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ASAKO I & II


ASAKO I & II (Netemo Sametemo)


August 29, 2018
Q&A guests: Director Ryusuke Hamaguchi and star Erika Karata


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Hamaguchi (left) and Karata. ©FCCJ

Doppelgängers are much in the news these days, thanks to the buzz surrounding the US documentary Three Identical Strangers, which lays bare a shocking tale of triplets separated at birth, reunited in adulthood through a fluke, and their heartbreaking search for answers.

Ryusuke Hamaguchi’s Asako I & II also features a mystery centered on a doppelgänger, but audiences should not expect any pat explanations. This “twin,” played impressively by Masahiro Higashide, is not the film’s protagonist. As the (English) title makes clear, that would be Asako herself — although those Roman numerals can be interpreted in a number of ways. 

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Karata and Higashide.
© 2018 NETEMO SAMETEMO FILM PARTNERS & COMME DES CINÉMAS

Hamaguchi made his name guiding unknown actresses to a shower of awards from overseas festivals for his 5-hour 17-minute revelation Happy Hour in 2015. If the selection of Asako I & II for the Official Competition at this year’s Cannes Film Festival is any indication, star Erika Karata may be poised for the same success. The film will shortly play at the Toronto, New York and San Sebastian film festivals, and its Japan release in 40+ theaters reflects Hamaguchi’s newfound reputation as an internationally acclaimed auteur.

The director and his leading lady, who marks her first major role with Asako I & II, appeared after FCCJ’s sneak preview screening and recalled their Cannes experience, the first red carpet for both. Said the director, with typical understatement, “I’m a cinephile, so to be on the other side of what I’d always watched was very exciting.” Karata was still palpably excited: “To be able to participate was such a surprise. I didn’t ever imagine I’d go there at such a young age and with my first lead role. I feel extremely lucky to have had such an experience. It was like a dream, just like the [Japanese] title of the film.”

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 ©FCCJ

Hamaguchi has already completed nine films in just over a decade — including a trilogy of documentaries centered around the Fukushima disaster — and has been a fixture on the festival circuit since his first release. But Asako I & II marks his first commercial release, and is also a Japan-France coproduction. Asked about the process of creation, he said, “I assume that not many people know the difference between working on an independent vs. a commercial film. The starkest difference is the scale and size of the budget. The level and quality, I’ll call it, and the goals of the producers are also different. But my producers were familiar with my earlier films, so we were able to work together in a flexible fashion. We were able to meld my style with a more commercial style.”

He continued, “The effect of it being a Japan-France coproduction is that it was easy to expand it into international territories, so there was no risk of having to recoup the budget in the Japanese market only. MK2 is handling international sales, and came onboard during the script stage. They’ve already sold the film in over 10 territories.”

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© 2018 NETEMO SAMETEMO FILM PARTNERS & COMME DES CINÉMAS

A journalist pointed out that Asako I & II is adapted from a bestseller by a female novelist (Akutagawa Prizewinner Tomoka Shibasaki, whose earlier novel “A Day on the Planet” also got the cinematic treatment), and that Hamaguchi had also cowritten the script with a female writer, Sachiko Tanaka. “Did you have to adjust your own perspective?” he was asked. Responded Hamaguchi, “They brought a lot to the story in terms of a female perspective. But you don’t have to be a woman to understand Asako’s actions. And you don’t have to be a female to shoot a story like this. Ms. Karata was able to embody the character of Asako. She had extreme focus in playing the role, and I just let her lead me — all the way to Cannes.”

(In a similar vein, it’s worthwhile to note that Guardian film critic Peter Bradshaw suggested that the film is a reversal of traditional roles: “You’ve got a woman who falls for a guy’s looks, not ‘personality.’ Asako I & II is about the female gaze, and male beauty.”)

The bulk of the evening’s questions focused on the doppelgänger in the room — the two characters played by Higashide, and their relationships with Asako.

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 ©Koichi Mori

In the film, Osaka college student Asako (Karata) first sees Baku (Higashide) at a photography exhibit, and smiles to herself about his uncombed mop of hair, his flip-flops and coveralls. But shortly after leaving the museum, she turns to find him just feet away, and they exchange names. Then, as firecrackers literally go off behind them, they kiss deeply. A few days later, they relate their meet-cute story to disbelieving friends at an izakaya. “It’s fate,” says Baku. Asako’s BFF Haruyo (Sairi Ito, in a standout performance) immediately warns her, “He’s a heartbreaker — I know he’s gonna make you cry.” And indeed, Haruyo is right. The happy couple has only 6 months together before Baku disappears one day while out shopping for shoes.

Inconsolable, Asako finally moves to Tokyo and takes a barista job. Sometime later, she comes face to face with Baku again, although she gradually accepts that he is actually who he says he is: Ryohei Maruko (also played by Higashide), a straight-laced marketing executive for a sake company near her café. Confused by Asako’s sudden advances, followed by a sudden chill when she realizes her mistake, Ryohei falls as hard for Asako as she fell for Baku. A serious, reliable type — the polar opposite of her ex — he gradually wins her trust, and they’re brought firmly together by the shock of the 2011 Tohoku earthquake. But whether it’s really love is a mystery, even to Asako. Although their lives fall into a comfortable pattern, her secret obsession with Baku keeps getting in the way. And then, 5 years later, Asako is confronted with the ghost of her past, and makes an astounding choice.

