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BENEATH THE SHADOW


BENEATH THE SHADOW (Eiri)


 February 4, 2020
Q&A guests: Director Keishi Otomo and producer Masashi Igarashi


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 Igarashi (left) cracks that it's a lot harder to make a film based on a prizewinning novel than it is to make one based on a manga,
which "Mr. Otomo has done time and again."
©Koichi Mori

Most of us know Keishi Otomo as the director and cowriter of the blockbuster Rurouni Kenshin trilogy, arguably the most globally successful samurai-swashbuckler franchise of our time. The first-ever Japanese helmer to sign a multipicture deal with Warner Bros., Otomo produced slick, big-budget, live-action adaptations of the popular manga/anime series that were instant classics for their mix of spectacular swordfights, slapstick humor and romanticism.

What we didn’t recognize from Rurouni Kenshin — or his other domestic box-office hits — is that underneath the polish of this world-class director, beats the heart of a poet.

But Otomo’s new film demonstrates just that. With his first arthouse title after three decades in TV and film, he takes a surprising turn toward the contemplative, the elegiac, the ineffable with Beneath the Mask.

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Otomo took time out from the final weeks of editing his summer Rurouni Kenshin releases.  ©Koichi Mori

Based on the 2017 Akutagawa Prizewinner “Eiri,” it is set in the director’s hometown of Morioka, Iwate Prefecture, both before and after the 3/11 tragedy. The sense of loss that infuses many of its scenes signals just how much personal resonance the story has for him.

Appearing after a sneak preview at FCCJ, Otomo immediately confirmed this. He recalled, “In 2011, I came to the decision, after working at NHK [since 1990], that I would leave the company to focus on making films without corporate backup. Just after I made that decision, 3/11 happened. The question that I’ve kept going back to is, Is there anything I could have done, or anything I can do [as a filmmaker] for my hometown of Morioka? I did receive project offers aimed at rejuvenating the area, and those planted a seed. But after I started my own company [Office Oplus], all the pieces finally fell into place.

“Also, since this is the year of the 2020 Tokyo Olympics and Paralympics, and all eyes will be on Tokyo, that made me somewhat apprehensive about how Tohoku would be viewed. I wanted to make this film for the people of Tohoku, to express their thoughts and feelings, to record them in an accurate way and share them with audiences. So many bereaved family members said ‘Goodbye, see you later’ to someone who never came back. What happened to their pain, their sadness? I wanted to give them a voice. It’s that kind of sentiment that went into the making of this film.”

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Ryuhei Matsuda as Hiasa (left), in his new life as a traveling salesman. Go Ayano as Konno (right), who's just arrived in Morioka. 
©2020 Beneath the Shadow Film Partners

The protagonist of Beneath the Shadow, Shuichi Konno (Go Ayano), first meets Norihiro Hiasa (Ryuhei Matsuda) when his pharmaceutical company transfers him to Morioka, where the latter already works. Both men are 30 years old and seemingly solitary, but they have little else in common. Konno is an introverted stickler for rules who spends his free time with books and a jasmine plant sent by his family; Hiasa is a smiling rebel, a rule shirker who loves to fish in the nearby rivers.

The two men begin to spend time together, and Konno develops his own fondness for angling as they fall into an uneasy comradery. Infected by Hiasa’s enthusiasm and the beauty of Morioka's natural surroundings, Konno starts emerging from his shell, joining the company’s sansa dance team and smiling more often.

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©2020 Beneath the Shadow Film Partners

But one day, Hiasa abruptly quits and leaves town without a word. When he shows up again, half a year later, it’s to beg his friend to buy a policy he’s selling for a “mutual aid society,” since he’s “just one sale short of the quota.” Their friendship and fishing trips gradually resume, but Konno remains unnerved. And then 3/11 hits, and Hiasa completely disappears. Like so many others, he is assumed to be dead.

Konno contacts Hiasa’s father (Jun Kunimura) for news, and discovers that what little he knew about his friend had probably been a lie. He remembers what Hiasa said to him late one night: “You only see what the light hits for an instant. When you look at someone, you should look at the other side, the side where the shadow is deepest.”

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The friends fish local rivers for a variety of species.
  ©2020 Beneath the Shadow Film Partners

Like its literary inspiration, the film’s tale of fly fishing, drinking and male bonding skirts obvious interpretation, as straightforward as it seems. It begins with the suggestion of tragedy, is driven by mystery and ends even more enigmatically than it began. Laden with subtext, heavy with meaning and metaphor, it’s that rare film where nearly every line, nearly every action, can be interpreted both literaly as well as symbolically.

