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STAR SAND


STAR SAND (Star Sand – Hoshizuna Monogatari)


April 10, 2017
Q&A guests: Director Roger Pulvers, stars Lisa Oda and Shinnosuke Mitsushima


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                       The emerging director and his two rising stars.     ©Koichi Mori

In a prolific career that has taken him from the US to Russia to Poland to Japan and beyond, American-bred Australian Roger Pulvers has been known primarily as an award-winning author, translator, journalist, playwright, theater director and educator. Despite having famously served as Nagisa Oshima’s assistant on Merry Christmas, Mr. Lawrence (1983), and as co-writer of Takashi Koizumi’s Best Wishes for Tomorrow (2008), he has notched most of his achievements in realms other than film.

But he has just added another feather to his cap: film director.

A familiar figure at FCCJ, Pulvers sneak-previewed his directorial debut, Star Sand, ahead of the world premiere on April 22 at the Okinawa International Movie Festival. When he was asked what took him so long to helm his own production, Pulvers laughed, “I would have liked to make a movie a long time ago. I had a plan in 1990, but the asset bubble burst and I couldn’t.”

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                                                                Oda and Mitsushima both lauded Pulvers' directorial skills.    Above: ©FCCJ  Below: ©Koichi Mori

He recalled how he’d visited Hatomajima in 1977, first encountering the sparkly star sands (tiny, star-shaped marine protozoa), and hearing that the island had escaped the ravages of war. Some years later, he began thinking about “making a movie about a deserter, making a hero out of a deserter. I think that in times of intense warfare, it is heroic not to fight.” With the 2003 invasion of Iraq, “I remembered Vietnam, and I was very angry. So I wrote ‘Star Sand.’”

The film is based on that story (later a novel in both English and Japanese), an Okinawa-set mystery tale with a powerful message about compassion and quiet acts of heroism during wartime. Calling in favors from his nearly five decades in Japan, Pulvers was able to cast A-list actors like Shinobu Terajima, Renji Ishibashi and Mako Midori, and to shoot on location in Iejima with veteran cinematographer Shinji Ogawa and art director Koichi Kanekatsu (it was the first production ever permitted on the island, which had been destroyed by bombing in 1945). The film’s haunting theme song was written by Oscar-winner Ryuichi Sakamoto, an old friend from Merry Christmas days (which also deals with a friendship between soldiers from opposing sides).

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Star Sand jumps nimbly between three distinctly different eras — April 1945, 1958 and 2016 — although its primary action takes place during the horrific Battle of Okinawa on a tiny speck of land remote from the main theater of action. Nevertheless, its inhabitants have all been touched, some in more disastrous ways than others, by the Pacific War. Sixteen-year-old Hiromi (Oda) has recently arrived on the island, while her father goes to work in a Nagasaki factory and her Japanese-American mother stays in Los Angeles. Out hunting for star sand one day, she comes upon two men in a cave. One is Takayasu, a Japanese deserter (Mitsushima); the other is an ailing American deserter named Bob (Brandon McClelland). Hiromi helps nurse Bob back to health, and brings food to the two men, who pledge never to commit an act of violence again. All is well until Takayasu’s brother, a fanatical soldier (Takahiro Miura), discovers the trio and vows to kill them all. Eventually, three of the four people in the cave will perish; we do not learn their identities until a modern-day university student in Tokyo reads a diary discovered in the cave in 1958, and goes on a quest to uncover the startling secret.

Pulvers brought along his two young stars, Lisa Oda and Shinnosuke Mitsushima, both of whom are on the cusp of major career recognition, to the FCCJ event.

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                      © 2017 The STAR SAND Team

A popular model since 2012, Oda made her memorable film debut just a year ago, playing a young woman who holds the key to a grisly crime in Keishi Ohtomo’s The Top Secret: Murder in Mind. Although she has also been appearing for the past two seasons as Sena, the pirate girl, in NHK’s television drama Moribito: Guardian of the Spirit, Oda’s acting resume is extremely slender for one so poised. She is not only the protagonist of Star Sand and its emotional center; she also delivers nearly half her lines in English.

Greeting the audience in English prior to the Q&A session, Oda was clearly nervous in front of her first crowd of international critics. “I was delighted to be offered the part of Hiromi, and couldn’t believe my good luck,” she told the audience. “Actually, I was so nervous because I have not had much acting experience. Also, I really didn't know about the wartime history of Japan. The biggest problem was how to be Hiromi with the right emotional responses. It wasn’t easy, but thanks to guidance from everybody, I was able to [play the role]. I'm grateful for the chance to be part of Star Sand.

Mitsushima proved to be as loquacious in person as his Star Sand character is reticent. “Good evening, everyone,” he introduced himself, also in English. “I’m from Okinawa, and I’m very honored to join this film and to be here tonight.” Switching to Japanese, he continued, “When I met Roger, he showed me a photo of an island, and I knew right away that it was Iejima, where I spent a lot of time [visiting] in my childhood. Being from Okinawa, you hear a lot more war stories and wartime experiences, and we see people who still have bullets in their bodies and older people who have lost limbs. The war is part of our being. So I worried about taking the role, since it would mean that I would have to face my identity as an Okinawan and shoulder the sentiments of my ancestors. Also, my grandfather is an American, so I would not have been born if it weren’t for World War II. But I was taken with Roger’s passion. Without him, it wouldn’t have been possible.”