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Karata and Hamaguchi react to a question.  ©Koichi Mori

A member of the FCCJ audience wondered about the motivations of Baku, whom he called “emotionless,” and how much the film differs from the novel. Admitted Hamaguchi, “I stayed true to the novel, but I’ve received quite a lot of questions about Baku during my overseas travels to show the film. That made me realize how indispensable he is to the story arc. As to what motivates him, that’s not depicted in the novel, nor is it explained why he leaves Asako. Since he’s a character that can’t be explained by emotional impulse or motivation, he becomes a wonderful catalyst in the story arc. And it allows for a wonderful departure from realism.”

Asked about the experience of acting opposite not just one, but two Higashides, Karata said, “He plays two very different characters, and he was very different on set, too. When he played Baku, he felt like a fragile, ephemeral character. I felt like I was with him but not really with him at all. When he played Ryohei, I felt enveloped by the love he had for the character of Asako, like I was floating in this bubble of love that he’d created. He helped me a lot in playing my character.”

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Asako shares a laugh with friends. 
© 2018 NETEMO SAMETEMO FILM PARTNERS & COMME DES CINÉMAS

She also mentioned that she’d read the original novel several times and kept notes on lines of dialogue that she especially liked. For a certain scene, in which she falls asleep and is awoken with a kiss, it “allowed me to feel like I was in the same state of mind as Asako was in the novel. The way Higashide-san kissed me [as Baku] was quite different from the way he’d kissed me as Ryohei. I had this sense of, ‘Who is this man? He’s so different.’ That’s exactly the way it was depicted in the novel. It’s a [pivotal moment] that is very disconcerting to her.”

Although the film was overshadowed by the eventual Palm d’Or winner, Hirokazu Kore-eda’s Shoplifters (see the June blog), Asako I & II is perhaps the more universal story of the two. An enigmatic meditation on first love, and the staggering power it exerts over our ability to move on with our lives once it ends, it is sure to prompt many audience members to revisit their idealized memories of youth.

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Hamaguchi and Karata relax at the end of the session. ©FCCJ

  

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© 2018 NETEMO SAMETEMO FILM PARTNERS & COMME DES CINÉMAS

Selected Media Exposure

SHOPLIFTERS


SHOPLIFTERS (Manbiki Kazoku)


June, 6, 2018
Q&A guest: Director Hirokazu Kore-eda


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Kore-eda with his Palme d'Or, surely the closest anyone in the audience has ever been — or ever will be — to the prize.  ©Mance Thompson

Even the infrequent filmgoer in Japan knows that Hirokazu Kore-eda became the first Japanese director in 21 years to win the coveted Palme d’Or at the Cannes Film Festival on May 19, for his latest masterwork, Shoplifters

But the good news was quickly hijacked by right-wing Japanese commentators, who — without viewing the film, and perhaps without having a clue that the bulk of Japanese cinema does not treat the country’s social ills as if they are taboo subjects — immediately began condemning it for the damage it could cause to Japan’s international reputation. 

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©Mance Thompson

Soon, the headlines had politicized the win even further, suggesting that Prime Minister Abe’s reported failure to call Kore-eda with congratulations was surely proof that he disapproved of its empathetic portrait of a family living in poverty and shoplifting to get by.

The director attempted to set the record straight in a message posted to his website on June 6, protesting that “discourse surrounding this film has included both criticism and praise … [arrived at] by juxtaposing it against the values asserted by the current administration.” He went on to write: “A film is not a vehicle to accuse, or to relay a specific message. If we reduce a film to this, we lose all hope for cinema to ignite a richer conversation. I have never made a film to praise or to criticize something. That kind of filmmaking is nothing but propaganda.”

Of course it’s no secret that the auteur has always incorporated social issues into his work, particularly his documentaries. But he rarely foregrounds them in his narrative films, with the exceptions of his 2001 Distance and his 2004 Nobody Knows, both of which also earned acclaim at Cannes.

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©Mance Thompson

For those familiar with his oeuvre, Shoplifters can be seen as a continuation of Kore-eda’s concerns with the trials and tribulations of the “family” unit, and his ongoing exploration of the strength and fragility of bonds forged by choice, not blood. This was the overriding theme of his 2015 Cannes Jury Prizewinning Like Father, Like Son.

As with the writer-director’s previous domestic dramas, Shoplifters is a thoroughly engaging film, both gently comedic and heart-wrenchingly sad, and it features winning performances from a familiar — and much-loved — cast, including Kore-eda regulars Kirin Kiki and Lily Franky. It also features a breathtakingly brilliant turn by Sakura Ando, collaborating with him for the first time. (The only moment of the film that can possibly be interpreted as subversive is when Ando wears a t-shirt bearing the message Freedom is never voluntary. It must be demanded by the oppressed.) 

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Osamu and Shota case a supermarket before taking what they need.
© 2018 FUJI TELEVISION NETWORK/GAGA CORPORATION/AOI PRO. INC. ALL RIGHTS RESERVED.

