst from the director.

Soiree2020 SOIREE Film Partners
©2020 SOIRÉE Film Partners

When Shota’s drama group journeys to a remote seaside town in Wakayama, where they will hold workshops with the inhabitants of a senior citizens’ home, we learn that Shota is from the area himself, but that he has essentially severed ties with his family. At the Sakura Garden senior facility, he meets the forlorn Takara (Haruka Imou, immediately magnetic in her first leading role).

Shota is tasked with bringing her along to the local summer festival, and as he arrives to pick her up, so too does the man most responsible for crushing her spirit. After a violent scuffle, Shota grabs Takara by the hand and they run. Their escape is misconstrued, and their unplanned journey takes on a more urgent tone. But as it continues, the pair are put to the test physically, emotionally, financially. “God puts us through trials, but always gives us a way out,” Shota reassures Takura. As they search for that way, they encounter and are helped by caring souls; but until they’ve faced up to their own pasts, the journey cannot end well.

ride2020 SOIREE Film Partners
©2020 SOIRÉE Film Partners

Beautifully lensed, with performances of rare delicacy and naturalness, Soirée marks a real departure for the director, who has previously demonstrated an unusual commitment to depicting the older generation. His award-winning short On This Side (2010) and his feature debut, A Sparkle of Life (2013), focused only on characters of a certain age. Even the short that brought Murakami and Sotoyama together for the first time in 2017, Harunareya, costarred the veteran Kazuko Yoshiyuki and foregrounded dementia.

“I’ve been depicting the elderly in my films for the past 10 years,” Sotoyama explained. “The elderly taking care of the elderly, people dying isolated and lonely deaths — it’s these issues that Japanese have not faced head on, which is why I want to continue depicting them. I want to draw the audience’s attention to them, to give voice to the voiceless. 

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The film's distributors brought in special dividers to reduce the Covid-19 risk. ©Koichi Mori

“This isn't because of a particular experience or family situation. My intention is to depict the issues confronting society in Japan, and one of those is aging and the way the elderly are suffocating. That’s a recurring theme in my work. So those who are familiar with it might be surprised that I’m telling this story about young people and their escape from reality. But nowadays, I think it’s not only the elderly who are suffocating, it’s also young people. I thought the time was ripe to focus on the younger generation as well.”

He was inspired to write the script, Sotoyama explained, after a visit to Wakayama Prefecture, south of Nara, where he’d been given an opportunity to set a film. “When I first visited, I discovered that the legend of Anchin and Kiyohime, which you see the characters enact in the film, is part of the town’s history and has been told [for generations]. I wanted to figure out a way to tell a contemporary story that connects to that.” (The legend is the subject of the acting troupe’s training with the seniors, and is also incorporated into one of the film’s most enchanting scenes of magic realism.)

run2020 SOIREE Film Partners
©2020 SOIRÉE Film Partners

Lauded for his casting decisions, the director was asked how he had made the selection. “We auditioned over 100 actors for Takara,” he responded, “and what ultimately convinced us to go with Ms. Imou was that she exhibited the fragility and ephemeralness of the character, as well as a strong life force. She had the right balance.

“It’s a story about a girl who’s gone through a very rough childhood and as the narrative progresses over the course of the film, we see her regain her life force, little by little. That’s what we wanted to bring to the screen, and that’s why we needed her.

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Imou and Murakami. ©FCCJ

“I first worked with Mr. Murakami on the short film Harunareya,” he continued. “He was still a teen at the time, and I found him to be a very interesting artist. Emotionally, he has this universality to him, but he also has a really contemporary aura, and I felt he could embody the dilemmas of contemporary youth.”

Commending them on their “sensitive, multifaceted portrayals” of characters dealing with abuse, a film historian asked the actors how they had prepared for the roles. Said Murakami, “Allow me to answer first, although in terms of the situation that both characters are facing, Ms. Imou’s character is the more cornered of the two. She has much more serious issues to deal with.

looking back2020 SOIREE Film Partners
©2020 SOIRÉE Film Partners

“I think my character is more universal, in a way. He’s a simple, straightforward young guy who’s grappling with issues like How far can I go with my [limited] talent? What am I going to do? How am I going to achieve my dreams? He’s come all the way from Wakayama to Tokyo to become a star, but he’s almost on the brink of giving up. Yet through this relationship with Takara he’s given the chance to be, or to act as, a hero.

“It’s about the conflicts that Shota goes through and the walls he has to [tear down],” he elaborated. “There are several important themes: first of all, you have to work hard and study hard. And then, you have to learn how to discern between people who are just hard on you and those who are hard on you but love you. Is it coming from a place of love? Those are some of the things the role made me think about.”

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©FCCJ

Said Imou, “It was challenging to prepare for my role because I hadn’t gone through such an experience, yet I needed to confront it head on [in order to portray it with the right sensitivity.] It wasn’t enough to just presume what Takara must’ve gone through psychologically, I really had to live the character, to walk in her path.

“They say that you can’t choose your parents, but it’s a fact that you can choose your own path. You can stand on your own two feet. You can stand up and put yourself back together, no matter how many times you topple over. That’s what I wanted to depict through this character. And through her, I was able to experience how strong and utterly cool a woman can be."

Demonstrating a media savvy that will stand her in good stead as her career takes off, Imou also noted, “I was able to work on this project with wonderful producers who are extremely active as actors themselves. They kindly gave me a platform where I could release my creativity and express myself, and it’s been a really rewarding experience. I’m also grateful that I had this opportunity to create a singular role together with the director, my castmates and the crew. I’m a film lover myself, and I hope to continue working as an actress for the rest of my life. I also hope Soirée gives people a bit of optimism about this unforgiving, non-inclusive society.” 

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©
Koichi Mori

The director, too, is ready for his closeup. Taking a question about the film’s French title, he made it really matter: “In Japan, ‘soirée’ equates to the evening presentation of a stage production,” he explained. “However, the film’s also about the hours between dusk and dawn, and ‘soirée’ speaks to the themes we’re trying to depict. It also alludes to the fact that we are our own life’s [leading] character. And in this era of Covid-19, I think it can also be seen in terms of how all of us are waiting for the dawn to break, for the light at the end of the tunnel.”

An exciting international premiere will be announced very soon, kicking off what is sure to be an abundance of overseas festival appearances.

Soiree poster2020 SOIREE Film Partners
©2020 SOIRÉE Film Partners

Selected Media Exposure

KUSHINA


KUSHINA, WHAT WILL YOU BE (Kushina)


 July 15, 2020
Q&A guests: Director 
Moët Hayami, actors Yayoi Inamoto and Miyuki Ono


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Writer-director Moët Hayami (right) with her stars, Yayoi Inamoto (left), and Miyuki Ono. ©FCCJ

In these times of self-isolation and social distancing, a film like Kushina, what will you be feels almost like allegory.

From our mid-2020 vantage point, it's hard to resist reading it as a cautionary tale about the fragility of our cultural ecosystems, the ease with which interlopers can rend the social fabric, and the real/imagined threats that external forces pose to even the most tightknit of communities.

The enigmatic first feature of Moët Hayami, Kushina is set in a remote matriarchal utopia. Hidden deep in the forested mountains of Japan, cloaked in almost otherworldly scenery, its residents live off the grid among the near-ruins of what might be a long-vanished civilization, with only the basic necessities and clothing that appears nearly feudal.

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© ATELIER KUSHINA

Fourteen-year-old Kushina (Ikumi Kader) is the youngest inhabitant of this village of women, born and raised here, while others had come intent on suicide but stayed on to live with like-minded souls. The female sanctuary was founded by fierce matriarch Onikuma (Miyuki Ono), who had fled modern “civilization” with her daughter Kagu (Tomona Hirota) when she was 14 and had become pregnant with Kushina.

