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FIRST LOVE


FIRST LOVE (Hatsukoi)


 February 25, 2020
Q&A guests: Director Takashi Miike and star Masataka Kubota


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Kubota (left) and Miike reunite after a decade for a noirish love story... with comic elements.  ©Koichi Mori

If the FCCJ audience expected Takashi Miike to be as outrageous, outlandish or outré as many of his films, they were sorely disappointed. Appearing at the Q&A session following a sneak peek of his new film, he was gracious, thoughtful and on occasion, droll — reminding us that the artist and the art are not always made of the same stuff.

But it should come as no surprise that even the Godfather of Asian Extreme plays by the rules of civil engagement at home in Japan. That partially explains how the compulsively prolific auteur has managed to direct over 100 features (in every possible genre, including several that he invented), since 1991. These have justly earned him global adulation and notoriety; yet he is also a critics’ favorite, having won awards at every leading film festival from Berlin to Cannes to Venice to Toronto, and been more widely distributed overseas than any other Japanese filmmaker.

While he's provided plenty of instant ramen for fanboys over the years, Miike has also proven with numerous titles, from The Bird People in China to Hara-Kiri: Death of a Samurai, that he can produce restrained, humanistic works when the mood strikes. His latest, a violently pulpy action-comedy-thriller about a lonely boxer who finds a soulmate, gives us both sides of Miike: the sober, introspective romantic and the gleefully subversive bad boy.

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  ©Koichi Mori

But First Love is no blushing romance. Told with hurtling kinetic oomph, it returns the director to noirish territory and features a familiar assortment of Miike lowlifes — drug smugglers and addicts, corrupt cops and cold-blooded killers, call girls and Chinese gangsters, sociopaths and screw-ups — all vying to survive anarchic gunfights, swordfights, exploding toys, flying cars and meth-induced delirium in Japan’s rotten underbelly.

In the film, Leo Katsuragi (Masataka Kubota) is an “unknown boxer with promise” who fights well in the ring, but has nothing to live for outside it. An abandoned orphan with a menial day job at a Chinese restaurant, he learns that he has a brain tumor and little time left. His doctor advises that he dedicate himself to helping someone else, and presto, he meets Monica (Sakurako Konishi), a sweet young meth addict haunted by the ghost of her abusive father, whose debts she has been forced into prostitution to pay off.

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Leo saves Monica from the mob and the ghost who haunts her.  ©2019 FIRST LOVE Production Committee

The star-crossed pair are unwittingly enmeshed in a drug-smuggling double-cross hatched by minor hoodlum Kase (a hilarious Shota Sometani) and dirty-dealing cop Otomo (Nao Omori), and are pursued through a single chaotic night by an array of eccentric characters, including, mostly memorably, a rampaging gangster’s girlfriend, Julie (a kickass Becky), who’s out for brutal revenge after he’s murdered; and a female assassin working for the Chinese Triads (Mami Fujioka), who laments that there’s no honor or humanity among thieves anymore.

Kubota joined Miike for the FCCJ Q&A session. It had been 10 years since the two had worked together, on the heralded 13 Assassins. In the intervening decade, the director continued to work at a blistering pace, averaging two film releases each year, including two more with British super-producer Jeremy Thomas, Hara-Kiri: Death of a Samurai (2011) and Blade of the Immortal (2017).

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A pair of old-style yakuza share a smoke.  ©2019 FIRST LOVE Production Committee

Miike had played a part in establishing Kubota’s career, having cast him as the lead in his 2008 TV series, Cellphone Investigator 7. After that, Kubota’s rise was meteoric. Nearly as prolific as his director, he starred in dozens of TV series and films of every genre, including hit franchises like Rurouni Kenshin (2012, 2014, 2020), High & Low (2016, 2017) and Tokyo Ghoul (2017, 2019), as well as in Prophecy (2015), 64 (2016), Thicker than Water (2018), Gintama 2 (2018), Diner (2019) and Fancy (2020).

