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LEAR ON THE SHORE


LEAR ON THE SHORE (Umibe no Lear)


May 31, 2017
Q&A guests: Screen legend Tatsuya Nakadai and director Masahiro Kobayashi


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Nakadai and Kobayashi collaborate on film No. 3, and no water bottles were thrown during the Q&A (as they are in the film).    ©Mance Thompson

Just how young is Tatsuya Nakadai? Younger than any of us.

Eager to get the show on the road, Japan’s greatest living actor strode energetically into FCCJ’s packed screening room without waiting for the emcee to announce him, and seemed almost oblivious to the flashbulb onslaught, if not the sustained applause.

Without meaning to, Nakadai had perfectly evoked the character he plays in his new film, Lear on the Shore, a once-bright star of screen and stage who has just escaped from the luxury nursing home where his ungrateful daughter (Mieko Harada) and son-in-law Yukio (Hiroshi Abe) have stashed him, after forcing him to leave them everything in his will. Tugging a carry-on bag behind him, he strides purposefully along a deserted beach at dawn, unsure where he’s come from or where he’s going… but determined to find an audience that appreciates his talents. (The actual bag showed up at the photocall following the Q&A session, provoking much mirth.)

The great actor reunited with singular director Masahiro Kobayashi for the film, marking their third collaboration after Haru’s Journey (2010) and Japan's Tragedy (2013). In Lear, Nakadai stars as the majestically barefoot, silk pajama-clad Chokitsu Kuwabatake, who has dementia and only fleetingly recalls his daughter’s betrayal. But a thespian to the core, he can still recite great chunks of dialog from heralded performances.

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                     Despite the film's many tragic undertones, there was ample laughter during the Q&A.  
©Mance Thompson

Nakadai had famously played the mad daimyo Hidetora Ichimonji, loosely based on Shakespeare’s King Lear, in Akira Kurosawa’s acclaimed Ran (1985). Befitting Kobayashi’s preference for arthouse pacing, the auteur’s new tragicomedy is as stripped down as Kurosawa’s melodrama is supercharged. Yet the success of both films pivots on a towering performance by the celebrated star — and age has only burnished his brilliance.

On the dais, Nakadai said, “I am very old, in the final stages of my life. As you’ve just seen, the film depicts an actor named Chokitsu. There are indeed similarities between this role and myself. We are both 84 years old, we are both so-called stars, so I thought perhaps Mr. Kobayashi was making a documentary about me — although I didn’t hear that directly from him.”

Kobayashi admitted, “I had Mr. Nakadai in mind when I wrote the script for this film, and I wanted to bring him the project and pull him in. In order to pull him in, I wanted to surprise him. And to do that, I had to figure out what kind of story to concoct. Shakespeare was a playwright, and he would write certain roles for certain actors in his troupe, and I think that kind of style suits me, as well.”

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©Mance Thompson

He continued, “Before becoming a film director, I was a screenwriter for a little more than a decade. I was always careful about writing something that actors would want to do. In order to do that, you have to imagine situations and what they would say, and write a character in which they can evoke their own sentiments. If an actor is allowed to play a part like that, they can reveal their true selves and I presume that’s quite an enjoyable process.”

Speaking about Kurosawa’s Ran, Roger Ebert once noted that there strong parallels between daimyo rulers and filmmakers, since both must “enforce their vision in a world seething with jealousy, finance, intrigue, vanity and greed.” In Lear on the Shore, how much of Chokitsu is Nakadai and how much Kobayashi? When the film’s fallen actor assures us that he “only wanted to please everyone” and later laments, “You claw your way to the top, then tumble down the other side,” do the lines not borrow sentiments from both men?

While striding along that beach at daybreak, Chokitsu runs into a forlorn young woman and takes her for an assistant. “Are you my accomplice?” he jokes, but she is not amused. This, it turns out, is his younger daughter Nobuko (Haru Kuroki), sent packing by Chokitsu when she became pregnant years earlier. She has returned home for reasons that only become clear much later, and her father’s failure to recognize her is another crushing blow. “I was the only one who loved you,” she wails, but Chokitsu sees only an actress playing Lear’s beloved youngest, Cordelia, and happily plays along, before turning to take his bows.