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©FCCJ

Pulvers returned his stars’ compliments: “I knew from the very beginning that if I didn’t get Lisa to play Hiromi, no one else could,” he said. “I think there are many among you tonight who will agree that she’s quite miraculous. As for that guy over there [indicating Mitsushima], that Okinawan-American, I thought there wouldn’t be a chance to get him in my movie. But when he saw that photo of Iejima and recognized it immediately, I put my dibs on him. It’s probably the first time a director’s gotten an actor just by showing one photograph.”

Asked how they prepared for their roles, Oda said, “I wouldn't be so pompous as to call my preparation for this role an ‘approach,’ but I will say that the first thing I did was to work with the director on improving my English pronunciation.”

Mitsushima, who’s been acting on stage and screen since 2010, and will appear in five other high-profile films this year (including titles by Takashi Miike, Yoshihiro Nakamura and Hirokazu Kore-eda), mentioned that the rehearsal period had been very helpful. “The character I play doesn’t have a lot of lines, and he’s the symbol of how Roger sees the Japanese — the conflicts, the strengths, the love for their families. I could prepare for that on my own physically, but I wouldn’t have been able to capture the essence of the character without having many, many discussions with the director. He knows twice as much as [the younger actors] do about Japan and Japanese history.”

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               An Okinawa representative invites Pulvers to return soon and make a sequel.                      ©Koichi Mori

He continued, “I decided to not take too cerebral an approach, but just to feel it emotionally, to bring back my childhood memories of spending time in caves. As [the character] says, ‘The world may be at war, but you’re able to breathe when you’re in this cave.’ We actually shot in one of the caves where people hid during the war, and you could feel this intangible power. I would get goosebumps every time we went in. Brandon and Miura-san and I would offer incense and prayers to the deceased each time, to help us connect with that generation.”

Pulvers was asked why he cast himself — in a very small role in the film’s closing minutes — in his own film. “I didn’t want to!” he lamented. “I’ve known [actress] Mako Midori forever; we’re the same age, and I had to play her son! But my producers put pressure on me, probably because they didn’t have money to audition someone else. So the biggest ham actor comes out at the very end.”

Star Sand will be opening in Okinawa before its Tokyo run begins in August, during the annual period of war remembrance, and Pulvers is sure to feature even more prominently in media analyses about the escalation of tensions in Asia. By bravely recasting war’s so-called cowards as the real heroes — the “true messengers of peace,” as he puts it, Pulvers’ first film is a poignant reminder that, even in periods of hatred and brutality, there is also the chance for hope.

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© 2017 The STAR SAND Team

Press Coverage

 

GIVE ME THE SUN


GIVE ME THE SUN (Taiyo ga Hoshii)


 May 6, 2016
Q&A guests: Director Zhongyi Ban and narrator Roger Pulvers


For over 20 years, journalist-cum-filmmaker Zhongyi Ban has relentlessly documented the forgotten women who were forced into sexual servitude by the Japanese army during World War II. Returning to his homeland each year from Japan, where’s he been resident since the early 1990s, Ban tracked down over 80 women, recorded their stories, viewed the scars of the atrocities inflicted on them, and even collected money from sympathetic Japanese to cover their medical and other costs.

guang-gmts045Ban is a veteran journalist focusing on Sino-Japan issues.

After several books and prior films on the issue, he has now completed Give Me the Sun, the most comprehensive and compelling portrait of Chinese comfort women yet. Presenting a specially edited version of the film, with English subtitles and narration, at FCCJ, Ban noted, “This film was made with the support of individuals in Japan. Some 730 people contributed to its production, including Roger Pulvers and John Junkerman [both present on the dais]. It took a year and a half to complete, and we’ve been screening the [longer, Japanese version] at least once a week around the country since then — in halls, not yet in theaters — due to the enthusiasm of people to show the film.” He did admit, however, that, “There are a lot of people who disagree with films like this, so it’s quite possible that, down the road, we may receive some backlash from them. So we’re vigilant.”

Pulvers, a noted author, playwright and screenwriter who narrated the film, commented, “My role in this has been very small over these past many years, but it’s been an honor to play even a small part in [Ban’s] immense contribution to history, journalism and the art of film. I think one of the old ladies in the film said something very telling when she remarked that the Chinese government doesn’t want this story to get out either. When you have the collusion — whether it’s a coincidence or not, I don’t know — of the two most powerful countries in Asia, and you have somebody with the courage of [Ban], I am just awed and impressed.”

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Junkerman (left) and Pulvers (right) have worked with Ban on his previous films.

Ban’s mission to locate and document the women began after Japan’s first conference on war reparations in 1992 revealed just how widespread the comfort station practice had been. But as late as 1996, only one Chinese comfort woman had publicly identified herself, due to their fear of what Ban terms “political harassment” and of being charged with “enemy collaboration.”

Give Me the Sun (a reference to the squalid, dark conditions in which the women were held) introduces us to a group of seven aging Chinese women whose bodies and minds were irrevocably scarred by the unspeakable brutality they suffered during World War II, when they were often gang-raped for months until their families could ransom them. Some were lured into sexual slavery by locals working for the Japanese Army, who promised them work in factories or hospitals; others were simply abducted and enslaved in the nearest comfort stations.

