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The Vancouver Asahi (Vancouver no Asahi)


THE VANCOUVER ASAHI


 December 17, 2014
Q&A guests: Star Satoshi Tsumabuki and director Yuya Ishii


  tsumaishi
Tsumabuki and Ishii appeared before an FCCJ audience for the second time
in 6 months, following the May sneak peek of Our Family.

The Japanese headlines blared “I Can’t Speak English!” quoting megastar Satoshi Tsumabuki during the Q&A session that followed the FCCJ-Embassy of Canada’s sneak preview screening of The Vancouver Asahi. The headlines were unfortunate, since the comment was made as Tsumabuki was describing his reaction to a post-world premiere crush following the film’s September bow in Vancouver, when everyone imagined he was as fluent as the nisei character he plays in the film.

The Q&A session was far deeper than the Japanese news suggested, with Tsumabuki and director Yuya Ishii eager to discuss their feelings about the film’s approach to some sensitive issues. Based on the true story of the scrappy Japanese-Canadian nikkei baseball team that overcame poverty, discrimination and ostracism to become the five-time Pacific Northwest League champions just prior to World War II, the David vs. Goliath tale evokes a little-known era in Canadian history, when an underdog ball team brought Japanese and Canadian fans together in a jubilant celebration of sport and life.

vancouver asahi6
Tsumabuki and Ishii pose with flags at the Embassy of Canada,
site of the MC's first-ever outside sneak preview screening.  ©Mance Thompson

A big-budget spectacle from Toho that marks Fuji TV’s 55th anniversary, The Vancouver Asahi had its world premiere, appropriately, at the 2014 Vancouver International Film Festival, where it was hailed for its gorgeous cinematography and earned the prestigious People’s Choice Award. Ishii admitted that it had been “nerve-wracking” to debut in Vancouver, since he understood the perception problems that might result from a Japanese cast and crew depicting events in Canada, as well as shooting it entirely in Japan. (The enormous open set where 70% of the shoot took place was built in Ashikaga, Tochigi Prefecture.)

“Winning the award meant that the depiction was acceptable to the Canadian audience," said Ishii, "which felt good. I was really relieved.” Tsumabuki added that he was worried about how the scenes of racial prejudice would play, and said he was “almost in tears” when the audience began cheering after his character finally starts hitting bunts, rather than striking out. “I realized that the film became more than just entertainment, it was able to transcend borders and language barriers. I felt the two countries were bonded together, and I was really touched to be able to experience that.”

To a question concerning the film’s depiction of “soft” leadership and the suggestion that Ishii had purposely drawn parallels with Japan’s lack of leadership today, the director answered, “I did a lot of research prior to making the film, and I saw the Nisei as not showing a strong will or strong principles. They were having an identity crisis, but doing their best to avoid conflicts with each other. They felt trapped, with nowhere to go… So I think a parallel can be drawn with today, for anyone who is feeling the same way.” Tsumabuki declared himself completely aligned with the hesitance of his character — “Like Reggie, I always prefer someone else to take the lead” — but also suggested that leadership is a trait that can be expressed in different ways. “In the end,” he said, “it’s most important to be able to be yourself.”

laurie canada  kjsatcemb
Embassy of Canada Public Affairs Chief Laurie Peters makes opening remarks  (left)
while MC Chair Karen Severns (right) and interpreter Mari Takeuchi preside over the Q&A session.

Set in Vancouver’s Japantown, The Vancouver Asahi opens in the late 1930s when a group of Nisei friends finds refuge from their manual jobs, demanding Canadian bosses and dead-end lives by joining the local team, the Asahi. Tsumabuki plays their leader and shortstop, Reji "Reggie" Kasahara, a sawmill worker whose abusive father (Koichi Sato) leaves the family for extended periods to build railroads. Roi "Roy" Naganishi (Kazuya Kamenashi) is the team's ace pitcher, Kei Kitamoto (Ryo Katsuji) is the team's second baseman and Tom Miyake (Yusuke Kamiji) is the catcher. Only third baseman Frank Nojima (Sosuke Ikematsu) has attempted to move up in the world, getting a job at a local luxury hotel.

The Asahi are physically overshadowed by their bigger, stronger opponents and become known for spectacular defeats. But after constant drubbings, Reggie discovers the power of the bunt, and the team develops a winning strategy dubbed “brain ball.” Deploying superlative fielding, swift base-running and squeeze plays, the Asahi are able to overcome the powerhouse Canadians and gradually, to rank among the region’s most popular players. Then, just as Japantown’s hopes and dreams are reviving and cultural bridge-building has begun, Japan attacks Pearl Harbor and everything changes. In 1941, Japanese-Canadians are classified as enemy aliens and sent to internment camps in the B.C. Interior. The Vancouver Asahi never played again.
    
This year marks the centenary of the team, which won 10 city championship titles between 1919 and 1940, as well as the Pacific Northwest Championship five times. After years as a footnote to history, the Vancouver Asahi was inducted into the Canadian Baseball Hall of Fame in 2003.  

In opening remarks before the screening, Laurie Peters, the Embassy of Canada’s Public Affairs Chief, pointed out that the Canadian government made a formal apology in 1988 and announced compensation payments to all the Japanese Canadians who had been interred during the war.
  Photos by Koichi Mori except where noted.

 The Vancouver Asahi-ss
©2014 "The Vancouver Asahi" Film Partners

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TV Exposure

フジテレビ [めざましテレビ] 「バンクーバー朝日」人気俳優生出演 妻夫木・亀梨・勝地・上地・池松
TBS [はやチャン!はやチャン!エンタメ] カナダ大使館、日本外国特派員協会共催の会見に妻夫木聡、石井裕也監督が出席

 

FILM FESTIVAL FEVER


FILM FESTIVAL FEVER


tiff logo           FILMEX2014
Apples and oranges: both taste sweet.

