Member Login

Member Login

Username
Password *

FC HEADER


AN EVENING WITH VETERAN FILM CRITIC MARK SCHILLING


 June 23, 2020
Q&A guest: Mark Schilling


Tony TakitaniKoichi Mori-3
Schilling, right, with Sachiko Ichikawa, widow of Jun Ichikawa, and Tony Takitani DP Taishi Hirokawa. ©Koichi Mori

Three long months after our last event, the Film Committee cautiously emerged from Covid-19 lockdown to host an intimate conversation with veteran film critic, festival advisor and cycling enthusiast Mark Schilling.

The small-town Ohio boy is now the world’s leading voice on Japanese film, with a catbird seat as a critic for the Japan Times since 1989. He has been the local correspondent since 1990 for Screen International and now Variety, is a cultural reporter for a wide range of international publications, and has authored six books on Japan, including the recently published “Art, Cult and Commerce: Japanese Cinema Since 2000.”

When we first approached him about joining us on the FCCJ dais, we suggested also screening a film of his choice. His immediate response had been, “something by Jun Ichikawa” — his favorite Japanese filmmaker, who had died in 2008 at the age of 59. With the assistance of Ichikawa's widow, Sachiko, we were able to treat the audience to a very special screening of the director’s 2004 masterpiece Tony Takitani, based on a Haruki Murakami short story. A delicate, haunting film shot in luminous near-monochrome, it beautifully renders the spiritual isolation of its eponymous protagonist, as well as of modern Japan.

Tony Takitani  2005 WILCO Co. Ltd
© 2005 WILCO Co., Ltd

Introducing the screening, Sachiko Ichikawa shared a statement her husband wrote after he’d finished the film, highlighting his “attempt to answer demands brought about by Murakami’s literary world, which may be solid but is nonetheless floating a few centimeters off reality’s ground;” and of his own conviction that the film version should have “shots comprised of blank spaces like Edward Hopper’s paintings.”

The director’s longtime collaborator, acclaimed photographer Taishi Hirokawa, the award-winning cinematographer of Tony Takitani, told the audience Ichikawa wanted the film to feel as if “viewers were turning the pages as they read the story,” resulting in the camera’s subtle, ceaseless movements from left to right. He also recalled how they had had just two weeks to shoot, and had built all the sets in the open air on a hillside near Yokohama, despite the imminent typhoon season. “But Ichikawa was always lucky,” he said. “The rains skipped us.”

Settling in for a long, genial chat after the screening, Schilling was asked why Jun Ichikawa is so important to him. “I didn’t know much about him when I first started reviewing in 1989,” he admitted, “so for me, the discovery was Dying at a Hospital [1993]. I went into the screening cold and I was totally blown away. You’re watching patients who are all being treated for cancer… and you also see people outside the hospital, doing ordinary things. That combination, of people who are going to die and people who are very much alive — the contrast just hit me so hard.

Tony TakitaniKoichi Mori-2
Hirokawa discusses building the open-air sets. ©
Koichi Mori

“I ended up showing it at Udine (Far East Film Festival, where he curated the first international spotlight on Ichikawa’s work in 1994), and believe me, the last 10-15 minutes, everyone in the audience was [sobbing]. I couldn’t stop crying myself, and afterward, the director said, ‘I feel kind of sorry — I just make films that make people cry.’

“I ended up seeing everything he made after that, and he became my touchstone. This is why I’m doing this. At the time, there were up-and-coming directors getting attention, like (Takeshi) Kitano, (Hirokazu) Kore-eda and later (Kiyoshi) Kurosawa and (Naomi) Kawase. It was great for them, but I thought, ‘Wait a minute, Ichikawa should be up there with them.’ He wasn’t being ignored in Japan, but I thought he could take a step up, beyond Japan, and I tried to do what I could. I thought, ‘This is my mission, to make his films better known.’”

Tony TakitaniFCCJ-2
©FCCJ

Asked why had he selected Tony Takitani to screen at FCCJ, when it was almost too good at making the audience feel “extremely isolated and lonely,” Schilling responded, “It’s the time we’re living in now, isn’t it? Mrs. Ichikawa shared her husband’s thoughts about Edward Hopper, who’s become the artist of the coronavirus era. When I first saw it, I remember thinking that maybe it wasn’t cinematic enough. But I watched it again, and everything fits together the way Ichikawa intended it to: the images, the music, the acting. For me, it builds up to that moment when Tony’s wife is gone and he’s alone in her closet, a huge room, with all her clothes. I’ve had that experience in my own life. Someone dies, you go in and see their things the way they left them for the last time. And you never forget that. You never forget the feeling you have, the smells. That sums up the absence you feel when someone dies. Tony Takitani works for me like a film but also like a visual poem.”