Chinese scholars have estimated that close to 100,000 women were forcibly taken from their homes during the war, although lack of official documentation has made it difficult for historians to reach an agreement on the exact figure.  The women in Ban’s film were among the measly one-quarter of such victims who actually survived the war. Give Me the Sun retraces the contentious history of the issue and strengthens the women’s heart-breaking accusations by including interviews with a handful of former Japanese soldiers, from an infantryman to a company commander, as well as Chinese recruiters and Japanese comfort women.

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But Ban admitted that this third film on the issue was prompted mostly by “former Osaka Mayor Toru Hashimoto’s declaration, right here at the Foreign Correspondents’ Club [in May 2013], when he essentially denied the existence of comfort women, calling them prostitutes, as well as the bashing of the Asahi newspaper for their reporting on the comfort women issue. This brought the issue to the attention of the Japanese public, but most of the attention was paid to the South Korean comfort women. Far less is known about the Chinese victims of sexual violence, so I wanted to get exposure for those women. I put out a call for support to make the film, and I immediately got it from people of conscience and justice-seekers in Japan.”

South Korean comfort women have been increasingly in the headlines since December 2015, when Japan agreed to set up a fund to indirectly compensate the victims, but only if there is no further mention of the issue. The “diplomatic deceit,” as one critic termed it, has resulted in continued and widespread protests — as well as to Japan’s nonpayment until certain conditions are met.

Chinese comfort women have been largely ignored in the ongoing war reparations dialogue, primarily due, says one scholar, to China’s ongoing “censorship, dictatorship and disregard for human rights,” and the postwar government’s priority to reconcile with Japan at the expense of all else.

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Ban visited one of the shared care-homes for comfort women in South Korea, and was impressed by the level of physical, psychological and financial support they received. “In China, on the other hand, these women are living in deep poverty, without any support whatsoever from the government or from Chinese society. Of course China is not a democracy, so it’s not easy for the public to take action.”

To a question concerning the differing circumstances between the South Korean and Chinese victims, Ban noted that, since Korea had been a Japanese colony, “Korean women were seized or recruited and sent to various parts of Asia where Japanese troops were stationed. They were put into established comfort stations, where they were treated as objects and sexually violated.” Of the 80 women Ban had tracked down in China, including 20 Koreans who had been held captive on the border with Russia, “[typically], Japanese troops stationed out in the provinces would seize women from nearby and put them into rooms where they were kept as sexual slaves. Almost none of them had experience in a comfort station. So we can’t really call them ‘comfort women,’ but rather, they were sexual slaves.”

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Ban with the English poster for his film.

In 1996, lawsuits for reparations were filed in Japan by four of the women in Give Me the Sun, and in 1998, by 10 more, with the aid of Japanese lawyers. All the suits were dismissed or lost in 2000. “Why did I lose the lawsuit? Where is the truth?” wails one of the victims. “Why doesn’t the Japanese government apologize and compensate?” In the film’s closing moments, shortly before she dies, she vows to become a demon, so she can continue her fight for justice.

“Many of them have died, and others are in the last years of their lives,” Ban emphasized. “But it’s not too late to wish that they could receive better treatment during their final years… They’re desperately poor and desperately need assistance for their medical care. But if they were given a big chunk of money, they wouldn’t know what to do with it. That’s not what they’re after. They’re after a sincere, heartfelt apology.”

Ban remains hopeful that there can be “an investigation into the historical reality of the comfort women situation, and research and education on the issue.” His heroic devotion has earned many admirers, as well as detractors. “Ban has told me over the years that he has enemies on both sides,” said Pulvers, “— that the Chinese and the Japanese are against him in many ways. But I firmly believe that the day will come that he will be rewarded by both sides, given honors by both sides, for this most remarkable work.”

Photos by FCCJ except where noted.

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Human-hans/ Ban Zhongyi ©2016

PERSONA NON GRATA (Sugihara Chiune)


PERSONA NON GRATA (Sugihara Chiune)


 December 3, 2015
Q&A guest: Director Cellin Gluck


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Making his third FCCJ appearance with his third film, Los Angeles-based Cellin Gluck
is one of the few Americans directing Japanese-produced films.

At least four ambassadors were in attendance for FCCJ’s packed sneak preview screening of Persona Non Grata, the first-ever biopic of the “Japanese Schindler,” Chiune Sugihara. A diplomat who defied orders and thus saved some 6,000 Jewish lives in the early years of World War II, Sugihara’s name was submitted by Japan this past September as a candidate for UNESCO’s Memory of the World Register.

But the film proves to be timely for other reasons as well, evoking echoes of the current Syrian refugee crisis and the disheartening UNHCR report that found 1 in every 122 humans is now either a refugee, internally displaced or seeking asylum.

As one FCCJ audience member pointed out, “I think there are many Sugiharas in Europe at the moment, since there are 12 million refugees in the Middle East.”

