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KEN AND KAZU


KEN AND KAZU (Ken to Kazu)


 July 20, 2016
Q&A guests: Director Hiroshi Shoji and stars Shinsuke Kato and Katsuya Maiguma


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                      Maiguma (Kazu), Kato (Ken) and writer-director Shoji were as light as the film is dark.              ©Koichi Mori

Three handsome young men in black suits descended upon FCCJ for the sneak preview screening of Ken and Kazu, looking for all the world like the grown-up yakuza versions of the street punks in the film. But then they smiled and laughed, and it was clear that they were nothing at all like the lowlifes populating the extraordinarily beautiful, brutal and moving feature debut of Hiroshi Shoji.

By rights, the film should provide a major bounce on the trio’s springboard to success, and the suits were in honor of their first joint public appearance since October last year, when Ken and Kazu won the Best Picture Award in the Japanese Cinema Splash section at the 2015 Tokyo International Film Festival.

In the months since, the film has been traveling the international festival scene, from Shanghai to Edinburgh to Taiwan to Germany to New York and Korea, earning acclaim for its breathtaking cinematography and the bravura acting chemistry of its two leads, as well as the Shakespearean depths of its tragic tale.

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Top: Shoji (©Koichi Mori), Left: Maiguma (©FCCJ),  Right: Kato (©Koichi Mori)

As is often the case with unknown filmmakers, however, Shoji and his up-and-coming stars have not had the privilege of accompanying Ken and Kazu on every stop. Thus, the reunion at FCCJ provided a rare opportunity to share their filmmaking adventures with an appreciative international audience.

Based on the writer-director’s award-winning 2011 short of the same name, and with Shinsuke Kato and Katsuya Maiguma in place again as the titular characters, the film wastes no time in luring us into its thoroughly realistic Japanese underworld: Ken and Kazu are small-time dealers of methamphetamines operating out of an auto-repair shop that’s mostly a front for money laundering by a local yakuza boss (Haruki Takano) who was Ken’s childhood classmate.

They’re in it only for the money: Ken needs it to start a new life with his pregnant girlfriend, Saki (Shuna Iijima), and Kazu needs it so he can put his mother, suffering from dementia, into a care home. Ken is level-headed, responsible, watchful; but he is forced to go along when Kazu — all glares and threats, a wounded tough guy with a dark secret — decides to up the ante for a bigger piece of the action. They start working for a rival gang, but inevitably, the two friends are driven into a desperate double-cross.

Despite working on a shoestring budget, Shoji delivers one of the most powerful character studies in recent memory. Ken and Kazu is evermore intense and thrilling as it hurtles inexorably to its fateful climax, anchored by performances of heartbreaking tenderness and explosive anger. The film’s accomplishments are partially due to the two-and-a-half years the director spent meticulously whittling it down from 141 minutes to a tight 96 minutes; but also to the incredible casting.

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                          Ken and Kazu break in a new member of the gang.     ©KenToKazu_Movie

It is, as one FCCJ audience member put it, “just stellar, all down the line. Everybody was just great. How did you do the casting?”

Explaining that he had gone to Tokyo Film Center College of Arts with Maiguma (who also graduated from the directing course, but took up acting afterward), Shoji replied: “We’ve been friends for over 10 years now, and after he played the same character [Kazu] in the short film, of course I had him play it in the feature. As for the role of Ken, Kato-san actually auditioned for [the short film version] online. After we’d selected him, I then started molding the characters around them. That’s why I think the characters suit the actors, and why we could get a realistic depiction of the characters.”

The emcee interjected, “So these two are actually violent drug dealers?” “Yes,” laughed Kato. “We were beating each other up in the greenroom while you were all watching the film.”

Shoji discussed the process of rehearsal and script revision after the actors had been cast. “These two are really different types of actors, so we spent about 3 weeks developing the characters and script together, and we changed just about everything from my original script. “No, we didn’t!” said Kato. “Shoji-san is actually really stubborn — we didn’t really veer much from the original script at all.”

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                                                                                                                                                                             ©Koichi Mori

“What’s the key to Ken and Kazu’s relationship?” asked another interlocutor. “So much of their backstory was left unexplained, and I wondered what had brought them so close together.” Said Maiguma, “Maybe this is different from what the director had in mind, but my own take on the characters is that they’re like brothers. You can’t explain a sibling relationship, but it’s there and you just feel it.” Added Kato, “With friends that you’re always around, there aren’t always clear reasons why you became friends to begin with. But I think Ken and Kazu complement each other, they need each other, they wouldn’t be able to complete anything without relying on each other.”

Another audience member commented on the setting. “This doesn’t look like the Japan that we usually see. These characters, did you live near people like that and know them personally?” Shoji responded, “I shot in the town where I’m living, Ichikawa, Chiba Prefecture, and I think I was able to capture the nuances of the people and the area because I’m living there.”