Much is made, at this time of year, of the differences between the Tokyo International Film Festival (TIFF) and TOKYO FILMeX (Filmex), despite there being no reason whatsoever to compare them. A brief rundown makes the disparities clear: TIFF is now in its 27th year and remains the only Japanese festival accredited by the FIAPF (just 15 festivals qualify for this A list, including Berlin, Cannes, Montreal, Shanghai and Venice). Filmex marks its 15th anniversary this year, and remains small and specialized by choice. TIFF is presided over by a director-general who changes every few years, since the position is shared between a handful of Japan’s most powerful studio-distributors, under the aegis of the Ministry of Economy, Trade and Industry and the Tokyo Metropolitan Government. Filmex, which is backed primarily by Office Kitano (as in "Beat" Takeshi) and the bicycle racing organization Keirin, has been overseen by its two devoted founders since it began in 2000. TIFF generally screens over 100 films each year, while Filmex’s lineup is only a quarter of that.

So this type of side-by-side evaluation is essentially meaningless. Film audiences in the Kanto area are fortunate that both festivals exist, and both are due praise as well as constructive criticism. In this era of dwindling public funding for cultural events, increasing competition from other film festivals (especially to snag world and national premieres) and static attendance numbers, festival organizers must juggle an array of often contradictory demands just to stay afloat.

A recent article about TIFF derided its "glitz and glamour," which is absolutely beside the point. Like Cannes, where glitz and glamour reign supreme (there is even an Official Cannes Shop on its website), A-list international film festivals must always balance high art with utter baloney. Just check their red carpet videos if you think Berlin, Venice, et al. are above celebrity fawning, and their lineups if you think they are really "all about the films."

Yet TIFF’s reputation as being aspirational, rather than inspirational, continues. This is partially due to its management structure, which makes its art-vs.-commerce balancing act more difficult and has virtually precluded organizers from establishing an ongoing "vision" for the festival. But the laudable work of its veteran programming crew, led by the indefatigable Yoshi Yatabe, with Kenji Ishizaka overseeing all the Asian selections, is too often overshadowed by the festival’s Special Screenings section. Because TIFF occurs just before the fall’s high-profile films hit the theaters, Japanese distributors use this section as a platform to publicize upcoming releases — and they share costs with TIFF to bring a bevy of the festival’s biggest stars to the red carpet.

TIFF red carpet
TIFF Muse Miki Nakatani works the red carpet.  ©2014 Aude Boyer

Although Special Screenings account for a small portion of the films screened at the festival, it is these that TIFF often earns its critical drubbing for; while the exceptional films shown in the Competition, World Focus, Asian Future and (sometimes) Japanese Splash sections are too quickly forgotten. But the art-to-commercial film ratio is surprisingly high at TIFF, with internationally heralded selections that Tokyo audiences are unlikely to ever see in theaters, since Japanese distributors have grown increasingly conservative about releasing arthouse titles, particularly foreign ones.

Amply earning the "international" in its name, TIFF brings a staggering array of films from around the world to Tokyo audiences each year, and past award winners include titles from Uruguay, Bosnia-Herzgovina, Albania, Bulgaria and Kazakhstan, along with many European and Asian countries. A glance through the annual Competition section lineups reveals a decided preference for arthouse fare, with many of the films verging on the social-realist miserablism that Filmex specializes in.

This year’s TIFF Grand Prize went to one such: the drug-addiction saga Heaven Knows What by sibling directors Joshua and Benny Safdie, marking the first time an American film had received the honor since John Sayles’ City of Hope in 1991. Of all TIFF winners, only the 2011 Grand Prizewinner, The Untouchables, by French directors Olivier Nakache and Éric Toledano, has actually been a box-office slam-dunk (and the most successful French film ever shown in this nation of Franco-cinephiles).

WWMMWalking with My Mother ©2014 Supersaurus Inc.

The Movie Committee will be screening the TIFF film
Walking With My Mother, a wrenchingly truthful documentary
about aging and loss, by director Katsumi Sakaguchi, in April.

During its October 23 – 31 run this year, TIFF screened 175 films from 42 countries/regions, yet it will probably be remembered most for its focus on animated titles, including the first-ever complete retrospective of work by Hideaki Anno (creator of Evangelion), for its screening of Charlie Chaplin’s City Lights in the historic Kabuki-za theater, and its wide range of allied events, including a World Cosplay Summit and star chefs on hand to serve up Tokyo Cinema Cuisine.

TIFF Doraemon
Doraemon made his English-language debut at TIFF. ©2014 Aude Boyer

Fortunately, TIFF encourages audience feedback, as well as providing ample opportunities for attending press to chat on and off record with staff about what is and isn’t working in any given year. It’s impossible to imagine sitting down around a picnic table with Cannes President Gilles Jacob during his festival, yet casual get-togethers are precisely what TIFF Director-General Yasushi Shiina seems to enjoy most. He welcomed a group of foreign journalists, including FCCJ’s own Monzurul Huq, to essentially ask How’re we doing? on October 28.

In his second year at the TIFF helm, it is clear that Shiina is working hard to continue Tom Yoda’s successful steps toward raising the festival’s international profile. "In my first year, I tried to figure out how we could enhance the festival," Shiina told the group, "and one focus we decided on was animation, because we wanted to showcase Japanese content on a bigger scale." To a suggestion that the focus may have been too much of a good thing, Shiina conceded, "When we announced the initiative last year, the press started calling us the ‘Tokyo Anime Festival,’ but I think animation is just one of the ways to get [younger] audiences into theaters. And our opening and closing films maybe gave the impression that we had too much animation." (TIFF opened with the world premiere of Disney’s Big Hero 6 and closed with hotshot director Takashi Yamazaki’s Parasyte, a live-action version of the popular sci-fi manga.)

Shiina  TIFF  Shiina Asian crew
Director-General Yasushi Shiina meets the foreign press.