It’s no surprise that the FCCJ screening of Shoplifters was one of the biggest draws in recent memory, although it’s a shame that the 80+ people on the waiting list could not be seated. After eight TV cameras and dozens of additional Japanese press members were accommodated, the filmmaker entered the thronged room carrying his Palm d’Or box, and despite being exhausted from 2 weeks of constant interviews and evident lack of sleep, answered questions with the same contemplative regard that marks all his work.

After obliging everyone by opening the box and showing his prize, Kore-eda recalled his Cannes experience, and his elation at the praise of the jurors for the film’s directing and acting. Addressing the elephant in the room, he then went on to say, “I’ve participated in many overseas film festivals since 2000, and there has been a lot of mention about the lack of criticism of Japanese society and politics [in the selected Japanese films]. I would say that this has to do with the distribution system in Japan. Oftentimes, the more major film companies will not handle films with heavy themes. This has resulted in the diminishing of the diversity and variety of Japanese films at festivals abroad.”

He admitted to being surprised about the approach taken by Japanese media: “I keep hearing that either I or my film is causing quite a stir. But I would put a positive spin on this. It’s a welcome thing, because it’s no longer just a film being released. It’s gone beyond those boundaries and will reach many more people. So it’s not such a bad thing.”

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©︎Koichi Mori

Indeed, no spin should be required. Shoplifters features one of the most endearing, close-knit families to hit Japanese screens since… the blue-collar family in the director's own Like Father, Like Son, which has so far been his biggest hit around the world. 

In this era of belt-tightening and widening income gaps, young Shota (Jyo Kairi) has been taught how to pinch the things they need but can’t afford by his father Osamu (Franky, channeling his lovable patriarch in Like Father, Like Son). “The stuff in stores doesn’t belong to anyone yet,” Osamu reassures him. The two work seamlessly together on the job, trading secret signals and celebrating with fist-bumps before bringing their booty back to the ramshackle dwelling they share with Nobuyo (Ando), Nobuyo’s sister Aki (Mayu Matsuoka), and granny Hatsue (Kiki), whose small pension payments supplement the income of the adults’ minimum-wage jobs. 

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The poster outside the screening room, noting the full house. ©Koichi Mori

Returning home one frigid night, Osamu rescues a tiny girl, Yuri (Miyu Sasaki), who is malnourished and too shy to speak. At first reluctant to shelter (and feed) yet another mouth, Nobuyo realizes that the child is being abused and decides to take her in. Despite Shota’s initial resentment of his new “sister,” and the occasional incident (a broken leg, a lost job, a death), the family lives happily together, taking trips to the beach, building a snowman, watching Osamu’s magic tricks. And then, a routline shoplifting spree triggers a startling outcome, and as hidden secrets are unraveled, threatens to undue the bonds uniting them.

Mentioning that Kore-eda has said his script was inspired by recent news stories, a journalist asked about the family who had stolen fishing rods (a similar event occurs in the film), and what kind of research had been conducted. “I read about the court case involving the family,” said the director. “They hadn’t pawned the rods for cash yet. They still had them, which was why they were caught. I imagined that the family must have loved fishing, and immediately had a clear image of a father and son fishing with stolen rods.” He laughed. “I apologize to all the fishing stores out there."

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Aki and Hatsue in the overcrowded central room of the house.
© 2018 FUJI TELEVISION NETWORK/GAGA CORPORATION/AOI PRO. INC. ALL RIGHTS RESERVED.

He continued, “The story isn’t based on one particular incident, but rather on various incidents involving families committing crimes. I wanted to depict a family or close-knit community that wasn’t bound by blood. The first thing that came to mind was a family bound by crime, such as by [real-life] cases of pension fraud in which families failed to report the death of parents, and fraudulently claimed the pension payments. I also wanted to depict a family or close-knit community that was bound not by kindness, but by money. I didn’t want to go too soft or easy on this.

“Another idea that made its way into the film came from research we did at a facility for abused children. There was one girl who came back from school with her [heavy backpack] and we asked what she was studying. She pulled out this Japanese picture book called ‘Swimmy,’ and started reading. The facility workers scolded her for taking up too much of our time, but she wouldn’t stop. She read all the way to the very end, and we all clapped, and she just beamed. I imagined that she probably wanted to read it to her parents, and that left a really deep impression on me. So I had the boy read ‘Swimmy’ in the film. 

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©Mance Thompson

A Japanese journalist asked whether Kore-eda could possibly have “targeted the film at Japanese politicians, due to its treatment of social problems” that are being overlooked. The director immediately responded, “Not in particular. I say No because I’ve felt this way since the days when I worked in TV. One of my coworkers told me, ‘When you make a film, target it toward one individual and keep that person firmly in mind. If you do that, you’ll be able to reach many people.’ I was in my 20s at the time, and I’ve continued to have this stance.”

Anticipating the next question, he continued, “I think for this film, I targeted it at the young girl who read us ‘Swimmy.’”

