PERSONA NON GRATA (Sugihara Chiune)
December 3, 2015
Q&A guest: Director Cellin Gluck
Making his third FCCJ appearance with his third film, Los Angeles-based Cellin Gluck
is one of the few Americans directing Japanese-produced films.
At least four ambassadors were in attendance for FCCJ’s packed sneak preview screening of Persona Non Grata, the first-ever biopic of the “Japanese Schindler,” Chiune Sugihara. A diplomat who defied orders and thus saved some 6,000 Jewish lives in the early years of World War II, Sugihara’s name was submitted by Japan this past September as a candidate for UNESCO’s Memory of the World Register.
But the film proves to be timely for other reasons as well, evoking echoes of the current Syrian refugee crisis and the disheartening UNHCR report that found 1 in every 122 humans is now either a refugee, internally displaced or seeking asylum.
As one FCCJ audience member pointed out, “I think there are many Sugiharas in Europe at the moment, since there are 12 million refugees in the Middle East.”
Gluck admitted that the film’s release had been timed to coincide with the 70th anniversary of the end of WWII this year, not with “the unfortunate incidents that are taking place in Europe. [That’s] really synchronicity. But because of what’s going on, I would hope that it would cause people to think about it — ‘we’ve made this mistake before, let’s not do it again’— and to think about how they might make a difference.”
The film attracted a huge turnout, and heavy praise for Gluck during the Q&A.
Another audience member noted that, although Japan had retroactively honored Sugihara in 2000, it had continued to deny nearly all applications for political refugee status. “Japan has a bad record for accepting refugees,” she said. “Do you think this film might inspire Japan to take a more respectable, honorable role in terms of refugees?”
“I’m not in any position to lecture the Japanese government,” answered Gluck. “But it’s not only the government. The Japanese take to change slowly, and in a big, homogenous nation, it’s almost understandable. I think the Japanese are willing to take in outsiders — most of us here are outsiders, but we’ve been welcomed. If this film will inspire people to accept the opportunities [to embrace diversity], then I’ve accomplished what I would like to accomplish.”
Gluck shot Persona Non Grata with a mostly Polish crew, almost entirely in Poland — which stands in beautifully and convincingly for at least 8 other world locations — with Japanese stars and well-known Polish and international actors (Borys Szyc, Agnieszka Grochowska, Michał Żurawski, Cezary Łukaszewicz) thanks to the great Andrzej Wajda’s casting director, achieving an authenticity that a Japanese production crew could never have recreated. The director gave ample credit to Nippon Television, the film’s producer, and talked at length about the team’s attempts to “balance the history lesson with the drama… and to treat our characterization of Sugihara with respect for a gentleman who didn’t beat his chest [for attention] and try to show him as a human being, not a superhero.”
Making one of many notable points.
Much of the world now knows Chiune Sugihara as the “Japanese Schindler,” after Oskar Schindler, the German industrialist who saved close to 1,200 Jews during the Holocaust by hiring them to work at his factories. But very few know Sugihara’s backstory, and it is impressively limned in the film. Skilfully avoiding the detail-overkill of many biopics, Persona Non Grata introduces us to the young diplomat before his fateful posting as Japanese consul in Kaunas, Lithuania just as war was breaking out in Europe.
After studying in Harbin and developing fluency in several languages, Sugihara had built a vast espionage network in Manchuria and provided critical intelligence to his superiors in the Foreign Ministry. But in 1937, he was declared “persona non grata” by Russia and forbidden entry to the country, as punishment for his negotiations in Japan’s acquisition of a highly strategic branch of the North Manchurian Railroad (which was later used to solidify the puppet state of Manchukuo).
Barred from Soviet territories, Sugihara (Toshiaki Karasawa) thus arrives in Kaunas in August 1939, just days before the German Army advances into Poland, inciting World War II. The diplomat hires Polish spy Pesch (Szyc) as his driver, and the two men gather intelligence on the actions of Russia and the Nazis, the latter of whom Japan had allied itself with. By July 1940, as the Nazis approach Lithuania’s border, hordes of Jewish refugees have begun camping out in front of the Japanese Consulate, desperately hoping for visas to safety. But transit visas can only be issued to those with legitimate visas onward from Japan, and the means to provide for themselves throughout the journey.
Gluck poses with the poster for the international market.
After receiving a firm “No” to his cable to Tokyo, Sugihara decides he must take matters into his own hands. Abetted by Pesch and several other brave men of conscience, including acting Dutch Consul Jan Zwartendijk (Wenanty Nosul), Sughiara begins writing out visas via Japan to the Dutch Caribbean island of Curaçao. Between July 18 and August 28, he issues over 2,000 of them and saves the lives of at least triple that many Jews.
In a 1983 memoir, Sugihara wrote, “I could have refused to issue [the visas], but would that, in the end, have truly been in Japan’s national interest? I came to the conclusion, after racking my brain, that the spirit of humane and charitable action takes precedence above all else.”
The Japanese government didn’t really come around to his way of thinking until well after Sugihara’s death in 1986. Is there a place for the brave individual in Japan, committing a selfless act against injustice and intolerance in the face of certain dismissal or worse? That question is at the heart of Persona Non Grata, a must-see film for all those who ever wondered what gave Chiune Sugihara the courage to defy orders, or who need reminding that we all, each of us, can do the right thing.
— Photos by Koichi Mori and FCCJ.
©2015 "PERSONA NON GRATA" FILM PARTNERS
November 2, 2015
Q&A guest: Director Kazuaki Kiriya
Kiriya's new film is in independent production, with Hollywood stars and an international
cast and crew — a trend he sees as positive for the industry. Photos ©Mance Thompson
Fans of Kazuaki Kiriya’s first two epic adventure stories, both innovative special-effects extravaganzas — Casshern (2004), in which a reincarnated warrior saves the world from genetically modified human mutants, and Goemon (2009), a ninja thriller based on the Japanese folk hero who resembles Robin Hood — probably weren’t surprised when they heard that his new film is a take on the legendary revenge tale Chushingura, aka 47 Ronin. But for the first time in his career, the idea didn’t originate with Kiriya himself.
His Last Knights marks several other significant milestones in the director’s career. Not only is it his debut English-language film, it is also the first time he didn’t shoot on a digital backlot in Japan. Even more impressively, it stars no less than Morgan Freeman and Clive Owen as the two leads, with a wealth of award-winning actors in supporting roles. The number of Japanese directors who have helmed big-budget English-language films featuring Hollywood stars can be counted on just about two fingers — and both of them made J-horror remakes.
The emcee was happy to leave the floor to the locquacious director.
Photo ©Mance Thompson
During a thoroughly candid Q&A session following a sneak preview screening of Last Knights — candor is clearly one of Kiriya’s defining traits, along with charm, self-reflection and occasional self-deprecation — he recalled receiving the script (by Canadian Michael Konyves) from producer Jim Thompson in 2009, and wanting to make it immediately. “But unfortunately,” he said, “there was another project in development called 47 Ronin, with Keanu Reeves. So the studios rejected this film and that left us the independent route. So we went around the world to get financing for the film, and that took us two or three years before we could go into production.”
The unlikely hero was Owen, the Oscar-nominated British star who’s been carving out a new audience (pun intended) with his TV hit The Knick. “Clive helped us get financing. He was the first on board,” Kiriya said. “I sent him the script, he liked it and he saw my film [Goemon]. After two weeks, I got a call from him and he said he was in. Then he waited [for production to start for] three years. He’s a cool guy.”
No argument here, ahem. Owen is absolutely electrifying in Last Knights, which transplants the 47 ronin to a European-ish setting during the Middle Ages, focusing on feudal warriors who seek to avenge the loss of their master at the hands of a sadistic minister. Owen is Commander Raiden, head of a band of elite soldiers and surrogate son to Bartok (Freeman), the lord of a vassal kingdom. For his services and devotion, Bartok names Raiden his heir and gives him a cherished sword. But when Bartok refuses to pay a bribe to a greedy minister and speaks openly (and eloquently, as only Freeman can) about the corruption of the empire, he is sentenced to death, with Raiden forced to be his executioner. Bartok's estate is divided and the clan disbanded as Raiden nurses his despair with alcohol, falling so low he even sells Bartok’s sword for more drink. After a year, Raiden’s men and his wife will have nothing more to do with him. Yet the evil minister still suspects the men will attempt to exact vengeance… and with good reason.
