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CHILDREN OF IRON (Tetsu no Ko)


CHILDREN OF IRON


 February 8, 2016
Q&A guests: Director Koki Fukuyama and star Jyonmyon Pe


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Jyonmyon Pe and Koki Fukuyama share a laugh.  ©Mance Thompson

Koki Fukyama’s Children of Iron is that rare thing in Japan: a bittersweet coming-of-age drama that is powerful yet completely unsentimental, deceptively simple and infused with both humor and pathos. FCCJ’s audience immediately recognized its deeper import, however, and during the Q&A session following the screening, attempted to probe the director for his thoughts on the convulsive changes currently redefining the dynamics of Japanese families. But Fukuyama demonstrated the same restraint and reliance on brevity that his film (only 74 minutes long!) champions.

He was surprisingly open, however, about the source of the story, which is set against a backdrop of single parenting, midlife remarriage, domestic violence, school bullying and economic hardship in a blue-collar suburb north of Tokyo. It is Fukuyama’s own boyhood story, in fact, and it grew into a film only after his onetime stepsister found him online, some 35 years after they’d been separated. The grown-up Mariko recalled their childhood quite differently than he did — “In certain cases where I’d remembered helping her out, she said, No, she was helping me out. I realized that guys tend to cast themselves in a heroic role in our memories” — but Fukuyama took the rough outlines of their shared past and worked with a professional scriptwriter to polish it into Children of Iron.

coi30mt   coi012fccj
Fukuyama's own childhood inspired the story, which he decided to "soften," since the
reality was so harsh, and he didn't want to create a polemic.  ©Mance Thompson (left)

After winning acclaim for his short films and his first feature, Fukuyama was selected by the Skip City International D-Cinema Festival to receive funds for production of his second feature, with the stipulation that it take place in the festival’s home, Kawaguchi City. Children of Iron then became the opening film for the Skip City Festival in 2015.

The two protagonists of the film, Mariko (Mau) and her new stepbrother Rikutaro (Taishi Sato), are living near the iron mills of Kawaguchi, made famous in their heyday by the 1962 film Foundry Town (Kyupora no Aru Machi), starring Sayuri Yoshinaga, but now even less prosperous. Mariko’s unemployed father (Jyonmyon Pe) and Rikutaro’s bar-hostess mother (Tomoko Tabata) have just married, and the kids must now share both a room at home, as well as the same class at school. When their classmates bully them — “siblings the same age are weird!” — Mariko enlists Rikutaro’s support in a “Divorce Alliance” to force their parents apart. The alliance is draconian, with rule breakers to receive the death penalty.

The two set about sabotaging the new marriage: ruining mom’s curry while she’s at work, scaring dad into thinking the house is haunted, smearing lipstick on his collar… but their plots seem to produce the opposite effect. And before they realize it, Mariko and Rikutaro have become friends. Yet as suddenly as they’ve come together, the family begins to fall apart… and a lump of polished iron and a tube of lipstick assume talismanic import.

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Metropolis film critic Rob Schwartz probes the director
for details about the Rashomon-esque process of recalling the past.

Children of Iron depicts its struggling modern family mostly from the children’s point of view, finding an endearing balance between their often-grim reality and the magical coping mechanisms that comprise the process of growing up. Most of us had a favorite spot in childhood, a place we could go whenever we felt anxious or fearful. But few of us had a spot like Mariko’s — a magical tunnel to different lands, where she can make a wish and emerge at the other end in Candy Land or No Homework Land or No Mushrooms Land or even We Can Fly Land. When she allows Rikutaro to visit the tunnel with her, it is one of the film’s most enchanting, yet haunting, scenes.

“To me,” Fukuyama admitted during the Q&A session following the screening, “family is a very complicated thing. There is love, but there’s also hate. There’s both good and bad. Situations can be very harsh. But I didn’t want to vilify either of the parents, because I think the father and mother were doing their best. So I think this is a story about trying to survive and do one’s best in situations that you really can’t do anything about. That goes not only for the children, but the parents as well.”

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Pe's biggest struggle? That curry with carrots.  ©Mance Thompson

From his hints about a father who was far more neglectful and abusive than the character onscreen, Fukuyama’s choice of actor Jyonmyon Pe is unexpected. A mainstay in many of the rough-and-tumble films of Sion Sono and other genre hits, as well as a regular on TV and stage, Pe is neither physically imposing nor particularly paternal-seeming. But he turns the father’s childishness into a malevolent force. “Because it was my first role playing a father,” Pe told FCCJ’s audience, “I was really nervous going into the project. I didn’t have that many conversations with the director, but I made some suggestions that he incorporated into the shooting process. I can’t say much about my approach to the character, but I can tell you about [my biggest challenge]. We were rehearsing the curry scene, and I discovered there were carrots in the curry. I hate carrots! But I didn’t want to let the child actors know that, even though we were doing one take after another.”

coi26mt©Mance Thompson

Fukuyama added that Pe had been cast after read-throughs of an early script draft, which contained several scenes between the children and the father that had to be cut when the filming period was reduced to just eight days. “Since he knew more about the relationships from reading that script,” said the director, “it was really easy to direct him, because I didn’t have to explain so much.”

Japan is only beginning to confront many of the social issues that are depicted in Children of Iron, so although Fukuyama’s experiences took place decades ago, they feel completely of the moment. Unlike most local films about fissures in the family structure, in which divisions are inevitably resolved in a happy ending, this one doesn’t soft-pedal the future. It’s a welcome addition to the genre, and should be widely seen.