Onikuma hasn’t completely cut ties with the outside world — she makes long, dangerous trips to the city to trade the cannabis the women cultivate for food and other provisions. But she will do anything to protect the isolation of the colony. And soon, she will have to.

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Onikuma and Kushina. © ATELIER KUSHINA

The peaceful existence is upended by the arrival of anthropologist Soko (Yayoi Inamoto) and her male assistant Keita (Suguru Onuma), who have been searching for the village for some time. “Human beauty develops distinctively in isolated communities,” Soko had told him, and she now has her chance to document the proof. She finds herself enchanted with Kushina’s innocence and her curiosity about what lies beyond the woods, and she unwittingly crosses the line, altering the women’s lives forever.

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Soko documents her find. ©
ATELIER KUSHINA

Appearing with two of her lead actresses for the Q&A session after the screening of her film, the director was asked what had compelled her to create such an unusual world. “The seed of the story was actually not this community of women living in the forest,” admitted Hayami. “The seed was that I wanted to create a mother-daughter story — it all sprang from there. I also imagined that if you’re very young and you get pregnant in Japan, it must be really suffocating.

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Hayami earned immediate acclaim for her debut feature. ©FCCJ

“That led me to imagine what would happen if a woman got pregnant, ran away to the forest to commit suicide, and decided instead to stay. As we all know, there are these jukai, or seas of trees (aka suicide forests) in which there’s no way out, once you go in. But I imagined if a woman went in and decided to stay, she might build a community, whereas a man would probably drift away. That’s how I started creating the characters and the story.”

Hayami admitted that she had been repeatedly cautioned against shooting too much and for too long, considering the limited budget and her inexperience. When the location was finally decided on —somewhere in Yamanashi Prefecture that is difficult to find even by GPS (a situation echoed in the film) — the director had even more reason to limit the shoot. She would eventually do her own production and costume design, as well as spending 2 years on editing the film.

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Ono marks her return to the screen with an indelible role. ©Koichi Mori

Magnificently shot (by Ryo Muramatsu, the director’s husband), Kushina had its world premiere at the Osaka Asian Film Festival in 2018, where it won the Japan Cuts Award, taking its director and stars to New York City for a widely heralded screening. And yet, Hayami ultimately decided against releasing it in Japan.

Believers in kismet might imagine that distribution was delayed so it could coincide with the coronavirus pandemic 2 years later, thus lending the film a newfound resonance. The truth is nearly as remarkable.

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Popular TV actress Inamoto makes her film debut in Kushina. ©Koichi Mori

“I had the opportunity to screen the film at several film festivals in 2018, and I was approached about distributing it,” recalled Hayami. “However, when my mother read a few of the interviews I did, she seemed shocked and hurt at what I’d said. I realized that I’d put her in an unpleasant position. She told me she now recognized she had caused me a lot of pain and perhaps she’d made a mistake in the way she’d raised me.

“Since it wasn’t my intention to depict that in the film, I decided to let it lie a little bit while I grappled with how to release it commercially. It took me 2 years, during which I worked on other projects. I wanted my mother to understand my intentions, and in order to move forward with my next project, I needed to see this one released first.”

Kushina threeKoichi Mori
©Koichi Mori

An audience member asked, “Did your mother intuit this from watching the film, or was it only when you started doing press for the film? I’m curious because writers often have the problem that family members read themselves into their characters, even when they aren’t meant to.”

Responded Hayami, “My mother saw the movie before reading the interviews and said she didn’t understand what it was about (laughter). Then she read the interviews and said it was quite shocking to discover that it was about herself. So she revisited the film, and told me ‘I still didn’t understand.’ (more laughter) But my older sister watched the film and burst into tears, so I could see that we were on the same page.”

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©FCCJ

If Hayami saw herself as Kushina, then it’s arguable that the little girl’s grandmother in the film, Onikuma, is her mother’s stand-in. Miyuki Ono plays the character with gravitas and overprotective intensity, reminding us how much she’s been missed. Ono had made her film debut in 1979 opposite the late, great Bunta Sugawara, and gone on to appear in a range of distinctive works, including Ridley Scott’s Black Rain (1989).

But as she told the audience, “I’d been away from film for 16 years when we shot Kushina (in 2016), since I had become a mother myself. During that time I also became a regular audience member. Maybe because I was watching more, I started finding an increasing number of Japanese films that were really interesting. I wanted to work with this new generation of talented filmmakers, and that was the main impetus for me to sign on to this project.

Hayami was asked whether the film’s haunting poster image — depicting Kushina in the forest, curled up like a cat as she listens again and again to a song on her fading Walkman cassette player — might have been the inciting image for the script. But the director said she had instead seen the image of a woman returning home from somewhere far away. (We hear Kushina’s song only after the credits have rolled, when Doris Day’s “Que Sera Sera” fills the soundtrack. It turns out that this was a song that deeply connected Hayami and her mother, and thus seems to be a covert message of hope, and of forgiveness.)

Kushina main Kader  ATELIER KUSHINA
© ATELIER KUSHINA

TV tarento Yayoi Inamoto, who made her film debut playing the anthropologist in the film, was asked whether she imagines Kushina is thankful that her character has drawn her into the real world, away from the isolated life she’s led. Responded Inamoto, “I guess we need to have a sequel to know [for sure], but as the mother of 3 children myself, I have to say that if one of them were taken away like that, it would be unthinkable to me. Of course, given the kind of environment that this little girl was brought up in, there’s no way of knowing.”

When Hayami was lauded for her costume design, particularly the choice to color-code characters, Hayami explained, “Since their thoughts and sentiments are quite ambiguous in the story, I thought that it was important to understand what each character’s function was, and to use clear color themes. I indicated that in the screenplay, but there was also a lot of discussion with my crew. And Ms. Ono kindly brought some of her own clothes, so we mixed and matched them."

Said Ono (whose defining color is midnight blue), “My character changes clothes (to more modern garb) when she goes into town so she can more easily blend in. But all the costumes and kimono existed [in some form or another]; none of them were created from scratch. I think that brings a level of reality to the community, because if women came together to live in the forest, they would probably be wearing clothing like this, not buying new pieces.”

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©FCCJ

She continued, “When I was doing an interview with a male journalist earlier tonight, he mentioned perhaps he should go visit his mother. This is not a didactic film — it is about the power and the strength and the beauty of female characters. In that sense, you can call it a fantasy that is infused with reality.

“When I was working as an actress 20 years ago, there weren't many films that depicted females with a sense of agency or intention. They were always these fragile beings that men had to protect. I was in my 20s and 30s at the time, and I remember feeling very uneasy about being pigeonholed into that kind of stereotype.

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©Koichi Mori (left),
©FCCJ (right)

“This film, on the other hand, allows you to see the power that females have, how they raise their children, what it truly means to love and the depth of emotions that come with that. I think it must be a revelation for male audiences of the younger generation. It’s a way of seeing women through new eyes. These are not fragile, outdated characters. This is not to say that traditional women should be looked down upon, but rather, that the way they’ve been depicted [is wrong], and that goes for films from many countries around the world.”

Inamoto concurred. “I hope audiences consider the genesis of the project as a mother-daughter story, but I imagine it must be very interesting to view the story as a man,” she said. “After all, it [includes] a man going into a village where men are not allowed. And it’s also about an outsider who goes into a community intending no harm at all but who creates a kind of rupture in that society, in the end. I guess that alludes to the many forms of affection that exist, which might be another interesting way of seeing the story.”

Kushina HayamiKoichi Mori
©
Koichi Mori

Finally, speaking rather cryptically (unless one has been apprised of the situation with her mother), Moët Hayami told the audience, “We have to make many decisions throughout the course of our lives, and a lot of them are driven by love. I’d like the audience to think about the fact that when you give love to someone, you don’t always know that it is being received.

