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JAM


JAM (jam)


November 30, 2018
Q&A guests: Director Sabu and actor/co-producer Shintaro Akiyama


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Sabu and Jam's co-producer, Shintaro Akiyama, appeared the night before their film opened in Japan.  ©FCCJ

It is not essential to know everything — or even much at all — about LDH Pictures before watching Sabu’s new film, Jam. But for those of us who became ardent followers of Japanese indie film after discovering his hilariously dark, high-speed, genre-blending comedies in the 1990s, it comes as a bit of a jolt to hear that the heralded director is now one of them.

“Them” is LDH World, a powerful artist management agency and related empire spanning music, dance, theater and most recently, films. Under the leadership of Chief Creative Officer Exile Hiro (ne Hiroyuki Igarashi), the firm launched LDH Pictures in 2016 and began actively producing and distributing films featuring its huge stable of talent. Its contract with Sabu assures that one of Japan’s most distinctive auteurs will continue to be funded and reach appreciative audiences, many of whom are overseas, with his work.

Sabu has been feted with awards and retrospectives around the world since his 1996 feature debut, Dangan Runner, which established his uniquely kinetic, blackly humorous style. He has continued to explore themes of fate and faith, guilt and retribution, coincidence and karmic payback in such films as Postman Blues (1997), The Blessing Bell (2002), Miss Zombie (2013) and Chasuke's Journey (2015); but like all singular filmmakers, he has had to contend with increasing budget challenges and a shrinking theatrical marketplace.

AoyagiSho Aoyagi is utterly unforgettable in Jam.
©2018"jam"Production Committee

LDH manages the enormously popular Exile performing group, many of whom appear in Jam. Sabu had first worked with Exile star Sho Aoyagi on his 2017 film Mr. Long, and as he told the FCCJ audience, “[At that time] I had several discussions with LDH about projects that we wanted to do together, but they didn’t come to fruition. In the meantime, they asked me to come up with some ideas for a film featuring Mr. Aoyagi and other members of the Exile group, and that’s how this came about.”

Jam co-producer Shintaro Akiyama, who also plays the role of a friendly-but-dimwitted thug in the film, explained, “It all started with my boss, the executive producer of this film, Hiro. He very passionately approached Sabu to sign with LDH.”

Demonstrating impressive English skills, Akiyama briefly outlined LDH World’s global ambitions, with new branches and training schools now running in Asia, Europe and the US. Among other milestones, he noted, “Our actors and artists are branching out overseas, and one of them, Naoki, will be starring in a Netflix Hollywood movie. I look forward to starring in my own Hollywood film soon.”

(Exile members often use first names only. “Naoki” is Naoki Kobayashi, who appeared at FCCJ in 2017 with the very first LDH Pictures film, Tatara Samurai. He moved to Los Angeles shortly afterward, and stars in Wash Westmoreland’s 2019 Earthquake Bird with Alicia Vikander and Riley Keough.) 

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Akiyama appeared in the first-ever Exile stage production in 2007, and is now co-producing as well as
eyeing his own directorial debut, based on one of his novels. ©FCCJ

The LDH focus prompted one audience member to ask whether Sabu still had the freedom to make films on his own terms. “My contract allows me to do as I please,” Sabu reassured him. “The only stipulation is to use LDH artists whenever possible. I don’t feel restricted in any way, and I haven’t been told to focus on certain genres. They also haven’t asked me to target the Japanese market — on the contrary, they want to make films that will appeal to international film festivals and overseas markets.”

Jam is precisely that type of film. A bittersweet confection in which three lives collide and converge after random chance and a series of fateful encounters, it eventually erupts into one of Sabu’s trademark foot chases, made even more mirthful by the addition of drone shots.

SabuJamFCCJ-1©FCCJ

Hiroshi (Sho Aoyagi, almost too convincing in his role) is a jaded, small-time enka singer who holds “Talk to Me” sessions after each of his shows, building a real-world fan base that would normally spring up spontaneously on social media. “These events are essential to going global,” he tells the middle-aged women who flock to his shows. Meeting personally with them seems to work, though: he has a huge following of ardent admirers, each vying to know more about him and his work than the next.

After a series of “secret live” gigs at the Oldies but Goodies Jukebox bar, two of Hiroshi’s fans get into a contretemps over the order of his set list, one suggesting that he should swap one song for another that is more upbeat; and the other defending Hiroshi’s artistry. “Real fans should respect his song choice,” she insists.

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The marvelous Mariko Tsutsui is Hiroshi's No. 1 fan. ©2018"jam"Production Committee

This real fan, Masako (Mariko Tsutsui, of Harmonium, relishing the part), waits for Hiroshi after the show and assures him, “I won’t let anyone denigrate your art.” She then does the only logical thing: drugs and kidnaps him. She gets unexpected help from a friendly young man with a car, Takeru (Keita Machida), who offers to drive them home. What ensues is every obsessed fan’s dream, and every celebrity’s nightmare.

Takeru, meanwhile, goes on to the hospital where his girlfriend is in a coma, and reports that he’s done two more good deeds that day. The young woman took a bullet in crossfire as armed robbers were chased by the police. God then told Takeru that she will regain consciousness if he does good deeds, and so he does.

