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TORA-SAN, WISH YOU WERE HERE
(Otoko wa Tsuraiyo Okaeri Tora-san)


 October 3, 2019
Q&A guests: TIFF Opening Film Director Yoji Yamada,
TIFF Festival Director Takeo Hisamatsu and Japan Now Programming Advisor Kohei Ando


FCCJ TIFFYamada KM-15
Legendary writer-director Yoji Yamada plans to keep making films for another dozen years.  ©︎Koichi Mori

The hottest cinema ticket in Japan this year is sure to be for the 32nd Tokyo International Film Festival Opening Film. Eschewing its long-held tradition of selecting foreign titles for the honor, TIFF has hewed closer to home, where audiences across the country have been eagerly awaiting the release of the 50th title in the legendary Otoko wa Tsurai yo (It's Tough Being a Man) series.

That title — Tora-san, Wish You Were Here, from veteran helmer Yoji Yamada — will open TIFF 32 on October 28, and although the film’s beloved star will not be there (he died in 1996), legions of multi-generational fans will.

The Oscar-nominated director (for The Twilight Samurai in 2002) launched the series with Tora-san, Our Lovable Tramp in 1969, when Japan was experiencing dizzying growth and audiences were nostalgic for simpler times. It proved so popular that Shochiku went on to release two Tora-san films each year until 1989, one in summer and one for the New Year’s holiday season. Eventually, 49 films hit theaters over a 28-year period, setting a world record. All but two of them were directed by Yamada and all starred Kiyoshi Atsumi as “Tora, the free-spirited fool,” a boisterous, penniless salesman who travels through a rapidly-modernizing Japan, falling in unrequited love and dispensing unwanted advice. The last entry was 22 years ago, shortly after Atsumi’s untimely death.

The 50th title has been completed in time to celebrate the 50th anniversary of this remarkable achievement. But this isn’t simply a commercial ploy for closure. With Tora-san, Wish You Were Here, Yamada has done something truly groundbreaking: the film recaptures the spirit of the “lovable vagabond” through innovative technology that seamlessly interweaves new footage with 4K digitally restored footage featuring its late star. Rather than feeling like he’s been digitally inserted into scenes, Tora-san comes vibrantly, startlingly alive, and reminds us all how much he’s been missed. (For those who haven’t followed the series, it also serves as a fitting introduction, with actors literally aging 50 years on screen.)

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Yamada shares a laugh with his old friends Ando, left, and Hisamatsu.  ©Koichi Mori

Following a very special sneak preview of Tora-san, Wish You Were Here with English subtitles at Shochiku, Yamada joined TIFF Festival Director Takeo Hisamatsu and Japan Now Programming Advisor Kohei Ando at FCCJ for a brief rundown of this year's festival, and a rewarding Q&A session focused on his new landmark film.

At the packed session, which included many foreign fans — one of whom had flown in for two days from France just to cover the event — Yamada was asked about the biggest challenge of sustaining a series for 50 years. He responded, “Audiences always come to see a new Tora-san film because they want to see him again and spend time with him, so you can’t betray their expectations, and that’s [not easy].”

And then, sounding like another famous Shochiku director (Yasujiro Ozu, who likened himself to being a tofu maker), he sketched a metaphor: “I think my job as a director, especially with this series, is a lot like being a restaurant cook, trying to anticipate what the customers want to eat. You want them to say, ‘Oh, this is exactly what I felt like eating.’ You don’t want them to leave disappointed, the same way you don’t want the audience to leave disappointed. You want them to say, ‘This is exactly the kind of film I was hoping for!’”

The master chef also spoke, with several emotional pauses, about his star: “The most difficult film to make was the 48th film. By that time, Atsumi-san had become quite sick. We knew that he might have only two or three years left. So we were in a quandary about whether we should continue to shoot. We had to keep his physical condition in mind while writing the script.” (At Atsumi’s wake, Yamada would apologize for pushing his star so relentlessly; but one imagines Tora-san was a sustaining force for the actor.)

On a brighter note, he said, “It’s been 20 years since Atsumi-san died, but if he were still here and saw the film, I think he would be surprised. I have the same sense of surprise myself. In the very first Tora-san film, there’s a scene where Tora’s little sister Sakura, played by Chieko Baisho, is being proposed to by the man she later marries. Baisho-san was 25 years old at the time, and she’s 75 now. [In the new film] the other cast members have also aged, but Tora-san has stayed the same. In a sense, he’s like Chaplin’s Little Tramp or Marilyn Monroe.” 

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The iconic traveling salesman returns.  ©2019 Shochiku., Ltd.                                                    © 2019 TIFF

Asked how it felt to be selected for the TIFF opening slot, Yamada chose his words carefully. “There are numerous film festivals around the world, and needless to say, TIFF is the one that represents Japan. I think it’s very important for TIFF to have a certain character, a theme that differentiates it, something that people can’t find in any other festival. I hope that TIFF continues to work towards that goal so that it becomes a truly unique festival in the world.”

In fact, TIFF is differentiating itself this year by further intensifying its focus on Japanese offerings. Takeo Hisamatsu, in his third year as festival director, told the FCCJ audience, “As you know, the 32nd TIFF is being held in the first year of Japan’s new Reiwa Era. Next month, many guests will be coming from around the world for the ascension of the new emperor. We’re in the midst of the Rugby World Cup right now, and next year, we’ll host the Tokyo Olympics and Paralympics Games. So Japan is in the global spotlight, and there’s no better time than the present to showcase wonderful films from Japan in this year’s TIFF.

“I feel almost a sense of fate that we’re able to present Yoji Yamada’s Tora-san, Wish You Were Here as the TIFF Opening Film, since I’ve been watching all the Tora-san films as they were released and I have a warm spot in my heart for the series. Also, being a former Shochiku employee myself, I’ve had the great pleasure of working with Yamada-san and the opportunity of visiting the set as they were shooting the films."