Referencing a particularly enchanting scene of togetherness, in which the family sits on the porch of their tiny home, eating watermelon and listening to the fireworks that they’re not able to see for all the tall buildings surrounding them, one attendee asked how important the physical dwelling was to the story. Kore-eda recalled Cannes Jury President Cate Blanchett’s speech before presenting him with the Palm d’Or, “in which she mentioned the ‘invisible people’ in the film. That was definitely a key motif. It’s about what we cannot hear and cannot see. There are scenes in which people aren’t able to see each other through the window or hear each other’s voices. The parts that are hidden and unseen, left to the audience’s imagination, were an important motif throughout the film.

Shoplifters.official. 2018 FUJI TELEVISION NETWORKGAGA CORPORATIONAOI PRO. INC. ALL RIGHTS RESERVED.-76394Nobuyo tells Yuri "people who love you hug, not hit."
© 2018 FUJI TELEVISION NETWORK/GAGA CORPORATION/AOI PRO. INC. ALL RIGHTS RESERVED.

“We were very lucky to be able to find that house, which we used for the location shots. I think it’s a big factor in the success of the film. My request was to find a single-story house surrounded by tall buildings, and my amazing crew found it. We actually shot some of the interiors on a set that reproduced interiors from the house. Thanks to the wonderful production design, even I can’t recall exactly which scenes we shot on location and which were on the set. It was really believable that these people were living together in this house, and I think it’s one of the main characters in the film.”

Hoping for a scoop, an entertainment reporter asked Kore-eda about the progress on his next film, rumored to star French icons Catherine Deneuve and Juliette Binoche. “We actually haven’t officially announced anything about the new project,” he responded, “so it’s puzzling how much information has been leaked, [including] cast names and how much they’re getting paid. I don’t know how much I can disclose, but I can say that the shoot is planned for the autumn in France, predominantly in France, with French actors and actresses. We’re planning an official announcement next month, and I’ll be going to Paris from June.” 

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©︎Koichi Mori

While the newly minted Cannes Palm d’Or winner heads off to direct his foreign-language debut, filmgoers in Tokyo will be treated to English-subtitled screenings starting from June 23 at Wald 9 Cinemas in Shinjuku. But overseas fans won’t have long to wait: Shoplifters has been sold to an astounding 149 countries, including North America, where the film's distributor, Magnolia, continues an impressive run (recent releases include RBG and Oscar nominees I Am Not Your Negro and The Square, which was last year’s Palme d’Or winner).

It is not difficult to imagine that Hirokazu Kore-eda, master of the delicately lyrical, understated humanist drama, will grace the Academy Awards stage in 2019. 

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©Mance Thompson

 

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© 2018 FUJI TELEVISION NETWORK/GAGA CORPORATION/AOI PRO. INC. ALL RIGHTS RESERVED.

Selected Media Exposure

Selected TV Exposure

  • 映画「万引き家族」で最高賞是枝裕和監督反響の大きさにぼやき

    201867日放送 5:43 - 5:45 フジテレビ

    めざましテレビ OH!めざめエンタ NOW

  • 是枝裕和監督次回作構想一部明らかに

    201867日放送 5:08 - 5:09NHK総合

    NHKニュースおはよう日本(ニュース)

  • 気になる次回作は

    201867日放送 4:20 - 4:21TBS

    はやドキ!はやドキ!エンタメ

OH LUCY!


OH LUCY!


April 26, 2018
Q&A guests: Director Atsuko Hirayanagi and star Shinobu Terajima


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Both Shinobu Terajima (left) and writer-director Atsuko Hirayanagi (right) have been critically lauded for the film.   ©FCCJ

Atsuko Hirayanagi has set a high bar for herself. Her first feature, the Japan-US coproduction Oh Lucy!, premiered at the Cannes Film Festival in mid-2017, finished the year with Independent Spirit Awards nominations for Best First Feature and Best Actress (for Shinobu Terajima’s beautifully calibrated performance), and earned rapturous critical praise during its recent rollouts in the US, France and elsewhere.

A poignant character study that deep-dives into the lonely life of a protagonist whose type is rarely depicted on screen, Oh Lucy! is an off-kilter culture-clash comedy combined with a deeply moving drama. Upon its world premiere at Cannes, Variety called it “a chocolate truffle with an arsenic core,” and Hirayanagi’s greatest accomplishment is that the film’s bittersweet aftertaste is pleasantly light and lingering.

Appearing for the Q&A session following FCCJ’s sneak preview screening, the writer-director and her star admitted they are curious about audience reactions on the film’s home turf. Said Hirayanagi, “I’m grateful that Oh Lucy! is opening in Japan, and I’m extremely curious about how the Japanese audience is going to react, and how they’ll feel about this film. Being here is kind of surreal, and at the same time, a dream come true.” 

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Terajima and Hirayanagi get a laugh out of costar Josh Hartnett's video message (left ©FCCJ, right ©Edwin Karmiol).

Terajima, who was making her third visit to FCCJ (after sneak peaks of Vibrator and Koji Wakamatsu’s Caterpillar, which won her the Silver Bear for Best Actress at the 2010 Berlin International Film Festival), began on a serious note: “I’m very pleased that I could be here tonight on this very special occasion.” Then she smiled her inimitable smile before continuing, “Today is my wedding anniversary. I’ve been married 11 years, and I’m so happy that I could be here.” (To her credit, it wasn't at all clear whether she was being gracious or slightly facetious.)

