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HARMONIUM


HARMONIUM (Fuchi ni Tatsu)


 September 28, 2016
Q&A guests: Director Koji Fukada and stars Mariko Tsutsui and Kanji Furutachi


 Harminium three FCCJ-53L
Furutachi (left) and Tsutsui (center) hardly seem the dysfunctional couple they play in the film, but Fukada (right) saw the chemistry.  ©FCCJ

Extreme weight gain or loss for a film role is such a common celebrity headline in the West that it’s all become a bit ho hum. After Robert De Niro snagged an Oscar for packing on pounds to play Jake LaMotta in Raging Bull, a long line of stars has followed suit, from Renee Zellwegger and Charlize Theron (big gains for Bridget Jones’ Diary and Monster) to Christian Bale and Matthew McConaughey (big losses for The Machinist and Dallas Buyer’s Club).

But such feats aren’t common in Japan*, so when this exchange occurred at the beginning of the Q&A session for Harmonium, there were audible gasps from the audience:

Question: “How did you prepare to portray this couple who change so much between the first and second part of the film, which commences 8 years later?”

Mariko Tsutsui: “After reading the script, I realized my character undergoes drastic changes. I knew right away that it wouldn’t be enough to express her inner turmoil without going through some physical changes, as well, and I discussed with the director how we might achieve that. One thing we did was to shoot in sequence.”

Koji Fukada: “Since Ms. Tsutsui is too modest to mention this herself, I will add that she took the character’s physical transformation seriously, and gained 13 kg [29 pounds] in 3 weeks.”

   Harminium fukada KM-19   Harminium fukada KM-49
Fukada can now add a Cannes Jury Prize to his mantel.         ©Mance Thompson, Koichi Mori

The gasps erupted partially because Tsutsui was so glamorously slender on the FCCJ stage, and partially because the Method approach to acting has so few practitioners in Japan. One of them, coincidentally, was sitting right next to Tsutsui — her costar, Kanji Furutachi. The popular actor studied at the famed HB Studio in New York with Uta Hagen, Carol Rosenfeld and others, and his fellow alumni include De Niro, Al Pacino, Liza Minnelli, Anne Bancroft and Matthew Broderick.

Despite such bragging rights, Furutachi’s disarming modesty remains intact. “No matter what kind of character I depict, I usually take the same approach,” he admitted. “For this film, I hadn’t had any of the experiences that my character has, so I had to rely more on my imagination. But I think I made the right decisions. I hope I made the right decisions.”

Harminium tsutui KM-41   Harminium tsutui KM-44
 Tsutsui is a theater and TV veteran with lengthy film credits, but this marks her first starring role.   ©FCCJ, Koichi Mori

Tsutsui mentioned that she’d made her decisions based on “hints” she received from Fukuda regarding his own parents’ relationship, which was obviously fraught. “Mr. Furutachi and I are both theater veterans, and it’s very easy for us to communicate because we can be straightforward with each other and say what we want to each other. But it does seem like our banter comes off like we’re a husband and wife squabbling. That helped us during the shoot.”

Interjected Furutachi (in English, without realizing he'd switched languages), “I think that’s due to the magic of Mr. Fukada. We were perfectly cast as this couple. It’s amazing. It’s not like we had to even pretend, or make up something we didn’t have. Maybe it was already there.”

The director was asked how he managed to find two actors of the same caliber as international star Tadanobu Asano, thus assuring he wouldn’t eclipse his costars. Said Fukada: “While I was writing the script, which was about 10 years ago, I already had Mr. Furutachi in mind [in the interim, the actor would play the interloper in Fukada’s 2010 breakout hit Hospitalité, a role similar to Asano’s in Harmonium]. Then three years ago, when we got the greenlight to go ahead, the producers suggested Ms. Tsutsui, and I saw right away that she would be perfect for the role of his wife. After that, we cast Mr. Asano. So he was actually cast last, after these two were already in place.”

As Harmonium's inscrutable stranger in white coveralls, Asano is haunted and haunting; but his quietly commanding performance is more than matched by Furutachi and relative unknown Tsutsui, who is the true revelation here, particularly in her second-half transformation (the weight helps, but there is also gut-wrenching emotional heft).

Harminium fututachi tsutsui KM-24L
Furutachi and Tsutsui, an even match.  ©Koichi Mori

The synergy between all three costars is nothing short of startling, surely a contributing factor to the film’s success at Cannes, where it emerged with the Un Certain Regard Jury Prize despite intense competition in a lineup that also included Cannes-favorite Hirokazu Kore-eda. The French festival does love dark portraits of fractured families, to be sure, but Fukada’s win is a remarkable achievement for the indie filmmaker, whose budgets — impossibly low, even by Japan’s rock-bottom standards — have been no match for his ambitions.