Kohei Ando, TIFF’s Japan Now programmer since the section was created six years ago, was also excited about Yamada’s inclusion. “The Japan Now section’s mission is to showcase recent Japanese films that reflect the present state of this country, its aesthetics, its culture and philosophy,” he explained. “In that sense, showcasing a film like Tora-san, Wish You Were Here as the Opening Film of the festival is very much in line with this purpose, as it’s one of the most prominent and noteworthy titles to open this year. I have a twinge of regret about not being able to show this wonderful film in the Japan Now section, but it gives me great satisfaction that we’re able to present it as the Opening Film.”

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Yamada and his Tora-san family.
©2019 Shochiku., Ltd.

Among the 14 films in the Japan Now section will be a selection of works by another legendary filmmaker, Nobuhiko Obayashi, of House fame. “As many of you probably know,” said Ando, “Mr. Obayashi was diagnosed with cancer three years ago. Nevertheless, two years ago he shot a wonderful film called Hanagatami. And despite his ongoing battle with the disease, he has now shot yet another, Labyrinth of Cinema, and it’s another marvelous piece of work.”

Aging, disease, death: the Q&A session couldn’t avoid these topics. But the multigenerational audience didn’t seem to mind. After all, these are essential components of Tora-san, Wish You Were Here.

The series resumes on the sixth anniversary of the death of Mitsuo Suwa’s wife, and the family has gathered at a memorial service behind Kurumaya, the traditional confectionery store on the approach to Taishakuten Temple in Shibamata, which has now been reborn as a modern café. Tora’s sister Sakura and her husband Hiroshi still live in the quarters at the back, which have remain unchanged. 

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Mitsuo, Izumi, Sakura and Hiroshi recall the old days.
©2019 Shochiku., Ltd.

After the service, conversation inevitably turns to lively reminiscences of the past (beautifully illustrated with “flashbacks” from earlier films in the series), especially the many times that Torajiro, the black sheep of the Kuruma family, brought his latest unrequited love interest back with him, sending the house into an uproar.

Tora’s now-40ish nephew, Mitsuo (Hidetaka Yoshioka), has recently left his office job to become a novelist. At a book signing, he runs into his first love, Izumi (Kumiko Goto), who moved away to Europe as a teen and now works there as a UNHCR diplomat. Both have since married and had children, but as they talk, the years begin to melt away. Mitsuo takes Izumi to a small jazz bar, owned by the still-gorgeous Lily (Ruriko Asaoka), Tora’s greatest love.

The two women last saw each other over 20 years ago on Amami Oshima, and Lily finally reveals why she and Tora never married. Later, they go to visit Sakura and Hiroshi, and it gets late, so Izumi sleeps on the second floor, with plans for Mitsuo to drive her to a reunion with her father the next day. And so a new chapter begins…

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Lily tells Izumi what happened.
©2019 Shochiku., Ltd.

“I have made dozens and dozens of films over the course of more than half a century,” Yamada told the audience. “But making this newest film in the Tora-san series, I wasn't sure just what I was embarking on. Throughout production, I was a bit anxious about it, but I was [looking forward to seeing] what it would ultimately become. When I viewed the completed film, I realized that it really took 50 years to make. Without my longevity, I wouldn’t have been able to make it.” 

A young foreign journalist praised the film and queried, “I think it’s quite a feat to direct a film this good at the age of 88. If you were to direct another, what would you want it to be?”

“When I think about my age, it fills me with anxiety,” the director admitted. “I sometimes feel I shouldn’t have this luxury of making films. But Clint Eastwood is still making films (at 89), so I suppose I should follow suit. Portuguese director Manoel de Oliveira and Japanese director Kaneto Shindo both shot films until the age of 100, so I think there’s still hope for me.” 

Interjected Ando, to audience delight, “Yamada-san is just like Tora-san: he simply doesn’t age.” 

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Yamada charmed the audience with his candor and enviable energy.  ©Koichi Mori

Another foreign journalist, professing herself a fan of the series, asked what criteria Yamada had used to select the actresses who played Tora-san’s love interests, the so-called “Madonnas,” and why he hadn’t selected Momoe Yamaguchi, one of her favorite actresses.

Yamada responded, “First, I thought about what kind of actress he would fall in love with. Tora-san could really fall in love with just about any type of woman. Selecting the Madonnas for each film was an enjoyable process. Of course I also considered approaching Ms. Yamaguchi, but she’d already retired from acting, so that unfortunately couldn’t happen.”

In one of the film’s many touching flashbacks, a teenaged Mitsuo asks his uncle what life is for, and Tora answers, “There are times in life when a man is glad to be alive. That’s what we live for.” When an audience member asked Yamada whether he’d had times like that, the director grew serious. “To be honest, we live in a world where not everything is happy. There are situations both at home and abroad that we cannot be happy about. I hope there comes a time when I’m thankful to have lived this long so I could see it.”

The French journalist who had specially flown in for the event asked the director why trains and train stations played such an important role in all the Tora-san films, and why, in this one, a pivotal scene is set in an airport instead. Said Yamada, “Tora-san is a traveling salesman, always on the move. He can’t drive, so he has to take the train. But he doesn’t take the shinkansen, it’s too fast for him. He enjoys going from town to town on these slower trains. He enjoys drinking his sake and making friends on these train rides. And he’s never disappointed that he doesn’t arrive earlier. The way he's sees it is, ‘Why would I pay extra to arrive at my next destination any earlier?’ His sense of time is different from Mitsuo and Izumi’s, and that’s why you see them at the airport.

