Sunday, April 03, 2016
A VOICELESS CRY
March 30, 2016
Q&A guest: Director Masaki Haramura
The announcement for this sneak preview screening began, “You may not have heard of Michio Kimura, but after seeing A Voiceless Cry, his is a voice you will never forget.” As it transpired, no one in the audience had heard of Kimura before; but there was unanimous agreement afterward that his voice should be heard.
Admittedly, hearing his words read by the great Butoh dancer-actor Min Tanaka is one of the film’s highlights. During the Q&A session, director Masaki Haramura explained the serendipity that enabled his vocal presence: “Min Tanaka’s teacher, Tatsumi Hijikata, played the role of a farmer from the Edo period in Shunsuke Ogawa’s final film, The Sundial Carved with a Thousand Years of Notches,” he said. “Mr. Tanaka is himself a farmer, who has been living for decades in Yamanashi Prefecture in the belief that the roots of dance lie in the physical gestures that came out of the agricultural lifestyle. He was eager to go to Yamagata someday, and knowing that Michio Kimura was the man who brought Mr. Ogawa to Yamagata only enhanced his desire to go. When I asked him if he wanted to be a part of this film, he was so excited that he offered to read the entire narration. But we felt that would be too much.”
Haramura has received multiple Kinema Junpo awards for his work. ©Koichi Mori
Haramura then offered an eloquent summation of the symbiotic relationship of land to culture: “I believe that Mr. Kimura came to the arts through agriculture,” he said, “and Mr. Tanaka came to agriculture through the arts.”
An elegy for Japan’s agrarian past, when its villages were the lifeblood of the nation, A Voiceless Cry takes us deep inside the world of Michio Kimura, a celebrated poet who is the recipient of a handful of Japan’s most prestigious prizes, but also a rice farmer, an ardent antiwar activist, a devoted family man, a cancer survivor, a patriot and a rebel. Now in his 80th year, he continues to vigorously “cry out on behalf of voiceless farmers everywhere,” demonstrating a mastery of the agrarian idiom, penning powerful free-verse poetry that decries a vision of nation that does not pursue a peaceful future.
Born in the tiny community of Magino, Yamagata Prefecture, Kimura was initially driven to write by the loss of his father during World War II. After high school, he helped form the farmer-poet collective that published the Chikasui (Groundwater) anthology, which continued until 2014. When Japan’s rapid economic growth in the 1950s began draining farming villages for the cheap labor sources they provided, Kimura joined thousands of other farmers on the crews that built Tokyo’s highways and skyscrapers. For a decade, Kimura would spend half the year in construction, half in farming. But he learned that his heart belonged on the farm in Magino.
Michio Kimura, man of many voices ©2015 “A Voiceless Cry” Production Committee
A participant-witness to the most important protest movements of the past century, he rallied against the rice-reduction program, the Japan-U.S. Security Treaty, Narita Airport and the Agricultural Basic Act, which sought to implement Big Farming. During China’s Cultural Revolution, Kimura joined a work-study tour; in the 1970s, he went to Wake Island to recover the remains of his uncle and other Japanese soldiers who had died there of starvation. After documentarian Shinsuke Ogawa spent years filming the protest movements against Narita Airport’s construction, Kimura invited him to visit. Ogawa’s group then lived and farmed (and filmed) in Magino for the next 18 years, creating several masterpieces of village life, exploring the convergence of farming, modernization, state violence and rural resistance.
Not surprisingly, the first question asked during the Q&A following the screening of A Voiceless Cry concerned the looming passage of the Trans-Pacific Partnership deal in the Diet. The TPP free trade agreement will impact not only Japan’s 1.5 million farmers and agri-product makers, but also its manufacturers of textiles, industrial goods and automobiles.
The questioner, a Todai research fellow, began with a brief recap: “The Japanese government has asked all the prefectures to estimate how much money will be lost in agricultural production, and they’re estimating ¥130 - ¥210 billion [$1 - $2 billion] every year… Obviously, this will accelerate the depopulation of the countryside. I’m curious whether people are talking about this in the countryside. What does Kimura-san say about it? How did you decide to not talk about this in your documentary?”
Said Haramura, an award-winning documentarian, “I’ve been working with farming communities for over 30 years as a filmmaker,” he began, “but I’m not a journalist or a scholar, so I don’t feel that I’m in a position to respond directly to [the TPP issue]. I can tell you that Mr. Kimura, although he does have an opinion about TPP, is not involved in social activism directed at TPP.” Explaining that he wanted only to document Kimura’s past and his present activities without injecting his own anti-TPP stance into the story, the director continued, “Of course Mr. Kimura is also against the TPP, and I would say that across the country, people working in the primary sector [agriculture, forestry, fishing, mining] are 90 percent opposed to TPP.”
But he cautioned, “Aside from talking about the importance of agriculture, I think we should be more critical of what TPP does to regional economies. The sustainability of regional economies is critical for Japan’s future.”