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Ken and Kazu show just how tough they can be during the photo call. 
©
Koichi Mori

Yet the feeling persisted that Shoji himself couldn’t possibly be part of that milieu. Shoji sidestepped the suggestion that the film fits snugly in the Japanese yakuza genre, noting that he’d been a huge fan of Hollywood and Korean films for years. “They say that directors always put a lot of themselves in their first film,” he said. “That’s true in my case. I often think about friendship, rivalry, making choices. I think about these issues a lot, and that’s why I wanted to make a film addressing them.” He later stressed that his main focus could be seen in the film’s final minutes, and the actions of Ken: “I think it all comes down to the moments in life when you do something for someone else, selflessly, and that’s one of the important messages.”

In my introduction before the screening, I had evoked Martin Scorsese’s Mean Streets, the 1973 work that shares some parallels with Ken and Kazu, not only in style and character, but in career timing. That little film was made when Scorsese was still relatively unknown, and the two lowlife pals were played by relatively unknown actors: Harvey Keitel and Robert De Niro. Mean Streets launched all three into the firmament, of course; only time will tell if Ken and Kazu does the same.

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Japan's answer to the young De Niro and Keitel? Or is Kato Japan's Al Pacino?  ©Koichi Mori

 But this is not your usual Japanese indie, at least by today’s standards. Proof positive: UK-based distributor Third Window Films is handling international sales for the film, which are reportedly brisk. The company’s CEO, Adam Torel, recently went on record, joining many other international critics in lambasting the current crop of Japanese releases. Among their complaints: actors either overact or do nothing at all, directors favor rambling longueurs over story- and character-building arcs, and bargain-basement production values cripple the impact.

There’s a long way to go before the Japanese industry can recapture its once-vaunted position in the global cinema firmament, but Ken and Kazu is a reminder that talent will out.

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                                                                                                                              ©Koichi Mori

 

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                                                      ©KenToKazu_Movie

LOWLIFE LOVE (Gesu no Ai)


LOWLIFE LOVE


 March 17, 2016
Q&A guests: Director Eiji Uchida, producer Adam Torel and star Kiyohiko Shibukawa


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The official signing ceremony for submission to the OED.  ©Mance Thompson

For over 1,000 years, the word “gesu” has represented those of the very lowest social rank in Japan, but in this single expression, the stench of scummy, slummy, vulgar, reprobate behavior is also emitted.

Like many other Japanese expressions — mono no aware, umami and omotenashi come to mind — gesu has a level of specificity that cannot easily be communicated in English. Recognizing that its English equivalent, lowlife, falls short, the filmmakers behind Lowlife Love publicly signed a submission to include the Japanese word in the venerable Oxford English Dictionary following their sneak preview event at FCCJ. A calculated publicity stunt? Sure. But why not? It’s no worse than having Sadako throwing out the first ball.

The film’s director, Eiji Uchida, British producer Adam Torel and star Kiyohiko Shibukawa tried to effect serious expressions as the press snapped their OED “signing ceremony,” but they were clearly having too much fun. Their Q&A session had just proven that, despite the lowlifes populating their film, they themselves were class acts.

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Torel, Shibukawa, Uchida  ©Mance Thompson

Uchida based his script on some of the more extreme incidents he had himself experienced and witnessed over a decade in the industry (he’d started his film career as an assistant director to Kitano "Beat" Takeshi). When he was approached by Torel, who had produced Sion Sono’s Land of Hope and Yosuke Fujita’s Fukuchan of Fukufuku Flats, Uchida suggested a blackly comic exposé of Japan’s no-budget film industry, focused around the Shimokitazawa area of Tokyo, perhaps as an act of personal exorcism. The film was shot, as the producer admitted, “for a bit less than $50,000, which is why we shot in my apartment, [Uchida’s] office, the place I always drink, and had a crew of about nine… and we didn’t sleep. But we did pay everyone, so don’t worry.”

Lowlife Love, which drew SRO crowds at its international premiere at the Rotterdam Film Festival in January, and heads to festivals in Taiwan and Italy next month, focuses on Japan’s lowest rung of filmmakers: those who work for nothing, pay nothing to their cast and crew, exploit every possible angle to get their films made (legal and otherwise), and always plead “artistic integrity” as their excuse for failure. Why do they do it? The film makes it clear that love of cinema is one driver; the other is burning ambition. When one considers that there were close to 600 Japanese films released in theaters in 2015, that ambition is perhaps not misplaced — although theatrical release does not equal sustainable incomes for the industry’s bottom-feeders. They’re forced to get other jobs or to churn out porn to survive between “real” gigs, helping sustain the shockingly misogynistic subculture that is the milieu plumbed in Lowlife Love.