So how did it feel for them to reunite on the set of First Love? Said Miike, “I’ve spent the past 10 years working constantly, and it seems like it’s been the blink of an eye. I don’t feel the terrifying passage of time unless I look in the mirror. Meanwhile, Mr. Kubota now looms over me in the industry. God can be so cruel.”

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©FCCJ

Chuckling appreciatively, his star recalled, “I was 19 when I first worked with Mr. Miike, and I really didn’t know left from right. Now that we’re working together again after 10 years, I feel like he’s softened somewhat. Even though he’s still wearing those sunglasses, he was spicier back then. He’s mellower now, and that’s made him more accessible and easier to talk to.”

Miike looked a little hangdog about this, but Kubota continued: “Once principle photography started, I realized what it is about a Miike set that makes all Japan’s leading actors want to work with him. When you experience other sets, it’s clear that Mr. Miike really is a grandmaster, and I realized how lucky I was to start my career on one of his sets.”

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©2019 FIRST LOVE Production Committee

The grandmaster was asked about Kubota’s costar, debuting actress Sakurako Konishi. “We auditioned unknowns,” he recalled, “and while acting technique and character motivation are important elements of standard auditions, for unknowns, it’s really about the presence they exude the moment they step through the door. With Ms. Konishi, I instantly sensed ‘That’s our lead.’ It’s like she was born to play this role.

“The same thing happened [in 2008], when we were casting the lead for Cellphone Investigator 7. When Mr. Kubota stepped through the door, I knew right away that he was the one.”

Kubota was also quick to praise the actress, telling the audience, “I still have a long way to go as an actor, but working with Ms. Konishi made me realize how much technique I’d accumulated through these years, the kind of technique that allows an actor to answer the question of what to do in a certain moment. Watching the way she approached the role, without a lot of technique, but with great agility, reminded me what it felt like 10 years ago. I just hope I can continue being a working actor 10 years from now, when Ms. Konishi is a big star.”

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©FCCJ

Kubota’s character in First Love is limited to fighting only with his fists, which proved to be effective. But Kubota admitted, “I was very envious of my costars, because it makes things so much easier to have a sword or a gun in your hands — you have ultimate power, don’t you? But in terms of physical preparation, I was the most prepared of all the cast. Since I play a boxer, I started training about a month before the shoot. I spent 2 hours a day in the gym every day, and I ate a lot of meat.”

Asked for his standout memories of the filmmaking process, Kubota recounted the many night shoots and the “car action scenes, with six of us crammed into a minivan, including Mr. Miike, with the car-action coordinator pushing the gas pedal. I kept nearly whacking my head on the windshield, so it’s something I’ll never forget.”

Miike was queried about working with Jeremy Thomas on his fourth project together. Said Miike, “He’s one of those rare producers who really understands the Japanese way of doing things and the Japanese approach. He left us to our own devices. During the editing process, he provided feedback. But ultimately, he left the decision-making to us. He’s a really rare producer in that respect, and I feel very lucky to work with him. I consider him a friend.”

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©Koichi Mori

But he noted, “The international version is cut slightly differently than the Japanese version; there are many things you have to take into consideration in Japan.”

There is a clever, colorful animated sequence in the film, and Miike was asked why it had been included. “Honestly speaking, there are a lot of restrictions on creative work in Japan,” he explained. “Japanese film has become [more conservative]. Most films are now ‘safe for viewing.’ One of the starkest differences between Japanese and international films is the risk factor, especially when it comes to action scenes. It’s not possible here anymore for young people to dream of being stunt performers, because the environment has changed. Most of the stunt people are veterans, over 60. So for a scene where you go over the edge like that, it does terrible things to your back and we couldn’t do it. But I was adamant about not cutting that scene from the script, and we ultimately made the decision to turn it into an animated sequence.”

