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AN EVENING WITH VETERAN FILM CRITIC MARK SCHILLING


 June 23, 2020
Q&A guest: Mark Schilling


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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.

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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).

THE MAN FROM THE SEA


THE MAN FROM THE SEA (Umi wo Kakeru Otoko)


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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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©Mance Thompson

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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©︎Mance Thompson

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

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

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

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

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

海を駆けるThe Man from the Sea FILM PARTNERS
©2018 "The Man from the Sea" FILM PARTNERS 

Selected Media Exposure

HARMONIUM


HARMONIUM (Fuchi ni Tatsu)


 September 28, 2016
Q&A guests: Director Koji Fukada and stars Mariko Tsutsui and Kanji Furutachi


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Furutachi (left) and Tsutsui (center) hardly seem the dysfunctional couple they play in the film, but Fukada (right) saw the chemistry.  ©FCCJ

Extreme weight gain or loss for a film role is such a common celebrity headline in the West that it’s all become a bit ho hum. After Robert De Niro snagged an Oscar for packing on pounds to play Jake LaMotta in Raging Bull, a long line of stars has followed suit, from Renee Zellwegger and Charlize Theron (big gains for Bridget Jones’ Diary and Monster) to Christian Bale and Matthew McConaughey (big losses for The Machinist and Dallas Buyer’s Club).

But such feats aren’t common in Japan*, so when this exchange occurred at the beginning of the Q&A session for Harmonium, there were audible gasps from the audience:

Question: “How did you prepare to portray this couple who change so much between the first and second part of the film, which commences 8 years later?”

Mariko Tsutsui: “After reading the script, I realized my character undergoes drastic changes. I knew right away that it wouldn’t be enough to express her inner turmoil without going through some physical changes, as well, and I discussed with the director how we might achieve that. One thing we did was to shoot in sequence.”

Koji Fukada: “Since Ms. Tsutsui is too modest to mention this herself, I will add that she took the character’s physical transformation seriously, and gained 13 kg [29 pounds] in 3 weeks.”

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Fukada can now add a Cannes Jury Prize to his mantel.         ©Mance Thompson, Koichi Mori

The gasps erupted partially because Tsutsui was so glamorously slender on the FCCJ stage, and partially because the Method approach to acting has so few practitioners in Japan. One of them, coincidentally, was sitting right next to Tsutsui — her costar, Kanji Furutachi. The popular actor studied at the famed HB Studio in New York with Uta Hagen, Carol Rosenfeld and others, and his fellow alumni include De Niro, Al Pacino, Liza Minnelli, Anne Bancroft and Matthew Broderick.

Despite such bragging rights, Furutachi’s disarming modesty remains intact. “No matter what kind of character I depict, I usually take the same approach,” he admitted. “For this film, I hadn’t had any of the experiences that my character has, so I had to rely more on my imagination. But I think I made the right decisions. I hope I made the right decisions.”

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 Tsutsui is a theater and TV veteran with lengthy film credits, but this marks her first starring role.   ©FCCJ, Koichi Mori

Tsutsui mentioned that she’d made her decisions based on “hints” she received from Fukuda regarding his own parents’ relationship, which was obviously fraught. “Mr. Furutachi and I are both theater veterans, and it’s very easy for us to communicate because we can be straightforward with each other and say what we want to each other. But it does seem like our banter comes off like we’re a husband and wife squabbling. That helped us during the shoot.”

Interjected Furutachi (in English, without realizing he'd switched languages), “I think that’s due to the magic of Mr. Fukada. We were perfectly cast as this couple. It’s amazing. It’s not like we had to even pretend, or make up something we didn’t have. Maybe it was already there.”

The director was asked how he managed to find two actors of the same caliber as international star Tadanobu Asano, thus assuring he wouldn’t eclipse his costars. Said Fukada: “While I was writing the script, which was about 10 years ago, I already had Mr. Furutachi in mind [in the interim, the actor would play the interloper in Fukada’s 2010 breakout hit Hospitalité, a role similar to Asano’s in Harmonium]. Then three years ago, when we got the greenlight to go ahead, the producers suggested Ms. Tsutsui, and I saw right away that she would be perfect for the role of his wife. After that, we cast Mr. Asano. So he was actually cast last, after these two were already in place.”

As Harmonium's inscrutable stranger in white coveralls, Asano is haunted and haunting; but his quietly commanding performance is more than matched by Furutachi and relative unknown Tsutsui, who is the true revelation here, particularly in her second-half transformation (the weight helps, but there is also gut-wrenching emotional heft).

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Furutachi and Tsutsui, an even match.  ©Koichi Mori

The synergy between all three costars is nothing short of startling, surely a contributing factor to the film’s success at Cannes, where it emerged with the Un Certain Regard Jury Prize despite intense competition in a lineup that also included Cannes-favorite Hirokazu Kore-eda. The French festival does love dark portraits of fractured families, to be sure, but Fukada’s win is a remarkable achievement for the indie filmmaker, whose budgets — impossibly low, even by Japan’s rock-bottom standards — have been no match for his ambitions.

