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KINGDOM


KINGDOM


April 16, 2019
Q&A guest: Director Shinsuke Sato


FCCJ KingdomKoichi Mori-1
Shinsuke Sato  ©Koichi Mori

It’s the type of question that every filmmaker secretly longs to hear.

It came to Shinsuke Sato following FCCJ’s sneak preview of his hotly-anticipated period epic, Kingdom. “A lot of live-action adaptations of manga are a disappointment,” an American film critic told him. “But yours are always so good. What’s the secret sauce? What makes your adaptations so great?”

Forever humble, the director responded, “There’s no secret sauce. When you have a script for an adaptation, you want to make it into a film that is good as a film. I don’t feel the pressure of having to conform to the original work or to adhere to it as closely as possible. I approach manga adaptations the same way I approach an original story.

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©︎FCCJ

“There are certain details I can imagine some might pay attention to. For example, this manga has x number of fans and they are expecting x type of work, and therefore we have to meet their expectations. I don’t have that in mind. Instead, I think about what would ideally be a good film, sometimes drawing on my own experiences as a moviegoer. I start from scratch, in a sense, even if it’s based on a manga.”

Then, warming to the question, Sato delivered a few of the ingredients, if not the entire recipe. “When I do a manga adaptation, there are always two basic things that I want to accomplish,” he admitted. First, for fans of the original work, I want to surprise them. I want the film to exceed their expectations by a mile. I want them to say, ‘Wow. I didn’t expect this!’ I want to give them the type of entertainment that only cinema can give. I want them to understand why it was necessary to bring that work to the screen.

1-Kingdom poster Yasuhisa HaraShueisha  KINGDOM Film Partners 2019
©︎Yasuhisa Hara/Shueisha  ©︎KINGDOM Film Partners 2019

“Second, I want to entertain audience members who are not familiar with the original manga, and make it accessible even if they don’t know what the story is. In order to accomplish these two objectives, you have to always be thinking about the essence of what is fun and entertaining. That’s what I do.”

And that’s what he has done now for nearly 20 years, helming one blockbuster action hit after another, many of them also international award-winners. Heralded for his mastery of CG effects in bringing fantastical worlds to life, Sato’s major works include the Gantz series (2011), the Library Wars series (2013 - 15), Death Note: Light Up the New World (2016), Inuyashiki (2018) and Bleach (2018).

Kingdom is not only certain to bring him another box-office success; there will surely be a sequel. Any doubters need only examine its pedigree. 

2-Kingdom poster Yasuhisa HaraShueisha  KINGDOM Film Partners 2019
Kento Yamazaki as Shin. ©︎Yasuhisa Hara/Shueisha  ©︎KINGDOM Film Partners 2019

Kingdom is the first live-action adaptation of the bestselling manga series by Yasuhisa Hara, which started running in Shueisha's Weekly Young Jump in 2006, won the Tezuka Osamu Cultural Prize in 2013, and has now been collected into 53 volumes and sold an eye-popping 38 million copies.

To the eternal bemusement of non-Japanese, the series presents a fictionalized account of China’s Warring States period, which ended in 221 BC when Ying Zheng, king of Qin, succeeded in conquering six rival states and unifying China. In Hara’s manga, however, all the names of the characters — many of whom are based on actual historical figures — have Japanese names and speak in Japanese. The same is true of the film, so Ying Zheng becomes Eisei; his trusted general, Li Xin, is Shin; and his half-brother Zhao Chengjiao is Seikyou.

Kingdom achieves a widescreen grandeur and heroic scale that are rare in Japan, partially due to the film’s budget (small by Hollywood’s standards; bountiful by Japan’s) and its three-week shoot on a massive open set in Zhejiang, China. Last year at this time, it was temporary home to a handful of Japan’s leading young actors, 700 crew from Japan and China, close to 100 horses and some 10,000 extras.