Discussing the film’s title and its implications about the hidden sides of all of us, Otomo told the FCCJ audience: “Konno has so much anger inside him, which he represses and manages to live quietly. But we can feel it roiling underneath the surface. Hiasa is also full of complexities and contradictions. We sense that he is of the moment but also eternal. He’s an adult, but also childish; there’s a double-sidedness to his character.”

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Konno reacts when he hears shocking news from Hiasa's father (Jun Kunimura).  ©2020 Beneath the Shadow Film Partners

Expanding on the character sketches, he explained: “Konno is an LGBTQ character, and as with such characters in many societies, not just Japan, he’s gone through many hardships. These have led him to be very sensitive about how people react to him. Since he’s come to Morioka as a newcomer, it’s liberating because no one knows that he’s gay. He’s embarking on a new life, but he’s lonely because he doesn’t know anyone.”

On the other hand, “Hiasa was born and brought up in Morioka. He’s free-spirited and doesn’t follow the rules. I think we can say he’s a metaphor for uncontrollable nature, anthropomorphized. He’s not ill-intentioned, he just doesn’t want to adjust himself to society’s norms.”

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©Koichi Mori

Asked about the casting of his two leads, both of whom Otomo had previously directed, he admitted, “I basically went with my intuition. From the moment I read the novel, through the process of working (with Kaori Sawai) on the script, I felt these were the only two actors for the roles. With Mr. Ayano, he has this very intellectual, cultured aspect to his presence, while Mr. Matsuda is somehow just so cinematic. He has a very poetic presence. I just couldn’t wait to see them play the roles.”

Otomo was praised for eliciting such nuanced performances, and asked about his approach to directing them. He concurred that they were “wonderful,” and that Matsuda, in particular, “really grounded his role,” despite its challenges. (Matsuda won the award for Best Actor at the Hainan Island International Film Festival in December, where Beneath the Shadow had its world premiere).

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   Igarashi produced Netflix's Hibana: Spark and Naoko Ogigami's Close-Knit, among other titles. ©Koichi Mori

“As with any good actor,” he said, “Mr. Ayano and Mr. Matsuda can tell from the production design and costumes what kind of approach you imagine in a certain scene. I didn’t have to explain a lot. And we didn’t talk a lot about the characters on set. I didn’t want to impose anything on their own interpretations. Sometimes it seemed like I was just shooting a documentary about the characters, except when they would occasionally veer too far from what I’d imagined. Then I would quietly pull them aside so we could discuss the scene. But mostly, I would work closely with my production designer to adjust the backdrops of the scenes to heighten the acting choices they had made.”

Otomo’s business partner and producer, Masashi Igarashi, was asked what it was like to work on the modestly budgeted project. “We’ve only been working together since founding the company 3 years ago," he responded, "but I was always a great admirer of Mr. Otomo’s work. He may be best known for Rurouni Kenshin, but he’s also done films like the two-part March Comes in Like a Lion, that are really rich, profound human dramas. Despite the fact that this film wasn’t on as massive a scale as his other work, I’m happy that we could make such a rich, intense film together.

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Ayano first worked with Otomo on Rurouni Kenshin, while Matsuda had a role in
the director's first film, Vulture (2009)
  ©2020 Beneath the Shadow Film Partners

“It’s very difficult to make films like these in the present environment in Japan,” he lamented. “It’s a lot easier to make films based on manga — which Mr. Otomo has done time and again — than it is to make a film based on an Akutagawa Prizewinning work [that requires audiences to read] between the lines. But it’s still possible, and I hope audiences here and overseas will [appreciate] this.”

Asked for his own thoughts on the film’s international appeal, Otomo waxed nostalgic. “When I was growing up," he recalled, "I would go to a really tiny cinema in Morioka, and that was really my window on the world. I traveled the world and learned so much that way. I think film should be a submersive experience in a cinema, not viewed on a small screen.

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Otomo with the film's Japanese poster. ©︎FCCJ

“I always hope my films will become a tool of communication. It was such an enjoyable experience participating in the Hainan International Film Festival, seeing how the audience digested and interpreted my film. Film isn’t only art, it’s a way to communicate.”

While it won't attract the frenzied fanship of his most famous series, Keishi Otomo's Beneath the Shadow is certain to travel widely, and to launch many a conversation — on love, loss, loneliness, trust and betrayal, not to mention hidden meanings in the water, the weather, the trees and even that pomegranate.

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©2020 Beneath the Shadow Film Partners

Selected Media Exposure

COMPLICITY


COMPLICITY (Complicity Yasashii Kyohan)


 January 15, 2020
Q&A guests: Director Kei Chikaura and
stars Yulai Lu and Tatsuya Fuji


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Lu, Fuji and Chikaura — a talented and affable trio. 
©Koichi Mori

Nearly two years ago, writer-director-producer-editor Kei Chikaura took to the stage at the 2018 Toronto International Film Festival amid warm applause, following the world premiere of his feature debut, Complicity. In the ensuing months, the film would have its European premiere at the Berlin Film Festival, its Asian premiere at the Busan Film Festival, and its Japan premiere at Tokyo Filmex, where it won the all-important Audience Award.

