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THE MAN FROM THE SEA


THE MAN FROM THE SEA (Umi wo Kakeru Otoko)


May 23, 2018
Q&A guests: Director Koji Fukada and star Dean Fujioka


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 Dean Fujioka (left) and Koji Fukada (right) are sure to reach new audiences with their first collaboration.  ©Mance Thompson

Those who are familiar with writer-director Koji Fukada’s award-winning work, particularly his 2016 Harmonium, the Jury Prizewinner in the Cannes Un Certain Regard section, will find that his first international coproduction feels both more placid and yet politically charged.

Those familiar with the work of actor Dean Fujioka, a homegrown megastar with a fervid Asian following, may be surprised by his limited screen time in a film by a director whose leanings are resolutely arthouse, rather than commercial.

Yet both men have clearly benefitted from the collaboration, and Fujioka’s presence is sure to help The Man from the Sea reach a much-expanded audience.

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 All photos ©Mance Thompson, except bottom right:  ©FCCJ

Speaking briefly prior to FCCJ’s screening, Fukada promised, “It’s a much lighter film than my last one.” Indeed, while much of the story concerns the developing inter-relationships between its four central characters, it is set against the backdrop of real-life tragedy in the seaside town of Banda Aceh, Sumatra. An area once devastated by the 2004 Indian Ocean earthquake and tsunami, it inspired the director to craft a tale marked by parallels with Japan’s own triple disasters in March 2011.

Fukada explained, “The idea for the film came from a visit I made to Banda Aceh back in December 2011, to shoot a tsunami symposium. It was really interesting, because I discovered big differences in the way [Indonesians and Japanese] view life and death. That’s what stimulated me to consider shooting against that backdrop.”

Evoking both the splendor and the wrath of nature, infused with a palpable sense of loss and hope as well as an ineffable magic realism, The Man from the Sea contains documentary interview footage touching on the still-fresh memories of the tsunami as well as the area’s recent civil war, and further back, lingering recollections of the hardships of World War II.

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©Mance Thompson

But these scenes are interwoven with the burgeoning romances of the film’s Japanese and Indonesian protagonists — whose cross-border rapport makes it seem as if the usual barriers of nationality and language simply don’t exist. And then there is the sudden arrival of a mysterious visitor (a driving motif of both Harmonium and Fukada’s earlier Hospitalité), who shakes the equilibrium of the community.

As The Man from the Sea opens, we meet Japanese aid worker Takako (Mayu Tsuruta), who has settled in Banda Aceh, assisting in ongoing reforestation and other disaster recovery projects with her son Takashi (Taiga), while her husband remains in Yogyakarta. Both are fluent in Indonesian and completely comfortable in their adopted culture. On the day Takako’s niece Sachiko (Junko Abe) is scheduled to arrive on a visit from Japan, a man (Fujioka) is found lying on a beach, apparently stricken by amnesia, and Takako is called to help. He seems able to understand Japanese and Indonesian, but he cannot — or will not — speak. While his identity is being ascertained, she reluctantly agrees to let him stay at her house overnight.

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Fujioka as the mysterious, magical man from the sea.
©︎2018 "The Man from the Sea" FILM PARTNERS

Takako nicknames the stranger Laut, meaning “sea” in Indonesian, and he seems content to just... be. Smiling serenely, he sits by himself as life swirls around him. Takako, assisted by aspiring journalist Ilma (Sekar Sari), attemps to uncover who this enigmatic visitor is and where he came from, while Sachiko gets settled in and meets Takashi’s college friend Kris (Adipati Dolken). He helps her begin her own search for the beach her father so fondly remembered, where she hopes to scatter his ashes.

And then gradually, strange phenomena begin occurring in Laut’s presence. He seems to have the power to make dead fish jump, cold showers run warm, bubbles of water float, and the dead appear to loved ones. Is he really Naoki Kuroda, the missing tourist, as locals suspect? Or is he something altogether more ambiguous?

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Photos on left: ©Mance Thompson; on right: ©FCCJ

As the Q&A session got under way, Fukada elaborated on the process of bringing the film to fruition, seven years after he attended the disaster seminar in Banda Aceh: “The Indonesian visit also influenced another of my films, Au Revoir l’Eté. About a year after I completed that, I started discussing this project with a producer at Nikkatsu. But it’s really difficult if you try to make a project in Japan that isn’t based on another work. That’s why we had funding also from France and Indonesia (Japan’s Nikkatsu Corporation teamed up with France’s Commes des Cinemas and Indonesia’s Kaninga Pictures to coproduce), as well as creative input. It was a really rewarding project for me.”

