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VIGILANTE


VIGILANTE


November 14, 2017
Q&A guest: Director Yu Irie


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The director returns to darker territory with his latest film, a very personal project. ©FCCJ

With his breakout hit 8,000 Miles (SR Saitama no Rapper) in 2009, writer-director Yu Irie struck pay dirt in his rural Saitama hometown, using it as the backdrop for a bittersweet tale about the struggles of wannabe rap stars. Returning twice over the next few years to complete a trilogy, he won a devoted international following for his humorous, humanistic depictions of the strivers, outsiders and has-beens who populated his particular pocket of the prefecture.

But with his new film, Vigilante, Irie makes it clear that home is decidedly not where his heart is. Penning his first original screenplay since completing the trilogy, the young hitmaker has once again revisited his roots — but this time, he has found them rotten.

The pitch-black world of Vigilante is one in which ethics have been torn asunder and the ugliness of humanity is on full display. Exploring such hot-button social issues as child abuse, drug addiction, sexual aggression, crimes against foreigners, crimes by foreigners, and the inexorable decline of Japan’s countryside, Irie’s unsettling vision allows nary a sliver of light to pierce the darkness.

The film begins with a chase through the twilight, as three small boys are pursued by a frightening adult figure. On the day their mother dies, the young brothers have attempted to kill their tyrannical father, Takeo (Shun Sugata), a leader in the local community. The eldest, Ichiro, runs away after the incident, and does not return until Takeo has died, 30 years later. In adulthood, middle brother Jiro (Kosuke Suzuki, TV’s “Dr. X”) has become a city council member, while the youngest, Saburo (Kenta Kiritani, Close-Knit), makes ends meet by managing a deriheru ("delivery health") call-girl business for a volatile gangster (rapper Hannya).

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©Koichi Mori

After Takeo’s funeral, Ichiro (Nao Omori, Outrage Coda) suddenly reappears. He’s brought with him a notarized will, and declares that he will take possession of their father’s legacy. But Jiro needs to retain a large tract of nearby land for a megamall construction project that will ensure his political future. Ever the obedient civil servant, he must now choose between his family and his career prospects. As the brothers indulge in an increasingly violent tug-of-war, all hell breaks loose around them. A community of foreign workers clashes with an overzealous neighborhood watch group. Powerful politicians collude with organized criminals. Soon, tensions in the entire town begin to boil over.

In the Q&A session following FCCJ's screening, Irie was asked whether any of the film’s political intrigues had been influenced by actual events in the director’s hometown. He responded, “I want to make clear that it wasn’t my intent to depict Fukuya — this is set in a fictional town. If I don’t make this clear, I’ll never be able to go back." 

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Kiritani confronts local gangsters in the film. © 2017 VIGILANTE Film Partners

Irie laughed before continuing, “I left Fukuya when I was 19 to study filmmaking in Tokyo, so I didn’t really have a full understanding of the politics of regional cities. What did leave an impression on me was that there were always yakuza at our local festivals. It was only after I started making films, and I would return home [on visits], that I started to realize there were these issues involving immigrants, these ‘trainees’ from overseas, and also that there were vested interests involved in public projects.”

Was it necessary to shoot in Fukaya, if audiences are not meant to connect the screen’s fictions with the real setting? Said Irie, “There was this impetus to go back, because the themes were personal. I could have shot elsewhere, but I wanted to return and get the support of people living there.”

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Omori faces a bleak future.  © 2017 VIGILANTE Film Partners

Vigilante was filmed in the dead of winter and mostly at night, which undeniably helped strip the performances by its three main stars of any artifice. But Irie admitted that he’s a bit worried the actors are still upset about the filming conditions: “A lot of my films are set in winter, actually. I suppose it’s a season I like a lot. When the three brothers were fighting in the river, it contributed to some movie magic. It started snowing while we were filming, and it rarely snows there.”

The film’s low-budget aesthetic reminded one critic in the audience that — long before Irie helmed big-studio productions like his Memoirs of a Murderer (which spent 3 weeks at the top of Japan’s box office earlier this year) — he had felt trapped in the no-budget rut. In 2010, Irie had gone on record with complaints that independent directors couldn’t have sustainable careers, and couldn’t possibly afford to live in a city like Tokyo. The voluble rant went viral, prompting a dialogue across the industry that continues today. Asked whether he felt any differently now, Irie admitted, “I’ve shot quite a few commercial films now, so I’m able to live in Tokyo. I made those comments when I [wasn't yet 30] to bring attention to the plight of young directors in the film industry, and I don’t think that situation has changed much at all. People forget about these issues all too easily.” 

