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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.

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©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.”

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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.

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©
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.

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©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

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  • 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

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