FCCJ TIFFYamada FCCJ-15
©︎FCCJ

“But there is one other time in the series where you do see an airport: that’s when Tora-san is going to Okinawa. He’s afraid of flying, so his family members have a hard time convincing him to get on the plane. Ultimately, he boards the plane only because an attractive flight attendant comes along and tells him it's safe.”

For those longing to revisit these and other earlier episodes, Shochiku is releasing 4K digital restorations of all 49 previous films on Blu-ray, culminating in the nationwide release of Tora-san, Wish You Were Here on December 27.

If you're lucky, you'll catch the film earlier at TIFF, which will be screening 170 films from past and present, and holding a variety of related events, from October 28 – November 5 in Roppongi, Hibiya and elsewhere in Tokyo.

Poster2019 Shochiku. Ltd.  Teaser Poster for Welcomback Tora-san TIFF Opening Film
©2019 Shochiku., Ltd. 

Selected Media Exposure

Selected TV Exposure

・ めざましテレビ 2019年10月4日(金)05:25~08:00 フジテレビ 

Selected Printed Media Exposure

Nikkan Sports
・Sports Hochi
・Daily Sports
・Chunichi Sports
 

RADIANCE (Hikari)


RADIANCE Special Screening and TIFF Panel


October 3, 2017

Guests: Director Naomi Kawase, TIFF Festival Director Takeo Hisamatsu
and Japan Now advisor Kohei Ando
 


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Ando, Kawase and Hisamatsu react to a pointed question during the Japan Now session.    ©Mance Thompson

Making her first appearance at FCCJ in 10 years (but not for our lack of trying), Cannes Film Festival favorite Naomi Kawase laughed with delight when a journalist asked her, “What’s your impression of the last 29 installments of the Tokyo International Film Festival? And please, do be frank.”

Kawase was at FCCJ to talk about her participation in this year’s festival, where she will deliver a Master Class and field questions following a screening of her Palm d’Or nominee, Radiance. Everyone knew TIFF wasn’t her usual stomping grounds. After the laughter died down, the room held its breath.

“Something unattainable,” she began, then paused. “Since I was born and raised in Nara, I always had the impression that Tokyo was so filled with bright lights and so unattainable to me. It seemed so distant and so inaccessible. TIFF is one of the major international film festivals, and it seemed out of reach. But being able to participate in Japan Now this year, and hearing about all the other films that are being shown, I’m starting to feel it’s more accessible.”

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Kawase is the only Japanese filmmaker selected for Cannes seven times. This will be her first film in TIFF.      ©FCCJ

TIFF’s Japan Now Programming Advisor Kohei Ando was sitting next to Kawase, and hastened to follow up. “TIFF has always tried to include the brilliant films of master directors like Hirokazu Kore-eda and Ms. Kawase in the past,” he explained, “but because of the timing of the festival, late in the year, they always appeared at Cannes and other earlier festivals. This is why we created Japan Now: to showcase their work each year, without [worrying about] a world premiere.”

Ando and Kawase were joined on the dais by TIFF Festival Director Takeo Hisamatsu, taking over the reigns of the venerable festival from Yasushi Shiina for TIFF's 30th anniversary edition. The Film Committee has been cohosting events with TIFF for nearly a decade, and this year’s panel began with Hisamatsu, who provided an overview of festival highlights. Hisamatsu is a veteran of four decades in the industry, a producer of many award-winning titles, and a former top executive at Shochiku and Warner Bros. Pictures Japan. He has been busy expanding the diversity of programming, as well as lining up some tasty treats to celebrate the past, present and future of TIFF. He quickly mentioned several: the Midnight Film Festival (10 filmmakers addressing 6 different themes on 6 screens, running all night), Cinema Arena 30 (outdoor screenings of 28 vintage films, with bountiful food carts and blankets), the Godzilla Cinema Concerts (the original 1954 film accompanied by live orchestra), and the annual Special Night Event at Kabukiza (Ebizo Ichikawa preforming live plus the digitally remastered classic, The Gate of Hell).

Hisamatsu then elaborated, “Especially worth noting is the Japan Now section, which we consider to be especially important because it introduces the world to contemporary Japanese cinema. This is the third edition of the section, and all the films in the lineup, including Ms. Kawase’s Radiance, are sure to be entering the [year-end] awards race. In the past two years, Japan Now has featured a special Director in Focus. This year, we are instead highlighting four actresses, the Muses of Japanese Cinema, chosen because they have so inspired directors: Sakura Ando, Yu Aoi, Hikari Mitsushima and Aoi Miyazaki. I hope you will enjoy the outstanding films at the 30th TIFF.”

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Hisamatsu is helming his first TIFF (©FCCJ).  Ando returns for his third outstanding Japan Now program.  ©Mance Thompson

Japan Now’s Kohei Ando followed up with a description of the section’s bountiful offerings, ranging from Hirokazu Kore-eda’s acclaimed The Third Murder to a new masterwork from veteran arthouse maestro Nobuhiko Obayashi, Hanagatami. The section will showcase not only films starring the four muses, but also by four female directors. He enthused, “We will be showing two films for each of the four actresses, all of which have marked important turning points in their careers, and we’ll be holding special talk events with the actresses and directors after the screenings.”

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©Mance Thompson (left), ©Koichi Mori (right)

Ando proceeded to unveil an impressive roster of further guests: Along with Kawase, Kore-eda and Obayashi, directors Shunji Iwai (Hana and Alice), Momoko Ando (0.5mm), Lee Sang-il (Rage), Yang Yonghi (Our Homeland), Kei Ishikawa (Traces of Sin), Shinji Aoyama (Eureka), Masaaki Yuasa (The Night Is Short, Walk on Girl), Daihachi Yoshida (A Beautiful Star) and Michio Koshikawa (Life and Death on the Shore) will appear, as will Hanagatami star Takako Tokiwa.

