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A WHALE OF A TALE


A WHALE OF A TALE
(Okujirasama: Futatsu no Seigi no Monogatari)


September 5, 2017
Q&A guests: Director Megumi Sasaki and researcher Jay Alabaster


Megumi and JayFCCJ-1 copy
Director Megumi Sasaki returned for a third time to FCCJ, with researcher Jay Alabaster, her alter ego in the documentary.   ©FCCJ

There are few FCCJ members who don’t remember our overflow screening of Louis Psihoyos’ The Cove in 2009, the first Japan showing of the now-infamous documentary that depicted, in gruesome detail, the annual dolphin capture and slaughter in the tiny village of Taiji, Wakayama Prefecture. The film would go on to win the Oscar for Best Documentary, and to have an enormous impact on international public opinion regarding Japan, creating an Us vs. Them mentality, pitting environmentalists against traditionalists, and allowing no space for a dialogue to develop.

Encouraged by social media-savvy activists, protestors began pouring into Taiji every September during hunting season for the next 8 years. The swarming presence of angry outsiders, and their frequent verbal attacks on fishermen — who had been vilified in The Cove — compounded the travails of locals and exacerbated any chance for a rapport. With the rallying cry on both sides reduced to a too-simple pro- or anti-whaling stance, the situation soon devolved into cultural warfare.

Yet their efforts did not put an end to the dolphin cull — or to whaling, although most Japanese eat neither dolphin nor whale meat.

Onto this battleground stepped New York-based Megumi Sasaki, who followed the protests in Taiji for 6 years, and has created what is perhaps the first unbiased, nuanced portrait of the ongoing controversy. Rather than recreating the tense drama of The Cove to provide a Japan-defending “corrective,” she set about capturing the current reality on both sides of the yawning divide. Sasaki’s resulting A Whale of a Tale does not issue a call to action, but rather, to understanding.

Jay AlabasterKoichi Mori-10   Megumi SasakiKoichi Mori-5-2
                                                                                                                                                            Both ©Koichi Mori

The film is quite different from Sasaki’s first two theatrical features, both of which she brought to FCCJ, the award-winning Herb & Dorothy (2008), about legendary New York art collectors Herb and Dorothy Vogel, and the follow-up, Herb & Dorothy 50X50 (2013). Drawing on her years as a news reporter and field producer for NHK and other Japanese broadcasters, Sasaki was able alight with confidence in Taiji, and to develop relationships of trust with both the fishermen and the activists. (Alabaster calls her "a force of nature" and lauds her interpersonal skills; Sasaki chalks it up to "a lot of shochu.")

In the Q&A following the screening of her documentary, Sasaki explained, “I saw The Cove in New York and I was really surprised at how it portrayed [Taiji]. It seemed to be extremely one-sided, without any understanding of Japanese ideas about nature and the relationship between people, nature and animals. Living in New York for almost 30 years, I always wondered why [the Japanese] always just show one side of issues. In the US, we always see both sides, whether it’s gun control or abortion or any other issue — except the whaling issue.

“When I saw The Cove, I felt like I needed to make a film. It stuck in my throat like a little fish bone, as the Japanese expression goes. Documentary can be very powerful and influential. It’s usually used to expose the wrongdoings of those in power: the government or the big corporations. But when the camera is pointed at the fishermen in a little village by a big Hollywood powerhouse, I didn’t feel that was fair at all. I thought their voices should be represented somehow. My intention was not to make a pro-whaling movie. Whether it’s right or wrong, I wanted to leave the answer to the audience."

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©A Whale of A Tale Project

A Whale of a Tale begins by reminding us of the salient facts — many of which have become lost in the constant scuffle between the fishermen and the activists. Organized whaling began in Taiji, south of Nara, in 1606. For the fishermen, hunting is thus not only a way of life, but their very identity. Catching whales, dolphins and other fish has supported generations of families and fueled the town’s economy for 400 years.

For the activists, on the other hand, whales and dolphins are not fish but intelligent mammals, and they equate hunting them with the slave trade, fox hunting or bullfighting — all cultural practices that have been abolished or mitigated in modern times. As the fall hunting season begins, we see activists and news crews pouring in from abroad, wielding binoculars and cameras (sometimes quite violently) as they livestream footage of “atrocities” committed in Taiji, overwhelming the locals and the town’s infrastructure. Vans of right-wingers harass them via loudspeakers while others look on in dismay.

The film introduces us to the local whalers and several of the global protesters who have returned each year, including Ric O’Barry, head of the Dolphin Project and outspoken “star” of The Cove. But Sasaki’s wisest decision is to focus the film on the activities of two mediators who provide illuminating perspectives: American journalist and researcher Jay Alabaster, who moved to Taiji in 2013 and has devoted years to befriending and earning the trust of locals; and Atsushi Nakahira, a nationalist who taught himself English so he could communicate with the protestors. An unexpected peacemaker, he eventually succeeds in bringing the two sides together for a public debate.

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©A Whale of A Tale Project

If A Whale of a Tale doesn’t quite turn us all into neutral observers, it moves us closer. Sasaki’s lasting achievement is that the film recasts the ugly ideological impasse as one of globalism vs. localism — something we can all understand, irrespective of background. Still, one of the documentary’s inescapable conclusions is that Japan would likely have banned whaling by now if foreign protests had not been so relentless and aggressive.

The film’s release couldn’t come at a better time: Just a week ago, as a new season was set to begin in Taiji, the Sea Shepherd anti-whaling group suddenly announced that it was suspending its protests against Japan after 12 years of disruptions, including those in Taiji.

But Sasaki pointed out that the protests had been decreasing already since 2015: “This is the third year in a row that we’ve seen very few protesters in Taiji,” she told the FCCJ crowd. “This is directly the result of local police efforts. They have been taking down passport numbers, and when the activists try to come back to Japan, they are refused entry. At least that’s what I heard. [We see this happening to Ric O’Barry in the film.] A lot of activists were there from the Dolphin Project and Sea Shepherd, but both groups have been having a hard time for the last few years. But it doesn’t mean that their activism has slowed down. They’ve had big demonstrations in front of Japanese embassies and consulates overseas, so they just changed their strategies.”

Jay AlabasterKoichi Mori-13   Megumi SasakiKoichi Mori-22  
                                                                                                                                                                           Both ©Koichi Mori

Joining Sasaki during the Q&A was Alabaster, the former Tokyo-based AP correspondent who was sent down to Taiji right after the release of The Cove and found his calling. He is now a Taiji-based PhD candidate at Arizona State University, and as we saw him doing in the film, he is continuing to help the fishermen boost their media literacy.

He emphasized, “Groups like Sea Shepherd are run like a business. They put their resources where they think they can get the most attention. So if they’re pulling out, then it’s because the attention they can get there has decreased a little.”

“We live in a world where people with access to the internet and social media have a louder voice,” said Sasaki. “We hear a voice, whether it’s right or wrong, and if it’s extreme, it reaches even further and sounds better to many people. But people with no access, like the fishermen in Taiji, their voice is diminished. We rarely hear from them. I think this is a very concerning issue.”

Alabaster interjected, “It starts with respect. Even if you disagree with someone, you can still respect them.”

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©A Whale of A Tale Project

Continued Sasaki, “The world is becoming very intolerant. People tend to be mean and vicious, and easily attack one another online. Digital media has a lot to do with that. Anybody can raise their voice anonymously and find an audience.”

Mentioning the scenes of Alabaster showing Taiji locals how to use Facebook and Twitter, a journalist asked him about his vision for giving a more balanced view of the issue. “It doesn’t come off as fair to me,” responded Alabaster. “The protesters are media professionals. They’re very good at what they do, they have a lot of experience. If you’re going to have a debate, I think something should be said on the Japanese side. I’m working now on something — hopefully we’ll have it soon — a way for the fishermen to express themselves in English, to say where they’re coming from. I don’t know if you’ve been on Facebook, but there’s a pocket of it that is filled with hatred and meanness. If we can have a little bit more exchange of opinions, an online Q&A in English or a weekly blog with the fishermen, it could really help, for a start.”

One journalist in the audience, impressed that a “rightwing activist” in the film was acting as a negotiator, wondered about the position of rightists in Taiji.

“Nakahira is very unique,” said Sasaki. “He was the only person trying to communicate with the Sea Shepherd members. I was hesitant to talk to him at first, since [the nationalists] could cause trouble. But when I approached him, he was very friendly, made a lot of sense and emphasized the importance of dialogue. I thought he could be a good voice. We rarely hear what nationalists think in the conventional media.”

Megumi SasakiFCCJ-8
                                                                                              ©FCCJ

Sasaki admitted that although she had set out to give the fishermen a voice on the international stage, “as I continued my research, there were many questionable practices from the Japanese side, for example, the government presenting this issue as one of tradition and culture. I was first trying to portray the bigger whaling issues: what’s happening with whaling in the southern oceans and Japanese research whaling, which have been targets of fierce criticism by the international community. But I discovered that what’s happening in Taiji is much more interesting — issues of why we cannot understand each other, why we cannot communicate, why we cannot respect other cultures. So I expanded the film’s themes to reflect what’s happening in the world today.”
 
She also noted, “One thing I found out about the meaning of tradition is that it’s very different between Japan and the West. For Japanese, tradition is extremely important. They believe that whatever has continued for a long time has to continue in the future, too. Tradition is valued heavily in Japan. In the West, as Scott West of Sea Shepherd mentioned in the film, just because it’s continued for a long time doesn’t mean it’s good, like slavery. If it doesn’t fit in today’s society, it should be abolished. That’s the Western way of thinking.

“For the people in Taiji, living with whales and whaling is their identity. It’s not just about food or economic activities, it’s their identity and their pride. I don’t think either side is right or wrong, it’s just a different approach … As former Mayor Goro Shoji says in the film, ‘Taiji has been and will always be living with whales. Depending on the time, we might catch them and eat them as food, or transform the city as an academic center for whale and dolphin research.’”

To a question concerning high mercury levels in dolphin meat, which was a major point of contention in The Cove, which highlighted how children are served “toxic” meat in school lunches, Alabaster commented, “Things will work themselves out [between the town’s existing factions]. Parents obviously want their children to be healthy. But when you add this incredible element of pressure, when someone who doesn’t speak any Japanese comes in and starts hammering, then those conversations have stopped within the town. If you complain [about dolphin in school lunches], then you’ll be grouped with the foreigners.”

Megumi and JayFCCJ-2
                                                                                                                       ©FCCJ

Sasaki added, “They’ve done a lot of research into the health effects of mercury, and we touched on that just a little in the film, reporting that the levels there turned out to be 4 times higher than the Japanese average. But none of the [townspeople] have suffered any health effects. The mayor was ready to give up the tradition if their health was damaged. But there were no health effects found in the adults, apparently because of the selenium, which appears to detoxify the mercury. In The Cove, they say these mercury levels are hidden by a media conspiracy, but no, it’s open information.”

As A Whale of a Tale makes clear even in its clever title, whaling is an issue that has been increasingly misrepresented. “I think it’s an issue of globalism vs. localism, not Japan vs. the West,” said Sasaki. “Global standards and values are clashing with local traditions and values all over the world. In Japan, [whaling] is causing nationalist sentiments, even though not every Japanese supports whaling or dolphin hunting. Only 30 – 40 grams per person per year of whale meat is consumed. So if you say that eating whale is Japanese food culture, it’s not correct.”

Alabaster summarized the ongoing controversy in terms that many of his fellow Americans could relate to: “The efforts of the whaling industry to survive and make itself relevant in Japan have been greatly aided by the Sea Shepherd. Everyone has their motivations, but if you went to any little town in America and without speaking English, told them to stop using guns, you would get exactly the same reaction.”

But Sasaki admitted that she doesn’t think the issue will ever quite go away. “It’s no longer an environmental movement,” she said, “it’s now become an animal rights movement, which is way more powerful and active.”

 okjrsm poster
©A Whale of A Tale Project

Selected Press Coverage

 

 

SILENCE


SILENCE (Chinmoku –Silence–)


January 12, 2017
Q&A guests: Stars Tadanobu Asano, Yosuke Kubozuka and Issey Ogata


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Tadanobu Asano, Yosuke Kubozuka and Issey Ogata wave to the TV cameras.   ©Kochi Mori

As Silence begins to roll out across America and the clock ticks down to the Oscar nominations, there is much hand-wringing in Los Angeles, where it seems the buzz for Martin Scorsese’s long-awaited passion project is closer to a chilly hush.

But that is surely not the reception to expect in Japan — where the film is set, where the story transpires, where the novel upon which it is based, Shusaku Endo’s Tanizaki Prize-winning 1966 Chinmoku, continues to find new generations of readers.

A late 2016 visit by the film's legendary director and prerelease publicity have already created intense anticipation here, especially concerning the many Japanese actors featured in the work. If FCCJ’s event is any indication of how Silence will be received, then it will earn a following in Japan that honors its many extraordinary achievements, echoing the US critics who have placed it on their 10 Best lists.