1 2017 Lear on the Shore Film Committee
                   
©2017 "Lear on the Shore" Film Committee

The interactions between Nakadai and Kuroki — the National Living Treasure and the young sparkplug who won Best Actress at the Berlin Film Festival for Yoji Yamada’s The Little House — are at the heart of the film, and one marvels at the level of craft.

A British journalist asked Nakadai what the Lear character actually means to him, and why he’d never played the role on stage. “It’s always been my wish, for many years now, that I could someday do a full production of King Lear on the stage,” answered Nakadai. “Akira Kurosawa’s Ran was a Japanese adaptation of the play, and has a different perspective from Shakespeare’s original, in that the protagonist, Hidetora, comes into conflict with his sons. Mr. Kurosawa himself said, ‘This is a god’s-eye portrayal of humans, and how they’ll keep on fighting. War will never end, so long as humankind is on this earth.’’

He paused. “I’ve been wondering myself, just how much Mr. Kobayashi was inspired by King Lear, and how much he put into the film.” And he turned, eyebrow cocked in that familiar way, to his director.

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©Mance Thompson (left), FCCJ (right)

Responded Kobayashi: “When I was young, there was this shingeki acting style [new drama style, based on Western realism], and Mr. Nakadai is of that school. What they did was import the works of Shakespeare and other foreign playwrights, and translate them into Japanese for their productions. Honestly speaking, it doesn’t really suit my taste. What I wanted to do was not a costume play of King Lear [like Kurosawa’s Ran], but rather, to depict what would happen if a Japanese were to play King Lear. What would that look like? How would that actor prepare for the role? Very much in the vein of Al Pacino’s Looking for Richard, I didn’t want to depict Lear himself, but to depict the life of an actor, and of acting.”

Once again not waiting (this time for the interpreter to translate Kobayashi’s remarks), Nakadai said, “I see. I didn’t know that. I didn’t ask about that when we were on the set.”

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lear100 mance             Kobayashi's revelation about the film's final scene came as a surprise to his star.  ©Mance Thompson

And he went on, “To speak about Mr. Kobayashi’s work, [after this third collaboration] I think there’s a connecting thread between these three films. Although he hasn’t said it to me directly, they’re all about aging and about whether you’re able to say, when you have death staring at you, ‘I have lived this life to the fullest.’ I presume that’s the common thread he’s after. But on set, I just follow his orders.”

Kobayashi was asked about his unusual shooting style, especially his choices of camera angles and long takes. “It’s a difficult question to answer concisely,” the director responded, “but I would say that a lot of thought went into what you see on the screen. It was intentional, for the first half, to have many long shots. What I was aiming at was to find a way to bring both comedy and pathos into the scenes. I think the long shots, with a tiny person in a vast landscape, are much funnier.

“The second half was also intentional,” he added. “But despite going into the shoot with a meticulous plan and storyboards, you have to look at your actor, see what kind of acting he’s doing and decide which approach would best reflect his acting.”

"Mr. Kobayashi does long, long takes,” confirmed Nakadai. “There was a lot of dialogue that I had to remember. For Japan’s Tragedy, he kept the camera on my back for 20 minutes without cutting. That was one single cut. I was shocked by that. But I was quite satisfied when I saw the finished film, and I finally understood what he was getting at.”

A foreign journalist asked about the film's unusual setting. “I’ve seen Lear done in the park, but I’ve never seen it on the beach,” he said. “Was that freeing for you?”

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                     Chokitsu's very suitcase is reunited with Nakadai during the photocall.  
©Mance Thompson

Nakadai laughed. “No, actually. The background doesn’t have much to do with the acting. Whether you’re acting on stage or on a set or on a beach on the Noto Peninsula, like this time, it doesn’t affect the acting approach. But I’m not a good swimmer. I can’t swim. So [for the final scene], we had to rehearse the night before shooting. Mr. Kobayashi had asked me, ‘Can you bear to be underwater for 10 seconds?’ I said, ‘Well, I don’t know how to swim.’ And he said, ‘We’ll have to rehearse.’ We were in an onsen town, so we went to the bath together and rehearsed." He noticed the audience tittering and stopped. "I’m sorry to crush your imagination. I apologize.”