There were more punchlines to come when Terajima's costar, Josh Hartnett (Black Hawk Down, Penny Dreadful), dropped in to chat about his experiences by video. About his director, he said, “Atsuko Hirayanagi is one of the most quietly hilarious people I’ve ever met. [Guffaws ensued on the dais.] I spent a lot of time with Atsuko on the press tour, and everyone I introduced her to thinks she is genuinely one of the funniest people around. She’s a joy to work with, and a lovely human being. I’m very proud of her for making this film, and grateful to her for letting me be a part of it.”

As for Terajima, he ribbed, “Shinobu claims that she doesn’t speak English, but that is not true. [More guffaws.] She didn’t let on that she could understand everything I was saying until deep into production, so she made me feel at a disadvantage, and quite uncomfortable, [but] in a good way.” He then lowered his voice, whispering conspiratorially about how she would disappear to play Candy Crush before certain scenes. “In my opinion, it was the best way to prepare for work that I’ve ever seen.” After apologizing for asking so many questions on set, he said, “I hope it didn’t affect anyone negatively, including you, Shinobu. Thank you for your patience.”

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Acclaimed actor Koji Yakusho, left, with Hartnett and Terajima. ©OH LUCY,LLC All Rights Reserved.

He went on to laud the cast for being so “well prepared and artistically inspired,” but mock-warned, “The next time we all work together, you’re going to do it here, on my turf.”

In fact, Oh Lucy! does spend substantial time on Hartnett’s turf. Hirayanagi herself is based in the US, after growing up in Japan, going to the US as a high-school exchange student, and then graduating from New York University’s Tisch School of the Arts in Singapore. Her thesis film was a short version of Oh Lucy!, which went on to win nearly 40 awards around the globe, including prizes at the Cannes, Sundance, Toronto and SXSW film festivals. Although she was courted to direct other projects, she decided to first explore Lucy’s story further, and with initial funding from Sundance and Japan’s NHK, went on to craft the feature version.

As the film opens, chain-smoking office lady Setsuko (Terajima) is clearly stuck in a rut, both professionally and in her seemingly non-existent personal life. En route to work one morning, a man on her crowded platform whispers “Goodbye” in her ear before leaping in front of the train. If that’s not enough to shake her up, a fellow OL is retiring, and she may be the closest thing to an office ally that Setsuko has. When her niece Mika (Shioli Kutsuna) begs her to fill in at her pricey English classes (reimbursing her directly for the fees), it seems to be just the diversion Setsuko needs. 

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The veteran actress and the first-time feature director.    ©FCCJ

Her unorthodox instructor, John (Hartnett), greets her with a warm embrace — “I’m a hugger, what can I say?” — has her don a curly blonde wig and pick her new name out of a box. Setsuko becomes “Lucy” and is encouraged to be “lazy and relaxed” when she speaks American English (a ping pong ball apparently helps). The new identity unleashes her inner she-vamp, empowering her to say all the things she’s pent up, some of which she instantly regrets. But it also rekindles the flames of hope in her heart. She’s immediately smitten with John, and thus aggravated when the red-wigged, widowed “Tom” (the great Koji Yakusho), joins the class and she no longer has the teacher’s hugs all to herself.

Then John suddenly disappears and Setsuko, nearly inconsolable, discovers that he’s left for Southern California with Mika. Desperate to see him again, she takes off in hot pursuit with her estranged sister, Ayako (Kaho Minami), in tow. Their first surprise, after realizing that California isn’t all beaches and glorious sunsets, is that John is no longer the Charisma Man he was in Tokyo, and Mika has fled. They coerce him into chauffeuring their search for her, and Setsuko/Lucy seizes one last chance at midlife liberation. 

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 Ayako (Kaho Minami) joins Setsuko in America, where Hartnett becomes
the bickering sisters' chauffeur.  ©OH LUCY,LLC All Rights Reserved.

Praising Terajima for her ability to play both “lifeless” (in Japan) and “full of life” (in California), a journalist asked how she’d mentally prepared for the difference. “Was it a geographic thing?” he asked. Explained the actress, “We shot all of the Japan scenes before we left for the states, so the geography did rub off on the character. The vastness of America, where you can walk a long way without ever bumping into someone, really elevates your spirit. I think the way I played the role was affected by that. We didn’t change my makeup, but even the director said I looked more beautiful in America. So I think the environment freed both Setsuko’s, and my, spirit. It was a really fun shoot to do.”

Hirayanagi was asked about her own relationship to America, since the film “presents America as a liberating space, but also rather twisted, dangerous and cruel.” The director began, “I’m not sure which part is twisted… I think American people are more present and speak to you as a person, rather than what your title may represent.” Switching back to the film, she then said, “So it was freeing for Setsuko, and not being labeled as an office lady or single or a chain smoker was freeing. No one knew who she was, so she could create something that she wants to be. I think that’s where the magic, the empowerment, of being in the states comes from. It freed her up and let her find the part of herself that she didn’t know existed.”

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  Top left ©Edwin Karmiol, bottom left ©Pierre Boutier, right two ©FCCJ.

