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.