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PIETA IN THE TOILET (Toire no Pieta)


PIETA IN THE TOILET


May 27, 2015
Q&A guests: Director Daishi Matsunaga, stars Yojiro Noda and Hana Sugisaki


three on stage
The talented trio faces the press.

For a film programmer, there is nothing quite so satisfying as being able to contribute, however insignificantly, to the launch of an independent film that deserves to be seen and celebrated far more widely than its modest budget may allow. Such was the case with FCCJ’s screening of Pietà in the Toilet, the feature-fiction debut of award-winning documentary director Daishi Matsunaga (Pyuupiru, Gospel).

Inspired by the final story idea of Japan’s great God of Comics, Osamu Tezuka (Astro Boy, Kimba the White Lion), who jotted the outlines of Pietà down on his last diary page before dying of stomach cancer in 1989, Matsunaga has created a big-screen treatment that is by turns distressing, blackly humorous and uplifting — a poignant consideration of life under the looming hand of death. Nearly as impressively, he has directed a handful of major movie stars (Lily Franky, Rie Miyazawa, Shinobu Otake) with the assurance of a seasoned pro, and guided two unknowns in the lead roles who achieve an onscreen chemistry that is a real rarity.

  hana smiles  noda speaks  daishi speaks
Hana Sugisaki, Yojiro Noda and Daishi Matsunaga discuss the close collaboration that went into making the movie.

Making his acting debut, real-life rock star Yojiro Noda (Radwimps) is perfectly cast as a lost young man who is rescued from his ennui and emptiness by Hana Sugisaki, a teen actress whose slim TV and film credits could not possibly predict the sheer bravado of her revelatory performance in Pietà. Just 16 years old during filming, Sugisaki delivers a truly star-making turn.

In Matsunaga’s adaptation of Tezuka’s story fragment, Noda plays young cancer patient Hiroshi Sonoda, who receives a fatal cancer diagnosis and decides to die without a fight. Once a promising art student, he’d quit painting after an unhappy love affair, and he’s been washing windows ever since. But after fainting on the job, he finds himself in the hospital, where he meets two people who will shake him out of his stupor: Toru Yokota (Franky), a long-term cancer patient who gets his kicks from photographing nurses and nubile visitors; and Mai (Sugisaki), a schoolgirl with serious attitude and a death wish. Hiroshi, weakened by chemotherapy and growing superstitious in the way of many victims of hopeless situations, begins to think he can survive if only he makes someone happy — and Mai, precocious, tortured and desperately lonely, is his willing target. As a chaste love affair blooms, Hiroshi is inspired to pick up his brush. With Yokota’s help, he begins painting the pietà on the walls of his toilet, a final act of defiance and redemption.

daishiMatsunaga's facility with actors might be a result of his own experiences:
he began his film career as one of the Waterboys.

When queried about how he managed to snag such a big-name cast, as well as how he found his leads, Matsunaga explained that he and his producers (Shinji Ogawa of BridgeHead and Morio Amagi of CineBazar) had wanted someone who was a creative artist for the character of Hiroshi. Eventually, they decided to reach out to singers, and Matsunaga felt an instant rapport with Noda. “As I listened to his lyrics and songs… I found him to be very sexy and intriguing, and his songs expressed something similar to the worldview that I hoped to capture.” Conveniently, Noda also wrote and performed the theme song for the film.

hana speakHana, a rising star, skipped her school trip to be at the FCCJ screening.

As for the “equally important” role of Mai, Matsunaga “held auditions for a full year, and from the beginning, Hana Sugisaki was very impressive. I narrowed it down to 5 -10 actresses, and asked Yojiro to come in and read against them. When I saw how he and Hana played off each other, and changed each other, I was convinced to cast her.”

