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MISHIMA: THE LAST DEBATE


MISHIMA: THE LAST DEBATE
(Mishima Yukio vs. Todai Zenkyoto: Gojunenme no Shinjitsu)


 March 17, 2020
Q&A guests: Director Keisuke Toyoshima and novelist Keiichiro Hirano


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Director Keisuke Toyoshima (left) and acclaimed novelist Keiichiro Hirano.  ©Koichi Mori

Yukio Mishima: the name still towers over the local literary landscape, especially when viewed from overseas. There is arguably no other Japanese writer whose works have been as widely translated, whose life — and death — have been as well documented internationally, whose controversial reputation has been subjected to such intense scrutiny.

No surprise, then, that many members of the audience who gathered at FCCJ to watch Mishima: The Last Debate had not only read most of his 34 novels (and/or his 50 plays, 25 short story collections and 35 books of essays), watched his film Patriotism, in which Mishima also stars, viewed Paul Schrader’s Mishima: A Life in Four Chapters or Koji Wakamatsu’s 11:25 The Day He Chose His Own Fate. Those with an enduring interest may have also read the essential biographies by John Nathan and Henry Scott Stokes, or Andrew Rankin’s authoritative Mishima, Aesthetic Terrorist: An Intellectual Portrait.

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©FCCJ

No surprise, either, that several audience members had even been present at the University of Tokyo, where The Last Debate is set, or had firsthand experience of the film’s 1969 time period, 50 years ago, when student rioting was convulsing college campuses across the country.

The surprise comes with the revelation of discovering/rediscovering Yukio Mishima, the man. No amount of reading him/about him prepares the viewer for the charismatic rockstar figure who dominates 45 minutes of The Last Debate’s runtime, in long-lost footage of a historic verbal duel between right and left that has been restored to 4K, and forms the centerpiece of the riveting new documentary.

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©2020 “Mishima The Last Debate” Film

Surprising, too, is the choice of director. As Keisuke Toyoshima (There Is No Lid on the Sea, Moriyamachu Driving School, Maniac Hero) admitted to the audience, “I’ve been making genre movies, so I was [quite amazed] when I got this offer. TBS discovered at the beginning of 2019 that they had this footage from the 1969 debate, and a TBS producer who was a classmate of mine at Todai was involved in planning a documentary about [the time period]. He wanted to hire a director who [hadn’t lived through it] and thought of me.

“The best-known image of Mishima comes from his controversial 1970 suicide,” he continued, “so a lot of people have this idea that he was an eccentric man with extreme thoughts. That’s the image I had before I started making the film. But the more I learned about him, the more my image changed. It took a 180-degree turn.”

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©Koichi Mori

Award-winning novelist Keiichiro Hirano (“The Eclipse,” “Dawn,” “A Man”), who is often compared with Mishima for his acclaim at an early age and the intensity of his intellect, provides expert commentary in the documentary, and joined Toyoshima at FCCJ. “I wasn’t surprised at all by the footage,” he told the audience. “I read my first Mishima novel at 14 and became a big fan of his work. I’ve read all his books, I’ve listened to him on CDs and I read the book about this debate (“Toron: Mishima Yukio vs. Todai Zenkyoto,” Shinchosha, 1969), which I’ve cited in my own writing.

“I’ve also had opportunities to talk with many people who knew Mishima in person, like Tadanori Yokoo, Jakucho Setouchi and Akihiro Miwa. They all talked about how charming he was. Everything they told me was about the genuine, human side of Mishima. So the image I had of him was very similar to how he appears in the footage.”

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Although accounts differ about whether all the students were members of Zenkyoto, one can't help wondering how they breathed.
©
2020 “Mishima The Last Debate” Film

How he appears is this: Vibrantly cerebral, nearly pulsating with intellectual energy and wit, effortlessly commanding attention from the 1,000 students who were at the University of Tokyo’s Komaba campus on May 13, 1969 to see him. He had been invited by the Zenkyoto (All Campus Joint Struggle Committee) to debate his rightwing views with its revolution-minded members, and Lecture Hall 900 had been declared neutral territory to accommodate the exchange.