Last Knights was sold to 30 territories, but Japan wasn’t one
of them. Kiriya is working with Gaga on the nationwide release.
Loyalty, honor and payback are familiar themes in Japanese films, but Last Knights doesn’t exactly go where it’s expected to go, and the sword-fighting scenes, which don’t occur until quite late (by Hollywood standards), are not the point. This is a more contemplative, more realistic approach than the Keanu Reeves version, shot on stunning locations throughout the Czech Republic, in mostly natural lighting, by the great Mexican cinematographer Antonio Riestra. Chambara fanboys may be disappointed, but patient viewers will be amply rewarded.
“This movie is not about the battles,” Kiriya emphasized. “It’s about the conflict between the world of material[ism] and the world of the soul, the spirit. That argument is valid is this world today. Everybody worships materials and things, but does that make us happy? I know it’s a cliché, idealistic notion, but it’s a huge question that we’re hearing more now.”
Speaking of the film’s “mix of peoples,” as one audience member put it (critics dubbed it “a veritable Middle Ages melting pot”), Kiriya explained, “Originally, the script was written to be played by Japanese actors, and it was set in Japan. Like Memoirs of a Geisha, with an Asian cast, shot in Asia but all in English. But I was thinking about doing it more like Akira Kurosawa’s Ran, which is Shakespeare transplanted to Japan. Then I decided, let’s forget the race issue, let’s just find the best actors from all over the world. That’s what I told my casting agent, and we got actors from 17 countries. I was very lucky to get these actors.” (At which point, Kiriya ticked off many of their names, with exclamations like “wow!” and “I mean, come on,” punctuating each.)
“I’m hoping that this will become a trend,” continued Kiriya, “to open the doors to actors from Asia, the Middle East, to break the typecasting. That was my intention.”
Kiriya with the Japanese poster, adorned with raves
from a range ofJapanese stars.
Photo ©Mance Thompson
It wasn’t just the film’s cast that hailed from far and wide; after the 50-day shoot in Europe ended, Kiriya presided over a truly global post-production process. His Oscar-winning editor, Mark Sanger (Gravity), “happened to be in London, and I happened to be in Tokyo,” laughed Kiriya. “But we just communicated on Skype and we edited online. I think it’s a beautiful thing that’s happening in the film world — we can collaborate [through the internet] in the true sense… We had the orchestra in Moscow, I was in LA with the musical team, and we connected through the internet in real time. They played, we gave them notes right there, [the score] was recorded and it was done. The CGI was done mostly in Korea, but also in India and Louisiana, everything was done online.”
But Kiriya lamented the “unforgiving” nature of today’s film industry, where studio budgets have now ballooned to $300 million on a regular basis (Kiriya’s was closer to $22 million), and many directors have fled to the greener pastures of television production. “It’s becoming very, very unforgiving. [Films have] to be in a specified style, fit a certain format, a certain taste, a certain genre. Even in the ’80s, we never saw what we’re seeing today. It’s very difficult, especially for small, independent filmmakers. They make great, small films but you can’t watch them — the theaters are all closing, because even for promotion, you need a lot of money. Everything’s become about the business model, not art. It’s the battle of the business models.”
Kiriya chats about the industry with critics from Twitch Film,
the Japan Times and Metropolis.
To a question about differences between the original 47 Ronin story and Last Knights, Kiriya responded: “I fought really hard to keep the essence… at some point, I was going to make Morgan Freeman commit harakiri [as per the original], but at the last minute, we changed it. It’s like, harakiri is already a stereotype, a Japanese thing, like Mount Fuji, sakura, sushi, sumo, harakiri, right? I didn’t want to go there.” While the audience laughed, Kiriya hesitated, and then explained that his grandfather had committed suicide after the war, and that it was personal to him. “I just didn’t want it to be that kitsch Japanese thing. [Harakiri] is a sacred act, it’s called ‘self-deciding’ in Japanese. So I had Clive Owen kill him instead, since they’re like father and son. I’m proud of that scene. I think it was a good choice.”
—Spoiler alert —
As for the ending — which does not, like the original tale, feature a mass suicide, but is seemingly unclear about the fate of Raiden — Kiriya said, “Again, we needed to transcend that Japanese thing, that stereotype, of the spirit of the samurai. But to me, the samurai spirit [exists] in Europe, in America, in Africa, China, everywhere. What did I mean by the ending? I want audiences to decide.”
— Photos by Koichi Mori where uncredited.
©2015 Luka Productions
ANOHITO: THE ONE
October 19, 2015
Q&A guests: Director Ichiro Yamamoto, producer Nozomu Enoki
and actor-distributor Hiroyuki Ono
Two salarymen producers and a theatrical producer formed the creative team for an extraordinarily
unusual film. Ono, Enoki and Yamamoto obviously enjoyed the process.
In his introduction before the screening of his beautiful and enigmatic Anohito: The One, Ichiro Yamamoto said that he had shown the film three times before, and that he had not received any comments at all from his audiences. So he wanted everyone to feel no pressure; he would understand if FCCJ’s audience didn’t have any feedback for him.
The remarks were so unexpected, and his delivery so comical, that the audience giggled — but Yamamoto was not exaggerating. At least not overly.
After a long career as a self-described Shochiku “salaryman,” working on productions for such illustrious directors as Nagisa Oshima and Seijun Suzuki, and producing award-winning work by Yoji Yamada and Hou Hsiao-Hsien, Yamamoto makes his own feature debut with Anohito: The One, and “strange” is an appropriate tag for the film’s many bewitchments.
A beautiful tribute to the heyday of Japan’s studio system, it also underscores how little has changed in Japanese society in the intervening years. As critic Tony Rayns has put it, “Anohito is a unique film which offers a subtly disquieting vision of the present through the mirror of the past.”
Yamamoto reveals the many secrets hidden in plain sight in the film.
The director himself only half-jokingly describes it as “a sci-fi film produced and cast in 1944, imagining a future Japan 69 years later in 2013, where the Second World War still rages on.” Looking very much like a 1944 film, with its luminous black-and-white cinematography and its aspect ratio of 1.33:1, it nevertheless feels utterly modern in its concerns and sensibilities.
It is a seriously serious film, the outgrowth of a lifetime of cinephilia on Yamamoto’s part, and it grows ever more profound and endlessly multilayered upon a serious discussion of its attributes.
Fortunately, the FCCJ audience was in the mood for just such a discussion. But the evening was heavily punctuated with laughter, too, as questions ranged from the film’s antiwar messages and its unusual provenance, to the many octopus images, the enumerations of the number 8, the frequent appearance of shogi pieces and the reflections of water in every single shot.
The script is attributed to the famed Buraiha writer Sakunosuke Oda, and had been completed in 1944 for director Yuzo Kawashima but then lost, Yamamoto explained, until its 2012 discovery in a library in Osaka. After he’d read it and returned to Tokyo, he said, “I immediately asked my boss if we could make the film. And my boss immediately said No.” Shortly afterward, he continued, “I got an email from my department saying I had 5 days off, since I had worked in Shochiku for 20 years. I also had 5 days off for summer vacation. So I thought, if I can make the film myself with my savings of ¥20,000 a month for 20 years — that’s ¥5 million — I should. So I decided to get a producer. [a beat] It was the first time I noticed that the producer is so important.”
Enoki discusses the contributions of Shochiku's
Uzumasa Studio to the film's look and feel.
Yamamoto turned to his fellow Shochiku producer, Nozomu Enoki, because “he’s the strangest guy in Shochiku,” and enlisted the support of actor-playwright-producer-author-Charlie Chaplin specialist Hiroyuki Ono, “the strangest guy in Kyoto,” for the cast.
Enoki stressed, “Five million yen is quite a small budget for making a film, maybe 1% of our typical production budget. But I was working at Shochiku’s Kyoto studio and … with the help of the veteran crew members there, I thought we could get this made.”
The film looks remarkably sumptuous, given its pricetag — its most expensive shot, Yamamoto revealed, was a CG octopus-shaped battlefield scar on one of the characters — and evokes nostalgia for the artistry of yesteryear not only in its cinematography, but in its mise-en-scene and its many musical interludes, which may or may not be propaganda songs of the day. Enoki explained that the Kyoto Uzumasa Studio “has a long tradition of making samurai films, and we have a lot of props that we were able to use in the film. Mr. Yamamoto’s intention was to conflate the styles of Shochiku’s Ofuna Studio period and the Uzumasa Studio films, and our creative team understood that.”
