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THE 47 RONIN IN DEBT


THE 47 RONIN IN DEBT
(Kessan! Chushingura)


 November 20, 2019
Q&A guest: Director Yoshihiro Nakamura


FCCJ 47 RoninKoichi Mori-4
Yoshihiro Nakamura’s new film has our favorite movie tagline of the year: “Revenge is... ultra-expensive!”  ©Koichi Mori

When we talk about the “cost” of revenge, we invariably refer only to its psychological and physical tolls. This instantly makes Yoshihiro Nakamura’s The 47 Ronin in Debt — a title to be read literally, not metaphorically — a groundbreaking addition to the category of jidaigeki period films about loyal samurai exacting retribution for offences against their masters.

The versatile writer-director of cult hits like Fish Story and The Foreign Duck, the Native Duck, and God in a Coin Locker, as well as commercial hits like Golden Slumber, A Boy and His Samurai, The Snow White Murder Case, Prophecy and The Magnificent Nine, Nakamura has taken a unique approach to adapting one of Japan’s most oft-told historical tales, “Chushingura.”

Although the tragic real-life incident has already been adapted to stage and screen hundreds of times, he has now boldly reinterpreted it not only as a comedy of sorts, but also as a fiduciary thriller. Surely both are firsts in the “Chushingura” canon.

Ronin main2019 The 47 Ronin In Debt Film Partners
Shinichi Tsutsumi balances humor and pathos perfectly as Ako chief retainer Kuranosuke Oishi.
©2019 "The 47 Ronin In Debt" Film Partners

The idea came from Shochiku producer Fumitsugu Ikeda, with whom Nakamura had worked on 2016’s The Magnificent Nine, a samurai comedy that also has serious themes at its core.

As the director told FCCJ’s audience following a sneak peak of his new film, “It’s widely known that the story is a tragedy, but I wasn’t familiar with all the details. So I first spent about 3 or 4 months ingesting all the books and films about it. The more I read, the more I realized how difficult it would be to turn into a comedy. So I decided not to tackle the legend but to focus instead on the Ako Incident, basing the story on the actual account ledgers of the Ako clan, which were kept by the chief retainer, Kuranosuke Oishi.”

Nakamura had come across a 2012 nonfiction work by University of Tokyo historiographer Hirofumi Yamamoto, who analyzed period records pertaining to the 1701-1703 planning and execution of the revenge plot, and used them to reconstruct the timeline of events.

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 ©Koichi Mori

“Oishi kept track of the Ako accounts. During the [two-year period of planning for revenge], they spent ¥100 million on 113 items, all of which were in the balance sheets.” he explained. “The legends tell us that Oishi had a lot of foresight and was very strategic. But when you look at what actually happened and the balance sheets he left behind, you find a character who’s quite different, and that’s what we’ve brought to the screen.”

Nakamura’s approach admittedly favors a Japanese audience, who are overly familiar with the story and the dozens of main characters, and thus won’t find the film’s multiple monetary and name captions distracting. In a roundabout way, he was asked whether he might have worried it become one of those only-for-Japan titles.

“My previous films have been invited to international film festivals, and I’ve heard enthusiastic audiences laughing during screenings,” Nakamura began. “When I was editing, I would even intentionally leave some space in the films for [the anticipated] laughter. But with this film, we did not have an international audience in mind, because we knew it was so dense with information. It’s the first time I’ve approached a film this way.

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Shochiku is cleverly billing the film as “budget attainment entertainment.” ©2019 "The 47 Ronin In Debt" Film Partners

“We were invited to the Tokyo International Film Festival last month, so we had to subtitle it. When I did a screen check of the subtitled version, I realized how challenging it would be for international audiences to watch it. So I must thank you for [taking up the challenge] of watching it tonight.”

Asked why he’d chosen the unconventionally jazzy soundtrack rather than a more traditional score, the director said, “This was my plan from the beginning. There were jidaigeki TV shows back in the 70s that used this kind of music and to my ears, it’s a good fit.”

The music certainly emphasizes the film’s comedy elements, which arise primarily from the relentless focus on finances. While the many previous screen iterations of “Chushingura” (directed by the likes of Shozo Makino, Kenji Mizoguchi, Kon Ichikawa and Kinji Fukasaku), have been all about the samurai code of honor, loyalty and self-sacrifice, Nakamura’s is all about the money.

