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THEY SAY NOTHING STAYS THE SAME


THEY SAY NOTHING STAYS THE SAME (Aru Sendou no Hanashi)


 September 9, 2019
Q&A guest: Director Joe Odagiri


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Emerging director Joe Odagiri. Remember the name. ©Koichi Mori

Film history is littered with forgotten titles by actors who always wanted to direct. Joe Odagiri’s visually and aurally stunning They Say Nothing Stays the Same is destined for a much kinder fate.

Appearing before a packed room at FCCJ the day after his return from the Venice Film Festival, which had hosted the world premiere, Odagiri told the crowd, “We received very warm applause, much more than I’d imagined, [which made me] very happy. But it made me feel a little uncomfortable, too, since this isn’t a film that should get such warm applause.” (He’s being humble.)

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©Koichi Mori

Reminded that he’d planned to study directing in California as a young man (where he wound up in acting classes after an admissions mistake), so it had taken him quite a while to get around to his feature-directing debut, he explained, “Working as an actor, I felt I would be taking advantage of my position if I directed a film. I didn’t think other directors would take kindly to it, and I thought audiences would look at the film through the filter of ‘presenting a film by the actor Joe Odagiri.’”

So what changed his mind, nearly 20 years after acting had made him a star? Odagiri turned unexpectedly confessional: “I don’t want to go into detail,” he began, “but I had a physical exam a while back, and the results weren’t very good. I may have overreacted, but I started thinking about what I should be doing in the time I might have left. I’d always wanted to make a film, but a strange kind of pride had prevented me. I felt that in my remaining time, I ought to do this."

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Odagiri on location with his masterful director of photography, Christopher Doyle.
 ©2019 “THEY SAY NOTHING STAYS THE SAME” Film Partners

“This” was also prompted by Odagiri’s encounter with legendary cinematographer Christopher Doyle (In the Mood for Love, The Limits of Control), who co-directed a film that Odagiri starred in, The White Girl (2017). Renowned for his prodigious artistry (as well as for his drinking), Doyle told the actor that if he made his own film, he’d like to shoot it.

“Chris Doyle’s role was incredibly important,” Odagiri concurred, when a film critic praised the film’s magnificent visuals. “I relied on him completely. He was able to realize everything that I imagined, and bring it all to the screen. He told me to concentrate on directing the actors and conceiving the composition of the shots, and leave the rest to him. Chris gave me 100% support throughout the filming, and 100% of my vision for the film was realized.”

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The director with Masatoshi Nagase, who plays a key role in the film.
©2019 “THEY SAY NOTHING STAYS THE SAME” Film Partners

When the interpreter had finished translating his remarks, he added: “One more thing: Chris isn’t just an old drunk.”

Odagiri wrote and refined his script over several years; and if audiences expect something dynamically, radically contemporary, they will be surprised to discover They Say Nothing Stays the Same feels more like the measured, stately work of a classic auteur.

Set on a fog-covered river and a rocky shore somewhere in Japan’s past, it tells the story of a lonely old boatman, Toichi (Akira Emoto, in his first leading role in over a decade), who ferries villagers and visitors to a town on the other side of the river. His only real relationship is with Genzo (Nijiro Murakami), a young neighbor who seems friendly and helpful. Upstream, a large bridge is being constructed and Toichi will soon be able to retire. He has mixed feelings about that, but his past is such a mystery, we don’t know what prompted him to be there in the first place. He is wracked by self-doubts and haunted by nightmares, but he does not miss a day of work and does not complain.

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The boatman's home on the river.
 ©2019 “THEY SAY NOTHING STAYS THE SAME” Film Partners

Then one day, he rescues a half-dead young girl from the water and gives her a place to stay. Fu (Ririka Kawashima, otherworldly in her major film debut) is as reticent as her host, but gradually, a friendship begins to grow. There are rumors about her own past — is she the kidnapped daughter of a murdered family several villages away or someone/something else? — but no one comes to claim her. As the days melt into months, nothing seems to change; but of course, nothing ever stays quite the same.

Set in early Meiji Japan but timeless in its concerns — the sacrifices made in the name of progress, the loss of cherished traditions and the natural environment, the human costs of capitalism — Odagiri’s debut is astonishing in its storytelling mastery and its stunning visuals, a tribute not only to his impressive skill at guiding actors to rich performances (especially Emoto, who is deeply moving, as is Masatoshi Nagase, who plays a hunter), but also to his ability at selecting the perfect collaborators.

