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KILLING


KILLING (Zan)


November 7, 2018
Q&A guest: Director Shinya Tsukamoto


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Shinya Tsukamoto kicks off the screening series in FCCJ's new Marunouchi home.  ©FCCJ 

The Film Committee could not have imagined a better inaugural guest for FCCJ’s spacious new digs in Marunouchi: acclaimed writer-director-producer-cinematographer-editor-actor Shinya Tsukamoto.

Nearly three decades on from his 1989 cyberpunk masterpiece Tetsuo: The Iron Man, which hurtled him into international prominence, Tsukamoto has won dozens of awards but remains fiercely independent, creating high art on shoestring budgets, each film the impeccably crafted work of a singular visionary, from Tokyo Fist (1995), Bullet Ballet (1998) and A Snake of June (2002) to Kotoko (2011) and Fires on the Plain (2014, marking his last visit to FCCJ). 

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Mokunoshin, Ichisuke and Yu watch a sudden duel. ©SHINYA TSUKAMOTO/KAIJYU THEATER

An outspoken critic of the Abe Administration, the director continues his exploration of the moral implications of war in his new masterwork, Killing. Although it is his first jidaigeki period film, the parallels between his depiction of Japan’s bloody past and modern-day militarism cannot be ignored.

Killing is set in the mid-19th century, after 250 years of peace, a time when masterless samurai roam the countryside in search of work and sustenance. Young ronin Mokunoshin Tsuzuki (Sosuke Ikematsu, extraordinary in the role) is helping villagers prepare for the harvest, and has found a friend and sparring partner in Ichisuke (Ryusei Maeda), a farmer’s son. But word has spread about Commodore Perry’s demands and the black ships along the coast. As civil unrest builds in Edo, Mokunoshin knows that he must go there to “prove my worth.” Ichisuke’s sister Yu (Yu Aoi) silently watches the two men training, pining for Mokunoshin. “Will you die?” she later asks him. “No,” he answers, “I won’t.” 

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Sawamura recruits the young ronin. ©SHINYA TSUKAMOTO/KAIJYU THEATER

When a more seasoned ronin, Jirozaemon Sawamura (Tsukamoto), observes the young man’s sword skills and tries to recruit him for an elite squad that will help “keep the peace” in the capital, Mokunoshin sees it as his duty to join him. But first, he must protect the farmers from a gang of brigands led by ruthless outlaw Sezaemon Genda (Tatsuya Nakamura). Despite promising “We only make trouble for people who deserve it,” they target the hot-headed Ichisuke. What starts as a bout of bullying soon escalates into an ongoing eruption of violence… and through it all, Mokunoshin cannot — or will not — raise his sword to kill.

Whether he is a “pacifist samurai,” as critics dubbed him following the world premiere of Killing in Competition at the Venice International Film Festival in August, remains ambiguous. Short, sharp and shocking though it is, the film is a complex creation, with layers that demand deeper contemplation. 

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Yu pines for Mokunoshin. His own intentions are never quite clear.
©SHINYA TSUKAMOTO/KAIJYU THEATER

As the director fielded wide-ranging questions following the FCCJ screening, the audience’s obvious enthusiasm for the film fueled Tsukamoto’s own passion for introspection — and gradually, the Q&A session grew nearly as long as Killing itself.

The emcee plunged right in, asking about the film’s seeming correlation between violence and sex. (Tsukamoto later tweeted that he “sat up straighter” when he heard it.) “Indeed, this is a very important factor in the film,” the director acknowledged. “Strangely enough, nobody has asked this question, so I’m very happy you did. Originally, we had a different version of the shooting script ready just before the shoot. That version focused on the samurai studying his sword, pondering the question of whether or not to kill. I thought something was lacking, so I reverted to an earlier version of the script that contained eroticism. Although one could question whether it’s appropriate to equate his dilemma of whether to kill with his sexual urge, I thought the story wouldn’t feel truthfully told without it.”

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The director discusses how painful even a small sword slash, like the one Sawamura sustains on his hand, can be. @Koichi Mori

Noting that the three key battles in the film take place offscreen, an audience member asked whether that was a conscious choice or due to budgetary restrictions. “Although we were on a shoestring budget, it wasn’t because of that, it was a very intentional choice,” the director responded. “I wanted to touch on two themes: I wanted the film to be the antithesis of the heroism that we’re used to seeing in samurai films, and I also wanted Yu to represent all the peasants, the people like us. During World War II, the government told us we were winning, and we were all overjoyed, shouting ‘Banzai!’ We didn’t know what was really happening, all the gruesome details of the reality on the battlefields, where the faces and psyches of Japanese soldiers were being shredded. We [were victims of propaganda and] had no way of knowing.

“I wanted to depict the lack of knowledge about what’s happening on the frontlines. It’s only when violence is on our doorstep that we become aware of it. When Yu says, ‘I want you to avenge [her brother’s] death,’ she can say it because she doesn’t know what really happens when someone is sliced open by the blade of a sword. We see the violence drawing closer throughout the film, and I think this echoes what’s happening in everyday Japan. The people who fought in or witnessed World War II are dying away, and we’re gradually losing our sense of danger. I think that’s why we seem to be inching our way toward war. That’s the kind of intent that went into the omission of the battle scenes.” 

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Super-interpreter Mihoko Imai reacts to Tsukamoto's compliment about her abilities: "Wow, you're so lively!" ©Koichi Mori

He later admitted, “I’m an ardent fan of jidaigeki films and have great respect for [the genre], especially Akira Kurosawa’s Seven Samurai, Yojimbo and Sanjuro. But I wanted to do something a little different this time around, and not focus on what we usually see, which is a kind of beauty of form… I didn’t want to glamorize the battle scenes, as you see done in other samurai films. I didn’t want to go too far, though. I didn’t want to make a jidaigeki film with no battle scenes, just as you wouldn’t want a Godzilla film in which Godzilla doesn’t appear.

“I was aware that, if you’re doing a jidaigeki, the audience expects sword fighting. So where I wanted to make the difference was how the story unfolds leading up to the battle scene. I had to find the balance between the archetypical samurai film and the atypical. The atypical portions should make you a bit uncomfortable and leave you with questions about [what it means].” 

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@FCCJ

Complimented on the film’s impressive performances, Tsukamoto was asked about his own, as the skilled swordsman Sawamura. How did he summon the heroic-but-murderous spirit needed? He responded, “My impression of the character when I was writing the script was quite different from my impression when I watched the film, which surprised me. We’re used to seeing samurai characters depicted as chivalrous and kind, and I wanted to pose a question about what they were really like. So you should see the antithesis of that in the film. But although I wrote him that way, when I saw him on film, he seemed very villainous, as if he were the cause of all the problems that occur.”

Another audience member complimented Tsukamoto on the “magnificent” sword-fighting scenes and the skill with which the actors wielded their swords, and asked how they’d prepared. “We had a tateshi, a sword-fighting action director, Mr. Tsujii, with whom I’d worked in the past, who gave us direction and advice,” the director responded. I wanted to ground the fighting sequences in reality, so I also sought the advice of a sensei at the Hokushin Ittoryu dojo about how to carry your body and how to sheathe and unsheathe the sword, as well as the principles behind the actions.

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Tsukamoto as Mifune as Sawamura. ©SHINYA TSUKAMOTO/KAIJYU THEATER

“Unfortunately, I sprained my lower back while we were shooting one of the sword fights, so for all the high aspirations I had for the battle scenes, I wasn’t able to do much myself… I’d hoped to be like Toshiro Mifune in Yojimbo, where he was slicing and dicing these 10 opponents. I noticed he always carried his back [at the same height] from the ground, which really impressed me. I was really disappointed that I couldn’t do that.”

He joked that he was a better editor than an actor, since he’d had to improve his own fight scenes in the editing room. “I think the reason the sword-fighting sequences look like they’re exquisitely done is because Mr. Ikematsu is so good. He didn’t have much [fighting] experience before, but he’s like a sponge, a very quick learner, and he has great physicality. He elevated the level of [those sequences].”

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@FCCJ

He elaborated, “What I wanted to do with Mr. Ikematsu was to transport a modern-day youth back to the Edo period, and bring a sense of reality and rawness to the story. This reflects my influences, including an early formative experience for me, watching Kon Ichikawa’s Matatabi [aka The Wanderers]. That film also had young actors in a period piece that feels very modern.”

Renowned Iranian filmmaker Amir Naderi was in the audience, and asked how Tsukamoto always manages to direct such “fresh” performances from his female characters, in a way “unlike any other Japanese director.” He answered, “The way I work with actresses depends on the film, of course, but I think you can get the sense in my films that I really respect women, who are amazing… As you know, Ms. Aoi is an accomplished and versatile actress, so I didn’t really have to direct her much. Usually, she can detect the through-line quite easily, but she seemed to find it difficult with my script. So she decided to go at the role from diverse directions, almost as if we see her maturing from 15 to 28 years old, coming of age. It’s wonderful how she did that, and I think she’s marvelous.”