Ono talked with passion but no crab bubbles — you'll have to see the film to get the significance.
On the surface, Anohito: The One tells the story of four young soldiers working menial jobs so they can raise the orphaned son of their commanding officer (“Little Commanding Officer,” they call the boy) in a forgotten town populated by the war’s leftovers: women, children, lonely old men. The women are constant targets for the local matchmaker, and are often reminded that life is more difficult for them. The soldiers seem to be speaking dialogue that they’ve heard elsewhere, such as their chant, “Cheer up and brighten up! Sprout out and grow!” After hearing unpleasant news about the war on the radio one day, they leave the boy with an aging cook, and go off to work in munitions factories, promising to be home for new year’s. The cook invites the woman next door to move in, then disappears himself, leaving a message for “The One…”
Who is “The One?” For Yamamoto, he is unequivocally the boy, given the absence of any ancestral photos in the family home and the fact that he does nothing, while all the other characters wait on him. “I doubt his father exists, and my conclusion is that the boy is deceiving people. This means that he is manipulating the whole town to go out and support the war.”
Stepping out from behind the scenes for well-deserved applause.
For Ono, who brought in key cast members from his Tottemo Benri theatrical company and enacted a role himself, there are other possible interpretations of Oda’s script. “At first glance, it may seem like a warmongering film — let’s get back into the military factories — but we get a strange feeling when reading it, as if Mr. Oda was trying to hide an antiwar message.” He went on to explain that the boy’s name is “Kamiya Shoichi: ‘Kami’ is, of course, ‘god’ in Japan. ‘Sho’ is for ‘Showa,’ the name of the era of Emperor Hirohito, and ‘ichi’ means ‘the first.’ So perhaps the boy is a metaphor for Emperor Hirohito. It’s one of the interpretations, anyway. We don’t know what Mr. Oda intended.”
As Enoki wrote in the film’s production notes: “There is a strange ineffable force, almost like atmospheric pressure, that controls these people. We wanted to investigate ‘The One’ who was somehow applying this pressure, for surely we still feel the overbearing presence of ‘The One’ to this very day.”
The film is making its international debut in the Youth on the March competition at the 22nd Minsk International Film Festival, Listapad, to be held in the capital of Belarus during the first week of November. The festival is renowned for its cinema-as-art bent, but audiences are in for a rare treat with this One.
— Photos by Koichi Mori and FCCJ.
©2015 Yamamoto Konchu
SPECIAL SCREENING of Kakekomi and
Q&A in collaboration with TIFF
October 9, 2015
Q&A guests: Director Masato Harada, legendary actress Kirin Kiki,
Japan Now advisor Kohei Ando and TIFF Director General Yasushi Shiina
Ando, Harada and Shiina listen as Kiki declares she just "tagged along with the director" for the event.
Anyone who has attended FCCJ’s screenings over the past eight years knows that our emphasis has been on introducing Japanese films and filmmakers to foreign audiences through the Tokyo-based journalists, critics, festival programmers and cinephiles who join us for our events. We were thus extremely gratified to hear that the 28th Tokyo International Film Festival (TIFF), running from October 22 - 31 in Roppongi and Shinjuku, would debut not one, but two new sections devoted to Japanese film: Japan Now and Japanese Classics.
When the full lineup was announced on September 29, the news was even better: three Japanese titles had made it into the main Competition section, and there were to be over 50 more English-subtitled films by a range of Japanese directors at the festival, from the likes of Akira Kurosawa and Kon Ichikawa (Classics) to Hirokazu Kore-eda and Sion Sono (Now) to Kohei Oguri and Koji Fukada (Competition), along with a 10-title tribute to Ken Takakura,
Perhaps most exciting of all, TIFF announced that it had selected Masato Harada as its inaugural Director in Focus, and unveiled what amounts to the first mini-retrospective of his work. Over a 30-year career, Harada has created a range of compelling films that are both social criticisms and world-class entertainments, and he is one of a small handful of Japanese who are comfortable directing overseas, as well.
Ando and Harada share a laugh; Harada listens to Kiki describe his skill.
The Film Committee has had the honor of screening three of Harada’s recent films, and we were thrilled to be able to bring his early summer blockbuster, Kakekomi, to the club for an English-subbed encore.
Before the screening, we welcomed TIFF Director General Yasushi Shiina, TIFF Programming Advisor Kohei Ando, Harada and legendary actress Kirin Kiki — who won the Japan Academy Award for her titular role in Harada’s 2012 Chronicle of My Mother and also stars in Kakekomi — to discuss the festival’s new emphasis on local cinema.
Noting that there are over 500 Japanese films released every year in Japan, Shiina said, “This is my third year as the director of TIFF, and I’ve been wondering how best to introduce Japanese films and filmmakers to the world. We wanted to create a selection that would allow visitors to TIFF to see the full spectrum of films, to see what’s happening in the industry right now. We also wanted to focus on getting more recognition for Japanese filmmakers in overseas markets, and that’s why we created the two new sections, Japan Now and Japanese Classics. We look forward to welcoming audiences from as many countries as possible.”
Kohei Ando, a filmmaker, producer and popular figure on the international film scene, was selected as the first programming advisor for the Japan Now section. He noted: “People often say that if you see three films from one country, you can learn a lot about that country. The concept of Japan Now is to help you learn more about Japan. We narrowed our selection to 11 films, one of which is a family story from maestro Yoji Yamada and another of which is from Hirokazu Kore-eda, also about a contemporary family. If you watch just these two films, you’ll have an understanding of the diversity of Japanese families today.”
“We decided to focus on Mr. Harada as the first Director in Focus,” Ando continued, “because we believe he deserves increased international recognition as a master filmmaker, and we also hope Japanese audiences will be reminded of his extraordinary talent.”
Harada and Kiki have collaborated on only two films; here's hoping they double that number.
Harada said, “I’m not sure whether I belong to Japan Now or Japanese Classics (much laughter), but I’m honored to be selected and to show these five films. The last time I had a film shown at TIFF was in the Competition section 22 years ago, with Painted Desert. I’m very happy to bring my work to a festival in my own country, and I look forward to meeting audience members from all over the world.”
After joking that she had just “tagged along with Mr. Harada,” Kirin Kiki got more serious. “Mr. Harada is so enthusiastic about the works of other directors,” she said, “he’s always mentioning certain scenes in films by Kurosawa, Ozu and Kihachi Okamoto with such passion and enthusiasm, it’s one of his charms as a director. I see him trying to be an even better filmmaker than these masters, sometimes succeeding, sometimes not. But he’s very, very skilled, and… yahari, umai! (he’s wonderful!).”
The Director in Focus retrospective will feature English-subtitled screenings of Harada’s Kamikaze Taxi (1994), Climber’s High (2008), Chronicle of My Mother (2012), Kakekomi (2015) and The Emperor in August (2015). How did Ando and Harada arrive at this selection? “It’s simple,” Harada explained. “These five films were all rejected by the Cannes Film Festival.”
Ando interjected, “It’s really Cannes’ loss — we beat them this year by bringing these five films to TIFF.”
Later in the evening, following the screening of Kakekomi, Harada’s first-ever jidaigeki period piece, the director and his star appeared for a Q&A session that was one of the most relaxed and intimate we have ever hosted. Speaking in English throughout (except when making remarks directly to Kiki), Harada fielded questions on a range of subjects, beginning with the reception of his films overseas.
He noted that audiences in Canada and Malaysia had laughed wildly over Kakekomi’s honey enema scene, and applauded when one of the antagonists is killed, a real difference from the more reserved Japanese audiences. He then revealed that he thinks not only about how his films will be received internationally while he’s directing them, but that he even considers how certain lines of dialogue will play in the subtitles. For Kakekomi, he changed character names from the original source novel so they would be more easily rendered in the subtitles.
Kiki stayed on for the Q&A after the screening, and kept everyone in stitches, including
interpreter Mihoko Imai.
Kiki mentioned that she and Harada had argued rather extensively about certain casting decisions, but that she feels “completely comfortable” working with him, and was pleased that he could quickly make decisions about suggestions she would make. Harada countered, “It’s true that everyone was afraid of Kiki-san on set, but with her, there’s never a dull moment. Even though she complained about the casting, she can really create an energized atmosphere. I highly respect when she makes suggestions. She can come up with fabulous creative ideas, although I’m not sure she would make a good casting director.”