“We were working on a very low budget, but I love fantasy films. I don’t think there are many prominent Japanese films that are [like the fantasies being made overseas], and this is my own attempt at making one.”

Kushina poster  ATELIER KUSHINA
© ATELIER KUSHINA

Selected Media Exposure

AN EVENING WITH VETERAN FILM CRITIC MARK SCHILLING


AN EVENING WITH VETERAN FILM CRITIC MARK SCHILLING


 June 23, 2020
Q&A guest: Mark Schilling


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Schilling, right, with Sachiko Ichikawa, widow of Jun Ichikawa, and Tony Takitani DP Taishi Hirokawa. ©Koichi Mori

Three long months after our last event, the Film Committee cautiously emerged from Covid-19 lockdown to host an intimate conversation with veteran film critic, festival advisor and cycling enthusiast Mark Schilling.

The small-town Ohio boy is now the world’s leading voice on Japanese film, with a catbird seat as a critic for the Japan Times since 1989. He has been the local correspondent since 1990 for Screen International and now Variety, is a cultural reporter for a wide range of international publications, and has authored six books on Japan, including the recently published “Art, Cult and Commerce: Japanese Cinema Since 2000.”

When we first approached him about joining us on the FCCJ dais, we suggested also screening a film of his choice. His immediate response had been, “something by Jun Ichikawa” — his favorite Japanese filmmaker, who had died in 2008 at the age of 59. With the assistance of Ichikawa's widow, Sachiko, we were able to treat the audience to a very special screening of the director’s 2004 masterpiece Tony Takitani, based on a Haruki Murakami short story. A delicate, haunting film shot in luminous near-monochrome, it beautifully renders the spiritual isolation of its eponymous protagonist, as well as of modern Japan.

Tony Takitani  2005 WILCO Co. Ltd
© 2005 WILCO Co., Ltd

Introducing the screening, Sachiko Ichikawa shared a statement her husband wrote after he’d finished the film, highlighting his “attempt to answer demands brought about by Murakami’s literary world, which may be solid but is nonetheless floating a few centimeters off reality’s ground;” and of his own conviction that the film version should have “shots comprised of blank spaces like Edward Hopper’s paintings.”

The director’s longtime collaborator, acclaimed photographer Taishi Hirokawa, the award-winning cinematographer of Tony Takitani, told the audience Ichikawa wanted the film to feel as if “viewers were turning the pages as they read the story,” resulting in the camera’s subtle, ceaseless movements from left to right. He also recalled how they had had just two weeks to shoot, and had built all the sets in the open air on a hillside near Yokohama, despite the imminent typhoon season. “But Ichikawa was always lucky,” he said. “The rains skipped us.”

Settling in for a long, genial chat after the screening, Schilling was asked why Jun Ichikawa is so important to him. “I didn’t know much about him when I first started reviewing in 1989,” he admitted, “so for me, the discovery was Dying at a Hospital [1993]. I went into the screening cold and I was totally blown away. You’re watching patients who are all being treated for cancer… and you also see people outside the hospital, doing ordinary things. That combination, of people who are going to die and people who are very much alive — the contrast just hit me so hard.

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Hirokawa discusses building the open-air sets. ©
Koichi Mori

“I ended up showing it at Udine (Far East Film Festival, where he curated the first international spotlight on Ichikawa’s work in 1994), and believe me, the last 10-15 minutes, everyone in the audience was [sobbing]. I couldn’t stop crying myself, and afterward, the director said, ‘I feel kind of sorry — I just make films that make people cry.’

“I ended up seeing everything he made after that, and he became my touchstone. This is why I’m doing this. At the time, there were up-and-coming directors getting attention, like (Takeshi) Kitano, (Hirokazu) Kore-eda and later (Kiyoshi) Kurosawa and (Naomi) Kawase. It was great for them, but I thought, ‘Wait a minute, Ichikawa should be up there with them.’ He wasn’t being ignored in Japan, but I thought he could take a step up, beyond Japan, and I tried to do what I could. I thought, ‘This is my mission, to make his films better known.’”

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©FCCJ

Asked why had he selected Tony Takitani to screen at FCCJ, when it was almost too good at making the audience feel “extremely isolated and lonely,” Schilling responded, “It’s the time we’re living in now, isn’t it? Mrs. Ichikawa shared her husband’s thoughts about Edward Hopper, who’s become the artist of the coronavirus era. When I first saw it, I remember thinking that maybe it wasn’t cinematic enough. But I watched it again, and everything fits together the way Ichikawa intended it to: the images, the music, the acting. For me, it builds up to that moment when Tony’s wife is gone and he’s alone in her closet, a huge room, with all her clothes. I’ve had that experience in my own life. Someone dies, you go in and see their things the way they left them for the last time. And you never forget that. You never forget the feeling you have, the smells. That sums up the absence you feel when someone dies. Tony Takitani works for me like a film but also like a visual poem.”

Tony  2005 WILCO Co. Ltd
© 2005 WILCO Co., Ltd

Here, with ellisions, are other highlights of our conversation:

On selecting the reviews, interviews and essays included in his new book
The last time I did this was for the 1999 book “Contemporary Japanese Film,” which collected articles I wrote for the Japan Times from 1989. The publisher for that told me, “If you want to include all these reviews, you’re going to have to cut them down. They’re too long.” So I spent about a month and it was agonizing. I kept thinking, “Did I really write that?” This book wasn’t as bad. At the beginning of the millennium, I had about 1,200 words to play with. Now I have 550. It forces you to compress your thoughts, but it’s not quite enough. Every time they cut me down, I was fighting for the word count. Now I realize maybe it’s not so bad.

On whether his opinion of some films had changed since writing his initial review
Sometimes I see films after a long time and realize, “I liked this too much the first time around,” or I see something in it that I didn’t see before. That was the case with Tony Takitani, since when I first saw it, I hadn’t had the experience of having someone close to me die. And then I did. Seeing it again, I realized it’s a very artistic, very minimal film. But it’s deeply emotional, too.

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©FCCJ

I have to give stars for the Japan Times reviews, and I think I gave 5 stars to only a few films every decade. I look back on those and think, “I really shouldn’t have done that.” (Pushed for examples, he finally relented.) There’s one called Sakuran, based on a manga by a woman, directed by a woman, starring the great Anna Tsuchiya, with a brilliant score by Ringo Sheena. I saw it and thought it was the ultimate feminist film. Women had been working so hard for so long to make any mark in the industry here, and it seemed like this was the breakthrough. I thought about it afterward. Really 5 stars? Maybe not.

On who will supplant the 4Ks (Kitano, Kore-eda, Kurosawa, Kawase)
They’re all over 50, and the ones coming up behind them, Koji Fukada and Miwa Nishikawa, are in their 40s. So they’re not young, but they’re ready to take the step up, too. Fukada’s new film was just selected for the Cannes 2020 label. I really like Shuichi Okita. We’ve shown six of his films at Udine, and every one has been a hit. He’s on the verge of a breakthrough. Shinichiro Ueda, director of One Cut of the Dead, is another one. We gave that film its world premiere at Udine, and it’s made more than 1,000 times its budget at the box office.

On film(s) he wishes had gotten greater attention
Jun Ichikawa’s, of course! And Nobuhiko Obayashi’s. He became famous abroad for House. I first discovered him in 1989 with Beijing Watermelon, about Chinese students in Japan. He was going to shoot in China but Tiananmen prevented it, so he just made a mock-up of an airplane and shot everything here. He plowed right ahead. I thought, this guy’s got balls and imagination. The last film he made before he died, Labyrinth of Cinema, a film made by a dying man [Obayashi had terminal cancer], had more energy than many, many films made by people healthier and younger, but not as brilliant as he was.