Tony  2005 WILCO Co. Ltd
© 2005 WILCO Co., Ltd

Here, with ellisions, are other highlights of our conversation:

On selecting the reviews, interviews and essays included in his new book
The last time I did this was for the 1999 book “Contemporary Japanese Film,” which collected articles I wrote for the Japan Times from 1989. The publisher for that told me, “If you want to include all these reviews, you’re going to have to cut them down. They’re too long.” So I spent about a month and it was agonizing. I kept thinking, “Did I really write that?” This book wasn’t as bad. At the beginning of the millennium, I had about 1,200 words to play with. Now I have 550. It forces you to compress your thoughts, but it’s not quite enough. Every time they cut me down, I was fighting for the word count. Now I realize maybe it’s not so bad.

On whether his opinion of some films had changed since writing his initial review
Sometimes I see films after a long time and realize, “I liked this too much the first time around,” or I see something in it that I didn’t see before. That was the case with Tony Takitani, since when I first saw it, I hadn’t had the experience of having someone close to me die. And then I did. Seeing it again, I realized it’s a very artistic, very minimal film. But it’s deeply emotional, too.

Tony TakitaniFCCJ-1
©FCCJ

I have to give stars for the Japan Times reviews, and I think I gave 5 stars to only a few films every decade. I look back on those and think, “I really shouldn’t have done that.” (Pushed for examples, he finally relented.) There’s one called Sakuran, based on a manga by a woman, directed by a woman, starring the great Anna Tsuchiya, with a brilliant score by Ringo Sheena. I saw it and thought it was the ultimate feminist film. Women had been working so hard for so long to make any mark in the industry here, and it seemed like this was the breakthrough. I thought about it afterward. Really 5 stars? Maybe not.

On who will supplant the 4Ks (Kitano, Kore-eda, Kurosawa, Kawase)
They’re all over 50, and the ones coming up behind them, Koji Fukada and Miwa Nishikawa, are in their 40s. So they’re not young, but they’re ready to take the step up, too. Fukada’s new film was just selected for the Cannes 2020 label. I really like Shuichi Okita. We’ve shown six of his films at Udine, and every one has been a hit. He’s on the verge of a breakthrough. Shinichiro Ueda, director of One Cut of the Dead, is another one. We gave that film its world premiere at Udine, and it’s made more than 1,000 times its budget at the box office.

On film(s) he wishes had gotten greater attention
Jun Ichikawa’s, of course! And Nobuhiko Obayashi’s. He became famous abroad for House. I first discovered him in 1989 with Beijing Watermelon, about Chinese students in Japan. He was going to shoot in China but Tiananmen prevented it, so he just made a mock-up of an airplane and shot everything here. He plowed right ahead. I thought, this guy’s got balls and imagination. The last film he made before he died, Labyrinth of Cinema, a film made by a dying man [Obayashi had terminal cancer], had more energy than many, many films made by people healthier and younger, but not as brilliant as he was.

Tony   2005 WILCO Co. Ltd
© 2005 WILCO Co., Ltd

On which director has gotten too much attention
I mean, really, Japanese directors don’t get that much attention. Even someone like (Hayao) Miyazaki, when he started going abroad, Harvey Weinstein wanted to release Princess Mononoke as an arthouse film. It was so huge in Japan, and in the circle of overseas anime fans, but it just didn’t get out to a wider audience, compared with Pixar or Disney films.

On how he decides which films to review
It’s always difficult. I’ll look through all the upcoming films, watch the trailers, spend a day on that. Sometimes I think, “Oh, jeez. My time on earth is limited!” I’m at the point now where I don’t want to see a film I know I’m gonna hate. Very often the upcoming films are by directors I really admire or young directors who seem interesting, and I’ll [choose that way]. That’s only 4 films a month out of how many? Over 600 Japanese films were released last year, and I can’t cover them all. We have another couple of reviewers now, James Hadfield and Matt Schley, who’s covering all the anime. Thank god I have help.