Asked to divulge details about her Master Class, Kawase said, “First of all, I would like to congratulate [TIFF] on its 30th anniversary, because that’s a major accomplishment. I’m organizing the Nara International Film Festival in my hometown, which will turn five next year. So I really recognize what an immense feat it is to keep a film festival running. I think it’s a lot like life and like filmmaking in many respects, because we have to overcome so many hurdles to survive. Festivals are such hard work, so once again, congratulations to TIFF.

“I do not separate my life from my filmmaking,” she continued. “Filmmaking is my life. So in my TIFF Master Class, I would like to touch on a few examples of what emerging filmmakers might do to fuse their lives with their filmmaking. That will probably be my theme.”

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The panelists share another moment of mirth.  ©Mance Thompson

Kawase fondly recalled her earliest festival experiences and concluded, “Festivals are wonderful, because they are platforms for people from many nationalities who bring their films, come together, communicate, and take that back to their homelands. Then they come together again at a different festival. They help us overcome cultural differences and they motivate me as a filmmaker.”

The evening continued with a special screening of Kawase’s Radiance, her fifth film in the Cannes official competition and winner of the Ecumenical Jury Prize, before the writer-director returned for a vastly satisfying Q&A session — with the types of questions one might expect from a European arthouse audience. (Bravo, FCCJ Film Night regulars!)

Radiance is a luminous meditation on loss and salvation, and on the power of art to transform our lives. “Nothing is more beautiful than what disappears before our eyes,” says one of Kawase’s characters, and the line serves both as a metaphor for the film’s story and for cinema itself.

Hikari PhotoMain
©2017 “RADIANCE” FILM PARTNERS/KINOSHITA、COMME DES CINEMAS、KUMIE

Misako Ozaki (Ayame Misaki) writes audio commentary for visually impaired filmgoers, and as Radiance opens, her words are the subject of scrutiny from a focus group following a test screening session. The participants offer specific suggestions for improving her script, which is too wordy by far. Only one of them is downright rude about it. “It’s intrusive,” he barks, suggesting she’s robbing them of their own imaginations, and questions her competence. He is Masaya Nakamori (Masatoshi Nagase) a famed photographer who has slowly been losing his sight. Fate will continue to bring the two together, and despite his abrasiveness, Misako will soon find that Nakamori is a kindred spirit.

Both are lost souls — she, since the disappearance of her father and the progression of her mother’s dementia; he, as he loses his calling and his ex-wife prepares to remarry. Nakamori’s photographs, taken on an ancient Rolleiflex, entrance Misako, particularly one of the sun setting behind the mountains. It will eventually solve a mystery from her past. As both emerge, tentatively, from the limbos in which they’ve been living, they learn to see the world through each other’s eyes. In Kawase’s images, it is radiant.

Kawase was asked first how she came up with such an unusual setting for her film. “We had to make an audio guide for An/Sweet Bean, my last film,” she responded, and that’s how I first discovered it. When they showed me the dialog list for the guide, I was very moved by the words. Cinema is essentially visual, but for someone who is visually impaired, words are needed. The way they used the words, the way they described the scenes, were so beautiful. I had the idea that, if I had a protagonist who was doing this kind of work, I could express my love for cinema.”

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Kawase returned to field questions after the screening of her latest Cannes Palm d'Or nominee.  ©Koichi Mori (left), ©Mance Thompson (right)

Pointing out that Misako asks a film director in Radiance whether one of his characters is simply a projection of himself, one audience member asked, “Is this film itself a projection of yourself?” Answered Kawase, “After An/Sweet Bean was a commercial success, I was having a hard time figuring out what I really wanted to depict in my next film. I finally felt that I wanted to depict film itself as the core theme, because filmmaking is so intertwined with the way I live. In depicting my love for cinema, I’ve been able to project myself into the film.”

Asked about the “themes of disability and decrepitude” in her last two films, and how she sees the relation of art to physical breakdown, Kawase said, “I think creators, including filmmakers, are always looking for what’s missing within ourselves. By doing this, we come to realizations that help us grow. For me, being able to make films has enriched my life immensely. Films generally tend to shine a light on things that are to be celebrated or glorified, but I want to shine a light on people who aren’t usually depicted, and on that which is still in the dark or unknowable.”

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Ando, Kawase and Hisamatsu with the TIFF poster, featuring images shot by Mika Ninagawa.  ©Mance Thompson

Another audience member asked about the recurring image of a woman lost in the forest in several of her films, including Radiance, and the role of nature. “I think of nature and the natural landscape as a protagonist in my films. I believe there is nature, and within it, there is mankind. That’s how I see the world, and that’s the approach I take to my filmmaking. I think the natural landscape is sometimes more eloquent than words.”

Discussing her two leads, Kawase said, “I’d worked with Mr. Nagase on An/Sweet Bean, and when we took the film to Cannes, we talked about doing another film together. He’s a photographer in his own right, and I knew he could bring a realism to the role of a photographer losing his sight. I had him live in the apartment in Nara for a while before we shot there, and he wore goggles that impaired his sight. As for Ms. Misaki, I found her to be a very strong-willed, determined woman, especially on hearing about her suffering related to the [1995 Kobe] Earthquake.”

But after an audience member commented that she’d found Misaki to be “perhaps too young to portray the emotional depth” required of the character, Kawase admitted that had been her intention in casting her. “I felt she needed a little more depth, she wasn’t quite there yet,” said the director. “What you’re seeing in the scene with the audio guide [focus group] is based on a guide script that I had Ms. Misaki actually write herself, and her tears are real tears. I wanted to depict a girl who has a limited perspective and is thinking only about herself at first.”