FCCJ 47 RoninKoichi Mori-3
©Koichi Mori

The screen is sometimes awash with captions detailing the Ako clan’s expenditures for everything from actual salaries, uniform costs and travel expenses to a night out in the pleasure district for 20 rowdy warriors. These have been helpfully/humorously converted into today’s equivalents in yen (and in subtitles, dollars) based on the cost of a single bowl of soba noodles ($4.40).

How did Nakamura decide on that unit, one audience member wanted to know. “We considered many items,” he responded, “including the price of a bowl of rice or a per diem paid to carpenters. But we ultimately decided on soba. The Edo period lasted for 260 years, and the price of a bowl of soba was the only item that remained unchanged in that time.”

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Even a bowl of noodles is pricey when there are too many mouths to feed. ©2019 "The 47 Ronin In Debt" Film Partners

The 47 Ronin in Debt opens when Ako Lord Asano (Sadawo Abe) is at the height of a rather overzealous anti-corruption crusade. In 1701, he draws his sword on Lord Kira rather than pay him the expected bribe, and this results in his forced seppuku. Asano’s righthand man, Kuranosuke (a very good Shinichi Tsutsumi), is left to organize revenge with the fallen lord’s other devoted retainers. But the Ako must immediately surrender their castle, thus ending their tidy allowances and bringing their once-proud clan to the verge of bankruptcy. Kuranosuke’s immediate concern instead becomes to maintain solvency. There is just $877,000 in the treasury, and with 50 members of the clan plus their families, servants and his own concubines, the chief retainer soon realizes that his abacus-wielding accountants are mightier than any warrior.

Without them, attempts to win the shogun’s support for a restoration of the clan’s holdings cannot be properly financed, nor can anything else be accomplished. Yet as the days stretch into months and plans for vengeance remain just that, the samurai prove they will be spendthrifts. As the coffers are further drained and insolvency begins to engulf the Ako, Kuranosuke sees no other choice but to embrace the plan to assassinate Kira… if only they can afford the weapons and battle outfits to do it right.

FCCJ 47 RoninKoichi Mori
©Koichi Mori

Nakamura’s financial approach to the fateful years leading to the Ako’s revenge allows him not only to bring a fresh perspective to the tragedy and find a way into the comedy; it also adds a greater sheen of contemporary relevance. But the director declined to take the bait when questioned about the correlation, as a journalist noted Japan now “has the world’s highest debt.”

Said Nakamura, “It isn’t an intentional commentary on present-day Japan.” But he did note, “Back in the Genroku Era, it was the townspeople who put pressure on the Ako samurai to take revenge. And it was a time when the shogun, Tokugawa Tsunayoshi, was enacting onerous political policies.”

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Nakamura, in a happi coat similar to the Ako clan's firemen finery, with the Japanese poster. ©︎FCCJ

Nakamura had mentioned that they’d needed to costume 130 samurai for the film, prompting a journalist to see the Ako clan’s struggles as a metaphor for the act of filmmaking. Was that why, she wondered, there were almost no horses in the film?

“Horses are so expensive!” Nakamura laughed, admitting they’d had the budget for just a single steed. “I think you’re right that we can draw comparisons. In such a scenario, I suppose I would be the Sugaya Hannojo character (played by Satoshi Tsumabuki, he’s an aggressive type who constantly pushes his fellow samurai to attack). The producer would be Oishi Kuranosuke. When the assistant director would ask whether I needed a horse in a certain scene and I said Yes, the producer would later go to him and be very angry.”

But the producer is sure to forget all about that once the film debuts in Japanese theaters. It’s one of the two most hotly anticipated releases of late 2019 and is expected to finish in the year’s top 10 at the box office.

Ronin poster2019 The 47 Ronin In Debt Film Partners
©2019 "The 47 Ronin In Debt" Film Partners


CHIGASAKI STORY


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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

  Photos by Mance Thompson and FCCJ.

Chigasaki poster
©2015 wa entertainment, inc.

Media Coverage


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.”

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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.

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©2014 'fukufukuso no fukuchan' film committee

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