Member Login

Member Login

Username
Password *

FC HEADER

5 MILLION DOLLAR LIFE

'Five Million Dollar Life': Assessing the value of a single life


5 MILLION DOLLAR LIFE (Gooku Yen no Jinsei)


 June 19, 2019
Q&A guests: Director Sungho Moon and star Ayumu Mochizuki


5 milFCCJ-015-2 copy
Star Ayumu Mochizuki (left) and director Sungho Moon compare notes on Mochizuki's resemblance to the protagonist. ©FCCJ

Several months back, one of the producers of 5 Million Dollar Life expressed surprise when FCCJ’s Film Committee approached him about screening the film. “Are you sure that international audiences would be interested?” he asked, doubtful. “We thought it was purely for domestic appetites.”

We assured him that he was wrong. And naturally, we were right.

The film had its world premiere at the Shanghai International Film Festival on June 17, where it was met with great fanfare; its North American premiere is on July 11, in competition at the New York Asian Film Festival; and European festivals are locking in dates.

A 5 milKoichi Mori-24   A 5 milKoichi Mori-14
©Koichi Mori

Most importantly for FCCJ, 5 Million Dollar Life prompted an enthusiastic Q&A session that could have continued long past its time limit, proving that the film strikes a chord with Japanese and foreign audience members alike.

5 Million Dollar Life encompasses an unusual range of social issues, some of them seen rarely on Japanese screens (and certainly not all together in a single film) — broken families, social media bullying, teen suicide, day-labor exploitation, homelessness, the underage sex industry, telephone scams, debt-prompted suicide, murder scene cleanups, even Fukushima’s toxic waste disposal — yet it manages to stay positive, to locate a delicate tonal balance between earnestness, laughter and tears.

In this era of copycat filmmaking in Japan, with its surfeit of franchised mainstream releases and its dearth of original stories, there’s nothing quite as exciting as a work that takes both its protagonist and its audience on a completely unexpected journey; nothing quite as heartening as the discovery of a fresh directorial voice, and of a young actor who has come of age and is apparently game for anything.

A 5mil-1 2019 FIVE MILLION DOLLAR LIFE Film Partners
Mirai (Mochizuki) may dress brightly, but his life is clouded by dark thoughts.
© 2019 "FIVE MILLION DOLLAR LIFE" Film Partners

As the film opens, it is the 11th anniversary of Mirai Takatsuki’s recovery from a near-fatal disease. Members of the local community, who together contributed the staggering sum of 500 million yen ($5 million), to pay for his open-heart surgery as a child, have gathered at his mom’s house to watch the annual televised tribute to the lad.

Mirai (Ayumu Mochizuki), who is now a diffident high schooler, has increasing difficulties living up to everyone’s expectations. All the media attention amplifies his self-doubt, and the online attention is even worse: “You’d be better off quitting… a life like that,” a stranger snipes on SNS. Mirai types back, “I’ll die, then. Just watch me.” But before he can seriously contemplate his next step, another stranger cautions he has no right to kill himself until he’s paid everyone back for their generosity.

5 milFCCJ-032
©︎FCCJ

And so, Mirai sets out to earn $5 million. When construction work barely covers enough for daily meals, he moves on to more lucrative employ, some of it questionable, some of it downright illegal. Along the way, he learns a thing or two about the world and himself, and just what the value of life really is — and a journey that began with familiar echoes of the teen suicide/coming-of-age/road movie genres has grown into something far more poignant.

The unique twists and turns of 5 Million Dollar Life hoist it way above the average offering; but so does the infectiously charismatic performance of its young star, who has quietly built a resume of spot-on portrayals since earning accolades for his striking debut in 2015, as a junior high student who is killed by classmates in Solomon’s Perjury I and II.

gooku sub4 2019 FIVE MILLION DOLLAR LIFE Film Partners
Mirai with one of his rescuers, a shady man played by Ryu Morioka.
© 2019 "FIVE MILLION DOLLAR LIFE" Film Partners

Mochizuki is such a natural for the role of Mirai, it comes as a surprise that it had not been written with him expressly in mind. During the Q&A session after our screening, director Sungho Moon told the audience, “He was just the perfect actor for the role. Everyone asks whether we [rewrote the script after casting him], but we didn’t have to. I’m really thankful we found him.”