All told, Complicity would screen at more than a dozen prestigious international film festivals. Normally, this would lead to an early Japanese release, to capitalize on the film’s overseas success.

But these are not normal times. With relations remaining chilly between Japan and China, the Japan-China coproduction was delayed another year before finally making its domestic bow.

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Chikaura and Lu react to one of Fuji's gentle wisecracks.
©Koichi Mori

Yet the timing couldn’t be better: As Japan struggles to become more immigrant friendly, it’s crucial that local audiences see more progressive, less superficial depictions of non-Japanese in the country’s media and the arts. Complicity provides exactly that, treating its Chinese protagonist with empathy and authenticity, erasing cultural barriers as it touches on themes of trust, friendship, family and food as the catalysts for building bonds.

It doesn’t hurt that Chikaura was able to cast the film with two certifiable stars, and that he had worked with both of them on short films prior to the feature: Tatsuya Fuji (In the Realm of the Senses, Ryuzo and the Seven Henchmen) on Empty House in 2013, and Yulai Lu (Soundless Wind Chime, Trap Street) on Signature in 2017.

Appearing at FCCJ after the sneak preview screening for a Q&A session that stretched to an hour, the three were affable and voluble, visibly united in their respect for one another, and delighted that Complicity would finally be available to Japanese audiences.

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Fuji (left ©Koichi Mori), Lu, Chikaura (©FCCJ)

“It’s really hard to secure cast and crew when there’s no promise of theatrical distribution,” explained Chikaura. “Fortunately, everyone believed me when I promised that it would be released in Japan, as well as internationally. I’m grateful that everyone had such faith in me, and that I was able to keep my promise.”

Fuji recalled that he’d first read the script three years ago. “I like Mr. Chikaura as a person, but that didn’t necessarily guarantee I would agree to appear in the film," he said. "However, I found the script to be very powerful, and I had faith that we would be able to get to where we are today.”

Lu concurred. “Since I first met Mr. Chikaura, I’ve seen him develop so much. Complicity was especially hard because we also filmed in China. As a director myself, I know how difficult it is to realize a film. I admire Mr. Chikaura’s confidence and hard work, and I really had a great time acting with Mr. Fuji.” (The feeling was mutual: Behind the scenes, Fuji lauded Lu’s acting skill, and his ability to communicate so much without dialogue.)

The scenes in China were coordinated by Chikaura’s Chinese producing partner, Wei Fu. “Without his help, I don’t think the film would have been possible,” the director emphasized.” He organized everything. We were shooting 1,000 km south of Beijing in Henan Province. We had to make the long journey by car three times before everything was ready. So it took a lot of preparation, but we were able to get the shoot permissions and wrap in 5 days.”

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Hiroshi and Kaori treat Liang like a member of the family. ©2018 CREATPS / Mystigri Pictures

Shot with a startling sense of immediacy and realism, Complicity opens in Japan, with Liang Chen (Lu), paying dearly for a fake ID and a cellphone so he can work. He’s immediately besieged with calls for Wei Liu, his assumed identity, and after finding language assistance, discovers that Liu has been offered a job as apprentice to a soba noodle master. It doesn’t pay much, but it comes with room and board. Given his circumstances, Liang doesn’t hesitate long. Soon he has moved into an attic room at his employer’s soba restaurant in Yamagata, and is arising at the crack of dawn to prepare the buckwheat with him.

Hiroshi (Fuji) runs the restaurant with his daughter Kaori (Kio Matsumoto), and they are grateful to have this eager, hard-working young man helping out. Despite his limited Japanese — and total lack of experience in the kitchen — he proves a quick study. His dedication earns Hiroshi’s admiration, and a touching father-son relationship quickly develops.

Delivering noodles one day, Liang meets and is smitten with Hazuki (Sayo Akasaka), an artist who is studying Mandarin in hopes of attending school in Beijing. But after she reports to the police that he’s lost his wallet at a club, he stops taking her calls, fearful that his true identity might be exposed at any moment.

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Liang attempts to master the way of the noodle. ©2018 CREATPS / Mystigri Pictures

And then there’s his guilt: we learn through flashbacks that he has left his ailing mother and demanding grandmother in his native Henan, where family responsibilities had curtailed any dreams he might have had. He’d come to Japan in the hopes of working for 3 years, saving money and returning to start his own business. But an urgent phone call from home and the threat of exposure puts his new life, and his new family, in danger.