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©Mance Thompson

A professional photographer wondered how Nagase’s character could have let go of his Leica camera in one pivotal scene, since they’re so expensive, and it's clear that the character cannot possibly live without it. “The idea behind that,” explained Kawase, “is that if you rid yourself of that which is most valuable to you, you make room for something even more valuable to come in.”

Finally, she was asked about her new film, currently in production in Nara and tentatively titled Vision. It stars Nagase again, as well as the celebrated French actress Juliette Binoche, making her first film in Japan. “It’s so exciting,” said Kawase, in English. “Working with Juliette is wonderful. She’s an amazing actress and has exceeded my expectations. One of the most wonderful things about her is her ability to improvise. She gives so much more than the script provides. She spends days and days trying to inhabit the character. She’s playing a woman named Jean, and she [created a backstory] about what her parents were like, where she studied, why she came to Japan. I always ask my actors to inhabit the location where their character lives prior to shooting, but I didn’t have to ask Juliette. She’d already done her homework. I felt like, finally I’ve met a [complete] actress.”

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Kawase with Ando and renowned film critic Reiko Kitagawa.  ©Koichi Mori

And then she raised goosebumps around the room, sharing a bittersweet memory from this year’s Cannes: “At the closing ceremony, Juliette was the presenter of the Palm d’Or. As Mr. [Pedro] Almodovar [who was head of the jury] was about to speak, she stopped him and said, ‘Cinema is light.’ She said ‘light’ in every language that she knew, including 'lumiere,' so I erroneously thought, ‘Maybe I’m going to win the Palm for my film!’ To be able to talk with her in Nara, just three months later, about how cinema is light and love, is quite miraculous to me.”

Hikari PosterVisual
  ©2017 “RADIANCE” FILM PARTNERS/KINOSHITA、COMME DES CINEMAS、KUMIE

Selected Press Coverage

Selected TV Exposure

  • AFP BB News 河瀬直美監督、東京国際映画祭は「手の届かない存在」都内会見

 


A BRIDE FOR RIP VAN WINKLE (RIPPU BAN WINKURU NO HANAYOME)


October 4, 2016
Q&A guests: TIFF Director in Focus Shunji Iwai,
Japan Now Progam Advisor Kohei Ando and TIFF Director General Yasushi Shiina


Japan Now-three-KM03-2 copy
From left, Ando, Iwai and Shiina discuss TIFF's upcoming salute to the director.  ©Koichi Mori

The Film Committee has been cohosting events with the Tokyo International Film Festival (TIFF) at FCCJ for nearly a decade, but the past two years have been especially exciting for us, thanks to TIFF’s newfound focus on Japanese film. Anyone who has attended FCCJ’s screenings over the past nine years knows that our emphasis is on introducing Japanese films and filmmakers to international audiences through the Tokyo-based journalists, critics, festival programmers and cinéphiles who join us for our events.

In 2015, TIFF established two new sections devoted to Japanese film, Japanese Classics and Japan Now, and included nearly 80 Japanese films across all the sections in its lineup. This year’s 29th iteration of the festival will be equally Japan-centric, with two local titles in the main Competition selection and dozens more in the Special Screenings, Asian Future, Japanese Cinema Splash and other sections. Among the highlights will be the world premiere of the first TIFF-Japan Foundation international coproduction, Asian Three-Fold Mirror: Reflections, a special Kabukiza program with kabuki performance and film screenings accompanied by a benshi narrator, and personal appearances in The World of Mamoru Hosoda tribute.

Among this embarrassment of riches, our heart still belongs to the Japan Now section, presided over by Program Advisor Kohei Ando. A genius at selecting the most piquant, provocative, evocative films among those that hit Japanese theaters during the year, Ando has also made another brilliant choice for the section’s Director in Focus: acclaimed creative force Shunji Iwai. Despite being one of Japan’s most famous exports — especially in Asia, where new Iwai releases are trumpeted like the Second Coming — Iwai has not yet been the subject of a career retrospective in his own country.

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Shiina marks his fourth year as TIFF leader with another round of welcome enhancements.                    ©Mance Thompson, Koichi Mori

Ando and TIFF are correcting that. Japan Now will be featuring five Iwai films, including the 1993 work that kicked off his career, Fireworks: Should We See It from the Side or the Bottom?, and his latest hit, the enchantingly enigmatic A Bride for Rip Van Winkle (2016) in the festival’s mini-tribute, with Iwai on hand for Q&A sessions.

Iwai and Ando appeared at FCCJ to discuss details of the tribute, along with TIFF Director General Yasushi Shiina. The evening then continued with a special screening of A Bride for Rip Van Winkle and an hour-long Q&A session with Iwai.

Shiina is marking his fourth year at the helm, and continues to oversee enhancements and expansions to the only festival in Japan accredited by the International Federation of Film Producers Associations (FIAPF). In his opening remarks at FCCJ, he noted, “This year, TIFF will be showing the past, present and future of films. The Japan Now section features present Japan. In our new Youth section, we will focus on films that portray… the future. The Japanese Classics Section revisits the past history of Japanese cinema.”

Shiina stressed that the Youth section, featuring films for children and teens, aims “to bring in younger audiences, as they will be the generation to carry on the future of cinema.” Among other highlights, he mentioned that a a plethora of open-air screenings will be held this year, taking advantage of Tokyo’s mild fall temperatures. (Knock wood.)

Shiina also expressed his delight with Kohei Ando’s selection for Japan Now, which the filmmaker-academic has programmed since its inception in 2015. “He is selecting the films 3 to 4 months prior to the festival,” said Shiina, “including films that haven’t been released or been played up in the press. I think he has an exceptional eye, and I feel confident leaving it all in his hands.”