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Uchida is an ex-journalist and film industry veteran, unintentionally rocking an Osamu Tezuka look.   ©Mance Thompson

Asked during the Q&A whether he was skewering or exploiting that subculture, the writer-director answered: “The portrayal of women and the perception of misogyny was something that the producer pointed out to me during filming,” said Uchida. “But the reality of the Japanese entertainment industry, and not just the film industry, is that the female talents are placed in a very weak position. The reality is much harsher than in the film.” Added Torel: “It’s a very gesu world in Japan, in the film industry and especially the independent film industry, maybe more than anywhere else. It’s slightly exaggerated in the film, but compared to the West, it’s still behind the times here.”

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Shibukawa is an indie favorite, long overdue for a big-budget, leading-man role.  ©Mance Thompson

In the film, struggling director Tetsuo (Shibukawa) still nurses dreams of success, although in the years since an early indie hit, he’s succeeded only in making himself one of the most hated guys around. (“I’m not unemployed — I’m a film director!” he protests, when his mother complains about supporting him.) His past record still attracts ambitious youngsters to his “acting” courses, and one day, he meets two new students whose talents are ripe for exploitation: Minami, a naïve wannabe actress with serious chops, and Ken, a writer with a brilliant script. Tetsuo enlists the help of an unsavory producer (played with panache by Denden), but their efforts to get a film made are undercut by the desperate, unrelenting degeneracy of their world.

Is it a world that extends beyond the no-budget scene? In a recent Japan Times article about the entertainment industry travails of SMAP and Becky, Mark Schilling called Lowlife Love “required viewing” and wrote, “[it] confirms what I have known for years: Japanese show business can be brutal to the weak or clueless. They end up used and discarded, like so many human Kleenexes.”

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Torel's producing slate is all over the stylistic map, but he and Uchida are already in preproducion on Animal Trail©Mance Thompson

During the Q&A, Uchida referenced the problems caused by Japan’s all-powerful talent agencies, which control not only the careers but also the lives of their stars. He mentioned that just that morning, he’d been admonished by a talent manager for contacting an actor directly. “So often, projects are developed here without any regard whatsoever for what’s needed,” said the director. “I really hope a time will come when Japanese actors can make their own decisions about what projects they want to be involved in.”

Indie stalwart Shibukawa, who won Best Actor awards last year for his role as an indie filmmaker in Obon Brothers (a director who is as sweet and selfless as his Lowlife character is slimy), admitted he’d been contacted directly by Uchida about the script. “He was so passionate about it,” he said, “I decided right away that I wanted to be in the film, even before reading the script.” A regular in roles for Takashi Miike, Gakuryu Ishii and Toshiaki Toyoda, Shibukawa has appeared in over 60 films, but remains woefully underrepresented in big-budget releases (he does have a brief but indelible role in Miike’s upcoming Terra Formars).


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That OED submission for gesu. Stay tuned.   ©Mance Thompson

Naturally, the trio was queried about their own lowlife experiences in the industry, but their stories were disappointingly tame, compared to those in their film. Recalled Uchida: “This happened when I just started making films. We had a wrap party, and about 30 of us piled into a room. When it was over, the producer was nowhere to be found, and I got stuck with the bill. That’s not an uncommon occurrence.” Said Torel: “There’s a producer I know, who shall remain nameless, who spends all his time looking for actresses on Facebook, and telling them that if they meet him for drinks, they have a good chance of being in a big director’s film. And he takes them out every night, to very dodgy places. He’s not a nice guy.”

Shibukawa remembered, “There was an actor on a shoot who was way more powerful than the director. His character was supposed to be killed by me, very quickly. But he just wouldn’t die. He kept insisting that he wouldn’t die that easily.” [Those who attended our January screening of The Actor will recognize this very scene from the film.]

Photos by Mance Thompson and Koichi Mori.

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Kanji Furutachi (in mask) drops by to say howdy. He plays a far more successful director
than Shibukawa in the film, and the two have an epic fistfight.  ©Koichi Mori



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©2016 Three Window Films

Media Coverage

 


FUKU-CHAN OF FUKUFUKU FLATS


 NOVEMBER 4, 2014
Q&A guests: Star Miyuki Oshima, director Yosuke Fujita and producer Adam Torel


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Comedienne Miyuki Oshima discusses her first leading role... as a man.

Miyuki Oshima dreams of winning a Japan Academy Award for Best Actor for her performance as the middle-aged male title character in cult comedy director Yosuke Fujita’s new film, and if anyone deserves it more than she does, let him come forward. Remember Jaye Davidson in Neil Jordan’s The Crying Game? Oshima is that good. Good enough to fool the Western journalists in the audience who had never seen the comedienne on TV, where her Morisanchu trio is ubiquitous. She’s already won a Best Actress trophy at Montreal’s Fantasia Film Festival for her gender-bending feat; if the Japanese media turnout at FCCJ is any indication, her role is already earning her enormous attention at home.