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Naderi greets Tsukamoto after the screening.  ©Mance Thompson

Naderi had also asked about Tsukamoto’s unique use of sound, “which is almost like music in the film.” The director responded, “I’ve collaborated with the sound designer since A Snake in June, and I think the sound is as important as the visuals. I wanted to make something that you couldn’t just watch objectively; I wanted to make an experiential film. I wanted audiences to feel the presence of nature, since it surrounds the characters, as well as the presence of the blades. They’re very heavy, which you can feel through the sound design.”

He continued, “I used Chu Ichikawa’s music in the film. We’d been collaborators for 30 years, starting with Tetsuo. We shot the film, and just as we started editing, he succumbed to a long-term illness and died. I didn’t have a desire to go to anyone else; I wanted to use his music. It was a rushed shoot (just 3 weeks), but the editing process was lengthy. I used parts of compositions he’d done over the past 30 years. With his wife’s permission, I went to his home and looked for unfinished pieces. It was a mourning process for me. I could collaborate with Mr. Ichikawa, event though he’s up in heaven, and I was able to hear music I hadn’t heard before.”

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 @Mance Thompson

Calling Killing “one of the finest Japanese films of the past decade,” a critic asked whether Tsukamoto intended to make another trilogy, as he had with the Tetsuo films. “I had this idea of the ronin pondering [the moral implications of wielding] his sword 20 years ago,” said the director. “I was also entertaining the idea of having the protagonist duel with Zatoichi in part II. It would be wonderful to see Mr. Ikematsu doing battle with Zatoichi. I’m interested in the late Edo period, the Bakumatsu era. But there’s a jinx with films depicting that era, they’re usually not successful. I’d like to take up the challenge. I thought it would be interesting to have the guitarist Hotei portray (imperial loyalist) Ryoma Sakamoto, because he’s very, very tall and I think he would look good in hakama and boots, carrying a gun.”

Obviously relishing the image, he went on, “Of course I would then have to depict the Shinsengumi (who murdered Sakamoto), who were in reality a bunch of rowdy outlaw teenagers. Just talking about it makes me smile. I don’t want to strike out the possibility of doing that in the future. If saying it here helps to [get the project off the ground], all the better.”

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 ©Mance Thompson

Tsukamoto has had an active parallel career as an actor in a diversity of films by other filmmakers, including key roles in Martin Scorsese’s Silence and the Japanese blockbuster Shin Godzilla, both in 2016. He was asked whether his experience with Scorsese had left a lasting impact. “Of all the filmmakers alive today, Martin Scorsese is the one I respect the most, ever since I first saw Taxi Driver in high school,” he responded. “I play a Christian who dies for his beliefs in Silence, and I would say that my own religion is Scorsese. I think he’s influenced me in the way he leaves a lot of freedom for his actors. Although he’s so accomplished, he has a wonderful respect for his actors. I learned that from him, and I tried to do a little of that on this film.” 

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©SHINYA TSUKAMOTO/KAIJYU THEATER

Selected Media Exposure

PASSAGE OF LIFE


PASSAGE OF LIFE (Boku no Kaerubasho)


September 20, 2018
Q&A guests: Director Akio Fujimoto, producer Kazutaka Watanabe and star Khin Myat Thu


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From left, producer Kazutaka Watanabe, director Akio Fujimoto and star Thin Myat Thu. ©Koichi Mori

The line between fiction and reality is blurred in Akio Fujimoto’s debut feature, Passage of Life. A poignant family drama with an undercurrent of political urgency, the Japan-Myanmar coproduction won both the Spirit of Asia Award and the Best Asian Future Film Award at the 2017 Tokyo International Film Festival — the first time a Japanese director had been so honored.

It went on to screen around the world to critical accolades, winning awards in the Netherlands and Thailand (where it qualified as a Burmese film). Just last month, it also received a Special Recognition honor from Japan’s Education Ministry, meaning that it is recommended for school viewings. As the awards season looms, there is every expectation that Passage of Life will be on many year-end lists.

The domestic accolades are especially important, since there are surprisingly few contemporary Japanese fiction films that incorporate pressing social issues into their storylines, and fewer still that treat non-Japanese characters (who barely seem to exist on screen here) with understanding or real compassion. 

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©Mance Thompson

At the Q&A session that followed the FC’s sneak preview, producer Kazutaka Watanabe explained the film’s genesis, way back in 2013: “The idea [to depict Burmese immigrants] came from Yuki Kitagawa, who appears in the film as the Japanese man who’s helping the family, and who also became the film’s co-producer. We had no money, and I didn’t have any experience as a producer yet, but we decided to go ahead with the project. Most of the information about Myanmar online is about the military government and Aung San Suu Kyi, not about the daily lives of Burmese. We wanted to tell a story that Japanese audiences could empathize with, that could also be full of discoveries. So we put out a monthlong open call for writer-directors online, and had about 40 responses. Mr. Fujimoto was the only one who wrote an entire script in that month, and he was also one of the most passionate. We were really impressed that despite his limited knowledge of Myanmar, he was able to create a believable world.”

Fujimoto conducted his initial research in Takadanobaba, which has one of Tokyo’s largest Burmese populations, and decided to portray one of the hard-luck stories he’d heard. He didn’t realize that his script would have to be vetted with the Myanmar government, nor that a representative would be on set during the shoot there. But despite the censorship, the film’s family can be seen as a metaphor for every family that has and is still facing an uncertain future. 

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Kaung contemplates life in Myanmar.  ©E.x.N K.K

Passage of Life drops us without preamble into the lives of Issace (Issace) and Khin (Khin Myat Thu), who immigrated to Japan from Myanmar without visas, along with their two sons, Kaung (Kaung Myat Thu) and Htet (Htet Myat Naing). They were following in the footsteps of many others, who began coming here in the wake of the 8888 Uprising (1988 pro-democracy demonstrations) in Myanmar. (There is briefly-seen newsreel footage of brutal military clampdowns on protestors.)

Issace and Khin find illegal work in Tokyo and create a happy life with their boys — although Kaung, now 7, and Htet, 4, believe they are Japanese and have the attitudes to go with it (“Idiot!” yells Htet, nearly hitting his mother in one fit of pique).

After several years of residency, Issace learns it is possible to file an application for political refugee status, and during his interview with Immigration, explains they left their country because “it was no longer safe.” But the request is denied, as happens all too frequently here, and no clear explanation is given. Issace tried to reassure Khin, who is struggling with an unnamed illness, but she pleads with him to return to Myanmar before their re-application is rejected again. “Things have changed back home since we came,” she says hopefully. “No way,” he responds. “Things can’t be that different. There’s no way we could back.”

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Kaung gets lost enroute to the airport.  ©E.x.N

Then one night, Immigration shows up at the door and warns Issace to stop working. Khin says, “We can’t be safe, not even in our own home… coming here was a big mistake. I want a normal life.”

After a hospitalization and with options fast dwindling, Khin makes the choice to takes the boys to Yangon, where they will grapple with their loss of friends and Japanese identity — as well as their distance from Issace, who has stayed in Japan to continue working so he can send them money. But Skype calls are not the same as being there, and one day, Kaung packs his rucksack, grabs a toy gun and heads for the airport.

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©FCCJ

Despite the film’s impressive social-issue immediacy, the initial Q&A questions focused on the extraordinary performances of the two small boys. Noting that it was the one thing he had been asked everywhere he traveled with the film, Fujimoto said, “No matter what nationalities the audiences were, everyone seemed to empathize with Kaung and this family. That made me really happy.”

He continued, “The most difficult part was that this was not an actual family, so the challenge was how to make them as real as possible. Since the father is not the boys’ real father, we had to figure out how to build a loving relationship between them. Khin-san [Khin Myat Thu] is their real mother, but the father is a Myanmar-based [stranger]. It was very difficult for the boys to call him ‘Papa’ at first.”

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 Fujimoto laughs as Myat Thu recalls mock-fighting with her son. ©Koichi Mori

Myat Thu, who has lived in Japan for 18 years, and whose sons were raised here, signed on to portray the mother when her elder boy, Kaung, decided he wanted to be in the film. She recalled, “The most challenging part of the process for me was the scene in which Kaung and I had to have a fight. That never happens in real life, so we had to find a way to fight realistically, and that was difficult.”

To capture a high degree of authenticity from the children, Fujimoto decided to shoot lengthy takes without interruption, and then spent 2 years editing down the resulting tens of hours of footage. He was asked why he had adopted the film’s documentary-like shooting style. The director answered, “It’s difficult to lock down the camera when you’re shooting children, unless you direct them to move in a restricted way. We wanted to have them move freely, and to have the camera move freely along with them.”

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Mom and the two boys explore the forests outside Yangon.  ©E.x.N K.K

Fujimoto also said he had accepted a certain degree of improvisation from the children, as long as the meaning of the original dialogue did not change. “We were extremely lucky, because although the younger boy, Htet, couldn’t read the script, he didn’t veer too far from it. But there was a certain scene in which he cries profusely, and that wasn’t included in the original script. It was supposed to be a very heartwarming scene, but when I explained what was happening [in the story] before the camera rolled, he just burst into tears.