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Emoto is deeply moving (and convincing) as the old boatman.
©2019 “THEY SAY NOTHING STAYS THE SAME” Film Partners

First among these, of course, is Doyle, whose camera captures a Japan that is at once achingly beautiful, steeped in lore but rushing headlong toward modernization. Shot in a splendidly scenic mountain valley in sunshine, rain and snow, with nearly constant mist rising from the boatman’s river, Doyle’s images are never less than captivating. Academy Award-winning costume designer Emi Wada (Ran, Samurai Marathon) and Armenian jazz musician Tigran Hamasyan, composing his first film score, also provide superlative support.

One of the other delights of They Say Nothing Stays the Same is the many cameo appearances, some as brief as a single line during a boat ride, by familiar faces: Tadanobu Asano, Yu Aoi, Isao Hashizume, Tsuyoshi Ihara, Jun Murakami, Takashi Sasano, Mitsuko Kusabue and Haruomi Hosono. When asked about his direction of Emoto, who is notoriously prickly, Odagiri responded, “Many veterans appeared in the film, and I decided that I wouldn’t give acting direction to any of them. What actors do is think about their roles, and how they can make them deeper and more resonant. I have a great deal of trust in the actors I asked to be in the film, and for me to tell them what they ought to do seemed superfluous. I understand actors, so it’s easier for me to direct than it is for [directors who haven’t acted].”

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©FCCJ

This begged a question about his own role in the film, which was behind the camera only. Asked whether he had considered acting in the film, and whether he’d consider doing so on his next directorial effort, Odagiri admitted, “Memorizing lines is such a hassle. To take time away from directing in order to memorize lines was something I didn’t want to do. I didn’t feel like I had the time to spare, and I think that will be the case in the future, as well.”

One FCCJ audience member, praising the film’s rhythm and pacing, asked Odagiri whether he had consciously chosen a cinematic style more akin with the past, or whether he’d had something else in mind. The director responded, “The film is set in Meiji Japan, about 150 years ago, and the rhythm of life was much different than it is today. It was a much more natural pace than today, when we live at such a hurried pace we tend to lose sight of things. As a result, people were in touch with themselves and the natural world. I’m hoping the audience will recognize that we’ve lost something in the name of convenience.”

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The mysterious Fu, played unforgettably by Ririka Kawashima.
 ©2019 “THEY SAY NOTHING STAYS THE SAME” Film Partners

Another audience member praised the film’s music and sound design. Odagiri explained that he’d been a musician and composer since an early age. “As a director, I’m probably focused on sound and music more than most directors. I was particular about creating the sound design for 5.1 surround sound, and using sound effectively with that system. To really appreciate this film, you have to see it in a theater with surround sound. I guess it will be available online, but since most homes don’t have 5.1 systems, don’t waste your time watching it online.”

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Odagiri laughs at a question about why he doesn't appear in the film himself. ©︎FCCJ

Queried, rather inexplicably, about his definition of happiness, Odagiri made the question matter without missing a beat: “The theme of the film is individual happiness. One of the messages I incorporated is, despite the period of the story or what environment you’ve been placed in, if you’re able to live a life you believe in, then that’s a form of happiness.”

Perfectly timed for the dawning of the Reiwa Era, in which you’d be hard-pressed to find anyone who doesn’t long for a less frantic pace of life, Joe Odagiri’s elegant, elegiac They Say Nothing Stays the Same is a welcome — and welcoming — respite from the s***storm outside. Do not miss it.

(Overseas audiences will also have the chance to experience its embrace, as festival dates are sure to be plentiful.)

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The writer-director with the poster for his film.  ©︎FCCJ

 

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©2019 “THEY SAY NOTHING STAYS THE SAME” Film Partners

Selected Media Exposure

ERNESTO


ERNESTO


September 19, 2017
Q&A guests: Director Junji Sakamoto and star Joe Odagiri


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Writer-director Junji Sakamoto and his star, Joe Odagiri, crack up during the photo call.    ©Mance Thompson

At least three generations of Japanese have grown up wearing t-shirts emblazoned with the iconic image of Ernesto “Che” Guevara, the Argentinian physician, author and Marxist revolutionary. But few of them know about Guevara’s controversial exploits, and fewer still know that a Japanese-Bolivian fought with him — and died, as did Che, in a CIA-assisted ambush in Bolivia — 50 years ago this October.

