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FIRES ON THE PLAIN (Nobi)


FIRES ON THE PLAIN


July 14, 2015
Q&A guests: Director Shinya Tsukamoto and actor Yusaku Mori


nobi tsukamoto hat  nobi yusaku smile
Shinya Tsukamoto and Yusaku Mori respond to some surprising questions.

Leave it to the indefatigable Pio d’Emilia, longstanding FCCJ member and longtime friend of iconoclastic director Shinya Tsukamoto, to pose the one question that everyone was asking themselves, but would never, ever want to answer: “Is there any situation where you would eat human flesh?”

D’Emilia had just watched the director’s graphic, harrowing new adaptation of the semi-autobiographical war novel Nobi by Shohei Ooka, about a Japanese soldier's gruesome ordeals in the Philippines during the closing days of World War II, where starvation was a far greater killer of men than enemy bullets and bombs. Tsukamoto’s Fires on the Plain highlights the surreal carnage, the chaos and the cannibalism, only slightly exceeding Kon Ichikawa’s 1959 adaptation in its brutality and savagery. A perfect reinterpretation for our time, it is an intensely visceral reminder of the utter obscenity of war: Kill or be killed, eat or be eaten.

nobi three 
Tsukamoto describes his 30-year journey to bring Ooka's novel to the screen.

But the director was quick to explain, “In the original book, the author deals with cannibalism as a central issue… but the choice, the moral dilemma of whether or not to eat human flesh, is not a focus of this film. It’s not depicted in great detail. And the reason is that when I heard accounts from soldiers who fought in the Philippines [during extensive interviews he conducted a decade ago], I realized they didn’t have any capacity to think about their actions. They were so pressed, so desperate, that they were unable to address this moral dilemma. The soldiers stranded in the Philippines started by eating water buffaloes, then they would go into the villages and ransack houses for food… eventually, they went into the mountains and ate whatever they could find. When they found maggots eating the flesh of the wounded, they would eat the maggots. Human flesh would be attached to those maggots… Given their situation, I could contemplate eating human flesh, particularly if a fellow soldier was already dead and doing so could allow me to stay alive.”

But he also stressed, “We should never again allow a situation to occur in which people would have to face such a quandary. We have to do whatever we can to stop Japan’s slide toward militarization.”

Young actor Yusaku Mori, who makes his acting debut in the film, struggled to answer d’Emilia’s pointed question as well, providing his response in both flawless English (he had trained to be a translator at the University of Sunderland), as well as in Japanese. “I guess never. Never,” he said. “I think there might be a situation where I might eat human meat, but I never want to do this.”

nobi tsukamoto hand
Tsukamoto's crew had to build a lifesize truck out of cardboard.

Considering the current political and cultural climate in Japan, and the ultra-rightists’ success in preventing the Japanese from seeing Angelina Jolie’s Unbroken — which was falsely rumoured to contain scenes of cannibalism and has effectively been barred from release here — it is especially gratifying that Ooka’s bleak, nightmarish vision of hell-on-earth is being retold by one of Japan’s own, boldly defying the revisionism of the white-washers and providing a timely corrective to all the mythologizing versions that routinely draw audiences, such as 2013’s Abe-endorsed Eien no Zero (The Eternal Zero), which became one of the top-10 grossing Japanese films of all time.

The fiercely independent Tsukamoto was prompted to make the film by the Abe Administration’s inexorable moves to expand the role of the military. “When I first started thinking about [adapting Ooka’s novel] 30 years ago,” he explained, “it was in the context of the Showa period in which I’d grown up, when people generally believed that war was something evil. So I conceived of it as having a universal message that was widely shared, that war should never be repeated. But as the decades passed, it has become a very different thing. Now, there’s a sense in which war could occur in the near future, that Japan is moving steadily in the direction of repeating the errors of the past. The possibility of another war is a very real one.”

nobi yusaku
Mori found his calling through an open audition.