Gluck admitted that the film’s release had been timed to coincide with the 70th anniversary of the end of WWII this year, not with “the unfortunate incidents that are taking place in Europe. [That’s] really synchronicity. But because of what’s going on, I would hope that it would cause people to think about it — ‘we’ve made this mistake before, let’s not do it again’— and to think about how they might make a difference.”

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The film attracted a huge turnout, and heavy praise for Gluck during the Q&A.

Another audience member noted that, although Japan had retroactively honored Sugihara in 2000, it had continued to deny nearly all applications for political refugee status. “Japan has a bad record for accepting refugees,” she said. “Do you think this film might inspire Japan to take a more respectable, honorable role in terms of refugees?”

“I’m not in any position to lecture the Japanese government,” answered Gluck. “But it’s not only the government. The Japanese take to change slowly, and in a big, homogenous nation, it’s almost understandable. I think the Japanese are willing to take in outsiders — most of us here are outsiders, but we’ve been welcomed. If this film will inspire people to accept the opportunities [to embrace diversity], then I’ve accomplished what I would like to accomplish.”

Gluck shot Persona Non Grata with a mostly Polish crew, almost entirely in Poland — which stands in beautifully and convincingly for at least 8 other world locations — with Japanese stars and well-known Polish and international actors (Borys Szyc, Agnieszka Grochowska, Michał Żurawski, Cezary Łukaszewicz) thanks to the great Andrzej Wajda’s casting director, achieving an authenticity that a Japanese production crew could never have recreated. The director gave ample credit to Nippon Television, the film’s producer, and talked at length about the team’s attempts to “balance the history lesson with the drama… and to treat our characterization of Sugihara with respect for a gentleman who didn’t beat his chest [for attention] and try to show him as a human being, not a superhero.”

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 Making one of many notable points.

Much of the world now knows Chiune Sugihara as the “Japanese Schindler,” after Oskar Schindler, the German industrialist who saved close to 1,200 Jews during the Holocaust by hiring them to work at his factories. But very few know Sugihara’s backstory, and it is impressively limned in the film. Skilfully avoiding the detail-overkill of many biopics, Persona Non Grata introduces us to the young diplomat before his fateful posting as Japanese consul in Kaunas, Lithuania just as war was breaking out in Europe. 

After studying in Harbin and developing fluency in several languages, Sugihara had built a vast espionage network in Manchuria and provided critical intelligence to his superiors in the Foreign Ministry. But in 1937, he was declared “persona non grata” by Russia and forbidden entry to the country, as punishment for his negotiations in Japan’s acquisition of a highly strategic branch of the North Manchurian Railroad (which was later used to solidify the puppet state of Manchukuo).

Barred from Soviet territories, Sugihara (Toshiaki Karasawa) thus arrives in Kaunas in August 1939, just days before the German Army advances into Poland, inciting World War II. The diplomat hires Polish spy Pesch (Szyc) as his driver, and the two men gather intelligence on the actions of Russia and the Nazis, the latter of whom Japan had allied itself with. By July 1940, as the Nazis approach Lithuania’s border, hordes of Jewish refugees have begun camping out in front of the Japanese Consulate, desperately hoping for visas to safety. But transit visas can only be issued to those with legitimate visas onward from Japan, and the means to provide for themselves throughout the journey.

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Gluck poses with the poster for the international market.

After receiving a firm “No” to his cable to Tokyo, Sugihara decides he must take matters into his own hands. Abetted by Pesch and several other brave men of conscience, including acting Dutch Consul Jan Zwartendijk (Wenanty Nosul), Sughiara begins writing out visas via Japan to the Dutch Caribbean island of Curaçao. Between July 18 and August 28, he issues over 2,000 of them and saves the lives of at least triple that many Jews.

In a 1983 memoir, Sugihara wrote, “I could have refused to issue [the visas], but would that, in the end, have truly been in Japan’s national interest? I came to the conclusion, after racking my brain, that the spirit of humane and charitable action takes precedence above all else.”

The Japanese government didn’t really come around to his way of thinking until well after Sugihara’s death in 1986. Is there a place for the brave individual in Japan, committing a selfless act against injustice and intolerance in the face of certain dismissal or worse? That question is at the heart of Persona Non Grata, a must-see film for all those who ever wondered what gave Chiune Sugihara the courage to defy orders, or who need reminding that we all, each of us, can do the right thing.
Photos by Koichi Mori and FCCJ.

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©2015 "PERSONA NON GRATA" FILM PARTNERS

 

ANOHITO: THE ONE


ANOHITO: THE ONE


 October 19, 2015
Q&A guests: Director Ichiro Yamamoto, producer Nozomu Enoki
and actor-distributor Hiroyuki Ono


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Two salarymen producers and a theatrical producer formed the creative team for an extraordinarily
unusual film. Ono, Enoki and Yamamoto obviously enjoyed the process.

In his introduction before the screening of his beautiful and enigmatic Anohito: The One, Ichiro Yamamoto said that he had shown the film three times before, and that he had not received any comments at all from his audiences. So he wanted everyone to feel no pressure; he would understand if FCCJ’s audience didn’t have any feedback for him.

The remarks were so unexpected, and his delivery so comical, that the audience giggled — but Yamamoto was not exaggerating. At least not overly.

