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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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©FCCJ

“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.”

a-girl-missing photo-6 2019 YOKOGAO FILM PARTNERS  COMME DES CINEMAS©2019 YOKOGAO FILM PARTNERS & COMME DES CINEMAS

 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.

Koji Fukada Facebook upload photo copy
©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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©FCCJ

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."

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©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

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