Tom Mes, author of the two definitive books “Agitator: The Cinema of Takashi Miike” and “Re-Agitator: A Decade of Writing on Takashi Miike,” was in the audience and mentioned that the auteur had spent the past several years directing an animated TV series directed squarely at the female tweener audience. “Do you see this film as a sort of male-focused rebound from that?” he asked. “Or is it a continuation?”

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The double-crossing yakuza Kase and dirty cop Otomo. ©2019 FIRST LOVE Production Committee

Said the director, “One reason we came up with the title First Love and the tagline ‘Farewell to violence,’ is because we were hopeful that certain audience members would be misled into seeing the film.” (Cue laughter.)

“As Tom said, I’ve been working on this TV series that airs weekly and is aimed at young female viewers. We’re in our 4th season. It’s about using the power of love, rather than violence, to [overcome obstacles in life], and that’s a message I truly take to heart.

“For this film, though, I wanted to depict the lives of these outlaws who lead very foolish lives. My hope was to cast a glimmer of hope into them. Most directors stick to one genre and chew over the same themes in all their work. That’s not the case with me. One thing leads to another, and I’ve been given the opportunity to make many films. For all the genre-crossing, I’m always trying to grab at the heart of the characters. Regardless of the size of the screen, all the characters are the same at their core. They’re struggling through the same conflicts and trying to find the same kind of happiness. It doesn’t make any difference what genre they’re in.”

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©FCCJ

Film critic Mark Schilling, wearing a mask (as were many in the room), noted that COVID-19 had effectively shut down the film industry in China, with many distributors moving their releases online in order to continue providing content. “How do you feel about the future of theatrical releases vs. streaming?” he asked.

Miike grew somber. “With the coronavirus, we’re in uncharted waters, and all of us are grappling with ways to cope with it. But I’m not opposed to bringing work to people in their own private spaces, so they can enjoy it without having physical interactions with other human beings. I admit I watch films online, and it’s interesting that watching films in your own personal space allows you to view them in a different light.

“But in my own experience, I feel it’s really important to spend time not only with a film’s characters but with other audience members in a theater. When you share a space with other viewers, even when the theater isn’t crowded, it makes for [a richer experience.] That’s essential for me, personally. Formats will continue to change, but I hope theatrical releases will continue forever.”

The Japan release of First Love is uncharacteristically late, coming after the film has screened at nearly 30 festivals overseas and opened in Europe, the US and elsewhere. Whether the delay was planned or imposed, it will be interesting to see whether Miike — and his “looming” star — can attract a larger female audience despite all the rambunctious, hyperviolent fun.

FL 2019 FIRST LOVE Production Committee

©2019 FIRST LOVE Production Committee

Selected Media Exposure

Selected TV Exposure

  • 日本テレビ ZIP! SHOWBIZ 窪田正孝、再会した三池崇史監督は「鋭利なものが丸くなった」
  • TBS はやドキ! 窪田正孝・三池崇史監督が出席。「オレは10年で歳をとった、窪田くんはずいぶん出世した」
  • 日本テレビ Oha!4 NEWS LIVE 窪田が10年ぶりのタッグについて「緊張が解けたのか喋りやすくなった」
  • フジテレビ めざましテレビ 三池崇史監督は「窪田君は10年で出世した」と窪田正孝の活躍が嬉しい様子。 

THEY SAY NOTHING STAYS THE SAME


THEY SAY NOTHING STAYS THE SAME (Aru Sendou no Hanashi)


 September 9, 2019
Q&A guest: Director Joe Odagiri


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Emerging director Joe Odagiri. Remember the name. ©Koichi Mori

Film history is littered with forgotten titles by actors who always wanted to direct. Joe Odagiri’s visually and aurally stunning They Say Nothing Stays the Same is destined for a much kinder fate.