Shiina also discussed the increase in selections from Asia: "We always wanted to focus more on Asian films, not just screening them, but having creators come to Tokyo and participate. With the Japan Foundation Asia Center [which just launched the new Crosscut Asia initiative, focusing on national cinemas in the region], we could accomplish this." He repeated his emphasis on supporting young creators: "We’re doing an event with Pia Film Festival, inviting five or six PFF films this year, not just one, and bringing the winners of student film festivals in Japan to allow them to interact and also participate with established creators like Takeshi Kitano," who was the recipient of TIFF’s inaugural Samurai Award during the closing ceremony.

Shiina is clearly grappling with a variety of challenges for TIFF’s 28th incarnation in 2015, but perhaps his biggest is to find a permanent home for the festival’s growing girth. Hampered by a lack of space and cinemas since its move from Shibuya to Roppongi in 2004, its market has taken place way out in Odaiba for the past 2 years, and many of this year’s screenings were held in Nihonbashi. "Once I accomplish the reuniting of TIFFCOM and TIFF in one location, I can retire," Shiina laughed. "But next year might be too soon."

TOKYO FILMeX has its own challenges, but an expanding slate necessitating more space is not one of them. Despite its limited size, Festival Director Kanako Hayashi and Program Director Shozo Ichiyama firmly believe that "one film festival can change the world," and their ardent audiences clearly support the notion.

From its first incarnation, Filmex has focused on assuring that there will be a "bright future of cinema" (its motto) through the education and encouragement of filmmakers throughout Asia, as well as promoting the involvement of young cinephiles and supporters through its membership program. Filmex conducts workshops throughout the year, and brings emerging practitioners from all over Asia to participate in its Tokyo Talents  sessions, with mentoring by famed filmmakers and other industry veterans, in alliance with the Berlinale Talents program. It also selects a group of student filmmakers to bestow the festival's popular Student Jury Prize.

Filmex embassy
At the Filmex lineup announcement at the Embassy of Canada, Festival Director Kanako Hayashi
and Program Director Shozo Ichiyama (in red shirts) and Laurie Peters, Head of Public Affairs and
Culture at the Embassy, flank the four Japanese directors in this year's festival: Takahashi, Shinozaki,
Hiroki and Tsukamoto.

This year, Filmex features 25 films over its November 22 - 30 run, with nine Competition films vying for its Grand and Special Jury Prizes, eight from Asia/the Middle East and one from Japan (Izumi Takahashi’s Dari Marusan, the only world premiere), with acclaimed Chinese director Jia Zhang-ke (A Touch of Sin), a frequent presence at Filmex, heading the Competition jury. There are also 11 special screenings and two early David Cronenberg mini-features (part of a Filmmaker in Focus sidebar, with the great Canadian director unveiling his latest, Maps to the Stars, as the Closing film). There are also three digitally remastered works from 1960 — Nagisa Oshima's Cruel Story of Youth, Osamu Takahashi's Only She Knows and Hidetaro Morikawa's The Tragedy of Bushido in the festival’s Time of Destruction and Creation section, jointly presented with Shochiku.

The Movie Committee will be screening (at least) two
Filmex selections in 2015: Ryuichi Hiroki’s comedy-drama
Kabukicho Love Hotel, on January 8, and Shinya Tsukamoto’s
searing antiwar masterpiece Fires on the Plain, in July.

nobi
Fires on the Plain ©2014 Shinya Tsukamoto/Kaijyu Theater

The 2014 selections are unusual for the inclusion of four high-profile Japanese titles, including the Opening film, Shinya Tsukamoto’s extraordinary Venice-buzzer Fires on the Plain, Ryuichi Hiroki's crowd-pleasing Kabukicho Love Hotel, Takahashi’s Dari Marusan, and Makoto Shinozaki's Fukushima-focused Sharing, marking the popular director’s first Filmex appearance in 14 years.

Kabukicho trio Filmex
Kabukicho Love Hotel costars Kaho Minami and Atsuko Maeda share a laugh at the
Filmex premiere with their director, Ryuichi Hiroki.  ©2014 Aude Boyer

At Filmex’s opening ceremony on November 22, Hayashi told the audience, "In the process of selecting these 25 films, we have encountered many surprises and miracles." And then, reminding everyone why filmmakers continue to swear their allegiance to the festival, she stressed: "We respectfully recognize these filmmakers’ braveness, determination and affection for the audience."

Café Elektric with piano and benshi accompaniment


CAFÉ ELEKTRIC


 NOVEMBER 7, 2014
Q&A guests: Austrian pianist Gerhard Gruber, benshi narrator Ichiro Kataoka
and film archivist Fumiko Tsuneishi


electric 
Gruber plays in the foreground as Kataoka narrates in the background.

FCCJ helped kick off the Silent Film Renaissance 2014 from Vienna: Treasures of Filmarchiv Austria series, running from November 11 – 16 at the National Film Center in Kyobashi, with a special screening of Gustav Ucicky’s 1927 film Café Elektric, accompanied by renowned pianist Gerhard Gruber and benshi narrator Ichiro Kataoka.

The Movie and Entertainment Committees cohosted the evening, which began with a cocktail party featuring a selection of Austrian wines. Once upon a time, silent films in Japan had live piano and benshi accompaniment. But unlike other nations, which quickly embraced talkies, Japan continued to feature benshi — the era’s real stars — even when it meant turning down the film’s own soundtrack. Not content to merely narrate the story and act out characters’ dialogue, many benshi became famous for providing their own unique interpretations of the action taking place on the screen.

 gruber  kataoka
Gruber (middle left) talks with new FCCJ fans, while Kataoka (right)
and NFC Director Hisashi Okajima chat with an overseas visitor.