At the time, Mishima had already founded the private Tatenokai (Shield Society) militia and trained them (using live ammunition, the film reveals) with the Japan Self-Defense Forces. (Unbeknownst to his soldiers, he had probably already begun planning a coup attempt at the SDF headquarters to restore power to the ‘Emperor,’ which would precede his suicide the following year.)

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©Koichi Mori

Providing essential context before focusing on the Todai meeting, Mishima: The Last Debate opens with heartbreaking scenes of Tokyo under siege, as students, radicalized from protesting the Vietnam War and the US-Japan Security Treaty, occupied college buildings and demanded affordable tuition and greater autonomy. Rioting quickly engulfed campuses, culminating in the barricading and burning of Todai’s Yasuda Auditorium, which marked the beginning of the end for Zenkyoto, which had instigated much of the violence.

Their final united act was to invite the “anachronistic gorilla” — as posters at the door crudely depicted him — to defend his views. “I came to see if words are still an effective method of communication,” Mishima tells the students in his 10-minute opening speech, and proceeds to amuse, impress and engage his audience with the mental agility of a gold-medal gymnast. Beating back each counterargument with poetic logic, he never once condescends, antagonizes nor treats his audience with disrespect.

But then he seems to meet his match in a smiling young man with a Buster Brown haircut and a baby in his arms. For a good 15 minutes, the documentary circles around Mishima’s increasingly theoretical interchange with Masahiko Akuta (who would go on to become an experimental theater pioneer, working with the likes of Shuji Terayama), until a student yells, “This is all philosophical nonsense! I’m here to see Mishima get beaten up!” And while this never happens, for many audience members, the earth moved that day.

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©Koichi Mori

This much is clear from many of the commentators whom Toyoshima interviews in the film — including Akuta himself (still blazingly brazen), former University of Tokyo students, former Shield Society members and of course, Keiichiro Hirano — allowing them to elucidate and expand upon the debate in ways that are extremely valuable.

“Before I started making the film,” recalled Toyoshima, I did a lot of research and read a lot of books about Mishima. Most of them start by asking why he died, why he had to die, what was the story behind his death. I didn’t want to add yet another interpretation to all those that have been done. Instead of looking at the debate from the point of view of why he died, I wanted to focus on his life.

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A match made in philosophical heaven: Masahiko Akuta and Mishima  ©2020 “Mishima The Last Debate” Film

“The reason I included the footage [from just before his] suicide at the end of the film is because I felt there was an interesting juxtaposition to be made between the 1,000 students in the hall during the debate, when his words really seemed to be reaching them, and the 1,000 members of the Self Defense Forces, who did not accept his message. I thought that comparison could be very interesting.

“The other reason is that I came to realize I was making a film about those who happened to meet Mishima during their lifetime, not about Mishima himself. The more people I talked to who were there during the debate, the more obvious it became that their encounter with him had had a powerful impact on their lives. In some cases, it even seemed to determine the future course of their lives.

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©
2020 “Mishima The Last Debate” Film

“So I included the suicide because I wanted to focus on how those people who spent the day at Todai on May 13, 1969 felt about his death, about his loss. It’s not about the meaning of his death, but about how his loss was received by those who were there.”

Inevitably, the FCCJ audience wanted to know how the filmmaker and the novelist felt about Mishima’s stated hope to reify Japan under the concept of the emperor.

Hirano dove right in. “Mishima’s attitude right after the war was very critical of society and the LDP. That’s quite different from today’s conservatives, who only want to praise Japan. He spoke about an ideal image of Japan that derived from his prewar education, which was centered on [emperor worship] when he was young.

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©Koichi Mori

“But he also tried to adjust to what was happening in Japanese society, to separate himself from his early idea of the emperor. He was successful in that, in the sense that he became a superstar novelist and a frequent presence in the media. He wasn’t really aligning himself with a democratic society, but he did embrace the materialistic aspects of [Japan’s capitalistic culture]. But he was tired of this by his mid-30s and reverted to his earlier image of the ideal Japan, and its [abstract traditional essence] under the 'Emperor.'”