A slow-burn masterwork, Silence is set in the 1640s, but its message continues to reverberate across the centuries, lending it contemporary resonance — and urgency. As Scorsese reminds us, “The conflicts that occur — the persecution of religious minorities, the testing of faith — are timeless.” A clarion call for tolerance, acceptance and inclusion, the timing of its release, amidst the convulsions of a new world order, couldn’t be better.

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at kadokawa km 01Kadokawa Cinema Yurakucho, site of the preview screening.   ©Kochi Mori

Marking a most memorable launch to our 2017 Film Committee screening series — and only the second time in our history that we’ve had the privilege of screening a work off site — the film’s distributor, Kadokawa, generously previewed the film for our 200-strong audience at itsbeautiful Kadokawa Cinema Yurakucho, just steps away from FCCJ. A very crowded Q&A then followed back at FCCJ, lasting over an hour, as journalists from many nations gathered to hear from the three Japanese stars who have been singled out for praise by US critics.

Although only Tadanobu Asano has already had a substantial overseas career, Silence is set to change that for Yosuke Kubozuka and Issey Ogata. Asano (Thor, Mongol) has just finished shooting Martin Zandvliet’s The Outsider, costarring with Jared Leto; Kubozuka is costarring with Elizabeth Banks in the war drama Rita Hayworth With a Hand Grenade; and Ogata (Yiyi: A One and a Two, The Sun) stars with Momoi Kaori (Memoirs of a Geisha) in Latvian director Maris Martinsons’ upcoming Magic Kimono.

with dirKubozuka and Asano flank Martin Scorsese at a fall 2016 event in Tokyo.   ©Koichi Mori

Each of the three had nothing but praise for their director, as well as their costars. It didn’t hurt that they also introduced themselves with a measure of levity at the Q&A session. “I play an interpreter in the film,” said Asano, “but my English isn’t very good. So please let me speak through this interpreter.” Calling himself a “fumie master,” Kubozuka went on to say, “Thanks to this film, I’m able to dream again, [as innocently] as if I were a child.” And Ogata, whose turn in the film earned him runnerup honors from the LA Film Critics for Best Supporting Actor, mentioned, “I’ve given a few interviews in the US, and looking back at them, some of my statements have changed. So whatever questions you have, and whatever answers I give, please note that this is what I said as of January 12.”

Before sharing the actors’ behind-the-scenes stories, however, a word about the film and their roles in it is in order.

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Kubozuka as Kichijiro   ©2016 FM Films, LLC. All Rights Reverved.

As most readers know, it took the Oscar-winning director nearly 30 years to bring Endo’s novel about the persecution of “hidden Christians” (kakure kirishitan) in 17th-century Japan to the screen. It is the final in Scorsese’s trilogy of faith-based films, after The Last Temptation of Christ (1988) and Kundun (1997), and it is by far his most deeply felt and yes, most challenging, to date. It is also dazzlingly shot (on celluloid), beautifully scripted and thankfully, gets its Japanese setting and action just right.

Silence tells the story of two Portuguese “padres,” Sebastian Rodrigues (Andrew Garfield) and Francisco Garupe (Adam Driver), who journey from Macao to Japan in the early 1640s to search for their missing mentor, Christavao Ferreira (Liam Neeson), after receiving the startling news that he has gone native. The priests find a Japanese wretch, a lapsed Christian named Kichijiro (Kubozuka), to help make the dangerous crossing to the southwestern coast. The Tokugawa shogunate’s sakoku policy has closed the country to outsiders, creating an increasingly hostile environment for anyone brave enough to enter. Worse, the government has encouraged the violent persecution of the devout, forcing some 300,000 believers underground.

Silence-03863Ogata as Inquistor Inoue  ©2016 FM Films, LLC. All Rights Reverved.

Rodrigues and Garupe find safety of sorts with a group of clandestine worshippers in the tiny village of Tomogi, and begin ministering to them, conducting baptisms, hearing confession, reciting the Latin mass. But soon enough, the area’s ruthless government “Inquisitor” Inoue (Ogata) has Rodrigues and his new followers behind bars, and sets about putting their faith to the ultimate test. Abetting him is the “Interpreter” (Asano), who scoffs, “We have our own religion, Padre; a pity you did not notice it.” Gloats Inoue to Rodrigues, “The price for your glory is their suffering.” Forced to witness the gruesome tortures that befall those who refuse to renounce their faith, some prisoners make the ultimate sacrifice of apostasy, stepping upon fumie (icons of Christ), and abandoning hope of reaching paradise. Throughout his many trials, Rodrigues continues to beseech God for guidance, but He is silent, even as his believers are met with intolerable fates.

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Asano as the Interpreter  ©2016 FM Films, LLC. All Rights Reverved.

Highlights of the Q&A:

Question: Despite publicity to the contrary, I didn’t think the Inquisitor or the Interpreter were nefarious characters. As you were playing your characters, what was your perspective on the roles?

Asano: “I really empathized with the character of the Interpreter, and didn’t see him as nefarious. The backstory I read into him was that he was probably Christian, but was no longer able to carry on his faith. So that’s what led him to his line of work. Having been Christian gave him special insight into the Christians and their belief. He’s not a simple villain; because of his position, he has to work between Inoue and Rodrigues.”

Ogata: “In approaching Inoue, I must say that everything was in the script. During my audition, I did the scene where he’s trying to get Rodrigues to apostatize, and he tells him the story about the four concubines. What I brought to this scene was, we were talking [metaphorically] about Christianity and faith in God, and those were the heavenly aspects of the film; [but] Inoue was a more grounded, earthy character. And that’s where this voice [he does Inoue’s croaky whine] comes from.”

Kubozuka: "In the original work, my character, Kichijiro, is depicted as a weakling, someone who’s ugly, cunning, dirty and weak. He steps on the fumie again and again, which makes me wonder whether he’s really weak. He seems to be quite determined. Of course he steps on the fumie, but as the Interpreter says, he korobu (tramples), which is not the same as kikiyo (apostatizing). He goes back and forth. Mr. [Shusaku] Endo says that the character is very much about himself. I was in the US earlier this month, and there were many questions about the fumie, and whether Americans would step on it in this day and age. A lot of people said, 'Probably!' So I think the character of Kichijiro is very human, and relevant to the modern age."

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Said Variety about Kubozuka’s Kichijiro, “[His] sneaky, social-outcast behavior suggests the way
Toshiro Mifune might play the role of Gollum.”   
©FCCJ (except bottom right: ©Mance Thompson)

Question: Is Kichijiro really a Christian, or just the type of Japanese person who believes in his sempai, Rodrigues?

Kubozuka: I think he has a sense of innocence. Mr. Scorsese never gave me specific directions, explaining what the character was about or what kind of person he was supposed to be. He really left a lot of it up to me. I saw the film for the first time, without subtitles, at the LA premiere on January 5th, and I was surprised that he’d edited out the takes in which I was more emotional, more pure. What you see is the more flippant, light, stupid — for lack of a better word — side of Kichijiro. He really is a pitiful character. I suppose Mr. Scorsese’s answer to your question can be found there. The way I see the character is, I think Kichijiro doesn’t truly understand Christianity, but he is adamant about his belief."

Question: Inoue is such a fascinating character. How did you prepare for it, Mr. Ogata? Did you have any role model?

Ogata: “It’s all in the script. It’s said that the character might have [also] been Christian in the past, and this is evident the very first time he meets Rodrigues. He tells him, ‘If you are a true Christian, a true priest, then you would come to the decision to apostatize to save all these Japanese Christians who are suffering for you.’ I don’t think he would’ve said this line unless he had the experience of being Christian himself. He also knows that it’s a powerful logic, because he’s [used the line before], with Father Ferreira."

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When Asano auditioned for the film, Scorsese was thrilled, since he admired him in such films
as Mongol, Bright Future and Ichi the Killer.     
©Mance Thompson (except top right: ©FCCJ)

Question: What did you see as any differences between the book and the film?

Ogata: “I tried reading Endo’s novel when I was young, and only got halfway through. [After reading it all the way through], the character I was most drawn to is Kichijiro. He’s the closest to who I am. As for the character of Inoue in the film, there is a lot that isn’t in the original work, and that’s thanks to Mr. Scorsese’s imagination. He inflated the role for me, and left me a lot of room to act it my way."

Kubozuka: — SPOILER ALERT! — “The place where I saw the starkest difference between the novel and the film is in the final scene, where Rodrigues bears the cross that Mokichi had given him, in his tomb. I think this scene came about because of Mr. Scorsese’s [own belief]; that he felt it was key to him bringing this story to the world. I understand this was shown at the Vatican, and got a wonderful reception. I think he probably felt this was necessary to bring the strength and the power of the original novel to the world. Mr. Ogata and I were discussing this earlier tonight, and he mentioned that Shusaku Endo had a protégé named Mr. Kato, who applauded when he saw this scene. He really liked it.

Asano: “The way I approached the film was that it was all about the script. I read it again and again, concocting a backstory for my character. Whenever I would get lost, I would go back to the novel. But I soon discovered that the backstory I imagined was very different from the one in the novel, so I decided not to rely on it much.

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Variety had this to say about Ogata, a renowned comedian: “An unnerving inquisitor named Inoue has a wheedling voice
and faux-gracious manner that suggests the Japanese equivalent of Christoph Waltz’s Nazi colonel in Inglourious Basterds.”
©Mance Thompson (except bottom right: ©FCCJ)

Question: For those who haven’t read the original novel, what do you think the highlights of the film are?

Kubozuka: "I would say that the ultimate message of the film is that God is silent. If you’re to find an answer, it’s all about introspection. You have to go inside yourself for answers."

Ogata: "Has God ever spoken, really? As a non-Christian, I don’t know the answer. The film is less like real life than a picture scroll, in which characters are going through unbearable suffering. But strangely, no matter how painful it all is, after watching it, I feel this notion of purity that resonates. It’s a film that has that kind of sustenance."

Question: If you had been in the position, historically, to stem the spread of Christianity, would you have done the same thing as your characters?

Ogata: "If I’d been born in the Edo period, I think I would still have become an actor. And I would probably have played a character like Inoue, and demanded that the Christians trample on the fumie. But only if Mr. Scorsese could have directed me."
 
Kubozuka: "It’s a difficult question. It depends on whether your parents were Christian, or whether you were born with the choice of which religion to follow, or whether you were a Buddhist, like many Japanese. If I’d been born back then, I think I would’ve still been a fumie master like Kichijiro."

Asano: "If I’d been born in the Edo period, I would have done my best to stay away from that kind of situation."

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©Koichi Mori

Question: You can’t tell it from watching the film, but it was actually shot in Taiwan. How did you feel about that?

Asano: "I wish we could have shot in Japan, but Taiwan is a wonderful country, with such great food and a great crew, and it was very easy to shoot. Since it takes place in such a long-ago Japan, we had an otherworldly feeling on set. I don’t know if it would have been different if we shot in Japan."

Kubozuka: "Whenever I think of the shoot, I think of xiao long bao (soup dumplings) — they were wonderful. On set, we had a lot of crew from Kyoto who are specialists in jidaigeki period films, and they only had one complaint: We built this little village up in the mountains, and the doors to the hut opened like Western doors, rather than being sliding doors. But they were able to change them before shooting. Mr. Scorsese had the utmost respect for Mr. Endo, and for us, and for Japanese culture. When he found anything wrong or off, he would immediately fix it, since he wanted to stay true to Japan. A lot of historical and cultural research went into the making of the film, and that’s why it passes as Japan."

MAIN Photo Credit Kerry Brown
Cult director Shinya Tsukamoto also shines in the film, here with Andrew Garfield.   ©Kerry Brown

Question: How is it working with Mr. Scorsese, compared to other filmmakers?

Ogata: “It was very inspiring being able to work with Mr. Scorsese, as well as my fellow cast and crewmates. I felt like I was the luckiest actor alive, to have experienced this. The way he approaches directing his actors is, he never really instructs you how to act, he lets you bring what you have to the part. He never, ever says anything negative about what you provide. It’s really inspiring, and it leads to many other ideas. He leaves room for things to happen.

Asano: "Even in the audition process, he really enjoys what you have to bring, and he really, really watches you. He sees you. But he never tries to stop you or put pressure on you. For an actor, it’s a really enjoyable process. You also feel that responsibility, that you really have to bring something to the part. I haven’t seen this in a lot of directors. Some directors will treat only certain actors in this way, but Mr. Scorsese treats every actor like that."

Kubozuka: “I agree. On set, Mr. Scorsese is like a king, but [he makes it] so easy when you’re on set. He holds a mirror up to you and helps boost your acting, and you’re able to trick yourself into thinking that you’re a superb actor. There’s immense power and strength in this film, and I hope — I believe — it will help serve a better tomorrow. I’m so grateful and honored to have been able to participate.

Question: There’s been a lot of talk about the Oscars. What do you think about the film’s chances?

Ogata: "Let’s let Mr. Asano answer that one."