To a question about the superb casting, Hirayanagi immediately responded, “Shinobu-san was a no-brainer. “The producers sent me a list of actresses because I’m away from Japan, so they thought I wouldn’t know actresses in her age group. But I saw her name and I knew she would be perfect. I knew her from Vibrator, one of the great Japanese films, and she was phenomenal. So we sent her the script and the short, we talked and she said ‘Yes.’”

Was she influenced to cast Koji Yakusho by his charming role in Shall We Dance? one attendee wondered. Although his role in Oh Lucy! is a small one, it is absolutely essential to the film, particularly in its closing moments. “Of course I know Shall We Dance? and there are similar threads in both films; but there were a lot of coincidences that came together and resulted in our casting him. We had him in mind from the beginning, but we weren’t sure how to approach him. I finally decided there could be no harm in asking him. He’s extremely versatile, and being able to cast him was like a dream. They say ‘shoot for the stars’ in English, and that’s what we did. And we got the stars.”

A film academic asked whether either Hirayanagi or Terajima had been challenged by differences in acting or shooting styles between the US and Japan. Said the director, “I think the main issue for Japanese actors is coverage, since we have more coverage if you try to shoot in so-called American style. I was in constant negotiations between my [cinematographer], who’s based in Hollywood and wants to take pictures as beautiful as possible, and my Japanese actors, who were getting tired from doing so many takes of the same scene. I wound up shooting Shinobu-san first, then Josh, since he’s used to it and gets warmed up after more takes.”

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Terajima and Hirayanagi react to Hartnett's video message.   ©FCCJ

Said Terajima, “I underwent very harsh training with Koji Wakamatsu, who made super-indie films and would go straight into shooting without any run-throughs. With Oh Lucy!, we did the same shots over and over again, and it was just as exhausting as Wakamatsu-san’s style. As for acting styles, I really don’t think it comes down to nationalities, but because Atsuko-san has a black belt in karate, I think she really knows how to read people. She’s able to meticulously gauge how and to what degree she should direct [each actor], so she can achieve the results she wants.”

Terajima then shared her experience at her first awards ceremony in Los Angeles: “I was really busy at the time of the Independent Spirit Awards, and could only fly over for 1.5 days. The Independent Spirits aren’t as well known in Japan as the Oscars, and I was curious what it would be like. But being there, you really feel like America is the country of cinema. You feel that everyone’s so passionate about the film industry. I got to meet [eventual Best Actress winner] Frances McDormand, and she’d seen Oh Lucy! and told me it was a wonderful film. Without going, you don’t realize the extent of the passion for film, so it was a really rewarding experience.”

Added Hirayanagi, “By the way, Frances McDormand was very, very complimentary about Shinobu-san’s performance. She’s not going to say it herself, so I have to add this fact.”

And it is, indeed, a fact.

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©OH LUCY,LLC All Rights Reserved 

Selected Media Exposure

RADIANCE (Hikari)


RADIANCE Special Screening and TIFF Panel


October 3, 2017

Guests: Director Naomi Kawase, TIFF Festival Director Takeo Hisamatsu
and Japan Now advisor Kohei Ando
 


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Ando, Kawase and Hisamatsu react to a pointed question during the Japan Now session.    ©Mance Thompson

Making her first appearance at FCCJ in 10 years (but not for our lack of trying), Cannes Film Festival favorite Naomi Kawase laughed with delight when a journalist asked her, “What’s your impression of the last 29 installments of the Tokyo International Film Festival? And please, do be frank.”

Kawase was at FCCJ to talk about her participation in this year’s festival, where she will deliver a Master Class and field questions following a screening of her Palm d’Or nominee, Radiance. Everyone knew TIFF wasn’t her usual stomping grounds. After the laughter died down, the room held its breath.

“Something unattainable,” she began, then paused. “Since I was born and raised in Nara, I always had the impression that Tokyo was so filled with bright lights and so unattainable to me. It seemed so distant and so inaccessible. TIFF is one of the major international film festivals, and it seemed out of reach. But being able to participate in Japan Now this year, and hearing about all the other films that are being shown, I’m starting to feel it’s more accessible.”

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Kawase is the only Japanese filmmaker selected for Cannes seven times. This will be her first film in TIFF.      ©FCCJ

TIFF’s Japan Now Programming Advisor Kohei Ando was sitting next to Kawase, and hastened to follow up. “TIFF has always tried to include the brilliant films of master directors like Hirokazu Kore-eda and Ms. Kawase in the past,” he explained, “but because of the timing of the festival, late in the year, they always appeared at Cannes and other earlier festivals. This is why we created Japan Now: to showcase their work each year, without [worrying about] a world premiere.”