Added Toyoshima, “As you saw in the film, Mishima says to the students, ‘If you’d said ‘Emperor,’ I’d have joined you’ [in their cause]. I wanted to understand why he said such a thing, and that was one of the motivations for me to interview so many people. I would be curious to know what Mishima would think of our current definition of tenno, since the Heisei Emperor (who abdicated the throne in 2019) seemed to support the constitution and traveled around the country trying to help people heal (after tragedies like 3/11). The recent emperors seem to sympathize with leftwing ideals.”

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©Koichi Mori

Toyoshima stresses that although Mishima wielded both pen and sword, it is the former that has had the greatest lasting impact. Rarely has a film captured the dynamic interchange of ideas and the power of language in quite so compelling a form. Mishima: The Last Debate is a timely reminder that words, wielded judiciously and meaningfully, will always triumph over swords; that there is always a common ground even when arguing political ideologies at opposite extremes.

Is it possible, Hirano was asked, for political discussion in today’s world to remain civilized and courteous? “I can’t generalize about the current situation,” he responded. “I’m around the same age as Mishima when he was debating the Todai students, so as much as they seemed to be on an equal footing, I still think there was the sense that [an adult was talking to students], and students were talking with a star novelist.

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©FCCJ

“But there was a kind of balance which made the debate very gentlemanlike, even when the students tried to provoke him. There was a power balance. Today, especially on the internet, it’s nearly impossible to have a constructive conversation like this between people of opposing opinions. But I think in the proper venue, it is still possible.”

Toyoshima concurred. “I hope this film and the footage of the debate will communicate the passion and respect that were present that day. You see how the opinions were exchanged, how close physically the debaters actually were as they talked. Making the film, I wanted to believe in Mishima’s opening remarks — that words are still an effective means of communication.”

And so, it goes without saying, do we.

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©2020 “Mishima The Last Debate” Film

Selected Media Exposure

BENEATH THE SHADOW


BENEATH THE SHADOW (Eiri)


 February 4, 2020
Q&A guests: Director Keishi Otomo and producer Masashi Igarashi


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 Igarashi (left) cracks that it's a lot harder to make a film based on a prizewinning novel than it is to make one based on a manga,
which "Mr. Otomo has done time and again."
©Koichi Mori

Most of us know Keishi Otomo as the director and cowriter of the blockbuster Rurouni Kenshin trilogy, arguably the most globally successful samurai-swashbuckler franchise of our time. The first-ever Japanese helmer to sign a multipicture deal with Warner Bros., Otomo produced slick, big-budget, live-action adaptations of the popular manga/anime series that were instant classics for their mix of spectacular swordfights, slapstick humor and romanticism.

What we didn’t recognize from Rurouni Kenshin — or his other domestic box-office hits — is that underneath the polish of this world-class director, beats the heart of a poet.

But Otomo’s new film demonstrates just that. With his first arthouse title after three decades in TV and film, he takes a surprising turn toward the contemplative, the elegiac, the ineffable with Beneath the Mask.

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Otomo took time out from the final weeks of editing his summer Rurouni Kenshin releases.  ©Koichi Mori

Based on the 2017 Akutagawa Prizewinner “Eiri,” it is set in the director’s hometown of Morioka, Iwate Prefecture, both before and after the 3/11 tragedy. The sense of loss that infuses many of its scenes signals just how much personal resonance the story has for him.

Appearing after a sneak preview at FCCJ, Otomo immediately confirmed this. He recalled, “In 2011, I came to the decision, after working at NHK [since 1990], that I would leave the company to focus on making films without corporate backup. Just after I made that decision, 3/11 happened. The question that I’ve kept going back to is, Is there anything I could have done, or anything I can do [as a filmmaker] for my hometown of Morioka? I did receive project offers aimed at rejuvenating the area, and those planted a seed. But after I started my own company [Office Oplus], all the pieces finally fell into place.

“Also, since this is the year of the 2020 Tokyo Olympics and Paralympics, and all eyes will be on Tokyo, that made me somewhat apprehensive about how Tohoku would be viewed. I wanted to make this film for the people of Tohoku, to express their thoughts and feelings, to record them in an accurate way and share them with audiences. So many bereaved family members said ‘Goodbye, see you later’ to someone who never came back. What happened to their pain, their sadness? I wanted to give them a voice. It’s that kind of sentiment that went into the making of this film.”