Asano: "I think the film will be nominated. If it isn’t, maybe God said something He shouldn’t have."

poster silence mance 47
©Mance Thompson

Note to fans of Japanese film: Although Asano, Kubozuka and Ogata have the largest roles, there are many other Japanese actors acquitting themselves admirably in the film. Look for brilliant Paris-based actor Yoshi Oida and beloved actor/cult director Shinya Tsukamoto in important roles, as well as appearances by Shun Sugata, Nana Komatsu, Ryo Kase and even actor/director Sabu (who was in Taiwan to film his upcoming Mr. Long, which world premieres next month at the Berlin Film Festival).

silence poster
©2016 FM Films, LLC. All Rights Reverved.

Media Coverage

TV Exposure

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A BRIDE FOR RIP VAN WINKLE (RIPPU BAN WINKURU NO HANAYOME)


October 4, 2016
Q&A guests: TIFF Director in Focus Shunji Iwai,
Japan Now Progam Advisor Kohei Ando and TIFF Director General Yasushi Shiina


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From left, Ando, Iwai and Shiina discuss TIFF's upcoming salute to the director.  ©Koichi Mori

The Film Committee has been cohosting events with the Tokyo International Film Festival (TIFF) at FCCJ for nearly a decade, but the past two years have been especially exciting for us, thanks to TIFF’s newfound focus on Japanese film. Anyone who has attended FCCJ’s screenings over the past nine years knows that our emphasis is on introducing Japanese films and filmmakers to international audiences through the Tokyo-based journalists, critics, festival programmers and cinéphiles who join us for our events.

In 2015, TIFF established two new sections devoted to Japanese film, Japanese Classics and Japan Now, and included nearly 80 Japanese films across all the sections in its lineup. This year’s 29th iteration of the festival will be equally Japan-centric, with two local titles in the main Competition selection and dozens more in the Special Screenings, Asian Future, Japanese Cinema Splash and other sections. Among the highlights will be the world premiere of the first TIFF-Japan Foundation international coproduction, Asian Three-Fold Mirror: Reflections, a special Kabukiza program with kabuki performance and film screenings accompanied by a benshi narrator, and personal appearances in The World of Mamoru Hosoda tribute.

Among this embarrassment of riches, our heart still belongs to the Japan Now section, presided over by Program Advisor Kohei Ando. A genius at selecting the most piquant, provocative, evocative films among those that hit Japanese theaters during the year, Ando has also made another brilliant choice for the section’s Director in Focus: acclaimed creative force Shunji Iwai. Despite being one of Japan’s most famous exports — especially in Asia, where new Iwai releases are trumpeted like the Second Coming — Iwai has not yet been the subject of a career retrospective in his own country.

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Shiina marks his fourth year as TIFF leader with another round of welcome enhancements.                    ©Mance Thompson, Koichi Mori

Ando and TIFF are correcting that. Japan Now will be featuring five Iwai films, including the 1993 work that kicked off his career, Fireworks: Should We See It from the Side or the Bottom?, and his latest hit, the enchantingly enigmatic A Bride for Rip Van Winkle (2016) in the festival’s mini-tribute, with Iwai on hand for Q&A sessions.

Iwai and Ando appeared at FCCJ to discuss details of the tribute, along with TIFF Director General Yasushi Shiina. The evening then continued with a special screening of A Bride for Rip Van Winkle and an hour-long Q&A session with Iwai.

Shiina is marking his fourth year at the helm, and continues to oversee enhancements and expansions to the only festival in Japan accredited by the International Federation of Film Producers Associations (FIAPF). In his opening remarks at FCCJ, he noted, “This year, TIFF will be showing the past, present and future of films. The Japan Now section features present Japan. In our new Youth section, we will focus on films that portray… the future. The Japanese Classics Section revisits the past history of Japanese cinema.”

Shiina stressed that the Youth section, featuring films for children and teens, aims “to bring in younger audiences, as they will be the generation to carry on the future of cinema.” Among other highlights, he mentioned that a a plethora of open-air screenings will be held this year, taking advantage of Tokyo’s mild fall temperatures. (Knock wood.)

Shiina also expressed his delight with Kohei Ando’s selection for Japan Now, which the filmmaker-academic has programmed since its inception in 2015. “He is selecting the films 3 to 4 months prior to the festival,” said Shiina, “including films that haven’t been released or been played up in the press. I think he has an exceptional eye, and I feel confident leaving it all in his hands.”

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 Ando returns for his second year with another spot-on selection for Japan Now, including the year's two surprise blockbusters.   ©FCCJ, Koichi Mori

A showcase of outstanding Japanese titles from recent and coming months, the section highlights the diversity of the domestic film industry, as well as providing a multifaceted look at the country today. TIFF’s English-subtitled screenings are also meant to help boost the films’ recognition internationally. “There will also be special guest appearances,” said Ando, “including Makoto Shinkai, director of [box office juggernaut] Your Name; Kiyoshi Kurosawa, director of Daguerrotype; Koji Fukada, director of [Cannes prize-winning] Harmonium, stars and surprise guests and many more.”

A journalist in the FCCJ audience asked, “Do you decide your selection based on whether a film has international appeal? Is that your main criteria?” Responded Ando: “Great question. No, it’s not about international appeal; it comes down to whether it’s a good film or not, whether I would want to introduce it to international audience. What is a ‘good’ film is difficult to define, so my own personal taste also goes into the selection. But it is, first and foremost, about showing good films.”

The Japan Now Director in Focus tribute allows Ando to help expand the overseas recognition of midcareer creators like Iwai, whose groundbreaking style and youth-focused vision have been internationally acclaimed in such masterworks as Love Letter (1995), Swallowtail Butterfly (1996), All About Lily Chou-Chou (2001) and Hana and Alice (2004). Iwai is the only Japanese director who has shot films in New York (for the 2008 omnibus New York, I Love You), Paris (as producer of the 2010 I Need to Buy New Shoes) and Vancouver (his 2011 English-language debut, Vampire). In a career of infinite variety, he has also written novels and made an animated feature (The Case of Hana and Alice, 2015), documentaries (The Kon Ichikawa Story in 2006; Friends After 3.11, about the long-lasting devastation in Fukushima), as well as dozens of much-imitated music videos.

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Iwai has crafted singular films for over 20 years.          ©Koichi Mori

Ando chose Iwai, he said, after first seeing his latest film, A Bride for Rip Van Winkle. “I immediately felt proud being Japanese,” he told the FCCJ audience. “He has such a unique aesthetic, but he also has an allegorical way of storytelling, a way of bringing the sentiment of young Japanese to the screen. I think this time, he’s really topped himself.”

Asked how he had decided on the Iwai lineup, Ando said, “It was so hard to narrow it down to just a few films, because Mr. Iwai has made so many wonderful works.” In the end, he decided to bookend the selection with Iwai’s earliest and latest masterpieces, and to also include Love Letter, “an unbelievable feat for a first feature” and the underseen, English-language Vampire, which is “infused with his distinctive aesthetics.”

He lamented that he couldn’t show such hits as Hana and Alice and the groundbreaking All About Lily Chou-Chou, but stressed, “Of course Mr. Iwai is already hugely popular with the Asian audience, and has won awards in America as well” — including a Lifetime Achievement Award from the New York Asian Film Festival in July — “but he still doesn’t have the reputation he deserves in countries like France. I hope Europeans will watch his films at TIFF, and help spread the word.”

Asked to comment about his selection as Director in Focus, Iwai said, “I’m very pleased to be selected. It’s a huge honor for me, and I’m glad that five films will be screened for TIFF audiences.” Reminded that Love Letter had been the first Japanese film to screen in Korea during the country’s long-running ban on Japanese works, and had been such a monster hit that it led to a gradual easing of quotas, Iwai mentioned that he had been on a promotional tour to Korea the week before. “I went for the release of A Bride for Rip Van Winkle,” he said, “and I was invited to appear on a news program on one of the leading TV channels. They told me it was the first time a Japanese person had appeared on the program. It reminded me of the time when they couldn’t even show the Love Letter trailer on TV, since the Japanese language was prohibited. In retrospect, I think I may have been destined to act as a bridge between cultures, and it dawns on me that it’s a huge responsibility.”

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Iwai was asked whether he had any plans for a coproduction in China, since he’s been spotted there recently. “I actually have produced a couple of films with China and am working on a few at this moment,” he said. “It’s a very good thing for directors like me, who have our own distinct style, when film markets open up and expand. Hopefully, there’s a trickle-down effect, where the bigger the market becomes, there can be more room for art films [like mine] as well.”

A Russian journalist then asked whether he might have plans venture into the Russia market. Iwai laughed. “I’ve had the pleasure of attending the Moscow Film Festival before, and to see many Russian films,” he said. “I think Russian films are extravagant in the best way. They have this Dostoyevskian scale to them. I understand that Russian people like long stories, so if the opportunity falls on me, I would be more than happy to take on the challenge. Perhaps I could follow in the footsteps of Mr. Kurosawa, who did Dersu Uzala [in Russia].”

Asked whether he had plans to continue directing animated films, the director answered: “I take my own approach to creating animated work. I have a team with me, and we make music videos, as well. I also like to draw, so working on animation brings me that joy. Greedy as it may sound, I would like continue to create both live action and animated work.”

He was then asked: “Do you think there’s any significance to having your films shown at festivals, as opposed to having them released commercially?” Iwai’s answer was surprising. “It’s a good opportunity for me as a director to sit back, relax and enjoy my films together with the fans and critics,” he said. “There’s unbelievable pressure with commercial releases, so I can relax and enjoy festivals a lot more.”

Iwai was clearly relaxed at FCCJ, too, and was extremely generous with his time during the Q&A session that followed A Bride for Rip Van Winkle. Returning to the dais once again to chat with the large audience (many of whom had been there for 4 hours) after the screening, he spoke in both Japanese and English on a range of subjects related to the film, from casting to inspirations to censorship to the film’s apparent criticisms of societal issues.

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Adapted from Iwai’s own novel of the same name, the film returns to the aching melancholy of several earlier romances, but introduces new notes of cynicism. Nanami (Silver Bear-winning actress Haru Kuroki) has been sleepwalking through life, her docility and submissiveness almost terrifying to behold. Like the legend of Rip Van Winkle, in which the protagonist awakens after 20 years to an unfamiliar world, she is about to be rudely shaken out of her slumber.

A lost soul whose loneliness makes her deeply gullible, she is only able to express herself by adopting another identity on the social network Planet. On the site, she meets a fellow teacher and they soon plan to wed, although we learn that she has divorced parents, no interaction with relatives, and no friends she can invite to the reception. Through Planet, she meets jack-of-all-trades Amuro (Go Ayano), who provides actors to play her family at the wedding. Her marriage thus begins with an innocent-seeming deception, and sure enough, it begins to unravel.

Nanami turns to Amuro again when she suspects her husband is cheating and he continues to appear whenever Nanami’s in need, rescuing her for a hefty fee. Eventually, he finds her a job in an enormous mansion, which she shares with the outgoing Mashiro (Cocco). The two women bond tightly in this otherworldly setting, becoming the sisters and friends that neither has. But who is its owner and why have they really been brought there…?

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A female viewer asked the first question after the screening: “The marriage at the beginning of the film symbolizes a kind of imprisonment, but the second time around, it’s a kind of liberation. Was that deliberate?”

“My point is not which is better,” Iwai answered. “My point is that happiness is elusive. Yes, Nanami meets Mashiro and they’re so happy. But my point is that even days that never happen can give us happiness. Sorry, it’s hard to explain.” A little later, he said, “It’s really a harsh, cruel story that I’m telling. Nanami finds only a fleeting happiness, and it’s based on a deception.”

Another journalist queried, “In China, we talk about the character of Nanami as being weak and strong at the same time — so we feel she must be a metaphor for Japan itself. Is that your intention?” Sidestepping the question’s political overtones, Iwai said, “She appears to be weak, but whether that’s an inherently Japanese trait, I would say ‘No.’ The same goes for her naiveté and sensitivity. She’s also resilient and a survivor, but whether this is Japanese or not depends on the individual.”

Iwai admitted, however, that he was intentionally making points about Japanese society: “I did make an effort to depict how Japanese are unconditionally willing to use all the technology at our disposal without suspecting a thing. Nowadays, at the click of a button, you can summon a car, you can summon a person. I think we’re all overly eager and too trusting of these services.”


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Interpreter Mihoko Imai and Iwai react as the emcee asks, "Where do you walk? Maybe I could accidentally run into you."   ©Koichi Mori

The conversation took a more personal turn with questions about Iwai’s inspirations for the story and his approach to writing. “I wrote the script chronologically, and a lot of the scenes are based on things I’ve heard,” he explained. “My friend met his girlfriend on Facebook, which is similar to how Nanami meets her husband. I met some people in an izakaya who told me they were acting as family members for weddings. I also have a friend from school who went into the AV industry, like the Mashiro character, and I met her mother, who was complaining about it. Doing research is important, but when you can hear about things from your friends, it has greater impact.”  