The audience at FCCJ was treated to an unforgettable performance by two artists who are devoting their lives to keeping the theater’s bygone traditions alive. Gerhard Gruber is a composer and pianist who has accompanied some 400 silent films over the past 25 years, not only in his native Austria but around the world. For the last decade or so, he has worked with benshi narrators, including the legendary Midori Sawato. She is Ichiro Kataoka’s mentor, and he amused everyone by describing how he followed her around for a year before she finally accepted him as a student. Kataoka studied performance at Nihon University and is now the best-known benshi of his generation. In 2013, he and Gruber partnered to form the duo East Meets West, which accompanies silent film screenings throughout Europe.

Café Elektric is set against the backdrop of a fashionably naughty café in Vienna, which all its characters patronize, and features screen icon Marlene Dietrich in one of her earliest roles. The story is a familiar one, of a spoiled rich girl (Dietrich) who falls in with the wrong man, of a fallen woman who falls in with the right one, and of the vicissitudes of fortune. But with the exceptionally dynamic Kataoka narrating, and the dramatic Gruber ranging breathtakingly over the keyboard, the film became as electric as its café.

tsuneishi
Tsuneishi describes the loss of Japan's silent film heritage.

Summoning admirable stamina, the performers appeared at a brief Q&A session following the screening, to discuss their career choices and their collaboration. Gruber recalled a grim childhood in a Catholic boarding school, feeling that films became a “window to freedom.” He still feels emotional about it: “Just like you meet someone and you marry him or her, and you do not divorce, I have not. I still like my partner very, very much.” Although he has written basic scores for his partner, he essentially improvises each time he accompanies a film. “It should always feel fresh and new every time you watch it.”

Fumiko Tsuneishi, an archivist at Filmarchiv Austria and the curator of the series at the NFC, also joined Gruber and Kataoka to field audience questions. Prior to going to Vienna in 2006, she had spent seven years at the NFC and organized some of the first digital film restoration projects in Japan. She spoke about the substantial output of Austria’s film studios in their 1920s heyday, and the fact that a large percentage of films have survived (often overseas, where prints had been imported). “The loss of Japanese silent film is immense, really incredible,” she explained. “Most of them are lost, only 3 percent or so have survived. Very few Japanese films were exported abroad, so there is very little chance to find any [remaining] films somewhere else.”

Café Elektric is one of the 16 films being screened in the NFC silent film series, several of which also feature benshi and piano accompaniment. Along with several recently restored erotic shorts, other highlights include Der Rosenkavalier, Die Sklavenkönigin, Orlac's Hände, Die Freudlose Gasse and Romeo und Julia im Schnee, directed by Ernst Lubitsch in 1920 before he found fame in Hollywood.
  Photos by Koichi Mori.

 Cafe Elektric poster

FUKU-CHAN OF FUKUFUKU FLATS (Fukufukuso no Fukuchan)


FUKU-CHAN OF FUKUFUKU FLATS


 NOVEMBER 4, 2014
Q&A guests: Star Miyuki Oshima, director Yosuke Fujita and producer Adam Torel


oshima 
Comedienne Miyuki Oshima discusses her first leading role... as a man.

Miyuki Oshima dreams of winning a Japan Academy Award for Best Actor for her performance as the middle-aged male title character in cult comedy director Yosuke Fujita’s new film, and if anyone deserves it more than she does, let him come forward. Remember Jaye Davidson in Neil Jordan’s The Crying Game? Oshima is that good. Good enough to fool the Western journalists in the audience who had never seen the comedienne on TV, where her Morisanchu trio is ubiquitous. She’s already won a Best Actress trophy at Montreal’s Fantasia Film Festival for her gender-bending feat; if the Japanese media turnout at FCCJ is any indication, her role is already earning her enormous attention at home.

Looking like herself, ie., lovely and feminine, at the Q&A following the screening of the tongue-twisting Fuku-Chan, Oshima smiled happily as her director explained just how she came to play the unusual role: “The genesis of the project came from the idea of having Ms. Oshima play a man,” explained Fujita. “If she had said no, I really can’t think of any other actress or actor who would have been suitable.” Why? “It’s her face that attracted me. She has the kind of face the Japanese really love, a really familiar face. I think she has the perfect face for a comedy that people can relate to and enjoy … It is truly nostalgic [natsukashii]” He also admitted that he’d wanted a woman for the role, so Fuku-chan would be less lewd than if a man played him.

Oshima said she was surprised to hear that Fujita needed her face to bring Fuku-chan to life. “As a matter of fact,” she pointed out, “Yoshiyoshi Arakawa looks a lot like me, and I think he could’ve done it.” (She’s known for her self-deprecating humor.)

How did Oshima prepare for the role? “Even before we started shooting, I tried to do manly things,” she said. “I never took a bath, I just took showers; I didn’t have any massages or eat any organic food. I also stopped sleeping in bed and just slept on the floor.”

adam  fujita
Torel (left) helped Fujita complete his first feature-length film in six years.

Producer Adam Torel piped up: “Do men not take baths? I’ve done it. And had a massage. And eaten organic food.”

Oshima admitted she also took cues from Tora-san, the beloved (and very natsukashii) character in Yoji Yamada’s long-running series It’s Tough Being a Man. “It was the director’s suggestion that I watch him,” she said, “and I watched the whole series. It was very educational, in the sense that I wanted to know how to depict a very lovable character.”

Fuku-chan is also a very lovelorn character, after his junior high crush turns up at his rundown apartment building (that would be “Fukufuku Flats”) one day, two decades after being the agent of some painful bullying. Tatsuo Fukuda — “Fuku-chan” to his friends — has spent the years since then painting buildings by day and beautiful kites by night. But his greatest artistry is reserved for mediating disputes and helping those in need. The misfits in Fukfuku Flats keep his loneliness at bay, and his pal Shinmachi (Arakawa) tries to light a fire under his love life. But his timidity around women is downright unnatural until a budding photographer named Chiho (Asami Mizukawa) enters his life, and attempts to make amends for the past.

ThreeFujita, Oshima and Toel flank Fuku-chan.