Tony   2005 WILCO Co. Ltd
© 2005 WILCO Co., Ltd

On which director has gotten too much attention
I mean, really, Japanese directors don’t get that much attention. Even someone like (Hayao) Miyazaki, when he started going abroad, Harvey Weinstein wanted to release Princess Mononoke as an arthouse film. It was so huge in Japan, and in the circle of overseas anime fans, but it just didn’t get out to a wider audience, compared with Pixar or Disney films.

On how he decides which films to review
It’s always difficult. I’ll look through all the upcoming films, watch the trailers, spend a day on that. Sometimes I think, “Oh, jeez. My time on earth is limited!” I’m at the point now where I don’t want to see a film I know I’m gonna hate. Very often the upcoming films are by directors I really admire or young directors who seem interesting, and I’ll [choose that way]. That’s only 4 films a month out of how many? Over 600 Japanese films were released last year, and I can’t cover them all. We have another couple of reviewers now, James Hadfield and Matt Schley, who’s covering all the anime. Thank god I have help.

On how much his own experience influences his choices of ‘good’ films
The famous critic Manny Farber once said, paraphrasing, “The critic watches the film, but the critic is also a man.” I don’t try to hide that. If something connects with me on a personal level, I mention it. One example is watching Koji Fukada’s Harmonium. That’s one of the greatest films [in a long time]. There’s a scene when the character played by Kanji Furutachi goes into the river to try to rescue his daughter. He comes out and he freaks out. If I’d seen the film without knowing anything about the situation, I might’ve thought he was overacting.

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©FCCJ

But I have been in that situation, way back 40 years ago in my hometown in southern Ohio. I was on my bike, and a motorboat overturned. I’m a trained lifeguard, so I jumped in and swam out to the boat. People were screaming, “Get the baby! Get the baby!” and pointing to the water. It was very murky, I couldn’t see 2 feet in front of my face. I couldn’t find the baby. Then this teenager who was trying to help started drowning, so I went over to him. Finally, they brought the grandmother [who’d been holding the baby] to the shore, and she was just screaming and screaming. I thought, “She’ll never recover.” For whatever reason, Furutachi understood this. His character will never, ever be the same. And he gets that.

On documentaries
I write on documentaries when I can, when one is so important for some reason. Kazuo Hara just did one, Reiwa Uprising, about an election last year. It’s 4 hours long, and I sat, transfixed, throughout the whole thing. He’s someone who can do that to me. He also did Sennan Asbestos Disaster, and he spent years putting that together. He’s trying to be objective, but he has a point of view. He’s trying to get under the surface. He’s not really the friend [of the film’s plaintiffs], he’s making a film and he’s going to do what’s best for the film. For me, Hara’s work is equal to or better than what anyone’s doing in fiction films.

On whether his interviewing style has changed over the years
Interviews used to really intimidate me. I couldn’t sleep for days beforehand. Somehow, I got over that. My strategy was to read as much as I could about the person, see the film, but not write up questions until I was on the train to the interview, after everything percolated in my head. I have this scribbled question list with me like a safety blanket, but I never look at it because my objective is to start a conversation. A lot of directors have a script in their head, they’ve prepared what they want to say and they’re gonna somehow get it in there. So my strategy is to have a conversation and get them off script.

books
Schilling's new book, left, and others from Awai Books. ©Koichi Mori

On Donald Richie’s influence    
Donald Richie was my friend and mentor for about 20 years. He really encouraged me when I first started out. I could never repay him. We would go to movies together and talk about them afterwards. To hear the voice of Donald Richie is like hearing the pronouncement of God. He had no doubts about what he thought about a film. He lived in Ueno, in this little apartment overlooking Shinobazu Pond. He would invite me over to eat dinner and watch films. He had this collection of DVDs, all great films, and he would suggest titles. I’d say, “Hmmm, how about this one?” And he’d say “No, we’ll watch this.” He had this tiny TV sitting in his oshiire closet, which he used as a monitor, and he’d put in a DVD. All he had to sit on were straight-backed chairs. I thought, “I can’t slump, I can’t sleep, I’ve got to pay attention! Donald Richie is here! We’re watching this together!”

Watching with him, in the privacy of his apartment, I paid attention to every frame. He gave me that gift of attention. I’m still pretty degenerate in the way I watch some films, but one worth paying attention to, it’s worth paying attention. I always end up with 10, 12, 15 pages of notes about everything from the story to the editing to the camerawork. I wasn’t trying to be Donald Richie, I was just trying to hold my own in the conversation. So I had to bring my best game. That’s what he gave me.

For more anecdotes, as well as reviews, essays and interviews spanning the past 20 years of Japanese film, see Mark Schilling’s “Art, Cult and Commerce: Japanese Cinema Since 2000” (Awai Books, New York and Tokyo).

MISHIMA: THE LAST DEBATE


MISHIMA: THE LAST DEBATE
(Mishima Yukio vs. Todai Zenkyoto: Gojunenme no Shinjitsu)


 March 17, 2020
Q&A guests: Director Keisuke Toyoshima and novelist Keiichiro Hirano


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Director Keisuke Toyoshima (left) and acclaimed novelist Keiichiro Hirano.  ©Koichi Mori

Yukio Mishima: the name still towers over the local literary landscape, especially when viewed from overseas. There is arguably no other Japanese writer whose works have been as widely translated, whose life — and death — have been as well documented internationally, whose controversial reputation has been subjected to such intense scrutiny.

No surprise, then, that many members of the audience who gathered at FCCJ to watch Mishima: The Last Debate had not only read most of his 34 novels (and/or his 50 plays, 25 short story collections and 35 books of essays), watched his film Patriotism, in which Mishima also stars, viewed Paul Schrader’s Mishima: A Life in Four Chapters or Koji Wakamatsu’s 11:25 The Day He Chose His Own Fate. Those with an enduring interest may have also read the essential biographies by John Nathan and Henry Scott Stokes, or Andrew Rankin’s authoritative Mishima, Aesthetic Terrorist: An Intellectual Portrait.

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©FCCJ

No surprise, either, that several audience members had even been present at the University of Tokyo, where The Last Debate is set, or had firsthand experience of the film’s 1969 time period, 50 years ago, when student rioting was convulsing college campuses across the country.

The surprise comes with the revelation of discovering/rediscovering Yukio Mishima, the man. No amount of reading him/about him prepares the viewer for the charismatic rockstar figure who dominates 45 minutes of The Last Debate’s runtime, in long-lost footage of a historic verbal duel between right and left that has been restored to 4K, and forms the centerpiece of the riveting new documentary.

Mishima-1 2020 Mishima The Last Debate Film Partners
©2020 “Mishima The Last Debate” Film

Surprising, too, is the choice of director. As Keisuke Toyoshima (There Is No Lid on the Sea, Moriyamachu Driving School, Maniac Hero) admitted to the audience, “I’ve been making genre movies, so I was [quite amazed] when I got this offer. TBS discovered at the beginning of 2019 that they had this footage from the 1969 debate, and a TBS producer who was a classmate of mine at Todai was involved in planning a documentary about [the time period]. He wanted to hire a director who [hadn’t lived through it] and thought of me.

“The best-known image of Mishima comes from his controversial 1970 suicide,” he continued, “so a lot of people have this idea that he was an eccentric man with extreme thoughts. That’s the image I had before I started making the film. But the more I learned about him, the more my image changed. It took a 180-degree turn.”

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©Koichi Mori

Award-winning novelist Keiichiro Hirano (“The Eclipse,” “Dawn,” “A Man”), who is often compared with Mishima for his acclaim at an early age and the intensity of his intellect, provides expert commentary in the documentary, and joined Toyoshima at FCCJ. “I wasn’t surprised at all by the footage,” he told the audience. “I read my first Mishima novel at 14 and became a big fan of his work. I’ve read all his books, I’ve listened to him on CDs and I read the book about this debate (“Toron: Mishima Yukio vs. Todai Zenkyoto,” Shinchosha, 1969), which I’ve cited in my own writing.