As for writing, Iwai revealed, “The most helpful thing for me is walking. I love walking. I walk every day when I’m writing a story. There’s a turning point where I go back to my house, and I found a clothes shop called Rip Van Winkle. I borrowed the name for the title and thought I would change it to something else, but I never did.”

Only a creator of Iwai’s stature could possibly devise such incredibly intricate plot machinations from the name on a store window, and assemble them so they unfold in such deliciously ambiguous — and unexpectedly moving — ways. But A Bride for Rip Van Winkle reminds us once again that he is one of cinema’s most masterful storytellers.

In the final minutes of the Q&A session, Iwai said, “We can’t always be the person we should be. Sometimes we’re good, sometimes not. I wanted to focus on how even people like porn stars and conmen, or murderers, or people who love sucking blood [a nod to his Vampire] still breathe the same air we do. They see the same sky above their heads. I couldn’t stop thinking about that, and it was my greatest motivation. People like that can make us notice another point of view and inspire us to create something.”

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HARMONIUM


HARMONIUM (Fuchi ni Tatsu)


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


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Furutachi (left) and Tsutsui (center) hardly seem the dysfunctional couple they play in the film, but Fukada (right) saw the chemistry.  ©FCCJ

Extreme weight gain or loss for a film role is such a common celebrity headline in the West that it’s all become a bit ho hum. After Robert De Niro snagged an Oscar for packing on pounds to play Jake LaMotta in Raging Bull, a long line of stars has followed suit, from Renee Zellwegger and Charlize Theron (big gains for Bridget Jones’ Diary and Monster) to Christian Bale and Matthew McConaughey (big losses for The Machinist and Dallas Buyer’s Club).

But such feats aren’t common in Japan*, so when this exchange occurred at the beginning of the Q&A session for Harmonium, there were audible gasps from the audience:

Question: “How did you prepare to portray this couple who change so much between the first and second part of the film, which commences 8 years later?”

Mariko Tsutsui: “After reading the script, I realized my character undergoes drastic changes. I knew right away that it wouldn’t be enough to express her inner turmoil without going through some physical changes, as well, and I discussed with the director how we might achieve that. One thing we did was to shoot in sequence.”

Koji Fukada: “Since Ms. Tsutsui is too modest to mention this herself, I will add that she took the character’s physical transformation seriously, and gained 13 kg [29 pounds] in 3 weeks.”

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Fukada can now add a Cannes Jury Prize to his mantel.         ©Mance Thompson, Koichi Mori

The gasps erupted partially because Tsutsui was so glamorously slender on the FCCJ stage, and partially because the Method approach to acting has so few practitioners in Japan. One of them, coincidentally, was sitting right next to Tsutsui — her costar, Kanji Furutachi. The popular actor studied at the famed HB Studio in New York with Uta Hagen, Carol Rosenfeld and others, and his fellow alumni include De Niro, Al Pacino, Liza Minnelli, Anne Bancroft and Matthew Broderick.

Despite such bragging rights, Furutachi’s disarming modesty remains intact. “No matter what kind of character I depict, I usually take the same approach,” he admitted. “For this film, I hadn’t had any of the experiences that my character has, so I had to rely more on my imagination. But I think I made the right decisions. I hope I made the right decisions.”

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 Tsutsui is a theater and TV veteran with lengthy film credits, but this marks her first starring role.   ©FCCJ, Koichi Mori

Tsutsui mentioned that she’d made her decisions based on “hints” she received from Fukuda regarding his own parents’ relationship, which was obviously fraught. “Mr. Furutachi and I are both theater veterans, and it’s very easy for us to communicate because we can be straightforward with each other and say what we want to each other. But it does seem like our banter comes off like we’re a husband and wife squabbling. That helped us during the shoot.”

Interjected Furutachi (in English, without realizing he'd switched languages), “I think that’s due to the magic of Mr. Fukada. We were perfectly cast as this couple. It’s amazing. It’s not like we had to even pretend, or make up something we didn’t have. Maybe it was already there.”

The director was asked how he managed to find two actors of the same caliber as international star Tadanobu Asano, thus assuring he wouldn’t eclipse his costars. Said Fukada: “While I was writing the script, which was about 10 years ago, I already had Mr. Furutachi in mind [in the interim, the actor would play the interloper in Fukada’s 2010 breakout hit Hospitalité, a role similar to Asano’s in Harmonium]. Then three years ago, when we got the greenlight to go ahead, the producers suggested Ms. Tsutsui, and I saw right away that she would be perfect for the role of his wife. After that, we cast Mr. Asano. So he was actually cast last, after these two were already in place.”

As Harmonium's inscrutable stranger in white coveralls, Asano is haunted and haunting; but his quietly commanding performance is more than matched by Furutachi and relative unknown Tsutsui, who is the true revelation here, particularly in her second-half transformation (the weight helps, but there is also gut-wrenching emotional heft).

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Furutachi and Tsutsui, an even match.  ©Koichi Mori

The synergy between all three costars is nothing short of startling, surely a contributing factor to the film’s success at Cannes, where it emerged with the Un Certain Regard Jury Prize despite intense competition in a lineup that also included Cannes-favorite Hirokazu Kore-eda. The French festival does love dark portraits of fractured families, to be sure, but Fukada’s win is a remarkable achievement for the indie filmmaker, whose budgets — impossibly low, even by Japan’s rock-bottom standards — have been no match for his ambitions.

In just over a decade since his debut, Fukada has worked in a variety of genres and received awards for all his work (from black comic romp Hospitalité, to gentle coming-of-age frolic Au revoir l’eté, to apocalyptic fable Sayonara), but none has been quite as enigmatic, as strangely alluring yet serious minded, as his latest. While he has always infused his stories with Timely Themes (racism, ostracism, exile due to nuclear disaster), they have never overshadowed his central focus, which is forever and always on the disconnection between family members.

With Harmonium, he proves that he is not afraid to confront and crush the conventions of that most hackneyed of genres, the Japanese family drama. In the film’s production notes, Fukada wrote: “I’m tired of all these Japanese films idealizing family ties. By continuing to relay this outdated and stereotypical image of an ‘ideal family,’ we deny the various other family types that actually exist.”

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               Furutachi told the audience: "I actually come here sometimes to see films, so I usually sit on your side, looking this way. Tonight, I’m very honored  to be sitting on this side, looking the other way."         ©FCCJ

In Harmonium we watch, with sinking heart, as one such “family type” collapses following the arrival of an old acquaintance. We’ve just barely met Toshio (Furutachi), his wife Akie (Tsutsui) and their young daughter Hotaru (Momone Shinokawa) when Yasaka (Asano) arrives, just out of prison for murder and somehow linked to Toshio’s past. Without consulting his wife, with whom relations are noticeably strained, Toshio moves the new arrival into a spare room in their cramped quarters, and puts him to work in the small factory downstairs. Yasaka is well mannered and hard-working; he washes his own dishes and wins over Hotaru with a blithe tune on the harmonium, which she’s attempting to play. He also wins over Akie, attending church with her and confessing his past sins. But their flirtation clearly alarms Akie, even as her husband remains oblivious. Then one morning, a tragedy occurs, and the final estrangement of family members is complete. As the story jumps forward in time, the aftermath is chilling to behold. Probing undercurrents of surprising philosophical depth, Harmonium ends with an ambiguity that will incite discussion long after its final, devastating moments.

Film critic Mark Schilling, who would later bestow a rare 4.5 out of 5 stars on the film in the Japan Times, mentioned that on his second viewing, Harmonium’s depiction of evil reminded him of Stanley Kubrick’s The Shining. Fukada demurred. “I didn’t want to depict Yasaka as an antihero or a villain or anything that could be construed as charismatic, because I don’t think there’s a clear line between what is evil and what is good. It’s not black and white. I think we live in degrees of gray. Evil depends on what perspective you view it from. In some scenes Yasaka is gentle and kind, in some he’s very threatening, in some he’s gripped with an anger he can’t control. I wanted to depict him in a multifaceted way.”

When Fukada was asked where the idea for the story came from, he laughed, “I get that a lot.” After admitting that he couldn’t remember exactly what he was thinking 10 years earlier, he noted, “I do remember that I wanted to depict how violence could come into someone’s life in such a random way, and just shatter it. Car accidents and acts of god can drastically change the course of life. I wanted to depict violence in a way that defies logic, defies cause and effect, defies crime and punishment.”

With the Cannes trophy leading to an uptick in international sales, audiences in France can look forward to seeing Harmonium in theaters in December, while US audiences will have to wait only until early 2017.

*Perhaps this is about to change, with Tsutsui’s in Harmonium, and Kenichi Matsuyama’s 35-pound gain to play chess champion Satoshi Murayama in the upcoming Satoshi: A Move for Tomorrow.

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©2016 FUCHI NI TATSU FILM PARTNERS & COMME DES CINEMAS

Media Coverage

 

THE RED TURTLE


THE RED TURTLE (Red Turtle: Aru shima no monogatari)


 August 31, 2016
Q&A guest: Director Michael Dudok de Wit


MDW poster KM-172Michael Dudok de Wit ©Koichi Mori

Imagine that you are an animator of short films — a very, very good animator, an award-winning animator, but nevertheless, a short-form animator — and out of the blue one day, you receive an email from Studio Ghibli.

The email asks you two questions: Would you allow us to distribute your Oscar-winning Father and Daughter in Japan? And would you be interested in working with Studio Ghibli on your first-ever feature film?

London-based Dutch animator Michael Dudok de Wit laughs when he recalls that magical moment in November 2006, when his life changed: “It was a shock when it all started …[the email explained]: ‘You would team up with Wild Bunch in Paris, and you would write the film.’ I had two simultaneous reactions: The first one was ‘Yes!!’ And the second one was, ‘Hang on.’ I wrote back and asked, ‘Could you please explain? I want to make sure that I understood your email properly.”

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© 2016 Studio Ghibli - Wild Bunch - Why Not Productions - Arte France Cinéma - CN4 Productions - Belvision - Nippon Television Network - Dentsu - Hakuhodo DYMP - Walt Disney Japan - Mitsubishi – Toho

The director then met right away with the heads of Wild Bunch in London, and, “My first question was, ‘This is unbelievable. Tell me, is there’s something I’ve not been told yet?’ They said, ‘No, no, this is really genuine. They want to know if you have a story. We aren’t promising that we will make the film, but we’ll have a go. It’s new for [Ghibli], it’s new for you to make a feature film, so let’s take it step by step.’ Straight away, I started writing the synopsis.”

As far as fantastical genesis stories go, it’s a suitably Ghibli-esque one.

Dudok de Wit shared that anecdote and many others with FCCJ’s audience during a lengthy Q&A session following a sneak preview screening of his first feature, The Red Turtle — which also became Studio Ghibli’s first international coproduction, in collaboration with France’s Wild Bunch and Why Not Productions. Watching proudly from the audience, and later responding to a question, was legendary Studio Ghibli producer Toshio Suzuki.

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Ghibli-collaboration fantasies of animators everywhere.   ©Koichi Mori

Since it was the question on everyone’s mind at FCCJ, and is surely foremost on the minds of those reading this blog, we’ll cut to the chase:

Suzuki was asked whether The Red Turtle was to be the first of many international projects to come from Studio Ghibli. He responded: “I think Michael is a very special case. In my line of work, I meet many different people and I often becomes friends with them. But as one of the producers of the film, what got me started on this was falling in love with Michael’s short film, Father and Daughter, and simply being curious: What would a feature film by this director look like? That was the impetus for the film, and if you’re asking if this project will be a catalyst for future collaborations with foreign filmmakers, I would have to say, it simply depends on whether I encounter a similar situation like that again.”

In the ensuing decade since Dudok de Wit received his life-altering email, many things changed, not least the makeup of Studio Ghibli itself, after anime titan Hayao Miyazaki retired from long-form filmmaking in 2014, and Suzuki stepped down from producing in 2015. But in May 2016, The Red Turtle premiered at the 2016 Cannes Film Festival, winning the Un Certain Regard Special Prize and a slew of rapturous reviews. As Indiewire raved: “It showcases the best ways in which Studio Ghibli productions maintain a certain elegant simplicity that points to deeper truths. This is a quiet little masterpiece of images, each one rich with meaning, that collectively speak to a universal process.”

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           Photo left ©Koichi Mori; right, FCCJ

Throughout the Q&A session, Dudok de Wit stressed just how universal the process of creation had been: “For a feature film, you want to make sure your [choices as director] work for other people as well. So I was very sensitive to how [Studio Ghibli and Wild Bunch] reacted during the development process. After that, we became a team: the animators arrived and the background artists arrived, and we were dozens of people in the same building, making the film.” Over the three years of production, the director constantly encouraged feedback from his team, as well as reading nonverbal signals and body language — something he emphasized every animator does.