3-Kingdom poster Yasuhisa HaraShueisha  KINGDOM Film Partners 2019
Ryo Yoshizawa as Eisei. ©︎Yasuhisa Hara/Shueisha  ©︎KINGDOM Film Partners 2019

Sato had first come to FCCJ in 2016 with his superlative zombie flick I Am a Hero, a film that benefitted greatly from its extensive location shooting in South Korea, about which the director and his star, Yo Oizumi, had shared both hilarious and heartwarming anecdotes.

Asked why he’d been inspired to shoot in China, Sato responded, “The film’s story takes place in ancient China, so it was only natural to shoot there. That’s what I’d envisioned from the moment the project started. I really wanted to see what it would be like to collaborate with a Chinese crew. Having had the experience of shooting in Korea, I had a lot of fond memories of all the sweat and toil we put into the production, and that influenced my desire to shoot in China.

“The collaboration in China was in much the same spirit as it had been in Korea. We had core crew members who were Japanese, but we also had a large local crew. There was some trepidation, because there are differences in customs and practices, and of course there was the language barrier. We were worried about how it would turn out, because we had massive scenes to shoot and limited financial resources. But when we arrived, we discovered how robust China’s film industry has become. The crew were really skilled, and we enjoyed very effective collaboration through all the filmmaking processes. The Chinese crew put a lot of attention into details, and we really appreciated that.”

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©Koichi Mori

But the shoot wasn’t without its challenges. Asked about the best and worst of these, Sato recalled, “We had crew members in Shanghai and Beijing. The studio lot was a 5-hour drive from Shanghai, so it was quite arduous logistically, and there was a lot of communication that couldn’t take place in person. For example, we had a vendor in Beijing for all the costumes, and although we rented a lot of them, we also had to make many of them. So there was a lot of back-and-forth communications about the details. There were difficulties because what we wanted to do was often different from the style in which they were used to making costumes. It took a lot of time and effort to get all the nuances across.

“But what made a great impression on me was that they were really diligent and stuck with us until the very end. There were certain details that we wanted to fix or change, and with a Japanese production we might not have been able to do that. With this company, they responded to all our requests, and what they produced was very nicely done.”

As with all of Sato’s work, costumes are absolutely crucial to the creation of his colorful characters and his imaginative worlds. Kingdom is no exception.

4-Kingdom poster Yasuhisa HaraShueisha  KINGDOM Film Partners 2019
Masami Nagasawa as Youtanwa. ©︎Yasuhisa Hara/Shueisha  ©︎KINGDOM Film Partners 2019

Set in approximately 245 BC, during China’s Spring-Autumn Warring States period (770 BC-221 BC) in the state of Qin (present-day Shaanxi province), it tells the tale of two young war orphans, Shin (Kento Yamazaki), who dreams of becoming the greatest general under the heavens, and Hyou (Ryo Yoshizawa), who just wants to win against Shin in their daily sparring matches. They’re separated in their teens, when an emissary from the king takes Hyou away to work in the palace. Shin continues to train alone and dream big. Then one day, Hyou suddenly returns.

He bears an urgent message, leading Shin to a surprising encounter with King Eisei (also Yoshizawa), who dreams of uniting all seven of the Warring States under a single banner. But Eisei’s half-brother Seikyou (Kanata Hongo) has led a successful coup, and before unification, Eisei must first amass enough allies to help him reclaim the throne. Shin signs up, but the challenge is staggering: Seikyou has 80,000 soldiers at his beck and call, and Eisei’s forces barely number 3,000.

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Kanata Hongo as Seikyou. ©︎Yasuhisa Hara/Shueisha  ©︎KINGDOM Film Partners 2019

Praised by another film critic for his direction of the film’s many action scenes, Sato said, “I relied on crew members that I’ve worked with for a long time, all the way back to Princess Blade [in 2001]. We had all this experience of creating action sequences together, and that formed the basis of the film. We had a lot of discussion and debate about each sequence, and one of the things we did was to shoot video of all the action scenes in an empty room before going on to the set, because there’s a lot of drama in those scenes, too. We shot footage like an indie film, cut it together and discussed what we needed to change. So there was one extra step in the process.”

