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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.

FCCJ First LoveKoichi Mori-6  FCCJ First LoveKoichi Mori-10
  ©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.”

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©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。 

BENEATH THE SHADOW


BENEATH THE SHADOW (Eiri)


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


FCCJ EiriKoichi Mori-27-2
 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.

eiri-3 2020 Beneath the Shadow Film Partners
©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.

eiri poster en012020 Beneath the Shadow Film Partners
©2020 Beneath the Shadow Film Partners

Selected Media Exposure

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