Sugisaki surprised the FCCJ audience by being as demure and soft-spoken during the Q&A session as her character is bold and outspoken in the film. She discussed the audition and rehearsal processes, the difficulty of “capturing Mai,” and the frustrating process of building confidence. “I think I was able to do this because I trusted [the director and my costar],” she said. After a particularly lengthy series of takes one day, “Matsunaga-san came to me and said ‘You finally captured Mai,’ and from then on, I was able to interact with Yojiro as if he was Hiroshi and I was Mai. The character stayed inside me for a full month after filming was done.”

noda laughsYojiro rocks the audience with his superb English,

Noda also surprised the FCCJ audience — and the sizable contingent of Japanese press, most of whom were there because of the Radwimps singer-songwriter’s enormous popularity — by speaking in fluent American English: “Thank you for inviting us here tonight, we’re very pleased to be here. It’s been 10 years since Daishi Matsunaga [heard] this story, and it’s been a long way here. This was my very first acting experience, and it was awesome to work with these incredible talents. I was very honored. I hope you enjoyed the film, and if you did, please help spread the Pietà world to other audiences. Thank you.” (Noda lived in the US for 4 years as a youth, and says he maintains his English through producing work with non-Japanese singers and touring abroad with his band.)

three laugh 
The photo call turns a bit giggly.

Fans of Osamu Tezuka, many of whom have waited 25 years to see his final story come to life, and fans of exceptional new acting and filmmaking talent: Pietà in the Toilet is for you. You’ll be seeing a lot more of Daishi Matsunaga, Yojiro Noda and Hana Sugisaki in the future; this is where it all began.

  Photos by FCCJ.

Pieta POSTER
©2015 “Pieta in the Toilet” Film Partners

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日本テレビ [ZIP! SHOWBIZ TODAY] 「RADWIMPS野田洋次郎、英語で会見」

MISS HOKUSAI (Sarusuberi)


MISS HOKUSAI


May 7, 2015
Q&A guest: Director Keiichi Hara


May 07 15 Movie Miss Hokusai by Aoki 031
Hara lightens up under questioning.

Just two days before the hotly anticipated release of his latest film, Annecy-winning director Keiichi Hara (Colorful) thrilled FCCJ’s audience with a sneak peek of Miss Hokusai, which illuminates the extraordinary lives of iconic artist Katsushika Hokusai and his outspoken daughter O-Ei. Following a spate of recent discoveries, O-Ei is now recognized not only as an essential contributor to her father’s later — and most famous — work, but as a groundbreaking artist in her own right.

It was only the second time in the past decade that the Film Committee had screened an animated film (the other was Eric Khoo’s Tatsumi in 2013), which is admittedly inexplicable from both a creative and financial stance*, given that the anime industry accounts for 90% of all Japanese “content” sales overseas, regularly earns a bigger chunk of change at the domestic box office than all other films combined, and is propelled by some of the biggest names in the global pantheon.

  hokusai workplace
O-Ei (front) and Hokusai (middle) work amidst the detritus of leftovers and failed drawings.
© 2014-2015 Hinako Sugiura・MS.HS / Sarusuberi Film Partners

But one doesn’t have to be an anime aficionado to appreciate Hara’s enthralling vision of old Edo. Paying tribute to one of Japan’s greatest artists — and the assistant who, given different circumstances, might have one day surpassed him — he has literally animated the process of artistic creation in ways that are by turns lyrical, lush, magical, startling and sublime. (The FCCJ audience was split, however, on whether his use of heavy metal in the opening and closing scenes was poetic-license appropriate.)

Marking his first collaboration with the acclaimed animation house Production I.G (Ghost in the Shell, A Letter to Momo, Giovanni’s Island), working with the chief animator of Hayao Miyzaki’s The Wind Rises, Yoshimi Itazu, and celebrated background artist Hiroshi Ohno, Hara has adapted the beloved historical manga Sarusuberi (Crape Myrtle) by Edo Period expert Hinako Sugiura for Miss Hokusai.

May 07 15 Movie Miss Hokusai by Aoki 010Interpreter Don Brown, looking positively animated himself
(especially the Fuji-and-sakura shirt!) did the subtitles for the film.

During the Q&A session following the screening, Hara repeatedly gave props to the original author. “I did a lot of research, but the vast majority of it was Sugiura-san’s,” he said in response to a question about why the film seems so “modern” compared to our typical image of Edo Japan. “I was trying to recreate the world that Sugiura-san created in her comics, rather than one that resembles a typical jidaigeki period piece. I think people in the Edo Period lived a far freer, more relaxed and congenial lifestyle than we lead today. They had much more fun.”