Yosuke Fujita proved in 2008 that no one can make an audience love a loser the way he can. His Fine, Totally Fine (Zenzen Daijobu, starring the oddball Arakawa) was a deadpan delight about two sadsack best friends who woo the same klutzy girl, punctuated by outlandishly ghoulish pranks. It had a wildly successful ride on the international festival circuit, scooping up numerous awards and several foreign distribution deals.

The equally offbeat Fuku-Chan has also been rapturously received overseas ahead of its Japanese debut, disproving the old saw that comedy is the most difficult genre for crossing borders. Thanks to its pioneering coproduction scheme, it is also already set for release in half a dozen countries, an unprecedented feat for a small Japanese film without Kurosawa or Miike at the helm.

Marking the first-ever Japan-UK-Italy-Taiwan-Germany coproduction, Fuku-chan was backed from the script stage by veteran distributors of Asian film who are hoping to “change the entire playing field and help Japanese non-genre and independent films reach the largest international audience possible,” according to their press release. Producer Adam Torel, head of the UK’s largest contemporary Asian cinema distributor, Third Window Films, and a driving force behind the collaborative project, was asked about the difficulty in financing the film. “I think it can be hard for a midlevel-budget film, but obviously, having someone like Oshima-san attached, a star like that, it’s not quite as hard.”


Oshima Watanabe3Hirobumi Watanabe, director of the 2013 indie hit And the Mud Ship Sails Away, tells Oshima
that he's from her small hometown in Tochigi.

Fujita concurred: “The film production scene in Japan right now is very polarized. It’s either films with big budgets coming from TV stations, or small independent films with budgets of around ¥1 to ¥2 million. Midsize films like this one are very hard to make these days, so I’m very grateful that all these international parties came onboard to make this work.”

Torel added, “It was done to create a [coproduction] formula … so people on both sides could see — the Japanese producers would realize that it could be done, and distributors overseas would realize that non-genre Japanese films could be released overseas.”

Time will tell whether the formula helps revive a seriously flagging indie film scene in Japan. Meanwhile, we’ll soon have a chance to see whether Miyuki Oshima can make history at the Japan Academy Awards. Nominations for Best Actor (and other categories) are due out in January.
  Photos by Koichi Mori and FCCJ.

 fukuchan
©2014 'fukufukuso no fukuchan' film committee

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TV Exposure

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NUCLEAR NATION II (Futaba kara Toku Hanarete Dainibu)


NUCLEAR NATION II


 OCTOBER 14, 2014
Q&A guests: Futaba Mayor Shiro Izawa and documentary director Atsushi Funahashi


NNII-1  NNII-2
Mayor Izawa                                                                   Funahashi

The nuclear disaster arising out of 3/11 has inspired hundreds of documentaries, but the first to receive international acclaim was Atsushi Funahashi’s 2012 Nuclear Nation, about the exile of 1,415 residents from the area housing the crippled Fukushima Daiichi plant. Premiering at the Berlin Film Festival less than a year after the meltdowns, it provided an extremely intimate look at an unconscionable situation, following the fates of evacuees from Futaba Machi, who had been forced to move 250 km away to an abandoned high school in Saitama.

Highlighting the inhumane conditions, the ongoing agonies, the unanswered questions about the true costs of nuclear energy and capitalism — and introducing us to feisty Futaba Mayor Katsutaka Idogawa, a cheerleader for nuclear power who was now regretting his support — the film quietly earned our moral outrage, as the government and TEPCO continued to ignore demands for empathy and the information vacuum gradually sucked all hope from the survivors.

Nuclear Nation ended in December 2011 with over 600 residents still at the school, but Funahashi never stopped shooting. After cutting down over 400 hours of footage, he has now created the second chapter in the refugees’ grim ordeal.

Izawafunahashi
Funahashi has pledged to continue following the fate of Futaba indefinitely.

Nuclear Nation II begins at New Year’s 2012, and brings us forward to this past March, when the school is once again abandoned. In this chapter, there are no more bands coming to cheer up the evacuees, no more truckloads of fresh produce, no more visits from the emperor and empress, no more “Gambare Futaba Machi!!” banners. But there are still the annual observances of prayer marking 3/11, the brief visits to crumbling homes in the exclusion zone (96% of the town is deemed uninhabitable), men shuffling into meetings they don’t want to attend, officials dodging questions.

There is also increasing desperation, bickering over differing levels of resident compensation, and a new mayor: After Idogawa’s vocal complaints and refusal to attend one-way meetings have earned him infamy, the town council summarily ejects him in early 2013. His replacement, Mayor Shiro Izawa, is less outspoken, but equally opposed to the co-opting of Futaba as a dumping ground for irradiated soil and other nuclear debris. We see the reactions of townspeople when Environment Minister Nobuteru Ishihara makes his notorious remark that, “At the end of the day, it all boils down to kaneme (the amount of money they can get in compensation for their land).”

Although it is not included in the film, it was widely reported in September that Izawa and Fukushima Gov. Yuhei Sato had met with Prime Minister Abe to accept the government’s proposal.

Fortunately, the mayor was on hand after FCCJ’s sneak preview of Nuclear Nation II to set the record straight:  “While it’s true that the governor did make the decision to accept plans to build temporary storage for nuclear waste,” Izawa said, choosing his words carefully, “the town of Futaba is still discussing the issue. So contrary to what the Japanese media has reported, we have not totally accepted the construction of these sites.”

Funahashi immediately added: “What’s being forgotten is the landowners’ [rights] to decide whether to sell or lease their land. The central and prefectural governments are going over their heads and accepting the facilities…and creating a context in which people are being forced to sell their land, even if it’s against their will.”

Three and a half years after the triple disaster, close to 100,000 people still live in temporary facilities in Iwate, Miyagi and Fukushima prefectures due to construction delays on permanent housing.  To a question about matching them up with suitable housing from the 8 million vacant residences throughout Japan, Izawa said, “For these people, everyday life is linked to a sense of community. They have their family, friends and relatives; they share an environment, share a history, and that’s what makes a town…I think it’s important to give them back the community they had, and not just let it collapse.” Funahashi added, “I see it as a kind of human rights violation to force people to live in temporary housing.” Earlier, he had mentioned, “The role of my film is to show they have lost something kaneme can never compensate.”