Greeting the audience as if they were old friends (he had last visited FCCJ a full year ago, but his affability is a large part of his appeal), Fujioka said in American-inflected English, “I hope you liked the film, and have your own answers to this mysterious piece of work. I believe it’s not something that’s binary — it’s got an open ending that I think opens up a dialogue for viewers.”  

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Takashi and Sachiko take a taxi in Banda Aceh.  ©︎2018 "The Man from the Sea" FILM PARTNERS
 

Asked whether he had taken the role of Laut because he’d wanted to work with Fukada, or because he’d wanted to work in Indonesia, Fujioka immediately responded, “Both. My family is in Jakarta, and I always wanted to do something that’s related to my wife’s home country. I wanted to make something that, when my kids grow up, they’ll be proud of me, they’ll know why I’m missing this time with them now. When I pick projects, my criteria are whether the character, the story or the film will allow me to feel proud of myself as a good father.”

As for his director, Fujioka enthused, “Mr. Fukada’s script was great. It was original, it was really creative, it was eccentric, and you could call it unkind, in a way — it doesn’t end with easy [answers]. It doesn’t really emit any message or define how it should be interpreted.”

Although the film’s overarching meaning(s) can be considered ambiguous, Fukada does not shy from difficult themes. One of these is the fluid notion of national identity. The character of Takashi, for example, wrestles with his Japaneseness, since he considers himself to be essentially Indonesian; and the man from the sea, while he appears to be Japanese, is essentially a man without a country.

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Laut and Ilma help a girl with heat exhaustion. ©︎2018 "The Man from the Sea" FILM PARTNERS

Noting that he had also questioned such notions in films like his 2009 Hospitalité, one journalist asked the director to expand upon the theme. “Indeed, national identity is one theme of the film,” said Fukada. “I was intrigued when I realized during my visit to Banda Aceh that I had seen footage of the great tsunami of 2004 and yet, had considered it only as a [distant] news story among many others. Yet the way I perceived the 3/11 disasters here was different, and I had [distanced myself] by making a distinction between ‘here’ and ‘there.’ It made me want to depict this through characters that had Indonesian and Japanese national identities, and try to juxtapose those against Laut, who has no national identity at all, and thus give the audience the opportunity to think about identity.”

Pressing further on the same issue, another audience member asked the director why he’d felt a “narrative compulsion” to shoot the film abroad, and whether it would have been impossible to make it in Japan. “I don’t think it’s necessarily impossible to explore this theme in Japan,” Fukada answered. “For example, there’s work like Kenji Miyazawa’s ‘Matasaburo of the Wind’ (a short story in which village schoolchildren believe that a new transfer student is the embodiment of a legendary wind sprite) — so it’s a universal theme, in a way.” 

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As in his prior visit, Fujioka made all his responses in English. ©︎Mance Thompson

He continued, “But I found that when I placed the story in Indonesia, it was an even better match than I’d anticipated. I had discovered that Indonesians have a spiritual nature, and more of an acceptance of the supernatural. The man Nu, who appears in the documentary within the film, said that after he’d lost his wife and daughter in the disaster, his wife had forgiven him for remarrying, and his daughter had come to him in a dream and led him to where [her remains could be found]. He talked about it in a very natural way, not as if it were any kind of special experience for him.

“Also, when we were shooting on location, we always had ‘rain stoppers.’ These were people who offered prayers to stop the rain, whenever it looked like rain was imminent. All the Japanese crew found this unusual, but for the Indonesian crew, it was an everyday thing. I think it’s only normal that the people of Aceh would receive the character of Laut in a very natural way.” 

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©︎Mance Thompson

Recalling an interview he’d conducted with Fujioka when his I Am Ichihashi: Journal of a Murderer was coming out in 2013, a journalist said they’d spoken about the difficulty of preparing for a role when an actor feels he has nothing in common with the character. “For this film, then, how did you go about preparing to play a character who is basically unknowable?” he asked.

Responded Fujioka, “It was really difficult, because I understood from the script that this guy is not human. I had to lose the smell of any ethnicity or nationality. He’s basically like a plant, or an alien — I never had a concrete answer from Mr. Fukada — but he’s like nature itself. I had only a couple of lines to speak in a couple of different languages, so it was basically like a choreographed art installation. It was something equivalent to dancing or shooting an action film, although Laut wasn’t really active. It was a subtle way of moving my body. I remember that Mr. Fukada reminded me every single day to hunch over — he said my posture was too good to be Laut. I had to hunch over and keep that little smile, and that’s how I forged this art installation.”