One journalist remarked immediately on the film’s similarities with Ghibli releases. Responded Dudok de Wit: “I don’t think there’s a typical Ghibli aesthetic. I think there’s a [Hayao] Miyazaki aesthetic and a [Isao] Takahata aesthetic. There’s a sensitivity and a maturity about the films that is very obvious, but it was never the idea to make a film that looks like a Ghibli film. From the beginning, [Takahata, who is credited as the film’s artistic producer, and Suzuki] said, ‘We like Father and Daughter a lot, we feel like it’s a Japanese film,’ which is a huge compliment. I would not have been good at imitating their style. I find it extraordinary to make a haiku-style film like Takahata’s My Neighbors the Yamadas. We could never do that in the West.”

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                                                                                                                                                                                             ©Koichi Mori

He continued, “What we do have in common is a certain sensitivity. We have a respect for nature and a deep, positive respect for human nature. To be honest, I felt it clicked between us. There was a sort of natural chemistry between us.”

That chemistry translates onscreen into a perfect synthesis of animation sensibilities. The Red Turtle is an expressionistic ode to human resilience, to family bonds, to the search for happiness and to the very cycle of life. Stripping existence to its most basic elements, the breathtakingly visual film follows a man who washes ashore on a deserted island following a ferocious storm, eventually builds a raft to escape and is prevented from leaving by an enormous red turtle. One morning, he awakens to find that a woman has become a castaway with him on the island, and after a courtship of sorts, the two have a child.

As their odyssey continues, Dudok de Wit’s hand-drawn charcoal backgrounds and the artisanal quality of his digital animation imbues his allegorical tale with a delicate, painterly beauty. While uniquely the director’s, The Red Turtle warmly evokes Ghibli, especially in its Greek chorus of sand crabs who are the man’s only friends at first, and the unmistakable message that man can only survive if we learn to coexist with nature.

(Variety called the film “a fable so simple, so pure, it feels as if it has existed for hundreds of years.” In fact, although the titular turtle was Dudok de Wit’s idea, the story has faint echoes of the Japanese myth of Urashima Taro, which also features a turtle and a lost soul).

When one journalist lauded the director for “creating a world within the film, a world that we come away remembering vividly, as we do with Ghibli films,” Dudok de Wit reassured him that animators “usually do far more research than spectators realize, taking thousands and thousands of photographs, because that’s our job. And it’s a joy. I went to La Digue, one of the Seychelles islands, particularly because it has ancient granite rocks. I thought they were very beautiful, very sensual.” He also mentioned that he’d purposely chosen something different from one palm tree with a coconut, as deserted islands always are in the castaway clichés. He found his inspiration in a famed bamboo grove near Kyoto and a wild bamboo forest in Kyushu, as well as another in France.

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                                                                                              ©FCCJ

To a question concerning his choice to make the film dialogue free, Dudok de Wit said, “There were a few moments, later in the story, where I felt it was essential to have a few sentences, both for the clarity of the story, and to enhance the humanity of the characters … But new arrivals on the film team would say, ‘I like the story a lot, but the voices are a bit odd.’ [With writer Pascale Ferran,] we kept working on the lines, and in the end, we kept just a few … Then one day I got a call from Studio Ghibli, saying, ‘We looked at the animatic [storyboard] and looked at the words the characters are saying. We discussed it, and we feel that the film actually doesn’t need dialogue.’ I defended my idea that we occasionally needed it for clarity, but in the end, they said ‘We think the film will survive without dialogue and will actually be stronger.’ At that point, I felt a huge relief. I thought, ‘If they feel it works without dialogue, I’m really interested in this challenge.’”

He then discovered a way to bring the characters more alive without having them speak: “We got voice actors in, and we asked them to breathe through the whole film. To my pleasant surprise, the breathing not only created a stronger empathy for the characters, but the sound of breathing was more expressive than I’d anticipated. We don’t need to hear words, but the fact that we hear them breathe brings them closer to us.”

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 Dudok de Wit embellishes his autograph with a quick sketch of the titular turtle. ©Koichi Mori

All of Dudok de Wit’s short films, including the Oscar-nominated The Monk and the Fish (1994), a playfully absurd comedy, and his achingly poignant Oscar winner Father and Daughter (2000), are driven by music, with no dialogue at all. Asked whether a future film might include lines, the director said, “There are many, many short films with no dialogue. That’s very common. They don’t need the spoken language, the film language is already strong enough. In this film, the [main character] doesn’t need to speak aloud to himself; he’s not like Tom Hanks. I would be open to using dialogue [in future]. I’ve used dialogue in many of the commercials I’ve made.”

The Red Turtle is coming soon to screens around the world, since most territories have been sold. It has opened in France, Belgium and the French-speaking part of Switzerland, and Sony Pictures Classics will be releasing the film later this year in North America. It’s sure to attract animation and art-film lovers everywhere, as well as making all the animation award shortlists at the end of this year. But will it lead to more magical emails from Studio Ghibli, winging their way across cyberspace to transform the lives of other animators…? Only time will tell.

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© 2016 Studio Ghibli - Wild Bunch - Why Not Productions -
Arte France Cinéma - CN4 Productions - Belvision -
Nippon Television Network - Dentsu - Hakuhodo DYMP -
Walt Disney Japan - Mitsubishi – Toho

Media Coverage

 

KEN AND KAZU


KEN AND KAZU (Ken to Kazu)


 July 20, 2016
Q&A guests: Director Hiroshi Shoji and stars Shinsuke Kato and Katsuya Maiguma


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                      Maiguma (Kazu), Kato (Ken) and writer-director Shoji were as light as the film is dark.              ©Koichi Mori

Three handsome young men in black suits descended upon FCCJ for the sneak preview screening of Ken and Kazu, looking for all the world like the grown-up yakuza versions of the street punks in the film. But then they smiled and laughed, and it was clear that they were nothing at all like the lowlifes populating the extraordinarily beautiful, brutal and moving feature debut of Hiroshi Shoji.

By rights, the film should provide a major bounce on the trio’s springboard to success, and the suits were in honor of their first joint public appearance since October last year, when Ken and Kazu won the Best Picture Award in the Japanese Cinema Splash section at the 2015 Tokyo International Film Festival.

In the months since, the film has been traveling the international festival scene, from Shanghai to Edinburgh to Taiwan to Germany to New York and Korea, earning acclaim for its breathtaking cinematography and the bravura acting chemistry of its two leads, as well as the Shakespearean depths of its tragic tale.

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Top: Shoji (©Koichi Mori), Left: Maiguma (©FCCJ),  Right: Kato (©Koichi Mori)

As is often the case with unknown filmmakers, however, Shoji and his up-and-coming stars have not had the privilege of accompanying Ken and Kazu on every stop. Thus, the reunion at FCCJ provided a rare opportunity to share their filmmaking adventures with an appreciative international audience.

Based on the writer-director’s award-winning 2011 short of the same name, and with Shinsuke Kato and Katsuya Maiguma in place again as the titular characters, the film wastes no time in luring us into its thoroughly realistic Japanese underworld: Ken and Kazu are small-time dealers of methamphetamines operating out of an auto-repair shop that’s mostly a front for money laundering by a local yakuza boss (Haruki Takano) who was Ken’s childhood classmate.

They’re in it only for the money: Ken needs it to start a new life with his pregnant girlfriend, Saki (Shuna Iijima), and Kazu needs it so he can put his mother, suffering from dementia, into a care home. Ken is level-headed, responsible, watchful; but he is forced to go along when Kazu — all glares and threats, a wounded tough guy with a dark secret — decides to up the ante for a bigger piece of the action. They start working for a rival gang, but inevitably, the two friends are driven into a desperate double-cross.

Despite working on a shoestring budget, Shoji delivers one of the most powerful character studies in recent memory. Ken and Kazu is evermore intense and thrilling as it hurtles inexorably to its fateful climax, anchored by performances of heartbreaking tenderness and explosive anger. The film’s accomplishments are partially due to the two-and-a-half years the director spent meticulously whittling it down from 141 minutes to a tight 96 minutes; but also to the incredible casting.

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                          Ken and Kazu break in a new member of the gang.     ©KenToKazu_Movie

It is, as one FCCJ audience member put it, “just stellar, all down the line. Everybody was just great. How did you do the casting?”

Explaining that he had gone to Tokyo Film Center College of Arts with Maiguma (who also graduated from the directing course, but took up acting afterward), Shoji replied: “We’ve been friends for over 10 years now, and after he played the same character [Kazu] in the short film, of course I had him play it in the feature. As for the role of Ken, Kato-san actually auditioned for [the short film version] online. After we’d selected him, I then started molding the characters around them. That’s why I think the characters suit the actors, and why we could get a realistic depiction of the characters.”

The emcee interjected, “So these two are actually violent drug dealers?” “Yes,” laughed Kato. “We were beating each other up in the greenroom while you were all watching the film.”

Shoji discussed the process of rehearsal and script revision after the actors had been cast. “These two are really different types of actors, so we spent about 3 weeks developing the characters and script together, and we changed just about everything from my original script. “No, we didn’t!” said Kato. “Shoji-san is actually really stubborn — we didn’t really veer much from the original script at all.”

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                                                                                                                                                                             ©Koichi Mori

“What’s the key to Ken and Kazu’s relationship?” asked another interlocutor. “So much of their backstory was left unexplained, and I wondered what had brought them so close together.” Said Maiguma, “Maybe this is different from what the director had in mind, but my own take on the characters is that they’re like brothers. You can’t explain a sibling relationship, but it’s there and you just feel it.” Added Kato, “With friends that you’re always around, there aren’t always clear reasons why you became friends to begin with. But I think Ken and Kazu complement each other, they need each other, they wouldn’t be able to complete anything without relying on each other.”

Another audience member commented on the setting. “This doesn’t look like the Japan that we usually see. These characters, did you live near people like that and know them personally?” Shoji responded, “I shot in the town where I’m living, Ichikawa, Chiba Prefecture, and I think I was able to capture the nuances of the people and the area because I’m living there.”

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Ken and Kazu show just how tough they can be during the photo call. 
©
Koichi Mori

Yet the feeling persisted that Shoji himself couldn’t possibly be part of that milieu. Shoji sidestepped the suggestion that the film fits snugly in the Japanese yakuza genre, noting that he’d been a huge fan of Hollywood and Korean films for years. “They say that directors always put a lot of themselves in their first film,” he said. “That’s true in my case. I often think about friendship, rivalry, making choices. I think about these issues a lot, and that’s why I wanted to make a film addressing them.” He later stressed that his main focus could be seen in the film’s final minutes, and the actions of Ken: “I think it all comes down to the moments in life when you do something for someone else, selflessly, and that’s one of the important messages.”

In my introduction before the screening, I had evoked Martin Scorsese’s Mean Streets, the 1973 work that shares some parallels with Ken and Kazu, not only in style and character, but in career timing. That little film was made when Scorsese was still relatively unknown, and the two lowlife pals were played by relatively unknown actors: Harvey Keitel and Robert De Niro. Mean Streets launched all three into the firmament, of course; only time will tell if Ken and Kazu does the same.

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Japan's answer to the young De Niro and Keitel? Or is Kato Japan's Al Pacino?  ©Koichi Mori

 But this is not your usual Japanese indie, at least by today’s standards. Proof positive: UK-based distributor Third Window Films is handling international sales for the film, which are reportedly brisk. The company’s CEO, Adam Torel, recently went on record, joining many other international critics in lambasting the current crop of Japanese releases. Among their complaints: actors either overact or do nothing at all, directors favor rambling longueurs over story- and character-building arcs, and bargain-basement production values cripple the impact.

There’s a long way to go before the Japanese industry can recapture its once-vaunted position in the global cinema firmament, but Ken and Kazu is a reminder that talent will out.

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                                                                                                                              ©Koichi Mori

 

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                                                      ©KenToKazu_Movie

KAKO: MY SULLEN PAST


KAKO: MY SULLEN PAST (Fukigenna Kako)


 June 13, 2016
Q&A guests: Director Shiro Maeda and star Fumi Nikaido


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                                  Nikaido and Maeda light up the room.               ©Mance Thompson

It is perhaps inevitable that FCCJ audiences do not always fit the profile of the target demographics for every film we have the privilege of sneak previewing. In the case of Kako: My Sullen Past, that target demo most likely skews young, disaffected and familiar with the work of the film’s multi-award-winning creator, Shiro Maeda, the “lo-fi playwright for Japan’s lost generation.”

As Performing Arts Network Japan so strikingly describes his style, “Using what is known in Japanese as datsuryoku-kei, or a manner of speaking that is devoid of energy, Maeda has succeeded in capturing the values and lifestyles of a generation unfettered by the burden of finding meaning in life. [Maeda’s plots are] brimming with the delusions of his main characters and the small adventures they have in order to get by in life.”

A cult stage director whose work is not seen enough outside Japan, Maeda is also an accomplished novelist, winner of the vaunted Yukio Mishima Award for his Mermen in Summer Water in 2009, and began making waves in the film world with his adaptation of his Kishida Drama Award-winning play Isn't Anyone Alive? (2007) for director Gakuryu Ishii in 2012. Several cinema projects later, including his own writing-directing debut, The Extreme Sukiyaki (2013), Maeda returns with Kako: My Sullen Past.