In just over a decade since his debut, Fukada has worked in a variety of genres and received awards for all his work (from black comic romp Hospitalité, to gentle coming-of-age frolic Au revoir l’eté, to apocalyptic fable Sayonara), but none has been quite as enigmatic, as strangely alluring yet serious minded, as his latest. While he has always infused his stories with Timely Themes (racism, ostracism, exile due to nuclear disaster), they have never overshadowed his central focus, which is forever and always on the disconnection between family members.

With Harmonium, he proves that he is not afraid to confront and crush the conventions of that most hackneyed of genres, the Japanese family drama. In the film’s production notes, Fukada wrote: “I’m tired of all these Japanese films idealizing family ties. By continuing to relay this outdated and stereotypical image of an ‘ideal family,’ we deny the various other family types that actually exist.”

Harminium furutachi FCCJ-35   Harminium furutachi FCCJ-29 
               Furutachi told the audience: "I actually come here sometimes to see films, so I usually sit on your side, looking this way. Tonight, I’m very honored  to be sitting on this side, looking the other way."         ©FCCJ

In Harmonium we watch, with sinking heart, as one such “family type” collapses following the arrival of an old acquaintance. We’ve just barely met Toshio (Furutachi), his wife Akie (Tsutsui) and their young daughter Hotaru (Momone Shinokawa) when Yasaka (Asano) arrives, just out of prison for murder and somehow linked to Toshio’s past. Without consulting his wife, with whom relations are noticeably strained, Toshio moves the new arrival into a spare room in their cramped quarters, and puts him to work in the small factory downstairs. Yasaka is well mannered and hard-working; he washes his own dishes and wins over Hotaru with a blithe tune on the harmonium, which she’s attempting to play. He also wins over Akie, attending church with her and confessing his past sins. But their flirtation clearly alarms Akie, even as her husband remains oblivious. Then one morning, a tragedy occurs, and the final estrangement of family members is complete. As the story jumps forward in time, the aftermath is chilling to behold. Probing undercurrents of surprising philosophical depth, Harmonium ends with an ambiguity that will incite discussion long after its final, devastating moments.

Film critic Mark Schilling, who would later bestow a rare 4.5 out of 5 stars on the film in the Japan Times, mentioned that on his second viewing, Harmonium’s depiction of evil reminded him of Stanley Kubrick’s The Shining. Fukada demurred. “I didn’t want to depict Yasaka as an antihero or a villain or anything that could be construed as charismatic, because I don’t think there’s a clear line between what is evil and what is good. It’s not black and white. I think we live in degrees of gray. Evil depends on what perspective you view it from. In some scenes Yasaka is gentle and kind, in some he’s very threatening, in some he’s gripped with an anger he can’t control. I wanted to depict him in a multifaceted way.”

When Fukada was asked where the idea for the story came from, he laughed, “I get that a lot.” After admitting that he couldn’t remember exactly what he was thinking 10 years earlier, he noted, “I do remember that I wanted to depict how violence could come into someone’s life in such a random way, and just shatter it. Car accidents and acts of god can drastically change the course of life. I wanted to depict violence in a way that defies logic, defies cause and effect, defies crime and punishment.”

With the Cannes trophy leading to an uptick in international sales, audiences in France can look forward to seeing Harmonium in theaters in December, while US audiences will have to wait only until early 2017.

*Perhaps this is about to change, with Tsutsui’s in Harmonium, and Kenichi Matsuyama’s 35-pound gain to play chess champion Satoshi Murayama in the upcoming Satoshi: A Move for Tomorrow.

 Harminium poster KM-90
                                                                                                                                                                                                        ©Koichi Mori

 

harmonium
©2016 FUCHI NI TATSU FILM PARTNERS & COMME DES CINEMAS

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THE RED TURTLE


THE RED TURTLE (Red Turtle: Aru shima no monogatari)


 August 31, 2016
Q&A guest: Director Michael Dudok de Wit


MDW poster KM-172Michael Dudok de Wit ©Koichi Mori

Imagine that you are an animator of short films — a very, very good animator, an award-winning animator, but nevertheless, a short-form animator — and out of the blue one day, you receive an email from Studio Ghibli.

The email asks you two questions: Would you allow us to distribute your Oscar-winning Father and Daughter in Japan? And would you be interested in working with Studio Ghibli on your first-ever feature film?