DF-MFTSMance Thompson-34-2Fujioka brandishes the script, after reading his favorite line — which was dropped from the finished film.  ©︎Mance Thompson

Noting that they’d had a good rapport on set, and he had completely trusted Fukada, Fujioka said, “I think a complicated character is easier to act, in a way, because there are a lot of things you can bring out, you can dig deep into your soul and your memories and bring out emotions. But this time, since he’s not human, it was extremely difficult. …[But] we collaborated on this piece of work named Laut.”

It was only later, as photographers were assembling near the dais for a photo call, that Fujioka was asked about the blue notebook he was carrying. “This is the script,” he explained, opening it to the first page. “Mr. Fukada omitted the first line on page 1 of the script. I loved this line: ‘I’m satisfied with the universe, but I’m not satisfied with the world.’ I thought it was beautiful. I think it basically explains who Laut is and the theme of the film. So I brought the script today because I just thought it was such a pity that it wound up being dropped during post-production.”

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©2018 "The Man from the Sea" FILM PARTNERS 

Selected Media Exposure

MARRIAGE


MARRIAGE (Kekkon)


June 20, 2017
Q&A guests: Star Dean Fujioka and director Shinichi Nishitani


Dean and Nishitani Koichi Mori
Nishitani directed Fujioka playing that paragon of virtue, Godai-sama. This time out, he's an incorrigible scoundrel.    ©Koichi Mori

The flashbulb orgy was just a tad overwhelming as Dean Fujioka took his seat onstage following FCCJ’s screening of his new film, Marriage.

“I’m going blind,” he said in English, laughing happily. “You guys are amazing!”

The irony wasn’t lost on the large crowd, which was clearly thrilled to experience the megawatt voltage of Fujioka’s smile and his rockstar magnetism in person. Most of them were there because they’d already been mesmerized by the force of his NHK debut on the morning drama Here Comes Asa.

Playing the real-life father of Osaka commerce, Tomoatsu Godai, with an impossibly charming, breezy confidence, he had imbued the character with a buoyant optimism that seemed to dovetail perfectly with his own personality. Male viewers yearned for his let’s-change-the-world fighting spirit; females yearned for a man who would cherish and cheer them on, as Godai had done for Asa, the title character.

Over the course of its six-month run, the series became a cultural juggernaut and the “Godai-sama boom” continued unabated. Soon, Fujioka’s “reverse-import” status as Japan’s first Asia-wide star was firmly cemented. His presence drove Here Comes Asa to record-setting viewership, and Fujioka, to a stratospheric level of popularity.

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 The Fujioka supernova had first glowed in 2006 in Hong Kong and Taiwan, where he parlayed a successful (albeit unplanned) modeling career into a series of attention-grabbing roles in television and film. Impressively, he also added Cantonese and Mandarin to his fluent English, which he’d honed during college in Seattle.  

He signed on with Japan’s Amuse talent management company in 2011, and for the next few years, split his time his time between TV projects in Japan, Taiwan and North America — where he appeared in eight episodes of the 2014-2015 detective series The Pinkertons — as well as Japanese indies.

But it wasn’t until Here Comes Asa started in late 2015 that Fujioka became an overnight sensation in his homeland. The years at midlevel fame apparently helped him adapt to his newfound mega-celebrity with amiable equanimity.

Veteran NHK director Shinichi Nishitani was one of the helmers on Here Comes Asa, and during the Q&A session, he recalled being “blown away” by Fujioka’s charisma on their first meeting, becoming an instant fan. After working with him, he found him to be “an actor who can really immerse himself in a role and become the character, whereas many actors stay themselves. With Dean, he plunges into it with full commitment. I find that astonishing.”

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                                       Marriage marks the third collaboration for Fujioka and Nishitani.  ©Koichi Mori 

While the asadora series was running, they made a TV movie together, Noisy Street, Silent Sea. With Fujioka’s meteoric rise, they were also able to fast-track a feature project. The resulting film, Marriage, is the long-awaited adaptation of a bestselling novel by Areno Inoue, about a marriage scammer. Nishitani cleverly cast Fujioka as the conscience-free conman, earning instant audience sympathy for a character who wouldn’t otherwise deserve it.

But both men deflected the suggestion that playing a scoundrel was meant to counteract the Godai-sama effect. Says Nishitani, “We wanted to widen the spectrum of his roles this time around. Of course he’d done I Am Ichihashi: Journal of a Murderer, which was quite a departure. But I wanted to show his utter charm, how he can sweep women off their feet and put a spell on the them.”