He continued, “But I think Ms. Kuroki had the conscience to [pull me out of the water] a little faster than planned, because she was worried about me."

Kobayashi interjected, “In fact, I decided to wait more than 10 seconds. Ms. Kuroki was ready to jump into the frame but I tugged at her hand and told her to wait a few more seconds.”

Nakadai shot him a look and then laughed appreciatively. “What a cunning director you are!”

And then he leapt to his feet to instigate the photocall.

Lear Poster 2
©2017 "Lear on the Shore" Film Committee

Press Coverage

YAEKO'S HUM


YAEKO'S HUM (Yaeko no Humming)


May 15, 2017
Q&A guests: Director Kiyoshi Sasabe and stars Takeshi Masu and Yoko Takahashi

 


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                       Masu, Takahashi and Sasabe     ©Mance Thompson

Like all fast-graying societies, Japan has not dodged the healthcare bullet. Current estimates put the number of dementia sufferers in the country at 4.6 million, but with 65-and-overs expected to account for over 30% of the population by 2025, that is sure to surge. 

While the government has championed community-wide caregiving, the burden of funding and implementing much-needed initiatives has fallen on NGOs and NPOs at the local level. Yet even with neighborhood watch networks, innovative daycare centers and millions of trained volunteer caregivers, there are simply not enough people involved.

Taking his inspiration from a true story, writer-director-producer Kiyoshi Sasabe means his new film as a wake-up call — a poignant argument against the outsourcing of Alzheimer’s care. “Kindness is the best medicine,” says one of its protagonists, and Yaeko’s Hum amply demonstrates the resulting improvements in quality of life and dignity.

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                     The writer-director often tackles pressing social issues, but this time, it was more personal.  
©Mance Thompson

The film follows the broad outlines of the memoir of the same name by Nobutaka Minami, an educator who not only devoted himself selflessly to the care of his wife after she developed early-onset Alzheimer’s, but did so while concurrently undergoing a series of debilitating cancer operations himself. Sasabe first read the book 8 years ago, and was immediately interested in adapting it.

During the Q&A session following FCCJ’s sneak preview screening, one audience member praised Sasabe’s gifts as a “master tearjerker,” but asked why the film hadn’t been made by a major studio, given the seemingly made-for-mainstream-audiences approach to the subject. The director responded, “I wrote a script 8 years ago and initially planned to make it with a studio. But it’s about an elderly couple, about sickness and caregiving, and that does not sit well with younger audiences. So every major studio and TV station that I went to said no to the project.”

But traveling the Japanese festival circuit with other films, Sasabe was often asked why there were no more films for mature audiences, and gradually realized that Yaeko’s Hum could appeal to older fans.

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                   Yoko Takahashi, an accomplished novelist, returns to the screen after a 28-year hiatus. 
©Mance Thompson

His commitment deepened further when the story took a personal turn. “I lost my mother two years ago, and before she passed away, she suffered dementia herself for 3 or 4 years,” he explained. “My younger sister took care of her, and it was a very challenging time. Whenever I talk with my contemporaries, the topic always seems to come around to ‘What do we do about our aging, ailing parents?’ I think this is a film that Japanese society needs. So I ultimately decided that I would raise the funds and make it independently.”

Sasabe had explored the theme before, in his Japan Academy-Prizewinning Half a Confession (2004) — although that work was equally concerned with the issue of euthanasia, when a husband is arrested for killing his Alzheimer’s-afflicted wife at her request. He had also, as an assistant director, worked on Solitude Point (1998), a story of the enduring love between a Japanese Alzheimer's sufferer and her Korean War-veteran husband.

With Yaeko’s Hum, Sasabe focuses on a relationship that would seem far too good to be true. Except that it really happened.

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                   Masu, accustomed to supporting roles, is perfectly cast as the uber-devoted husband.  ©Mance Thompson

The film opens after Yaeko’s death, as Seigo Ishizaki (Takeshi Masu), a retired principal and school board director, addresses an avid crowd. "I cared for my wife for 12 years,” he tells them. “We’d been married for 38 years, so that amounts to the last third of our life together. I watched her gradually lose her memory… but then it struck me… my wife was just taking her time saying goodbye.” As Ishizaki speaks, his memories come alive in a series of flashbacks, beginning with the first signs of the disease in 1989.