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Ryuhei Matsuda as Hiasa (left), in his new life as a traveling salesman. Go Ayano as Konno (right), who's just arrived in Morioka. 
©2020 Beneath the Shadow Film Partners

The protagonist of Beneath the Shadow, Shuichi Konno (Go Ayano), first meets Norihiro Hiasa (Ryuhei Matsuda) when his pharmaceutical company transfers him to Morioka, where the latter already works. Both men are 30 years old and seemingly solitary, but they have little else in common. Konno is an introverted stickler for rules who spends his free time with books and a jasmine plant sent by his family; Hiasa is a smiling rebel, a rule shirker who loves to fish in the nearby rivers.

The two men begin to spend time together, and Konno develops his own fondness for angling as they fall into an uneasy comradery. Infected by Hiasa’s enthusiasm and the beauty of Morioka's natural surroundings, Konno starts emerging from his shell, joining the company’s sansa dance team and smiling more often.

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©2020 Beneath the Shadow Film Partners

But one day, Hiasa abruptly quits and leaves town without a word. When he shows up again, half a year later, it’s to beg his friend to buy a policy he’s selling for a “mutual aid society,” since he’s “just one sale short of the quota.” Their friendship and fishing trips gradually resume, but Konno remains unnerved. And then 3/11 hits, and Hiasa completely disappears. Like so many others, he is assumed to be dead.

Konno contacts Hiasa’s father (Jun Kunimura) for news, and discovers that what little he knew about his friend had probably been a lie. He remembers what Hiasa said to him late one night: “You only see what the light hits for an instant. When you look at someone, you should look at the other side, the side where the shadow is deepest.”

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The friends fish local rivers for a variety of species.
  ©2020 Beneath the Shadow Film Partners

Like its literary inspiration, the film’s tale of fly fishing, drinking and male bonding skirts obvious interpretation, as straightforward as it seems. It begins with the suggestion of tragedy, is driven by mystery and ends even more enigmatically than it began. Laden with subtext, heavy with meaning and metaphor, it’s that rare film where nearly every line, nearly every action, can be interpreted both literaly as well as symbolically.

Discussing the film’s title and its implications about the hidden sides of all of us, Otomo told the FCCJ audience: “Konno has so much anger inside him, which he represses and manages to live quietly. But we can feel it roiling underneath the surface. Hiasa is also full of complexities and contradictions. We sense that he is of the moment but also eternal. He’s an adult, but also childish; there’s a double-sidedness to his character.”

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Konno reacts when he hears shocking news from Hiasa's father (Jun Kunimura).  ©2020 Beneath the Shadow Film Partners

Expanding on the character sketches, he explained: “Konno is an LGBTQ character, and as with such characters in many societies, not just Japan, he’s gone through many hardships. These have led him to be very sensitive about how people react to him. Since he’s come to Morioka as a newcomer, it’s liberating because no one knows that he’s gay. He’s embarking on a new life, but he’s lonely because he doesn’t know anyone.”

On the other hand, “Hiasa was born and brought up in Morioka. He’s free-spirited and doesn’t follow the rules. I think we can say he’s a metaphor for uncontrollable nature, anthropomorphized. He’s not ill-intentioned, he just doesn’t want to adjust himself to society’s norms.”

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©Koichi Mori

Asked about the casting of his two leads, both of whom Otomo had previously directed, he admitted, “I basically went with my intuition. From the moment I read the novel, through the process of working (with Kaori Sawai) on the script, I felt these were the only two actors for the roles. With Mr. Ayano, he has this very intellectual, cultured aspect to his presence, while Mr. Matsuda is somehow just so cinematic. He has a very poetic presence. I just couldn’t wait to see them play the roles.”

Otomo was praised for eliciting such nuanced performances, and asked about his approach to directing them. He concurred that they were “wonderful,” and that Matsuda, in particular, “really grounded his role,” despite its challenges. (Matsuda won the award for Best Actor at the Hainan Island International Film Festival in December, where Beneath the Shadow had its world premiere).