On how much his own experience influences his choices of ‘good’ films
The famous critic Manny Farber once said, paraphrasing, “The critic watches the film, but the critic is also a man.” I don’t try to hide that. If something connects with me on a personal level, I mention it. One example is watching Koji Fukada’s Harmonium. That’s one of the greatest films [in a long time]. There’s a scene when the character played by Kanji Furutachi goes into the river to try to rescue his daughter. He comes out and he freaks out. If I’d seen the film without knowing anything about the situation, I might’ve thought he was overacting.

Tony TakitaniFCCJ-3
©FCCJ

But I have been in that situation, way back 40 years ago in my hometown in southern Ohio. I was on my bike, and a motorboat overturned. I’m a trained lifeguard, so I jumped in and swam out to the boat. People were screaming, “Get the baby! Get the baby!” and pointing to the water. It was very murky, I couldn’t see 2 feet in front of my face. I couldn’t find the baby. Then this teenager who was trying to help started drowning, so I went over to him. Finally, they brought the grandmother [who’d been holding the baby] to the shore, and she was just screaming and screaming. I thought, “She’ll never recover.” For whatever reason, Furutachi understood this. His character will never, ever be the same. And he gets that.

On documentaries
I write on documentaries when I can, when one is so important for some reason. Kazuo Hara just did one, Reiwa Uprising, about an election last year. It’s 4 hours long, and I sat, transfixed, throughout the whole thing. He’s someone who can do that to me. He also did Sennan Asbestos Disaster, and he spent years putting that together. He’s trying to be objective, but he has a point of view. He’s trying to get under the surface. He’s not really the friend [of the film’s plaintiffs], he’s making a film and he’s going to do what’s best for the film. For me, Hara’s work is equal to or better than what anyone’s doing in fiction films.

On whether his interviewing style has changed over the years
Interviews used to really intimidate me. I couldn’t sleep for days beforehand. Somehow, I got over that. My strategy was to read as much as I could about the person, see the film, but not write up questions until I was on the train to the interview, after everything percolated in my head. I have this scribbled question list with me like a safety blanket, but I never look at it because my objective is to start a conversation. A lot of directors have a script in their head, they’ve prepared what they want to say and they’re gonna somehow get it in there. So my strategy is to have a conversation and get them off script.

books
Schilling's new book, left, and others from Awai Books. ©Koichi Mori

On Donald Richie’s influence    
Donald Richie was my friend and mentor for about 20 years. He really encouraged me when I first started out. I could never repay him. We would go to movies together and talk about them afterwards. To hear the voice of Donald Richie is like hearing the pronouncement of God. He had no doubts about what he thought about a film. He lived in Ueno, in this little apartment overlooking Shinobazu Pond. He would invite me over to eat dinner and watch films. He had this collection of DVDs, all great films, and he would suggest titles. I’d say, “Hmmm, how about this one?” And he’d say “No, we’ll watch this.” He had this tiny TV sitting in his oshiire closet, which he used as a monitor, and he’d put in a DVD. All he had to sit on were straight-backed chairs. I thought, “I can’t slump, I can’t sleep, I’ve got to pay attention! Donald Richie is here! We’re watching this together!”

Watching with him, in the privacy of his apartment, I paid attention to every frame. He gave me that gift of attention. I’m still pretty degenerate in the way I watch some films, but one worth paying attention to, it’s worth paying attention. I always end up with 10, 12, 15 pages of notes about everything from the story to the editing to the camerawork. I wasn’t trying to be Donald Richie, I was just trying to hold my own in the conversation. So I had to bring my best game. That’s what he gave me.

For more anecdotes, as well as reviews, essays and interviews spanning the past 20 years of Japanese film, see Mark Schilling’s “Art, Cult and Commerce: Japanese Cinema Since 2000” (Awai Books, New York and Tokyo).

SENNAN ASBESTOS DISASTER


SENNNAN ASBESTOS DISASTER
(Nipponkoku vs. Sennan Ishiwata mura)


Feb 13, 2018
Q&A guest: Director Kazuo Hara


Asbestos-KM-11
The legendary director turns his focus on multiple protagonists in his new masterwork. ©Koichi Mori

Environmental catastrophes have become the regular stuff of Hollywood blockbusters, as well as the focus of serious consideration in documentary films.

Kazuo Hara's Sennan Asbestos Disaster falls into the latter category, and although it has already received accolades on the international festival circuit - including the Best Asian Documentary Award upon its premiere at the 2017 Busan International Film Festival, and coveted Audience Awards at the Yamagata International Documentary Film Festival and Tokyo FILMeX International Film Festival - it deserves a wider audience.