London-based Dutch animator Michael Dudok de Wit laughs when he recalls that magical moment in November 2006, when his life changed: “It was a shock when it all started …[the email explained]: ‘You would team up with Wild Bunch in Paris, and you would write the film.’ I had two simultaneous reactions: The first one was ‘Yes!!’ And the second one was, ‘Hang on.’ I wrote back and asked, ‘Could you please explain? I want to make sure that I understood your email properly.”

redturtle sub
© 2016 Studio Ghibli - Wild Bunch - Why Not Productions - Arte France Cinéma - CN4 Productions - Belvision - Nippon Television Network - Dentsu - Hakuhodo DYMP - Walt Disney Japan - Mitsubishi – Toho

The director then met right away with the heads of Wild Bunch in London, and, “My first question was, ‘This is unbelievable. Tell me, is there’s something I’ve not been told yet?’ They said, ‘No, no, this is really genuine. They want to know if you have a story. We aren’t promising that we will make the film, but we’ll have a go. It’s new for [Ghibli], it’s new for you to make a feature film, so let’s take it step by step.’ Straight away, I started writing the synopsis.”

As far as fantastical genesis stories go, it’s a suitably Ghibli-esque one.

Dudok de Wit shared that anecdote and many others with FCCJ’s audience during a lengthy Q&A session following a sneak preview screening of his first feature, The Red Turtle — which also became Studio Ghibli’s first international coproduction, in collaboration with France’s Wild Bunch and Why Not Productions. Watching proudly from the audience, and later responding to a question, was legendary Studio Ghibli producer Toshio Suzuki.

TS KM-160 Suzuki responds, essentially putting the kibosh on the
Ghibli-collaboration fantasies of animators everywhere.   ©Koichi Mori

Since it was the question on everyone’s mind at FCCJ, and is surely foremost on the minds of those reading this blog, we’ll cut to the chase:

Suzuki was asked whether The Red Turtle was to be the first of many international projects to come from Studio Ghibli. He responded: “I think Michael is a very special case. In my line of work, I meet many different people and I often becomes friends with them. But as one of the producers of the film, what got me started on this was falling in love with Michael’s short film, Father and Daughter, and simply being curious: What would a feature film by this director look like? That was the impetus for the film, and if you’re asking if this project will be a catalyst for future collaborations with foreign filmmakers, I would have to say, it simply depends on whether I encounter a similar situation like that again.”

In the ensuing decade since Dudok de Wit received his life-altering email, many things changed, not least the makeup of Studio Ghibli itself, after anime titan Hayao Miyazaki retired from long-form filmmaking in 2014, and Suzuki stepped down from producing in 2015. But in May 2016, The Red Turtle premiered at the 2016 Cannes Film Festival, winning the Un Certain Regard Special Prize and a slew of rapturous reviews. As Indiewire raved: “It showcases the best ways in which Studio Ghibli productions maintain a certain elegant simplicity that points to deeper truths. This is a quiet little masterpiece of images, each one rich with meaning, that collectively speak to a universal process.”

MDW KM-104   MDW FCCJ-035
           Photo left ©Koichi Mori; right, FCCJ

Throughout the Q&A session, Dudok de Wit stressed just how universal the process of creation had been: “For a feature film, you want to make sure your [choices as director] work for other people as well. So I was very sensitive to how [Studio Ghibli and Wild Bunch] reacted during the development process. After that, we became a team: the animators arrived and the background artists arrived, and we were dozens of people in the same building, making the film.” Over the three years of production, the director constantly encouraged feedback from his team, as well as reading nonverbal signals and body language — something he emphasized every animator does.

One journalist remarked immediately on the film’s similarities with Ghibli releases. Responded Dudok de Wit: “I don’t think there’s a typical Ghibli aesthetic. I think there’s a [Hayao] Miyazaki aesthetic and a [Isao] Takahata aesthetic. There’s a sensitivity and a maturity about the films that is very obvious, but it was never the idea to make a film that looks like a Ghibli film. From the beginning, [Takahata, who is credited as the film’s artistic producer, and Suzuki] said, ‘We like Father and Daughter a lot, we feel like it’s a Japanese film,’ which is a huge compliment. I would not have been good at imitating their style. I find it extraordinary to make a haiku-style film like Takahata’s My Neighbors the Yamadas. We could never do that in the West.”

MDW KM-121   MDW KM-111
                                                                                                                                                                                             ©Koichi Mori

He continued, “What we do have in common is a certain sensitivity. We have a respect for nature and a deep, positive respect for human nature. To be honest, I felt it clicked between us. There was a sort of natural chemistry between us.”