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Akiyama credits LDH boss Hiro with bringing Sabu onboard. ©Koichi Mori

On the same evening, Tetsuo (Nobuyuki Suzuki) is released from prison and immediately goes after the yakuza gang who had him sent up. With impressive fighting skills, a lethal pickaxe and apparent immortality, he fells dozens of them, even when he’s pushing his dementia-stricken grandmother to the train station in a wheelchair to meet her (deceased) husband.

Responding to a question about how much Sho Aoyagi’s own life might have shaped his character in the film, Sabu said, “I created the character of Hiroshi before I had any discussions with Mr. Aoyagi. He usually wears a bit of stubble, which I think makes him look a lot like an enka singer. When we were walking on the red carpet at the Berlin International Film Festival for Mr. Long, he had on this tuxedo that really gave him an enka vibe. That’s how the character came to me. Also, Mr. Aoyagi is very popular with older women.”

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Akiyama sported blonde hair to play a friendly thug in the film. ©2018"jam"Production Committee

He expanded, “I decided to make him an enka singer because enka fans happen to be women of a certain age. There aren’t that many films out there with a lot of older women in them. Enka is like country music in the West, and although this is true of other musical genres as well, I find the phenomena of fandom to be quite interesting — this psychology of the fan who thinks s/he can listen to a song and believe it was written just for them.”

Sabu enjoyed creating the character so much that he even wrote the lyrics for Hiroshi’s songs, as well as working with composer Junichi Matsumoto on the music. One critic noted that she could just imagine Hiroshi appearing on the popular year-end NHK-TV singing contest "Kohaku Uta Gassen/Red and White," and asked whether Sabu planned to release a CD of the music.

Sounding like a true producer, Akiyama said, “That’s a very good idea. But I’ll have to consult with Mr. Aoyagi and our company.” Added Sabu, “I had hoped to debut the character of Hiroshi [as a new singer], but unfortunately that hasn’t happened yet.” (It’s never too late — just look at Spinal Tap!)

SabuJamKoichi Mori-3
©Koichi Mori

The director was asked whether Stephen King’s Misery, adapted into Rob Reiner’s superlative film, had influenced the Hiroshi-Masako storyline. Sabu concurred that he’d been reminded of the story while writing. “I had that kind of heavy character in mind at first” for the No. 1 fan, “a little heavier than she ended up being in the film,” he said. “I ultimately decided to not go in that direction, because I wanted to suggest that they could actually be a couple, that it’s not so strange to imagine. That’s why I offered the role to Ms. Tsutsui, because she’s an amazing, amazing actress. She did it so wonderfully, bringing so many different facets to the character. She can be so charming and yet so scary. If I’d gone with a character like in Misery, it would’ve been more of a horror film.”

The Japanese flier features a prominent image of a jar of jam, and a film critic asked Sabu just what the title refers to, since jam “can mean the stuff you spread on bread, or that you’re in a fix, and also musicians improvising on stage.” The director responded, “Yes, it means all those things. That’s spot on.” He laughed and then said, “I’ll share the backstory with you. In 2017 I was with my family in Victoria, Canada and we just happened to visit a café called Jam. The food was really great, and my wife said, ‘You should call your film Jam.’ And so I did.”

The critic also asked about the classic car that Takeru drives in the film. “I couldn’t take my eyes off it,” he enthused. As it turns out, it wasn’t such a trivial question. Sabu explained, “I wanted the car to have a classic feel, and I wanted Takeru to have a backstory. The backstory could be that he’s actually quite affluent, so I imagined him choosing a vintage auto, a classy classic. The interiors are classier, too, with leather seats. Modern cars aren’t interesting — they’re round and boring.” And then the aha! moment: “Also, the car is important because we’re hoping to make a couple of sequels to the film.” 

poster Sabu AkiyamaJamFCCJ
 ©FCCJ

The director had done his post-production in Germany, and he was asked whether that was because he felt a foreign post-production crew might lend the film a different flavor. Noted Sabu, “I’ve had a longtime relationship with [Germany’s] Rapid Eye Movies. They funded three of my earlier works. I find that it’s much better to do post-production overseas, especially when it comes to color grading and sound mixing. The post-production crews overseas have such craftsmanship, and such ownership of their work, so the quality is much better.”

Akiyama was asked the same question, and his response was something the majority of Japanese directors will sadly never hear. Said the co-producer, “The director made this request to do post-production overseas, and we supported him because we felt it would help bring an international sensibility to the film. It’s our company policy to respect the freedom of the creator, and since we are also looking to expand overseas, it’s very beneficial to have that kind of foreign influence. So we were really thankful that we could complete the film in that way.”

Although the international premiere of Sabu’s Jam has not yet been announced, one can imagine it will be appearing soon on German screens.

jam 2018jamProduction Committee
©2018"jam"Production Committee

Selected Media Exposure

HARMONIUM


HARMONIUM (Fuchi ni Tatsu)


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


 Harminium three FCCJ-53L
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.”

   Harminium fukada KM-19   Harminium fukada KM-49
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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