While Izawa labors to make the voices of Futaba’s refugees heard above the din of nuclear dialogue, former Mayor Idogawa is now running for governor of Fukushima. The gubernatorial election is October 26, so we’ll know within weeks whether he’s been given a second chance to do right by his constituents. Meanwhile, Atsushi Funahashi continues to document this ongoing tragedy, and we should expect Nuclear Nation III to include Futaba’s reactions to the controversial rebooting of Japan’s nuclear program.

 Photos by Koichi Mori and FCCJ.

 NNII poster
©2014 Documentary Japan

 

Media Coverage

HARMONICS MINYOUNG (Minyon Baion no Hosoku)

 


HARMONICS MINYOUNG


 OCTOBER 8, 2014
Q&A guest: Writer-director Writer-director Shoichiro Sasaki


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Sasaki (r.) with his producers, Tetsujiro Yamagami and Takahide Harada.

For 20 years, legendary NHK director Shoichiro Sasaki was entirely absent from the public stage, apparently retired from a career that marked him as one of Japan’s most prolific and poetic creators, with a body of internationally award-winning work that inspired such leading lights as Cannes favorites Hirokazu Kore-eda and Naomi Kawase, and Venice regular Shinya Tsukamoto.

Sasaki has now broken his silence, and fans will be thrilled that his first-ever theatrical release (the film is debuting on October 11 at the vaunted arthouse theater Iwanami Hall) is over 2 hours long. Harmonics Minyoung is an inventive, experimental quasi-documentary that moves constantly between Japanese, Korean and English as well as the language of song. The complexity of its structure obfuscates its strong antiwar message until the final act, but it gradually becomes clear that the story is near to the director’s heart. As it turns out, the film’s period scenes, depicting a family’s life in Tokyo during World War II, are based on Sasaki's actual experiences as a youth in wartime.

minyoung2
The director waxes eloquent on Mozart.

During his Q&A session at FCCJ, Sasaki expressed fears about the film’s public reception, reminding everyone that for two decades, he’s been known only as a “former TV director.” He recalled the recent cast and crew screening, at which he stood on the stage and apologized for putting them all through so much trouble. “I’d been thinking about what a ‘film director’ is,” he explained. “Is he a great artist? No. A craftsman? Maybe. A shyster? I finally realized that he’s a guy who causes problems for everyone involved, in order to complete his film.”

As in Sasaki’s previous productions, Harmonics Minyoung is cast with nonprofessionals. The ebullient heroine, Minyoung, is from Seoul, but met Sasaki in 2004 when she was attending Waseda. The director asked her parents for their permission before signing their daughter on to play the character of university student Minyoung, who is writing and illustrating a novel called “The Laws of Harmonics.” She is obsessed with Mozart’s music (as is Sasaki) and, for some reason, with a photograph depicting her grandmother's Japanese friend Sueko. Driven by her curiosity about Sueko, Minyoung journeys to Tokyo. Here, she meets a street child, Yu, as well as reuniting with a friend who is now a freelance journalist covering the dark side of society, and is constantly being pursued by strange men in trenchcoats. When Minyoung suddenly becomes Sueko in the film-within-a-film, she is actually portraying Sasaki’s own mother, to whom Harmonics Minyoung is dedicated. The journalist is his father — in reality, as here, murdered for expressing critical views of the military — and the street child, Sasaki himself.

Sasaki originally planned to use only Mozart’s Jupiter Symphony (No. 41) in the film, since it’s “overflowing with hope,” and chose the Czech Philharmonic because they have “the best string section in the world.” But after production ended, he felt something was missing, and decided to delay editing until he finally had a breakthrough: “One day, I heard the old [Civil War] song ‘Marching Through Georgia’ — which was the first American song heard by the Japanese, when Admiral Perry came to Japan — and I [realized I needed a musical counterpoint]. After that, I selected 12 songs to use in the film, even though I didn’t tell producer [Takahide] Harada.”

Sasaki is now 78, and eager to plan his next outing as film director. Considering his enviable energy and the widespread support from a creative community that never forgot him, his second career may be just as laudable as his first.

 — Photos by Koichi Mori.

minyoung

©2014 Siglo/Sasaki Films

 

Media Coverage

 

A SAMURAI CHRONICLE (Higurashi no Ki)


 A SAMURAI CHRONICLE


 SEPTEMBER 18, 2014
Q&A guests: Director Takashi Koizumi, star Koji Yakusho, special advisor Teruyo Nogami


MC higurashi1
Nogami, Yakusho and Koizumi share a laugh.

FCCJ’s audience had a special treat awaiting them after the sneak preview of A Samurai Chronicle, when Akira Kurosawa’s principal assistant for half a century, Teruyo Nogami, joined the film’s director and star for the lively Q&A session. Although the questions focused primarily on the new film, the 87-year-old leavened the proceedings considerably whenever she joined in to reminisce about the old days. “I was very fortunate to work with Kurosawa-san for a long time, from Rashomon onward,” she noted, “and whenever I see one of his films today, I realize that he was an incredible director, far better than I imagined at the time. I really regret that I didn’t realize it earlier.”

MC higurashi2
Yakusho, Koizumi

Nogami was in attendance as a special advisor, a “dai sempei,” according to the director, who was also a longtime assistant to Akira Kurosawa and had made his own debut directing the master’s unfilmed screenplay, After the Rain (2000). She had visited the set during production, and felt Kurosawa’s spirit present, sometimes shouting “Hey, Koizumi!”