Both director and star continued to affectionately thrust and parry. “I think he’s a masterful, masterful director,” said Kiki. “But I can’t help complaining a bit. I don’t want to compare his work with other auteurs, but it is definitely worthy of more international praise. However, I think he should be more relentless in his perfection of small details. And he needs to put more of himself into his films. When he’s finally able to do that, I think we’ll see something different. He’s a world-class director now, but if he makes an effort to do what I’m suggesting, he’ll be even greater.”
Harada’s 23 films over the past 30 years have addressed a wide range of subjects — what he terms “Hawksian relationship dramas” in an “old-school style”— that are perhaps not as embraceable by younger generations as the more gonzo style of Japanese genre directors who have found overseas followings. But his work is ripe for rediscovery.
And fortunately, we can expect it to continue. Harada hinted that another collaboration with Kirin Kiki is sure to occur: “I have something in mind, which I can’t announce yet. It’s a historical piece and the character I have in mind for Kiki-san is someone that no one would ever imagine...”
— Photos by Koichi Mori and FCCJ.
- Tokyo film festival ups its domestic fare
- Spotlight on Harada films is well-deserved
- 樹木希林 映画祭“乱発”に「まとめる人が日本にはいない」
- 樹木希林 映画祭“乱発”に「まとめる人が日本にはいない」
- 樹木希林、原田眞人監督を賞賛 「腕がある。やはりうまいね!」
- 東京国際映画祭 原田眞人監督、樹木希林さんが会見
ARTIST OF FASTING
September 24, 2015
Q&A guests: Writer-director Masao Adachi, historian Inuhiko Yomota and poet Gozo Yoshimasu
Three good friends; three comrades united in the belief that art is a form of protest.
It’s not often that the Film Committee is able to host what amounts to the Japanese premiere of a brand new work, but such was the case with our screening of Artist of Fasting. The FCCJ audience also had the privilege of welcoming not only the director, Masao Adachi — who had missed the world premiere in South Korea a few weeks earlier — but also two of his famous friends, poet Gozo Yoshimasu and cultural historian Inuhiko Yomota.
The Q&A session began with a riveting live performance of a poem by Yoshimasu that was an extension of one that is memorably performed in the film. The renowned poet noted that, “My participation and collaboration with Mr. Adachi was with the utmost respect for a filmmaker of our generation, one of the best filmmakers of our generation, and this allowed me to extend my poetry to the film.”
Commissioned and coproduced by the Asian Arts Theatre of Gwangju, South Korea, Adachi’s film had debuted at AAT to great acclaim on September 11. But as writer William Andrews explained on his blogsite: “Appropriately for a venue hosting an Adachi work, Gwangju was also the site of a notorious student uprising in May 1980 in which 600 people were killed by the army. Adachi famously has no passport and cannot travel abroad anymore. While Gwangju is much closer than Lebanon, he still [wasn’t] able to attend the screening in person.”
Arguably the most radical filmmaker in Japanese history, Adachi launched his career in politicized pink films in the 1960s, collaborated with the likes of Nagisa Oshima and Koji Wakamatsu and achieved global renown for such works as AKA: Serial Killer in 1969 before he chose to focus on the fight for Palestinian independence. From the early 1970s, he spent 28 years in Lebanon as a member of Fusako Shigenobu’s Japanese Red Army, culminating in a 3-year term in the notorious Roumieh Prison and deportation back to Japan in 2000.
Yoshimasu and Yomota watched the film for the first time with FCCJ's audience.
Artist of Fasting is just the second film Adachi has made since his return. A loose adaptation of Franz Kafka’s 1922 short story Ein Hungerkünstler (A Hunger Artist) about “the last remaining means of resistance: fasting,” the director proves his youthful instincts for provocation and transgression have not dimmed.
In the beautifully lensed (by renowned cinematographer Yutaka Yamazaki) and impressively designed (by legendary photographer Nobuyoshi Araki) Artist of Fasting, a nameless man in white appears from nowhere and sits down on a busy shopping street. A boy soon asks, “Mister, what are you doing?” Receiving no answer, he takes a photo and uploads it to the internet. The sitting man’s unearned celebrity grows, and his silence is interpreted differently by every passerby and onlooker that begins to gather. People bring cash (later grabbed by the yakuza) and food (which the homeless descend upon). The Street Performers’ Association force him to join them; monks begin to pray at his side, seeking answers; suicidal youths feel soothed in his presence; the press wants to know if he’s a victim of Abenomics. Eventually, the man is caged and given an army guard.
In inimitable Adachi style, the tale unfolds around the faster’s “performance,” but also comprises abrupt avant-garde interludes (scenes of Imperial Japanese and ISIS torture), as well as archival footage of victims of aggression (Ainu, Auschwitz). There are rapes, murders, necrophilia, group seppuku, nude dancing, enormous phalluses, feces eating. In short, Artist of Fasting encompasses every conceivable ill of modern society.
Asked why he’d chosen the story, Adachi explained: “Among the many works of Kafka that are open to interpretation, I like A Hunger Artist very much because it’s a satirical, humorous tale that reminds me of rakugo. Of course it’s not an easy kind of humor, and we can’t just laugh it away. But facing the situation in 2015 today, I felt that it was the type of story that could be made into a film, and that I could [be the one] to do it. I had a lot of fun making it.”
Yoshimasu noted that, “Kafka was in a sanatorium, dying of TB, when he was editing this story. And I feel as if, in an invisible way, Kafka’s spirit was in this film.”
Agreeing with one audience member that the film has no easy interpretation, Yomota likened its protagonist to the subject of Beatles song Fool on the Hill, and its black humor to Monty Python’s. But he also expressed his gratitude to Adachi for shining a spotlight on serious issues. “In Tokyo exhibitions in the
previous century,” he said, “there was something called the Humanity Pavilion. Like in a zoo, they exhibited Japanese ethnic minorities, such as Ainu and Okinawans, and they were regarded as barbarians, uncivilized, who had to be naturalized to become real Japanese. It’s a scandal, and it’s a great thing that Adachi has now depicted this case in our contemporary context. It’s important to remember that, 100 years ago, the Japanese government’s cultural policy was to treat racial minorities like animals in a zoo.”
Over the past decade — but particularly over the four years since the triple tragedies on March 11, 2011 — the boundaries between art and social activism have collapsed in Japan. Today’s artists are expected to be more politically active, and artist-activists have been emboldened to take a stand and join (or lead) the ongoing public protests for the first time since the 1960s.
Asked whether he sees the position of the artist as freer today than in the past, Adachi answered, “People say that history always repeats, but my feeling is that it will never be as bad as in the past. There are, of course, unbelievable things happening today. But I do think they all happen so we can keep going forward. As you know, I’ve been on business overseas for a long time [his preferred euphemism for time spent in Lebanon], and I do believe that revolution and cinema are one and the same. [scattered applause] That means that the work of the artist and the terrorist are one and the same, and we still have a lot to do.”
Yomota summarized succinctly: “The journalist-Hollywood filmmaker Samuel Fuller told me that optimism always defeats pessimism.”
— Photos by FCCJ.
©2015 A Fasting Artist Production Committee
September 17, 2015
Q&A guests: Director Takuya Misawa and producer-star Kiki Sugino
The producer and director share one of many laughs during the Q&A session.
After playing at major film festivals around the globe for the past 10 months, scooping up the Best Screenplay Award in the Future Forward Section of the Beijing Film Festival, and earning accolades for being such a congenial homage to Yasujiro Ozu, Chigasaki Story finally arrived at FCCJ for a sneak preview ahead of its theatrical debut in Tokyo over the weekend.
Our announcement had trumpeted: “There’s nothing like an effervescent comedy of manners to cure the late-summer blahs… Inspired both visually and musically by Yasujiro Ozu (with a little Woody Allen thrown in), the tale is infused with light, bright sentiments and low-key mellow-drama, anchored by a charming young cast.”
We also mentioned that Chigasaki Story is set in the beautiful 115-year-old Chigasaki Inn near Shonan Beach, the actual retreat where Ozu wrote some of his greatest works, including Late Spring (1949), Early Summer (1951) and the masterpiece Tokyo Story (1953). And we highlighted the director’s use of frames-within-frames and “pillow shot” interludes eliding time, favorite Ozu devices.
Misawa had assisted Sugino on two prior films, the extent of his apprenticeship before taking the directorial reigns himself.