The story of one fraught but transcendent summer in the life of Kako, a bored 18-year-old living above her family’s small restaurant in a forgotten pocket of Kita Shinagawa, the film demonstrates once again why this young writer-director is quickly becoming Japan’s answer to Spike Jonze (Being John Malkovich) and Michel Gondry (Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind), with a sprinkling of Charlie Kaufman (who wrote the scripts for both films).

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                                                                It's easy to imagine the fun on set.                                                 ©Mance Thompson

Despite its minimalist approach, a Maeda trademark, Kako is stuffed with oddball characters, zingy dialog, off-kilter line readings, outrageous twists and unexpected turns — a sort of lowball, screwball black comedy with scenes of haunting beauty: figures flying off rooftops in the darkness, boats gliding quietly across Tokyo Bay in the moonlight. And it features a cast of familiar faces that is sure to bring in viewers beyond Maeda’s devoted following: The legendary Kyoko Koizumi, the amazing Fumi Nikaido, the alluring Kengo Kora and many more.

Nikaido joined her director for the Q&A after the screening, and in inimitable style, greeted the crowd in English: “Hi, everyone. Thank you for coming today. I’m really happy to come back [to FCCJ] again. How do you feel about this movie?” She has been busy since her last visit, in 2014, with Koji Fukada’s Au Revoir l’Ete. Internationally acclaimed at the ripe old age of 16, when she won the Marcello Mastroianni Award at the 2011 Venice Film Festival for her role in Sion Sono’s Fukushima-themed Himizu, Nikaido has continued to stun audiences with her versatility and to work with high-profile directors on an array of acclaimed films, including Kazuyoshi Kumakiri’s My Man (2014), for which she won the Japan Academy Prize for Best Actress.

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                                                                                    ©Mance Thompson       

In Maeda’s film, she is convincingly pouty, jaded and desperate for adventure. It’s summer vacation, and Kako is staring sullenly out at the canal near her house, hoping to spot a crocodile that made off with a neighbor’s baby. “I can see the future,” she sighs heavily. “Nothing beyond the realm of imagination will happen, so what’s the point in experiencing anything?” Then one day, the future drops right into Kako’s lap, in the form of her long-dead Aunt Mikiko (Koizumi) — who, it turns out, is very much alive, having hidden for nearly 20 years following a suspect house explosion. Mikiko, a wisecracking eccentric, takes up residence in Kako’s room despite her niece’s protestations, and the two must find their way to a grudging détente. Before that can happen, there will be catfights, mysteries to solve involving anti-government plots, hints of international intrigue and a homemade bomb that goes awry.

Much of it is delicious, given the strengths of the script and the acting. The natural rapport between the two leads, according to Maeda, was the result of a few weeks of rehearsals before filming, but also, the “power of the actresses.”

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                                                                                         ©Mance Thompson

Asked why she chose the role, Nikaido said, “I’d always wanted to portray a mother-daughter relationship with Kyoko Koizumi. When I read the script, there were a lot of things that were familiar to me. I thought that acting in the film would allow me to face my own past in some way. I also had the sense that the film would turn into something really interesting, and I was eager to be part of it.”

One journalist lauded Nikaido’s ability to play such a bored character without making the character herself boring, to which she responded, “I think that’s due to the director, the wonderful script and the atmosphere on the set. If the set is fun, things get rolling and I can make my character interesting. Kako is bored, yes, but she’s a teenager and I think it’s the typical kind of frustration that teenagers feel.”

Asked about the kind of compromises he had to make in his dual writing-directing roles, Maeda said, “Compromise is essential in filmmaking. The problem is where to make those compromises. As a scriptwriter, I always write what I want to see and what I think is interesting, but I use the script only as a blueprint for the film. Then I listen to my cast and crew’s suggestions, and incorporate them.”

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                                                         Maeda gets serious as he discusses the troubling subject of terrorism in his film.                  ©Koichi Mori

“There isn’t much of a story,” admitted the director. “What I wanted to convey was the atmosphere of [Kako’s] summer days — sometimes boring, sometimes exciting, and sometimes, with the presence of death. That’s what was important to me. Time is like a river, constantly flowing, and we can see our past, present and future in that way. That’s what prompted me to write this, to try to express that thematically.”

The Q&A concluded with a question about the elephant in the room: “With what happened yesterday in Orlando,” said an American academic (referring to the mass nightclub slaughter by a single gunman),“I’m not sure what to think about the terrorism in your film. Can you talk a little about that?” Maeda had clearly been thinking about the connection himself. “That’s a really difficult question,"he began. "I think we all have the impulse toward violence within ourselves. It’s no use denying that, we all have it. The issue then becomes how to control it, how to channel it into a positive force. I think terrorists [like the Orlando attacker] aren’t so different from me or from you. We tend to label all criminals as crazy and inhuman. But I think they’re human, and they feel that they’ve been put into an untenable situation in which they feel it’s necessary to take action. We can’t change the human impulse toward violence, but we can change this situation.

“In my film, we can’t change the female characters’ urge to commit violence,” he continued, “but I think it’s important for us to think about why they want to do these things, and to ask, how is it related to all of us?”

kako MT-38                           The director joined journalists and others in the bar after the event.  ©Mance Thompson

 

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      ©2016 "Kako: My Sullen Past" Film Partners

Media Coverage

TV Exposure


DIVING BELL: THE TRUTH SHALL NOT SINK WITH SEWOL


 April 21, 2016
Q&A guests: Director Hae-ryong Ahn and producer Hei-rim Hwang


Almost exactly 2 years after the sinking of the Sewol Ferry off the coast of Donggeochado Island, South Korea, the Film Committee screened Diving Bell: The Truth Shall not Sink with Sewol, the first documentary completed in the aftermath of the disaster. Although we generally host sneak previews of brand-new films only, showing them just before their theatrical releases, there are a number of mitigating circumstances that have kept this 2014 film at the top of the headlines.

Chief among them is the unresolved nature of the Korean tragedy: Since the overloaded ferry capsized and took down 304 passengers — mostly high school students — with it, there has been no real closure. The South Korean government has been roundly criticized for its ineffectual disaster response and attempts to downplay culpability; the media has been blamed for toeing the government line; the ferry operator, captain and crew, who abandoned ship, have been charged with criminal behavior.

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Director Hae-ryong Ahn and producer Hei-rim Hwang

But of equal newsworthiness is the position of Diving Bell in a still-unfolding battle for freedom of speech and the future of the Busan International Film Festival (BIFF). When the film’s title was included in the BIFF 2014 lineup, pressure was immediately applied by the Busan City Council to withdraw it. BIFF Director Yong-kwan Lee rightly rejected the government’s interference, inviting demands for his resignation. Asian film authority Tony Rayns termed it “a textbook example of an attack on free speech and an impulse to silence opposing voices.”

Lee stood firm, the film was screened as planned in October 2014, and the national government immediately slashed its subsidies to the festival, which is considered to be Asia’s largest and most vital. The Busan City Council then stepped up pressure. Throughout 2015, thousands of supporters around the globe signed petitions and sent messages of solidarity for Lee and BIFF. Ignoring the international outrage, Busan Mayor Byung-soo Suh allowed the festival director’s contract to expire in February 2016. Korean filmmakers soon announced they would boycott BIFF 2016 if city authorities do not allow it to operate freely. Five other Korean film festivals also publicly admitted that they had also had problems with government interference.

Finally, just two days before the FCCJ screening of Diving Bell, an association of Korea’s top film bodies announced they would encourage all members to boycott BIFF 2016, reducing even further its chances of being held as normal.

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Ahn, has a long relationship with Japan, and made all his remarks in fluent Japanese.

Making the timing of FCCJ’s screening seem even more prescient, on April 19, Reporters Without Borders announced its 2016 Freedom of the Press rankings, and warned of “a new era of propaganda.” To no one’s surprise, South Korea had tumbled 10 places, down to #70. But of greater impact was this: Japan’s ranking plummeted 11 places, putting it even lower than South Korea, at #72.

Clearly, Diving Bell is now in the unenviable position of being the Korean bellwether of that most insidious journalistic trend, press “self-censorship,” as well as the issue of film festival censorship, either from within or without.

As one FCCJ member reminded the audience, just weeks ago, the Tribeca Film Festival in New York was forced to pull the film Vaxxed: From Cover-Up to Catastrophe, due to a public outcry over its “discredited” claims that MMR vaccines cause autism. Festival head Robert De Niro, the father of an autistic son, criticized the uproar that forced the film from the lineup.

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                               Hwang describes the film's reception on its limited theatrical release in Korea.    ©Koichi Mori

As for the city’s pressure to withdraw Diving Bell from the BIFF 2014 lineup, director Hae-ryong Ahn said he came to realize “It was not really the content of the film itself that was a problem. The issue was not the safety of the people of Korea but the safety of the government, and that’s what motivated the effort to quash the film.” But he also admitted feeling that “I was the cause of the problems that the festival is facing now, and I feel responsible for that.”

The BIFF controversy did have the unintended effect of boosting the film’s public profile. Producer Hei-rim Hwang explained, “The film did not get distributed in the major multiplexes, but it was shown [in limited screenings] in 25 smaller theaters and community halls, with attendance topping 50,000. Considering the limited release, this was quite good. Also there was good word-of-mouth, and we had Q&A sessions with the families of the victims. Most people came thinking they would see what they’d already seen on mainstream media, but they realized it was only one side of the story. What we were trying to do was ask ‘Why not listen to the other side of the story as well?’ We’re not saying that this is the truth, but that there is another side to the story. We wanted to open the door to a debate about what really happened.”

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The BIFF controversy brought far wider recognition to the film.   ©Koichi Mori

Diving Bell follows investigative journalist Lee Sang-ho (a charismatic, Michael Moore-style truth-seeker) as he rushes to the coast of Donggeochado on April 16, 2014, shortly after the Sewol has sunk. To his dismay, he discovers he is one of the few reporters on site, and that the rescue work by Korea’s Coast Guard has stalled. The failure to save a single passenger during the “golden time” of the first 72 hours, when it is critical to reach and rescue trapped victims, is blamed on strong currents and poor visibility. Yet when news reports begin airing, they claim that all 476 passengers have been safely rescued. Lee stays on site as the tragedy unfolds over the ensuing weeks, talking with grieving parents and witnessing the government’s failure to organize a competent search-and-rescue operation. But it is the vilification of one potential hero, Lee Jong-in, who brings a diving bell at his own expense, knowing that it could greatly hasten the discovery process, which gives the film its reverberating bite.

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                                                                                                                                                                                         ©Koichi Mori

The you-are-there immediacy of Diving Bell still feels bruising, two years after the event. Like many a story whose ending we already know, it unfolds like a nail-biting thriller, with unforeseen twists and turns that are so improbable, they can only be true. Winner of the Grand Prix at the 2015 Fukuoka Asian Film Festival, the documentary offers a dramatic eyewitness vision of the horrifically botched rescue effort, the unresolved controversies over the diving bell, and the still-ongoing media distortion that cloaked the realities of the event. In the film’s final moments, journalist Lee Sang-ho talks with a grieving father who blames himself for his son’s death aboard the Sewol. “What do you want?” he asks. “People deserve the truth,” sobs the father.

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Ahn joined audience members after the screening, and there was spirited discussion.        ©Koichi Mori

Is there renewed hope about the truth following the April 13 elections, in which South Korean President Geun-hye Park’s party was stripped of its majority in Parliament? “The election has already changed things,” said Ahn. “There was even an article in [a conservative newspaper] saying that film is entertainment, and politicians shouldn’t get involved in [censorship attempts.] It’s possible that this will allow the media to be more aggressive in their reporting about the powers that be. In Busan itself, five opposition-party members were elected, and this may cause a shift in the overall thrust of the city government.”

Other documentarians have been doing follow-up research and filming on the Sewol, and perhaps, just perhaps, BIFF 2016 will include one of the sequels in its lineup.

Photos by FCCJ except where noted.

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©2014 Cineport

Media Coverage

TV Exposure

 

I AM A HERO


I AM A HERO


 April 11, 2016
Q&A guests: Director Shinsuke Sato and star Yo Oizumi


The Film Committee usually shies away from screening what are derisively termed “genre” films, since we worry that our audience would be put off by intense bouts of blood and gore.

But these films — running the gamut from horror, splatter and fantasy to monster, swordplay action and erotica — continue to be among Japan’s greatest strengths at the global box office, both enduringly popular and profitable.

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First reader to send us an appropriate caption for this photo
wins a free seat at our next sneak preview.
  ©Mance Thompson

While most local films do not get distributed overseas, there are always audiences for genre films — especially when they’re done as well as I Am a Hero, this country’s first major zombie flick, based on a blockbuster manga series. (If you thought zombies were passé by now, think again: a recent article on the genre estimated that it is worth over $5 billion to the US economy alone.)

Even those with walking-dead fatigue will find much to admire in the latest film by hitmaker Shinsuke Sato, and the proof is in the pudding: I Am a Hero has already swept the awards at the three most important fantastic film festivals. On its world premiere at the 2015 Sitges (Spain) Film Festival, it won the Audience Award and Best Special Effects Award; at the FantaSporto Festival in Portugal, it took home the Orient Express Special Award and another Audience Award; and finally, the very day of the FCCJ sneak preview, it snagged the Golden Crow Award (aka Grand Prix) at the Brussels International Fantastic Film Festival.