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   Igarashi produced Netflix's Hibana: Spark and Naoko Ogigami's Close-Knit, among other titles. ©Koichi Mori

“As with any good actor,” he said, “Mr. Ayano and Mr. Matsuda can tell from the production design and costumes what kind of approach you imagine in a certain scene. I didn’t have to explain a lot. And we didn’t talk a lot about the characters on set. I didn’t want to impose anything on their own interpretations. Sometimes it seemed like I was just shooting a documentary about the characters, except when they would occasionally veer too far from what I’d imagined. Then I would quietly pull them aside so we could discuss the scene. But mostly, I would work closely with my production designer to adjust the backdrops of the scenes to heighten the acting choices they had made.”

Otomo’s business partner and producer, Masashi Igarashi, was asked what it was like to work on the modestly budgeted project. “We’ve only been working together since founding the company 3 years ago," he responded, "but I was always a great admirer of Mr. Otomo’s work. He may be best known for Rurouni Kenshin, but he’s also done films like the two-part March Comes in Like a Lion, that are really rich, profound human dramas. Despite the fact that this film wasn’t on as massive a scale as his other work, I’m happy that we could make such a rich, intense film together.

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Ayano first worked with Otomo on Rurouni Kenshin, while Matsuda had a role in
the director's first film, Vulture (2009)
  ©2020 Beneath the Shadow Film Partners

“It’s very difficult to make films like these in the present environment in Japan,” he lamented. “It’s a lot easier to make films based on manga — which Mr. Otomo has done time and again — than it is to make a film based on an Akutagawa Prizewinning work [that requires audiences to read] between the lines. But it’s still possible, and I hope audiences here and overseas will [appreciate] this.”

Asked for his own thoughts on the film’s international appeal, Otomo waxed nostalgic. “When I was growing up," he recalled, "I would go to a really tiny cinema in Morioka, and that was really my window on the world. I traveled the world and learned so much that way. I think film should be a submersive experience in a cinema, not viewed on a small screen.

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Otomo with the film's Japanese poster. ©︎FCCJ

“I always hope my films will become a tool of communication. It was such an enjoyable experience participating in the Hainan International Film Festival, seeing how the audience digested and interpreted my film. Film isn’t only art, it’s a way to communicate.”

While it won't attract the frenzied fanship of his most famous series, Keishi Otomo's Beneath the Shadow is certain to travel widely, and to launch many a conversation — on love, loss, loneliness, trust and betrayal, not to mention hidden meanings in the water, the weather, the trees and even that pomegranate.

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©2020 Beneath the Shadow Film Partners

Selected Media Exposure

THE ACTOR (Haiyu Kameoka Takuji)


THE ACTOR


 January 12, 2016
Q&A guest: Director Satoko Yokohama


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Satoko Yokohama finally returns with a new film. She's been much missed.

Satoko Yokohama’s first indie feature, German + Rain, earned her an immediate following on the international film festival circuit in 2007. She solidified her reputation as one of Japan’s most gifted young creators with her Bare Essence of Life (aka Ultra Miracle Love Story, 2008), which premiered at the Toronto Film Festival, traveled extensively overseas, and reaped multiple awards, including the Best Actor at the Mainichi Film Awards for its star, Kenichi Matsuyama.

And then, suddenly, 7 years went by without a new Yokohama feature, although she continued to be active as a director of short films, music and behind-the-scenes videos.  

News of her selection to represent Japan in the Winds of Asia Section at the 2015 Tokyo International Film Festival last October was met with great anticipation, and The Actor was an immediate favorite among festivalgoers upon its premiere.

Yokohama was on hand to discuss her new film with FCCJ’s audience prior to its late-January theatrical opening, and immediately established herself as one of the shyest, most modest guests to have graced our dais. This is all fine and good, of course, but the exuberance of her first two films, demonstrating a mastery of the offbeat, a wild but gentle sense of humor, an eye for the existential and an affection for outsiders, would seem to have suggested a writer-director of great confidence, brashness and perhaps, vanity.

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Ken Yasuda is unforgettable as the title character. At right, he convinces his director (Shota Sometani)
to use real booze when filming a bar scene, which leads to ever-deepening hilarity.