Junji Sakamoto’s new film, Ernesto, pays tribute to that man, Freddy Maemura Hurtado, a second-generation immigrant who became radicalized while in Cuba pursuing medical studies. Inspired by “The Samurai of the Revolution,” a novelized biography penned by Maemura’s sister Mary, Sakamoto has created a work that is at once Cold War history, coming-of-age story, compelling relationship drama and cautionary tale.

The project began when Sakamoto (The Projects, The Human Trust) came across the story of Maemura Hurtado, and was deeply impressed that he had followed his convictions so completely throughout his (tragically short) life. Realizing that he would do best to coproduce the film with a Cuban production company, thus gaining access to the island’s locations and local talent pool, he set about putting together the first Japan-Cuba coproduction since 1969 (not counting one documentary). Almost entirely in Spanish, the film is perfectly timed to mark the anniversaries of Che’s and Freddy’s deaths.

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Sakamoto's films frequently feature scenes in languages other than Japanese, but this is the first
that is almost completely in another language.      ©Mance Thompson, ©FCCJ (top right)

Ernesto opens with a historic 1959 scene, shot in Hiroshima. Just months after the Cuban Revolution resulted in the ousting of US-backed dictator Fulgencio Batista, Che Guevara (dead ringer Juan Miguel Valero Acosta) visits Japan in his role as a trade diplomat for the new communist government. Without notifying his hosts at the Foreign Ministry, he goes to the Hiroshima Peace Memorial Park to pay his respects. Then he turns to a Japanese journalist (Kento Nagayama) who has followed him there. “Why aren’t you angry at the Americans?” he demands. “They have done such a horrendous thing to you.” It is a question that hangs heavily over the entire film.

During the Q&A session after the FCCJ screening, Sakamoto was first asked whether that visit had taken place, and why he’d included it in the film. “It’s a fact that Che Guevara visited Hiroshima and laid flowers at the Peace Memorial cenotaph,” responded the director. “It’s also a fact that Freddy went to Cuba for his medical studies, and not long after, the Cuban Missile Crisis began. I wanted to juxtapose these two events, and through them, to pose questions about nuclear warfare.”

He continued, “During the missile crisis, Che was probably the only one who had been to Hiroshima and had memories of what nuclear warfare could do. That must have been at the back of his mind.”

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Che and Freddy in Cuba.  ©2017 “ERNESTO” FILM PARTNERS

Following up, another audience member asked about the lines (quoted above) that Che speaks to the journalist, and how Sakamoto had balanced fact with fictional elements in the film. “That line actually came from the journalist who covered the event, who had been with Che Guevara on that day," responded the director. "All the lines in that scene are factual, and came from the journalist, who was the only one to cover his visit, since no one really knew who he was at the time. He has since passed away, but he made detailed notes about the visit. His family was kind enough to share them with me.”

Sakamoto went on, “I don’t think films should fictionalize events; they must be grounded in reality. We did a lot of interviews and research. I did take liberties as long as they were fact-based. Sometimes it’s necessary to take liberties in order to better depict the atmosphere or the spirit of the historical [time].”

Considering today’s constant North Korean missile "tests" and Donald Trump's chest-beating, did Sakamoto intend to play up the looming danger of war by delving into the complicated Cold War-era proxy wars in his screenplay?

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Odagiri spent 4 months mastering his Spanish lines, as well as the correct body language.  ©Mance Thompson

“The approach I took was to tell the story of one individual,” said Sakamoto. “There are, of course, Hollywood movies like 13 Days, that depict the Cuban Missile Crisis. But I wanted to depict this medical student who arrived in Cuba and experienced the crisis, but wasn’t ‘in the know.’ The students weren’t given a lot of information, and they were later angry that the US and Soviet Union had negotiated without [Cuban] involvement.”