“The original plan had been to tell the story of the older brother, Kaung, and [his coming of age]. We shot in sequence, and I was quite happy with how things were going. But thanks to [Htet’s outburst], it created a sudden juxtaposition with the younger boy’s own growth, or coming of age.”

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 Watanabe and Fujimoto.  ©Koichi Mori

Asked what he thought the film’s main message is, producer Kazutaka Watanabe replied, “What I found most impressive is that we had a Japanese director who was able to empathize with Burmese children. I feel that’s a rarity here — most creators don’t seem to feel empathy for people from Southeast Asian, or any foreigner, for that matter. Of course immigrants coexist with us in Japan, you see them working in convenience stores and family restaurants. But there’s no empathy. If we manage to get the audience to empathize with characters like this, we can expose them to something different. Of the film’s many messages, I think that’s the most important.”

Another journalist asked the director why Passage of Life was vague about the reasons that Isaace’s application for refugee status had been rejected. “It was intentional not to include too much exposition, or to give the background for why they had come to Japan in the first place,” responded Fujimoto. “This was a point I thought a lot about, but I ultimately decided to pare down those details. I could have given some explanation of why the system in Japan is so complicated and so strict. But what I really wanted to do was to show to daily lives of these people from their viewpoint.”

He added, “I think it’s probably very difficult even for professionals working in the immigration field to explain the reasons for a rejection, and it’s also difficult to prove that you’re a refugee. It would make me very happy if the film instigates discussion among immigrants in Japan.”

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©Mance Thompson

There are an estimated 10,000 Burmese currently here on legal visas, although watchdog groups suggest there are many more undocumented immigrants (from many nations) than the government’s official count.

Last year, Japan granted refugee status to only 20 people, out of nearly 20,000 applicants (a sharp increase over the previous year’s applications). The year before, it approved just 28. The Justice Ministry started a stricter screening system in January this year to eliminate applicants believed to be purely job-seekers, and reported in late August that applications had plunged 35% in the first half of 2018 (22 applicants were approved).

But Japan has not officially adopted an immigration policy, and as security is beefed up ahead of the 2020 Tokyo Olympics, the government is cracking down on those working illegally while awaiting the outcome of their refugee applications, putting them in detention centers and creating the sense that every visa overstayer is a criminal.

In a perfect world, every Japanese would watch Passage to Life and help, somehow, to implement correctives.

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©E.x.N K.K

 

SHOPLIFTERS


SHOPLIFTERS (Manbiki Kazoku)


June, 6, 2018
Q&A guest: Director Hirokazu Kore-eda


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Kore-eda with his Palme d'Or, surely the closest anyone in the audience has ever been — or ever will be — to the prize.  ©Mance Thompson

Even the infrequent filmgoer in Japan knows that Hirokazu Kore-eda became the first Japanese director in 21 years to win the coveted Palme d’Or at the Cannes Film Festival on May 19, for his latest masterwork, Shoplifters

But the good news was quickly hijacked by right-wing Japanese commentators, who — without viewing the film, and perhaps without having a clue that the bulk of Japanese cinema does not treat the country’s social ills as if they are taboo subjects — immediately began condemning it for the damage it could cause to Japan’s international reputation. 

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©Mance Thompson

Soon, the headlines had politicized the win even further, suggesting that Prime Minister Abe’s reported failure to call Kore-eda with congratulations was surely proof that he disapproved of its empathetic portrait of a family living in poverty and shoplifting to get by.

The director attempted to set the record straight in a message posted to his website on June 6, protesting that “discourse surrounding this film has included both criticism and praise … [arrived at] by juxtaposing it against the values asserted by the current administration.” He went on to write: “A film is not a vehicle to accuse, or to relay a specific message. If we reduce a film to this, we lose all hope for cinema to ignite a richer conversation. I have never made a film to praise or to criticize something. That kind of filmmaking is nothing but propaganda.”

Of course it’s no secret that the auteur has always incorporated social issues into his work, particularly his documentaries. But he rarely foregrounds them in his narrative films, with the exceptions of his 2001 Distance and his 2004 Nobody Knows, both of which also earned acclaim at Cannes.

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©Mance Thompson

For those familiar with his oeuvre, Shoplifters can be seen as a continuation of Kore-eda’s concerns with the trials and tribulations of the “family” unit, and his ongoing exploration of the strength and fragility of bonds forged by choice, not blood. This was the overriding theme of his 2015 Cannes Jury Prizewinning Like Father, Like Son.

As with the writer-director’s previous domestic dramas, Shoplifters is a thoroughly engaging film, both gently comedic and heart-wrenchingly sad, and it features winning performances from a familiar — and much-loved — cast, including Kore-eda regulars Kirin Kiki and Lily Franky. It also features a breathtakingly brilliant turn by Sakura Ando, collaborating with him for the first time. (The only moment of the film that can possibly be interpreted as subversive is when Ando wears a t-shirt bearing the message Freedom is never voluntary. It must be demanded by the oppressed.) 

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Osamu and Shota case a supermarket before taking what they need.
© 2018 FUJI TELEVISION NETWORK/GAGA CORPORATION/AOI PRO. INC. ALL RIGHTS RESERVED.

It’s no surprise that the FCCJ screening of Shoplifters was one of the biggest draws in recent memory, although it’s a shame that the 80+ people on the waiting list could not be seated. After eight TV cameras and dozens of additional Japanese press members were accommodated, the filmmaker entered the thronged room carrying his Palm d’Or box, and despite being exhausted from 2 weeks of constant interviews and evident lack of sleep, answered questions with the same contemplative regard that marks all his work.

After obliging everyone by opening the box and showing his prize, Kore-eda recalled his Cannes experience, and his elation at the praise of the jurors for the film’s directing and acting. Addressing the elephant in the room, he then went on to say, “I’ve participated in many overseas film festivals since 2000, and there has been a lot of mention about the lack of criticism of Japanese society and politics [in the selected Japanese films]. I would say that this has to do with the distribution system in Japan. Oftentimes, the more major film companies will not handle films with heavy themes. This has resulted in the diminishing of the diversity and variety of Japanese films at festivals abroad.”

He admitted to being surprised about the approach taken by Japanese media: “I keep hearing that either I or my film is causing quite a stir. But I would put a positive spin on this. It’s a welcome thing, because it’s no longer just a film being released. It’s gone beyond those boundaries and will reach many more people. So it’s not such a bad thing.”

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©︎Koichi Mori

Indeed, no spin should be required. Shoplifters features one of the most endearing, close-knit families to hit Japanese screens since… the blue-collar family in the director's own Like Father, Like Son, which has so far been his biggest hit around the world. 

In this era of belt-tightening and widening income gaps, young Shota (Jyo Kairi) has been taught how to pinch the things they need but can’t afford by his father Osamu (Franky, channeling his lovable patriarch in Like Father, Like Son). “The stuff in stores doesn’t belong to anyone yet,” Osamu reassures him. The two work seamlessly together on the job, trading secret signals and celebrating with fist-bumps before bringing their booty back to the ramshackle dwelling they share with Nobuyo (Ando), Nobuyo’s sister Aki (Mayu Matsuoka), and granny Hatsue (Kiki), whose small pension payments supplement the income of the adults’ minimum-wage jobs. 

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The poster outside the screening room, noting the full house. ©Koichi Mori

Returning home one frigid night, Osamu rescues a tiny girl, Yuri (Miyu Sasaki), who is malnourished and too shy to speak. At first reluctant to shelter (and feed) yet another mouth, Nobuyo realizes that the child is being abused and decides to take her in. Despite Shota’s initial resentment of his new “sister,” and the occasional incident (a broken leg, a lost job, a death), the family lives happily together, taking trips to the beach, building a snowman, watching Osamu’s magic tricks. And then, a routline shoplifting spree triggers a startling outcome, and as hidden secrets are unraveled, threatens to undue the bonds uniting them.

Mentioning that Kore-eda has said his script was inspired by recent news stories, a journalist asked about the family who had stolen fishing rods (a similar event occurs in the film), and what kind of research had been conducted. “I read about the court case involving the family,” said the director. “They hadn’t pawned the rods for cash yet. They still had them, which was why they were caught. I imagined that the family must have loved fishing, and immediately had a clear image of a father and son fishing with stolen rods.” He laughed. “I apologize to all the fishing stores out there."

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Aki and Hatsue in the overcrowded central room of the house.
© 2018 FUJI TELEVISION NETWORK/GAGA CORPORATION/AOI PRO. INC. ALL RIGHTS RESERVED.

He continued, “The story isn’t based on one particular incident, but rather on various incidents involving families committing crimes. I wanted to depict a family or close-knit community that wasn’t bound by blood. The first thing that came to mind was a family bound by crime, such as by [real-life] cases of pension fraud in which families failed to report the death of parents, and fraudulently claimed the pension payments. I also wanted to depict a family or close-knit community that was bound not by kindness, but by money. I didn’t want to go too soft or easy on this.

“Another idea that made its way into the film came from research we did at a facility for abused children. There was one girl who came back from school with her [heavy backpack] and we asked what she was studying. She pulled out this Japanese picture book called ‘Swimmy,’ and started reading. The facility workers scolded her for taking up too much of our time, but she wouldn’t stop. She read all the way to the very end, and we all clapped, and she just beamed. I imagined that she probably wanted to read it to her parents, and that left a really deep impression on me. So I had the boy read ‘Swimmy’ in the film. 