Appearing before a packed room at FCCJ the day after his return from the Venice Film Festival, which had hosted the world premiere, Odagiri told the crowd, “We received very warm applause, much more than I’d imagined, [which made me] very happy. But it made me feel a little uncomfortable, too, since this isn’t a film that should get such warm applause.” (He’s being humble.)

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©Koichi Mori

Reminded that he’d planned to study directing in California as a young man (where he wound up in acting classes after an admissions mistake), so it had taken him quite a while to get around to his feature-directing debut, he explained, “Working as an actor, I felt I would be taking advantage of my position if I directed a film. I didn’t think other directors would take kindly to it, and I thought audiences would look at the film through the filter of ‘presenting a film by the actor Joe Odagiri.’”

So what changed his mind, nearly 20 years after acting had made him a star? Odagiri turned unexpectedly confessional: “I don’t want to go into detail,” he began, “but I had a physical exam a while back, and the results weren’t very good. I may have overreacted, but I started thinking about what I should be doing in the time I might have left. I’d always wanted to make a film, but a strange kind of pride had prevented me. I felt that in my remaining time, I ought to do this."

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Odagiri on location with his masterful director of photography, Christopher Doyle.
 ©2019 “THEY SAY NOTHING STAYS THE SAME” Film Partners

“This” was also prompted by Odagiri’s encounter with legendary cinematographer Christopher Doyle (In the Mood for Love, The Limits of Control), who co-directed a film that Odagiri starred in, The White Girl (2017). Renowned for his prodigious artistry (as well as for his drinking), Doyle told the actor that if he made his own film, he’d like to shoot it.

“Chris Doyle’s role was incredibly important,” Odagiri concurred, when a film critic praised the film’s magnificent visuals. “I relied on him completely. He was able to realize everything that I imagined, and bring it all to the screen. He told me to concentrate on directing the actors and conceiving the composition of the shots, and leave the rest to him. Chris gave me 100% support throughout the filming, and 100% of my vision for the film was realized.”

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The director with Masatoshi Nagase, who plays a key role in the film.
©2019 “THEY SAY NOTHING STAYS THE SAME” Film Partners

When the interpreter had finished translating his remarks, he added: “One more thing: Chris isn’t just an old drunk.”

Odagiri wrote and refined his script over several years; and if audiences expect something dynamically, radically contemporary, they will be surprised to discover They Say Nothing Stays the Same feels more like the measured, stately work of a classic auteur.

Set on a fog-covered river and a rocky shore somewhere in Japan’s past, it tells the story of a lonely old boatman, Toichi (Akira Emoto, in his first leading role in over a decade), who ferries villagers and visitors to a town on the other side of the river. His only real relationship is with Genzo (Nijiro Murakami), a young neighbor who seems friendly and helpful. Upstream, a large bridge is being constructed and Toichi will soon be able to retire. He has mixed feelings about that, but his past is such a mystery, we don’t know what prompted him to be there in the first place. He is wracked by self-doubts and haunted by nightmares, but he does not miss a day of work and does not complain.

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The boatman's home on the river.
 ©2019 “THEY SAY NOTHING STAYS THE SAME” Film Partners

Then one day, he rescues a half-dead young girl from the water and gives her a place to stay. Fu (Ririka Kawashima, otherworldly in her major film debut) is as reticent as her host, but gradually, a friendship begins to grow. There are rumors about her own past — is she the kidnapped daughter of a murdered family several villages away or someone/something else? — but no one comes to claim her. As the days melt into months, nothing seems to change; but of course, nothing ever stays quite the same.

Set in early Meiji Japan but timeless in its concerns — the sacrifices made in the name of progress, the loss of cherished traditions and the natural environment, the human costs of capitalism — Odagiri’s debut is astonishing in its storytelling mastery and its stunning visuals, a tribute not only to his impressive skill at guiding actors to rich performances (especially Emoto, who is deeply moving, as is Masatoshi Nagase, who plays a hunter), but also to his ability at selecting the perfect collaborators.