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©Koichi Mori (left), ©FCCJ (right)

What does he think might be done about the situation? “Toei Video, which is behind Vigilante, is really unique,” he responded. “They back original scripts, rather than just those based on novels or manga, and this opens a lot of doors for people who want to work on original material, as well as for indie filmmakers. I think there’s a lot of work to be done to solve the problem, but when it comes to the major studios, I’d like to see more of them embarking on original projects. I think it’s up to my generation now to make changes by writing original scripts and finding producers, or it will never change.”

A leading critic in the audience, noting that Vigilante has echoes of Yoichi Sai’s Blood and Bones, another work that features an overpowering father figure, asked how important the theme of family ties is to Irie’s own work. “I wasn’t directly influenced by the film,” said Irie, “although I like it a lot. I think its depiction of a towering, violent father is unparalleled in Japanese film. As for my own work, I’d avoided depicting blood ties in the past; but two years ago, I was filming a jidaigeki film set in the Edo period, and I had to do some genealogical research. That led me to research my own family tree, and if you go back 5 or 6 generations, you reach the Edo period. I started thinking about blood ties and what family means, and that influenced this film.”

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Suzuki (center) leads the neighborhood watch one fateful evening.  © 2017 VIGILANTE Film Partners

He later admitted that he’d been “heavily influenced” by the star of Blood and Bones, “Beat” Takeshi Kitano, who also directs “starkly, painfully violent” films. “Kitano’s films really show us what it is to hurt another, what pain really is,” he explained. “That’s a theme that I wanted to revisit, What does it mean to hurt someone? What is pain? Vigilante doesn’t speak just about physical pain, but also emotional and psychological pain. I regret avoiding this theme until now. I’m interested in seeing how younger audiences will react — especially audiences that are used to watching bubbly coming-of-age films.”

Asked to explain the title, the director said, “I’ve had a long-time interest in neighborhood watch-type organizations, which are policing in an unofficial capacity. I’m personally quite scared of 'communities' and people who organize groups like that. What I wanted to depict was how the individual is swallowed up by the community, so the first title that came to mind was Vigilante.” 

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©Koichi Mori

He elaborated: “What I wanted to depict was not just person-to-person violence, but violence brought on by a certain economy or a community that swallows up the individual. I think it would be difficult for moviegoers to take home a positive message from the film. But I would like them to ponder the situation and imagine what they would do. I recently read a book by Mario Vargas Llosa in which he discusses the character of Emma Bovary, and he wrote, ‘Her death is our hope.’ He meant that such characters die for us, in our place, and we should derive a sense of relief. That really struck a bell with me, and I hope Vigilante’s viewers will feel the same.”

Although he will surely continue to write and direct entertaining stories about viral epidemics, bio-terror, serial murderers and spies (if his recent successes are any indication) the pared-down nastiness of Vigilante should reassure fans of Yu Irie that he does not intend to shy away from shocking visions, even in today’s shock-averse Japan.

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© 2017 VIGILANTE Film Partners 

Selected Press Coverage

 

CLOSE-KNIT


CLOSE-KNIT (Karera ga Honkide Amu Toki wa)


February 8, 2017
Q&A guest: Director Naoko Ogigami


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                            Writer-director Naoko Ogigami's new film focuses on family ties, but not the typical kind.     ©FCCJ 

 “Unconventional” is an adjective that describes nearly all of Naoko Ogigami’s characters, from the Japanese women who open a washoku restaurant in Helsinki (Kamome Diner, 2006) to the frazzled city dweller who learns how to “twilight” on a quaint island (Megane – Glasses, 2008), to the grandmother who longs for a Toto Washlet while living overseas (Toilet, 2010), to the young woman who rents cats to people who need pet therapy (Rent-a-Cat, 2012). 

So it comes as a surprise that while the writer-director’s first new film in 5 years, Close-Knit, includes its share of unconventional characters — including a transgender woman as the protagonist  — it is really her most conventional work yet, if “conventional” is understood to mean “sure to appeal to a broad audience.”

Appearing at FCCJ shortly before she was due to leave for the film’s world premiere at the Berlin International Film Festival, and speaking without an interpreter, Ogigami explained why Close-Knit feels different: “One of my challenges was, I’m really fed up with people calling my films iyashi-kei eiga [akin to ‘films that promote emotional healing,’ a genre that Ogigami has been credited with starting], and I wanted to do something new. I think I have done something new, and if it attracts a different audience, that’s great. My previous films were almost all fantasies, so I tried to make this more realistic.”