So there were some surprises in store during the Q&A session after the screening, when first-time feature director Takuya Misawa was asked whether he’d planned to pay homage to the classic master from the beginning. “We didn’t actually set out to make a story about the Chigasaki Inn,” he admitted. “That only came about later in the production process. The original script stipulated ‘an inn’ for the location, and it wasn’t until we went location hunting and found the Chigasaki Inn, which luckily gave us the okay to shoot, that we made changes to the script so it was set there.”
Then came the kicker: “I wasn’t necessarily trying to pay homage to Ozu while we were shooting. But during the editing process, I started feeling that it seemed a bit like an Ozu film. So I made some changes to certain scenes to improve [the similarities], but without deconstructing what I set out to do. Some of the ‘pillow’ scenic shots were filmed during post-production.”
A young Japanese man in the audience noted that he found the film to be more like an Eric Rohmer or a Woody Allen work, and Misawa was pleased: “One of my favorite directors is Woody Allen, especially the way his characters aren’t quite what they seem.”
Misawa gave his producer one of the juiciest roles in the film,
and she nailed it. Bottom photo ©Mance Thompson
While the maturity of his vision belies his age and experience — Misawa is still a student at the Japan Institute of the Moving Image, the film school begun by Shohei Imamura — Chigasaki Story does focus almost exclusively on the under-30 set. Innkeeper Risa, who’s inherited a traditional guesthouse from her parents, is hosting a group of archaeology students led by Prof. Kondo, and awaiting the arrival of her former airline colleagues Karin (a terrific Ena Koshino) and Maki (a deliciously uptight Sugino). They’re coming to attend Risa’s wedding party, which is being held several weeks after the actual wedding in Hawaii. Risa’s staff includes the shy student Tomoharu, who immediately attracts the attentions of the flirty, long-legged Karin. Tomoharu is also the object of fellow student Ayako’s secret affections, and he ping-pongs between the two women without noticing their increasing jealousy. Maki begins her own seduction of Prof. Kondo, with whom she had studied eight years earlier, but the professor has someone else in mind. The friendships, feuds and flirtations, fueled by drink, finally erupt on the eve of Risa’s Hawaiian-themed wedding party.
As critic Derek Elley earlier noted, “This type of film is much more difficult to pull off than it seems, but Misawa shows a remarkable assurance in both writing and direction, helped by an expertly picked cast.” He was also helped by Wa Entertainment, a boutique production-distribution company that hired him as an intern in 2012. He served as Sugino’s producing assistant on the Koji Fukada comedy Au Revoir l’Ete (which we screened at FCCJ in January 2014), and then served as her assistant director when she made her Indonesia-set film Taksu last year.
Even in Japan’s independent film community, a chance like that given to Misawa is exceedingly uncommon. As Sugino explained, “I’ve been working as a producer, as well as acting, since I was 25, and I often met with cynical comments and attitudes from people in the industry. So I really wanted to break through that wall. Because I think, if there’s something you want to do, why not do it? Why not take on the challenge? I really relish working with young people who have the passion and the energy to do that.”
Misawa described being given just three requirements for his script — summer holiday, beach, students gathering — and Sugino interjected, “ This all started because we [Wa Entertainment] really wanted to do something for him. We provided the framing for the project, but as the executive producer, I wanted him to bring as much of himself into the film as possible, to give it his own flair.”
Wa Entertainment head Sousuke Ono (in red tie) and Chigasaki actress Juri Fukushima
(to his left) join Sugino and others in the bar following the event. ©Mance Thompson
After an audience member praised him for the film’s dialogue, Misawa admitted that he’s always eavesdropping on conversations in family restaurants, since they’re a good source of chit-chat, and he paid tribute to the improvisatory skills of his actors, hinting that several of the scenes were heavily ad libbed.
As for the catchy score, he explained: “The music came about during post-production. I did try matching the visuals with classical music, but I ultimately chose to use jazz, which Woody Allen does. He uses ragtime, which arrived early in jazz history. It came on the scene around the time that the Chigasaki Inn started business, and I thought that was relevant, as well.”
After what will surely be a successful theatrical run for Chigasaki Story, Misawa’s next milestone will be film school graduation next spring, but he is already working on several new scripts. It’s not often that a first feature feels like a mid-career high mark, and we can’t wait to see what he directs next.
As for Sugino, who has won Best Actress awards in Japan and a 2014 Rising Director Award at the Busan Film Festival, as well as been the focus of special sections devoted to her work at the 2011 Tokyo International Film Festival and the 2013 Taipei Film Festival, she is eager to continue having it all. She has finished six projects in the past 18 months, including acting in upcoming films from Kiyoshi Sasabe and Ronan Girre. “I really don’t have a favorite genre,” say Sugino. “I want to try all types of films and roles, whether they be quiet and nice, or angry and hysterical. And I want to work with people from many other countries as well.” International directors, take note!
— Photos by Mance Thompson and FCCJ.
©2015 wa entertainment, inc.
THE EMPEROR IN AUGUST
August 3, 2015
Q&A guests: Director Masato Harada and star Koji Yakusho
Koji Yakusho and Masato Harada each mark their fourth appearance at FCCJ,
as well as their 20th year working together. The award-winning team behind 2012’s
Chronicle of My Mother, they first collaborated on the unforgettable Kamikaze Taxi in 1995.
FCCJ’s SRO audience wasted no time in drawing connections between the subject matter of Masato Harada’s new film The Emperor in August, which recounts the four months leading up to Emperor Hirohito’s historic broadcast announcing Japan’s surrender on Aug. 15, 1945, and the current state of affairs in Japan.
In the lengthy and occasionally allegorical Q&A session following the screening, Harada and his star, Koji Yakusho, chose their words carefully, but did not mince them.
Queried about the film’s focus on the indecisiveness of Prime Minister Suzuki’s cabinet (which stalled so long over the language of surrender following the Potsdam Declaration, that it prompted the US to drop bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki), Harada noted: “If we look at the Abe administration dealing with issues like the new national stadium, it can seem that indecisiveness is a national trait.”
Harada's research into the film's events made him an expert. He insists that he is neither rightwing nor leftwing. "I am impartial."
Yakusho, responding to a question about the film’s appeal overseas, said: “This is a film about how Japan ended the war. But it has a simple message that we can all understand: It is easy to start a war, but it is very, very difficult to end one.”
Harada emphasized, “I do want people outside Japan to see the film… I’m sure many of you have read Herbert Bix’s Hirohito and the Making of Modern Japan, but unfortunately, it distorts the emperor’s image based on leftist ideology. I’m not a rightist, but I do think facts should not be overruled by ideology.” (Bix’s 2001 Pulitzer Prize-winning work found Hirohito complicit in Japan’s “fever of territorial expansion and war,” and inflamed an ongoing debate about the extent to which he had ruled or simply reigned.)
Harada was asked what he thinks of the imperial system in general. “At the time of the war,” he responded, “the emperor was considered the head of the house, the head of the family, and I feel this type of thinking was able to save Japan and end the war. If a politician like Prince Konoe or General Tojo had [tried to issue] the decision, Japan would not have survived.”
Yakusho stressed the ambivalence his character felt: "If you don't feel it too, then I've failed as an actor."
FCCJ President James Simms praised The Emperor in August for its “richly detailed characters and its ambivalence,” and drew laughter for his comment about the “absurdity of people trying to do a coup on bicycles” (as the rebel soldiers attempt in the film). But he also voiced a commonly held view by the international community regarding Japanese resistance to critical self-evaluation at this time of year: “I’ve been here for about 20 years,” said Simms, “and it’s always kind of heavy to be here in August, because it seems like a lot of the television dramas and documentaries and movies are sort of one-sided. Japan is always a victim. We don’t see multiple viewpoints, just Japan the victim and not, for lack of a better word, a perpetrator. Higaisha, kagaisha. In your view, how do you see Japan in August?”
Harada agreed. “I feel the war should never be portrayed from the standpoint of the victim only. There should be a balance with the wartime atrocities.” He recalled that he grew up watching American films, and “until I was about 10 years old, I was always on the side of the Allies. After that, I started learning Japanese history.”
He continued, “There’s a scene in the film, where the emperor is walking in the garden, lamenting how the war has been going on for 15 years, as long as the Onin War. But actually, 15 years prior to this is when the Manchurian Incident occurred, when Japan began invading China. Maybe the connotation is that the war of aggression should end.”
Both men fielded a series of tough questions — and some lightweight ones — with candor and wit.