Ernesto’s “one individual,” Freddy Maemura Hurtado, was born in Trinidad, Bolivia to a well-to-do Japanese father from Kagoshima Prefecture and a Bolivian mother, and he was determined from childhood to become a doctor so he could treat the poor. In 1962, Maemura (Joe Odagiri, nearly unrecognizable as a very studious young man) arrives in Fidel Castro’s Cuba to study not only medicine but also the “spirit of liberty and equality.” Yet classes are soon disrupted by the US naval blockade, and the school becomes a barracks for anti-aircraft artillery troops for the duration of the Cuban Missile Crisis. Maemura and his classmates are given the choice of enlisting in the fight against America’s presence, and the young physician’s radicalization begins.

Missile Crisis averted, Maemura continues his studies against the backdrop of the escalating Cold War, and is soon skillful enough to become a lab assistant. He shares his salary with Luisa, a fellow student whom his friend has impregnated but refused to help support, and life seems good. But when civil war breaks out in Bolivia following a US-backed military coup in 1964, he decides to slip back home and join Che Guevara’s revolutionary army there. He visits Che, a fellow physician-turned-rebel, to tell him that he is following Castro’s advice to “follow my heart” about becoming a fighter, rather than a doctor. The guerrilla commander bestows the nom de guerre "Ernesto Medico" on him. Two years later, their fates are forever entwined when deep-jungle ambushes by CIA-backed Bolivian troops capture the men and they are killed within weeks of each other.

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Freddy listens to Castro speak at his medical school.   ©2017 “ERNESTO” FILM PARTNERS

Odagiri (Bright Future, Over the Fence) disappears completely into the role of Freddy, aided by convincing makeup, and delivers a slow-burn, career-best performance. One of Japan’s tiny handful of truly international stars, he is surely the only Japanese actor who has tackled roles in every major language but Italian. Here, he speaks entirely in Bolivian-accented Spanish.

Admitting it was one of his most challenging to date, the actor responded to a question about preparing for the role: “Thank you for that question. I’d wanted to have a drink before this press conference, but I refrained. I’m so glad I did, because I’m so ready to give a very serious answer. The way I approached the Spanish was not just to memorize the lines, but to be able to act in Spanish. For that, I sought the help of my [mostly Cuban] costars. I had three or four very kind costars who spent hours and hours with me, helping me mold this character.

“They each had their own visions of what Freddy would talk like in certain scenes, and they would read the dialogue for me. So I would ask them, ‘In this situation, how would he say this line?’ They showed me many possibilities, a full range of tones, and I then discussed different approaches to each scene with the director. With foreign languages, there are issues with [pronunciation], where to take a breath and the rhythm of the speech. It was all really complicated, and I’m so thankful to my costars, who I heavily relied on. Without their help, I wouldn’t have been able to make this character so well-defined.”

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©FCCJ

Pointing out that Odagiri’s first lead, in Kiyoshi Kurosawa's Bright Future, ends with a scene in which aimless young men sporting matching Che Guevara t-shirts kick garbage along a Tokyo street, an audience member asked about the actor’s personal connection to Che. “I hadn’t thought about that last scene, thank you for reminding me,” Odagiri laughed. “When I decided to take this role, I told my circle of friends about it and they all said, ‘Are you playing Che?’ They probably didn’t think it was such an outrageous idea. One reason might be that I usually grow a beard and have unkempt hair. I do actually have a Che Guevara poster on my wall, and I have Che t-shirts, as well.”

Sakamoto had high praise for the film’s Cuban producers. “When we took this project to them,” he explained, “they said yes right away. We asked if there was any sensitivity with [a Japanese production] depicting this time period on film — since there are no Cuban films depicting this decade — and they kindly took it on as their own project, as well.”

For all its heavy political overtones, the director made it clear that the theme is one of commitment and optimism: “The name of the film, Ernesto, is not just Che Guevara’s name, it also has a meaning: someone who is very earnest… someone who has a goal and is adamant about obtaining it. I think that's an important message. Whether you’re involved in political activities or just going about your day-to-day life, it’s important to have a goal, and to have unwavering faith as you strive to achieve it.”

Freddy Maemura’s remains, which were missing until 1999, are now laid to rest alongside Guevara’s in Santa Clara, Cuba. Ernesto ends with footage of Maemura family members visiting the site, to thank Freddy for “inspiring millions of revolutionary doctors with your dream,” and becoming a role model for succeeding generations.

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  ©2017 “ERNESTO” FILM PARTNERS

Selected Press Coverage

Selected TV Exposure

  • 日本テレビ ZIP!SHOWBIZ TODAY オダギリジョー 異国の地で悪戦苦闘

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