Everyone now knows that asbestos is toxic, that countless millions around the world have been exposed to it, and that many have died from the lung cancers, mesotheliomas and respiratory ailments caused by significant exposure. 

 sub 07
The legal team announces good news outside the Supreme Court of Japan. © Shissoh Production

But few realize that the deadly material has been banned outright in just 55 nations, not including China, Russia, India, Brazil, Canada (although a ban is expected this year) and the United States. In the US, up to 1% of a product may legally contain the harmful substance, thus continuing to endanger workers in such high-risk jobs as construction, firefighting and military service, among others.

Sennan Asbestos Disaster is one of the first films to closely chronicle the prolonged struggles of former asbestos workers and their families in Japan. Hara spent 8 years following them as they grappled with their ticking time-bomb diseases while awaiting the outcome of class-action lawsuits against the government for its culpability in their shortened lifespans.

A firebrand whose work often takes aim at the Powers That Be, Hara has been making what he calls "action documentaries" since 1972, collaborating closely with a forceful protagonist on each, and creating work that is both intensely personal and formally daring. Through these "characters with an edge," he has challenged traditional perceptions, confronted social injustices, shed light on issues too long in the dark, broken taboos and continually nudged viewers out of their comfort zones.

sennan sub 02Plaintiffs demonstrate outside the Ministry of Health. © Shissoh Production

In his first film, Goodbye CP (1972), his handicapped protagonist forced us to reconsider the relationship between the able-bodied and the disabled; in Extreme Private Eros: Love Song 1974, his protagonist was Hara's ex-wife, a crusading feminist, bisexual and mother of an interracial child with an American GI; in The Emperor's Naked Army Marches On (1987), his protagonist was a former soldier who relentlessly hounded his superior officers, demanding they be held accountable for their actions in World War II; in A Dedicated Life (1994), his protagonist was the controversial novelist and communist Mitsuharu Inoue.

With Sennan Asbestos Disaster, Hara has his first-ever group protagonist: the "normal people" who lived and worked in Osaka's Sennan district. Yet despite an expansive cast of characters and a nearly 4-hour running time, he manages to portray them as fully-rounded individuals, and to infuse their tragedy with gentle humor and a winningly empathetic warmth.

As helpful graphics inform us at the beginning of the film, Sennan was an erstwhile "asbestos village" that once hosted the largest number of asbestos factories in Japan. The district flourished from the late Meiji through the Showa periods (1868-1989), boasting over 200 processing plants at its peak, and lured thousands of uneducated job-seekers from the Japanese and Korean countrysides.

Although the Japanese government was well aware of the health hazards involved for many decades, it continued to prioritize economic development above human health long after other nations had ceased manufacturing the material, and neglected to implement either health regulations or countermeasures.

 sub 01
Plaintiff Miyoko Sato, whose husband, Kenichi, died from asbestos exposure. © Shissoh Production

In 2006, 31 Sennan plaintiffs filed suit against the government seeking compensation for irreversible damages to their health, and Hara began covering meetings of the Citizen's Group for Sennan Asbestos Damage, founded by Kazuyoshi Yuoka. Yuoka previously managed an asbestos factory started by his grandfather, and his own guilt motivates him to occasional extremes during the course of the trials.

One watches Sennan Asbestos Factory on the edge of the seat, with a mounting sense of despair as the government wages a war of attrition against the ailing plaintiffs. As the years stretch on — punctuated by minor victories in court, but no admission of responsibility nor compensation — many of the plaintiffs will gradually succumb, not surviving to see their own suits through. 

Eventually, the Supreme Court rules that the government must compensate the victims, but caps the liability period at 1971, although asbestos was used in Japan from 1900 - 2006 and the first dangers were recognized in 1957.  

Asbestos-KM-1   Asbestos-KM-5

Asbestos-KM-12   Asbestos-KM-14
Hara makes points from the dais. © Koichi Mori

During the Q&A session following the screening, an FCCJ member asked how they arrived at the year 1971 - was it because the workers themselves were expected to have known by then? 

Responded Hara, "In this case, and many others, the court has tried to limit who will be compensated, and who not. I think this is an instance of pandering to authority, and trying to maintain the face of the government. At least that's my guess."