“I’ve also had opportunities to talk with many people who knew Mishima in person, like Tadanori Yokoo, Jakucho Setouchi and Akihiro Miwa. They all talked about how charming he was. Everything they told me was about the genuine, human side of Mishima. So the image I had of him was very similar to how he appears in the footage.”

Mishima-3 2020 Mishima The Last Debate Film Partners
Although accounts differ about whether all the students were members of Zenkyoto, one can't help wondering how they breathed.
©
2020 “Mishima The Last Debate” Film

How he appears is this: Vibrantly cerebral, nearly pulsating with intellectual energy and wit, effortlessly commanding attention from the 1,000 students who were at the University of Tokyo’s Komaba campus on May 13, 1969 to see him. He had been invited by the Zenkyoto (All Campus Joint Struggle Committee) to debate his rightwing views with its revolution-minded members, and Lecture Hall 900 had been declared neutral territory to accommodate the exchange.

At the time, Mishima had already founded the private Tatenokai (Shield Society) militia and trained them (using live ammunition, the film reveals) with the Japan Self-Defense Forces. (Unbeknownst to his soldiers, he had probably already begun planning a coup attempt at the SDF headquarters to restore power to the ‘Emperor,’ which would precede his suicide the following year.)

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©Koichi Mori

Providing essential context before focusing on the Todai meeting, Mishima: The Last Debate opens with heartbreaking scenes of Tokyo under siege, as students, radicalized from protesting the Vietnam War and the US-Japan Security Treaty, occupied college buildings and demanded affordable tuition and greater autonomy. Rioting quickly engulfed campuses, culminating in the barricading and burning of Todai’s Yasuda Auditorium, which marked the beginning of the end for Zenkyoto, which had instigated much of the violence.

Their final united act was to invite the “anachronistic gorilla” — as posters at the door crudely depicted him — to defend his views. “I came to see if words are still an effective method of communication,” Mishima tells the students in his 10-minute opening speech, and proceeds to amuse, impress and engage his audience with the mental agility of a gold-medal gymnast. Beating back each counterargument with poetic logic, he never once condescends, antagonizes nor treats his audience with disrespect.

But then he seems to meet his match in a smiling young man with a Buster Brown haircut and a baby in his arms. For a good 15 minutes, the documentary circles around Mishima’s increasingly theoretical interchange with Masahiko Akuta (who would go on to become an experimental theater pioneer, working with the likes of Shuji Terayama), until a student yells, “This is all philosophical nonsense! I’m here to see Mishima get beaten up!” And while this never happens, for many audience members, the earth moved that day.

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©Koichi Mori

This much is clear from many of the commentators whom Toyoshima interviews in the film — including Akuta himself (still blazingly brazen), former University of Tokyo students, former Shield Society members and of course, Keiichiro Hirano — allowing them to elucidate and expand upon the debate in ways that are extremely valuable.

“Before I started making the film,” recalled Toyoshima, I did a lot of research and read a lot of books about Mishima. Most of them start by asking why he died, why he had to die, what was the story behind his death. I didn’t want to add yet another interpretation to all those that have been done. Instead of looking at the debate from the point of view of why he died, I wanted to focus on his life.

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A match made in philosophical heaven: Masahiko Akuta and Mishima  ©2020 “Mishima The Last Debate” Film

“The reason I included the footage [from just before his] suicide at the end of the film is because I felt there was an interesting juxtaposition to be made between the 1,000 students in the hall during the debate, when his words really seemed to be reaching them, and the 1,000 members of the Self Defense Forces, who did not accept his message. I thought that comparison could be very interesting.

“The other reason is that I came to realize I was making a film about those who happened to meet Mishima during their lifetime, not about Mishima himself. The more people I talked to who were there during the debate, the more obvious it became that their encounter with him had had a powerful impact on their lives. In some cases, it even seemed to determine the future course of their lives.

Mishima-4 2020 Mishima The Last Debate Film Partners
©
2020 “Mishima The Last Debate” Film

“So I included the suicide because I wanted to focus on how those people who spent the day at Todai on May 13, 1969 felt about his death, about his loss. It’s not about the meaning of his death, but about how his loss was received by those who were there.”

Inevitably, the FCCJ audience wanted to know how the filmmaker and the novelist felt about Mishima’s stated hope to reify Japan under the concept of the emperor.

Hirano dove right in. “Mishima’s attitude right after the war was very critical of society and the LDP. That’s quite different from today’s conservatives, who only want to praise Japan. He spoke about an ideal image of Japan that derived from his prewar education, which was centered on [emperor worship] when he was young.

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©Koichi Mori

“But he also tried to adjust to what was happening in Japanese society, to separate himself from his early idea of the emperor. He was successful in that, in the sense that he became a superstar novelist and a frequent presence in the media. He wasn’t really aligning himself with a democratic society, but he did embrace the materialistic aspects of [Japan’s capitalistic culture]. But he was tired of this by his mid-30s and reverted to his earlier image of the ideal Japan, and its [abstract traditional essence] under the 'Emperor.'”

Added Toyoshima, “As you saw in the film, Mishima says to the students, ‘If you’d said ‘Emperor,’ I’d have joined you’ [in their cause]. I wanted to understand why he said such a thing, and that was one of the motivations for me to interview so many people. I would be curious to know what Mishima would think of our current definition of tenno, since the Heisei Emperor (who abdicated the throne in 2019) seemed to support the constitution and traveled around the country trying to help people heal (after tragedies like 3/11). The recent emperors seem to sympathize with leftwing ideals.”

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©Koichi Mori

Toyoshima stresses that although Mishima wielded both pen and sword, it is the former that has had the greatest lasting impact. Rarely has a film captured the dynamic interchange of ideas and the power of language in quite so compelling a form. Mishima: The Last Debate is a timely reminder that words, wielded judiciously and meaningfully, will always triumph over swords; that there is always a common ground even when arguing political ideologies at opposite extremes.

Is it possible, Hirano was asked, for political discussion in today’s world to remain civilized and courteous? “I can’t generalize about the current situation,” he responded. “I’m around the same age as Mishima when he was debating the Todai students, so as much as they seemed to be on an equal footing, I still think there was the sense that [an adult was talking to students], and students were talking with a star novelist.

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©FCCJ

“But there was a kind of balance which made the debate very gentlemanlike, even when the students tried to provoke him. There was a power balance. Today, especially on the internet, it’s nearly impossible to have a constructive conversation like this between people of opposing opinions. But I think in the proper venue, it is still possible.”

Toyoshima concurred. “I hope this film and the footage of the debate will communicate the passion and respect that were present that day. You see how the opinions were exchanged, how close physically the debaters actually were as they talked. Making the film, I wanted to believe in Mishima’s opening remarks — that words are still an effective means of communication.”

And so, it goes without saying, do we.

Mishima poster 2020 Mishima The Last Debate Film Partners
©2020 “Mishima The Last Debate” Film

Selected Media Exposure

FUKUSHIMA 50


FUKUSHIMA 50


 March 04, 2020
Q&A guests: Kadokawa Corporation Chairman and Fukushima 50 supervising producer
Tsuguhiko Kadokawa, director Setsuro Wakamatsu and stars Koichi Sato and Ken
 Watanabe


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Ken Watanabe (left) and Koichi Sato star in only their second film together.  ©Koichi Mori

It was not lost on the sizable crowd gathered at FCCJ for a sneak preview of Fukushima 50 that they were in the midst of one disaster (COVID-19) while watching another unfold onscreen.