The villagers of Magino protesting in the 1970s. ©2015 “A Voiceless Cry” Production Committee
Another question, from a Yamagata native who said he was struck by the “spiritual richness” of the farmers’ lives, concerned whether Yamagata is different from other prefectures. The director replied: “The area where Mr. Kimura lives is a village where, when the government started its policy in 1970 of gentan — essentially subsidizing farmers for not farming — the locals decided to have alternative means of employment, like working for the agricultural cooperative or the village office… On the surface, it may seem that there is no culture in this hamlet, and when I started the film, I didn’t know what the other villagers were doing. But after meeting and talking with about 30 of Mr. Kimura’s neighbors, gradually I discovered all the treasures of history that they’ve continued to preserve. I feel that, in every place you go in Japan, the more you talk to the locals, the more you realize how these regional communities are thriving, each in their own way.”
“Although he’s an intellectual,” Haramura said in closing, “[Michio Kimura] always says that he’s been writing poetry with his body, not his brain,” “If you read his work from the time he was a teenager until his 80s, the 60 years of history represents not just his own life experiences, but the history of postwar Japan, seen through the eyes of a villager. That was one of the strongest motivations for me to make this film. I feel that the values of Japan’s villages reflect not only our postwar past, but also our future.”
A veritable primer on rice farming, as well as a richly illustrated archival history of Japan’s destructive agrarian policies and the carving out of its villages, A Voiceless Cry is essential viewing for all those who make Japan their home, or their subject.
— Photos by Koichi Mori.
©2015 “A Voiceless Cry” Production Committee
Wednesday, October 21, 2015
ANOHITO: THE ONE
October 19, 2015
Q&A guests: Director Ichiro Yamamoto, producer Nozomu Enoki
and actor-distributor Hiroyuki Ono
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.”
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.”
Enoki 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.”
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.”
Stepping 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.
©2015 Yamamoto Konchu
Wednesday, August 05, 2015
THE EMPEROR IN AUGUST
August 3, 2015
Q&A guests: Director Masato Harada and star Koji Yakusho
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.”
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.”
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.”
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.”
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.
©2015 “The Emperor in August” Film Partners
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Thursday, October 09, 2014
OCTOBER 8, 2014
Q&A guest: Writer-director Writer-director Shoichiro Sasaki
Sasaki (r.) with his producers, Tetsujiro Yamagami and Takahide Harada.
For 20 years, legendary NHK director Shoichiro Sasaki was entirely absent from the public stage, apparently retired from a career that marked him as one of Japan’s most prolific and poetic creators, with a body of internationally award-winning work that inspired such leading lights as Cannes favorites Hirokazu Kore-eda and Naomi Kawase, and Venice regular Shinya Tsukamoto.
Sasaki has now broken his silence, and fans will be thrilled that his first-ever theatrical release (the film is debuting on October 11 at the vaunted arthouse theater Iwanami Hall) is over 2 hours long. Harmonics Minyoung is an inventive, experimental quasi-documentary that moves constantly between Japanese, Korean and English as well as the language of song. The complexity of its structure obfuscates its strong antiwar message until the final act, but it gradually becomes clear that the story is near to the director’s heart. As it turns out, the film’s period scenes, depicting a family’s life in Tokyo during World War II, are based on Sasaki's actual experiences as a youth in wartime.
The director waxes eloquent on Mozart.
During his Q&A session at FCCJ, Sasaki expressed fears about the film’s public reception, reminding everyone that for two decades, he’s been known only as a “former TV director.” He recalled the recent cast and crew screening, at which he stood on the stage and apologized for putting them all through so much trouble. “I’d been thinking about what a ‘film director’ is,” he explained. “Is he a great artist? No. A craftsman? Maybe. A shyster? I finally realized that he’s a guy who causes problems for everyone involved, in order to complete his film.”
As in Sasaki’s previous productions, Harmonics Minyoung is cast with nonprofessionals. The ebullient heroine, Minyoung, is from Seoul, but met Sasaki in 2004 when she was attending Waseda. The director asked her parents for their permission before signing their daughter on to play the character of university student Minyoung, who is writing and illustrating a novel called “The Laws of Harmonics.” She is obsessed with Mozart’s music (as is Sasaki) and, for some reason, with a photograph depicting her grandmother's Japanese friend Sueko. Driven by her curiosity about Sueko, Minyoung journeys to Tokyo. Here, she meets a street child, Yu, as well as reuniting with a friend who is now a freelance journalist covering the dark side of society, and is constantly being pursued by strange men in trenchcoats. When Minyoung suddenly becomes Sueko in the film-within-a-film, she is actually portraying Sasaki’s own mother, to whom Harmonics Minyoung is dedicated. The journalist is his father — in reality, as here, murdered for expressing critical views of the military — and the street child, Sasaki himself.
Sasaki originally planned to use only Mozart’s Jupiter Symphony (No. 41) in the film, since it’s “overflowing with hope,” and chose the Czech Philharmonic because they have “the best string section in the world.” But after production ended, he felt something was missing, and decided to delay editing until he finally had a breakthrough: “One day, I heard the old [Civil War] song ‘Marching Through Georgia’ — which was the first American song heard by the Japanese, when Admiral Perry came to Japan — and I [realized I needed a musical counterpoint]. After that, I selected 12 songs to use in the film, even though I didn’t tell producer [Takahide] Harada.”
Sasaki is now 78, and eager to plan his next outing as film director. Considering his enviable energy and the widespread support from a creative community that never forgot him, his second career may be just as laudable as his first.
— Photos by Koichi Mori.
©2014 Siglo/Sasaki Films