Fujioka added, again in English, “I did everything I could to convince myself that I was the person he wanted me to portray. After we finished shooting, during the editing process, Mr. Nishitani took a different approach, and I was surprised. But I’m happy with the outcome.”

In Marriage, Fujioka’s lothario is not a hero, far from it: he separates his victims from their savings accounts and redefines their notions of romantic bliss. But he’s also not quite a villain, not even in the women’s eyes. There is apparently a dark secret in his past, and this is at the root of his fraudulent schemes.

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                 Kenji puts a spell on Ruriko, before she's wise to his ways.   ©2017 "Marriage" Film Partners

Kenji Urumi (Fujioka) is perpetually polished and happily married to Hatsune (Shihori Kanjiya). He just happens to make his living from con games, slipping in and out of whatever skin suits his latest conquest, with marriage as the bait. For avid reader Asami (Eriko Nakamura), he is a popular web novelist with 500,000 followers; for classy magazine editor Mana (Wakana Matsumoto), he is a budding restaurateur who can also tickle the piano keys with just the right seductive pizzazz; for Hatoko (Tamae Ando), who despairs of the future as she stamps marriage license applications at a city office, he is a suave wine connoisseur.   

Then there’s Ruriko (Shuko), Kenji’s partner in crime, a former target who realizes she can keep him close only by sharing in the spoils of his misadventures. She provides him with a “never-ending supply” of lonely hearts in need of love. Until one day, he meets his match in Yasue (Hisako Manda), who digs into his past and reveals the ugly truth.

Although saying more would spoil the film, there is an unexpected outcome that differs substantially from the original novel. Discussing that during the Q&A session, Fujioka said, “I think it was really effective that Mr. Nishitani decided to bookend the film with the traditional lullaby Hamabe no uta. It evokes something that should be there, and is not — something that Kenji should have had, that would allow him to have [healthy] relationships with women, but that’s been ruined.”

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                             Hatoko meets and falls for Kenji at a wine tasting.    ©2017 "Marriage" Film Partners

Addressing the director, a foreign journalist commented, “The British psychoanalyst Christopher Bollas has said that we get married in order to escape growing up. Can you tell us your thoughts on how you tried to show the institution of marriage in this film?”

Nishitani initially answered, “I would say that we portrayed it as something that soothes you.” But after further prompting by the emcee and Dean, he admitted, “I’ve arrived at this answer after experiencing multiple marriages.”

“Pretty convincing, right?” laughed Fujioka. “Home is where the heart is!”

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                                                           Fujioka reacts to Nishitani's description of marriage based on "multiple" experiences with it.   ©Mance Thompson

A female journalist asked Fujioka about the process of making his character empathetic. “Being an actor is a lot like being a conman,” he said, responding in Japanese because the question was in Japanese. “You have to do what the character calls for or you can’t be an actor. But the professions are polar opposites. For the conman, it’s all about his own ego — he breaks the law and the consequences are quite tragic.

“But it’s interesting,” he continued, “because Kenji’s ability to please women is what makes him such a good conman, and makes the film so compelling. To make a woman happy, [Kenji knows] you have to like her. You have to feel that you like her. It’s about having curiosity. ‘What is she thinking? What does she want to do? What does she really want?’ And it’s about making the other person comfortable, putting her at ease.”

Another audience member asked the star about the scene in which he’s playing the piano. Despite being an accomplished musician, he admitted, “It was technically challenging. It’s the first time I’d played the piano while saying my lines and also reacting to the actress’ lines. It was like we were doing a musical, and it took a lot of concentration.”

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                                                                                                                                            ©Mance Thompson

Returning later to the subject of music, Fujioka was queried about the film’s theme song, Permanent Vacation, which he wrote and performed. “I knew right away that I wanted to start the song with the line asa ga kita, or here comes asa, since the director and I met on the NHK drama. So it begins, When morning comes, we still don’t know where we’re headed. I wanted to convey this sense of being lost, of not knowing where to go. I wrote the rest of the lyrics during the shoot, and didn’t start writing the music until we’d finished shooting.

“The lyrics are a kind of soliloquy, a confession,” he concluded, “because we only tell Kenji’s story from the perspective of these women that he’s swindled. So it’s a glimpse into his heart and mind, and that’s how we ended the film.”

The actor doesn’t need to worry that this rogue turn will diminish his female following. Coincidentally, he is currently starring in Amazon Prime’s hit Happy Marriage!?, and fans can find comfort as his character continues to evolve from a “tyrannical-devoted-sadistic-charming” husband (as per Wikipedia) into someone more closely mirroring Dean Fujioka himself.

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                            ©2017 "Marriage" Film Partners

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