Photographed in lush color where Ichikawa’s earlier film was in black and white, Tsukamoto’s Fires on the Plains captures the stunning beauty of the Philippines (and its stand-ins, Hawaii and Okinawa), contrasting the verdant forests, the flowers dripping with dew, the stunning sunsets with the hallucinatory desperation of its solitary protagonist, the filthy, isolated Pvt. Tamura (played by Tsukamoto himself). Already half-dead from TB and starvation when his regiment succumbs to the inevitable, Tamura desperately clings to his last shreds of humanity in a world gone mad around him, as he stumbles, inexorably, to the very edge of the spiritual abyss.

For anyone who has followed Tsukamoto’s career, this grisly, gripping anti-war story seems the perfect subject for him to wrap his dark creative brilliance around. World premiering in fall 2014 at the Venice Film Festival, it has gone on to widespread acclaim at 27 other international festivals, an accomplishment that is all the more staggering when one understands just how limited the film’s budget was. To get it made, Tsukamoto’s crew also acted as extras, and most of those involved — as is often the case with the director’s films, as well as many films in Japan — were volunteers, paid primarily in daily bento and the certainty that they were contributing to a worthy cause.

nobi afterAfter the screening and Q&A, Tsukamoto relaxeswith Japanese-film
aficionados Mark Schilling and Markus Nornes in the bar.

“One of the essential aspects of the film was to capture the splendor of the Philippines, and this presented a great challenge” from a budgetary standpoint, Tsukamoto told the FCCJ audience. “I had a small crew, and I shot the jungle scenes there myself, as well as acting in them. But most of the film was shot back in Japan, with a large number of volunteers… We purchased one army uniform and then made 50 copies of them ourselves. We purchased one gun and then made 20 replicas. In the scene with a jeep and a truck, we actually had to create the large truck from cardboard boxes.”

A tribute to Tsukamoto’s unfailing ability to work cinematic magic with little more than inspiration and commitment, as well as a powerful call to the nearly-lost cause of peace, Fires on the Plains is absolutely essential viewing — not only for those too young to remember Kon Ichikawa’s film, but for everyone who believes that Japan can best honor its Pacific War veterans, in this 70th anniversary year of WWII’s end, by refusing to turn away from the truth of their experiences.

  Photos by Koichi Mori and FCCJ.

nobi poster
©SHINYA TSUKAMOTO/KAIJYU THEATER

Media Coverage

FILM FESTIVAL FEVER


FILM FESTIVAL FEVER


tiff logo           FILMEX2014
Apples and oranges: both taste sweet.

Much is made, at this time of year, of the differences between the Tokyo International Film Festival (TIFF) and TOKYO FILMeX (Filmex), despite there being no reason whatsoever to compare them. A brief rundown makes the disparities clear: TIFF is now in its 27th year and remains the only Japanese festival accredited by the FIAPF (just 15 festivals qualify for this A list, including Berlin, Cannes, Montreal, Shanghai and Venice). Filmex marks its 15th anniversary this year, and remains small and specialized by choice. TIFF is presided over by a director-general who changes every few years, since the position is shared between a handful of Japan’s most powerful studio-distributors, under the aegis of the Ministry of Economy, Trade and Industry and the Tokyo Metropolitan Government. Filmex, which is backed primarily by Office Kitano (as in "Beat" Takeshi) and the bicycle racing organization Keirin, has been overseen by its two devoted founders since it began in 2000. TIFF generally screens over 100 films each year, while Filmex’s lineup is only a quarter of that.

So this type of side-by-side evaluation is essentially meaningless. Film audiences in the Kanto area are fortunate that both festivals exist, and both are due praise as well as constructive criticism. In this era of dwindling public funding for cultural events, increasing competition from other film festivals (especially to snag world and national premieres) and static attendance numbers, festival organizers must juggle an array of often contradictory demands just to stay afloat.

A recent article about TIFF derided its "glitz and glamour," which is absolutely beside the point. Like Cannes, where glitz and glamour reign supreme (there is even an Official Cannes Shop on its website), A-list international film festivals must always balance high art with utter baloney. Just check their red carpet videos if you think Berlin, Venice, et al. are above celebrity fawning, and their lineups if you think they are really "all about the films."