Many of them had been in Japan on March 11, 2011 and had covered its aftermath. Some had even been able to speak directly with the engineers, technicians, firefighters, soldiers and other staff who stayed at the Fukushima Daiichi Nuclear Power Plant after the earthquake and tsunami had laid siege, risking their lives in a desperate 5-day struggle to prevent a total meltdown of the overheating atomic reactors and to minimize the (literal) fallout from the world's worst nuclear accident since Chernobyl.

Dubbed the “Fukushima 50” by the international press (but actually numbering in the hundreds), few of these brave workers — whether for fear of ostracism or reprisal — spoke on the record. But journalist Ryusho Kadota managed to interview over 90 of them, and their testimony was compiled in his 2012 nonfiction book, “On the Brink: The Inside Story of Fukushima Daiichi” (republished by Kadokawa Publishing in 2016).

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©Koichi Mori

That book now forms the backbone of the powerful, poignant Fukushima 50, the first film that depicts the tragedy head-on and in minute detail. While fact-checkers are already sharpening their pens, there is no doubt that its nationwide release, just days before the 9th anniversary of the triple disasters, will open up an expanded public dialogue.

Appearing at the Q&A session following the screening, fabled stars Ken Watanabe and Koichi Sato discussed the timing of the release, their hopes for its impact and their own working relationship.

“When we’re in the throes of a national crisis like this,” Watanabe told the audience, “I think films, or at least this film, can give us an opportunity to reflect on ourselves, to reflect about the choices we’re making and which direction we should be heading in. I hope Fukushima 50 will provide an important opportunity to step forward into the future.” 

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©Koichi Mori ©FCCJ

Recalled Sato, “When they first approached me with this project, I was wary. I thought it might be a little premature to come out with a film about Fukushima. It wasn’t long after the accident and there were still a lot of victims suffering from the experience. But after completing the film, we shared it with audiences in Fukushima. They understood there would be traumatic scenes, but they stayed until the end and thanked [director Setsuro] Wakamatsu for making it.

“So I went from thinking the film was premature to thinking that we’d made it just in time. It’s necessary for painful memories to fade, so that people can move forward. But you don’t want the memories to fade completely. Fukushima 50 creates an opportunity for us to reflect on the accident and in that sense, the timing is just right.”

The actors were flanked by their director, and by the chairman of Kadokawa Corporation, Tsuguhiko Kadokawa, who greenlit the project and served as its supervising producer. “I’d wanted to make a film based on the events of March 11 early on,” he told the crowd. “I had privately invested in a planned production with [late actor-director] Masahiko Tsugawa. But it was difficult [to move forward]. Then I read ‘On the Brink,’ and it pulled me back on track. We are approaching the ‘Reconstruction’ Olympics and Paralympic Games this year, and I wanted to complete it in time for that.”

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Supervising producer Kadokawa (left) and director Wakamatsu. ©Koichi Mori, ©FCCJ

As for Wakamatsu, “What attracted me to this story was that it depicts all the strengths and all the weaknesses of human beings. There were all these workers who had to summon up the courage to volunteer to go into the reactor building. There are so many layers of vulnerability but also courage in these characters, and that’s why I was attracted to directing the film.

“Every year at this time, 3/11 has dominated the TV news, especially NHK. But I feel there has been less TV coverage recently, and I hope Fukushima 50 can be shown each year to encourage us to reflect on the pros and cons of nuclear power, among other issues.”

Wakamatsu’s film feels as tense as if it were unfolding in real time. Shot in sequence on a big open set in Suwa, Nagano, with 2,000 extras and some convincing computer graphics, it thrusts viewers straight into the harrowing eye of the developing disaster, and into the decision-making processes of the two men closest to the crisis, Toshio Izaki (Koichi Sato), chief of Fukushima Daiichi Nuclear Power Plant Units 1 and 2, and Plant Director Masao Yoshida (Ken Watanabe).

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Daiichi plant workers react to the approaching tsunami. © 2020 “Fukushima 50” Film Partners

Fukushima 50 begins precisely at 2:46 pm on March 11, as the magnitude 9 earthquake strikes off the coast of Tohoku, triggering immediate reverberations at the plant. As workers stream from buildings, Izaki and his crew try to determine what damage has been done, and where. His longtime colleague, Yoshida, assesses the situation from his office in another part of the plant, and communicates via videocam with Tokyo Electric Power Company (Tepco) headquarters.

But the quake has triggered a “mega-tsunami” with waves that will soon pour over a 40-meter-high seawall, engulfing the plant. Just 54 minutes after the temblor, Fukushima Daiichi experiences a station blackout, halting cooling systems and leading the reactors and spent fuel-rod assemblies to begin to overheat. Despite the remaining staff’s valiant efforts to keep equipment running with car batteries, the plant is soon running nearly manually, and technicians must risk radiation exposure to open valves the dangerous, old-fashioned way — wearing Hazmats and gas masks in utter darkness.

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Izaki rallies his crew to assess the damage.  © 2020 “Fukushima 50” Film Partners

Working frantically to solve each fresh catastrophe as it emerges, and inspiring their workers by their own examples, Izaki and Yoshida confront the unprecedented crisis with tireless ingenuity and an occasional outburst that is fully earned. At one point, Yoshida drops his pants and moons his Tepco bosses in Tokyo. Eventually, his defiance of orders will help avert a disaster of global magnitude.

In a film that is as harrowing as it is moving, Sato and Watanabe shine. But their characters aren’t the only samurai at the plant; all the workers who stayed behind know they’re risking their lives, and Fukushima 50 celebrates their selfless sacrifices by depicting them in strength and weakness, in bravado and in teary-eyed relief. 

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Yoshida barks orders in the control center. © 2020 “Fukushima 50” Film Partners

The film provided the first opportunity in 7 years for Sato and Watanabe to act together (since Li Sang-il’s Unforgiven), and they were asked how it felt to be in the same film but almost never on the same set.

“There’s just one scene in which you see us together, and that’s in the toilet,” cracked Sato. After the laughter died down, he continued, “We shared many tense moments over that emergency red phone, and we gave a lot of thought about how we could convey the intensity of [those phone calls].

“We’ve both been working in the film industry for 40 years. There were many missed opportunities when we could have worked together. So it was a big moment when we could finally do Unforgiven together, and we managed to establish a relationship built on trust.”

Watanabe nodded. “It was definitely a challenging experience shooting Unforgiven, and we established a solid friendship. I remember Mr. Sato was approaching his 100th film at the time, and I told him I would work on his 100th even if it meant being a passerby in the background. But he made so many films so quickly, it just didn’t happen. 

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Izaki before all hell breaks loose. © 2020 “Fukushima 50” Film Partners

“I’d actually received a few offers to play the plant director in other films before this one, but I’d felt it wouldn’t be enough to just depict Mr. Yoshida’s story. Then I read the script for Fukushima 50, which focuses on the character of Mr. Izaki, who grew up alongside the Fukushima Daiichi plant. When I saw how it was structured, I realized how dramatic the film could be. When I heard that Mr. Sato had been cast in the role, I immediately said I wanted to be part of it. I have complete trust in him as an actor.”

Asked how he had prepared for his role as Yoshida, who died in 2013, Watanabe answered, “Mr. Yoshida is the only character who goes by his actual name; the other characters have all been given new names. He was heavily covered by the media during and after 3/11, so I think that a lot of people remember seeing him. I knew it would be futile to simply mimic him, so I researched his background, his education, his career. But the most helpful thing for me was hearing from people who worked with him. They talked about how he responded to the accident, especially how he negotiated with the people at Tepco, in the government and how he tried to defuse the tension in the control center.”

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©FCCJ
 

Thanking the team for a “challenging film,” one journalist asked the question on everyone’s mind: had they experienced any interference from either the government or from Tepco in making the film?