Ando and Kawase were joined on the dais by TIFF Festival Director Takeo Hisamatsu, taking over the reigns of the venerable festival from Yasushi Shiina for TIFF's 30th anniversary edition. The Film Committee has been cohosting events with TIFF for nearly a decade, and this year’s panel began with Hisamatsu, who provided an overview of festival highlights. Hisamatsu is a veteran of four decades in the industry, a producer of many award-winning titles, and a former top executive at Shochiku and Warner Bros. Pictures Japan. He has been busy expanding the diversity of programming, as well as lining up some tasty treats to celebrate the past, present and future of TIFF. He quickly mentioned several: the Midnight Film Festival (10 filmmakers addressing 6 different themes on 6 screens, running all night), Cinema Arena 30 (outdoor screenings of 28 vintage films, with bountiful food carts and blankets), the Godzilla Cinema Concerts (the original 1954 film accompanied by live orchestra), and the annual Special Night Event at Kabukiza (Ebizo Ichikawa preforming live plus the digitally remastered classic, The Gate of Hell).

Hisamatsu then elaborated, “Especially worth noting is the Japan Now section, which we consider to be especially important because it introduces the world to contemporary Japanese cinema. This is the third edition of the section, and all the films in the lineup, including Ms. Kawase’s Radiance, are sure to be entering the [year-end] awards race. In the past two years, Japan Now has featured a special Director in Focus. This year, we are instead highlighting four actresses, the Muses of Japanese Cinema, chosen because they have so inspired directors: Sakura Ando, Yu Aoi, Hikari Mitsushima and Aoi Miyazaki. I hope you will enjoy the outstanding films at the 30th TIFF.”

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Hisamatsu is helming his first TIFF (©FCCJ).  Ando returns for his third outstanding Japan Now program.  ©Mance Thompson

Japan Now’s Kohei Ando followed up with a description of the section’s bountiful offerings, ranging from Hirokazu Kore-eda’s acclaimed The Third Murder to a new masterwork from veteran arthouse maestro Nobuhiko Obayashi, Hanagatami. The section will showcase not only films starring the four muses, but also by four female directors. He enthused, “We will be showing two films for each of the four actresses, all of which have marked important turning points in their careers, and we’ll be holding special talk events with the actresses and directors after the screenings.”

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©Mance Thompson (left), ©Koichi Mori (right)

Ando proceeded to unveil an impressive roster of further guests: Along with Kawase, Kore-eda and Obayashi, directors Shunji Iwai (Hana and Alice), Momoko Ando (0.5mm), Lee Sang-il (Rage), Yang Yonghi (Our Homeland), Kei Ishikawa (Traces of Sin), Shinji Aoyama (Eureka), Masaaki Yuasa (The Night Is Short, Walk on Girl), Daihachi Yoshida (A Beautiful Star) and Michio Koshikawa (Life and Death on the Shore) will appear, as will Hanagatami star Takako Tokiwa.

Asked to divulge details about her Master Class, Kawase said, “First of all, I would like to congratulate [TIFF] on its 30th anniversary, because that’s a major accomplishment. I’m organizing the Nara International Film Festival in my hometown, which will turn five next year. So I really recognize what an immense feat it is to keep a film festival running. I think it’s a lot like life and like filmmaking in many respects, because we have to overcome so many hurdles to survive. Festivals are such hard work, so once again, congratulations to TIFF.

“I do not separate my life from my filmmaking,” she continued. “Filmmaking is my life. So in my TIFF Master Class, I would like to touch on a few examples of what emerging filmmakers might do to fuse their lives with their filmmaking. That will probably be my theme.”

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The panelists share another moment of mirth.  ©Mance Thompson

Kawase fondly recalled her earliest festival experiences and concluded, “Festivals are wonderful, because they are platforms for people from many nationalities who bring their films, come together, communicate, and take that back to their homelands. Then they come together again at a different festival. They help us overcome cultural differences and they motivate me as a filmmaker.”

The evening continued with a special screening of Kawase’s Radiance, her fifth film in the Cannes official competition and winner of the Ecumenical Jury Prize, before the writer-director returned for a vastly satisfying Q&A session — with the types of questions one might expect from a European arthouse audience. (Bravo, FCCJ Film Night regulars!)

Radiance is a luminous meditation on loss and salvation, and on the power of art to transform our lives. “Nothing is more beautiful than what disappears before our eyes,” says one of Kawase’s characters, and the line serves both as a metaphor for the film’s story and for cinema itself.

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©2017 “RADIANCE” FILM PARTNERS/KINOSHITA、COMME DES CINEMAS、KUMIE

Misako Ozaki (Ayame Misaki) writes audio commentary for visually impaired filmgoers, and as Radiance opens, her words are the subject of scrutiny from a focus group following a test screening session. The participants offer specific suggestions for improving her script, which is too wordy by far. Only one of them is downright rude about it. “It’s intrusive,” he barks, suggesting she’s robbing them of their own imaginations, and questions her competence. He is Masaya Nakamori (Masatoshi Nagase) a famed photographer who has slowly been losing his sight. Fate will continue to bring the two together, and despite his abrasiveness, Misako will soon find that Nakamori is a kindred spirit.

Both are lost souls — she, since the disappearance of her father and the progression of her mother’s dementia; he, as he loses his calling and his ex-wife prepares to remarry. Nakamori’s photographs, taken on an ancient Rolleiflex, entrance Misako, particularly one of the sun setting behind the mountains. It will eventually solve a mystery from her past. As both emerge, tentatively, from the limbos in which they’ve been living, they learn to see the world through each other’s eyes. In Kawase’s images, it is radiant.