In just over a decade since his debut, Fukada has worked in a variety of genres and received awards for all his work (from black comic romp Hospitalité, to gentle coming-of-age frolic Au revoir l’eté, to apocalyptic fable Sayonara), but none has been quite as enigmatic, as strangely alluring yet serious minded, as his latest. While he has always infused his stories with Timely Themes (racism, ostracism, exile due to nuclear disaster), they have never overshadowed his central focus, which is forever and always on the disconnection between family members.

With Harmonium, he proves that he is not afraid to confront and crush the conventions of that most hackneyed of genres, the Japanese family drama. In the film’s production notes, Fukada wrote: “I’m tired of all these Japanese films idealizing family ties. By continuing to relay this outdated and stereotypical image of an ‘ideal family,’ we deny the various other family types that actually exist.”

Harminium furutachi FCCJ-35   Harminium furutachi FCCJ-29 
               Furutachi told the audience: "I actually come here sometimes to see films, so I usually sit on your side, looking this way. Tonight, I’m very honored  to be sitting on this side, looking the other way."         ©FCCJ

In Harmonium we watch, with sinking heart, as one such “family type” collapses following the arrival of an old acquaintance. We’ve just barely met Toshio (Furutachi), his wife Akie (Tsutsui) and their young daughter Hotaru (Momone Shinokawa) when Yasaka (Asano) arrives, just out of prison for murder and somehow linked to Toshio’s past. Without consulting his wife, with whom relations are noticeably strained, Toshio moves the new arrival into a spare room in their cramped quarters, and puts him to work in the small factory downstairs. Yasaka is well mannered and hard-working; he washes his own dishes and wins over Hotaru with a blithe tune on the harmonium, which she’s attempting to play. He also wins over Akie, attending church with her and confessing his past sins. But their flirtation clearly alarms Akie, even as her husband remains oblivious. Then one morning, a tragedy occurs, and the final estrangement of family members is complete. As the story jumps forward in time, the aftermath is chilling to behold. Probing undercurrents of surprising philosophical depth, Harmonium ends with an ambiguity that will incite discussion long after its final, devastating moments.

Film critic Mark Schilling, who would later bestow a rare 4.5 out of 5 stars on the film in the Japan Times, mentioned that on his second viewing, Harmonium’s depiction of evil reminded him of Stanley Kubrick’s The Shining. Fukada demurred. “I didn’t want to depict Yasaka as an antihero or a villain or anything that could be construed as charismatic, because I don’t think there’s a clear line between what is evil and what is good. It’s not black and white. I think we live in degrees of gray. Evil depends on what perspective you view it from. In some scenes Yasaka is gentle and kind, in some he’s very threatening, in some he’s gripped with an anger he can’t control. I wanted to depict him in a multifaceted way.”

When Fukada was asked where the idea for the story came from, he laughed, “I get that a lot.” After admitting that he couldn’t remember exactly what he was thinking 10 years earlier, he noted, “I do remember that I wanted to depict how violence could come into someone’s life in such a random way, and just shatter it. Car accidents and acts of god can drastically change the course of life. I wanted to depict violence in a way that defies logic, defies cause and effect, defies crime and punishment.”

With the Cannes trophy leading to an uptick in international sales, audiences in France can look forward to seeing Harmonium in theaters in December, while US audiences will have to wait only until early 2017.

*Perhaps this is about to change, with Tsutsui’s in Harmonium, and Kenichi Matsuyama’s 35-pound gain to play chess champion Satoshi Murayama in the upcoming Satoshi: A Move for Tomorrow.

 Harminium poster KM-90
                                                                                                                                                                                                        ©Koichi Mori

 

harmonium
©2016 FUCHI NI TATSU FILM PARTNERS & COMME DES CINEMAS

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AU REVOIR L'ETÉ


 January 9, 2014
Q&A guests: Director Koji Fukada, producer-actor Kiki Sugino
and star Fumi Nikaido


Kiki Sugino, Fumi Nikaido, Koji Fukada

The captivating Au Revoir L’ete, the award-winning new film from director Koji Fukada, kicked off our 2014 Film Night screenings. Three years after his blackly humorous Hospitalité scooped up awards and wowed international audiences, Fukada’s charming homage to Eric Rohmer has been following suit on the festival circuit. Fukada was joined by next-generation film royalty producer-actor Kiki Sugino and star Fumi Nikaido for the Q&A, during which Nikaido revealed that she had been shooting Sion Sono’s Why Don’t You Play in Hell?— in which she plays a bitch on wheels at the same time as Fukada’s film. In Au Revoir L’ete, Nikaido (of Himizu fame) plays the beguiling 18-year-old Sakuko, who accompanies her aunt to the countryside for a few weeks in the waning days of summer, meets a variety of local characters, befriends a Fukushima refugee who works part-time at his uncle’s love hotel, and observes the increasingly complicated love lives of her aunt and other adults with growing interest. Leisurely paced and gently comical — but packing an emotional punch or two — Au Revoir L’ete brought a ray of summer warmth to a frigid January day at FCCJ.
Photos by Koichi Mori except where noted.

REVOIR LETE Hotori no Sakuko 77p2

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