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Zombie fighter Yo Oizumi and his director Shinsuke Sato shared an easy rapport.    ©Mance Thompson

Asked to comment about the accolades, Sato noted, “We’d already received several Audience Awards, which I was surprised about. In a way, I feel those are the best awards you can get for an entertainment film, and I was really happy about getting them. Then I received the news about the Grand Prix, and I think this is the greatest applause we can get. I’m really thankful.”

In inimitable style, star Yo Oizumi insisted that he’d known the film could travel successfully overseas: “I expected it would win the awards in Spain, Portugal and Brussels,” he half-joked, “But I heard the news at 4 am this morning, and even though I was confident we would win, I have to admit I was a bit nervous.” He added, “As you all know, Brussels was the site of a recent tragedy, and I praise the festival’s courage in going forward with it as planned. To win an award at such a special moment in time, at such a respected festival, is very gratifying for me.”

Sato, who is known for his CG prowess and big budgets — he’s the mastermind behind recent megahit series Gantz and Library Wars, and is helming the much-anticipated Death Note 2016 — admitted that his latest film was also costly. One reason, his star couldn’t help suggesting, is that “[Sato] never compromises. He’s a perfectionist, and we had to do so many takes that we often wound up working really late hours. We all wanted to quit, but he never let us quit. To make matters worse, he was working with his usual cinematographer, who also has ideas about what he wants, so after we finished with the director’s shots, we had to do [the cinematographer’s], and it was endless.”

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                               Sato transformed Oizumi into an unwilling but thoroughly convincing action hero. ©Mance Thompson

Perhaps the overtime was worth it. Based on the blockbuster manga series of the same name by Kengo Hanazawa, I Am a Hero is that rare big-budget commodity that manages to be gruesomely frightening, darkly funny and hair-raisingly realistic. And it’s anchored by an astoundingly committed star turn from Oizumi. The everyman character he plays, Hideo Suzuki, is a lowly manga artist’s assistant at the age of 35, but he tells everyone his name is spelled with the characters for “hero,” and he nurses big dreams. Then one day, a mysterious virus, dubbed ZQN (pronounced “zokyun,” perhaps playing off the onomatopoeic expression for “goosebumps;” or perhaps echoing the 2-Channel slang dokyun, or DQN, meaning dumbass ), makes men bite dogs and turns his girlfriend into a drooling, double-jointed freak. With doomsday scenarios playing out across Japan, Hideo escapes the general carnage in a runaway taxi with schoolgirl Hiromi (Kasumi Arimura) in tow, and they start climbing Mt. Fuji in hopes the virus can’t survive that high. But it turns out Hiromi has been infected, too, yet she only partially turns. They seek refuge with other survivors on the roof of the Fuji Outlet Mall, and meet former nurse Tsugumi (Masami Nagasawa). Suzuki is soon bullied into giving up his shotgun — an amateur skeet shooter, his crack-shot skills will come in very handy later — while Hiromi’s secret threatens to be spilled, and meanwhile, there’s one zombie whose backflips are getting him dangerously close to the roof’s safe zone.

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Will there be a much-wanted sequel? Sato's keeping mum.   ©Mance Thompson (Sato)

Surprisingly, the film’s pivotal outlet mall scenes proved impossible to shoot in Japan, and the production eventually wound up staging them at an abandoned mall in Korea. “We did things that we’d never done before,” the director said. “We wanted to do things that we’d never done before. It was a challenge for me, my crew and the actors, but it was a very rewarding experience and we’re all glad we could have it.”

Both men were clearly impressed with their Korean counterparts. Sato lauded their resourcefulness and their frequent creative input: “They went out of their way to realize my vision… and the shoot in Korea was a wonderful experience for me.” For Oizumi, “The difference between Japanese and Korean crews is that the Japanese will always wait to eat if the shoot runs long. Even if they get hungry, they’ll keep on working without complaining. The Korean crew members get angry.” A beat. “I’m with the Koreans.”

hero7kmA partnership we hope to see continue.  ©Koichi Mori

 But Oizumi also fondly recalled how relaxing it was to be in a place where he and his two famous female costars went unrecognized. “There was this convenience store across from our hotel, with tables and chairs in the front where you could sit. We used to go there after shooting and buy some drinks and food, and we’d just hang out with the crew, chatting and eating. That’s unthinkable in Japan. It was a lot of fun.”

The casting of Oizumi, a ubiquitous presence in Japan on stage, screen and TV who is especially known for comical roles, was an unusual choice. Sato had worked with him previously, and explained it this way: “You could say that Mr. Oizumi is just about the opposite of the character he plays. In my mind, he’s so cool, he’s like a real hero. And the role is a guy who doesn’t seem heroic at all. But I knew he would bring all of his acting talent to the character. Also, I really felt like the combination of Mr. Oizumi and zombies would be the best match in Japan. No one else can make as many expressions as he can when he’s surprised — it’s a Guinness record-breaking number.”

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Oizumi was eager to join the project since he knew the studio, Toho, would put all their might behind it, and “I thought that if a really handsome actor took the role, people wouldn’t like Hideo or be able to relate to him. So I figured my funny face would fit the part perfectly, and add reality to the character.”

By the end of the evening, it was clear that FCCJ’s audience was not as genre-averse as imagined. It remains to be seen whether the film does as well at home as it’s doing abroad (foreign sales are coming as fast and furious as a zombie attack), but as one seasoned film critic put it during the Q&A session, “I’ve sat through a lot of big-budget Japanese movies, and been disappointed most of the time. I’ve been waiting for a film that would prove my expectations wrong. I’m very happy to say that this was that film.”

Photos by Mance Thompson, Koichi Mori and FCCJ.

IAAH poster
©2015 “I AM A HERO” Production Committee

Media Coverage

TV Exposure

  • テレビ朝日 [芸能特報] 大泉洋、世界三大映画祭を制覇!顔が勝因?
  • テレビ朝日[ワイドスクランブル] 大泉洋・世界三大ファンタスティック映画祭制覇!
  • フジテレビ  [めざましテレビ] めざましSEVEN 大泉洋映画・海外でグランプリ
  • フジテレビ[めざましテレビアクア] 大泉洋・3つの国際映画祭で栄冠
  • 日本テレビ[PON!] 大泉洋・主演映画・映画祭で快挙
  • TBS [はやドキ! はやドキ! エンタメワイド] 外国人記者も爆笑
  • TBS [はやドキ! はやドキ! スポーツ紙 まるごとチェック] ジョニー・デップを押しのけた

 


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.”

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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.

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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.

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©Koichi Mori

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.”

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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.

VOICELESS poster
©2015 “A Voiceless Cry” Production Committee

THE ACTOR (Haiyu Kameoka Takuji)


THE ACTOR


 January 12, 2016
Q&A guest: Director Satoko Yokohama


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Satoko Yokohama finally returns with a new film. She's been much missed.

Satoko Yokohama’s first indie feature, German + Rain, earned her an immediate following on the international film festival circuit in 2007. She solidified her reputation as one of Japan’s most gifted young creators with her Bare Essence of Life (aka Ultra Miracle Love Story, 2008), which premiered at the Toronto Film Festival, traveled extensively overseas, and reaped multiple awards, including the Best Actor at the Mainichi Film Awards for its star, Kenichi Matsuyama.

And then, suddenly, 7 years went by without a new Yokohama feature, although she continued to be active as a director of short films, music and behind-the-scenes videos.  

News of her selection to represent Japan in the Winds of Asia Section at the 2015 Tokyo International Film Festival last October was met with great anticipation, and The Actor was an immediate favorite among festivalgoers upon its premiere.

Yokohama was on hand to discuss her new film with FCCJ’s audience prior to its late-January theatrical opening, and immediately established herself as one of the shyest, most modest guests to have graced our dais. This is all fine and good, of course, but the exuberance of her first two films, demonstrating a mastery of the offbeat, a wild but gentle sense of humor, an eye for the existential and an affection for outsiders, would seem to have suggested a writer-director of great confidence, brashness and perhaps, vanity.

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Ken Yasuda is unforgettable as the title character. At right, he convinces his director (Shota Sometani)
to use real booze when filming a bar scene, which leads to ever-deepening hilarity.

Instead, Yokohama resembles the diffident, everyman hero of The Actor, based on the Akutagawa Prize-nominated novel by Akito Inui. After focusing on larger-than-life protagonists in her earlier films, this one highlights the less-than-large life of a supporting actor, one Takuji Kameoka (played by busy TV thespian Ken Yasuda in an extraordinarily versatile performance). He’s the guy whose face you recognize, but whose name you can never remember. Always working — although not in parts he’d choose if he had a choice — Kameoka can disappear into a role so completely that he’s just perfect as the homeless man, the chimpira, the Edo-era thief (he’s already played seven of them this year). Beloved by directors and respected by his peers, he is cast as much for his humility and lack of ego as he is for his skill and professionalism.

But Kameoka’s heavy-lidded stare, sloped shoulders and smile-grimace say it all: he’s charming but harmless, never upstaging his fellow actors, never playing a leading role even in his own life. As he approaches middle age, he’s clearly given up on any dream of a big break. Then one fateful evening in Nagano, he falls in love with a winsome bartender Azumi (Kumiko Asou), who introduces him to the dubious joys of the local seaweed delicacy and encourages him to visit when he’s lonely. Back in Tokyo, world-famous arthouse director Alain Spesso (Ricardo Garcia), one of Kameoka’s favorites, invites him to audition for the leading role in his next film. The supporting actor is soon facing an existential midlife crisis.

The story may sound straightforward, but The Actor fairly crackles and pops, thanks to Yokohama’s flare for surrealistic touches, unusual imagery and offbeat musical selections. These all became the subject of questions from FCCJ’s audience, with the first, not surprisingly, concerning what changes she had made in adapting the original work to the screen. Focusing immediately on one of the most brilliant — and unexpected — scenes, in which Kameoka goes in to audition for Alain Spesso and is suddenly miming an astonishing performance, interacting with shadows that appear on the screen behind him, Yokohama admitted that, although the scene does appear in the novel, “I added quite a bit to it… it’s one of the scenes in which I took liberties.”

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The director ponders a question.

She also mentioned the film’s final scene, which is meant to take place in the Moroccan desert, but for financial reasons, was shot in Hamamatsu. “I didn’t want to exclude it, so I was quite adamant about it,” she said. She continued, “In the original novel, [Spesso] is a French director, but during the auditions, when we had a lot of different [nationalities] coming in, Ricardo Garcia came in and was very entertaining, in the respect that he was unpredictable. We didn’t quite know what he was going to do. Since he’s from Spain, we changed the storyline to make him Spanish.”

[An ongoing discussion later ensued in the bar, where audience members from Colombia, Argentina and Spain debated Garcia’s actual nationality, arguing that he had not been entirely convincing as a Spaniard.]

To a question about the film’s depiction of alcoholism— Kameoka spends his nights getting quite blotto with a variety of fellow low-achievers, and on one set, even convinces the director to use real alcohol in a bar scene, with hilarious results — Yokohama explained, “When you’re shooting a film in Japan, the set is usually very tense, very strained, and it’s taxing not just on the filmmakers but the actors as well. Because Kameoka is always on set, he needs a place to release all of his tension.”

She then addressed whether there was a veiled message here about Japan at large: “I think people taking to drink is a universal habit, not just in Japan but around the world. However, I would say that the Japanese probably drink more because we can’t be frank with each other. In my case, too, I drink to lubricate communication.”

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Yokohama poses with the poster for her third feature.

Yokohama lauded Ken Yasuda’s depiction of Kameoka, saying she cast him for his “lack of an aura” and his “unassuming character.” As for Kumiko Asou, whom the director also cast as the love interest in Bare Essence of Life, “Although she has a huge career, she’s very easy to work with and is very professional… Also, not only is the character meant to be beautiful, but also fragile after just going through a divorce. I thought Asou-san could depict both traits.”

Although she was prodded about the possibility of a deeper meaning for the film, based on its final scene in the desert of Hamamatsu, Yokohama demurred. “I think the final message is a universal message for all of us: You must live your life as you choose to, and carve your own path, rather than following a path chosen by someone else... The same can be said for filmmakers: You’re not there to make a film the way it’s written in the script exactly, since you don’t know what’s going to happen and you can’t foresee how it’s going to turn out. The key is to not be intimidated — just do your work, don’t worry too much and don’t be afraid.”

We hope Yokohama takes this advice and continues to forge her own unique creative path.
Photos by Koichi Mori and FCCJ.

actor poster
©2016 "ACTOR" Production Committee

Media Coverage

 

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

 


SPECIAL SCREENING of Kakekomi and
Q&A in collaboration with TIFF


 October 9, 2015
Q&A guests: Director Masato Harada, legendary actress Kirin Kiki,
Japan Now advisor Kohei Ando and TIFF Director General Yasushi Shiina


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Ando, Harada and Shiina listen as Kiki declares she just "tagged along with the director" for the event.