The young actor beamed. Did he feel a kinship with the character? He agreed, “There are similarities, but we’re completely different people. There were a lot of aspects to him that I could empathize with. For example, since I’m an actor, I have to deal with the pressure of being out there and having people see me. The source of the pressure comes from a different place, but in that sense, I think we’re really similar.”

Asked what had drawn him to such an unusual story for his first feature, Moon admitted that he hadn’t planned on it being his debut, but he “doesn’t have any regrets” about getting the chance to make it. That chance was given to him when he and Naomi Hiruta, a veteran stage and TV scriptwriter, won the grand prize in the New Cinema Project. The initiative, backed by entertainment giants Amuse and Gyao, aims to bring greater originality back to Japan’s movie screens by supporting emerging talent who want to tell original stories.

5 milFCCJ-038   5 milFCCJ-022
©FCCJ

A Hiroshima native, Moon had studied filmmaking in college in Korea before launching a career as a commercials director in Japan. In 2013, he was selected for the prestigious New Directions in Japanese Cinema project and directed the short 35mm film Michizure, giving him a powerful calling card in the industry. But Japan favors adaptations of existing properties, predominantly bestselling novels or manga. Luckily for us, Moon had other things in mind.

As the film explains, the average Japanese worker earns ¥230 million ($2.3 million) from birth to death, and the average lifetime expenditure is ¥210 million ($2.1 million) — meaning people devote just about their entire life earnings to live, and then they die.

How, then, did Moon and Hiruta arrive at ¥500 million ($5 million) for Mirai’s burden? “We looked at real-life cases of heart transplant surgeries and fundraising drives,” the director explained, “and the amounts raised were usually between $1 and $3 million. I made it $5 million for impact. Also, if it was an amount that was too close to reality, [we felt] it might conjure up traumatic memories for those who have actually gone through the surgery. So we fictionalized it.” 

gooku sub5 2019 FIVE MILLION DOLLAR LIFE Film Partners
One of Mirai's many jobs, at Shared Sleep House TT Bears, with a customer.
 © 2019 "FIVE MILLION DOLLAR LIFE" Film Partners

Given the film’s cynical attitude toward certain events, Moon was asked whether he’d intended a strong criticism of certain aspects of society. He replied, “Because this wasn’t based on another work, we did have a discussion about whether the protagonist should be male or female. But we decided that if she were female, it would have been a story you’ve seen: a girl prostituting herself in order to survive. Also, we drew a clear line about Mirai not committing any crimes himself in the film. Of course, the protagonist is essentially on the brink of life and death, so he takes on jobs that are also on the brink, that are risky.”

Somewhat like Blanche DuBois, Mirai has always relied on the kindness of strangers. At some point during his journey, he meets a pimp who teaches him a few things about self-worth, and later saves him from life-threatening danger. When Mirai asks why he’s been so kind to him, the pimp tells him that Mirai is the type of person who deserves it. One audience member was impressed with the concept and wondered where it came from. Moon admitted, “Ms. Hiruta firmly believes it. However, I don’t think it’s so binary; you can’t split people into just two types, those who deserve kindness and those who don’t. There are still times when you want to be nice to people who don’t necessarily deserve it.”

5 milKoichi Mori-27-3
©︎Koichi Mori

Mochizuki was asked whether he’d done any firsthand research on the many odd jobs that his character takes in the film, particularly the unsavory ones. “I did quite a lot of research on the jobs depicted,” he responded, “but I was under 18, so I never experienced any of them, or went to places [like the Shared Sleep House].”

Was he worried about taking a role that had so many risqué aspects? He smiled and nodded. “My mother is very strict. So my only real worry was What is she going to think when she sees the film?” And what did she think? “She hasn’t seen it yet.”

5 milFCCJ-095
©FCCJ

Before running away from home, Mirai tells the TV interview crew that he plans to study medicine, so he can save children in return for being saved himself. “Is Mirai going to become a doctor in the end?” asked an audience member. “I don’t think so,” said Mochizuki. “He probably can’t become a doctor.”