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 Ando returns for his second year with another spot-on selection for Japan Now, including the year's two surprise blockbusters.   ©FCCJ, Koichi Mori

A showcase of outstanding Japanese titles from recent and coming months, the section highlights the diversity of the domestic film industry, as well as providing a multifaceted look at the country today. TIFF’s English-subtitled screenings are also meant to help boost the films’ recognition internationally. “There will also be special guest appearances,” said Ando, “including Makoto Shinkai, director of [box office juggernaut] Your Name; Kiyoshi Kurosawa, director of Daguerrotype; Koji Fukada, director of [Cannes prize-winning] Harmonium, stars and surprise guests and many more.”

A journalist in the FCCJ audience asked, “Do you decide your selection based on whether a film has international appeal? Is that your main criteria?” Responded Ando: “Great question. No, it’s not about international appeal; it comes down to whether it’s a good film or not, whether I would want to introduce it to international audience. What is a ‘good’ film is difficult to define, so my own personal taste also goes into the selection. But it is, first and foremost, about showing good films.”

The Japan Now Director in Focus tribute allows Ando to help expand the overseas recognition of midcareer creators like Iwai, whose groundbreaking style and youth-focused vision have been internationally acclaimed in such masterworks as Love Letter (1995), Swallowtail Butterfly (1996), All About Lily Chou-Chou (2001) and Hana and Alice (2004). Iwai is the only Japanese director who has shot films in New York (for the 2008 omnibus New York, I Love You), Paris (as producer of the 2010 I Need to Buy New Shoes) and Vancouver (his 2011 English-language debut, Vampire). In a career of infinite variety, he has also written novels and made an animated feature (The Case of Hana and Alice, 2015), documentaries (The Kon Ichikawa Story in 2006; Friends After 3.11, about the long-lasting devastation in Fukushima), as well as dozens of much-imitated music videos.

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Iwai has crafted singular films for over 20 years.          ©Koichi Mori

Ando chose Iwai, he said, after first seeing his latest film, A Bride for Rip Van Winkle. “I immediately felt proud being Japanese,” he told the FCCJ audience. “He has such a unique aesthetic, but he also has an allegorical way of storytelling, a way of bringing the sentiment of young Japanese to the screen. I think this time, he’s really topped himself.”

Asked how he had decided on the Iwai lineup, Ando said, “It was so hard to narrow it down to just a few films, because Mr. Iwai has made so many wonderful works.” In the end, he decided to bookend the selection with Iwai’s earliest and latest masterpieces, and to also include Love Letter, “an unbelievable feat for a first feature” and the underseen, English-language Vampire, which is “infused with his distinctive aesthetics.”

He lamented that he couldn’t show such hits as Hana and Alice and the groundbreaking All About Lily Chou-Chou, but stressed, “Of course Mr. Iwai is already hugely popular with the Asian audience, and has won awards in America as well” — including a Lifetime Achievement Award from the New York Asian Film Festival in July — “but he still doesn’t have the reputation he deserves in countries like France. I hope Europeans will watch his films at TIFF, and help spread the word.”

Asked to comment about his selection as Director in Focus, Iwai said, “I’m very pleased to be selected. It’s a huge honor for me, and I’m glad that five films will be screened for TIFF audiences.” Reminded that Love Letter had been the first Japanese film to screen in Korea during the country’s long-running ban on Japanese works, and had been such a monster hit that it led to a gradual easing of quotas, Iwai mentioned that he had been on a promotional tour to Korea the week before. “I went for the release of A Bride for Rip Van Winkle,” he said, “and I was invited to appear on a news program on one of the leading TV channels. They told me it was the first time a Japanese person had appeared on the program. It reminded me of the time when they couldn’t even show the Love Letter trailer on TV, since the Japanese language was prohibited. In retrospect, I think I may have been destined to act as a bridge between cultures, and it dawns on me that it’s a huge responsibility.”

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Iwai was asked whether he had any plans for a coproduction in China, since he’s been spotted there recently. “I actually have produced a couple of films with China and am working on a few at this moment,” he said. “It’s a very good thing for directors like me, who have our own distinct style, when film markets open up and expand. Hopefully, there’s a trickle-down effect, where the bigger the market becomes, there can be more room for art films [like mine] as well.”

A Russian journalist then asked whether he might have plans venture into the Russia market. Iwai laughed. “I’ve had the pleasure of attending the Moscow Film Festival before, and to see many Russian films,” he said. “I think Russian films are extravagant in the best way. They have this Dostoyevskian scale to them. I understand that Russian people like long stories, so if the opportunity falls on me, I would be more than happy to take on the challenge. Perhaps I could follow in the footsteps of Mr. Kurosawa, who did Dersu Uzala [in Russia].”

Asked whether he had plans to continue directing animated films, the director answered: “I take my own approach to creating animated work. I have a team with me, and we make music videos, as well. I also like to draw, so working on animation brings me that joy. Greedy as it may sound, I would like continue to create both live action and animated work.”

He was then asked: “Do you think there’s any significance to having your films shown at festivals, as opposed to having them released commercially?” Iwai’s answer was surprising. “It’s a good opportunity for me as a director to sit back, relax and enjoy my films together with the fans and critics,” he said. “There’s unbelievable pressure with commercial releases, so I can relax and enjoy festivals a lot more.”

Iwai was clearly relaxed at FCCJ, too, and was extremely generous with his time during the Q&A session that followed A Bride for Rip Van Winkle. Returning to the dais once again to chat with the large audience (many of whom had been there for 4 hours) after the screening, he spoke in both Japanese and English on a range of subjects related to the film, from casting to inspirations to censorship to the film’s apparent criticisms of societal issues.