Hara also noted that he’d chosen a “simple, realistic” style of animation to suit the story. He stressed that Sugiura’s women are not “living tragic lives, being persecuted by men. In Sugiura-san’s manga, they are full of life, and have the power to choose whichever man they want. Sugiura-san’s manga, as well as her essays and other works, showed an image of women that was very different from what we’d seen in period films and on TV.”

Indeed, Miss Hokusai often feels almost hyperrealistic in its breathtakingly colorful depiction of 1814 Asakusa-Tawaramachi, teeming with peasants, samurai, merchants, nobles, artisans, courtesans and not surprisingly, we soon find out, a slew of supernatural beings. A stone’s throw from Ryogoku Bridge, the eccentric Tetsuzo (aka Hokusai) spends each day creating paintings for clients around Japan, from an enormous Dharma that fills an entire hall to a tiny pair of sparrows on a grain of rice. A master of portraits, landscapes, still lifes and erotica, Tetsuzo’s skill fits any commission. O-Ei works at his side, assisting, cajoling and smoking her pipe. They neither clean nor cook, and when their discarded work and leftover food fills up their home-atelier, they simply move to another. Undeniably talented, as well as stubborn, short-tempered and uninterested in money, this father-daughter team may not always agree, but “with two brushes and four chopsticks,” they can get by.

hokusai darumaHokusai paints a pretty (big) picture.
© 2014-2015 Hinako Sugiura・MS.HS / Sarusuberi Film Partners

Hara deployed 3D computer graphics in creating the film, but noted, “I didn’t want the CG to take you out of the film. The basic process is the way it’s always been done in 2D animation… In particular, there’s one scene where O-Ei runs out of the inn, and the camera pans down to her feet, comes back up and swings around, facing her. Normally, that would be done by a CG and 2D animator working together. But I had one animator do the whole 40-second sequence. It took 3 months. But it’s the kind of amazing sequence that Japanese animators have the technique and skills to accomplish.”

Returning to Sugiura once again, the director explained, “In the manga, O-Ei is the central character [in certain scenes only], but I decided to make her the main protagonist of the film. [Like O-Ei,] Suguira had a soft side to her, but as a writer, she was also very strong and had an eccentric side.”

Far from being just the first film Hara has directed that features a female protagonist, Miss Hokusai also surrounded him with a non-traditional crew. “There are more and more women working in the anime industry, especially at Production I.G, which made this film,” he said. Besides Sugiura, “the screenwriter was a woman, the two producers were women, and some of the animators were women. So there wasn’t any gender gap on this film.”

May 07 15 Movie Miss Hokusai by Aoki 056  May 07 15 Movie Miss Hokusai by Aoki 052
Hara poses with the film's poster, and holds up his newly minted FCCJ Honorary Membership.

Although he directed his first live-action film, the biopic Dawn of a Filmmaker: The Keisuke Kinoshita Story, in 2013, it doesn’t look likely that Hara will be leaving animation behind. Along with all his past prizes, in 2015, he was awarded the Anime d’Or at the Tokyo Anime Award Festival for his achievements. Hara will be heading to Annecy, France once again in June, where Miss Hokusai is in festival competition, as well as Montreal in July, where it is the Opening Night film at Fantasia Film Festival. It was also presold across Europe, with releases planned in France, Belgium, the UK, Germany, Austria, Spain and Portugal, among other nations. Can the USA be far behind?

*So shoot me — I didn’t develop a taste for animation in my youth, and it’s easier to program live-action films when you’re fairly ignorant about the likes of Tezuka, Ishii, Anno, Mizushima, Nishio, Araki (but we have tried countless times to persuade the fellows at Studio Ghibli to join us at FCCJ, to no avail).
  Photos by FCCJ.

hokusai poster
© 2014-2015 Hinako Sugiura・MS.HS / Sarusuberi Film Partners

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