After a long career as a self-described Shochiku “salaryman,” working on productions for such illustrious directors as Nagisa Oshima and Seijun Suzuki, and producing award-winning work by Yoji Yamada and Hou Hsiao-Hsien, Yamamoto makes his own feature debut with Anohito: The One, and “strange” is an appropriate tag for the film’s many bewitchments.

A beautiful tribute to the heyday of Japan’s studio system, it also underscores how little has changed in Japanese society in the intervening years. As critic Tony Rayns has put it, “Anohito is a unique film which offers a subtly disquieting vision of the present through the mirror of the past.”

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Yamamoto reveals the many secrets hidden in plain sight in the film.

The director himself only half-jokingly describes it as “a sci-fi film produced and cast in 1944, imagining a future Japan 69 years later in 2013, where the Second World War still rages on.” Looking very much like a 1944 film, with its luminous black-and-white cinematography and its aspect ratio of 1.33:1, it nevertheless feels utterly modern in its concerns and sensibilities.

It is a seriously serious film, the outgrowth of a lifetime of cinephilia on Yamamoto’s part, and it grows ever more profound and endlessly multilayered upon a serious discussion of its attributes.

Fortunately, the FCCJ audience was in the mood for just such a discussion.  But the evening was heavily punctuated with laughter, too, as questions ranged from the film’s antiwar messages and its unusual provenance, to the many octopus images, the enumerations of the number 8, the frequent appearance of shogi pieces and the reflections of water in every single shot.
 
The script is attributed to the famed Buraiha writer Sakunosuke Oda, and had been completed in 1944 for director Yuzo Kawashima but then lost, Yamamoto explained, until its 2012 discovery in a library in Osaka. After he’d read it and returned to Tokyo, he said, “I immediately asked my boss if we could make the film. And my boss immediately said No.” Shortly afterward, he continued, “I got an email from my department saying I had 5 days off, since I had worked in Shochiku for 20 years. I also had 5 days off for summer vacation. So I thought, if I can make the film myself with my savings of ¥20,000 a month for 20 years — that’s ¥5 million — I should. So I decided to get a producer. [a beat] It was the first time I noticed that the producer is so important.”

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IMG 0790Enoki discusses the contributions of Shochiku's
Uzumasa Studio to the film's look and feel.

Yamamoto turned to his fellow Shochiku producer, Nozomu Enoki, because “he’s the strangest guy in Shochiku,” and enlisted the support of actor-playwright-producer-author-Charlie Chaplin specialist Hiroyuki Ono, “the strangest guy in Kyoto,” for the cast.

Enoki stressed, “Five million yen is quite a small budget for making a film, maybe 1% of our typical production budget. But I was working at Shochiku’s Kyoto studio and … with the help of the veteran crew members there, I thought we could get this made.”

The film looks remarkably sumptuous, given its pricetag — its most expensive shot, Yamamoto revealed, was a CG octopus-shaped battlefield scar on one of the characters — and evokes nostalgia for the artistry of yesteryear not only in its cinematography, but in its mise-en-scene and its many musical interludes, which may or may not be propaganda songs of the day. Enoki explained that the Kyoto Uzumasa Studio “has a long tradition of making samurai films, and we have a lot of props that we were able to use in the film. Mr. Yamamoto’s intention was to conflate the styles of Shochiku’s Ofuna Studio period and the Uzumasa Studio films, and our creative team understood that.”

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Ono talked with passion but no crab bubbles — you'll have to see the film to get the significance.

On the surface, Anohito: The One tells the story of four young soldiers working menial jobs so they can raise the orphaned son of their commanding officer (“Little Commanding Officer,” they call the boy) in a forgotten town populated by the war’s leftovers: women, children, lonely old men. The women are constant targets for the local matchmaker, and are often reminded that life is more difficult for them. The soldiers seem to be speaking dialogue that they’ve heard elsewhere, such as their chant, “Cheer up and brighten up! Sprout out and grow!” After hearing unpleasant news about the war on the radio one day, they leave the boy with an aging cook, and go off to work in munitions factories, promising to be home for new year’s. The cook invites the woman next door to move in, then disappears himself, leaving a message for “The One…”

Who is “The One?” For Yamamoto, he is unequivocally the boy, given the absence of any ancestral photos in the family home and the fact that he does nothing, while all the other characters wait on him. “I doubt his father exists, and my conclusion is that the boy is deceiving people. This means that he is manipulating the whole town to go out and support the war.”

Oct 19 2015 Movie Anohito by Iori070Stepping out from behind the scenes for well-deserved applause.

For Ono, who brought in key cast members from his Tottemo Benri theatrical company and enacted a role himself, there are other possible interpretations of Oda’s script. “At first glance, it may seem like a warmongering film — let’s get back into the military factories — but we get a strange feeling when reading it, as if Mr. Oda was trying to hide an antiwar message.” He went on to explain that the boy’s name is “Kamiya Shoichi: ‘Kami’ is, of course, ‘god’ in Japan. ‘Sho’ is for ‘Showa,’ the name of the era of Emperor Hirohito, and ‘ichi’ means ‘the first.’ So perhaps the boy is a metaphor for Emperor Hirohito. It’s one of the interpretations, anyway. We don’t know what Mr. Oda intended.”