Perhaps it is Close-Knit’s serious consideration of LGBTQ (and other pressing social) issues that lends it a greater sheen of realism, although there are still several quirky characters and scenes with the director’s patented eccentric humor. The story of a very modern family, it begins when fifth-grader Tomo (Rinka Kakihara), is abandoned by her often-absent mother. Already resourceful, Tomo heads for her uncle Makio’s (Kenta Kiritani) place. There, she meets his beautiful girlfriend Rinko (Toma Ikuta), who warmly welcomes her and proves to be a much better mother than her own. But Rinko is transgender, and soon, Tomo is being bullied by classmates for her new “weird family" (among less gentle name-calling). When Tomo fights back and the police are called, Rinko helps calm her by showing her how to knit, and how to work out her anger with each stitch. Rinko herself has been knitting strange, colorful objects that she terms her “worldly desires.” When she has made a certain number of them, she says, she will conduct a “manhood memorial service,” and file papers to legally change her gender. With Makio and Tomo’s support, Rinko will not only reach her goal, but also be inspired to pursue a dream that she thought was outside her reach.   

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                        Ogigami admits she wanted a beauty for her leading lady, and she got one in Toma Ikuta.   ©FCCJ

Close-Knit features a trio of extraordinary lead performances, two of them by major movie stars — Toma Ikuta (The Mole Song, The Top Secret: Murder in Mind) and Kenta Kiritani (Too Young to Die!, Gonin Saga) — marking the first time that Ogigami has cast big names. The third performance is by a complete unknown, preteen Rinka Kakihara, who more than holds her own.

Although she didn’t have Ikuta and Kiritani in mind when she wrote the script, Ogigami admitted that she knew “I needed [an actor with] a beautiful face, since he had to [convincingly] play a woman. The first time I saw Ikuta-san in a film was 7 years ago, and I was so impressed with how beautiful he is. So he was always in my mind. I finished writing and started thinking about casting, and I thought he would be good for the role. But he’s from Johnny’s [Jimusho, the notoriously controlling management company], and I thought even if I offered him the role, he would have to decline. But fortunately, he said, ‘Yes.’

“Once Ikuta-san decided to do this, I thought for his partner, I had to find someone taller than him, but with a [gentle demeanor]. When Kiritani-san was young, he used to play hotheads all the time, but as he got older, he started getting calmer, and I thought he would be good.” As for Kakihara, she enthused, “I found her at an audition. She’s an absolute genius. I had a lot of rehearsals with Ikuta, but not so many with Kakihara. This was the first time she’d been in a film, and she was just a natural.” 

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Since the film “pushes social boundaries,” as one journalist put it, he found it surprising that the bulk of the budget came from status quo monolith Dentsu. “It was very hard to find financing,” admitted Ogigami, “because it’s based on an original story, and it’s very hard, nowadays, to make films [that aren’t based on bestselling novels or popular manga]. But Dentsu came aboard.” Asked if that was before or after Ikuta had signed on to the project, she laughed, “About the same time.”

Asked what had inspired the story, Ogigami said that she’d spent 6 years in Los Angeles during her 20s, and had had a lot of friends who were gay and lesbian. “When I came back to Japan, I didn’t have many friends who were sexual minorities,” she explained, “and that was awkward for me. I realized it’s still difficult for people to come out of the closet in this country. That was one of the reasons I made the film.” 

An Argentinian journalist mentioned that her country had just begun educating teachers to treat trans children according to the gender with which they identify, thereby doing away with the longheld notion that they are abnormal. “In the film,” she noted, “Rinko’s mother completely accepted her when she was young, unlike the boy’s mother [a friend of Tomo’s who may be gay]. Did you base these characters on real people?”

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Kiritani and Kakihara in the film.  
©2016 ”CLOSE-KNIT” Film Partners

Ogigami responded, “I found an article in the newspaper about a transgender woman [Natsuki Majikina], who told her mother when she was 14 that she wanted to have breasts. Her mother knitted fake boobs for her. I went to her mother to ask her about this. She said she always knew that her daughter was different, but she always accepted her. On the other hand, I have a friend who’s gay and Catholic, and says that he will never tell his mother, as long as she lives.” 

Asked about other research she’d done before writing the script, the director said, “Since I’m not a sexual minority myself, I was worried about whether I was allowed to make this kind of film. If I don’t have any prejudice or discrimination, I thought it would be all right. But I didn’t want to hurt anyone, so I asked my transgender and gay friends to read the script, to make sure no one was offended.” 

Close-Knit is an apt metaphor for the film’s themes, referring as it does not only to the creation of new family ties and the bolstering of old ones, but also to the actual act of knitting — an important feature of the story that required several months of intense practice before filming commenced. 

Noting that the film encompasses a number of important social issues beyond LGBTQ concerns — bullying, elder care, youth suicide, family estrangements and abuses that repeat from one generation to the next — one member of the audience suggested, “I think it would be great if families could see this film together.” It wasn’t entirely clear which definition of “family” he meant, but “the family of man” is just about right. 

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Coverage

 

 

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