“We anticipated that we would get a question like this,” responded Kadokawa. “For 30 years, Kadokawa has been making films about social issues, like Jubaku: Spellbound, about (corruption in) the banking industry, and The Unbroken, starring Mr. Watanabe, which depicted an airline company (after the horrific crash of a jumbo jet, based on JAL 123). Many film companies avoid making such films in this era of sontaku (sucking up to the powers that be), in deference to certain parties or people.

“But it wasn’t our intention to make a film [condemning] a public utility, per se. The core message of Fukushima 50 is that we cannot conquer nature. As Mr. Watanabe’s character says in the film, human ego has made us disrespect nature. If the audience can take that message away with them, I would be very happy.”

Wakamatsu elucidated, “We didn’t hear any direct comments from the government. Maybe something was said behind closed doors, but we have no way of knowing. Personally, I received no pressure at all from the government. In fact, the Reconstruction Agency and the current prime minister were involved, and our former prime minister (Naoto Kan, who is depicted in the film), saw the film and I haven’t received any complaints from him. So I suppose there’s no problem.”

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©Koichi Mori

Martin Fackler, Tokyo bureau chief of The New York Times in 2011 and the first foreign reporter to enter the Fukushima Daiichi plant after the disaster (his team’s coverage would later result in a shortlisting for the Pulitzer Prize), was one of the many FCCJ members in the audience who had firsthand knowledge of the events depicted in the film. Addressing Kadokawa, he said, “There are many versions of what happened in Fukushima, and the one you chose, by Kadota, is fairly positive. There are others that are more negative, and Yoshida left us his own version in the ‘Yoshida Chosho.’ Why did you choose the Kadota version?”

Responded Kadokawa, “It wasn’t until I read Mr. Kadota’s book that I realized there was a way we could actually tell the story. I felt that adapting his book would also allow me to realize Mr. Tsugawa’s dream. When you’re grappling with a theme like this, you have 100 people involved in the project and 100 different opinions. All we could do was stay true to the facts.

“It’s become increasingly complicated for the media to cover these issues, and we’re approaching a dangerous juncture when it comes to reporting through the media. In such an [environment], I think film may be a better medium for conveying the truth. Being a publisher myself, I still have this sense of respect and awe toward the medium that is film. I approached the project with the conviction that we were going to depict the facts, and I think we were able to do this.”

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©Koichi Mori ©FCCJ

For his part, Wakamatsu was “quite confident that we could make an effective film that wasn’t just a chronological record of what happened, but was about the men who had to fight on the site. I felt it was an opportune moment to show the world what the Fukushima 50 were made of.

“I imagine that if the international media were asked what they would have done in that situation, face to face with death, many would answer that they would have fled. I suppose you could say that this sense of self-sacrifice or ‘Yamato spirit’ is a Japanese trait. It’s something that resonates throughout the film, and I wanted to share it with audiences.”

(There was no time to draw comparisons to first responders around the globe, who constantly put their lives on the line to ensure the safety and welfare of the community at large.)

But Fukushima 50 has already been sold to 73 international territories, demonstrating the universality of its remarkable story and the strength of its telling — so the dialogue about manmade disasters and the human toll is sure to expand.

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©FCCJ

“I have a lot of friends living overseas,” noted Watanabe, “and I have the sense that the word ‘Fukushima’ has a very negative connotation. When we hear ‘Fukushima,’ it’s all about how Japan is still trying to come to grips with 3/11. We experienced Hiroshima and Nagasaki seven decades ago, and we’ve finally reached a point at which ‘Hiroshima’ and ‘Nagasaki’ have become words that prompt us to think about nuclear arms. They’ve become symbols of peace. In the same way, I hope that ‘Fukushima’ will prompt us to think about nuclear power, and that someday, the word has a positive connotation.”

His costar concurred. “A disaster like this is bound to leave a negative legacy,” said Sato. “But I think it’s very important to tell the story in an accurate way, and in the spirit of sublimating what happened so that we can leave a positive legacy for the next generation — as we were able to do with Hiroshima and Nagasaki. I hope Fukushima 50 leaves audiences with that kind of sentiment.” 

F50 2020 Fukushima 50 Film Partners
© 2020 “Fukushima 50” Film Partners

Selected Media Exposure

Selected TV Exposure

  • 日本テレビ【Oha!4 佐藤&渡辺】映画に込めた思い ”未来に向かうステップになる”
  • 日本テレビ【ZIP!】渡辺謙のメッセージ 国難乗り越えるヒント
  • TBS【はやドキ!】佐藤浩市&渡辺謙 絶対の信頼関係
  • フジテレビ【めざましテレビ】佐藤浩市 映画化に葛藤
  • MX【モーニングCROSS】佐藤浩市×渡辺謙『絶対の信頼関係』語る

FIRST LOVE


FIRST LOVE (Hatsukoi)


 February 25, 2020
Q&A guests: Director Takashi Miike and star Masataka Kubota


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Kubota (left) and Miike reunite after a decade for a noirish love story... with comic elements.  ©Koichi Mori

If the FCCJ audience expected Takashi Miike to be as outrageous, outlandish or outré as many of his films, they were sorely disappointed. Appearing at the Q&A session following a sneak peek of his new film, he was gracious, thoughtful and on occasion, droll — reminding us that the artist and the art are not always made of the same stuff.

But it should come as no surprise that even the Godfather of Asian Extreme plays by the rules of civil engagement at home in Japan. That partially explains how the compulsively prolific auteur has managed to direct over 100 features (in every possible genre, including several that he invented), since 1991. These have justly earned him global adulation and notoriety; yet he is also a critics’ favorite, having won awards at every leading film festival from Berlin to Cannes to Venice to Toronto, and been more widely distributed overseas than any other Japanese filmmaker.

While he's provided plenty of instant ramen for fanboys over the years, Miike has also proven with numerous titles, from The Bird People in China to Hara-Kiri: Death of a Samurai, that he can produce restrained, humanistic works when the mood strikes. His latest, a violently pulpy action-comedy-thriller about a lonely boxer who finds a soulmate, gives us both sides of Miike: the sober, introspective romantic and the gleefully subversive bad boy.

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  ©Koichi Mori

But First Love is no blushing romance. Told with hurtling kinetic oomph, it returns the director to noirish territory and features a familiar assortment of Miike lowlifes — drug smugglers and addicts, corrupt cops and cold-blooded killers, call girls and Chinese gangsters, sociopaths and screw-ups — all vying to survive anarchic gunfights, swordfights, exploding toys, flying cars and meth-induced delirium in Japan’s rotten underbelly.

In the film, Leo Katsuragi (Masataka Kubota) is an “unknown boxer with promise” who fights well in the ring, but has nothing to live for outside it. An abandoned orphan with a menial day job at a Chinese restaurant, he learns that he has a brain tumor and little time left. His doctor advises that he dedicate himself to helping someone else, and presto, he meets Monica (Sakurako Konishi), a sweet young meth addict haunted by the ghost of her abusive father, whose debts she has been forced into prostitution to pay off.

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Leo saves Monica from the mob and the ghost who haunts her.  ©2019 FIRST LOVE Production Committee

The star-crossed pair are unwittingly enmeshed in a drug-smuggling double-cross hatched by minor hoodlum Kase (a hilarious Shota Sometani) and dirty-dealing cop Otomo (Nao Omori), and are pursued through a single chaotic night by an array of eccentric characters, including, mostly memorably, a rampaging gangster’s girlfriend, Julie (a kickass Becky), who’s out for brutal revenge after he’s murdered; and a female assassin working for the Chinese Triads (Mami Fujioka), who laments that there’s no honor or humanity among thieves anymore.

Kubota joined Miike for the FCCJ Q&A session. It had been 10 years since the two had worked together, on the heralded 13 Assassins. In the intervening decade, the director continued to work at a blistering pace, averaging two film releases each year, including two more with British super-producer Jeremy Thomas, Hara-Kiri: Death of a Samurai (2011) and Blade of the Immortal (2017).