Harada also mentioned a 1937 journal entry penned by Yasujiro Ozu, a director he greatly admires, concerning his experiences on the Chinese front. “He wrote that all the Japanese soldiers heading to the frontlines always smelled of alcohol. Just 2 weeks after he wrote that, the Nanjing Massacre occurred.”
In earlier remarks, Harada said that one of his impetuses for making the film was personal. “In 1945, my father was 19 and he was stationed at Chiran, at the southern tip of Kyushu, the kamikaze airbase. He was only digging trenches, but if the war had continued, I think he would’ve been one of the casualties. So for many years, I’ve thought that the emperor’s Imperial Decision saved my father.”
Renowned for the exhaustive research he conducts before writing his scripts, as well as for the English fluency he developed during 20 years spent in the UK and US, the director adapted Kazutoshi Hando’s nonfiction novels Nihon no Ichiban Nagai Hi (Japan’s Longest Day, 1965, 1980) and the followup Seidan: Tenno to Suzuki Kantaro (Imperial Decision: The Emperor and Kantaro Suzuki, 1985), both of which were based on extensive eyewitness interviews, for The Emperor in August.
“In 1967, when Okamato Kihachi adapted Mr. Hando’s first novel into the film Japan’s Longest Day,” said Harada, “it was prohibited to show the emperor’s face. So the actor portraying [Hirohito] had to be shot from behind, or in long shots. It was difficult, therefore, to depict the nuances of what was going on in his mind. In the 21st century, Issey Ogata portrayed the emperor in Alexander Sokurov’s The Sun, and we saw him in closeups for the first time. I realized that we could finally portray the emperor as the protagonist of a film like Japan’s Longest Day.”
“I drew heavily from Mr. Hando’s novel Seidan for The Emperor in August,” he continued, “because it depicted the events of the final four months of the war, not just the final day, and explained why he was not able to issue an Imperial Decision [to prevent the war from continuing] earlier. By combining both books, we’re able to understand why it took so long for the decision to be reached.”
Yakusho was asked about his preparations for his role. “I’ve been acting for many, many years now and I’m not sure about my ‘process,’ he said. “But whenever I work with Mr. Harada, he sends a lot of research materials, and I always begin by reading them all.”
In The Emperor in August, Yakusho plays Korechika Anami, the man who led Japan’s War Ministry in the final months of World War II, a warrior who wants to lead his troops to the bitter end, but who also reports directly to his sovereign, as he makes clear in the film. His devotion leads him to support the cause of peace.
“I’m aware that there are different interpretations of Minister Anami’s character and role,” said Yakusho, “but as far as I’m concerned, once the emperor made his decision, [Anami] gave up on pursuing a decisive battle at home. But he was also aware that the younger officers were planning a coup, and he was caught between those officers and the emperor, a very difficult position. I wanted to portray that dilemma. When I look back on that period now, especially after the bombs were dropped, I’m grateful that the emperor, Prime Minister Suzuki and Minister Anami worked together and were able to end the war.”
Harada affirmed, “My belief is that if Mr. Anami had resigned, the Cabinet would have fallen apart and led to the decisive battle at home. I really wanted to show the ambivalence that Mr. Anami felt.”
The director and star pose with the Japanese and English-language posters.
When The Emperor in August begins in April 1945, the Japanese military had already been in control of domestic and foreign policy for a decade, and the Japanese people were uncertain about the war’s outcome —the government had strictly censored and rewritten the news since 1938. The military’s strategy was to continue pushing for the decisive battle (Kantai Kessen) by drawing the US fleet into a titanic fight at sea, somewhere off Japan’s southern coast. There were still 270,000 Japanese soldiers on various war fronts, and the concept of surrender was not in their vocabulary.
Once the Allies have broadcast the Potsdam Declaration in July, demanding unconditional surrender, the Imperial Cabinet convenes to begin an endless debate: Do we follow Emperor Hirohito’s inclination to accept the declaration or do we practice mokusatsu (kill it with silence)? Would the Potsdam accord preserve kokutai (national polity), or would Hirohito be subjugated to the Supreme Commander of the Occupation forces… or worse, be help accountable for the war?
Anami argues for the long-planned decisive battle, which would allow his troops to die with honor; but he knows it will also cost untold civilian lives. After endless Imperial War Council debates over wording, Hirohito informs his ministers that Japan must accept defeat, and lays plans to announce the war’s end to his people in a historic radio broadcast at noon on August 15. But when word of the recording leaks to the army, a group of young firebrand officers moves forward with plans for a violent coup.
It is the next 20 hours that prove decisive for the fate of Japan, and which provide the most tense, thrilling and indelible moments in The Emperor in August. As the clock ticks toward Hirohito’s historic address, as the Cabinet resigns itself to ritual suicide, as the military rebels storm the Imperial Palace, the full absurdity and futility of war are revealed.
Nobody shoots a group of older men sitting around arguing with as much visual interest, dramatic intensity and individual specificity as Harada, nor recreates period Tokyo with such astonishing beauty and terror. He also draws exceptional performances from his veteran actors, and portrays an impossible — and impossibly complex — situation with remarkable clarity, as well as an admixture of regret and admiration.
The film is sure to be a major box-office draw in Japan during the 70th anniversary of World War II’s end in August, and beyond.
— Photos by Mance Thompson, Koichi Mori and FCCJ.
©2015 “The Emperor in August” Film Partners
- A more complex portrayal of Emperor Hirohito
- ‘The Emperor in August’. El día más largo del Japón
- World War II 70 Years On: Yakusho Koji And Harada Masato Talk THE EMPEROR IN AUGUST
- 原田眞人監督が昭和天皇について熱弁 役所広司も戦争観語る
- 役所広司 主演作「日本のいちばん長い日」は海外へ「戦争を終わらせることは本当に難しい」とメッセージ
- 日本テレビ [news every. culture＆sports]：役所広司、外国人記者の前で戦争への思いを
- 日本テレビ [ZIP！ SHOWBIZ 24] ：戦争を始めるのは簡単、だが終わらせるのは本当に難しい
- 日本テレビ [ZIP！ チェックボックス]：役所広司が、日本外国特派員協会で会見
- NHK総合 [NHKニュース おはよう日本（ニュース）] ：戦争にピリオドを打った大臣の苦悩
FIRES ON THE PLAIN
July 14, 2015
Q&A guests: Director Shinya Tsukamoto and actor Yusaku Mori
Shinya Tsukamoto and Yusaku Mori respond to some surprising questions.
Leave it to the indefatigable Pio d’Emilia, longstanding FCCJ member and longtime friend of iconoclastic director Shinya Tsukamoto, to pose the one question that everyone was asking themselves, but would never, ever want to answer: “Is there any situation where you would eat human flesh?”
D’Emilia had just watched the director’s graphic, harrowing new adaptation of the semi-autobiographical war novel Nobi by Shohei Ooka, about a Japanese soldier's gruesome ordeals in the Philippines during the closing days of World War II, where starvation was a far greater killer of men than enemy bullets and bombs. Tsukamoto’s Fires on the Plain highlights the surreal carnage, the chaos and the cannibalism, only slightly exceeding Kon Ichikawa’s 1959 adaptation in its brutality and savagery. A perfect reinterpretation for our time, it is an intensely visceral reminder of the utter obscenity of war: Kill or be killed, eat or be eaten.
Tsukamoto describes his 30-year journey to bring Ooka's novel to the screen.
But the director was quick to explain, “In the original book, the author deals with cannibalism as a central issue… but the choice, the moral dilemma of whether or not to eat human flesh, is not a focus of this film. It’s not depicted in great detail. And the reason is that when I heard accounts from soldiers who fought in the Philippines [during extensive interviews he conducted a decade ago], I realized they didn’t have any capacity to think about their actions. They were so pressed, so desperate, that they were unable to address this moral dilemma. The soldiers stranded in the Philippines started by eating water buffaloes, then they would go into the villages and ransack houses for food… eventually, they went into the mountains and ate whatever they could find. When they found maggots eating the flesh of the wounded, they would eat the maggots. Human flesh would be attached to those maggots… Given their situation, I could contemplate eating human flesh, particularly if a fellow soldier was already dead and doing so could allow me to stay alive.”
But he also stressed, “We should never again allow a situation to occur in which people would have to face such a quandary. We have to do whatever we can to stop Japan’s slide toward militarization.”
Young actor Yusaku Mori, who makes his acting debut in the film, struggled to answer d’Emilia’s pointed question as well, providing his response in both flawless English (he had trained to be a translator at the University of Sunderland), as well as in Japanese. “I guess never. Never,” he said. “I think there might be a situation where I might eat human meat, but I never want to do this.”