Another audience member followed up, saying that he appreciated the film's emotional journey, but that he wondered whether the director felt that judicial decisions and the power of the court should not be subjected to scrutiny by documentarians. Hara sought to disavow him of the notion, explaining, "In Japan, video cameras are not allowed inside the courtroom. It's very difficult to question the fundamental nature of the court [proceedings]. Now that I've finished the film, I realize that intentionally but subconsciously, I probably wanted to depict the Japanese people, the 'commoners,' their pride and their prejudices, and their achievements."

sub 03
Citizen's Group founder and activist Kazuyoshi Yuoka with plaintiff Kazuko Minami.  © Shissoh Production

Noting that the film's subjects had already watched the film "3 or 4 times" during a pre-release run in a theater in Sennan, he continued, "As you mentioned, I did put a lot of emotional weight on these commoners, and whether I could show their emotions interestingly, cinematically, was a bit of [a challenge] for me. You may have seen my film The Emperor's Naked Army Marches On, in which I depicted a man who attacked the emperor alone, a very strong-willed character. You could say that he's as far removed from the common people as you can get. That kind of strong character with an ego is 180 degrees opposite to the protagonists of this new film. I focused on creating an entertaining documentary despite their being so ordinary."

(Hara later added that Kenzo Okuzaki, the government combatant in The Emperor's Naked Army — like the other subjects of his previous documentaries - became famous because of his films. "Until his death," he said, "he was adamantly demanding that I make a sequel.")

Asbestos-KM-16
©Koichi Mori

Hara was asked about the stylistic differences between the two parts of the film, and if they were a result of the progress of the struggle or otherwise. "I've heard from viewers that the two halves give very different impressions," responded the director, "and they've suggested that I provoked things to happen in the second half. It's true that in my previous films, I have actively provoked my subjects. But not this time. This film is edited chronologically [and] because of the course of events, a certain energy arose that came to a head in the latter half of the struggle."

He pauses for effect. "It was as if the sky fell for me. I couldn't believe my ears. I was really angry to hear that. I'm very fond of these common people, but it's something they should never have said. I despise the very goodness of their nature." Another pause. "That is the message of the film."

And he means it, but has put it better previously. On the Japan premiere of Sennan Asbestos Disaster at the 2017 Yamagata International Documentary Film Festival, Hara declared, "With this work, what I wanted to say most was, 'People of Japan, faced with these authorities who do whatever they please, are you just going to sit back and accept it?'" 

sub 06
© Shissoh Production

One imagines that the message may be the same for his next film, about the Minamata mercury poisoning tragedy. "I've been documenting Minamata for the past 12 years," he told the audience, "and it's such a huge problem, it's been difficult for me to focus on one theme. But I'm determined to finish the film, one way or another, by the end of 2018."

To the applause that erupted, he immediately said, "Please don't clap, [it increases the pressure on me]. In the asbestos trials, Mr. Yuoka had very different opinions from the legal counsel on many occasions, but they managed to work together to the very end. When you go to Minamata, however, you see that the people who voice different opinions from the main group are being sidelined and bad-mouthed. There's a hatred in the air. Trying to make a film in that kind of atmosphere, I can only feel this negative energy. So even though you applaud me, and I know I must finish this film one way or another, I'm not feeling very optimistic."

Hara's latest masterwork is a harrowing exploration into the inhumanity of capitalism, colonialism and the state. There is no reason to worry that his next will not measure up. 

Asbestos-KM-18
Hara said he chose to include illustrations in the poster because it would feel more "familiar" to Japanese. ©Koichi Mori 

 

NVA omote
© Shissoh Production 

 

Recent posts

AN EVENING WITH VETERAN FILM CRITIC MARK SCHILLING

00:00 Saturday, June 27, 2020

MISHIMA: THE LAST DEBATE

00:00 Thursday, March 19, 2020

FUKUSHIMA 50

00:00 Thursday, March 05, 2020

FIRST LOVE

00:00 Thursday, February 27, 2020

BENEATH THE SHADOW

00:00 Saturday, February 08, 2020

COMPLICITY

00:00 Sunday, January 19, 2020

TALKING THE PICTURES

00:00 Wednesday, December 04, 2019

THE 47 RONIN IN DEBT

00:00 Thursday, November 21, 2019

I: DOCUMENTARY OF THE JOURNALIST

00:00 Thursday, November 14, 2019

TORA-SAN, WISH YOU WERE HERE and Q&A in collaboration with TIFF

00:00 Saturday, October 05, 2019
  • Go to top