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A pair of old-style yakuza share a smoke.  ©2019 FIRST LOVE Production Committee

Miike had played a part in establishing Kubota’s career, having cast him as the lead in his 2008 TV series, Cellphone Investigator 7. After that, Kubota’s rise was meteoric. Nearly as prolific as his director, he starred in dozens of TV series and films of every genre, including hit franchises like Rurouni Kenshin (2012, 2014, 2020), High & Low (2016, 2017) and Tokyo Ghoul (2017, 2019), as well as in Prophecy (2015), 64 (2016), Thicker than Water (2018), Gintama 2 (2018), Diner (2019) and Fancy (2020).

So how did it feel for them to reunite on the set of First Love? Said Miike, “I’ve spent the past 10 years working constantly, and it seems like it’s been the blink of an eye. I don’t feel the terrifying passage of time unless I look in the mirror. Meanwhile, Mr. Kubota now looms over me in the industry. God can be so cruel.”

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©FCCJ

Chuckling appreciatively, his star recalled, “I was 19 when I first worked with Mr. Miike, and I really didn’t know left from right. Now that we’re working together again after 10 years, I feel like he’s softened somewhat. Even though he’s still wearing those sunglasses, he was spicier back then. He’s mellower now, and that’s made him more accessible and easier to talk to.”

Miike looked a little hangdog about this, but Kubota continued: “Once principle photography started, I realized what it is about a Miike set that makes all Japan’s leading actors want to work with him. When you experience other sets, it’s clear that Mr. Miike really is a grandmaster, and I realized how lucky I was to start my career on one of his sets.”

FL1 2019 FIRST LOVE Production Committee
©2019 FIRST LOVE Production Committee

The grandmaster was asked about Kubota’s costar, debuting actress Sakurako Konishi. “We auditioned unknowns,” he recalled, “and while acting technique and character motivation are important elements of standard auditions, for unknowns, it’s really about the presence they exude the moment they step through the door. With Ms. Konishi, I instantly sensed ‘That’s our lead.’ It’s like she was born to play this role.

“The same thing happened [in 2008], when we were casting the lead for Cellphone Investigator 7. When Mr. Kubota stepped through the door, I knew right away that he was the one.”

Kubota was also quick to praise the actress, telling the audience, “I still have a long way to go as an actor, but working with Ms. Konishi made me realize how much technique I’d accumulated through these years, the kind of technique that allows an actor to answer the question of what to do in a certain moment. Watching the way she approached the role, without a lot of technique, but with great agility, reminded me what it felt like 10 years ago. I just hope I can continue being a working actor 10 years from now, when Ms. Konishi is a big star.”

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©FCCJ

Kubota’s character in First Love is limited to fighting only with his fists, which proved to be effective. But Kubota admitted, “I was very envious of my costars, because it makes things so much easier to have a sword or a gun in your hands — you have ultimate power, don’t you? But in terms of physical preparation, I was the most prepared of all the cast. Since I play a boxer, I started training about a month before the shoot. I spent 2 hours a day in the gym every day, and I ate a lot of meat.”

Asked for his standout memories of the filmmaking process, Kubota recounted the many night shoots and the “car action scenes, with six of us crammed into a minivan, including Mr. Miike, with the car-action coordinator pushing the gas pedal. I kept nearly whacking my head on the windshield, so it’s something I’ll never forget.”

Miike was queried about working with Jeremy Thomas on his fourth project together. Said Miike, “He’s one of those rare producers who really understands the Japanese way of doing things and the Japanese approach. He left us to our own devices. During the editing process, he provided feedback. But ultimately, he left the decision-making to us. He’s a really rare producer in that respect, and I feel very lucky to work with him. I consider him a friend.”

FCCJ First LoveKoichi Mori-12
©Koichi Mori

But he noted, “The international version is cut slightly differently than the Japanese version; there are many things you have to take into consideration in Japan.”

There is a clever, colorful animated sequence in the film, and Miike was asked why it had been included. “Honestly speaking, there are a lot of restrictions on creative work in Japan,” he explained. “Japanese film has become [more conservative]. Most films are now ‘safe for viewing.’ One of the starkest differences between Japanese and international films is the risk factor, especially when it comes to action scenes. It’s not possible here anymore for young people to dream of being stunt performers, because the environment has changed. Most of the stunt people are veterans, over 60. So for a scene where you go over the edge like that, it does terrible things to your back and we couldn’t do it. But I was adamant about not cutting that scene from the script, and we ultimately made the decision to turn it into an animated sequence.”

Tom Mes, author of the two definitive books “Agitator: The Cinema of Takashi Miike” and “Re-Agitator: A Decade of Writing on Takashi Miike,” was in the audience and mentioned that the auteur had spent the past several years directing an animated TV series directed squarely at the female tweener audience. “Do you see this film as a sort of male-focused rebound from that?” he asked. “Or is it a continuation?”

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The double-crossing yakuza Kase and dirty cop Otomo. ©2019 FIRST LOVE Production Committee

Said the director, “One reason we came up with the title First Love and the tagline ‘Farewell to violence,’ is because we were hopeful that certain audience members would be misled into seeing the film.” (Cue laughter.)

“As Tom said, I’ve been working on this TV series that airs weekly and is aimed at young female viewers. We’re in our 4th season. It’s about using the power of love, rather than violence, to [overcome obstacles in life], and that’s a message I truly take to heart.

“For this film, though, I wanted to depict the lives of these outlaws who lead very foolish lives. My hope was to cast a glimmer of hope into them. Most directors stick to one genre and chew over the same themes in all their work. That’s not the case with me. One thing leads to another, and I’ve been given the opportunity to make many films. For all the genre-crossing, I’m always trying to grab at the heart of the characters. Regardless of the size of the screen, all the characters are the same at their core. They’re struggling through the same conflicts and trying to find the same kind of happiness. It doesn’t make any difference what genre they’re in.”

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©FCCJ

Film critic Mark Schilling, wearing a mask (as were many in the room), noted that COVID-19 had effectively shut down the film industry in China, with many distributors moving their releases online in order to continue providing content. “How do you feel about the future of theatrical releases vs. streaming?” he asked.

Miike grew somber. “With the coronavirus, we’re in uncharted waters, and all of us are grappling with ways to cope with it. But I’m not opposed to bringing work to people in their own private spaces, so they can enjoy it without having physical interactions with other human beings. I admit I watch films online, and it’s interesting that watching films in your own personal space allows you to view them in a different light.

“But in my own experience, I feel it’s really important to spend time not only with a film’s characters but with other audience members in a theater. When you share a space with other viewers, even when the theater isn’t crowded, it makes for [a richer experience.] That’s essential for me, personally. Formats will continue to change, but I hope theatrical releases will continue forever.”

The Japan release of First Love is uncharacteristically late, coming after the film has screened at nearly 30 festivals overseas and opened in Europe, the US and elsewhere. Whether the delay was planned or imposed, it will be interesting to see whether Miike — and his “looming” star — can attract a larger female audience despite all the rambunctious, hyperviolent fun.

FL 2019 FIRST LOVE Production Committee

©2019 FIRST LOVE Production Committee

Selected Media Exposure

Selected TV Exposure

  • 日本テレビ ZIP! SHOWBIZ 窪田正孝、再会した三池崇史監督は「鋭利なものが丸くなった」
  • TBS はやドキ! 窪田正孝・三池崇史監督が出席。「オレは10年で歳をとった、窪田くんはずいぶん出世した」
  • 日本テレビ Oha!4 NEWS LIVE 窪田が10年ぶりのタッグについて「緊張が解けたのか喋りやすくなった」
  • フジテレビ めざましテレビ 三池崇史監督は「窪田君は10年で出世した」と窪田正孝の活躍が嬉しい様子。 
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