Tsukamoto's crew had to build a lifesize truck out of cardboard.
Considering the current political and cultural climate in Japan, and the ultra-rightists’ success in preventing the Japanese from seeing Angelina Jolie’s Unbroken — which was falsely rumoured to contain scenes of cannibalism and has effectively been barred from release here — it is especially gratifying that Ooka’s bleak, nightmarish vision of hell-on-earth is being retold by one of Japan’s own, boldly defying the revisionism of the white-washers and providing a timely corrective to all the mythologizing versions that routinely draw audiences, such as 2013’s Abe-endorsed Eien no Zero (The Eternal Zero), which became one of the top-10 grossing Japanese films of all time.
The fiercely independent Tsukamoto was prompted to make the film by the Abe Administration’s inexorable moves to expand the role of the military. “When I first started thinking about [adapting Ooka’s novel] 30 years ago,” he explained, “it was in the context of the Showa period in which I’d grown up, when people generally believed that war was something evil. So I conceived of it as having a universal message that was widely shared, that war should never be repeated. But as the decades passed, it has become a very different thing. Now, there’s a sense in which war could occur in the near future, that Japan is moving steadily in the direction of repeating the errors of the past. The possibility of another war is a very real one.”
Mori found his calling through an open audition.
Photographed in lush color where Ichikawa’s earlier film was in black and white, Tsukamoto’s Fires on the Plains captures the stunning beauty of the Philippines (and its stand-ins, Hawaii and Okinawa), contrasting the verdant forests, the flowers dripping with dew, the stunning sunsets with the hallucinatory desperation of its solitary protagonist, the filthy, isolated Pvt. Tamura (played by Tsukamoto himself). Already half-dead from TB and starvation when his regiment succumbs to the inevitable, Tamura desperately clings to his last shreds of humanity in a world gone mad around him, as he stumbles, inexorably, to the very edge of the spiritual abyss.
For anyone who has followed Tsukamoto’s career, this grisly, gripping anti-war story seems the perfect subject for him to wrap his dark creative brilliance around. World premiering in fall 2014 at the Venice Film Festival, it has gone on to widespread acclaim at 27 other international festivals, an accomplishment that is all the more staggering when one understands just how limited the film’s budget was. To get it made, Tsukamoto’s crew also acted as extras, and most of those involved — as is often the case with the director’s films, as well as many films in Japan — were volunteers, paid primarily in daily bento and the certainty that they were contributing to a worthy cause.
After the screening and Q&A, Tsukamoto relaxeswith Japanese-film
aficionados Mark Schilling and Markus Nornes in the bar.
“One of the essential aspects of the film was to capture the splendor of the Philippines, and this presented a great challenge” from a budgetary standpoint, Tsukamoto told the FCCJ audience. “I had a small crew, and I shot the jungle scenes there myself, as well as acting in them. But most of the film was shot back in Japan, with a large number of volunteers… We purchased one army uniform and then made 50 copies of them ourselves. We purchased one gun and then made 20 replicas. In the scene with a jeep and a truck, we actually had to create the large truck from cardboard boxes.”
A tribute to Tsukamoto’s unfailing ability to work cinematic magic with little more than inspiration and commitment, as well as a powerful call to the nearly-lost cause of peace, Fires on the Plains is absolutely essential viewing — not only for those too young to remember Kon Ichikawa’s film, but for everyone who believes that Japan can best honor its Pacific War veterans, in this 70th anniversary year of WWII’s end, by refusing to turn away from the truth of their experiences.
— Photos by Koichi Mori and FCCJ.
©SHINYA TSUKAMOTO/KAIJYU THEATER
- Tsukamoto incendia la llanura
- War in the jungle and war in Japan
- A second look at bloody WWII novel ‘Fires on the Plain’
- Depicting war with less sentimentality, more reality
- 塚本晋也監督 映画「野火」で主演も
THE LOOK OF SILENCE
July 1, 2015
Q&A guest: Director Joshua Oppenheimer
Speaking onscreen via the aptly named FaceTime, which leant him a physical presence that was as impressive as his eloquence, director Joshua Oppenheimer described his first meeting with Adi Rukun in 2003. Adi is the indelible hero of The Look of Silence, the exceedingly powerful companion piece to Oppenheimer’s Academy Award©-nominated The Act of Killing, the controversial 2013 juggernaut that swept over 50 major international awards and prompted a hand-wringing reconsideration of the very “rules” of documentary filmmaking.
“There was one victim of the [1960's Indonesian] genocide whose name was almost synonymous with the entire genocide,” Oppenheimer explained, “and that was Ramli. Unlike tens of thousands of others who had been taken away from political prisons, killed at rivers and left to drift out to sea, Ramli’s murder had witnesses… Talking about him became an act of resistance, in a place where people had been traumatized, but threatened into pretending that nothing had happened. Inevitably, I was introduced to Ramli’s family, and his mother wanted me to meet Adi right away. She said ‘he’s exactly like Ramli, his body language, his looks, his way of talking, they’re the same.’”
We first see Adi watching footage of his neighbors bragging about how they dragged Ramli to the Snake River, beat him, sliced him open, ripped off his penis and dumped him into the water to die. The boasts may sound just like those of the preening perpetrators in The Act of Killing, whom Oppenheimer had allowed to re-enact the massacres as if they were making a Hollywood horror movie. But with The Look of Silence, the emphasis shifts from the murderers to the Rukun family, standing in for the families of the million genocide victims.
This is the film that the director first set out to make 10 years ago, when he turned his lens on the taboo subject of the genocide, examining how the survivors and victims’ families continue to live side-by-side with the killers — who remain in control of the country to this day. But early in the 5-year filming process, at the urging of Adi and his family, Oppenheimer began to focus instead on the charismatic, sadistic Anwar Congo, who despite his crimes, remained a powerful, celebrated local leader. How, the family wanted to know, was he able to explain away his guilt, to demand that his grisly conquests were all in the name of ridding the country of communism?
Oppenheimer spent over 10 years bringing both films to the screen.
Returning to Indonesia in 2011 to complete a follow-up before the release of The Act of Killing made it impossible to safely go back, Oppenheimer discovered that Adi had decided to confront his brother’s killers himself; motivated not by revenge but by the desperate need for closure. The director wasn’t easily convinced. As he told the FCCJ audience: “I realized we would fail to get the apology Adi wanted… In one hour with Adi, these men [would] not be willing to go to that place of guilt and [wouldn’t] admit that what they’ve done is wrong. But I also realized that if I do my job well and capture the shock, the shame, the fear of guilt, the panic, the anger, the threats or whatever comes next, then we can show how torn the society is, how urgently truth, reconciliation and some form of justice are needed, and we can inspire younger Indonesians to fight for that. So maybe we can succeed in a bigger way with the film, even if we fail in the individual confrontations.”
And so The Look of Silence found its voice.
A gentle, serenely composed optometrist, Adi is pure steel in his mission to face the aging leaders of the village death squads, to surmount the impenetrable walls of silence masking their past atrocities. Under the guise of testing their eyesight — a perfect metaphor for the myopia that afflicts his nation — Adi begins his questioning, quietly listens to the perpetrators’ justifications, politely presses them for more answers, and asks them to accept responsibility for their actions.
Amir Siahaan, who oversaw the 3-month-long slaughter of 500 “communists” at Snake River in Medan, tells his interlocutor: “America taught us to hate communists, so we should be rewarded with a trip to America [instead of accusations].” M.Y. Basrun, speaker of the national legislature for the past 40 years, insists: “The mass killings were the spontaneous action of the people. They hated communists.” When Adi persists in his probing, the former head of the Komando Aksi death squads resorts to threats: “Do you want the killings to happen again? Then stop.”
Adi Rukun confronts one of the perpetrators in a scene from The Look of Silence.
© Final Cut for Real Aps, Anonymous, Piraya Film AS, and Making Movies Oy 2014
Adi does not flinch, even when one man tells him that all the killers drank the blood of their victims because otherwise they would go insane. “Human blood is salty and sweet,” he explains. In one of the film’s final — and most moving — scenes, the man’s daughter apologizes, visibly shaken by his confession. After a moment, Adi embraces her. But it is the only truly conciliatory note in the film. To be sure, Adi’s bravery stemmed partially from the security measures Oppenheimer’s crew took (“we had two getaway cars, and help from the British and American embassies if we needed to get out of the country quickly”). Adi also accepted that he and his family would necessarily have to move away from Medan once filming had finished. They are now resettled in a much safer community, surrounded by like-minded souls, and Oppenheimer reports that “The children are in much better schools, and the family is relieved to be living a life away from being threatened day to day, which is how they felt for the past 50 years.”