A film of autumnal magnificence, both in its stunning scenery and its sublime performances, A Samurai Chronicle was adapted by Koizumi from the Naoki Prize-winning novel by Rin Hamuro. Set at the end of the Edo period, it follows a samurai’s final three years before he must keep his promise to commit harakiri, the punishment for a crime he committed seven years before the tale begins. The 10-year delay is so Shukoku Toda (Yakusho) can complete a genealogical chronicle detailing the domain’s history.

Into his life as a simple country squire comes Shozaburo Danno (Junichi Okada), who has been sent by the prime minister to keep watch over the samurai. Toda’s love for his family and commitment to the community, especially the area’s downtrodden peasants, is unusual and Danno soon comes to suspect that this honorable man could not possibly have murdered someone in a fit of jealous rage. He sets out to investigate the truth, but finds something even more incriminating: a document that could unravel the domain’s entire chain of command.

A jidaigeki (period drama) in the traditional mold, the film was well received at FCCJ and inspired discussion of its meaning for contemporary theatergoers. In light of the political climate in Japan, and the film’s story of the manipulation of history through the chronicle of the title, Koizumi was asked whether he had intended audiences to draw any parallels. “There is no political message,” the director answered. “These events actually happened, and I tried be as accurate as possible in their depiction. At the same time, I hope the audience gets something out of the story, and I welcome personal interpretations about what is being explored.

MC higurashi3
Yakusho joins Team Kurosawa.

Yakusho, generously making his third appearance at FCCJ in the last four years, was questioned several times about his plans to appear in more international films, considering his English-language successes Memoirs of a Geisha (2005) and Babel (2006) and his continued popularity in global hits like Takashi Miike’s hits 13 Assassins (2010) and Hara Kiri: Death of a Samurai (2011). “If I could speak English better, it’s possible that I might be working more in America,” Yakusho said. “But I’m grateful to be able to keep working in Japanese film, and I’ll continue to focus on doing my best possible work, and hope the films will be seen by as many people as possible. I hope the rest of the world can also see how good Japanese films can be.”

Chances are we can expect Yakusho to work with Koizumi again: both the star and his director expressed an interest in another collaboration, although Yakusho did mention he was a little worried about the high average age of Koizumi’s crew, which is peopled with veterans of Kurosawa’s shoots. If anything, age proved to be an asset on A Samurai Chronicle — at least behind the camera. In front of it, youthful megastar Junichi Okada and Maki Horikita essay impressive turns, and their love story is sure to draw the younger generation (most of whom think “Kurosawa” refers to Kiyoshi) to the theater.

 — Photos by Koichi Mori and FCCJ.

MC chronicle poster

Media Coverage

TOKYO TRIBE


 TOKYO TRIBE


 August 7, 2014
Q&A guests: Director Shion Sono and stars Ryohei Suzuki, Young Dais and Nana Seino


all2
A zany FCCJ team celebrates a zany Q&A.

Studies have shown that only a handful of Japanese directors are known by name overseas. Right near the top of that short list is Sion Sono, the one-man cinematic cyclone whose every work, even after a prolific career spanning 25 years, still feels iconoclastic. Provocateur, impish maestro of naughtiness, winner of countless festival awards, discoverer of new talent — he guided Shota Sometani and Fumi Nikaido to the Marcello Mastroianni Prize for Acting in Himizu — reaper of box-office coin (2010’s Cold Fish was a surprise international hit), Sono is the creator of both high-minded fare like the Fukushima-themed The Land of Hope (2012) and low-brow celebrations of B-movie outrageousness like Why Don't You Play in Hell? (2013).

The Movie Committee had attempted to lure the director in for a sneak preview event since his much-admired Love Exposure in 2009, but each new release found him already deep in production on the next, too busy to make an appearance. On our seventh attempt, we hit the jackpot: Tokyo Tribe proved to be our lucky number. Sono’s frenetic live-action adaptation of Santa Inoue’s mega-bestselling manga series “Tokyo Tribe2,” the film is the world’s first rap musical and marks the screen debuts of hip-hop artists from seemingly every Japanese prefecture.

sono
Sono speaks

Sono brought with him his three young stars, Ryohei Suzuki (Gatchaman, Hentai Kamen: Forbidden Superhero, NHK’s Hanako to An), Young Dais, a popular recording artist, and Nana Seino (Wood Job!) — who obliged the director’s request to demonstrate her panties-flashing backflip for the FCCJ audience. Suzuki and Young Dais impressed the audience (and their director) with verbal gymnastics: both had gone to high school in the US, so answered questions in fluent English and then translated themselves into Japanese.

During the Q&A, Sono described how he was brought into the project by his frequent producer, Yoshinori Chiba, who “plotted and schemed” to get it made. The manga adaptation process began with only a few rap songs, but eventually grew into a full-blown musical after Sono held nationwide auditions to select hip-hop artists and gave them suggestions for lyrics to be adapted. Without the rapping, he said, the film would have been “an orthodox coming-of-age story.”

three copy
Seino, Young Dais and Suzuki.

Young Dais and Suzuki both lauded the director for encouraging interaction, a process that Suzuki likened to “a battle” of creativity. “I needed to bring more than he expected to the set,” he said, “and we had to always be ready for changes and new scenes all the time. That was a real thrill.” Young Dais added that acting was a big adjustment for him, but toward the end of shooting, he was comfortable enough to make suggestions to Sono, “and he would listen and say, ‘yeah, let’s try that,’ and he was really encouraging to me. But he’s really a crazy guy.”

Seino discussed how she’d always heard that Sono was a “scary, demanding director,” but found him to be very supportive on set. She leaned forward and directed her final remarks to Sono: “I love you, desu,” she said, to which her director replied, “Me, too.”

nana2
Seino strikes a pose after her backflip.

Like the manga, Tokyo Tribe opens five years after the Shibuya riots, with Tokyo divided into territories run by 23 rival tribes — the Shibuya Saru, Shinjuku Hands, Kabukicho GiraGira Girls, Bukuro Wu-Ronz and my personal favorite, Nerimuthafuckaz — each with their own colorful approach to fashion and the new lingua franca, rap. Crossing territorial lines in this Blade Runneresque Tokyo results in ballistically choreographed, action-packed rumbles — just as it did in the New York of West Side Story, another obvious influence on the director.