Yet TIFF’s reputation as being aspirational, rather than inspirational, continues. This is partially due to its management structure, which makes its art-vs.-commerce balancing act more difficult and has virtually precluded organizers from establishing an ongoing "vision" for the festival. But the laudable work of its veteran programming crew, led by the indefatigable Yoshi Yatabe, with Kenji Ishizaka overseeing all the Asian selections, is too often overshadowed by the festival’s Special Screenings section. Because TIFF occurs just before the fall’s high-profile films hit the theaters, Japanese distributors use this section as a platform to publicize upcoming releases — and they share costs with TIFF to bring a bevy of the festival’s biggest stars to the red carpet.

TIFF red carpet
TIFF Muse Miki Nakatani works the red carpet.  ©2014 Aude Boyer

Although Special Screenings account for a small portion of the films screened at the festival, it is these that TIFF often earns its critical drubbing for; while the exceptional films shown in the Competition, World Focus, Asian Future and (sometimes) Japanese Splash sections are too quickly forgotten. But the art-to-commercial film ratio is surprisingly high at TIFF, with internationally heralded selections that Tokyo audiences are unlikely to ever see in theaters, since Japanese distributors have grown increasingly conservative about releasing arthouse titles, particularly foreign ones.

Amply earning the "international" in its name, TIFF brings a staggering array of films from around the world to Tokyo audiences each year, and past award winners include titles from Uruguay, Bosnia-Herzgovina, Albania, Bulgaria and Kazakhstan, along with many European and Asian countries. A glance through the annual Competition section lineups reveals a decided preference for arthouse fare, with many of the films verging on the social-realist miserablism that Filmex specializes in.

This year’s TIFF Grand Prize went to one such: the drug-addiction saga Heaven Knows What by sibling directors Joshua and Benny Safdie, marking the first time an American film had received the honor since John Sayles’ City of Hope in 1991. Of all TIFF winners, only the 2011 Grand Prizewinner, The Untouchables, by French directors Olivier Nakache and Éric Toledano, has actually been a box-office slam-dunk (and the most successful French film ever shown in this nation of Franco-cinephiles).

WWMMWalking with My Mother ©2014 Supersaurus Inc.

The Movie Committee will be screening the TIFF film
Walking With My Mother, a wrenchingly truthful documentary
about aging and loss, by director Katsumi Sakaguchi, in April.

During its October 23 – 31 run this year, TIFF screened 175 films from 42 countries/regions, yet it will probably be remembered most for its focus on animated titles, including the first-ever complete retrospective of work by Hideaki Anno (creator of Evangelion), for its screening of Charlie Chaplin’s City Lights in the historic Kabuki-za theater, and its wide range of allied events, including a World Cosplay Summit and star chefs on hand to serve up Tokyo Cinema Cuisine.

TIFF Doraemon
Doraemon made his English-language debut at TIFF. ©2014 Aude Boyer

Fortunately, TIFF encourages audience feedback, as well as providing ample opportunities for attending press to chat on and off record with staff about what is and isn’t working in any given year. It’s impossible to imagine sitting down around a picnic table with Cannes President Gilles Jacob during his festival, yet casual get-togethers are precisely what TIFF Director-General Yasushi Shiina seems to enjoy most. He welcomed a group of foreign journalists, including FCCJ’s own Monzurul Huq, to essentially ask How’re we doing? on October 28.

In his second year at the TIFF helm, it is clear that Shiina is working hard to continue Tom Yoda’s successful steps toward raising the festival’s international profile. "In my first year, I tried to figure out how we could enhance the festival," Shiina told the group, "and one focus we decided on was animation, because we wanted to showcase Japanese content on a bigger scale." To a suggestion that the focus may have been too much of a good thing, Shiina conceded, "When we announced the initiative last year, the press started calling us the ‘Tokyo Anime Festival,’ but I think animation is just one of the ways to get [younger] audiences into theaters. And our opening and closing films maybe gave the impression that we had too much animation." (TIFF opened with the world premiere of Disney’s Big Hero 6 and closed with hotshot director Takashi Yamazaki’s Parasyte, a live-action version of the popular sci-fi manga.)

Shiina  TIFF  Shiina Asian crew
Director-General Yasushi Shiina meets the foreign press.