As Enoki wrote in the film’s production notes: “There is a strange ineffable force, almost like atmospheric pressure, that controls these people. We wanted to investigate ‘The One’ who was somehow applying this pressure, for surely we still feel the overbearing presence of ‘The One’ to this very day.”

The film is making its international debut in the Youth on the March competition at the 22nd Minsk International Film Festival, Listapad, to be held in the capital of Belarus during the first week of November. The festival is renowned for its cinema-as-art bent, but audiences are in for a rare treat with this One.
 Photos by Koichi Mori and FCCJ.

THE ONE POSTER
©2015 Yamamoto Konchu

 


THE EMPEROR IN AUGUST


 August 3, 2015
Q&A guests: Director Masato Harada and star Koji Yakusho


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Koji Yakusho and Masato Harada each mark their fourth appearance at FCCJ,
as well as their 20th year working together. The award-winning team behind 2012’s
Chronicle of My Mother, they first collaborated on the unforgettable Kamikaze Taxi in 1995.

FCCJ’s SRO audience wasted no time in drawing connections between the subject matter of Masato Harada’s new film The Emperor in August, which recounts the four months leading up to Emperor Hirohito’s historic broadcast announcing Japan’s surrender on Aug. 15, 1945, and the current state of affairs in Japan.

In the lengthy and occasionally allegorical Q&A session following the screening, Harada and his star, Koji Yakusho, chose their words carefully, but did not mince them.  

Queried about the film’s focus on the indecisiveness of Prime Minister Suzuki’s cabinet (which stalled so long over the language of surrender following the Potsdam Declaration, that it prompted the US to drop bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki), Harada noted: “If we look at the Abe administration dealing with issues like the new national stadium, it can seem that indecisiveness is a national trait.”

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Harada's research into the film's events made him an expert. He insists that he is neither rightwing nor leftwing. "I am impartial."

Yakusho, responding to a question about the film’s appeal overseas, said: “This is a film about how Japan ended the war. But it has a simple message that we can all understand: It is easy to start a war, but it is very, very difficult to end one.”

Harada emphasized, “I do want people outside Japan to see the film… I’m sure many of you have read Herbert Bix’s Hirohito and the Making of Modern Japan, but unfortunately, it distorts the emperor’s image based on leftist ideology. I’m not a rightist, but I do think facts should not be overruled by ideology.” (Bix’s 2001 Pulitzer Prize-winning work found Hirohito complicit in Japan’s “fever of territorial expansion and war,” and inflamed an ongoing debate about the extent to which he had ruled or simply reigned.)

Harada was asked what he thinks of the imperial system in general. “At the time of the war,” he responded, “the emperor was considered the head of the house, the head of the family, and I feel this type of thinking was able to save Japan and end the war. If a politician like Prince Konoe or General Tojo had [tried to issue] the decision, Japan would not have survived.”

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Yakusho stressed the ambivalence his character felt: "If you don't feel it too, then I've failed as an actor."

FCCJ President James Simms praised The Emperor in August for its “richly detailed characters and its ambivalence,” and drew laughter for his comment about the “absurdity of people trying to do a coup on bicycles” (as the rebel soldiers attempt in the film). But he also voiced a commonly held view by the international community regarding Japanese resistance to critical self-evaluation at this time of year: “I’ve been here for about 20 years,” said Simms, “and it’s always kind of heavy to be here in August, because it seems like a lot of the television dramas and documentaries and movies are sort of one-sided. Japan is always a victim. We don’t see multiple viewpoints, just Japan the victim and not, for lack of a better word, a perpetrator. Higaisha, kagaisha. In your view, how do you see Japan in August?”

Harada agreed. “I feel the war should never be portrayed from the standpoint of the victim only. There should be a balance with the wartime atrocities.” He recalled that he grew up watching American films, and “until I was about 10 years old, I was always on the side of the Allies. After that, I started learning Japanese history.”

He continued, “There’s a scene in the film, where the emperor is walking in the garden, lamenting how the war has been going on for 15 years, as long as the Onin War. But actually, 15 years prior to this is when the Manchurian Incident occurred, when Japan began invading China. Maybe the connotation is that the war of aggression should end.”

TEIA harada3                            TEIA yakusho3
Both men fielded a series of tough questions — and some lightweight ones — with candor and wit.

Harada also mentioned a 1937 journal entry penned by Yasujiro Ozu, a director he greatly admires, concerning his experiences on the Chinese front. “He wrote that all the Japanese soldiers heading to the frontlines always smelled of alcohol. Just 2 weeks after he wrote that, the Nanjing Massacre occurred.”

In earlier remarks, Harada said that one of his impetuses for making the film was personal. “In 1945, my father was 19 and he was stationed at Chiran, at the southern tip of Kyushu, the kamikaze airbase. He was only digging trenches, but if the war had continued, I think he would’ve been one of the casualties. So for many years, I’ve thought that the emperor’s Imperial Decision saved my father.”

Renowned for the exhaustive research he conducts before writing his scripts, as well as for the English fluency he developed during 20 years spent in the UK and US, the director adapted Kazutoshi Hando’s nonfiction novels Nihon no Ichiban Nagai Hi (Japan’s Longest Day, 1965, 1980) and the followup Seidan: Tenno to Suzuki Kantaro (Imperial Decision: The Emperor and Kantaro Suzuki, 1985), both of which were based on extensive eyewitness interviews, for The Emperor in August.