That chemistry translates onscreen into a perfect synthesis of animation sensibilities. The Red Turtle is an expressionistic ode to human resilience, to family bonds, to the search for happiness and to the very cycle of life. Stripping existence to its most basic elements, the breathtakingly visual film follows a man who washes ashore on a deserted island following a ferocious storm, eventually builds a raft to escape and is prevented from leaving by an enormous red turtle. One morning, he awakens to find that a woman has become a castaway with him on the island, and after a courtship of sorts, the two have a child.

As their odyssey continues, Dudok de Wit’s hand-drawn charcoal backgrounds and the artisanal quality of his digital animation imbues his allegorical tale with a delicate, painterly beauty. While uniquely the director’s, The Red Turtle warmly evokes Ghibli, especially in its Greek chorus of sand crabs who are the man’s only friends at first, and the unmistakable message that man can only survive if we learn to coexist with nature.

(Variety called the film “a fable so simple, so pure, it feels as if it has existed for hundreds of years.” In fact, although the titular turtle was Dudok de Wit’s idea, the story has faint echoes of the Japanese myth of Urashima Taro, which also features a turtle and a lost soul).

When one journalist lauded the director for “creating a world within the film, a world that we come away remembering vividly, as we do with Ghibli films,” Dudok de Wit reassured him that animators “usually do far more research than spectators realize, taking thousands and thousands of photographs, because that’s our job. And it’s a joy. I went to La Digue, one of the Seychelles islands, particularly because it has ancient granite rocks. I thought they were very beautiful, very sensual.” He also mentioned that he’d purposely chosen something different from one palm tree with a coconut, as deserted islands always are in the castaway clichés. He found his inspiration in a famed bamboo grove near Kyoto and a wild bamboo forest in Kyushu, as well as another in France.

MDW poster FCCJ-056
                                                                                              ©FCCJ

To a question concerning his choice to make the film dialogue free, Dudok de Wit said, “There were a few moments, later in the story, where I felt it was essential to have a few sentences, both for the clarity of the story, and to enhance the humanity of the characters … But new arrivals on the film team would say, ‘I like the story a lot, but the voices are a bit odd.’ [With writer Pascale Ferran,] we kept working on the lines, and in the end, we kept just a few … Then one day I got a call from Studio Ghibli, saying, ‘We looked at the animatic [storyboard] and looked at the words the characters are saying. We discussed it, and we feel that the film actually doesn’t need dialogue.’ I defended my idea that we occasionally needed it for clarity, but in the end, they said ‘We think the film will survive without dialogue and will actually be stronger.’ At that point, I felt a huge relief. I thought, ‘If they feel it works without dialogue, I’m really interested in this challenge.’”

He then discovered a way to bring the characters more alive without having them speak: “We got voice actors in, and we asked them to breathe through the whole film. To my pleasant surprise, the breathing not only created a stronger empathy for the characters, but the sound of breathing was more expressive than I’d anticipated. We don’t need to hear words, but the fact that we hear them breathe brings them closer to us.”

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 Dudok de Wit embellishes his autograph with a quick sketch of the titular turtle. ©Koichi Mori

All of Dudok de Wit’s short films, including the Oscar-nominated The Monk and the Fish (1994), a playfully absurd comedy, and his achingly poignant Oscar winner Father and Daughter (2000), are driven by music, with no dialogue at all. Asked whether a future film might include lines, the director said, “There are many, many short films with no dialogue. That’s very common. They don’t need the spoken language, the film language is already strong enough. In this film, the [main character] doesn’t need to speak aloud to himself; he’s not like Tom Hanks. I would be open to using dialogue [in future]. I’ve used dialogue in many of the commercials I’ve made.”

The Red Turtle is coming soon to screens around the world, since most territories have been sold. It has opened in France, Belgium and the French-speaking part of Switzerland, and Sony Pictures Classics will be releasing the film later this year in North America. It’s sure to attract animation and art-film lovers everywhere, as well as making all the animation award shortlists at the end of this year. But will it lead to more magical emails from Studio Ghibli, winging their way across cyberspace to transform the lives of other animators…? Only time will tell.

 redturtle
© 2016 Studio Ghibli - Wild Bunch - Why Not Productions -
Arte France Cinéma - CN4 Productions - Belvision -
Nippon Television Network - Dentsu - Hakuhodo DYMP -
Walt Disney Japan - Mitsubishi – Toho

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