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©Mance Thompson

A Japanese journalist asked whether Kore-eda could possibly have “targeted the film at Japanese politicians, due to its treatment of social problems” that are being overlooked. The director immediately responded, “Not in particular. I say No because I’ve felt this way since the days when I worked in TV. One of my coworkers told me, ‘When you make a film, target it toward one individual and keep that person firmly in mind. If you do that, you’ll be able to reach many people.’ I was in my 20s at the time, and I’ve continued to have this stance.”

Anticipating the next question, he continued, “I think for this film, I targeted it at the young girl who read us ‘Swimmy.’”

Referencing a particularly enchanting scene of togetherness, in which the family sits on the porch of their tiny home, eating watermelon and listening to the fireworks that they’re not able to see for all the tall buildings surrounding them, one attendee asked how important the physical dwelling was to the story. Kore-eda recalled Cannes Jury President Cate Blanchett’s speech before presenting him with the Palm d’Or, “in which she mentioned the ‘invisible people’ in the film. That was definitely a key motif. It’s about what we cannot hear and cannot see. There are scenes in which people aren’t able to see each other through the window or hear each other’s voices. The parts that are hidden and unseen, left to the audience’s imagination, were an important motif throughout the film.

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© 2018 FUJI TELEVISION NETWORK/GAGA CORPORATION/AOI PRO. INC. ALL RIGHTS RESERVED.

“We were very lucky to be able to find that house, which we used for the location shots. I think it’s a big factor in the success of the film. My request was to find a single-story house surrounded by tall buildings, and my amazing crew found it. We actually shot some of the interiors on a set that reproduced interiors from the house. Thanks to the wonderful production design, even I can’t recall exactly which scenes we shot on location and which were on the set. It was really believable that these people were living together in this house, and I think it’s one of the main characters in the film.”

Hoping for a scoop, an entertainment reporter asked Kore-eda about the progress on his next film, rumored to star French icons Catherine Deneuve and Juliette Binoche. “We actually haven’t officially announced anything about the new project,” he responded, “so it’s puzzling how much information has been leaked, [including] cast names and how much they’re getting paid. I don’t know how much I can disclose, but I can say that the shoot is planned for the autumn in France, predominantly in France, with French actors and actresses. We’re planning an official announcement next month, and I’ll be going to Paris from June.” 

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©︎Koichi Mori

While the newly minted Cannes Palm d’Or winner heads off to direct his foreign-language debut, filmgoers in Tokyo will be treated to English-subtitled screenings starting from June 23 at Wald 9 Cinemas in Shinjuku. But overseas fans won’t have long to wait: Shoplifters has been sold to an astounding 149 countries, including North America, where the film's distributor, Magnolia, continues an impressive run (recent releases include RBG and Oscar nominees I Am Not Your Negro and The Square, which was last year’s Palme d’Or winner).

It is not difficult to imagine that Hirokazu Kore-eda, master of the delicately lyrical, understated humanist drama, will grace the Academy Awards stage in 2019. 

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©Mance Thompson

 

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© 2018 FUJI TELEVISION NETWORK/GAGA CORPORATION/AOI PRO. INC. ALL RIGHTS RESERVED.

Selected Media Exposure

Selected TV Exposure

  • 映画「万引き家族」で最高賞是枝裕和監督反響の大きさにぼやき

    201867日放送 5:43 - 5:45 フジテレビ

    めざましテレビ OH!めざめエンタ NOW

  • 是枝裕和監督次回作構想一部明らかに

    201867日放送 5:08 - 5:09NHK総合

    NHKニュースおはよう日本(ニュース)

  • 気になる次回作は

    201867日放送 4:20 - 4:21TBS

    はやドキ!はやドキ!エンタメ

THE MAN FROM THE SEA


THE MAN FROM THE SEA (Umi wo Kakeru Otoko)


May 23, 2018
Q&A guests: Director Koji Fukada and star Dean Fujioka


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 Dean Fujioka (left) and Koji Fukada (right) are sure to reach new audiences with their first collaboration.  ©Mance Thompson

Those who are familiar with writer-director Koji Fukada’s award-winning work, particularly his 2016 Harmonium, the Jury Prizewinner in the Cannes Un Certain Regard section, will find that his first international coproduction feels both more placid and yet politically charged.

Those familiar with the work of actor Dean Fujioka, a homegrown megastar with a fervid Asian following, may be surprised by his limited screen time in a film by a director whose leanings are resolutely arthouse, rather than commercial.

Yet both men have clearly benefitted from the collaboration, and Fujioka’s presence is sure to help The Man from the Sea reach a much-expanded audience.

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 All photos ©Mance Thompson, except bottom right:  ©FCCJ

Speaking briefly prior to FCCJ’s screening, Fukada promised, “It’s a much lighter film than my last one.” Indeed, while much of the story concerns the developing inter-relationships between its four central characters, it is set against the backdrop of real-life tragedy in the seaside town of Banda Aceh, Sumatra. An area once devastated by the 2004 Indian Ocean earthquake and tsunami, it inspired the director to craft a tale marked by parallels with Japan’s own triple disasters in March 2011.

Fukada explained, “The idea for the film came from a visit I made to Banda Aceh back in December 2011, to shoot a tsunami symposium. It was really interesting, because I discovered big differences in the way [Indonesians and Japanese] view life and death. That’s what stimulated me to consider shooting against that backdrop.”

Evoking both the splendor and the wrath of nature, infused with a palpable sense of loss and hope as well as an ineffable magic realism, The Man from the Sea contains documentary interview footage touching on the still-fresh memories of the tsunami as well as the area’s recent civil war, and further back, lingering recollections of the hardships of World War II.

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©Mance Thompson

But these scenes are interwoven with the burgeoning romances of the film’s Japanese and Indonesian protagonists — whose cross-border rapport makes it seem as if the usual barriers of nationality and language simply don’t exist. And then there is the sudden arrival of a mysterious visitor (a driving motif of both Harmonium and Fukada’s earlier Hospitalité), who shakes the equilibrium of the community.

As The Man from the Sea opens, we meet Japanese aid worker Takako (Mayu Tsuruta), who has settled in Banda Aceh, assisting in ongoing reforestation and other disaster recovery projects with her son Takashi (Taiga), while her husband remains in Yogyakarta. Both are fluent in Indonesian and completely comfortable in their adopted culture. On the day Takako’s niece Sachiko (Junko Abe) is scheduled to arrive on a visit from Japan, a man (Fujioka) is found lying on a beach, apparently stricken by amnesia, and Takako is called to help. He seems able to understand Japanese and Indonesian, but he cannot — or will not — speak. While his identity is being ascertained, she reluctantly agrees to let him stay at her house overnight.

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Fujioka as the mysterious, magical man from the sea.
©︎2018 "The Man from the Sea" FILM PARTNERS

Takako nicknames the stranger Laut, meaning “sea” in Indonesian, and he seems content to just... be. Smiling serenely, he sits by himself as life swirls around him. Takako, assisted by aspiring journalist Ilma (Sekar Sari), attemps to uncover who this enigmatic visitor is and where he came from, while Sachiko gets settled in and meets Takashi’s college friend Kris (Adipati Dolken). He helps her begin her own search for the beach her father so fondly remembered, where she hopes to scatter his ashes.

And then gradually, strange phenomena begin occurring in Laut’s presence. He seems to have the power to make dead fish jump, cold showers run warm, bubbles of water float, and the dead appear to loved ones. Is he really Naoki Kuroda, the missing tourist, as locals suspect? Or is he something altogether more ambiguous?

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Photos on left: ©Mance Thompson; on right: ©FCCJ

As the Q&A session got under way, Fukada elaborated on the process of bringing the film to fruition, seven years after he attended the disaster seminar in Banda Aceh: “The Indonesian visit also influenced another of my films, Au Revoir l’Eté. About a year after I completed that, I started discussing this project with a producer at Nikkatsu. But it’s really difficult if you try to make a project in Japan that isn’t based on another work. That’s why we had funding also from France and Indonesia (Japan’s Nikkatsu Corporation teamed up with France’s Commes des Cinemas and Indonesia’s Kaninga Pictures to coproduce), as well as creative input. It was a really rewarding project for me.”

Greeting the audience as if they were old friends (he had last visited FCCJ a full year ago, but his affability is a large part of his appeal), Fujioka said in American-inflected English, “I hope you liked the film, and have your own answers to this mysterious piece of work. I believe it’s not something that’s binary — it’s got an open ending that I think opens up a dialogue for viewers.”  

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Takashi and Sachiko take a taxi in Banda Aceh.  ©︎2018 "The Man from the Sea" FILM PARTNERS
 

Asked whether he had taken the role of Laut because he’d wanted to work with Fukada, or because he’d wanted to work in Indonesia, Fujioka immediately responded, “Both. My family is in Jakarta, and I always wanted to do something that’s related to my wife’s home country. I wanted to make something that, when my kids grow up, they’ll be proud of me, they’ll know why I’m missing this time with them now. When I pick projects, my criteria are whether the character, the story or the film will allow me to feel proud of myself as a good father.”