Rip Van-Iwai-FCCJ27   Rip Van-Iwai-Mance69
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Adapted from Iwai’s own novel of the same name, the film returns to the aching melancholy of several earlier romances, but introduces new notes of cynicism. Nanami (Silver Bear-winning actress Haru Kuroki) has been sleepwalking through life, her docility and submissiveness almost terrifying to behold. Like the legend of Rip Van Winkle, in which the protagonist awakens after 20 years to an unfamiliar world, she is about to be rudely shaken out of her slumber.

A lost soul whose loneliness makes her deeply gullible, she is only able to express herself by adopting another identity on the social network Planet. On the site, she meets a fellow teacher and they soon plan to wed, although we learn that she has divorced parents, no interaction with relatives, and no friends she can invite to the reception. Through Planet, she meets jack-of-all-trades Amuro (Go Ayano), who provides actors to play her family at the wedding. Her marriage thus begins with an innocent-seeming deception, and sure enough, it begins to unravel.

Nanami turns to Amuro again when she suspects her husband is cheating and he continues to appear whenever Nanami’s in need, rescuing her for a hefty fee. Eventually, he finds her a job in an enormous mansion, which she shares with the outgoing Mashiro (Cocco). The two women bond tightly in this otherworldly setting, becoming the sisters and friends that neither has. But who is its owner and why have they really been brought there…?

rip sub large© 2016 A Bride for Rip Van Winkle Film Partners

A female viewer asked the first question after the screening: “The marriage at the beginning of the film symbolizes a kind of imprisonment, but the second time around, it’s a kind of liberation. Was that deliberate?”

“My point is not which is better,” Iwai answered. “My point is that happiness is elusive. Yes, Nanami meets Mashiro and they’re so happy. But my point is that even days that never happen can give us happiness. Sorry, it’s hard to explain.” A little later, he said, “It’s really a harsh, cruel story that I’m telling. Nanami finds only a fleeting happiness, and it’s based on a deception.”

Another journalist queried, “In China, we talk about the character of Nanami as being weak and strong at the same time — so we feel she must be a metaphor for Japan itself. Is that your intention?” Sidestepping the question’s political overtones, Iwai said, “She appears to be weak, but whether that’s an inherently Japanese trait, I would say ‘No.’ The same goes for her naiveté and sensitivity. She’s also resilient and a survivor, but whether this is Japanese or not depends on the individual.”

Iwai admitted, however, that he was intentionally making points about Japanese society: “I did make an effort to depict how Japanese are unconditionally willing to use all the technology at our disposal without suspecting a thing. Nowadays, at the click of a button, you can summon a car, you can summon a person. I think we’re all overly eager and too trusting of these services.”


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Interpreter Mihoko Imai and Iwai react as the emcee asks, "Where do you walk? Maybe I could accidentally run into you."   ©Koichi Mori

The conversation took a more personal turn with questions about Iwai’s inspirations for the story and his approach to writing. “I wrote the script chronologically, and a lot of the scenes are based on things I’ve heard,” he explained. “My friend met his girlfriend on Facebook, which is similar to how Nanami meets her husband. I met some people in an izakaya who told me they were acting as family members for weddings. I also have a friend from school who went into the AV industry, like the Mashiro character, and I met her mother, who was complaining about it. Doing research is important, but when you can hear about things from your friends, it has greater impact.”  

As for writing, Iwai revealed, “The most helpful thing for me is walking. I love walking. I walk every day when I’m writing a story. There’s a turning point where I go back to my house, and I found a clothes shop called Rip Van Winkle. I borrowed the name for the title and thought I would change it to something else, but I never did.”

Only a creator of Iwai’s stature could possibly devise such incredibly intricate plot machinations from the name on a store window, and assemble them so they unfold in such deliciously ambiguous — and unexpectedly moving — ways. But A Bride for Rip Van Winkle reminds us once again that he is one of cinema’s most masterful storytellers.

In the final minutes of the Q&A session, Iwai said, “We can’t always be the person we should be. Sometimes we’re good, sometimes not. I wanted to focus on how even people like porn stars and conmen, or murderers, or people who love sucking blood [a nod to his Vampire] still breathe the same air we do. They see the same sky above their heads. I couldn’t stop thinking about that, and it was my greatest motivation. People like that can make us notice another point of view and inspire us to create something.”

 Rip Van-Poster-Mance91
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 TIIF poster

Media Coverage


SPECIAL SCREENING of Kakekomi and
Q&A in collaboration with TIFF


 October 9, 2015
Q&A guests: Director Masato Harada, legendary actress Kirin Kiki,
Japan Now advisor Kohei Ando and TIFF Director General Yasushi Shiina


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Ando, Harada and Shiina listen as Kiki declares she just "tagged along with the director" for the event.

Anyone who has attended FCCJ’s screenings over the past eight years knows that our emphasis has been on introducing Japanese films and filmmakers to foreign audiences through the Tokyo-based journalists, critics, festival programmers and cinephiles who join us for our events. We were thus extremely gratified to hear that the 28th Tokyo International Film Festival (TIFF), running from October 22 - 31 in Roppongi and Shinjuku, would debut not one, but two new sections devoted to Japanese film: Japan Now and Japanese Classics.

When the full lineup was announced on September 29, the news was even better: three Japanese titles had made it into the main Competition section, and there were to be over 50 more English-subtitled films by a range of Japanese directors at the festival, from the likes of Akira Kurosawa and Kon Ichikawa (Classics) to Hirokazu Kore-eda and Sion Sono (Now) to Kohei Oguri and Koji Fukada (Competition), along with a 10-title tribute to Ken Takakura,

Perhaps most exciting of all, TIFF announced that it had selected Masato Harada as its inaugural Director in Focus, and unveiled what amounts to the first mini-retrospective of his work. Over a 30-year career, Harada has created a range of compelling films that are both social criticisms and world-class entertainments, and he is one of a small handful of Japanese who are comfortable directing overseas, as well.