The director admitted that he couldn’t take credit for the casting of megastar Kento Yamazaki (best known overseas for playing Josuke in JoJo's Bizarre Adventure: Diamond is Unbreakable). Asked why he’d been selected to play Shin, Sato explained, “The producer had already made the decision to cast him before I joined the project. It was like: ‘Kingdom, with Kento Yamazaki.’ Mr. Yamazaki has played a variety of roles in the past, but this was quite a departure from his previous films. I think it was a challenging and difficult process for him, but he is very savvy and smart, a really passionate actor. We discussed his approach to the character a lot, but what he created made it seem that he was accustomed to roles like this, and it fit him really well.”

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Sato with the posters for the film. ©FCCJ

With such an enormous cast, the leads aren’t the only roles to savor. There is also Masami Nagasawa as Youtanwa, the high-kicking chieftan of the mountain tribe; Tak Sakaguchi as Saji, an exceedingly cruel mercenary; Masahiro Takashima as Eisei’s righthand man Shobunkun; and Takao Osawa, making his return to film after a 3-year absence, as the greatest general under the heavens, Ouki.

How did Sato lure Osawa back to the cinema when he’d gone on public record as having lost his acting mojo? “General Ouki is a really popular character with fans, and I can imagine there was a lot of discussion about who was going to play the role,” said Sato. “So a lot of thought went into the casting choice, as well as into the visual design. A lot of effort of went into the makeup, the beard, the armor. Because he’s such an overwhelmingly powerful character in the manga, we thought it would be quite a feat for us to ground him in reality. I think we did a pretty good job of that, and I think Mr. Osawa delivered the vibrancy of the character that fans expect.”

Whether Kingdom’s realm will now expand to encompass the entire globe is yet unkown; but at least it will be coming to fans old and new in the US, where Funimation will be releasing the film later this year.

Kingdom poster Yasuhisa HaraShueisha  KINGDOM Film Partners 2019
©︎Yasuhisa Hara/Shueisha  ©︎KINGDOM Film Partners 2019

Selected Media Exposure

NU GUO: IN THE NAME OF THE MOTHER


NU GUO: IN THE NAME OF THE MOTHER


February 4, 2015
Q&A guest: Codirector Pio d’Emilia


piopretalk
d'Emilia introduces his film.

Pio d’Emilia, FCCJ stalwart and longtime correspondent for Italy’s Sky TG24, set the stage perfectly for the special screening of his film. Recalling that it all began when he was home on a visit in 2011, he told the audience: “The big news story at the time was how many women were being killed each year by men who pretend to love them,” he said. “In that year, close to 150 women were killed because they didn’t do what they were expected to.”

As part of a report related to the abhorrent situation, d’Emilia journeyed to the province of Yunnan, China, in the breathtakingly beautiful foothills of the Himalayas. There, he reported, one could find a centuries-old matriarchal, matrilineal society that is egalitarian and non-violent, the Mosuo. Recognized in 1995 by the United Nations as a “model society” and “precious source of inspiration,” the Mosuo live a peaceful existence with no domestic abuse, rape or femicide.

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d'Emilia answers questions.

Shortly after his report had aired, d’Emilia was contacted by educator Francesca Rosati Freeman, a women’s rights advocate and antiracism activist who had written Benvenuti nel paese delle donne (Welcome to the Realm of Women), a 2010 book that focused on the transformations occurring among the Mosuo as a result of globalization. She had been organizing visits of small groups to experience an alternative way of life in Mosuo communities, demonstrating that it was nevertheless possible to imagine a different life in Italy, one in which women are valued and men are not oppressed.

Rosati Freeman and d’Emilia decided to collaborate on a film, and returned together to Yunnan, where they stayed and filmed among one Mosuo community on Lugu Lake. The resulting documentary, Nu Guo: In the Name of the Mother, has just begun its international film festival journey; but it is already being used as an educational tool in Italian schools.

The 50,000-strong Mosuo community survives, the film tells us, on “modesty, discipline, altruism and respect.” There is equality between the sexes, although women are in charge, and one of the defining features is the zou hun union: Relationships can be long-running, and children may result, but there is no marriage contract and men do not live with any woman except their mothers. Fathers are responsible not for their own children, but for their sisters’ children.