 “In 1967, when Okamato Kihachi adapted Mr. Hando’s first novel into the film Japan’s Longest Day,” said Harada, “it was prohibited to show the emperor’s face. So the actor portraying [Hirohito] had to be shot from behind, or in long shots. It was difficult, therefore, to depict the nuances of what was going on in his mind. In the 21st century, Issey Ogata portrayed the emperor in Alexander Sokurov’s The Sun, and we saw him in closeups for the first time. I realized that we could finally portray the emperor as the protagonist of a film like Japan’s Longest Day.”

“I drew heavily from Mr. Hando’s novel Seidan for The Emperor in August,” he continued, “because it depicted the events of the final four months of the war, not just the final day, and explained why he was not able to issue an Imperial Decision [to prevent the war from continuing] earlier. By combining both books, we’re able to understand why it took so long for the decision to be reached.”

Yakusho was asked about his preparations for his role. “I’ve been acting for many, many years now and I’m not sure about my ‘process,’ he said. “But whenever I work with Mr. Harada, he sends a lot of research materials, and I always begin by reading them all.”

In The Emperor in August, Yakusho plays Korechika Anami, the man who led Japan’s War Ministry in the final months of World War II, a warrior who wants to lead his troops to the bitter end, but who also reports directly to his sovereign, as he makes clear in the film. His devotion leads him to support the cause of peace.

“I’m aware that there are different interpretations of Minister Anami’s character and role,” said Yakusho, “but as far as I’m concerned, once the emperor made his decision, [Anami] gave up on pursuing a decisive battle at home. But he was also aware that the younger officers were planning a coup, and he was caught between those officers and the emperor, a very difficult position. I wanted to portray that dilemma. When I look back on that period now, especially after the bombs were dropped, I’m grateful that the emperor, Prime Minister Suzuki and Minister Anami worked together and were able to end the war.”

Harada affirmed, “My belief is that if Mr. Anami had resigned, the Cabinet would have fallen apart and led to the decisive battle at home. I really wanted to show the ambivalence that Mr. Anami felt.”

TEIA poster
The director and star pose with the Japanese and English-language posters.

When The Emperor in August begins in April 1945, the Japanese military had already been in control of domestic and foreign policy for a decade, and the Japanese people were uncertain about the war’s outcome —the government had strictly censored and rewritten the news since 1938. The military’s strategy was to continue pushing for the decisive battle (Kantai Kessen) by drawing the US fleet into a titanic fight at sea, somewhere off Japan’s southern coast. There were still 270,000 Japanese soldiers on various war fronts, and the concept of surrender was not in their vocabulary.

Once the Allies have broadcast the Potsdam Declaration in July, demanding unconditional surrender, the Imperial Cabinet convenes to begin an endless debate: Do we follow Emperor Hirohito’s inclination to accept the declaration or do we practice mokusatsu (kill it with silence)? Would the Potsdam accord preserve kokutai (national polity), or would Hirohito be subjugated to the Supreme Commander of the Occupation forces… or worse, be help accountable for the war?

Anami argues for the long-planned decisive battle, which would allow his troops to die with honor; but he knows it will also cost untold civilian lives. After endless Imperial War Council debates over wording, Hirohito informs his ministers that Japan must accept defeat, and lays plans to announce the war’s end to his people in a historic radio broadcast at noon on August 15. But when word of the recording leaks to the army, a group of young firebrand officers moves forward with plans for a violent coup.

It is the next 20 hours that prove decisive for the fate of Japan, and which provide the most tense, thrilling and indelible moments in The Emperor in August. As the clock ticks toward Hirohito’s historic address, as the Cabinet resigns itself to ritual suicide, as the military rebels storm the Imperial Palace, the full absurdity and futility of war are revealed.

Nobody shoots a group of older men sitting around arguing with as much visual interest, dramatic intensity and individual specificity as Harada, nor recreates period Tokyo with such astonishing beauty and terror. He also draws exceptional performances from his veteran actors, and portrays an impossible — and impossibly complex — situation with remarkable clarity, as well as an admixture of regret and admiration.

The film is sure to be a major box-office draw in Japan during the 70th anniversary of World War II’s end in August, and beyond.

  Photos by Mance Thompson, Koichi Mori and FCCJ.

TEIA-j-poster
©2015 “The Emperor in August” Film Partners

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TV Exposure

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日本テレビ [ZIP! SHOWBIZ 24] :戦争を始めるのは簡単、だが終わらせるのは本当に難しい
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日本テレビ [ZIP! チェックボックス]:役所広司が、日本外国特派員協会で会見
  • NHK総合 [NHKニュース おはよう日本(ニュース)] :戦争にピリオドを打った大臣の苦悩

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


THE VANCOUVER ASAHI


 December 17, 2014
Q&A guests: Star Satoshi Tsumabuki and director Yuya Ishii


  tsumaishi
Tsumabuki and Ishii appeared before an FCCJ audience for the second time
in 6 months, following the May sneak peek of Our Family.