Anyone who has attended FCCJ’s screenings over the past eight years knows that our emphasis has been on introducing Japanese films and filmmakers to foreign audiences through the Tokyo-based journalists, critics, festival programmers and cinephiles who join us for our events. We were thus extremely gratified to hear that the 28th Tokyo International Film Festival (TIFF), running from October 22 - 31 in Roppongi and Shinjuku, would debut not one, but two new sections devoted to Japanese film: Japan Now and Japanese Classics.

When the full lineup was announced on September 29, the news was even better: three Japanese titles had made it into the main Competition section, and there were to be over 50 more English-subtitled films by a range of Japanese directors at the festival, from the likes of Akira Kurosawa and Kon Ichikawa (Classics) to Hirokazu Kore-eda and Sion Sono (Now) to Kohei Oguri and Koji Fukada (Competition), along with a 10-title tribute to Ken Takakura,

Perhaps most exciting of all, TIFF announced that it had selected Masato Harada as its inaugural Director in Focus, and unveiled what amounts to the first mini-retrospective of his work. Over a 30-year career, Harada has created a range of compelling films that are both social criticisms and world-class entertainments, and he is one of a small handful of Japanese who are comfortable directing overseas, as well.

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Ando and Harada share a laugh; Harada listens to Kiki describe his skill.

The Film Committee has had the honor of screening three of Harada’s recent films, and we were thrilled to be able to bring his early summer blockbuster, Kakekomi, to the club for an English-subbed encore.

Before the screening, we welcomed TIFF Director General Yasushi Shiina, TIFF Programming Advisor Kohei Ando, Harada and legendary actress Kirin Kiki — who won the Japan Academy Award for her titular role in Harada’s 2012 Chronicle of My Mother and also stars in Kakekomi — to discuss the festival’s new emphasis on local cinema.

Noting that there are over 500 Japanese films released every year in Japan, Shiina said, “This is my third year as the director of TIFF, and I’ve been wondering how best to introduce Japanese films and filmmakers to the world. We wanted to create a selection that would allow visitors to TIFF to see the full spectrum of films, to see what’s happening in the industry right now. We also wanted to focus on getting more recognition for Japanese filmmakers in overseas markets, and that’s why we created the two new sections, Japan Now and Japanese Classics. We look forward to welcoming audiences from as many countries as possible.”

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Kohei Ando, a filmmaker, producer and popular figure on the international film scene, was selected as the first programming advisor for the Japan Now section. He noted: “People often say that if you see three films from one country, you can learn a lot about that country. The concept of Japan Now is to help you learn more about Japan. We narrowed our selection to 11 films, one of which is a family story from maestro Yoji Yamada and another of which is from Hirokazu Kore-eda, also about a contemporary family. If you watch just these two films, you’ll have an understanding of the diversity of Japanese families today.”

“We decided to focus on Mr. Harada as the first Director in Focus,” Ando continued, “because we believe he deserves increased international recognition as a master filmmaker, and we also hope Japanese audiences will be reminded of his extraordinary talent.”

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Harada and Kiki have collaborated on only two films; here's hoping they double that number.

Harada said, “I’m not sure whether I belong to Japan Now or Japanese Classics (much laughter), but I’m honored to be selected and to show these five films. The last time I had a film shown at TIFF was in the Competition section 22 years ago, with Painted Desert. I’m very happy to bring my work to a festival in my own country, and I look forward to meeting audience members from all over the world.”

After joking that she had just “tagged along with Mr. Harada,” Kirin Kiki got more serious. “Mr. Harada is so enthusiastic about the works of other directors,” she said, “he’s always mentioning certain scenes in films by Kurosawa, Ozu and Kihachi Okamoto with such passion and enthusiasm, it’s one of his charms as a director. I see him trying to be an even better filmmaker than these masters, sometimes succeeding, sometimes not. But he’s very, very skilled, and… yahari, umai! (he’s wonderful!).”

The Director in Focus retrospective will feature English-subtitled screenings of Harada’s Kamikaze Taxi (1994), Climber’s High (2008), Chronicle of My Mother (2012), Kakekomi (2015) and The Emperor in August (2015). How did Ando and Harada arrive at this selection? “It’s simple,” Harada explained. “These five films were all rejected by the Cannes Film Festival.”

Ando interjected, “It’s really Cannes’ loss — we beat them this year by bringing these five films to TIFF.”

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Later in the evening, following the screening of Kakekomi, Harada’s first-ever jidaigeki period piece, the director and his star appeared for a Q&A session that was one of the most relaxed and intimate we have ever hosted. Speaking in English throughout (except when making remarks directly to Kiki), Harada fielded questions on a range of subjects, beginning with the reception of his films overseas.

He noted that audiences in Canada and Malaysia had laughed wildly over Kakekomi’s honey enema scene, and applauded when one of the antagonists is killed, a real difference from the more reserved Japanese audiences. He then revealed that he thinks not only about how his films will be received internationally while he’s directing them, but that he even considers how certain lines of dialogue will play in the subtitles. For Kakekomi, he changed character names from the original source novel so they would be more easily rendered in the subtitles.

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Kiki stayed on for the Q&A after the screening, and kept everyone in stitches, including
interpreter Mihoko Imai.

Kiki mentioned that she and Harada had argued rather extensively about certain casting decisions, but that she feels “completely comfortable” working with him, and was pleased that he could quickly make decisions about suggestions she would make. Harada countered, “It’s true that everyone was afraid of Kiki-san on set, but with her, there’s never a dull moment. Even though she complained about the casting, she can really create an energized atmosphere. I highly respect when she makes suggestions. She can come up with fabulous creative ideas, although I’m not sure she would make a good casting director.”

Both director and star continued to affectionately thrust and parry. “I think he’s a masterful, masterful director,” said Kiki. “But I can’t help complaining a bit. I don’t want to compare his work with other auteurs, but it is definitely worthy of more international praise. However, I think he should be more relentless in his perfection of small details. And he needs to put more of himself into his films. When he’s finally able to do that, I think we’ll see something different. He’s a world-class director now, but if he makes an effort to do what I’m suggesting, he’ll be even greater.”

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Harada’s 23 films over the past 30 years have addressed a wide range of subjects — what he terms “Hawksian relationship dramas” in an “old-school style”— that are perhaps not as embraceable by younger generations as the more gonzo style of Japanese genre directors who have found overseas followings. But his work is ripe for rediscovery.

And fortunately, we can expect it to continue. Harada hinted that another collaboration with Kirin Kiki is sure to occur: “I have something in mind, which I can’t announce yet. It’s a historical piece and the character I have in mind for Kiki-san is someone that no one would ever imagine...”

Photos by Koichi Mori and FCCJ.

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©2015 Shochiku

Media Coverage


CHIGASAKI STORY


 September 17, 2015
Q&A guests: Director Takuya Misawa and producer-star Kiki Sugino


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The producer and director share one of many laughs during the Q&A session.

After playing at major film festivals around the globe for the past 10 months, scooping up the Best Screenplay Award in the Future Forward Section of the Beijing Film Festival, and earning accolades for being such a congenial homage to Yasujiro Ozu, Chigasaki Story finally arrived at FCCJ for a sneak preview ahead of its theatrical debut in Tokyo over the weekend.

Our announcement had trumpeted: “There’s nothing like an effervescent comedy of manners to cure the late-summer blahs… Inspired both visually and musically by Yasujiro Ozu (with a little Woody Allen thrown in), the tale is infused with light, bright sentiments and low-key mellow-drama, anchored by a charming young cast.”

We also mentioned that Chigasaki Story is set in the beautiful 115-year-old Chigasaki Inn near Shonan Beach, the actual retreat where Ozu wrote some of his greatest works, including Late Spring (1949), Early Summer (1951) and the masterpiece Tokyo Story (1953). And we highlighted the director’s use of frames-within-frames and “pillow shot” interludes eliding time, favorite Ozu devices.

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Misawa had assisted Sugino on two prior films, the extent of his apprenticeship before taking the directorial reigns himself.

So there were some surprises in store during the Q&A session after the screening, when first-time feature director Takuya Misawa was asked whether he’d planned to pay homage to the classic master from the beginning. “We didn’t actually set out to make a story about the Chigasaki Inn,” he admitted. “That only came about later in the production process. The original script stipulated ‘an inn’ for the location, and it wasn’t until we went location hunting and found the Chigasaki Inn, which luckily gave us the okay to shoot, that we made changes to the script so it was set there.”

Then came the kicker: “I wasn’t necessarily trying to pay homage to Ozu while we were shooting. But during the editing process, I started feeling that it seemed a bit like an Ozu film. So I made some changes to certain scenes to improve [the similarities], but without deconstructing what I set out to do. Some of the ‘pillow’ scenic shots were filmed during post-production.”

A young Japanese man in the audience noted that he found the film to be more like an Eric Rohmer or a Woody Allen work, and Misawa was pleased: “One of my favorite directors is Woody Allen, especially the way his characters aren’t quite what they seem.”

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Misawa gave his producer one of the juiciest roles in the film,
and she nailed it. Bottom photo ©Mance Thompson

While the maturity of his vision belies his age and experience — Misawa is still a student at the Japan Institute of the Moving Image, the film school begun by Shohei Imamura — Chigasaki Story does focus almost exclusively on the under-30 set. Innkeeper Risa, who’s inherited a traditional guesthouse from her parents, is hosting a group of archaeology students led by Prof. Kondo, and awaiting the arrival of her former airline colleagues Karin (a terrific Ena Koshino) and Maki (a deliciously uptight Sugino). They’re coming to attend Risa’s wedding party, which is being held several weeks after the actual wedding in Hawaii. Risa’s staff includes the shy student Tomoharu, who immediately attracts the attentions of the flirty, long-legged Karin. Tomoharu is also the object of fellow student Ayako’s secret affections, and he ping-pongs between the two women without noticing their increasing jealousy. Maki begins her own seduction of Prof. Kondo, with whom she had studied eight years earlier, but the professor has someone else in mind. The friendships, feuds and flirtations, fueled by drink, finally erupt on the eve of Risa’s Hawaiian-themed wedding party.

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As critic Derek Elley earlier noted, “This type of film is much more difficult to pull off than it seems, but Misawa shows a remarkable assurance in both writing and direction, helped by an expertly picked cast.” He was also helped by Wa Entertainment, a boutique production-distribution company that hired him as an intern in 2012. He served as Sugino’s producing assistant on the Koji Fukada comedy Au Revoir l’Ete (which we screened at FCCJ in January 2014), and then served as her assistant director when she made her Indonesia-set film Taksu last year.

Even in Japan’s independent film community, a chance like that given to Misawa is exceedingly uncommon. As Sugino explained, “I’ve been working as a producer, as well as acting, since I was 25, and I often met with cynical comments and attitudes from people in the industry. So I really wanted to break through that wall. Because I think, if there’s something you want to do, why not do it? Why not take on the challenge? I really relish working with young people who have the passion and the energy to do that.”

Misawa described being given just three requirements for his script — summer holiday, beach, students gathering — and Sugino interjected, “ This all started because we [Wa Entertainment] really wanted to do something for him. We provided the framing for the project, but as the executive producer, I wanted him to bring as much of himself into the film as possible, to give it his own flair.”

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Wa Entertainment head Sousuke Ono (in red tie) and Chigasaki actress Juri Fukushima
(to his left) join Sugino and others in the bar following the event. ©Mance Thompson

After an audience member praised him for the film’s dialogue, Misawa admitted that he’s always eavesdropping on conversations in family restaurants, since they’re a good source of chit-chat, and he paid tribute to the improvisatory skills of his actors, hinting that several of the scenes were heavily ad libbed.
 
As for the catchy score, he explained: “The music came about during post-production. I did try matching the visuals with classical music, but I ultimately chose to use jazz, which Woody Allen does. He uses ragtime, which arrived early in jazz history. It came on the scene around the time that the Chigasaki Inn started business, and I thought that was relevant, as well.”

After what will surely be a successful theatrical run for Chigasaki Story, Misawa’s next milestone will be film school graduation next spring, but he is already working on several new scripts. It’s not often that a first feature feels like a mid-career high mark, and we can’t wait to see what he directs next.

As for Sugino, who has won Best Actress awards in Japan and a 2014 Rising Director Award at the Busan Film Festival, as well as been the focus of special sections devoted to her work at the 2011 Tokyo International Film Festival and the 2013 Taipei Film Festival, she is eager to continue having it all. She has finished six projects in the past 18 months, including acting in upcoming films from Kiyoshi Sasabe and Ronan Girre. “I really don’t have a favorite genre,” say Sugino. “I want to try all types of films and roles, whether they be quiet and nice, or angry and hysterical. And I want to work with people from many other countries as well.” International directors, take note!

  Photos by Mance Thompson and FCCJ.

Chigasaki poster
©2015 wa entertainment, inc.

Media Coverage

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 a