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Ando and Harada share a laugh; Harada listens to Kiki describe his skill.

The Film Committee has had the honor of screening three of Harada’s recent films, and we were thrilled to be able to bring his early summer blockbuster, Kakekomi, to the club for an English-subbed encore.

Before the screening, we welcomed TIFF Director General Yasushi Shiina, TIFF Programming Advisor Kohei Ando, Harada and legendary actress Kirin Kiki — who won the Japan Academy Award for her titular role in Harada’s 2012 Chronicle of My Mother and also stars in Kakekomi — to discuss the festival’s new emphasis on local cinema.

Noting that there are over 500 Japanese films released every year in Japan, Shiina said, “This is my third year as the director of TIFF, and I’ve been wondering how best to introduce Japanese films and filmmakers to the world. We wanted to create a selection that would allow visitors to TIFF to see the full spectrum of films, to see what’s happening in the industry right now. We also wanted to focus on getting more recognition for Japanese filmmakers in overseas markets, and that’s why we created the two new sections, Japan Now and Japanese Classics. We look forward to welcoming audiences from as many countries as possible.”

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Kohei Ando, a filmmaker, producer and popular figure on the international film scene, was selected as the first programming advisor for the Japan Now section. He noted: “People often say that if you see three films from one country, you can learn a lot about that country. The concept of Japan Now is to help you learn more about Japan. We narrowed our selection to 11 films, one of which is a family story from maestro Yoji Yamada and another of which is from Hirokazu Kore-eda, also about a contemporary family. If you watch just these two films, you’ll have an understanding of the diversity of Japanese families today.”

“We decided to focus on Mr. Harada as the first Director in Focus,” Ando continued, “because we believe he deserves increased international recognition as a master filmmaker, and we also hope Japanese audiences will be reminded of his extraordinary talent.”

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Harada and Kiki have collaborated on only two films; here's hoping they double that number.

Harada said, “I’m not sure whether I belong to Japan Now or Japanese Classics (much laughter), but I’m honored to be selected and to show these five films. The last time I had a film shown at TIFF was in the Competition section 22 years ago, with Painted Desert. I’m very happy to bring my work to a festival in my own country, and I look forward to meeting audience members from all over the world.”

After joking that she had just “tagged along with Mr. Harada,” Kirin Kiki got more serious. “Mr. Harada is so enthusiastic about the works of other directors,” she said, “he’s always mentioning certain scenes in films by Kurosawa, Ozu and Kihachi Okamoto with such passion and enthusiasm, it’s one of his charms as a director. I see him trying to be an even better filmmaker than these masters, sometimes succeeding, sometimes not. But he’s very, very skilled, and… yahari, umai! (he’s wonderful!).”

The Director in Focus retrospective will feature English-subtitled screenings of Harada’s Kamikaze Taxi (1994), Climber’s High (2008), Chronicle of My Mother (2012), Kakekomi (2015) and The Emperor in August (2015). How did Ando and Harada arrive at this selection? “It’s simple,” Harada explained. “These five films were all rejected by the Cannes Film Festival.”

Ando interjected, “It’s really Cannes’ loss — we beat them this year by bringing these five films to TIFF.”

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Later in the evening, following the screening of Kakekomi, Harada’s first-ever jidaigeki period piece, the director and his star appeared for a Q&A session that was one of the most relaxed and intimate we have ever hosted. Speaking in English throughout (except when making remarks directly to Kiki), Harada fielded questions on a range of subjects, beginning with the reception of his films overseas.

He noted that audiences in Canada and Malaysia had laughed wildly over Kakekomi’s honey enema scene, and applauded when one of the antagonists is killed, a real difference from the more reserved Japanese audiences. He then revealed that he thinks not only about how his films will be received internationally while he’s directing them, but that he even considers how certain lines of dialogue will play in the subtitles. For Kakekomi, he changed character names from the original source novel so they would be more easily rendered in the subtitles.

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Kiki stayed on for the Q&A after the screening, and kept everyone in stitches, including
interpreter Mihoko Imai.

Kiki mentioned that she and Harada had argued rather extensively about certain casting decisions, but that she feels “completely comfortable” working with him, and was pleased that he could quickly make decisions about suggestions she would make. Harada countered, “It’s true that everyone was afraid of Kiki-san on set, but with her, there’s never a dull moment. Even though she complained about the casting, she can really create an energized atmosphere. I highly respect when she makes suggestions. She can come up with fabulous creative ideas, although I’m not sure she would make a good casting director.”

Both director and star continued to affectionately thrust and parry. “I think he’s a masterful, masterful director,” said Kiki. “But I can’t help complaining a bit. I don’t want to compare his work with other auteurs, but it is definitely worthy of more international praise. However, I think he should be more relentless in his perfection of small details. And he needs to put more of himself into his films. When he’s finally able to do that, I think we’ll see something different. He’s a world-class director now, but if he makes an effort to do what I’m suggesting, he’ll be even greater.”

harada2nd   kiki points

Harada’s 23 films over the past 30 years have addressed a wide range of subjects — what he terms “Hawksian relationship dramas” in an “old-school style”— that are perhaps not as embraceable by younger generations as the more gonzo style of Japanese genre directors who have found overseas followings. But his work is ripe for rediscovery.

And fortunately, we can expect it to continue. Harada hinted that another collaboration with Kirin Kiki is sure to occur: “I have something in mind, which I can’t announce yet. It’s a historical piece and the character I have in mind for Kiki-san is someone that no one would ever imagine...”

Photos by Koichi Mori and FCCJ.

E Kakekomi poster-1 
©2015 Shochiku

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