As for his director, Fujioka enthused, “Mr. Fukada’s script was great. It was original, it was really creative, it was eccentric, and you could call it unkind, in a way — it doesn’t end with easy [answers]. It doesn’t really emit any message or define how it should be interpreted.”

Although the film’s overarching meaning(s) can be considered ambiguous, Fukada does not shy from difficult themes. One of these is the fluid notion of national identity. The character of Takashi, for example, wrestles with his Japaneseness, since he considers himself to be essentially Indonesian; and the man from the sea, while he appears to be Japanese, is essentially a man without a country.

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Laut and Ilma help a girl with heat exhaustion. ©︎2018 "The Man from the Sea" FILM PARTNERS

Noting that he had also questioned such notions in films like his 2009 Hospitalité, one journalist asked the director to expand upon the theme. “Indeed, national identity is one theme of the film,” said Fukada. “I was intrigued when I realized during my visit to Banda Aceh that I had seen footage of the great tsunami of 2004 and yet, had considered it only as a [distant] news story among many others. Yet the way I perceived the 3/11 disasters here was different, and I had [distanced myself] by making a distinction between ‘here’ and ‘there.’ It made me want to depict this through characters that had Indonesian and Japanese national identities, and try to juxtapose those against Laut, who has no national identity at all, and thus give the audience the opportunity to think about identity.”

Pressing further on the same issue, another audience member asked the director why he’d felt a “narrative compulsion” to shoot the film abroad, and whether it would have been impossible to make it in Japan. “I don’t think it’s necessarily impossible to explore this theme in Japan,” Fukada answered. “For example, there’s work like Kenji Miyazawa’s ‘Matasaburo of the Wind’ (a short story in which village schoolchildren believe that a new transfer student is the embodiment of a legendary wind sprite) — so it’s a universal theme, in a way.” 

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As in his prior visit, Fujioka made all his responses in English. ©︎Mance Thompson

He continued, “But I found that when I placed the story in Indonesia, it was an even better match than I’d anticipated. I had discovered that Indonesians have a spiritual nature, and more of an acceptance of the supernatural. The man Nu, who appears in the documentary within the film, said that after he’d lost his wife and daughter in the disaster, his wife had forgiven him for remarrying, and his daughter had come to him in a dream and led him to where [her remains could be found]. He talked about it in a very natural way, not as if it were any kind of special experience for him.

“Also, when we were shooting on location, we always had ‘rain stoppers.’ These were people who offered prayers to stop the rain, whenever it looked like rain was imminent. All the Japanese crew found this unusual, but for the Indonesian crew, it was an everyday thing. I think it’s only normal that the people of Aceh would receive the character of Laut in a very natural way.” 

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©︎Mance Thompson

Recalling an interview he’d conducted with Fujioka when his I Am Ichihashi: Journal of a Murderer was coming out in 2013, a journalist said they’d spoken about the difficulty of preparing for a role when an actor feels he has nothing in common with the character. “For this film, then, how did you go about preparing to play a character who is basically unknowable?” he asked.

Responded Fujioka, “It was really difficult, because I understood from the script that this guy is not human. I had to lose the smell of any ethnicity or nationality. He’s basically like a plant, or an alien — I never had a concrete answer from Mr. Fukada — but he’s like nature itself. I had only a couple of lines to speak in a couple of different languages, so it was basically like a choreographed art installation. It was something equivalent to dancing or shooting an action film, although Laut wasn’t really active. It was a subtle way of moving my body. I remember that Mr. Fukada reminded me every single day to hunch over — he said my posture was too good to be Laut. I had to hunch over and keep that little smile, and that’s how I forged this art installation.”

DF-MFTSMance Thompson-34-2Fujioka brandishes the script, after reading his favorite line — which was dropped from the finished film.  ©︎Mance Thompson

Noting that they’d had a good rapport on set, and he had completely trusted Fukada, Fujioka said, “I think a complicated character is easier to act, in a way, because there are a lot of things you can bring out, you can dig deep into your soul and your memories and bring out emotions. But this time, since he’s not human, it was extremely difficult. …[But] we collaborated on this piece of work named Laut.”

It was only later, as photographers were assembling near the dais for a photo call, that Fujioka was asked about the blue notebook he was carrying. “This is the script,” he explained, opening it to the first page. “Mr. Fukada omitted the first line on page 1 of the script. I loved this line: ‘I’m satisfied with the universe, but I’m not satisfied with the world.’ I thought it was beautiful. I think it basically explains who Laut is and the theme of the film. So I brought the script today because I just thought it was such a pity that it wound up being dropped during post-production.”

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©2018 "The Man from the Sea" FILM PARTNERS 

Selected Media Exposure

BLOOD OF WOLVES


BLOOD OF WOLVES (Korou no Chi)


May 8, 2018
Q&A guests: Director Kazuya Shiraishi and novelist Yuko Yuzuki


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Shiraishi (left) and Yuzuki (right) recall the film's infamously gruesome pearl scene, which the director added himself.   ©Mance Thompson

Is The Blood of Wolves the first salvo in an electrifying new yakuza film franchise from Toei Studios? The film’s “planning producer,” Muneyuki Kii, dares to hope so. Its director, Kazuya Shiraishi, does too. And Yuko Yuzuki, the woman whose rough-and-tumble bestselling novel, Korou no Chi, reignited the studio’s  passion for jitsuroku eiga (actual record films), says, without hesitation, that Shiraishi’s the man if there are sequels in the offing.

Shiraishi and Yuzuki were at FCCJ to talk with the audience after our sneak peek of The Blood of Wolves. It marked the first time the Film Committee has hosted the author of the original novel on which a film is based, and the second time that Shiraishi has been on the dais. He was at FCCJ with four other directors to kick off the Nikkatsu Roman Porno reboot project in 2016, having directed Dawn of the Felines. It would go on to become the most successful of the five releases.

Shiraishi has explored territory similar to The Blood of Wolves in his previous high-octane actioners The Devil’s Path (2013) and Twisted Justice (2016), both of which won numerous awards. But he hits a career high with his new film. The boisterous, brutal cinematic bombshell made its world premiere in Udine, Italy at the Far East Film Festival in April and has already been booked for extensive international festival play. Should it prove to be a commercial hit at home, there’s every chance that Toei will move forward with Yuzuki’s just-released Kyouken no me (literally Eye of the Mad Dog), the second in a planned trilogy.

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The tone was surprisingly light through most of the Q&A, a relief after the film's unrelenting intensity.   ©FCCJ

After a decade of churning out popular ninkyo eiga (chivalry films) starring kimono-clad yakuza heroes played by the likes of Ken Takakura and Koji Tsuruta, Toei shifted gears in the early 1970s and introduced what came to be called jitsuroku eiga, focusing on the true stories of postwar yakuza in what film historian Jasper Sharp calls “a world of craven thugs and corrupt law enforcers… when vaunted traditional codes of behavior have been revealed as shams.” Kinji Fukusaku’s epic Battles Without Honor and Humanity (1973), which was set in Hiroshima and starred Bunta Sugawara, was explosive, spawning four sequels, another three-part series and loads of imitators.

Toei makes no bones about its intention to recapture the invigorating jolt with which that classic franchise was met. “To make a film about the wild way of life of outlaws in the Showa period in the current Heisei era is an ambitious act,” read the production notes for The Blood of Wolves. “[It’s also] a challenge to Japan’s film industry, and to modern society itself.” 

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The studio describes that challenge this way: “[Wolves] depicts men who traverse the boundaries between trust and betrayal, violence and desire, and justice and atrocity. In their harsh and brutal realm of existence, pride means everything. The striking catharsis and violence delivered by these men… is little seen in modern-day Japanese entertainment due to the highly restrictive nature of domestic free-to-air television and the current family-centric film environment.”

Yuzuki has admitted that if it weren’t for Fukasaku’s films, her novel would not exist: “It's a world that women can't enter even if they try, which is the very reason why it impressed me.” But responding to a question about the influence of the series on her writing, which has earned her multiple awards and widespread acclaim for her hardboiled style and meticulous attention to procedural details, she told the FCCJ audience, “The way I see the Battles Without Honor and Humanity series is, they were set in Hiroshima in the chaotic postwar period, and they weren’t so much about yakuza, but about these people and their will to survive. They were ferocious, and desperate to survive. They would kill each other, they would [really get down and dirty]. That was what really attracted me to the series. I wonder how many people in Japan today have such a passionate will to live?"

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© 2018 THE BLOOD OF WOLVES Production Committee

Added the director, “Needless to say, I was a huge fan of Toei’s jitsuroku eiga, but that era has ended. It’s the type of genre that you can’t make in Japan today, so I hadn’t really given any thought to venturing into that realm myself. In the early days when I was an assistant director, there were still V-Cinema (straight-to-video) yakuza films, but I never thought I would have the opportunity to make a film like this. When they came to me with Ms. Yuzuki’s novel, it was something I hadn’t even dreamt of. I was overjoyed, and also intimidated. But I also had a certain confidence that perhaps I was the only director who was able to take on this project.”