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Emoto is deeply moving (and convincing) as the old boatman.
©2019 “THEY SAY NOTHING STAYS THE SAME” Film Partners

First among these, of course, is Doyle, whose camera captures a Japan that is at once achingly beautiful, steeped in lore but rushing headlong toward modernization. Shot in a splendidly scenic mountain valley in sunshine, rain and snow, with nearly constant mist rising from the boatman’s river, Doyle’s images are never less than captivating. Academy Award-winning costume designer Emi Wada (Ran, Samurai Marathon) and Armenian jazz musician Tigran Hamasyan, composing his first film score, also provide superlative support.

One of the other delights of They Say Nothing Stays the Same is the many cameo appearances, some as brief as a single line during a boat ride, by familiar faces: Tadanobu Asano, Yu Aoi, Isao Hashizume, Tsuyoshi Ihara, Jun Murakami, Takashi Sasano, Mitsuko Kusabue and Haruomi Hosono. When asked about his direction of Emoto, who is notoriously prickly, Odagiri responded, “Many veterans appeared in the film, and I decided that I wouldn’t give acting direction to any of them. What actors do is think about their roles, and how they can make them deeper and more resonant. I have a great deal of trust in the actors I asked to be in the film, and for me to tell them what they ought to do seemed superfluous. I understand actors, so it’s easier for me to direct than it is for [directors who haven’t acted].”

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©FCCJ

This begged a question about his own role in the film, which was behind the camera only. Asked whether he had considered acting in the film, and whether he’d consider doing so on his next directorial effort, Odagiri admitted, “Memorizing lines is such a hassle. To take time away from directing in order to memorize lines was something I didn’t want to do. I didn’t feel like I had the time to spare, and I think that will be the case in the future, as well.”

One FCCJ audience member, praising the film’s rhythm and pacing, asked Odagiri whether he had consciously chosen a cinematic style more akin with the past, or whether he’d had something else in mind. The director responded, “The film is set in Meiji Japan, about 150 years ago, and the rhythm of life was much different than it is today. It was a much more natural pace than today, when we live at such a hurried pace we tend to lose sight of things. As a result, people were in touch with themselves and the natural world. I’m hoping the audience will recognize that we’ve lost something in the name of convenience.”

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The mysterious Fu, played unforgettably by Ririka Kawashima.
 ©2019 “THEY SAY NOTHING STAYS THE SAME” Film Partners

Another audience member praised the film’s music and sound design. Odagiri explained that he’d been a musician and composer since an early age. “As a director, I’m probably focused on sound and music more than most directors. I was particular about creating the sound design for 5.1 surround sound, and using sound effectively with that system. To really appreciate this film, you have to see it in a theater with surround sound. I guess it will be available online, but since most homes don’t have 5.1 systems, don’t waste your time watching it online.”

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Odagiri laughs at a question about why he doesn't appear in the film himself. ©︎FCCJ

Queried, rather inexplicably, about his definition of happiness, Odagiri made the question matter without missing a beat: “The theme of the film is individual happiness. One of the messages I incorporated is, despite the period of the story or what environment you’ve been placed in, if you’re able to live a life you believe in, then that’s a form of happiness.”

Perfectly timed for the dawning of the Reiwa Era, in which you’d be hard-pressed to find anyone who doesn’t long for a less frantic pace of life, Joe Odagiri’s elegant, elegiac They Say Nothing Stays the Same is a welcome — and welcoming — respite from the s***storm outside. Do not miss it.

(Overseas audiences will also have the chance to experience its embrace, as festival dates are sure to be plentiful.)

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The writer-director with the poster for his film.  ©︎FCCJ

 

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©2019 “THEY SAY NOTHING STAYS THE SAME” Film Partners

Selected Media Exposure

FIRES ON THE PLAIN (Nobi)


FIRES ON THE PLAIN


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


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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.

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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.”

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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.”

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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

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