As Yaeko’s illness progresses, it soon takes a tremendous toll on the family, yet Ishizaki remains impossibly patient as his wife reverts to childhood. Yaeko (Yoko Takahashi) was once a music teacher, and she retains her love of song; since she cannot remember the words now, she must hum them. When she hears her favorite songs by Shinji Tanimura, her smile always returns. But these are not easy years, and the film doesn’t gloss over the difficulties of home care — the diapers, the mood changes, the tantrums, the disappearance of romance from the couple’s relationship. Yet with the support of the couple’s two daughters, and eventually the entire town, Ishizaki tends to Yaeko’s needs, protects her dignity and extends her life as he bids her a “long farewell.”

Looking far younger than she does onscreen (and younger than she deserves to), Yoko Takahashi thrilled several members of FCCJ’s audience who remembered her early career burning up the screen as the sexy star of such films as Koichi Saito’s Journey into Solitude, Kei Kumai’s Sandakan 8 and Shuji Terayama’s Farewell to the Ark. But Takahashi left the film world to write fulltime. With a successful, ongoing career as a novelist, what was it about this role that enticed her back to acting after a 28-year break?

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                                       ©FCCJ

“It’s like getting back on a bicycle,” she told the audience. “Once you learn, you never forget how to ride. It didn’t seem like a long hiatus to me. But when the director asked me to play the role, I did have to think twice. I didn’t have a lot of lines, and I would have to play this person who’s ailing. So I hesitated. With the issue of dementia, you often hear about people becoming increasingly irritable, about them wandering and essentially becoming troublemakers. But Mr. Sasabe wanted me to make Yaeko charming [too], and that’s what really attracted me to the role.” A beat. “But it was a lot easier to play her when she’s aggressive.”

Takeshi Masu, a familiar face from literally dozens of supporting roles on stage, screen and TV for the past 35 years, marks a deeply moving debut in the lead here. Without his convincing portrayal, a fine balance of tender sentiment and gentle exasperation, the film would have collapsed under its own best intentions.

Asked how he prepared to become a saint, Masu admitted, “To tell you the truth, I couldn’t figure out how to approach the role because it was so starkly different from my past roles. But when I went on the set, Yoko-san was there as Yaeko, being really charming, and that helped me want to help her, to be as kind to her as possible.”

Takahashi mentioned that she had prepared for the role by meeting the author of the memoir, Yaeko’s widower, as well as by watching an NHK documentary on the couple.

Because there are flashbacks to the way back, as well as to the more recent past, Takahashi and Masu frequently found themselves tasked with playing their characters at different ages, even on the same shooting day. Masu spoke about the physical challenges of the role: “I played someone who starts at 40 and ages up to 80, so I would have to carefully gauge how slowly to walk or to speak for each scene, so that it would all seem seamless when edited together.”

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©Mance Thompson

One foreign audience member mentioned her mother’s dementia and her own surprise at discovering, after moving her mother into a Japanese nursing home, that no one goes to visit their family members. Another viewer discussed how many people in Japan are now dying alone with no chance to be supported by the community, and asked the director whether he would consider making a “more realistic” film about someone who doesn’t have a family or a support system.

“I didn’t want to depict the harsh reality of caregiving,” said Sasabe. “There are so many documentaries about that out there. I wanted to make a film about loving Yaeko, and how love prevails. I wanted it to be a pure love story about this elderly couple, represented by the line, ‘There are limits to anger, but kindness is limitless.’”

He continued, “I want you to see this film as a sort of fantasy. I wanted to depict [the husband] as a kind of superhero. It’s about dreams and about hope.”

Sasabe shot Yaeko’s Hum in the small castle town of Hagi, facing the Sea of Japan, where he has set four previous films. It afforded him not only gorgeous views, but also immense support from the city and its citizens. He hails from nearby Shimonoseki, and in an echo of his film’s message, having a local network has clearly been essential to him.

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©2017 Team “Yaeko’s Hum”

Press Coverage

 

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