Shiraishi’s confidence is well earned. Not only does he guide his actors to awards-worthy performances, particularly Koji Yakusho, who is electrifying as a corrupt police detective, he also directs with dizzying visual intensity. Jitsuroku eiga fans will be pleased to note the stylistic similarities in The Blood of Wolves: Shiraishi deploys Fukasaku-esque freeze frames, overtitles, narration, newspaper images and docu-style shaky cam to impressive effect.

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 “These days,” said Shiraishi, “the only yakuza films we have like Battles Without Honor and Humanity are by Takeshi Kitano, the Outrage series. Many members of the cast in this film were first-time yakuza. But they really, really seemed to enjoy it. They really put their heart and souls in it.” (With a cast that includes Yoko Maki, Takuma Otoo, Taro Suruga, Tomoya Nakamura, Junko Abe, Shido Nakamura, Yutaka Takenouchi, Kenichi Takito, Kenichi Yajima, Tomorowo Taguchi, Pierre Taki, Renji Ishibashi and Yosuke Eguchi, it’s hard to imagine which are neophytes.)

As for Yakusho, “When I was first starting out, I loved the yakuza roles he did in [V-cinema films] like Drug Connection and Osaka Gokudo Senso: Shinoidare. He was so wonderful in those roles that I wanted to bring back the yakuza Yakusho. Although he plays a detective, he’s a thug detective. But I think he’s fantastic in this film.”  

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Yakusho goes ballistic, brilliantly. © 2018 THE BLOOD OF WOLVES Production Committee

The Blood of Wolves immerses us in the dog-eat-dog world of Hiroshima at a time when internecine battles between rival yakuza clans could engulf the city at any moment. Detective Shogo Ogami (Yakusho) seems to be the only one holding the place together, using collusion, theft, torture, arson —whatever it takes — to keep the gangs “neutered.” The maverick detective, volatile and unpredictable, has no qualms about bending the law if it will help rein in the gang warfare. Favoring wide-collared polka-dot shirts and sunglasses, and ravenous like the wolf of his name, Ogami is dogged by rumors that he’s in cahoots with the mob.

After a recent transfer from headquarters, rookie cop Shuichi Hioka (Tori Matsuzaka) has had just about enough of his new partner’s balls-out behavior. “What you’re doing is insane, Ogami! Police officers are supposed to uphold justice,” he yells in exasperation. “You wanna hear my idea of justice?” responds Ogami. “I ain’t got one.” But he later confesses he feels “like an acrobat on a tightrope: lean too far to the gangster side or the cop side, and you fall.” 

Hioka secretly records and writes copious notes on his partner’s shockingly unorthodox methods as they investigate the disappearance of a finance company employee, which seems to have kicked off the latest conflict. Scrambling to retain his own sense of honor and humanity (codes that once governed both cops and criminals), Hioka gradually finds himself in over his head, swept up by Ogami’s maelstrom of raw brutality, scrambling to halt the eye-for-an-eye clan vengeance. But just as Hioka is ready to present his evidence to Internal Affairs, the rogue detective disappears and the hounds of hell are unleashed… 

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Matsuzaka has an Ogami-like moment. © 2018 THE BLOOD OF WOLVES Production Committee

Noting that the film is “very exciting, but also very confusing” (a fair criticism, considering the intricately woven plot strands, complicated relationships between gangs, enormous cast of characters who appear fleetingly, and the frequent necessity for multiple English titles on screen at once) one FCCJ audience member asked for some elucidation of the film’s themes. Responded Shiraishi, “One very big theme is the notion of personal justice. This takes place in 1988, the final year of the Showa era, and these days we still speak of the ‘Showa Male.’ It was an era of many historical upheavals, such as World War II. The number of people who lived during those times has dwindled, and their way of life is also disappearing. I wanted to capture the Showa Male and the Showa way of life in this film.”

Said Yuzuki, “What I wanted to depict in the original novel was a universal theme: what human beings are like and how they live. Life, with all its trials and tribulations, still compels us to survive. It’s about survival.”  

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Another journalist sought clarification: do they think that survival is more difficult in 2018 than it was in 1988? “I think it’s rather more difficult to get by in 2018,” said Shiraishi, “because we’re not allowed to express ourselves or speak our minds. It’s a little more suffocating now than it was in 1988. But that was the time just before the Anti-Organized Crime Law kicked in, so for the yakuza, it was a time when it became increasingly difficult to do business and get by. But it was a time when the yakuza were active, and had more power than the police. So it’s easier to depict the life-and-death [struggle] during that period.”

Explained Yuzuki, “I set the story in Showa 63 [1988] because there were still various ties between the yakuza and the police. There was a gray zone, so I could depict the kinds of clashes and connections they had. Right now, I think everything is much more black and white. So it makes the era of the story easier to depict. Going back to the theme of pain and suffering we encounter in life, those are timeless things. Because of various economic factors and war, they haven’t changed in 20 years. Even if this story is set in the late 1980s, the audience can still relate.”

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Pointing out that in Battles Without Honor and Humanity, Hiroshima’s position as the site of the atomic bombing “loomed large,” one audience member inquired what the writer and director thought it represented in The Blood of Wolves. Responded Yuzuki, “Before I started writing the book, I went to Hiroshima to do some research. What really struck me was the power of the Hiroshima dialect. It’s very powerful. While I was in town, I went to the Hiroshima Peace Memorial Museum and saw the absolute destruction that was wrought on Hiroshima. When I left the museum, the was sun shining and people were walking along the street, smiling and laughing, and it struck me how much determination it took to get us here, to this age. And I decided that I had to set the novel there, and include the Hiroshima dialect.”

Shiraishi smiled. “I remember watching the Battles Without Honor and Humanity series when I was a teen, and I assumed all yakuza spoke in the Hiroshima dialect. When the screenplay was written and we showed it to all our actors, I didn’t have to explain, they all understood what we wanted to do. I think that’s due to the wonderful films that Toei made in the past; they’ve been a guiding light for us. Under the influence of all those films, I thought Hiroshima must be filled with yakuza, but at the risk of angering Hiroshima citizens, I’ll just say that I found it to be a wonderful town.” 

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 Asked whether she felt her gender had “delivered a revitalizing jolt to the genre,” as has been widely hyped, Yuzuki said, “As a writer, I’m not all that aware of gender. But what I often find gender-specific in Japan is the way that [friendships are formed.] Women seek friends who share the same values, while men, even if their values are 90% different, if there’s one thing that they can share, they can see eye to eye. That’s what I find really appealing about the male world. That’s the kind of relationship I wanted to depict, and I wanted to make the male characters as masculine as possible.”

Shiraishi’s Twisted Justice screenwriter, Junya Ikegami, adapted Yuzuki’s book for the film, and the author admitted, “There were a few scenes that the director played around with. One scene was the pearl scene, which wasn’t in the novel. Also, the line that [actor] Renji Ishibashi says, ‘Coinkydoink, coincidence, cli—’ [she stops before uttering the full, potentially offensive, word], was not included in the novel. I really thought the director outdid me on those types of things.” She laughed, “I’ll try harder next time.” 

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 ©Mance Thompson

Shiraishi said, “I mentioned that there are very few yakuza films out there besides the Outrage series, and those films were hits. Without Ms. Yuzuki writing the novel, there wasn’t much opportunity for Toei to venture back into the yakuza genre. If this film becomes a hit, hopefully, if Ms. Yuzuki wants me to direct the sequel, I’d be more than happy to take on that role.” Here, Yuzuki interjected, “Soshiso ai!” a passionate expression that we’ll interpret to mean “You know I would!” 

Shiraishi continued, “The [cigarette] lighter that ultimately went to Tori Matsuzaka in the film — he actually took that home with him. He said, ‘I’m gonna keep this until the next time we meet.’ So if there’s another project with this series, I would be more than happy to take up the challenge.”

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 ©FCCJ



blood of wolves  2018 THE BLOOD OF WOLVES Production Committee
© 2018 THE BLOOD OF WOLVES Production Committee 

Selected Media Exposure

OH LUCY!


OH LUCY!


April 26, 2018
Q&A guests: Director Atsuko Hirayanagi and star Shinobu Terajima


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Both Shinobu Terajima (left) and writer-director Atsuko Hirayanagi (right) have been critically lauded for the film.   ©FCCJ

Atsuko Hirayanagi has set a high bar for herself. Her first feature, the Japan-US coproduction Oh Lucy!, premiered at the Cannes Film Festival in mid-2017, finished the year with Independent Spirit Awards nominations for Best First Feature and Best Actress (for Shinobu Terajima’s beautifully calibrated performance), and earned rapturous critical praise during its recent rollouts in the US, France and elsewhere.

A poignant character study that deep-dives into the lonely life of a protagonist whose type is rarely depicted on screen, Oh Lucy! is an off-kilter culture-clash comedy combined with a deeply moving drama. Upon its world premiere at Cannes, Variety called it “a chocolate truffle with an arsenic core,” and Hirayanagi’s greatest accomplishment is that the film’s bittersweet aftertaste is pleasantly light and lingering.