The Japanese headlines blared “I Can’t Speak English!” quoting megastar Satoshi Tsumabuki during the Q&A session that followed the FCCJ-Embassy of Canada’s sneak preview screening of The Vancouver Asahi. The headlines were unfortunate, since the comment was made as Tsumabuki was describing his reaction to a post-world premiere crush following the film’s September bow in Vancouver, when everyone imagined he was as fluent as the nisei character he plays in the film.

The Q&A session was far deeper than the Japanese news suggested, with Tsumabuki and director Yuya Ishii eager to discuss their feelings about the film’s approach to some sensitive issues. Based on the true story of the scrappy Japanese-Canadian nikkei baseball team that overcame poverty, discrimination and ostracism to become the five-time Pacific Northwest League champions just prior to World War II, the David vs. Goliath tale evokes a little-known era in Canadian history, when an underdog ball team brought Japanese and Canadian fans together in a jubilant celebration of sport and life.

vancouver asahi6
Tsumabuki and Ishii pose with flags at the Embassy of Canada,
site of the MC's first-ever outside sneak preview screening.  ©Mance Thompson

A big-budget spectacle from Toho that marks Fuji TV’s 55th anniversary, The Vancouver Asahi had its world premiere, appropriately, at the 2014 Vancouver International Film Festival, where it was hailed for its gorgeous cinematography and earned the prestigious People’s Choice Award. Ishii admitted that it had been “nerve-wracking” to debut in Vancouver, since he understood the perception problems that might result from a Japanese cast and crew depicting events in Canada, as well as shooting it entirely in Japan. (The enormous open set where 70% of the shoot took place was built in Ashikaga, Tochigi Prefecture.)

“Winning the award meant that the depiction was acceptable to the Canadian audience," said Ishii, "which felt good. I was really relieved.” Tsumabuki added that he was worried about how the scenes of racial prejudice would play, and said he was “almost in tears” when the audience began cheering after his character finally starts hitting bunts, rather than striking out. “I realized that the film became more than just entertainment, it was able to transcend borders and language barriers. I felt the two countries were bonded together, and I was really touched to be able to experience that.”

To a question concerning the film’s depiction of “soft” leadership and the suggestion that Ishii had purposely drawn parallels with Japan’s lack of leadership today, the director answered, “I did a lot of research prior to making the film, and I saw the Nisei as not showing a strong will or strong principles. They were having an identity crisis, but doing their best to avoid conflicts with each other. They felt trapped, with nowhere to go… So I think a parallel can be drawn with today, for anyone who is feeling the same way.” Tsumabuki declared himself completely aligned with the hesitance of his character — “Like Reggie, I always prefer someone else to take the lead” — but also suggested that leadership is a trait that can be expressed in different ways. “In the end,” he said, “it’s most important to be able to be yourself.”

laurie canada  kjsatcemb
Embassy of Canada Public Affairs Chief Laurie Peters makes opening remarks  (left)
while MC Chair Karen Severns (right) and interpreter Mari Takeuchi preside over the Q&A session.

Set in Vancouver’s Japantown, The Vancouver Asahi opens in the late 1930s when a group of Nisei friends finds refuge from their manual jobs, demanding Canadian bosses and dead-end lives by joining the local team, the Asahi. Tsumabuki plays their leader and shortstop, Reji "Reggie" Kasahara, a sawmill worker whose abusive father (Koichi Sato) leaves the family for extended periods to build railroads. Roi "Roy" Naganishi (Kazuya Kamenashi) is the team's ace pitcher, Kei Kitamoto (Ryo Katsuji) is the team's second baseman and Tom Miyake (Yusuke Kamiji) is the catcher. Only third baseman Frank Nojima (Sosuke Ikematsu) has attempted to move up in the world, getting a job at a local luxury hotel.

The Asahi are physically overshadowed by their bigger, stronger opponents and become known for spectacular defeats. But after constant drubbings, Reggie discovers the power of the bunt, and the team develops a winning strategy dubbed “brain ball.” Deploying superlative fielding, swift base-running and squeeze plays, the Asahi are able to overcome the powerhouse Canadians and gradually, to rank among the region’s most popular players. Then, just as Japantown’s hopes and dreams are reviving and cultural bridge-building has begun, Japan attacks Pearl Harbor and everything changes. In 1941, Japanese-Canadians are classified as enemy aliens and sent to internment camps in the B.C. Interior. The Vancouver Asahi never played again.
    
This year marks the centenary of the team, which won 10 city championship titles between 1919 and 1940, as well as the Pacific Northwest Championship five times. After years as a footnote to history, the Vancouver Asahi was inducted into the Canadian Baseball Hall of Fame in 2003.  

In opening remarks before the screening, Laurie Peters, the Embassy of Canada’s Public Affairs Chief, pointed out that the Canadian government made a formal apology in 1988 and announced compensation payments to all the Japanese Canadians who had been interred during the war.
  Photos by Koichi Mori except where noted.

 The Vancouver Asahi-ss
©2014 "The Vancouver Asahi" Film Partners

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フジテレビ [めざましテレビ] 「バンクーバー朝日」人気俳優生出演 妻夫木・亀梨・勝地・上地・池松
TBS [はやチャン!はやチャン!エンタメ] カナダ大使館、日本外国特派員協会共催の会見に妻夫木聡、石井裕也監督が出席

 

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