Instead, Yokohama resembles the diffident, everyman hero of The Actor, based on the Akutagawa Prize-nominated novel by Akito Inui. After focusing on larger-than-life protagonists in her earlier films, this one highlights the less-than-large life of a supporting actor, one Takuji Kameoka (played by busy TV thespian Ken Yasuda in an extraordinarily versatile performance). He’s the guy whose face you recognize, but whose name you can never remember. Always working — although not in parts he’d choose if he had a choice — Kameoka can disappear into a role so completely that he’s just perfect as the homeless man, the chimpira, the Edo-era thief (he’s already played seven of them this year). Beloved by directors and respected by his peers, he is cast as much for his humility and lack of ego as he is for his skill and professionalism.

But Kameoka’s heavy-lidded stare, sloped shoulders and smile-grimace say it all: he’s charming but harmless, never upstaging his fellow actors, never playing a leading role even in his own life. As he approaches middle age, he’s clearly given up on any dream of a big break. Then one fateful evening in Nagano, he falls in love with a winsome bartender Azumi (Kumiko Asou), who introduces him to the dubious joys of the local seaweed delicacy and encourages him to visit when he’s lonely. Back in Tokyo, world-famous arthouse director Alain Spesso (Ricardo Garcia), one of Kameoka’s favorites, invites him to audition for the leading role in his next film. The supporting actor is soon facing an existential midlife crisis.

The story may sound straightforward, but The Actor fairly crackles and pops, thanks to Yokohama’s flare for surrealistic touches, unusual imagery and offbeat musical selections. These all became the subject of questions from FCCJ’s audience, with the first, not surprisingly, concerning what changes she had made in adapting the original work to the screen. Focusing immediately on one of the most brilliant — and unexpected — scenes, in which Kameoka goes in to audition for Alain Spesso and is suddenly miming an astonishing performance, interacting with shadows that appear on the screen behind him, Yokohama admitted that, although the scene does appear in the novel, “I added quite a bit to it… it’s one of the scenes in which I took liberties.”

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The director ponders a question.

She also mentioned the film’s final scene, which is meant to take place in the Moroccan desert, but for financial reasons, was shot in Hamamatsu. “I didn’t want to exclude it, so I was quite adamant about it,” she said. She continued, “In the original novel, [Spesso] is a French director, but during the auditions, when we had a lot of different [nationalities] coming in, Ricardo Garcia came in and was very entertaining, in the respect that he was unpredictable. We didn’t quite know what he was going to do. Since he’s from Spain, we changed the storyline to make him Spanish.”

[An ongoing discussion later ensued in the bar, where audience members from Colombia, Argentina and Spain debated Garcia’s actual nationality, arguing that he had not been entirely convincing as a Spaniard.]

To a question about the film’s depiction of alcoholism— Kameoka spends his nights getting quite blotto with a variety of fellow low-achievers, and on one set, even convinces the director to use real alcohol in a bar scene, with hilarious results — Yokohama explained, “When you’re shooting a film in Japan, the set is usually very tense, very strained, and it’s taxing not just on the filmmakers but the actors as well. Because Kameoka is always on set, he needs a place to release all of his tension.”

She then addressed whether there was a veiled message here about Japan at large: “I think people taking to drink is a universal habit, not just in Japan but around the world. However, I would say that the Japanese probably drink more because we can’t be frank with each other. In my case, too, I drink to lubricate communication.”

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Yokohama poses with the poster for her third feature.

Yokohama lauded Ken Yasuda’s depiction of Kameoka, saying she cast him for his “lack of an aura” and his “unassuming character.” As for Kumiko Asou, whom the director also cast as the love interest in Bare Essence of Life, “Although she has a huge career, she’s very easy to work with and is very professional… Also, not only is the character meant to be beautiful, but also fragile after just going through a divorce. I thought Asou-san could depict both traits.”

Although she was prodded about the possibility of a deeper meaning for the film, based on its final scene in the desert of Hamamatsu, Yokohama demurred. “I think the final message is a universal message for all of us: You must live your life as you choose to, and carve your own path, rather than following a path chosen by someone else... The same can be said for filmmakers: You’re not there to make a film the way it’s written in the script exactly, since you don’t know what’s going to happen and you can’t foresee how it’s going to turn out. The key is to not be intimidated — just do your work, don’t worry too much and don’t be afraid.”

We hope Yokohama takes this advice and continues to forge her own unique creative path.
Photos by Koichi Mori and FCCJ.

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©2016 "ACTOR" Production Committee

Media Coverage

 

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