Appearing for the Q&A session following FCCJ’s sneak preview screening, the writer-director and her star admitted they are curious about audience reactions on the film’s home turf. Said Hirayanagi, “I’m grateful that Oh Lucy! is opening in Japan, and I’m extremely curious about how the Japanese audience is going to react, and how they’ll feel about this film. Being here is kind of surreal, and at the same time, a dream come true.” 

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Terajima and Hirayanagi get a laugh out of costar Josh Hartnett's video message (left ©FCCJ, right ©Edwin Karmiol).

Terajima, who was making her third visit to FCCJ (after sneak peaks of Vibrator and Koji Wakamatsu’s Caterpillar, which won her the Silver Bear for Best Actress at the 2010 Berlin International Film Festival), began on a serious note: “I’m very pleased that I could be here tonight on this very special occasion.” Then she smiled her inimitable smile before continuing, “Today is my wedding anniversary. I’ve been married 11 years, and I’m so happy that I could be here.” (To her credit, it wasn't at all clear whether she was being gracious or slightly facetious.)

There were more punchlines to come when Terajima's costar, Josh Hartnett (Black Hawk Down, Penny Dreadful), dropped in to chat about his experiences by video. About his director, he said, “Atsuko Hirayanagi is one of the most quietly hilarious people I’ve ever met. [Guffaws ensued on the dais.] I spent a lot of time with Atsuko on the press tour, and everyone I introduced her to thinks she is genuinely one of the funniest people around. She’s a joy to work with, and a lovely human being. I’m very proud of her for making this film, and grateful to her for letting me be a part of it.”

As for Terajima, he ribbed, “Shinobu claims that she doesn’t speak English, but that is not true. [More guffaws.] She didn’t let on that she could understand everything I was saying until deep into production, so she made me feel at a disadvantage, and quite uncomfortable, [but] in a good way.” He then lowered his voice, whispering conspiratorially about how she would disappear to play Candy Crush before certain scenes. “In my opinion, it was the best way to prepare for work that I’ve ever seen.” After apologizing for asking so many questions on set, he said, “I hope it didn’t affect anyone negatively, including you, Shinobu. Thank you for your patience.”

OH LUCY OH LUCYLLC All Rights Reserved.
Acclaimed actor Koji Yakusho, left, with Hartnett and Terajima. ©OH LUCY,LLC All Rights Reserved.

He went on to laud the cast for being so “well prepared and artistically inspired,” but mock-warned, “The next time we all work together, you’re going to do it here, on my turf.”

In fact, Oh Lucy! does spend substantial time on Hartnett’s turf. Hirayanagi herself is based in the US, after growing up in Japan, going to the US as a high-school exchange student, and then graduating from New York University’s Tisch School of the Arts in Singapore. Her thesis film was a short version of Oh Lucy!, which went on to win nearly 40 awards around the globe, including prizes at the Cannes, Sundance, Toronto and SXSW film festivals. Although she was courted to direct other projects, she decided to first explore Lucy’s story further, and with initial funding from Sundance and Japan’s NHK, went on to craft the feature version.

As the film opens, chain-smoking office lady Setsuko (Terajima) is clearly stuck in a rut, both professionally and in her seemingly non-existent personal life. En route to work one morning, a man on her crowded platform whispers “Goodbye” in her ear before leaping in front of the train. If that’s not enough to shake her up, a fellow OL is retiring, and she may be the closest thing to an office ally that Setsuko has. When her niece Mika (Shioli Kutsuna) begs her to fill in at her pricey English classes (reimbursing her directly for the fees), it seems to be just the diversion Setsuko needs. 

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The veteran actress and the first-time feature director.    ©FCCJ

Her unorthodox instructor, John (Hartnett), greets her with a warm embrace — “I’m a hugger, what can I say?” — has her don a curly blonde wig and pick her new name out of a box. Setsuko becomes “Lucy” and is encouraged to be “lazy and relaxed” when she speaks American English (a ping pong ball apparently helps). The new identity unleashes her inner she-vamp, empowering her to say all the things she’s pent up, some of which she instantly regrets. But it also rekindles the flames of hope in her heart. She’s immediately smitten with John, and thus aggravated when the red-wigged, widowed “Tom” (the great Koji Yakusho), joins the class and she no longer has the teacher’s hugs all to herself.

Then John suddenly disappears and Setsuko, nearly inconsolable, discovers that he’s left for Southern California with Mika. Desperate to see him again, she takes off in hot pursuit with her estranged sister, Ayako (Kaho Minami), in tow. Their first surprise, after realizing that California isn’t all beaches and glorious sunsets, is that John is no longer the Charisma Man he was in Tokyo, and Mika has fled. They coerce him into chauffeuring their search for her, and Setsuko/Lucy seizes one last chance at midlife liberation. 

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 Ayako (Kaho Minami) joins Setsuko in America, where Hartnett becomes
the bickering sisters' chauffeur.  ©OH LUCY,LLC All Rights Reserved.

Praising Terajima for her ability to play both “lifeless” (in Japan) and “full of life” (in California), a journalist asked how she’d mentally prepared for the difference. “Was it a geographic thing?” he asked. Explained the actress, “We shot all of the Japan scenes before we left for the states, so the geography did rub off on the character. The vastness of America, where you can walk a long way without ever bumping into someone, really elevates your spirit. I think the way I played the role was affected by that. We didn’t change my makeup, but even the director said I looked more beautiful in America. So I think the environment freed both Setsuko’s, and my, spirit. It was a really fun shoot to do.”

Hirayanagi was asked about her own relationship to America, since the film “presents America as a liberating space, but also rather twisted, dangerous and cruel.” The director began, “I’m not sure which part is twisted… I think American people are more present and speak to you as a person, rather than what your title may represent.” Switching back to the film, she then said, “So it was freeing for Setsuko, and not being labeled as an office lady or single or a chain smoker was freeing. No one knew who she was, so she could create something that she wants to be. I think that’s where the magic, the empowerment, of being in the states comes from. It freed her up and let her find the part of herself that she didn’t know existed.”

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  Top left ©Edwin Karmiol, bottom left ©Pierre Boutier, right two ©FCCJ.

To a question about the superb casting, Hirayanagi immediately responded, “Shinobu-san was a no-brainer. “The producers sent me a list of actresses because I’m away from Japan, so they thought I wouldn’t know actresses in her age group. But I saw her name and I knew she would be perfect. I knew her from Vibrator, one of the great Japanese films, and she was phenomenal. So we sent her the script and the short, we talked and she said ‘Yes.’”

Was she influenced to cast Koji Yakusho by his charming role in Shall We Dance? one attendee wondered. Although his role in Oh Lucy! is a small one, it is absolutely essential to the film, particularly in its closing moments. “Of course I know Shall We Dance? and there are similar threads in both films; but there were a lot of coincidences that came together and resulted in our casting him. We had him in mind from the beginning, but we weren’t sure how to approach him. I finally decided there could be no harm in asking him. He’s extremely versatile, and being able to cast him was like a dream. They say ‘shoot for the stars’ in English, and that’s what we did. And we got the stars.”

A film academic asked whether either Hirayanagi or Terajima had been challenged by differences in acting or shooting styles between the US and Japan. Said the director, “I think the main issue for Japanese actors is coverage, since we have more coverage if you try to shoot in so-called American style. I was in constant negotiations between my [cinematographer], who’s based in Hollywood and wants to take pictures as beautiful as possible, and my Japanese actors, who were getting tired from doing so many takes of the same scene. I wound up shooting Shinobu-san first, then Josh, since he’s used to it and gets warmed up after more takes.”

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Terajima and Hirayanagi react to Hartnett's video message.   ©FCCJ

Said Terajima, “I underwent very harsh training with Koji Wakamatsu, who made super-indie films and would go straight into shooting without any run-throughs. With Oh Lucy!, we did the same shots over and over again, and it was just as exhausting as Wakamatsu-san’s style. As for acting styles, I really don’t think it comes down to nationalities, but because Atsuko-san has a black belt in karate, I think she really knows how to read people. She’s able to meticulously gauge how and to what degree she should direct [each actor], so she can achieve the results she wants.”

Terajima then shared her experience at her first awards ceremony in Los Angeles: “I was really busy at the time of the Independent Spirit Awards, and could only fly over for 1.5 days. The Independent Spirits aren’t as well known in Japan as the Oscars, and I was curious what it would be like. But being there, you really feel like America is the country of cinema. You feel that everyone’s so passionate about the film industry. I got to meet [eventual Best Actress winner] Frances McDormand, and she’d seen Oh Lucy! and told me it was a wonderful film. Without going, you don’t realize the extent of the passion for film, so it was a really rewarding experience.”

Added Hirayanagi, “By the way, Frances McDormand was very, very complimentary about Shinobu-san’s performance. She’s not going to say it herself, so I have to add this fact.”

And it is, indeed, a fact.