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Pio d'Emilia.

During a lengthy Q&A session following the film’s screening, d’Emilia endorsed the system in principal, stressing that it negates the need for jealousy and proves what women already seem to know, that they are “stronger, more just and more fair than men.” But when asked whether he thought any part of it could be applied to a Western society, he admitted that it would be difficult. “The embryo of violence," he stressed, "lies within the Judeo-Christian patriarchal system.”

Although the Chinese government does not recognize the Mosuo as an ethnic minority — a blessing in disguise, since it would impose the one-child rule and effectively destroy the Mosuo's unique attributes — it has recognized the community’s appeal as a tourist destination.  A decade ago, the government opened up the interior, building an airport and motorway in the Mosuo’s once-secluded land. This has brought a tourist invasion, enriching the community but also laying siege to its essential identity.

d’Emilia described certain unsavory aspects of this invasion that don’t appear in Nu Guo, including karaoke establishments that are actually brothels, staffed by Han Chinese who pretend to be Mosuo, to better lure visitors attracted by the overbilled “free love” concept.

Wouldn’t the Chinese want to be in total control of such a bustling tourist trade, asked one audience member. “We tried many times to get a statement from the Chinese government,” d’Emilia said, “but, you know, they’re not worried about a loving, nonviolent minority that’s not trying to overthrow communism.”

Despite the external pressures and other inevitable forces of modernization, d’Emilia is optimistic about the area's future: “The Mosuo are so proud, so convinced of being right, that they believe they can survive forever,” he said. Asked whether he feels the same, d’Emilia nodded vigorously. “The best way to protect a society is to open up, not to close,” he said. And in inimitable style, he emphasized that there’s a lesson in there for Japan.

  Photos by Koichi Mori and FCCJ.

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2014©Dharma Productions (Tokyo)

Media Coverage

 

A CLASS OF THEIR OWN


 A CLASS OF THEIR OWN


 July 15, 2014
Q&A guest: Director Haryun Kim


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Haryun Kim

Growing up in Seoul, Haryun Kim always felt a kinship with outsiders, and after working for an NGO post-college, completed her first film, Voice of Migrant Workers (2002). It wasn’t until she’d moved to London to study Social Anthropology at the School of Oriental and African Studies that she understood: she herself was a “person on the move,” in a world that is increasingly filled with “migrants.” The plight of the growing underclass became her subject. “I want to tell sincere human stories,” she says, “that champion the voices of those who would otherwise never be heard.”

After studying documentary at the National Film and TV School, Kim relocated with her family to Guanzhou, China in 2008 and was immediately struck by the contrast between the lives of the city’s many migrant workers and the gleaming metropolis they were building.  She soon discovered that the children of these workers were excluded from free public education without a local hukou household registration, forcing them to attend pricey informal private schools called minban — unregulated enterprises that fill the gap in the market. There are no guidelines governing the teaching standards or facilities at these schools.

The nation’s economic boom has created a constant stream of job-seekers to its cities, bringing with them more than 20 million children — worse, Beijing recently started shutting down minban over safety concerns, leaving migrant children with no schooling and no alternatives.

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Haryun Kim

Kim spent a year befriending and earning the trust of the children and teachers in one minban, creating a breathtakingly intimate portrait of their lives for A Class of Their Own. “I was like a piece of furniture in the room,” she told FCCJ’s audience during the Q&A. She spent several months getting to school earlier and leaving it later than anyone, and gradually selected her three main subjects. For different reasons, each of them leaves school by the end of the film.

A short version of Kim’s film debuted in an “impossible time slot” at the Asian Side of the Doc Festival in Chengdu last year, after unknown forces attempted to bar it from being shown at all. “There were Chinese people in the audience,” says Kim, “and they were shocked that migrant workers are such second-class citizens. They were also surprised that a foreigner was able to gain such access to their lives.”

Look for A Class of Their Own on the international festival circuit later this year.

— Photos by FCCJ.

a class of their own
©Summer Lotus Films

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