Looking like herself, ie., lovely and feminine, at the Q&A following the screening of the tongue-twisting Fuku-Chan, Oshima smiled happily as her director explained just how she came to play the unusual role: “The genesis of the project came from the idea of having Ms. Oshima play a man,” explained Fujita. “If she had said no, I really can’t think of any other actress or actor who would have been suitable.” Why? “It’s her face that attracted me. She has the kind of face the Japanese really love, a really familiar face. I think she has the perfect face for a comedy that people can relate to and enjoy … It is truly nostalgic [natsukashii]” He also admitted that he’d wanted a woman for the role, so Fuku-chan would be less lewd than if a man played him.

Oshima said she was surprised to hear that Fujita needed her face to bring Fuku-chan to life. “As a matter of fact,” she pointed out, “Yoshiyoshi Arakawa looks a lot like me, and I think he could’ve done it.” (She’s known for her self-deprecating humor.)

How did Oshima prepare for the role? “Even before we started shooting, I tried to do manly things,” she said. “I never took a bath, I just took showers; I didn’t have any massages or eat any organic food. I also stopped sleeping in bed and just slept on the floor.”

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Torel (left) helped Fujita complete his first feature-length film in six years.

Producer Adam Torel piped up: “Do men not take baths? I’ve done it. And had a massage. And eaten organic food.”

Oshima admitted she also took cues from Tora-san, the beloved (and very natsukashii) character in Yoji Yamada’s long-running series It’s Tough Being a Man. “It was the director’s suggestion that I watch him,” she said, “and I watched the whole series. It was very educational, in the sense that I wanted to know how to depict a very lovable character.”

Fuku-chan is also a very lovelorn character, after his junior high crush turns up at his rundown apartment building (that would be “Fukufuku Flats”) one day, two decades after being the agent of some painful bullying. Tatsuo Fukuda — “Fuku-chan” to his friends — has spent the years since then painting buildings by day and beautiful kites by night. But his greatest artistry is reserved for mediating disputes and helping those in need. The misfits in Fukfuku Flats keep his loneliness at bay, and his pal Shinmachi (Arakawa) tries to light a fire under his love life. But his timidity around women is downright unnatural until a budding photographer named Chiho (Asami Mizukawa) enters his life, and attempts to make amends for the past.

ThreeFujita, Oshima and Toel flank Fuku-chan.

Yosuke Fujita proved in 2008 that no one can make an audience love a loser the way he can. His Fine, Totally Fine (Zenzen Daijobu, starring the oddball Arakawa) was a deadpan delight about two sadsack best friends who woo the same klutzy girl, punctuated by outlandishly ghoulish pranks. It had a wildly successful ride on the international festival circuit, scooping up numerous awards and several foreign distribution deals.

The equally offbeat Fuku-Chan has also been rapturously received overseas ahead of its Japanese debut, disproving the old saw that comedy is the most difficult genre for crossing borders. Thanks to its pioneering coproduction scheme, it is also already set for release in half a dozen countries, an unprecedented feat for a small Japanese film without Kurosawa or Miike at the helm.

Marking the first-ever Japan-UK-Italy-Taiwan-Germany coproduction, Fuku-chan was backed from the script stage by veteran distributors of Asian film who are hoping to “change the entire playing field and help Japanese non-genre and independent films reach the largest international audience possible,” according to their press release. Producer Adam Torel, head of the UK’s largest contemporary Asian cinema distributor, Third Window Films, and a driving force behind the collaborative project, was asked about the difficulty in financing the film. “I think it can be hard for a midlevel-budget film, but obviously, having someone like Oshima-san attached, a star like that, it’s not quite as hard.”


Oshima Watanabe3Hirobumi Watanabe, director of the 2013 indie hit And the Mud Ship Sails Away, tells Oshima
that he's from her small hometown in Tochigi.

Fujita concurred: “The film production scene in Japan right now is very polarized. It’s either films with big budgets coming from TV stations, or small independent films with budgets of around ¥1 to ¥2 million. Midsize films like this one are very hard to make these days, so I’m very grateful that all these international parties came onboard to make this work.”

Torel added, “It was done to create a [coproduction] formula … so people on both sides could see — the Japanese producers would realize that it could be done, and distributors overseas would realize that non-genre Japanese films could be released overseas.”

Time will tell whether the formula helps revive a seriously flagging indie film scene in Japan. Meanwhile, we’ll soon have a chance to see whether Miyuki Oshima can make history at the Japan Academy Awards. Nominations for Best Actor (and other categories) are due out in January.
  Photos by Koichi Mori and FCCJ.

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©2014 'fukufukuso no fukuchan' film committee

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