So what will he be instead? “I think that he’ll finally start doing things that he’d always wanted to do, or had chosen not to do, before [his journey]. At least that’s how I felt after watching the film myself.”

And what, he was asked, are Mochizuki’s own plans for the future? “I recently had the opportunity to act in (popular TV show) Mr. Hiiragi’s Homeroom, and I was really inspired by my costar, Masaki Suda. Because of him, I would like to play a teacher someday… but not one who is sick.”

5okuen 2019 FIVE MILLION DOLLAR LIFE Film Partners
© 2019 "FIVE MILLION DOLLAR LIFE" Film Partners

Selected Media Exposure

UZUMASA LIMELIGHT (Uzumasa Raimuraito)


 UZUMASA LIMELIGHT


 June 16, 2014
Q&A guests: Director Ken Ochiai and Stars Seizo Fukumoto and Chihiro Yamamoto


Uzumasa filmmakers-s
Chihiro Yamamoto, Seizo Fukumoto, Ken Ochiai

They call him the Man Who Died 50,000 Deaths, but legendary chambara actor Seizo Fukumoto revealed the truth to the FCCJ audience: “It’s an exaggeration. I’ve probably been killed only 20,000 times.” Cue an eruption of laughter. Unlike the taciturn, aging stuntman he portrays in the crowd-pleasing Uzumasa Limelight, Fukumoto proved to be a loquacious guest.

In Ken Ochiai’s film, as in life, the 71-year-old veteran plays a kirare-yaku, a sword-fighting extra who has plied his artistry in Japan’s once-predominant samurai film and TV industry for over 50 years. When the hero slices him with a sword, as will inevitably happen, Fukumoto’s eyes and mouth fly open in a deadly grimace, his back arches in a gravity-defying arc, and finally, he thuds heavily to the ground. This death is his trademark move, and it helped make him an industry favorite at Kyoto’s Uzumasa Studios, once the Hollywood of Japan.

But the rapidly dwindling production of jidaigeki samurai dramas has threatened the livelihood of everyone at the studios, and this is essentially the story of Uzumasa Limelight, which pays richly deserved homage to the stunt performers of yore and features many familiar faces from the much-loved genre. Both Ochiai and wushu junior world champion Chihiro Yamamoto — who makes an extraordinary acting debut in the film at age 17 — told the FCCJ audience they recalled their grandparents watching the long-running Mito Komon TV series when they were growing up.

uzumasalime The director and stars recieve their FCCJ honorary membership cards

But it wasn’t until Ochiai went to the US to study film at the University of Southern California that he realized how essential jidaigeki are to the world’s perception — and appreciation — of Japanese film.  Ochiai’s experience in the US, along with that of his LA-based producer, Ko Mori, and his American cinematographer contribute to the film’s successful combination of Japanese tradition and international sensibility.

The astonishing, real-life skills of Uzumasa Limelight’s two leads is worth the price of admission alone, but there is much else to admire, from the stunning art direction to the evocative soundtrack. An elegy for Japan’s once-plentiful period films and the unsung heroes of the genre, it is also a timely reminder that every generation stands on the shoulders of giants.

— Photos by FCCJ.


UZUMASA
©ELEVEN ARTS/ TOTTEMO BENRI

Media Coverage

Recent posts

THEY SAY NOTHING STAYS THE SAME

00:00 Thursday, September 12, 2019

5 MILLION DOLLAR LIFE

00:00 Sunday, June 23, 2019

WE ARE LITTLE ZOMBIES

00:00 Monday, June 10, 2019

JESUS

00:00 Friday, May 10, 2019

KINGDOM

00:00 Wednesday, April 17, 2019

SHUSENJO

00:00 Sunday, April 07, 2019

21ST CENTURY GIRL

00:00 Thursday, February 07, 2019

HIS LOST NAME

00:00 Wednesday, January 16, 2019

THE LEGEND OF THE STARDUST BROTHERS

00:00 Saturday, December 15, 2018

JAM

00:00 Saturday, December 01, 2018
  • Go to top