Kawase was asked first how she came up with such an unusual setting for her film. “We had to make an audio guide for An/Sweet Bean, my last film,” she responded, and that’s how I first discovered it. When they showed me the dialog list for the guide, I was very moved by the words. Cinema is essentially visual, but for someone who is visually impaired, words are needed. The way they used the words, the way they described the scenes, were so beautiful. I had the idea that, if I had a protagonist who was doing this kind of work, I could express my love for cinema.”

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Kawase returned to field questions after the screening of her latest Cannes Palm d'Or nominee.  ©Koichi Mori (left), ©Mance Thompson (right)

Pointing out that Misako asks a film director in Radiance whether one of his characters is simply a projection of himself, one audience member asked, “Is this film itself a projection of yourself?” Answered Kawase, “After An/Sweet Bean was a commercial success, I was having a hard time figuring out what I really wanted to depict in my next film. I finally felt that I wanted to depict film itself as the core theme, because filmmaking is so intertwined with the way I live. In depicting my love for cinema, I’ve been able to project myself into the film.”

Asked about the “themes of disability and decrepitude” in her last two films, and how she sees the relation of art to physical breakdown, Kawase said, “I think creators, including filmmakers, are always looking for what’s missing within ourselves. By doing this, we come to realizations that help us grow. For me, being able to make films has enriched my life immensely. Films generally tend to shine a light on things that are to be celebrated or glorified, but I want to shine a light on people who aren’t usually depicted, and on that which is still in the dark or unknowable.”

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Ando, Kawase and Hisamatsu with the TIFF poster, featuring images shot by Mika Ninagawa.  ©Mance Thompson

Another audience member asked about the recurring image of a woman lost in the forest in several of her films, including Radiance, and the role of nature. “I think of nature and the natural landscape as a protagonist in my films. I believe there is nature, and within it, there is mankind. That’s how I see the world, and that’s the approach I take to my filmmaking. I think the natural landscape is sometimes more eloquent than words.”

Discussing her two leads, Kawase said, “I’d worked with Mr. Nagase on An/Sweet Bean, and when we took the film to Cannes, we talked about doing another film together. He’s a photographer in his own right, and I knew he could bring a realism to the role of a photographer losing his sight. I had him live in the apartment in Nara for a while before we shot there, and he wore goggles that impaired his sight. As for Ms. Misaki, I found her to be a very strong-willed, determined woman, especially on hearing about her suffering related to the [1995 Kobe] Earthquake.”

But after an audience member commented that she’d found Misaki to be “perhaps too young to portray the emotional depth” required of the character, Kawase admitted that had been her intention in casting her. “I felt she needed a little more depth, she wasn’t quite there yet,” said the director. “What you’re seeing in the scene with the audio guide [focus group] is based on a guide script that I had Ms. Misaki actually write herself, and her tears are real tears. I wanted to depict a girl who has a limited perspective and is thinking only about herself at first.”

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©Mance Thompson

A professional photographer wondered how Nagase’s character could have let go of his Leica camera in one pivotal scene, since they’re so expensive, and it's clear that the character cannot possibly live without it. “The idea behind that,” explained Kawase, “is that if you rid yourself of that which is most valuable to you, you make room for something even more valuable to come in.”

Finally, she was asked about her new film, currently in production in Nara and tentatively titled Vision. It stars Nagase again, as well as the celebrated French actress Juliette Binoche, making her first film in Japan. “It’s so exciting,” said Kawase, in English. “Working with Juliette is wonderful. She’s an amazing actress and has exceeded my expectations. One of the most wonderful things about her is her ability to improvise. She gives so much more than the script provides. She spends days and days trying to inhabit the character. She’s playing a woman named Jean, and she [created a backstory] about what her parents were like, where she studied, why she came to Japan. I always ask my actors to inhabit the location where their character lives prior to shooting, but I didn’t have to ask Juliette. She’d already done her homework. I felt like, finally I’ve met a [complete] actress.”

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Kawase with Ando and renowned film critic Reiko Kitagawa.  ©Koichi Mori

And then she raised goosebumps around the room, sharing a bittersweet memory from this year’s Cannes: “At the closing ceremony, Juliette was the presenter of the Palm d’Or. As Mr. [Pedro] Almodovar [who was head of the jury] was about to speak, she stopped him and said, ‘Cinema is light.’ She said ‘light’ in every language that she knew, including 'lumiere,' so I erroneously thought, ‘Maybe I’m going to win the Palm for my film!’ To be able to talk with her in Nara, just three months later, about how cinema is light and love, is quite miraculous to me.”

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  ©2017 “RADIANCE” FILM PARTNERS/KINOSHITA、COMME DES CINEMAS、KUMIE

Selected Press Coverage

Selected TV Exposure

  • AFP BB News 河瀬直美監督、東京国際映画祭は「手の届かない存在」都内会見

 

HARMONIUM


HARMONIUM (Fuchi ni Tatsu)


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


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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.”

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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.”

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 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).

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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.”

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               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.

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©2016 FUCHI NI TATSU FILM PARTNERS & COMME DES CINEMAS

Media Coverage

 

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.”

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© 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.

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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.”

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           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.”

MDW sign KM-04
 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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