Photos by Mance Thompson and FCCJ.

tetsu poster
©2015 Skip City D-Cinema Festival

Media Coverage

 


FUKU-CHAN OF FUKUFUKU FLATS


 NOVEMBER 4, 2014
Q&A guests: Star Miyuki Oshima, director Yosuke Fujita and producer Adam Torel


oshima 
Comedienne Miyuki Oshima discusses her first leading role... as a man.

Miyuki Oshima dreams of winning a Japan Academy Award for Best Actor for her performance as the middle-aged male title character in cult comedy director Yosuke Fujita’s new film, and if anyone deserves it more than she does, let him come forward. Remember Jaye Davidson in Neil Jordan’s The Crying Game? Oshima is that good. Good enough to fool the Western journalists in the audience who had never seen the comedienne on TV, where her Morisanchu trio is ubiquitous. She’s already won a Best Actress trophy at Montreal’s Fantasia Film Festival for her gender-bending feat; if the Japanese media turnout at FCCJ is any indication, her role is already earning her enormous attention at home.

Looking like herself, ie., lovely and feminine, at the Q&A following the screening of the tongue-twisting Fuku-Chan, Oshima smiled happily as her director explained just how she came to play the unusual role: “The genesis of the project came from the idea of having Ms. Oshima play a man,” explained Fujita. “If she had said no, I really can’t think of any other actress or actor who would have been suitable.” Why? “It’s her face that attracted me. She has the kind of face the Japanese really love, a really familiar face. I think she has the perfect face for a comedy that people can relate to and enjoy … It is truly nostalgic [natsukashii]” He also admitted that he’d wanted a woman for the role, so Fuku-chan would be less lewd than if a man played him.

Oshima said she was surprised to hear that Fujita needed her face to bring Fuku-chan to life. “As a matter of fact,” she pointed out, “Yoshiyoshi Arakawa looks a lot like me, and I think he could’ve done it.” (She’s known for her self-deprecating humor.)

How did Oshima prepare for the role? “Even before we started shooting, I tried to do manly things,” she said. “I never took a bath, I just took showers; I didn’t have any massages or eat any organic food. I also stopped sleeping in bed and just slept on the floor.”

adam  fujita
Torel (left) helped Fujita complete his first feature-length film in six years.

Producer Adam Torel piped up: “Do men not take baths? I’ve done it. And had a massage. And eaten organic food.”

Oshima admitted she also took cues from Tora-san, the beloved (and very natsukashii) character in Yoji Yamada’s long-running series It’s Tough Being a Man. “It was the director’s suggestion that I watch him,” she said, “and I watched the whole series. It was very educational, in the sense that I wanted to know how to depict a very lovable character.”

Fuku-chan is also a very lovelorn character, after his junior high crush turns up at his rundown apartment building (that would be “Fukufuku Flats”) one day, two decades after being the agent of some painful bullying. Tatsuo Fukuda — “Fuku-chan” to his friends — has spent the years since then painting buildings by day and beautiful kites by night. But his greatest artistry is reserved for mediating disputes and helping those in need. The misfits in Fukfuku Flats keep his loneliness at bay, and his pal Shinmachi (Arakawa) tries to light a fire under his love life. But his timidity around women is downright unnatural until a budding photographer named Chiho (Asami Mizukawa) enters his life, and attempts to make amends for the past.

ThreeFujita, Oshima and Toel flank Fuku-chan.

Yosuke Fujita proved in 2008 that no one can make an audience love a loser the way he can. His Fine, Totally Fine (Zenzen Daijobu, starring the oddball Arakawa) was a deadpan delight about two sadsack best friends who woo the same klutzy girl, punctuated by outlandishly ghoulish pranks. It had a wildly successful ride on the international festival circuit, scooping up numerous awards and several foreign distribution deals.

The equally offbeat Fuku-Chan has also been rapturously received overseas ahead of its Japanese debut, disproving the old saw that comedy is the most difficult genre for crossing borders. Thanks to its pioneering coproduction scheme, it is also already set for release in half a dozen countries, an unprecedented feat for a small Japanese film without Kurosawa or Miike at the helm.

Marking the first-ever Japan-UK-Italy-Taiwan-Germany coproduction, Fuku-chan was backed from the script stage by veteran distributors of Asian film who are hoping to “change the entire playing field and help Japanese non-genre and independent films reach the largest international audience possible,” according to their press release. Producer Adam Torel, head of the UK’s largest contemporary Asian cinema distributor, Third Window Films, and a driving force behind the collaborative project, was asked about the difficulty in financing the film. “I think it can be hard for a midlevel-budget film, but obviously, having someone like Oshima-san attached, a star like that, it’s not quite as hard.”


Oshima Watanabe3Hirobumi Watanabe, director of the 2013 indie hit And the Mud Ship Sails Away, tells Oshima
that he's from her small hometown in Tochigi.

Fujita concurred: “The film production scene in Japan right now is very polarized. It’s either films with big budgets coming from TV stations, or small independent films with budgets of around ¥1 to ¥2 million. Midsize films like this one are very hard to make these days, so I’m very grateful that all these international parties came onboard to make this work.”

Torel added, “It was done to create a [coproduction] formula … so people on both sides could see — the Japanese producers would realize that it could be done, and distributors overseas would realize that non-genre Japanese films could be released overseas.”

Time will tell whether the formula helps revive a seriously flagging indie film scene in Japan. Meanwhile, we’ll soon have a chance to see whether Miyuki Oshima can make history at the Japan Academy Awards. Nominations for Best Actor (and other categories) are due out in January.
  Photos by Koichi Mori and FCCJ.

 fukuchan
©2014 'fukufukuso no fukuchan' film committee

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