Shiina also discussed the increase in selections from Asia: "We always wanted to focus more on Asian films, not just screening them, but having creators come to Tokyo and participate. With the Japan Foundation Asia Center [which just launched the new Crosscut Asia initiative, focusing on national cinemas in the region], we could accomplish this." He repeated his emphasis on supporting young creators: "We’re doing an event with Pia Film Festival, inviting five or six PFF films this year, not just one, and bringing the winners of student film festivals in Japan to allow them to interact and also participate with established creators like Takeshi Kitano," who was the recipient of TIFF’s inaugural Samurai Award during the closing ceremony.

Shiina is clearly grappling with a variety of challenges for TIFF’s 28th incarnation in 2015, but perhaps his biggest is to find a permanent home for the festival’s growing girth. Hampered by a lack of space and cinemas since its move from Shibuya to Roppongi in 2004, its market has taken place way out in Odaiba for the past 2 years, and many of this year’s screenings were held in Nihonbashi. "Once I accomplish the reuniting of TIFFCOM and TIFF in one location, I can retire," Shiina laughed. "But next year might be too soon."

TOKYO FILMeX has its own challenges, but an expanding slate necessitating more space is not one of them. Despite its limited size, Festival Director Kanako Hayashi and Program Director Shozo Ichiyama firmly believe that "one film festival can change the world," and their ardent audiences clearly support the notion.

From its first incarnation, Filmex has focused on assuring that there will be a "bright future of cinema" (its motto) through the education and encouragement of filmmakers throughout Asia, as well as promoting the involvement of young cinephiles and supporters through its membership program. Filmex conducts workshops throughout the year, and brings emerging practitioners from all over Asia to participate in its Tokyo Talents  sessions, with mentoring by famed filmmakers and other industry veterans, in alliance with the Berlinale Talents program. It also selects a group of student filmmakers to bestow the festival's popular Student Jury Prize.

Filmex embassy
At the Filmex lineup announcement at the Embassy of Canada, Festival Director Kanako Hayashi
and Program Director Shozo Ichiyama (in red shirts) and Laurie Peters, Head of Public Affairs and
Culture at the Embassy, flank the four Japanese directors in this year's festival: Takahashi, Shinozaki,
Hiroki and Tsukamoto.

This year, Filmex features 25 films over its November 22 - 30 run, with nine Competition films vying for its Grand and Special Jury Prizes, eight from Asia/the Middle East and one from Japan (Izumi Takahashi’s Dari Marusan, the only world premiere), with acclaimed Chinese director Jia Zhang-ke (A Touch of Sin), a frequent presence at Filmex, heading the Competition jury. There are also 11 special screenings and two early David Cronenberg mini-features (part of a Filmmaker in Focus sidebar, with the great Canadian director unveiling his latest, Maps to the Stars, as the Closing film). There are also three digitally remastered works from 1960 — Nagisa Oshima's Cruel Story of Youth, Osamu Takahashi's Only She Knows and Hidetaro Morikawa's The Tragedy of Bushido in the festival’s Time of Destruction and Creation section, jointly presented with Shochiku.

The Movie Committee will be screening (at least) two
Filmex selections in 2015: Ryuichi Hiroki’s comedy-drama
Kabukicho Love Hotel, on January 8, and Shinya Tsukamoto’s
searing antiwar masterpiece Fires on the Plain, in July.

nobi
Fires on the Plain ©2014 Shinya Tsukamoto/Kaijyu Theater

The 2014 selections are unusual for the inclusion of four high-profile Japanese titles, including the Opening film, Shinya Tsukamoto’s extraordinary Venice-buzzer Fires on the Plain, Ryuichi Hiroki's crowd-pleasing Kabukicho Love Hotel, Takahashi’s Dari Marusan, and Makoto Shinozaki's Fukushima-focused Sharing, marking the popular director’s first Filmex appearance in 14 years.

Kabukicho trio Filmex
Kabukicho Love Hotel costars Kaho Minami and Atsuko Maeda share a laugh at the
Filmex premiere with their director, Ryuichi Hiroki.  ©2014 Aude Boyer

At Filmex’s opening ceremony on November 22, Hayashi told the audience, "In the process of selecting these 25 films, we have encountered many surprises and miracles." And then, reminding everyone why filmmakers continue to swear their allegiance to the festival, she stressed: "We respectfully recognize these filmmakers’ braveness, determination and affection for the audience."

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