The FCCJ audience was clearly enthusiastic about what one attendee called “two hours of constant, ass-kicking fun:” a constant visual assault of candy-colored neon, lewd graffiti, black leather thongs, flying kickboxers, a Kano sister, a sadistic midget, severed fingers in cigar boxes, human furnishings, penis jokes and a growl-rapping Riki Takeuchi, all directed with the deliciously delirious excess that has made the madcap-genius director (almost) a global household name. The international rollout of Tokyo Tribe, which begins with the Toronto Film Festival, where the film opens the Midnight Madness section, is sure to further Sion Sono’s renown.

— Photos by FCCJ.

tokyo-tribe-poster
© 2014 NIKKATSU

Media Coverage

2014年8月8日
・『PON!エンタメよーいPON!』 日本テレビ
・『スッキリ!!エンタメまるごとクイズッス』 日本テレビ
・『ZIP!SHOWBIZ TODAY』 日本テレビ

2014年8月12日
・『PON! 毎日が緊急企画!ちょっとおトーク』 日本テレビ

 


 THE END OF THE SPECIAL TIME WE WERE ALLOWED


 July 24, 2014
Q&A guest: Director Shingo Ota


Shingo Ota
Shingo Ota

July’s second screening about youth in imperiled situations, The End of the Special Time We Were Allowed is perhaps the first-ever film made by a young director about a friend’s suicide, completed as he continued to grapple with his own imagined role in it.

But the story hadn’t begun that way.

Shingo Ota was a high school friend of Sota Masuda, a talented young singer-songwriter who dropped out when he won a major competition and headed off to Tokyo to become famous. When his major-label debut falls through, Masuda gradually turns to drugs to blunt the pain of his loneliness and despair. After a brush with death by overdose, he returns, defeated, to his Nagano hometown. There, his friends rally round him, and some of his youthful confidence and energy returns. Ota —who had studied film at Waseda — is recruited to make the documentary about Masuda’s comeback.

MI SO KS
Ota and interpreter Mihoko Imai listen to the reminder
of the film's theatrical opening in Tokyo.

Unfortunately, Masuda’s optimism dims and he kills himself in the midst of the project, leaving a note for Ota: “Be sure to finish the film,” it says. “And try to give it a happy ending.”

Ota was devastated and angry, a feeling that he translates into fictional bookending scenes which drew some criticism from FCCJ’s audience for their violence.  But Masuda’s note definitely proved helpful: “I was determined to finish the film,” Ota said during the Q&A, “so I think I would’ve finished it whether Sota left the note or not. But it helped his family understand what he wanted, and they agreed that I should continue.”

SO at bar
Ota and producer Yutaka Tsuchiya (in hat) join audience members
in the Main Bar after the screening.

As for the fictional violence, Ota explained that he wanted to draw a stark comparison between the type of suicide that occurs when someone is suddenly overwhelmed by hopelessness, and Masuda’s choice of death, “which was planned, carefully and deliberately. I wanted to use [the bullying scene of a suicide victim] to find a way of portraying this difference. The [female character] who killed herself did so without thinking. This type of suicide we can prevent. We need to give them the opportunity to rethink their choices." 

With so many Japanese youth making the same choice, The End of the Special Time We Were Allowed opens a much-needed crack into their world. More than just a record of a life cut tragically short, is a tremendously personal, poignant and finally, revelatory inquiry into the increasingly low expectations of today’s youth.

— Photos by Koichi Mori and FCCJ.

watayuru
©Midnight Call Productions

 

Media Coverage

 

A CLASS OF THEIR OWN


 A CLASS OF THEIR OWN


 July 15, 2014
Q&A guest: Director Haryun Kim


Haryun 3
Haryun Kim

Growing up in Seoul, Haryun Kim always felt a kinship with outsiders, and after working for an NGO post-college, completed her first film, Voice of Migrant Workers (2002). It wasn’t until she’d moved to London to study Social Anthropology at the School of Oriental and African Studies that she understood: she herself was a “person on the move,” in a world that is increasingly filled with “migrants.” The plight of the growing underclass became her subject. “I want to tell sincere human stories,” she says, “that champion the voices of those who would otherwise never be heard.”

After studying documentary at the National Film and TV School, Kim relocated with her family to Guanzhou, China in 2008 and was immediately struck by the contrast between the lives of the city’s many migrant workers and the gleaming metropolis they were building.  She soon discovered that the children of these workers were excluded from free public education without a local hukou household registration, forcing them to attend pricey informal private schools called minban — unregulated enterprises that fill the gap in the market. There are no guidelines governing the teaching standards or facilities at these schools.

The nation’s economic boom has created a constant stream of job-seekers to its cities, bringing with them more than 20 million children — worse, Beijing recently started shutting down minban over safety concerns, leaving migrant children with no schooling and no alternatives.

Haryun 2
Haryun Kim

Kim spent a year befriending and earning the trust of the children and teachers in one minban, creating a breathtakingly intimate portrait of their lives for A Class of Their Own. “I was like a piece of furniture in the room,” she told FCCJ’s audience during the Q&A. She spent several months getting to school earlier and leaving it later than anyone, and gradually selected her three main subjects. For different reasons, each of them leaves school by the end of the film.

A short version of Kim’s film debuted in an “impossible time slot” at the Asian Side of the Doc Festival in Chengdu last year, after unknown forces attempted to bar it from being shown at all. “There were Chinese people in the audience,” says Kim, “and they were shocked that migrant workers are such second-class citizens. They were also surprised that a foreigner was able to gain such access to their lives.”

Look for A Class of Their Own on the international festival circuit later this year.

— Photos by FCCJ.

a class of their own
©Summer Lotus Films

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