Like The Act of Killing, which brought Oppenheimer in person to FCCJ in early 2014, this new film is absolutely essential viewing. More conventional, and thus more confrontational than the previous work, there is more of what one critic calls “the familiar embattled-interviewee choreography: the demands to stop filming, the shrill addresses to the director ‘Josh’ behind the camera, and the removal of the radio microphone.” Yet it is poignant, compassionate and deeply unsettling.
With The Act of Killing and now the equally unshakeable The Look of Silence, Joshua Oppenheimer has shattered the deafening, 50-year silence in Indonesia. The film has won a raft of international awards since earning the Grand Jury Prize at the Venice Film Festival upon its world premiere. But its greater achievement is that it played across Indonesia on nearly 500 public screens, allowing thousands of Indonesians to share what they could not with the first film, which was never screened. “The first film made it impossible for people to continue not talking about the regime of corruption, fear and thuggery that the perpetrators had built,” Oppenheimer notes. “The second film makes it impossible to continue to ignore the abyss [that] divides people. And that opens the way for activism in the sense that, once people are talking about a problem, they’ll propose solutions for it. You can’t solve a problem that you can’t even talk about.”
Oppenheimer also stressed the importance of viewing the films not as doors to some other culture on the other side of the world, but as mirrors for our own. In pointed comments that we would display in 20-point boldface if it were possible, he cautioned: “If there are two key messages in these films, the first is that every perpetrator in history is a human being like us and we must contemplate ways to understand that we’re all closer to perpetrators than we like to think. The second message, which is particularly relevant to Japan at this moment, considering the proposed changes to the constitution, is that we can never run away from our past. It’s always with us. We are our pasts. It will damage our future if we cannot find the courage to… accept all the things that make us what we are, acknowledge the violence and terror, not make excuses for it, and not generate vicious patriotic rhetoric celebrating or justifying it. We need to take responsibility for what we are, so we can proceed wisely into the future.”
— Photos by Koichi Mori and FCCJ.
© Final Cut for Real Aps, Anonymous, Piraya Film AS, and Making Movies Oy 2014
OKINAWA: THE AFTERBURN
June 9, 2015
Q&A guest: Director John Junkerman
Junkerman introduces the film.
At 6:00 pm, an hour earlier than the usual start of FCCJ screening events, writer-director John Junkerman reassured a surprisingly large audience, “I’ve been told that the film doesn’t feel as long as it actually is.” At 9:30 pm, as the hour-long Q&A session was winding down and hands were still going up, the true extent of his accomplishment became clear. Not only was there consensus that the film’s 148-minute length was warranted by the complexity of its subject, but with the exception of one vocal dissenter, praise was effusive for Junkerman’s even-handed illumination of the troubling history of occupation, human and civil rights violations, and dogged resistance in Okinawa — an ongoing flashpoint in US-Japan relations that is drawing even greater attention in this, the 70th anniversary year since the end of World War II.
The club’s screening of Okinawa: The Afterburn was held just days after Okinawa Gov. Takeshi Onaga’s return from a trip to Washington, DC, where the US departments of State and Defense confirmed their “unwavering commitment” to go forward with construction of the huge new Marine base in Henoko, despite convulsive and constant protests from Okinawans for over a decade, and just weeks ago, a crowd of some 35,000 protestors surrounding the Diet in Tokyo.
Junkerman's history with Okinawa goes back to the mid-1970s.
Junkerman, Academy Award®-nominated director of Hellfire: A Journey from Hiroshima, among a slew of award-winning documentaries like Power and Terror: Noam Chomsky in Our Times and Japan’s Peace Constitution, opens his landmark new film with Adm. Matthew Perry, who arrives in the Ryukyu Kingdom in the 1850s and immediately sets about trying to claim it. Some 90 years later, his plans finally come to fruition: After the 84-day-long Battle of Okinawa, the bloodiest conflict of the Pacific War, has taken the lives of some 240,000 people, the US begins its occupation of Japan’s southernmost prefecture. The film makes it clear that, despite its reversion to Japan in 1972, the island is still occupied.
With the active support of the Japanese government, America has continued to treat Okinawa as the spoils of war — its “keystone in the Pacific.” Today, the US military occupies nearly 20 percent of the island, accounting for 75 percent of its military presence in Japan. As Junkerman noted during the Q&A, “That’s just 0.6 percent of the entire territory Japan, and that’s an unfair burden, a tremendously large burden. The only way, I think, of explaining that is to understand that Okinawans are [considered] second-class citizens. They don’t have the same status as mainland Japan.”
Producer-collaborator Yamagami has a 30-year friendship with Junkerman
and has produced 5 films about Okinawa.
Junkerman lived on Okinawa in the mid-1970s, and was struck by “the pervasive and abiding rejection of war among the Okinawa people, and by how incongruous and violent the American military presence on the island was. Over the decades that followed, it troubled me that Okinawa was forced to continue to endure this incompatibility. This is largely a consequence of the ignorance of the American public, and I felt a responsibility to make a film that would penetrate, if only in a small way, this shroud of apathy.”
Junkerman and his close collaborator, Tetsujiro Yamagami, the founding president of social-issues film company Siglo and the producer of five previous films about Okinawa, attempt to pierce the shroud through interviews with American, Japanese and Okinawan survivors of the Battle of Okinawa, tracing its fraught legacy. The director makes crucial use of footage shot by the US during the course of the war; but his trademark approach is to allow eyewitnesses to relate history as they lived it, and Okinawa: The Afterburn features several revelatory accounts. Issues of wartime guilt are movingly recalled by such survivors as Hajime Kondo, who admits that the Japanese sense of superiority over the Ryukyuan people accounted for some of the war’s worst atrocities: “We committed many abuses here in Okinawa,” he laments. Others recall the Chibichiri-gama mass suicide-murders, the 140 comfort stations staffed with “pigua” (comfort women), and the students who were forced by Japanese troops to throw bombs underneath US tanks.
Although there have been frequent problems with the US presence over the years, from dangerous helicopter crashes to water supplies poisoned by jet fuel, opposition to US bases expanded most dramatically after the 1995 rape of a 12-year old girl by three American servicemen. One of them is interviewed to devastating effect in the film, and his chilling testimony is just one of the many reasons that Okinawa: The Afterburn is a must-see work. “To interview the perpetrator was something that we debated long and hard,” said Junkerman, “but we felt the need to convey to our audience the true nature of that rape, and to do so, we needed to hear both sides.”
Junkerman is aware that there is a sense of fatigue in Japan, where Okinawa is the subject of fairly constant TV documentaries, and said that he and Yamagami knew they must “do something that those films don’t do — break through the barrier of people who think they’ve seen enough of Okinawa and know the subject. There is a lot that isn’t expressed. We didn’t concentrate on recent developments… we felt that the historical context was neglected, and once one has a better grasp of the historical roots, then one understands why the problems exist. And we also understand why they’re so tenacious and difficult to solve.”
Junkerman hopes to screen the film across America.
Yamagami was queried about his selection of an American director to revisit an essentially Japanese history. “I don’t really think of John as being a foreigner,” he admitted. “We’ve known each other for over 30 years and worked together on several films. For me, the key to a successful collaboration is to have a relationship of trust.”
In a “response to the film” printed in the press notes, historian John Dower notes: “No place in the world surpasses Okinawa as a symbol of the bitter legacies of war since World War II. And no voices are more eloquent in calling for peace and equality than the voices of the people of Okinawa…despite the oppression and discrimination we encounter [in the film], the voices we hear are so dignified and articulate that one emerges not just with understanding and admiration, but also with hope.”
Indeed, Junkerman reminded the FCCJ audience that the report commissioned by Okinawa Gov. Onaga to review “the process of decision-making that went into moving ahead with the Henoko base,” is due next month, and “there are a lot of political questions concerning the previous governor’s approval, after he had been voted out of office, but before his successor took over, of four permits that were crucial to building the base at Henoko. That seems to me to be a violation of democratic process and democratic rights. As a lot more people are becoming aware of that, it’s becoming less possible for people in Japan to look the other way.”
— Photos by Koichi Mori and FCCJ.