Chikaura was asked whether it was personal experience with the immigrant community in Japan that had enabled him to create such a sensitive depiction of Liang’s plight. “I didn’t know much about the issues before I embarked on the project,” he admitted. “But back in 2014, I read an article about a Vietnamese man who was part of the government’s technical trainee program, and it said that he’d slaughtered a goat and eaten it. That got me thinking about why he would have done that, so I began researching the immigrant experience. I spent about 18 months meeting and talking with immigrants here, which was crucial to bringing a sense of reality and conviction in the film. I felt a moral imperative to [do the research first].”

And how did he decide on soba as the film’s culinary metaphor? “There are two reasons soba became the film’s motif,” Chikaura explained. “The first is that we’d decided on Oishida, Yamagata Prefecture for our shooting location, and it’s famous for its soba culture. As you see in the film, the ‘restaurant’ is really a tatami room in someone’s house. It was apparently a custom for wives in the town to make soba to entertain visitors, and if they were particularly good at it, they would start serving the noodles and earning a living from it. That’s how the [home-restaurant] culture developed.

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 ©2018 CREATPS / Mystigri Pictures

“The second reason is because of soba’s metaphorical qualities. It’s something that’s very simple, but it takes a lot of time and technique to master, which is exactly what I wanted to depict: something that’s simple but goes very deep.”

Fuji makes a thoroughly believable soba master, heaving huge bags of buckwheat, rolling and cutting with practiced finesse. Asked how he had achieved such realism, the star responded, “It’s troublesome when you have to play a detective or a cop or a yakuza gangster because you really can’t do research by becoming a yakuza. But when you’re playing a craftsman, you can try to become that craftsman. I get immense pleasure out of delving into role models for such a role.

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©Koichi Mori

“A month before principle photography, I went up to Oishida. I had two masters as coaches. Every day for about 20 days, I practiced all day, [eventually] processing about 100 kilos of buckwheat. Once you’ve embodied a craftsperson, you [can concentrate on other things]. I focused on embodying how grateful I was that this young Chinese immigrant had come all the way to this small town in Japan and was willing to help out with my work.”

Chikaura recounted an anecdote illustrating Fuji’s mastery of the craft. “The meijin soba masters agreed to teach us on one condition: that the soba making would not be a lie when depicted on screen. They said that even with months of training, it probably wouldn’t be possible to show closeups of the actors making the noodles, since it would be instantly obvious that they weren’t professionals. Mr. Fuji said, ‘I understand. I’ll do my best.’

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©Koichi Mori

“Toward the end of his training, one of the masters came to me and said that he’d passed the room in which Mr. Fuji was cutting soba, and that he’d heard a professional inside. He could tell just by the sound of cutting that it was a professional, and he was convinced it was a pro. When he found out it was Mr. Fuji, [he was amazed]. So the closeups you see in the film are really Mr. Fuji.”

Lu also trained to handle the noodles, and recalled, “Even when I read the script, I loved the parts with soba making. When I was making soba, I felt a natural connection to Mr. Fuji. I remember one scene in particular, when he was rolling out the dough and being very serious. It seemed like he was in his own world, and there was an aura around him that made me feel like he was really my father.”

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©Koichi Mori

On the subject of family, the director was asked whether the sour relations between the Hiroshi character and his son were to be interpreted as a comment on Japanese families. “It wasn’t my intention to make a social commentary on families or the problems we have with immigrants in Japanese society,” answered Chikaura. “I just wanted to tell the story of a soba craftsman who welcomes a Chinese man into his house, and forms a pseudo-family with him. But it was also my hope that this story about a ‘father’ and a ‘son’ would symbolize amiable relations between Japan and China.”

Asked how it felt to see the film opening at long last, Fuji joked, “Like a defendant about to be put on trial.” As for Lu, “It was such a joy making this film. I feel like I had encounters similar to my character’s, meeting strangers [who become friends]. You never know what kind of encounters you’ll have, either in making a film or in life. I hope to work with Mr. Chikaura and Mr. Fuji again.”

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With the film's poster. ©︎FCCJ

While the image of an intercultural Japan, with people of diverse nationalities and ethnic backgrounds working together, may remain illusory, honest depictions of immigrants and their stories on screens large and small would help make that vision a reality. Kei Chikaura’s compassionate portrayal of a young man doing his best to atone for a bad conscience and bad choices marks a positive — and poignant — step.

Complicity is already available on DVD with English subtitles via Amazon, and it is currently going through the process necessary to obtain China’s “dragon seal,” which will allow it to be shown in Chinese theaters.

Complicity poster2018 CREATPS  Mystigri Pictures
©2018 CREATPS / Mystigri Pictures

Selected Media Exposure

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