OH LUCY PosterOH LUCYLLC All Rights Reserved
©OH LUCY,LLC All Rights Reserved 

Selected Media Exposure

SENNAN ASBESTOS DISASTER


SENNNAN ASBESTOS DISASTER
(Nipponkoku vs. Sennan Ishiwata mura)


Feb 13, 2018
Q&A guest: Director Kazuo Hara


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The legendary director turns his focus on multiple protagonists in his new masterwork. ©Koichi Mori

Environmental catastrophes have become the regular stuff of Hollywood blockbusters, as well as the focus of serious consideration in documentary films.

Kazuo Hara's Sennan Asbestos Disaster falls into the latter category, and although it has already received accolades on the international festival circuit - including the Best Asian Documentary Award upon its premiere at the 2017 Busan International Film Festival, and coveted Audience Awards at the Yamagata International Documentary Film Festival and Tokyo FILMeX International Film Festival - it deserves a wider audience.

Everyone now knows that asbestos is toxic, that countless millions around the world have been exposed to it, and that many have died from the lung cancers, mesotheliomas and respiratory ailments caused by significant exposure. 

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The legal team announces good news outside the Supreme Court of Japan. © Shissoh Production

But few realize that the deadly material has been banned outright in just 55 nations, not including China, Russia, India, Brazil, Canada (although a ban is expected this year) and the United States. In the US, up to 1% of a product may legally contain the harmful substance, thus continuing to endanger workers in such high-risk jobs as construction, firefighting and military service, among others.

Sennan Asbestos Disaster is one of the first films to closely chronicle the prolonged struggles of former asbestos workers and their families in Japan. Hara spent 8 years following them as they grappled with their ticking time-bomb diseases while awaiting the outcome of class-action lawsuits against the government for its culpability in their shortened lifespans.

A firebrand whose work often takes aim at the Powers That Be, Hara has been making what he calls "action documentaries" since 1972, collaborating closely with a forceful protagonist on each, and creating work that is both intensely personal and formally daring. Through these "characters with an edge," he has challenged traditional perceptions, confronted social injustices, shed light on issues too long in the dark, broken taboos and continually nudged viewers out of their comfort zones.

sennan sub 02Plaintiffs demonstrate outside the Ministry of Health. © Shissoh Production

In his first film, Goodbye CP (1972), his handicapped protagonist forced us to reconsider the relationship between the able-bodied and the disabled; in Extreme Private Eros: Love Song 1974, his protagonist was Hara's ex-wife, a crusading feminist, bisexual and mother of an interracial child with an American GI; in The Emperor's Naked Army Marches On (1987), his protagonist was a former soldier who relentlessly hounded his superior officers, demanding they be held accountable for their actions in World War II; in A Dedicated Life (1994), his protagonist was the controversial novelist and communist Mitsuharu Inoue.

With Sennan Asbestos Disaster, Hara has his first-ever group protagonist: the "normal people" who lived and worked in Osaka's Sennan district. Yet despite an expansive cast of characters and a nearly 4-hour running time, he manages to portray them as fully-rounded individuals, and to infuse their tragedy with gentle humor and a winningly empathetic warmth.

As helpful graphics inform us at the beginning of the film, Sennan was an erstwhile "asbestos village" that once hosted the largest number of asbestos factories in Japan. The district flourished from the late Meiji through the Showa periods (1868-1989), boasting over 200 processing plants at its peak, and lured thousands of uneducated job-seekers from the Japanese and Korean countrysides.

Although the Japanese government was well aware of the health hazards involved for many decades, it continued to prioritize economic development above human health long after other nations had ceased manufacturing the material, and neglected to implement either health regulations or countermeasures.

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Plaintiff Miyoko Sato, whose husband, Kenichi, died from asbestos exposure. © Shissoh Production

In 2006, 31 Sennan plaintiffs filed suit against the government seeking compensation for irreversible damages to their health, and Hara began covering meetings of the Citizen's Group for Sennan Asbestos Damage, founded by Kazuyoshi Yuoka. Yuoka previously managed an asbestos factory started by his grandfather, and his own guilt motivates him to occasional extremes during the course of the trials.

One watches Sennan Asbestos Factory on the edge of the seat, with a mounting sense of despair as the government wages a war of attrition against the ailing plaintiffs. As the years stretch on — punctuated by minor victories in court, but no admission of responsibility nor compensation — many of the plaintiffs will gradually succumb, not surviving to see their own suits through. 

Eventually, the Supreme Court rules that the government must compensate the victims, but caps the liability period at 1971, although asbestos was used in Japan from 1900 - 2006 and the first dangers were recognized in 1957.  

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Hara makes points from the dais. © Koichi Mori

During the Q&A session following the screening, an FCCJ member asked how they arrived at the year 1971 - was it because the workers themselves were expected to have known by then? 

Responded Hara, "In this case, and many others, the court has tried to limit who will be compensated, and who not. I think this is an instance of pandering to authority, and trying to maintain the face of the government. At least that's my guess."

Another audience member followed up, saying that he appreciated the film's emotional journey, but that he wondered whether the director felt that judicial decisions and the power of the court should not be subjected to scrutiny by documentarians. Hara sought to disavow him of the notion, explaining, "In Japan, video cameras are not allowed inside the courtroom. It's very difficult to question the fundamental nature of the court [proceedings]. Now that I've finished the film, I realize that intentionally but subconsciously, I probably wanted to depict the Japanese people, the 'commoners,' their pride and their prejudices, and their achievements."

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Citizen's Group founder and activist Kazuyoshi Yuoka with plaintiff Kazuko Minami.  © Shissoh Production

Noting that the film's subjects had already watched the film "3 or 4 times" during a pre-release run in a theater in Sennan, he continued, "As you mentioned, I did put a lot of emotional weight on these commoners, and whether I could show their emotions interestingly, cinematically, was a bit of [a challenge] for me. You may have seen my film The Emperor's Naked Army Marches On, in which I depicted a man who attacked the emperor alone, a very strong-willed character. You could say that he's as far removed from the common people as you can get. That kind of strong character with an ego is 180 degrees opposite to the protagonists of this new film. I focused on creating an entertaining documentary despite their being so ordinary."

(Hara later added that Kenzo Okuzaki, the government combatant in The Emperor's Naked Army — like the other subjects of his previous documentaries - became famous because of his films. "Until his death," he said, "he was adamantly demanding that I make a sequel.")

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©Koichi Mori

Hara was asked about the stylistic differences between the two parts of the film, and if they were a result of the progress of the struggle or otherwise. "I've heard from viewers that the two halves give very different impressions," responded the director, "and they've suggested that I provoked things to happen in the second half. It's true that in my previous films, I have actively provoked my subjects. But not this time. This film is edited chronologically [and] because of the course of events, a certain energy arose that came to a head in the latter half of the struggle."

He pauses for effect. "It was as if the sky fell for me. I couldn't believe my ears. I was really angry to hear that. I'm very fond of these common people, but it's something they should never have said. I despise the very goodness of their nature." Another pause. "That is the message of the film."

And he means it, but has put it better previously. On the Japan premiere of Sennan Asbestos Disaster at the 2017 Yamagata International Documentary Film Festival, Hara declared, "With this work, what I wanted to say most was, 'People of Japan, faced with these authorities who do whatever they please, are you just going to sit back and accept it?'" 

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© Shissoh Production

One imagines that the message may be the same for his next film, about the Minamata mercury poisoning tragedy. "I've been documenting Minamata for the past 12 years," he told the audience, "and it's such a huge problem, it's been difficult for me to focus on one theme. But I'm determined to finish the film, one way or another, by the end of 2018."

To the applause that erupted, he immediately said, "Please don't clap, [it increases the pressure on me]. In the asbestos trials, Mr. Yuoka had very different opinions from the legal counsel on many occasions, but they managed to work together to the very end. When you go to Minamata, however, you see that the people who voice different opinions from the main group are being sidelined and bad-mouthed. There's a hatred in the air. Trying to make a film in that kind of atmosphere, I can only feel this negative energy. So even though you applaud me, and I know I must finish this film one way or another, I'm not feeling very optimistic."

Hara's latest masterwork is a harrowing exploration into the inhumanity of capitalism, colonialism and the state. There is no reason to worry that his next will not measure up. 

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Hara said he chose to include illustrations in the poster because it would feel more "familiar" to Japanese. ©Koichi Mori 

 

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© Shissoh Production 

 

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


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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.

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                                                                                                                                                            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.”

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                                                                                                                                                                           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.”

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                                                                                              ©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.”

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                                                                                                                       ©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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kubozuka silence fccj 149   kubozuka silence mance 17
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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    • イッセー尾形の熱演にオスカー期待の声
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  • フジテレビ   めざましテレビ OH!めざめエンタNOW 巨匠スコセッシ作品出演 浅野忠信 アカデミー賞に自信?
  • フジテレビ めざましテレビ OH!めざめ エンタ RANKiNG 窪塚洋介 スコセッシ監督にスルー!?
  • 日本テレビ ZIP! SHOWBIZ TODAY 窪塚洋介 外国人記者前に会見
  • 日本テレビ スッキリ!! 日本外国特派員協会記者会見/窪塚洋介、浅野忠信、イッセー尾形

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

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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

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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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“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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wins a free seat at our next sneak preview.