THE VANCOUVER ASAHI
December 17, 2014
Q&A guests: Star Satoshi Tsumabuki and director Yuya Ishii
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.
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.”
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.
©2014 "The Vancouver Asahi" Film Partners
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NOVEMBER 7, 2014
Q&A guests: Austrian pianist Gerhard Gruber, benshi narrator Ichiro Kataoka
and film archivist Fumiko Tsuneishi
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 (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 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.